Marvin Olasky Discusses Hinduism & Other Religions Next Door
- Janet Chismar Crosswalk.com Contributor
- 2005 8 Jul
I need to finish intro and edits.
Chismar: What are some key things that Christians need to understand about Buddhism that are currently misrepresented by the press?
Olasky: Well, the press normally portrays Buddhism as a happy, warm religion in which people are kind to each other; they’re not asking others to do things or believe things. They’re just part of a giving brotherhood. Now, in reality, the central principle in Buddhism is nonattachment and I’ll tell you a story. In the college class where I teach religion, I sometimes bring in Buddhist monks so the students can actually hear it directly from them, “Here’s what I believe.” There was one monk who started talking about the principle of nonattachment and he was mentioning that we should not be attached to our cars because we buy a new car and we’re all proud about it and then it’s dinged and if that ruins our day then we’re letting the material object have control over us. And he was saying how we shouldn’t be attached to our houses and he says probably not right now but you’ll be making house payments and so forth and that will be something that’s hard to do in lots of ways. So as long as he’s talking about cars and houses and so forth then some of the students were saying yeah that sounds pretty cool.
Then he moved on and I asked him a question, what about attachment to, for example, your pets? And he was saying no you shouldn’t be attached to your dog because your dog will die and you’re going to be sad and you shouldn’t be sad.
And at that point some of the kids in the class who have pets and are very attached to their dogs started to wonder well gee is it bad to have a dog. And then if you go deeper into Buddhist books and read Buddhist web sites and so forth then you’ll see the principle of nonattachment carried to people. And the Buddhist monks show the principle of nonattachment by leaving his wife and young child, abandoning them in a sense because they were obstacles. In fact I believe he named his son, it essentially meaned “obstacle” because that was an obstacle to his spiritual advancement. So when you take the principle of nonattachment, when you understand it theologically then it’s something that doesn’t look so warm and cuddly. I think I quote this in the book, and this actually does involve college students if they think about this, if a guy is out with a good looking young lady and if he feels moved to physical passion and maybe let me just say this an aside, maybe this is a good device for just saying “no” and so forth for abstinence, but you know he’s saying what you should do at this point, visualize that point a) what the lady will look like after she’s been dead for a few days or b) what’s going on inside her at that time, like in her kidneys and stomach and stuff like that. Visualize those processes and that may, if you effectively visualize that that may reduce your amorous ardor. So maybe that’s useful advice but the theology behind it basically don’t be attached. Again in practice I spend some time in Japan and I stayed in the home and temple of a Buddhist priest who was married and had children and was very attached to his children. So there’s sometimes a divide between theology and practical applications. But if you’re talking about Buddhism than reporters should explain the principle of nonattachment.
Chismar: Do you think Hollywood is glamorizing Eastern faiths? Why are so many jumping on board?
Olasky: You have to go individual by individual but a lot of it comes out of animosity to Christianity. Buddhism is seen basically as the anti-Christianity. Now Christianity has a set of commandments, Buddhism supposedly doesn’t have that, although Buddhism actual does, they’re different. A lot of reporters who may have been brought up in strict Christian households as kids are rebelling against that. They have grown to see Christianity very sadly, they have grown to see Christianity not as a religion of grace but as a set of rules. And so sometimes they rebel against that and say well here Buddhism we can just live and enjoy different parts of this theology or that theology. We don’t actually have a confessioned faith to which we are to subscribe and so forth. So it’s seen as a much more relaxed, flexible religion and the way it works out, I mean if you talk to Buddhist priests and so forth, that’s often not the case at all, but that’s the way it’s portrayed and the way a lot of people see it.
And I know people associate Buddhism with probably the most popular form in the United States right now, Zen Buddhism as something deeply spiritual but not requiring you to do your theological homework. And Zen Buddhism again there are good things and bad things associated with it. There have been some books that have come out recently, scholarly books explaining how Buddhism, in particularly Zen Buddhism was very important in the Japanese military during the 1920s and 1930s. The idea that in fact the idea that the samurai ideal was very much coming out of Zen Buddhism in the sense that you go into the zone. You concentrate on what you’re doing at the moment, you don’t worry about this other stuff and the way that was applied militarily in Japan was you can go and kill people without having any qualms about it because they’re not really there, the material does not really exist. And you go about and do your duties and don’t worry about these other things so you can be in a killing zone and in fact I can’t remember offhand the name of the author but he’s written a couple of very well documented books about the Japanese military Zen and connects in some ways the famous or infamous rape of Nanjing in 1937 with Zen Buddhism. The soldiers have done very terrible things but in the sense of feeling well I’m not really doing those terrible things because I and the people I am hurting in this moment really don’t exist as material objects. I mean we’re not real so I can do this stuff without worrying about it a whole lot.
Chismar: What would you say is the key thing Christians need to understand about Hinduism?
Olasky: Christians need to understand how much of what we would call superstition is really involved in Hinduism. It’s defined in different ways. Sometimes it’s defined as a monistic religion, sometimes as a henotheistic religion, sometimes as a polytheistic religion, I won’t go into all the different definitions here but in practice and having spent some time in India and spending a lot of time in Hindu temples in practice it certainly does seem polytheistic. Now a Hindu would say these are al manifestations of one God but you know people are worshipping idols and in fact you’ll see them, you’ll see in Hindu temples when they have English times there you’ll see the direct reference to idols.
In my classroom I don’t usually like to talk about idols in the sense of maybe this is derogative to Hinduism so I’ll talk about statues or something but in India they are actually referred to as idols and people bow down to them and worship them, leave them various offerings of food and grain and so forth. It very much in practice tends to be choosing a particular god who’s going to do something for you and doing something in return for that god so it’s more of an exchange religion as opposed to Christianity, which is a grace religion. We can’t do anything for God. So very different in that way so I think I want people to understand the difference between a grace religion and an exchange religion, see how much of Hinduism is bound up in practice with, in essence, worshipping idols and it also freeing ourselves from the very superficial texts that we may have gotten from reading about Gandhi or seeing the Gandhi movie that Hindus are pacifists. Not at all. In fact the most read and known Hindu scripture is the book of Agdneeda (?) is basically in many ways a justification for military action. In this case even fighting a war against your cousins. So there’s no contradiction between the sort of a Hindu nuclear bomb, a strong Hindu army and the supposed pacifist of Gandhi because Gandhi actually picked up a lot from Artho (?) and the practice of non-violence he picked up a lot from the west, merged with some from the east and so forth, but if we typically associate Hinduism with Gandhi or we associate Buddhism with the Dali Lama both times we are not understanding the essence of what is going on.
Chismar: Regarding Jewish people, some Christians view them as “brethren” and even saved or set apart. Should we witness to Jews? What are some key misunderstandings about Judaism?
Olasky: Sure and Christians again in a polite way, in a thoughtful way should witness to everyone that particularly is what evangelism is all about. I think it’s one misunderstanding a lot of Christians have is that most Jews are orthodox and so Christians who are preparing to talk with a Jewish neighbor or co-worker may feel the need to immerse themselves heavily in Old Testament prophesies and so forth as if that’s going to prove it. That’s totally irrelevant to most Jews in America. Most Jews tend to be highly secularized, theologically very liberal and basically a Jewish person can be approached the way any secular person can be approached where the in a sense the added burden, but there’s going to be a lot of prejudice and I guess animosity towards Christianity. So that’s a great degree of difficulty but in essence the evangelistic approach can be the same.
Now, a minority of Jews in the United States are orthodox and that’s actually a growing minority because orthodox Jews tend to have big families whereas refrap Jews who are the theological, liberal Jews, secular Jews, tend to have really small families if any families at all. So according to current projections it’s quite likely that in a generation or two, again a lot of things can change in the process, but if things keep going the way they’re going, the orthodox will be in the majority minority of American Jews. But right now they’re not. And that’s something to understand. Another thing to understand the way that in fact it comes to all kinds of social issues such as abortion and homosexuality and others orthodox Jews and Christians can and should work very closely together. Those are just several things we’ll have to keep in mind.
Chismar: Do Christians have a responsibility to educate themselves about other religions?
Olasky: Number one, as part of general knowledge, we should know about other religions if we want to understand something about American history, world history, different cultures of the world then of course we have to understand their religions in the same way that we want to understand the literature of different countries and the history of different countries. So just for the purposes of understanding the world and people then sure we want to do that. And then number two if we want to take practical policy actions in regard to say Islam as well as other religions then we have to understand how that works out. That’s going to heavily influence our judgment on what we can do in Iraq and lots of other places. And then number three there are evangelistic purposes that are significant and yeah I think the approach of taking a bullhorn and shouting out Bible verses is not particularly effective. It’s much better to discuss something with a person, find out where that person’s coming from and be able to deal with the real questions that person has.
Chismar: You write, “The most dangerous misperception is that all paths lead to heaven.” Can you comment on this?
Olasky: The more you learn about different religions, you learn they can’t all be true because there are huge differences. Buddhism, for example, says it’s going to take a long time but we can move closer to sanctification by our own efforts. Christianity emphasizes God’s grace. Christianity emphasizes that we die but yet our souls live on. Our bodies are real; this is a real death. Our souls remain and there is the hope of heaven afterwards. That’s very different from Buddhism or Hinduism with the endless cycles of reincarnation. They both can’t be right.
Christianity is very much a religion of peace that has had some moments in which people identified as Christians have opposed peace. Islam is very much a religion of war. Christianity grew by having its adherents suffer martyrdom. Islam grew by martyring others. You can’t say that both are true. You can’t even say that elements of different religions are true because the elements tend to contradict each other so much. If you have a very superficial knowledge of religions, you might be able to say they are all the same path, but the more you learn, the more you understand the differences.