Understanding Basic Beliefs
Everyone has a set of beliefs. In this essay, we will discuss the concept of "basic beliefs," and describe the basic belief systems that shape contemporary ideologies. Later, we will examine how to critically assess basic beliefs.
Setting a foundation
Our capacity to ask "why" is one thing that makes us distinct as human beings. Even at a very early age, children seem preoccupied with this question. In perpetually asking "why," children are building a framework of ideas to interact with the world, to make sense of it. What we see so clearly in children is true of adults too. Human history is the story of people seeking answers to questions that only beings aware of their own existence could ask. These questions relate to the meaning of life, the inevitability of death, the rules governing society, the nature of reality and so on. These are the concerns that force us into forming basic beliefs.
A basic belief is an idea we hold that can not be explained by some other idea. Its truth seems self-evident to us. That is what makes it basic or foundational. Let me provide an illustration. In teaching philosophy to undergraduates, I sometimes begin with a little exercise to help students get in touch with the fact that they hold basic beliefs. The exercise goes something like this:
"Tell me, why are you here in my class?"
The typical answer: "To satisfy a humanities requirement."
"All right then," I ask, "why do you want to satisfy a humanities requirement?"
Obvious response: "To complete my college degree."
"Fair enough, but why do you want to get a degree?"
"Well, to get a job of course," they say, as if it were somehow self-evident.
The inquiry continues, "Why do you want to get a job?"
The somewhat exasperated response is, "To make money!"
"Ah, yes," I continue, "But why do you want to make money?"
"It takes money to buy things," they retort, as if I were nuts.
"Okay, but why do you want to buy things?"
"Well, to be happy," they somewhat hesitatingly urge.
Then I press the issue further by saying, "Yes, that's nice, but why do you want to be happy?"
To this, there is no response.
We finally arrive at a basic belief: The goal of life is to be happy, and the acquisition of things is the way to be happy. Of course this is not the only reason why people take classes, work and so on. But by peeling the layers of belief back in this way, we are able to arrive at some irreducible or basic beliefs. When we come to the point in asking "why" where there is no more "because," we have identified a basic belief.
Everyone has basic beliefs. But people are largely unaware of them, which is why exercises like the one I described are so important for introducing students to the world of ideas. Basic beliefs are often revealed through life-defining decisions, such as whom to marry; whether or not to have children; the choice of a career, and so on. Also, times of anguish bring us face to face with our basic beliefs. For example, the death of a loved one, revelation of a life-threatening disease, or the personal tragedy of divorce or arrest. These events cause us to ask "why?" And the answers provided by our basic beliefs will either enable us to make sense of life, or perhaps, drive us toward despair. The kind of life we live is tied to the adequacy of our foundational belief system. Consider the words of Jesus Christ:
"Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine, and acts upon them, may be compared to a wise man, who built his house upon the rock. And the rains descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and burst against that house; and yet it did not fall, for it had been founded upon the rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine, and does not act upon them, will be like a foolish man, who built his house upon the sand. And the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and burst against that house; and it fell, and great was its fall." Matthew 7:24-27
Whether we agree with Jesus' message or not, basic beliefs are the foundation on which we build our lives. From them, we form other beliefs. Our interrelated basic beliefs, and other ideas that derive from them are referred to as a "belief system," or "world view." A world view is a philosophy of life or a way of looking at reality. World views play an important role in our lives, by assigning meaning to our experiences and providing a framework for important decisions we need to make. But where do we get our world view? Constructing a world view is a life-long endeavor. They tend to be fluid, being shaped by many influences. Our upbringing is a major factor in the making of a world view. Our outlook on life is formed largely from our families. Beliefs about how we should live, religious convictions and other crucial aspects of our belief system are often formed in our youth. But there are also influences from the wider culture in which we live. In the last chapter, we discussed the role media and education in belief formation. We could also include sub-cultural identity, significant life experiences, and even our attempts to morally justify decisions we make.
For most people, world views are formed subtly, over time, and without much conscious reflection. We tend to uncritically absorb the zeitgeist of our culture in the formation of our belief systems. So, if we are to get a handle on how people think, we need to probe more deeply in the realm of basic beliefs.
What makes up our basic beliefs?
A world view is based on beliefs in four general areas. Here, we will briefly outline the four foundational ideas, then in the next section, examine major ideological currents in our culture that relate to each of them.
The primary component of a world view relates to the question "what exists?" While few people sit around contemplating the nature of reality, everyone has ideas about it. Every one has beliefs about whether or not God exists. Those who deny the existence of God have beliefs about the nature of the universe. Specifically, they hold that the universe is all there is, and that it is composed of material objects governed by natural laws. Those who accept the belief of God also have beliefs about what he is like. Some conceive God an impersonal force, like gravity, while others view him as personal.
Beliefs about God have other implications. For an atheist, the universe has no intrinsic meaning or overarching significance. On the other hand, those who accept belief in God typically see the universe as serving some kind of divinely inspired purpose. The way we view reality has a bearing on all of our other beliefs.
If we have survived adolescence, we understand the importance of the question "who am I?" Because we are conscious of our existence, we naturally ask such questions. What does it mean to be a human being? We form beliefs about whether or not there is a spiritual aspect to our nature. This helps us adjust to our mortality. It is also instrumental in the quest for meaning in life. Is there some purpose life serves, or are we, like animals, the product of impersonal biological forces that are indifferent to our existential reflections? We also are concerned about whether or not human history is going anywhere. Should we be optimistic about the direction of human society, or pessimistic? Are we going in any direction at all?
People act on the basis of principles. We make judgments constantly about our preferences, and our approval or disapproval of things. The word "good" is the most broadly used expression in the English language. All of us have beliefs about the nature of goodness. Are there any standards of judgment that are true whether the individual cares to accept them or not? Are there standards for living that apply to everyone, or are values dependent on individual choice alone? We also form beliefs about the nature of moral responsibility. When, if ever, are we morally guilty? And finally, we form beliefs in the area of values that direct the goals we pursue in life. We embody our basic convictions about "the good life" in the motivations and choices that drive us toward life goals.
The category of truth involves our beliefs about the nature and limitations of knowledge. This seems quite abstract to the surface of it. What can be known? What is the difference between rationality and irrationality? Does the same truth hold for all people, or does it differ depending on culture or personal belief? Of all the categories making up a world view, truth is perhaps the most difficult. We hold convictions, sometimes deep ones, that our beliefs are true. But is quite another matter to rationally justify our beliefs--either to ourselves or to others.
Three Basic World Views
By describing three general world views, we will have much of the of the background needed to examine and critically interact with scientism and postmodernism. The three world views that are discussed in this chapter are broad systems from which scientism and postmodernism draw their beliefs. By understanding these basic world views, we will be conversant in the world of modern and postmodern ideas. Many of the terms and critical issues in scientism and postmodernism are defined within these world views. Because many of the concepts introduced in this section will be used throughout the text, a glossary is provided. In the next chapter, we will provide a framework for critically analyzing these world views.
We begin with a description of the world view most familiar to us. Theism is the set of beliefs shared by the religions that are based on the Old Testament: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Jews, Muslims and Christians view God somewhat differently, but they are all believe that there is one God. This is called "monotheism."
Theism views reality as both material and spiritual. Sometimes, this is referred to as metaphysical dualism, which means that reality consists of two distinct realms. Ultimately, reality is grounded in an infinite, personal and transcendent God. By personal, theism asserts that God is volitional, moral, creative, purposive, rational and knowable to other persons. We refer to God as "him," not "it." Transcendent means that God is distinct from the universe. He is able and willing to interact with the creation, but his existence is not bound by or limited to the universe.
Everything that exists is contingent upon God's creative act. He created both an immaterial realm of spiritual personal beings, and a world of material objects. God is both creator and sustainer of all things. Thus, the universe is an open system of cause and effect. An open system means that God maintains access to the created order and involves himself with it as he chooses. Cause and effect means that God has designed the universe in such a way that nature follows a recognizable pattern. Finally, because God acts with purpose, reality is inherently meaningful. This has substantial implications for the theistic view of human nature and values.
Human nature is both biological and spiritual. Human existence cannot be explained wholly by reference to neurochemical or evolutionary processes. We are, in the words of Genesis 1:27, "in the image of God." Humans are the unique creation of a personal God, and shares in his likeness as a personal being. Therefore, we have intrinsic worth as human beings. We were created to enjoy an eternal relationship with our Maker. Our lives have objective meaning and purpose. Because human nature is a composite of eternal spirit and mortal flesh, the death of the body is not the end of personal existence. We live eternally, either in conscious communion with God, or under his righteous judgment.
God remains invested in humanity. History, consequently, is going some place. Sometimes, the biblical view of history is termed "linear history." It means that history had a beginning, followed by a meaningful sequence of events, and will culminate in state of resolution (what the Bible calls the Kingdom of God). Human history is not a random sequence of purposeless events, but the unfolding of God's plan to restore his just and loving rule over the earth. There is an objective purpose to the ebb and flow of human civilization.
In the theistic world view, values are the expression of an absolute moral Being. By referring to the nature of God, we have objective standards for moral evaluations. Right and wrong are universal moral rules, binding on all people at all times and in all places. We call the theistic view of morality "absolutism." Absolutism means that moral values are objective and universal. Objective means that moral values exist independent of us. They are true whether we accept them or not. Universal means that moral rules apply to everyone, regardless the culture in which we live.
In the area of truth, theism holds that since God is personal, his creation is orderly and understandable. We can have genuine, if limited, knowledge of the world. We can trust the observations of science, because God has made the universe with an intelligible order. Further, because we are personal and self-aware, we can have intuitive knowledge of morality. And lastly, we can know God. General knowledge of God's existence comes through moral awareness and sense experience of the natural order (Romans 1:18 ff; Psalm 19:1-4a). Specific knowledge of God is available in God's self-disclosure in the scripture.
World views are commonly defined by reference to the "reality" category. Naturalism, then, is a world view founded on some beliefs about nature. It is the belief that only the natural realm exists. And by the natural realm, we mean the world of material objects. Consequently, sometimes naturalism is referred to as "materialism," or "materialistic naturalism." Carl Sagan, an astronomer and well known naturalist, succinctly summarized the naturalistic view of reality by stating in Cosmos, "The universe: all that was, all that is, all that there will ever be." The physical universe is all there is, and it is governed by the laws of nature. Everything can, in principle, be explained by material objects guided by natural law.
Naturalistic world views include atheism, scientism, secular humanism, existentialism and nihilism. Postmodernism is also heavily influenced by naturalism. These concepts are introduced and defined below.
While materialistic naturalism is ancient in origin, it has been the dominant world view of the West since the enlightenment period of the 18th century. During this era, great advances of science, especially Newtonian physics, were interpreted as the key to understanding the universe. Naturalistic philosophers optimistically assumed that by reference to the laws of nature alone, all of the mysteries of the universe could be unlocked. This belief led to the conclusion that God was not needed to explain reality. So while theists view the universe is an open system of cause and effect, naturalists conceive it as a closed system. Naturalism rejects either the existence of God, or the relevance of God's existence to the affairs of the universe. Naturalists hold that if he exists, God is uninvolved with the universe. This view exists today in the form of scientism.
Materialistic naturalism has direct implications for understanding human nature. If reality is wholly explained in materialistic terms, then human nature is too. Man is fully accounted for biologically. There is no qualitative difference between man and animals. There is no "mind" over and above the biological functions of the brain. There is no spiritual aspect to human personhood. Man is the product of a series of genetic mutations that survived according to the law of "survival of the fittest."
But what does this analysis of human personhood mean? What about our perceived sense of dignity and uniqueness? What does naturalism say about the inherent value of human life? Harvard professor B.F. Skinner, father of behaviorism, addressed this question:
"What is being abolished is autonomous man--the man defended by the literature of freedom and dignity. His abolition has been long overdue. Autonomous man has been constructed from our ignorance, as our understanding increases, the very stuff of which he is composed vanishes. To man qua man we readily say good riddance."
Skinner is saying that under the naturalistic view, there is no room for human dignity and freedom. No room for dignity, because we are not qualitatively distinct from any other species or organism. No room for freedom (of choice) because we are explained purely in terms of biochemical or neurochemical reactions which follow the prescribed laws of nature. We are determined biologically and environmentally. Skinner quite properly excludes the language of freedom and dignity from the naturalistic view: Man is nothing other than a stimulus-response machine. There is no room to speak of a "mind" or "soul" since there is no non material realm.
A naturalistic view of human existence includes an awareness of the transitory state of life. Our existence as a species is the product of chance. Our lives do not fit into an ultimate purpose. We came into being by random biological chance, live a relatively short life, then become fertilizer. The realization that naturalism implies purposelessness for human life is termed nihilism. It is a philosophy of deep despair. Any attempt to create meaning out of a meaningless universe is considered by nihilists to be arbitrary and artificial. French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre illustrates this point well in his short story "The Wall." It is a story about three prisoners of war who stay up all night talking about life as they await execution at dawn. By a strange twist of affairs, one man is saved from the firing squad. But after spending the night contemplating the meaning of life from a materialistic view of reality, Sartre's protagonist says,
"At that moment I felt that I had my whole life in front of me and I thought, 'It's a damned' It was worth nothing because it was finished. I wondered how I'd been able to talk, to laugh with the girls: I wouldn't have moved so much my little finger if I had only imagined I would die like this....I spent my time counterfeiting eternity, I had understood nothing....In the state I was in, if someone had come and told me I could go home quietly, that they would leave me my life whole, it would have left me cold: several hours or several years of waiting is all the same when you have lost the illusion of being eternal."
Realizing that human existence is purposeless is shattering for those who consistently and honestly maintain a naturalistic world view. The true naturalist strips away the "illusion of being eternal," to face the absurdity of existence. Because this sobering implication is contrary to our sense that life is meaningful, most naturalist's basic beliefs are inconsistent. Naturalists usually live and act as though there was some objective purpose for life. Albert Camus, a long time friend of Sartre, saw the contradiction between what naturalists believe and how they live. In reference to his own nihilistic writing Camus admitted, "a literature of despair is a contradiction in terms." In the creative act, whether it be writing or painting, the nihilist is attempting to "transcend nihilism."
If the concept of human personhood is difficult for naturalism, values also pose a significant tension. The naturalistic world view extends to the realm of morality in a way that most naturalists are slow to recognize. If we begin by assuming that reality is matter, then there is no room for morality. Nature is amoral. Nature is neither good nor bad. It just is. It is impossible derive a statement of value from a valueless universe. Consider again the words of Sartre,
"[T]his is the tendency of everything called reformism in France--nothing will be changed if God does not exist. We shall find ourselves with the same norms of honesty, progress, and humanism, and we shall have made of God an outdated hypothesis which will peacefully die off by itself. The existentialist, on the contrary, thinks it is very distressing that God does not exist, because all possibility of finding values in a heaven of ideas disappears along with Him; there can no longer be an objective Good, since there is no infinite and perfect consciousness to think it. Nowhere is it written that the Good exists, that we must be honest, that we must not lie; because the fact is we are on a plane where there are only men. Dostoevsky said, 'If God didn't exist, everything would be possible.'"
No objective meaning can be given to our moral judgments if naturalism is true. In an amoral universe of material objects, any attempt to erect an ethical system is, by definition, arbitrary fiction. British philosopher A.J. Ayer expressed this clearly:
"We can now see why it is impossible to find a criterion for determining the validity of ethical judgments. It is not because they have an absolute validity which is mysteriously independent of ordinary sense experience, but because they have no objective validity whatsoever. If a sentence makes no statement at all, there is obviously no sense in asking whether what is says is true or false."
For Ayer and other naturalists, ethical judgments are expressions of emotion. They reflect personal idiosyncratic preference. Ultimately, saying "X is good" is equivalent to the aesthetic judgment, "I like X." Values are matters of personal taste. Moral disagreements are ultimately unresolvable on moral grounds.
But many naturalists find this implication threatening. From the earliest days of naturalism the attempt was made to find some basis for values. The ancient Greek philosopher Protagoras was the first to espouse humanism in his famous dictum, "Man is the measure of all things." Protagoras meant that while we live in a valueless universe, each man has the ability to create values. Man is the standard of good and evil, right and wrong. Humanistically based values regard man as the definition of goodness. Historically, this led to optimistic humanism, expressed in the tradition of enlightenment rationalism--the notion that the human race is perfectible. Enlightenment humanists believed that given sufficient knowledge and technology, we can better our world. Humanistic optimism is echoed in the famous words of John F. Kennedy, "All of man's problems have been created by man and can be solved by man."
But who decides what is right or wrong, just or unjust?" Most contemporary naturalists are ethical relativists. Relativism means that values are defined either by individuals, or by cultures. So what is right for one person or society may not be right for another individual or culture. Moral truths are subjective. This means the sphere of truth is limited to the individual or to the culture in which ethical standards are defined. As we will show later in the text, relativism plays a prominent role in postmodern thought.
Ethical Absolutism - Absolute values are objective and universal. "Objective" means that moral truths are independent of what people believe. "Universal" means that moral truths apply to everyone in every place throughout history.
Ethical Relativism - Relative values are subjective and individual. "Subjective" means that they are the creation of some person, not discovered in a world outside of the individual. By individual, we mean that the sphere of truth is limited to the individual (or to the culture that accepts the same moral beliefs).
The naturalistic view of reality is closely related to the nature and limits of knowledge. Since man is only a biological entity, knowledge is based on physical, sense experience. Sense perception as the basis of knowledge is called empiricism. Empiricism states, "nothing is in the intellect which is not first in the senses." How does a person come to know something? Because they see it, hear it, feel it, smell it or taste it. Put simply, "seeing is believing."
Empiricism has substantial implications for what, in principle, can be known. Since knowledge is rooted in sense perception of material things, we can not know anything beyond the realm of possible sense experience. The sciences become the final arbiter of truth in the naturalistic world view. Atheism is the naturalistic view of reality. The naturalistic view of knowledge entails agnosticism. Agnosticism is the position that no knowledge of God is possible, because God is not something that can be experienced by the senses.
Pantheism is the religious world view of the East. It includes Hinduism, Buddhism and Taoism. In its Westernized form, pantheism is the basic assumption of Transcendental Meditation and some aspects of New Age mysticism.
Pantheists view reality like naturalists in the sense that both are monistic theories. Monism means that reality has one dimension. In contrast to the naturalistic view, pantheism rejects the existence of matter. Pantheists believe only the spiritual dimension exists. Since this is such a difficult concept for us in the West, we will need to explore a bit further.
While subtle differences exist between Eastern religions, they are unified in the view that ultimate reality is spirit. But it would be a mistake to interpret the Eastern concept of the spiritual in Western monotheistic terms. Eastern pantheists believe spiritual reality is ultimately impersonal and unknowable. Spirit is more like an energy than a personal God as we conceive him in the West. Strange from our perspective, is fact that most of the pantheistic religions involve devotion to a host of gods. The practice of Hinduism, for example, consists of devotion to three hundred million nature deities. Hindu scholars recognize that devotion to these deities is simply an attempt to explain the unexplainable, and to make Hinduism accessible to the popular, uneducated masses. Ritual and devotion to nature gods is to be understood wholly in light of the philosophical categories of the Upanishads (Hindu scriptures), not in Western monotheistic terms. As D.S. Sharma, a noted Hindu scholar states, "The particular name and form of any deities are limitations which we in our weakness impose on the all pervading spirit which is nameless and formless. The supreme being is a person only in relation to ourselves and our needs....the highest theism is only a sort of glorified anthropomorphism, but we cannot do without it." Sharma means that all attempts to personalize the ultimately impersonal are the product our human propensity to ascribe to reality attributes that we observe in ourselves. Because we are persons, we personify the cosmos.
Nothing is more foreign to us in the West than the denial of the material realm. But it is equally strange from the Eastern viewpoint that Westerners deny the spiritual realm. Materialism and pantheism seem to be complete opposites. On one level this is true. Yet, there is actually much similarity in outlook between them. Pantheists refer to the perception of a material reality as maya, which means illusion. But illusion is the same term often used by materialistic intellectuals in the West to describe our awareness of the spiritual realm. For example, Freud's influential work on the psychic origins of belief in God (and the soul) is titled The Future of an Illusion. Another similarity between Eastern and naturalistic Western thinking is that in the realm of ultimate reality, both hold reality to be impersonal and undefinable. What, after all is matter? Matter can no more be defined than absolute impersonal spirit.
Both pantheism and naturalism teach that illusion is grounded in ignorance. For the Westerner, as Skinner stated, the illusion of a non material aspect to man is based on ignorance. One day, when we gain sufficient knowledge of neurophysiology and environmental determiners, the belief in non natural aspects of personhood will evaporate. In the pantheistic tradition, the reverse is the case. When we overcome the illusion of duality (distinct spiritual and physical realms), and experience oneness with the universal spirit, we will recognize the material as illusory.
The pantheistic view of reality applies to human nature in much the same way as it does in naturalism. What is true of the whole of reality is true of the individual. If ultimate reality is impersonal, undefinable spirit, then so is man. The Hindu term for the human essence is atman. Since only Brahman exists (impersonal spiritual reality), atman is also impersonal, undefinable, spiritual reality. That is, "atman is Brahman." No ultimate distinction exists between individuals and ultimate reality. All things are one. Reality is unity without individuality. But this raises a further question. Human experience tells us that we are individuals, that there is a difference between one another's' existence and personality. This perception, in classical pantheistic thought, is the consequence of ignorance--it is a manifestation of maya, or illusion. Because this view of man and reality is beyond rational description, Eastern thinkers typically express their thought in parable. The following is one of the most famous parables from the Upanishads, in which a guru seeks to explain to his son the impersonal nature of man.
"Bring me a fruit from this banyon tree," the guru asks.
"Here it is, father," his son replies.
"It is broken, Sir."
"What do you see in it?"
"Very small seeds, Sir."
"Break one of them, my son."
"It is broken, Sir."
"What do you see in it?"
"Nothing at all, Sir."
"My son, from the very essence in the seed which you cannot see comes in truth this vast banyan tree. Believe me, my son, an invisible and subtle essence is the Spirit of the whole universe. That is Reality. That is Atman. That is you."
Having defined human nature, we can now investigate the question of life's purpose. The guiding ideal for life in Hinduism and Buddhism is to achieve experiential unity with the One, universal spirit. While this may be acquired through a variety of means, the one most familiar to us in the West is meditation. Meditation is the practice of ridding consciousness of any thought of the self as distinct from the One. It is an attempt to rid consciousness of the world of maya, or illusion. Through a rigorous discipline, we are able to achieve experiential consciousness of unity with ultimate reality. This is termed enlightenment. Once enlightened, atman is forever united with Brahman upon death of the illusory, physical body. The imagery of water is often used to express the unity of atman with Brahman. When a cup of water is thrown into the river, it is no longer identifiable as an individual cup of water. It is part of the flow of the river. So too is the soul or atman as it merges with ultimate spiritual reality.
Atman's unity with Brahman is called nirvana, which means "the blowing out" (as in the snuffing out of a candle). Nirvana is a state of nonexistence as a self-aware individual. In Western terms, nirvana is equivalent to death. Hence, the final state in pantheism is actually identical to the final state in materialistic naturalism. Human history, like human life, serves no ultimate purpose in pantheism. It is like naturalism in this way. Objective value to human life is the sole possession of the theistic world view.
The pantheistic world view makes no ultimate distinction between good and evil because ultimate reality is pure impersonal unity. Moral distinctions between good and evil express not unity, but plurality (the existence of opposites). Siddhartha, the founder of Buddhism put it this way:
"The world is not imperfect or slowly evolving along a long path to perfection. No, it is perfect at every moment; every sin already carries grace within it, all small children are potentially old men, all sucklings have death within them, all dying people--eternal life....Therefore, it seems to me that everything that exists is good--death as well as life, sin as well as holiness, wisdom as well as folly."
This statement enables us to understand the why anthropomorphic representations of reality in Hinduism portray god as creator (Brahma), sustainer (Vishnu) and with striking polarity, death and destruction (Shiva). Since they are equally absolute, there are no final, or ultimate moral categories. No objective distinction between good and evil is possible.
The course of life is not, strictly speaking, moral. Rather, it is pragmatic: seeking wisdom and enlightenment which are necessary to enter nirvana. Yet, there is a practical code of conduct which the wise recognize. Wisdom means removing from our consciousness any desire that keeps our soul enslaved to maya, or illusion. Detached from the world of sense experience, we avoid the lure of maya and consciousness remains fixed on its ultimate path. The Buddhist scripture states, "Let no man love anything; loss of the beloved is evil. Those who love nothing and hate nothing, have no fetters."
Sometimes we think that the Eastern notion of karma is a moral principle. But in reality, karmic law is simply an amoral principle of cause and effect. Those who do not seek enlightenment are bound to the cycle of life according to karmic law. This is the Eastern meaning of reincarnation. The goal of Eastern mysticism is to avoid reincarnation by transcending ignorance and finding enlightenment. It is interesting how we in the West have romanticized the idea of reincarnation. Western distortions of reincarnation are discussed in greater length in the chapter on New Age consciousness.
Perhaps the most frustrating facet of Eastern pantheism for Western culture is the area of truth. Reason is based on an objective distinction between true and false. That is, if a proposition X is correct, then not-X is false. This is called the law of non contradiction. This law is the basis of rational thought. In pantheism, however, the distinction does not hold in the area of ultimate reality. Brahman, the One, absolute spirit is by definition beyond rational understanding. This is because ultimate reality is impersonal, non rational and unknowable. The Upanishads state,
"Verily, in the beginning this world was Brahman, the limitless One--limitless to the east, limitless to the north, limitless in every direction. Incomprehensible is that supreme Soul, unlimited, unborn, not to be reasoned about, unthinkable--He whose soul is space."
Zen Buddhism provides one of the clearest examples of the essentially non rational nature of Eastern religion. World religions expert Lewis Hopfe notes, "....reason is to be distrusted more than anything else because it cannot possibly lead people to real truth. In fact, people must deliberately confuse reason before they can find the truth." For this reason, pantheism is often refereed to as mysticism. Mysticism means that reality cannot be apprehended by reason. Only personal, non rational experience leads to a genuine encounter with reality.
One of the appealing features of the pantheistic view of truth is its tolerance of opposing religions or philosophies. Since there is no rational distinction between truth and falsehood, pantheism teaches that all religions are ultimately espousing the same message. In his address to the International Congress on World Religions, Hindu scholar Vivekenanda stated, "I am proud to belong to a religion which has taught the world both tolerance and universal acceptance. We believe not only in universal toleration, but we accept all religions as true. As different streams having different sources all mingle their waters in the sea, so different paths which men take through different tendencies, various though they appear, crooked or straight, all lead to God."
Vivekenanda's view is now almost the consensus in religious thought today. We will have much to say about this position when we discuss postmodern religion.
With a basic understanding of the three major world views, we now turn to the practical issue of identifying basic beliefs. See "Testing Basic Beliefs," by Jim Leffel.