Worldviews Summer: Christian World View -Eastern Pantheistic Monism

Sermon by J. Ligon Duncan on July 21, 2004

Wednesday Evening
July 21, 2004

Romans 1
“Christian World View”
“Eastern Pantheistic Monism”

The Reverend J. Ligon Duncan III

If you have your Bibles, I’d invite you to turn with me to
Romans, chapter one. This is a passage that we’ve looked at a couple of times
in connection with our summer series because it illustrates the self-destruction
that always occurs when human beings attempt to find meaning in life apart from
the God who made us, and who made us in His own image. And when we stop
worshipping the Creator and we start worshipping the creature, it doesn’t lead
to joy and self-fulfillment, and more meaning, and more happiness, and more hope
and more delight in this life: it leads to less, and eventually to the complete
loss of those things. The Apostle Paul knew that two thousand years ago, and he
had learned it from Moses, he had learned it from the Lord Jesus Christ, and he
tells us again here in Romans chapter one, beginning in verse 20:

“For since the creation of the
world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been
clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are
without excuse.”

In other words, Paul is saying that God and something of
His attributes is known to every human being through His creation, and that that
message does get through to them.

Nevertheless, he goes on to say
in verse 21:

“For even though they knew God,
they did not honor Him as God, or give thanks; but they became futile in their
speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened. Professing to be wise, they
became fools, and exchanged the glory of the incorruptible God for an image in
the form of corruptible man and of birds and four-footed animals and crawling
creatures. Therefore God gave them over in the lusts of their hearts to
impurity, that their bodies might be dishonored among them. For they exchanged
the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served the creature rather than
the Creator, who is blessed forever. Amen.”

So again, Paul reminds us that all right human
behavior is rooted in the knowledge of the transcendent, personal Creator God,
who has revealed Himself in creation in such a way that His reality and His
person and His characteristics get through to every human being. And yet, when
the human being decides not to worship that transcendent, personal, Creator God,
disintegration takes place: moral disintegration, relational disintegration,
personal disintegration takes place. And so there is not only the punishment
that God metes out against those who rebel against Him, but there is the
self-destruction which is contributed by the individual to his or her own
existence by choosing this wrong way.

Europe at the end of the Medieval Age
Well, we’ve been studying some of
the wrong ways that people have chosen. Let me take you back to the fifteenth
century. In the fifteenth century, we had experienced in the Western world
something like ten centuries of theism, Christian theism.

Christian Theism asserted a transcendent,
personal, Creator God, who made this world; who ordered this world according to
His laws and principles; who made all humanity in His own image. Human behavior
was to be a reflection of His transcendent personal, righteous character. And
yet that Christian Theism, for perhaps a variety of reasons, lost grip on
culture as we entered into the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and
people began to search for alternatives. Perhaps it was because of the conflict
between the doctrinal views of Christian theistic groups in Europe that some
sought to have a kind of theism without doctrine: a theism which would be moral,
but which wouldn’t have doctrinal disagreements.

The Enlightenment, the Renaissance, and Rationalism
And so into that world came Deism,
a form of theological Rationalism. Deism was the assertion of a Creator God who
was transcendent, but perhaps impersonal; who brought the world into being, but
let it go, and this view gripped the thoughts of many during the Age of the
Enlightenment. It became a popular worldview amongst the most intelligent
classes of the English-speaking world, the French-speaking world, and the
German-speaking world.

But, following on Deism, there were many intelligent
folks who realized that Deism had a tremendous, gaping hole in its philosophy.
Deism had God as a first cause, bringing the world into being, and then the
world operating according to these inexorable laws and processes that had first
been set into place by the first cause, the God, the Creator God of Deism that
had brought this world into being. But why posit a Creator God at all? Can’t
the world itself through its own mechanisms and laws and principles supply all
the rationale that we have for our reasonable existence?

And so, Naturalism came along and said to
Deism, ‘We like your view of the cause and effect processes of this world. We
just don’t see the need for a Creator to bring it into being.’ And so,
Naturalism disposes of the Creator.

And then, Nihilism comes along and says to
the Naturalists, ‘We like what you did in getting rid of God, but you need to go
one step further. You need to go one step further and recognize that all of this
order, and all of this sequence, and all of this cause and effect, and all of
this massive mechanism of the world that you study, which you say suffuses
meaning into life, and from which we can draw meaning from life–actually it
doesn’t give you meaning. This world is impersonal, it doesn’t know that we
exist, it can’t give you meaning. This world makes no sense. Nothingness is
what you deduce from the world around you. And so, Nihilism takes Naturalism to
its absolute end extreme, and says no meaning can be deducted from this world
and its sequences and its processes.

Then Existentialism comes along, primarily in
the twentieth century. And it attempts to find meaning in the face of Nihilism
and its assertion of meaninglessness. But you know what? Existentialism fails.
And the failure of Existentialism dawns upon people in Europe and America in the
1960’s. Where do they go? They come to a dead end with Rationalism.

From Deism, to Naturalism, to Nihilism, to Existentialism,
and none have supplied an answer to this life. And there seems to be no getting
around it.

If you say, well, “we’ll go back to Theism,” the
Naturalist in us all rejects that. The Naturalist doesn’t want to embrace the
idea of an infinite, personal, transcendent Creator God. That idea is a serious
barrier to the naturalistic mind, and even though Naturalism doesn’t supply an
answer to the deepest questions of mind, this naturalistic strand of thinking
which is woven into the warp and woof of our culture doesn’t want to let that
go. But they can’t think their way out of the problem of meaninglessness. So
where do you go?

The Eastern Solution for Eternal
Well, in the 1960’s the intelligentsia of our society began to
look East. They ran into a philosophical dead-end in Western rationalistic
thought. They couldn’t supply an answer to the deep yearning questions of life
based upon Western rationalism. So what did they do? They looked to the East.
They looked to Eastern religion and philosophy, and they said, “perhaps we will
find meaning there.” They recognized that Naturalism leads to Nihilism, and so
they said “First of all, what we need to recognize is that reason itself
cannot be trusted.” Secondly, they said, “Let’s not only call a
moratorium over quarrelling over ideas; let’s call for a moratorium on
distinguishing things intellectually at all.” And thirdly, they said
“Since our activism has lead us to this meaningless situation, let’s abandon our
activism. Let’s let it go, and let it happen. Can there be anything worse than
we already have it now?” And so, they turned to the East, which supplied a
rationale for these various moves.

So, on a sociological level we can trace the
interest into Eastern religion and philosophy to the 1960’s and to the rejection
of middle-class values by the young generation that was coming through the
schools and the colleges. If you want to read an interesting take on this, read
Robert Bork’s book, Slouching Towards Gomorrah, where he details the
rejections that occurred in the 1960’s in the schools and colleges and

These folks who rejected Western middle-class values
said three things:

First, they said that Western technology made
possible modern warfare. And the Vietnam war they saw as the result of this
Western reason and philosophy that had produced this kind of technology for
warfare. And so they said, “Let’s abandon reason. Reason is responsible for
all this. Western rationalism is the root cause of all the things that are
wrong in this Western militaristic culture, as seen in the Vietnam conflict.
And therefore, let’s abandon reason.”

Secondly, they said, “Western economics have led to
gross inequity and economic oppression of masses of people in the Third World.
And since Western economics are based on Western philosophy and reason, let’s
reject Western philosophy and reason, because it is that from which this system
of gross, unfair, Western economics has developed.”

Thirdly, they said, “Western religion has largely
supported those who are in control of the culture, and control of the
technology, and control of the economic system. So let’s get rid of Western
religion, and let’s find something else.” And so they swing to Eastern

But this swing to Eastern thought, you see, is
not an answer: it’s simply a rejection, a retreat from Western thought.

They see the Western system as ending in a maze of contradictions leading to
intellectual suicide and Nihilism, and so they choose the way of
If rationalism is the problem, let’s just reject reason.
Let’s take syncretism, let’s take an uncomplicated life of anti-rationalism.
And for that kind of a swing, Eastern religion and philosophy is very

Now, maybe you have come across this kind of Eastern
religion and philosophy in your own reading, and haven’t realized it. How many
of you had to read, in high school or college, J.D. Salinger’s book, Catcher
in the Rye
? Ladies and gentlemen, you were introduced to Eastern thought in
Catcher in the Rye. You may not have realized it, but Salinger was
deeply influenced by Zen Buddhism, and he was seeing it as a way out for the
dilemmas that his hero faced in Catcher in the Rye. You remember the
scene at the very end of the book, with the merry-go-round? That’s the symbol,
that Eastern symbol, of the endless cycle of “the one.” Well, we won’t go
there, but the interesting thing is that in many works which have become sort of
classics of Western literature in the last thirty years, this retreat to Eastern
thought is present. You can find it in surprising places: from the bench of the
Chicago Bulls or the L.A. Lakers in the teaching of Coach Phil Jackson, who
encouraged all his players to practice the techniques of Zen Buddhism in order
to maximize their athletic potential, to the drugstore magazine rack, you can
find the influences of Eastern thought in our culture.

Eastern Pantheistic Monism
Now, we’re going to look at just one
type of Eastern thought. Eastern thought is just as broad and diverse as
Western thought. Ravi Zacharias, by the way, is wonderful on this. Oftentimes
people identify Eastern thought with just one strand of Eastern thought, but the
fact of the matter is, Eastern thought, especially in its earlier period, has
many, many points of contact with Western philosophy. But the kind of Eastern
thought that we’re going to focus on is “Eastern Pantheistic Monism.” Now
that’s a big mouthful of a term, but it describes a particular kind of Eastern
worldview and philosophy that has been the most popular philosophy adapted by
Western thinkers that are attempting to escape from the Nihilism of Western

Eastern pantheistic monism is distinguished
by its monism, and monism is the key phrase there. Pantheism,
of course, is the idea that God is in everything
: but monism is the idea
that the one reality of this universe is impersonal.
So when you talk
about “God” in Eastern religion
, it’s important for you to recognize
that you are not talking about the personal deity, about whom we speak as
Christian theists; you are talking about an impersonal, single reality.
It’s vital for us to understand that. Oftentimes you will hear Western atheists
say something like this: “Oh, Buddhism is a much more rational religion than
Christianity.” Now, that is one of the stupidest statements that could possibly
be made, because Buddhism is expressly anti-rational, and so to call it ‘more
rational’ than Christianity is an utterly ignorant statement.

But why would an intelligent, university-trained
atheist say that? Well, let me tell you why: because Buddhism is atheistic.
Buddhism doesn’t believe in a personal, Creator God. And therefore, the Western
rationalist-atheist judges it to be more rational than Christianity. Why?
Because he or she doesn’t believe in a transcendent, personal, Creator God; and
therefore, any religion that also shares that rejection, that person deems
intelligent. So when we talk about “God” in Eastern religion, and that word can
be used as we describe Eastern religion and philosophy, just remember that we’re
not talking about a transcendent, personal, Creator God.

Now this gets confusing, because some Eastern
religion does believe in a transcendent, personal Creator God: such as the Hare
Krishna cult, introduced to us through George Harrison of “The Beatles.” The
Krishna-consciousness folks do believe in a personal reality, but most Eastern
pantheistic monism is based upon the idea that reality is ultimately
impersonal. There’s no personal God.

A Summary of Eastern Thought
The first and most important point of Eastern pantheistic
monism is Atman is Brahman. In other words, the soul of each and every
human being is the soul of the cosmos. Atman, which is the essence of the
individual human soul, is BrahmanEach person, according to Eastern pantheistic monism, is
God. You are God. And enlightenment comes when you realize that you are

Now, contrast that to what the Apostle Paul says in
Romans.1:20-25. They knew that God ought to be worshiped and honored, but they
worshiped the creature rather than the Creator, and so God gave them over

Now here is the foundation of this religion: You
are God. Remember, we have to define “god” in pantheistic, monistic terms: God
is one; he is infinite, but he is impersonal. He can’t relate to you, because he
is not a “he”; it’s an “it.” God is all that exists. Nothing exists that is
not God. If anything that is not God appears to exist, it’s an illusion, and
doesn’t truly exist. But all is ultimately one, and every distinction is an
illusion. It is not our separateness that gives us reality, it’s our oneness,
the fact that we are Brahman, and Brahman is one. Ultimate reality, according
to Eastern thought, is beyond distinction. We can’t express it in language. We
can only realize it by becoming it.

In the West, to think is to distinguish. But in the
East, distinctions themselves are illusions, because all is one. To know
in Eastern philosophy is to pass beyond distinction. The Upanishads1
celebrate this particular kind of thinking in various parables. Here’s one of

“A father says to his son, ‘Bring me a fruit from this
banyan tree.’ ‘Here it is, Father.’ ‘Break it.’ ‘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.’ Then his
father spoke to him: ‘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. You are that. You see, the father, the guru, teaches
his son, a novice, that even he, a novice, is ultimate reality. He is Brahman.
Atman is Brahman So there’s the first principle of Eastern thought: you are

Now, Billy will explore with us next week how pop,
Western, therapeutic, psychologized culture has taken over those ideas. For
instance, in the form of Shirley McLaine, who found out that she was God while
floating mysteriously above the water in Peru. So, this kind of idea has been
taken over into New Age thought, but it’s being borrowed from Eastern
philosophy. So there’s the first point: you are God.

2. Some things are more one than others.
Right. I meant what I said: Some things are more one than others. Some
things, some appearances, some illusions in this life, are closer than others at
being one with “the one.” You see, to realize oneness is not consciousness.
No, to realize oneness, it might seem to imply consciousness, but as we shall
see, when you are one with “the one” consciousness disappears, and one merely is
infinite personal being. Consciousness, like techniques of meditation, is just
one more thing to be discarded when its usefulness is past. So, when we say some
things are more one–that is, more real–than others, we are saying that there are
some things that have realized that unity with “the one” more than others,
according to Eastern philosophy.

3. Many, if not all, roads lead to “the
one.” All roads lead to “the one.” You see, in Eastern thought, ideas are not
important. Realizing oneness with “the one” is not a matter of belief, but of
technique. And even those techniques can vary. That’s why some gurus will
stress chanting a mantra, or recommend meditation on a mandala 2
a fascinating, beautiful circular image which sums up the totality of reality;
or repeating a Koan, a Zen riddle that doesn’t make sense, like: “My son, what
is the sound of one hand clapping?” And if you meditate upon this long enough
to realize that there is no answer to that question because ultimate reality
transcends answers and distinctions, and questions, and consciousness and
intelligence, then you achieve satori, oneness with “the one.”

You see, in Eastern meditation, meditation is
content-less. You want to empty the mind, because thinking is
an illusion. Distinctions are illusions. That, by the way, my friends,
through, for instance, yoga practices in the Western world, is one of the ways
that Eastern thought forms are running. Christian meditation is never
content-less. Who do we meditate upon? We meditate upon God and His word! It’s
always content-ful. But Eastern meditation always desires to empty the mind.

And so we see this idea in popular culture. Think
of the movie Star Wars. How many of you saw Star Wars? When Luke
Skywalker had to go against the Death Star in his little rebel fighter? And you
remember, he pulls up his computer screen, and he locks on the target, and Obi
Wan Kenobi says to him, “Luke, trust your feelings….let go…let the force
work within you.” Now what was the idea? Empty your mind, stop thinking about
it. The Force will control you. Well, you understand that George Lucas
borrowed the worldview for the Star Wars then-trilogy from Eastern
Pantheistic Monism. The Force is this impersonal reality which pervades all.
And if Luke will do what? Empty his mind, let go, and let The Force take over,
what happens? Bingo! Bull’s eye! That thing goes in and the Death Star blows
up! Eastern Pantheistic Monism.

4. To realize one’s oneness with the cosmos,
with “the one,” with Brahman, is to pass beyond personality, because human
beings in our truest, fullest being, are impersonal. Now, this notion, of
course, of pantheistic monism, is at diametrical odds with Christian theism.
We’ve just sung “and when from death we’re free, we will sing on.” I
will sing on! And Eastern religion says, “Ah, my son, you are still in the veil
of illusion, because death is an illusion and you are an illusion. All is one,
and one is all.” What a very different view of death and of what comes after.
The Atheist Naturalist says, “When you die, that collection of atoms that is you
is gone.” And Eastern Pantheistic Monism says, “Exactly right, but there’s one
more thing. You need to realize that you are no more or no less Brahman when
you die than you are when you’re alive.” Death changes nothing, because all is
one, and one is all, and Atman is Brahman, and the universe is perfect at all
times and in all situations and circumstances, because reality is one
undifferentiated, non-dual unity.’

5. Eastern Pantheistic Monism says that to
realize one’s oneness with the cosmos is to pass beyond knowledge, and so the
principle of non-contradiction and distinctions doesn’t’ apply where ultimate
reality is concerned. That’s why language can’t convey truth about reality.
Juan Mascarу3 explains what this means for the Eastern
Pantheistic Monistic view of God. He says, “When the sage of the Upanishads
is pressed for a definition of God, he remains silent; meaning, God is silence.
When asked again to express God in words, he says “Neti! Neti!”–“not this, not
this!” But when pressed for a positive explanation, he utters the sublime
words: I give up! “You are that.”

6. Eastern pantheistic monism says that
to realize one’s oneness beyond the cosmos is not only to pass beyond knowledge,
it is to pass beyond good and evil
. Now, one of the things that we
Christians have always said is that what you think about God will determine how
you act. And here again we see that principle coming to bear, because you say
that “the one” is beyond good and evil, and beyond knowledge; then realizing
oneness with “the one” is passing beyond good and evil. And it’s the softest
spot in Eastern Pantheism, because people know inherently that it is impossible,
ultimately, to deny distinction between right and wrong. You hold a pistol to
someone’s head, and say, “Why shouldn’t I squeeze the trigger?” And people
want there to be a better answer than, “Because I don’t want you to.” It’s
very, very difficult to deny morality, because we can’t live that way.

There’s a reason why people in the midst of a funeral– atheists in the midst of
a funeral–don’t get up and mock the person who is just dead, or the loved ones
who are still alive. Why? Because they can’t get away from right and wrong!
But the Eastern pantheistic philosophy doesn’t have a way of supporting right
and wrong consistently.

Now, they do have an idea called karma4.
And the idea of karma, you see, is the idea that one’s present fate,
one’s pleasure or pain, or being a king or a slave or a gnat, is the result of
your past actions. And so, in Eastern thought, karma is sort of like our idea
of, “you reap what you sow.” If you’re bad in this life, you’ll come back a
horsefly. And so, your ultimate goal through the transmigration of souls is to
divest yourself of that bad karma so that you become “one with the one” and
enter into nothingness.

But the problem is, in Eastern thought all actions
are just part of the world of illusion; and so true and false, good and
evil–these two–are categories that fade away when you become one with the
one. And so Eastern thought cannot provide the basis for a stable, moral
universe. And if your system of thought can’t do that, it cannot survive

7. Eastern Pantheistic Monism says that the
death of the individual changes nothing, absolutely nothing, essential in your
nature. Because the personal and the individual are both illusions, reality is
impersonal; so, all that which is personal in this world–it’s an illusion.
Reality is one, so the idea of an individual distinct from the rest of reality,
that’s illusion, too.

8. For Eastern Pantheistic Monism, realizing
oneness with the one is passing beyond time and history, because time is unreal
and history is cyclical. Siddhartha5 expresses this with the image
of the river:

“All the voices and
images and faces intertwined; all the voices, all the goals, all the yearnings,
all the sorrows, all the pleasures, all the good and evil, all of them together
was the world. The great song of a thousand voices consisted of one word:

Why do the Transcendentalists meditate with the word
ohm6? It’s the perfect word, expressing “the one,” emptying
us of the veil of illusion, of knowledge, of distinctions between right and
wrong, good and evil, and eventually enabling us to merge with the one. This
river in this long passage from Siddhartha becomes the image for the cosmos.
And so the Eastern scriptures are filled with parables and fables and stories,
and myths and song, and haikus and hymns and epics–but no history, because
reality takes place in an unrepeatable space/time context, not in history.

And so, Eastern religion became a popular retreat
from Western Rationalism. But Americans didn’t like the depressing nature of
it. We had to find some way to make Eastern religion positive! And you’ll find
out about the New Age, the positive version, the California version, of Eastern
religion, beginning next week.

Let’s pray.

Lord God, we see here the foolishness of man,
but, boy, do we see our culture writ large in this kind of crazy thinking. Help
us to appreciate the hope, and the joy and the fullness that comes alone in
Christ and in the gospel; and to be able to speak intelligently and
compassionately to people who are in the grip of this kind of crazy, false
thinking. Show them the Savior, show them their sin. Draw them to the Savior,
and give them fullness of joy. We ask this in Jesus’ name. Amen.


1. Upanishads.

2. Mandala.

3. Juan Mascaro.

4. Karma.

5. Siddhartha.

6. Om.

Some material taken from “The Universe Next
Door” by James W. Sire. (c)2004 by James W. Sire. Posted with permission of
InterVarsity Press, PO Box 1400, Downers Grove, IL 60515.

© 2019 First Presbyterian Church.

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