Monday, January 9, 2012

Christ, Jain, and the Material World

Perhaps the most constant--and, in the opinion of many, damning--critique leveled against Eastern religions by Westerners is their negative view of the world and their apparently escapist approach to soteriology, borrowing from Christian theological jargon. There is a perception, right or wrong, that Eastern religions see the world as a fundamentally broken place which must be fled and that flight from the world involves the absorption of the self into a cosmic consciousness or nothingness or both. Jain is certainly at least as open to this criticism as any other Eastern faith. While the commitment to life that is apparent in ahimsa would suggest a profound respect for the world, Jain religion does not actually protect life because it believes it is in some sense enduring, sacred, and intrinsically valuable. Instead, the respect for life is, in some sense, merely a subtle act of self-interest, a necessary ethical step on the path toward liberation, an escape from the cycle of death and reincarnation. Included in this escape is an escape also from the confines of materiality and anything which is in any sense associated with the world. In the Acaranga Sutra, the reader encounters once again the teachings of Mahavira which here describe the nature of existence after liberation is finally achieved:

The liberated is not long nor small nor round nor triangular nor quadrangular nor circular; he is not black nor blue nor red nor green nor white; neither of good nor bad smell; nor bitter nor pungent nor astringent nor sweet; neither rough nor soft; neither heavy nor light; neither cold nor hot; neither harsh nor smooth; he is without body, without resurrection, without contact of matter, he is not feminine nor masculine nor neuter; he perceives, he knows, but there is no analogy whereby to know the transcendent; its essence is without form; there is no condition of the unconditioned. There is no sound, no color, no smell, no taste, not touch--nothing of that kind. Thus I say.

The idea certainly has an aesthetic appeal. The idea of a conscious, non-corporeal existence has such an appeal to the Christian mind that it has been adopted (from Greek philosophy rather than Jain) into Christianity's own escapist soteriology in the form of the soul's flight to heaven. While that expression of Christian thought is deeply suspect, there is admittedly a strong affinity between the way Mahavira speaks of the transcendent and the way orthodox Christian thinkers have spoken of it. Consider this roughly parallel thought of Gregory Palamas:

Every nature is utterly remote and absolutely estranged from the divine nature. For if God is nature, other things are not nature, but if each of the other things is nature, he is not nature: just as he is not a being, if others are beings; and if he is a being, the others are not being. If you accept this as true also for wisdom and goodness and generally all the things around God or said about God, then your theology will be correct and in accord with the saints.

Gregory describes transcendent reality--in this case, God--in many of the same terms as Mahavira: real and aware, but invisible, non-corporeal, and fundamentally indescribable. There is, in both, the bare minimum agreement that philosophical materialism must be rejected. It is part of an intuitive function of human psychology that scientists explain as evolutionary attempt to grapple with and quantify the unknown but which theologians more liberally suggest may be an innate sense of the divine common to the species. Beyond this, Jain and Christianity diverge in their understanding of the relationship of the transcendent to the divine. In spite of what many Christians have suggested about Orthodox theology, for example, there are no Christian bodies which believe that humanity's ultimate goal is to become that transcendent reality which is non-corporeal and indescribable. The essence of the transcendent God, in Christianity, is what all reality is defined against; at the moment when the creation is absorbed wholesale into the Creator, both cease to exist in any meaningful sense as Christians conceive them.

More importantly, and with significantly less flavor of the esoteric, the Christian view of the transcendent and its relationship to the material world reveals an essential disagreement with Jain about the value of material existence. In creating the material world, God declared it good, and, whatever evil occurs in it, His handiwork has never ceased to be good at its core. That would explain why the Christian picture of redemption is not one of the transcendent calling people out of the material but of the immaterial taking on physical form in order to redeem creation. The Christian story of salvation has never been one of Christ leading people out of the world (in the sense of material existence). Just the opposite: the promise of Christian salvation centers around the idea that humanity will be resurrected into a new body to enjoy the presence of God on a new earth. A Christian respect for life and for creation is centered, therefore, not on a self-serving ethic but on a commitment to the eternal value of God's creation. Christian liberation is not a liberation from the world (again, in the sense of materiality) but liberation for the world. Christians have been freed from sin so that they might free the rest of the creation from the consequences of sin and so that all creation might then share in the experience the transcendent, not in ceasing to be creatures but as creatures were intended to experience the Creator.

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