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Part III: Four Scriptural Traditions


1. Towards a General Theory of Revelation

I have suggested that the primal religions which exist in the world today contain and are in large part dependent upon ideas of revelation. They provide living examples of traditions which contain many similar features to those from which the major world faiths sprang. Thus they provide insights into the development of notions of revelation which antedate those formulated by the world faiths. Such notions depend very much on unwritten tribal traditions, which are accepted as purely local, even when given a cosmic significance. It is characteristic of what are often called the ‘world faiths’ that they claim to possess a universal and definitive revelation, usually enshrined in a written canonical Scripture. I have followed Heiler's general division of such faiths into prophetic and mystical, or Semitic and Indian. In the Semitic stream, Judaism represents a seminal and intermediate case. It is seminal, because the Hebrew Scriptures form the basis, or at least the inspiration, for subsequent prophetic faiths, like Christianity and Islam. It is intermediate, because it remains in a sense a local or tribal tradition, for the people of Israel only. Its revelation is nevertheless universal and definitive, for it reveals the will of the one creator of heaven and earth and it looks for a time when all nations will come to Jerusalem to worship and find the Jews to be the chosen priests of one God.1 The Hebrew Bible shows the uniting of all spiritual powers under the concept of one supreme power, a God for whom nothing is impossible. It shows the uniting of all spiritual values under the concept of one supreme value, a God in knowledge of whom humanity finds its proper fulfilment. The many symbolic forms of primal faith and the many valued states that religious practice brings are unified under the idea of one God who is perfect, who wills to transform the world to express his glory.

In the Indian stream, the orthodox Hinduism which consists in acceptance of the Vedas and Upanishads is also a seminal and intermediate case. It is seminal, because it propounds the core ideas of karma, rebirth, and release which characterize subsequent Indian and Asian faiths. It is intermediate, because in its detailed social and ritual rules it remains a religion for the people of India only. Its revelation is nevertheless universal and definitive, for it reveals the ultimate non-duality of Being and the ultimate goal of release for all sentient beings. All spiritual powers and values are united in the idea of Brahman, the only self-existent reality of perfect knowledge and bliss. This teaching is enshrined in a definitive set of canonical Scriptures.

In seeking to understand the idea of revelation in its widest human context, it is therefore essential to consider the two scriptural faiths of Judaism and Hinduism. They seem to develop in quite different directions; and part of a comparative study will be to ask how far they are in fact quite different, and how far they can be seen as complementary streams of revelation, embodying rather different ideas of what revelation is.

Since there are a great many religious traditions, any further study which is not to be wholly unwieldy needs to be very selective. Although this work is meant to be a contribution to a wider interreligious comparative theology, it is undertaken from an avowedly Christian viewpoint. That fact, together with considerations of competence and space, suggested to me that the other most immediately relevant traditions are those of Buddhism and Islam. Buddhism universalizes Hinduism by rejecting its ethnic basis. It poses a specific and severe problem for Christian theologians by its apparent lack of any revelation from or awareness of God. As it moved into China and Asia, it tended to absorb the Asian ‘harmony’ traditions of Taoism and Confucianism, to become the dominant religious faith of the South-East Asian world. Thus anyone who, like Christian theologians, professes a universal and definitive revelation needs to account for the apparent total lack of the need of any such revelation in the Buddhist traditions.

Islam in a similar way universalizes Judaism by rejecting its ethnic basis. It poses an equally severe problem for Christian theologians by professing a revelation which seems to contradict some of the central tenets of Christian revelation. At an early stage, it claimed much of the Greek emphasis on the intelligibility of the world for itself, and passed on its philosophical tradition to medieval Judaism and Christianity. It supplanted Christianity almost completely in the Byzantine Empire and is today one of the fastest growing religions in the world, with something approaching 600 million adherents. Thus Christian theologians need to account for this apparently conflicting revelation which has generated a wealth of spiritual teaching and moral idealism throughout the world.

In this Part, therefore, I will consider the four scriptural traditions of Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam, as part of an enquiry into the general notion of revelation, considered in its widest human aspect. I will try to show how different views of the nature of revelation develop; how an account can be given, from a Christian viewpoint, of these differences; and how the global perspective in turn leads to a recontextualization of Christian theology. In each case I will consider one central topic which suggests a fruitful clarification of the general theory of revelation I am seeking. I will concentrate on major written texts which are central to each tradition, even if they may sometimes seem to have little effect on actual religious practice. Close attention to texts will provide the study with a degree of rigour, though a comprehensive comparative account would need to observe the immense varieties of practice and interpretation which exist in each tradition. That, however, is far beyond the scope of this study, which is primarily concerned with ‘theology as science’—that is, as a rational and systematic articulation of beliefs about the ultimate character of reality and the final human goal.

2. The Religion of Moral Law

The distinctive contribution of Hebrew thought to religion was the establishing of a central connection between moral conduct and religious practice. Even though the performance of religious rituals is usually connected with the obtaining of human good or protection against harm, there is rarely an essential connection made between the participation in such rituals and moral conduct. Of course one gives the gods their due, and this may mean maintaining the social order that the gods support. But there is a tendency in much religious thought either to regard ethics as quite separate from religion or to see religion as beyond good and evil and all the compromises and conflicts that social and political life necessitate. The point can be made very clearly by comparing the Ch'an Buddhist statement of Seng-Ts'an, ‘Abide not with dualism, carefully avoid pursuing it; as soon as you have right and wrong, confusion ensues and Mind is lost,’2 with the words of the prophet Micah, ‘What does the Lord require of you but to do justice and to love kindness and to walk humbly with your God?’3 One must be careful not to overstress this contrast, since Buddhism usually requires a very strict adherence to moral principles, such as the Five Precepts binding on all monks and laymen, and Judaism usually insists upon correct ritual observance, such as Sabbath observance, in addition to the practice of justice and mercy. Nevertheless there is an important difference of emphasis. In Buddhism generally, adherence to moral precepts is a means to non-attachment and liberation from desire. The point of the verse by Seng-Ts'an is that when liberation is attained all dualities are overcome, including that between right and wrong, so that enlightenment lies in a state beyond the polarity of good and evil. In Judaism, however, even the ritual observances are intended to remind the Israelites that they have been set apart to be devoted to a God whose commands rigorously enjoin good and condemn evil. There is no conception of a liberated state beyond good and evil, and a moral dualism is written into the very structure of the universe. Salvation lies in a society of perfect justice and mercy, when all rituals will be unnecessary, when evil will finally have been eliminated for ever, and when God's good purpose for creation will be fulfilled.

In one sense prophetic Judaism radically simplifies religion. There is only one God; God requires simply total commitment to justice, in the widest sense; and promises, in return, a society of peace. In another sense, however, Judaism is extremely complex, for it builds up a system of law which inspires centuries of juridical wrangling about the interpretation of the Divine injunctions. Judaism is above all the religion of Torah, of the Teaching of God. In traditional orthodoxy, the written Torah was given, either by hearing or by dictation, to Moses, and comprises the biblical books from Genesis to Deuteronomy; a further unwritten Torah was also given to Moses and passed on by oral tradition. The main teachings of the oral Torah are formulated in the Babylonian Talmud, edited in the fifth to sixth centuries CE. This is a major resource for Jewish thinking on matters of human conduct and relationship to God. It does not, however, restrict human thought by laying down clear and immutable laws. On the contrary, Rabbinic practice encourages creative interpretations of that tradition in new circumstances. Contemporary orthodox Judaism thus embraces many diverse outlooks and ways of life, too rich and complex to be considered in a treatment of this sort. Orthodoxy is, however, clearly committed to a respect for tradition and an acceptance that the Bible and Talmud do contain a particular revelation from God to the people of Israel. It is thus important to determine what form that revelation takes.

When one reads the biblical accounts of revelation, one finds records of long, almost everyday, conversations between God and Moses. It is as though God is Moses’ companion, telling him in particular situations what he needs to do. We are told that the Lord stood at the tent entrance in a pillar of cloud and said to Aaron and Miriam, ‘If he [Moses] were your prophet and nothing more I would make myself known to him in a vision, I would speak with him in a dream. But my servant Moses is not such a prophet; he alone is faithful of all my household. With him I speak face to face, openly and not in riddles. He shall see the very form of the Lord.’4

God appears to Moses and speaks with him face to face. Perhaps God appears in the form of an angel, as he had done to Abraham,5 eating, walking, and conducting a conversation, or even an argument. Perhaps God appears in majestic form, as he did to Ezekiel.6 Or perhaps God appears in the mystery of the Shekinah, the cloud of the Divine glory,7 so that although Moses sees the form of the Lord and hears his words openly declared, he cannot see the face of God, the innermost being of the Creator itself.8 However one thinks of it, there is a claim that God does truly appear to Moses and speaks words which Moses is to record for future generations. This is certainly a prepositional form of revelation; that is, a revelation given in overt propositions, certified as true by God.

It is clear that propositions do play a large part in biblical revelation. When God appears to Abraham, he promises the gift of a homeland and makes a covenant with his descendants for ever.9 When God appears to Moses, he lays down precise laws and requirements—613 of them, according to one orthodox tradition. When the prophets speak, they proclaim the words of God, who judges evil, requires repentance, and promises forgiveness. The heart of the biblical revelation seems to be that God calls the descendants of Abraham into a covenant relationship, that he gives them a special vocation to worship in a specific way, and that he promises them good if they keep his covenant. God manifests to Abraham as one who calls, commands, and promises. Can this be done non-propositionally?

I will return to this question. But it is first worth noting that the propositions that God reveals are not just items of theoretical information which might save people the trouble of scientific investigation. Nor are they for the most part straightforward moral truths that are meant to be binding on all human beings without exception. The ‘statutes and ordinances’ of Torah, far from being universal moral truths, are meant specifically to ‘set apart’ (to make holy, qadosh, or devoted to God) the people of Israel. Thus the rules concerning clean (kosher) and unclean foods are for Jews only; Gentiles are not expected to observe them. If one looks for reasons for all the food laws, one will be hard put to it to discover any satisfactory general principles. Indeed, some rabbis have said that the reason for keeping them is precisely because we cannot establish them by reason; so that our obedience shows that we obey them simply because God has given them. The greatest of classical Jewish philosophers, Maimonides, said, ‘Those who trouble themselves to find a cause of any of these detailed rules are in my eyes devoid of sense.’10

In any case, it seems that such laws are neither universal moral laws, nor establishable by rational reflection. And if they are basically laws to set apart a people as distinctive, it might not matter what precisely they are. In fact, the odder they seem, the more chance they might have of achieving their object of being quite distinctive. Nevertheless, since they are given by God, it is a fair assumption that some principles of wisdom underlie them, even if they are unclear to us. One can detect some themes running through many of the laws. The prohibition on blood and fat seems to depend on the belief that blood is, or symbolizes, the life of animals, which belongs only to God;11 and that the fat, as the best of the meat, also belongs to God.12 In keeping these laws, one is remembering that all life belongs to God and is only given to us in trust.

Prohibitions on eating carrion or birds of prey13 may express a general prohibition on contact with corpses or tombs.14 This in turn is associated with rules about the treatment of skin-diseases15 and bodily discharges, during birth or menstruation for example,16 which suggest an association of holiness (contact with God) with bodily and therefore personal integrity and wholeness. Anything which endangers the integrity of the body or which corrupts the body is rendered impure, and ritual purification is required before relationship with God can be fully re-established. Thus priests, as the primary mediators between Divinity and humanity, must be ritually clean, not deformed in any way, and must have no contact with death.17 Such laws as these can be interpreted as expressions of the link between God and human wholeness or fulfilment, and as statements of the principle that the health of the body is as important to God as some alleged spiritual pre-eminence. Salvation is human and social integrity; and all that threatens it must be seen as a threat to the purposes of God for creation.

Some prohibitions—on eating animals with cloven hooves but which are not ruminant, such as pigs; on eating water creatures that have no fins and scales;18 on ploughing with an ox yoked to an ass, breeding two kinds of animals, sowing with two kinds of seed or wearing linen and wool19—express a related uneasiness about breaking down species boundaries and thus undermining or con—fusing the true natures of created kinds of thing. Perhaps the underlying thought is that each kind of thing has its proper nature and function, as intended by the Creator; so it is forbidden to eat animals which seem to be ambiguous or to break the natural bounds God has set to natural things. The anthropologist Mary Douglas suggests that: ‘Holiness is exemplified by completeness. Holiness requires that individuals shall conform to the class to which they belong. And holiness requires that different classes of things shall not be confused.’20 One might find here an early form of ‘natural law’ thinking, which forbids acts frustrating or impeding the purposes of nature, as set by God.

Thus one class of Divine laws is concerned with the integrity, wholeness, and proper functioning of creation; and one might see the Mosaic commands as particular applications of more general underlying principles that later Rabbinic tradition could draw out and codify. Those principles are used to define a set of social practices which would make for true health, seen as the fulfilling of God's intentions for the created order. Of course all human societies should be concerned with the fulfilment of their created potential, and it may be possible for human reason to see in general what sort of conduct this requires. But the specific ordinances of Torah are given to Israel by God; the reason for keeping them is not that they are conducive to human flourishing in general, but that God commands obedience to them as an acknowledgement and acceptance of the covenant between God and Israel. Central to Torah is the notion of ‘calling’ or vocation. God calls individuals and peoples to special vocations, and they respond in an obedience which expresses gratitude for God's saving acts and love for God's infinite goodness.

3. Laws of the Cult and of Social Justice

Torah is not an abstract, universal set of laws. It arises out of a continuing relationship between God and Israel, in which God set apart Abraham and his descendants, liberated them from Egypt, and promised them the land of Israel. The later prophets often refer to Israel as the virgin bride of God,21 the people with whom God makes a covenant of trust and faithfulness, and the laws express Israel's trusting and obedient assent to the Divine initiative. For that reason, it is not acceptable to take the laws out of their context in the patriarchal narratives and treat them as though they were isolated commands of God for human conduct in general. One who lives in Torah lives in an assenting relationship to the call of God; and that is essentially a historically developing process. It would be hopelessly wrong within Judaism to contrast law and love, as though one could have either a set of commands or a loving relationship but not both. What is central to the Jewish perspective is that the form of loving relation is established by God in the way of life he decrees for his people, in following which lies their greatest joy and fulfilment.22

Within that way, every act should be related to God; and the second main group of laws, the cultic laws, specify practices which act as constant reminders of the proper form of responsive relation to God. On the eighth day after birth, every male child is circumcised,23 an act of complex yet obscure symbolism connected with sexual purity, fertility, and dedication to God. Indeed, the first male child should be offered in sacrifice to God,24 though he is always redeemed by a suitable sacrifice. In general, all first-fruits and a tenth of all produce belong to God; this constitutes a strong assertion that humans owe everything to God and are trustees, not owners, of the earth. This principle is affirmed even more strongly by laws concerning the Sabbatical and Jubilee years.25 In every seventh year, the land is to lie uncultivated (though its produce may be freely eaten by all), debts are to be cancelled and slaves freed; and in every forty-ninth (seven times seven) year all Israelites are to return to the property which had been originally given to their clan by Joshua. These laws would prevent the accumulation of vast wealth or property by individuals, and remind the Israelites that they only lease their wealth from God and are responsible to him for its proper use. Unfortunately there is no evidence that these laws were ever put into practice; but as ideals they express commitment to seeing Jews as trustees of the earth, whose fruits belong primarily to God.

Specific days, selected on patterns of seven, are set apart for the worship of God—primarily the weekly Sabbath day, on which no work must be done, no fires lit, and no journeys made.26 But the whole year is marked by cultic activities. The great religious festivals of Mazzoth, Pentecost, and Succoth are celebrations of the barley, wheat, and fruit harvests, transformed into memorials on the exodus from Egypt. On these occasions, as on other feast day too, time is set apart to remember the mighty liberating acts on God, to offer sacrifice and to enjoy the good things of creation together with one's family and with the poor. The great religious feasts are no longer rites for assuring the fertility of the land. They become remembrances of the goodness of God, who acted to raise up a poor, nomadic, enslaved people to be his priests and who promises them, or their descendants, a society of peace and joy in his presence if they are faithful to him as he is to them.

Sacrifice is central to Torah, and although since the destruction of the Temple in CE 70 it has been impossible to offer sacrifices, the orthodox daily prayers include the prayer that the sacrifices may be restored in Jerusalem. It is a matter of dispute what form such a restored sacrificial ritual might take; but it is important to note that the original ritual does not view sacrifice primarily as a propitiation of an angry God. There are four main types of sacrifice.27 The holocaust, or whole offering, in being the offering of an entire perfect (and costly) animal to God, expresses total dedication, the offering of the best one has, without keeping anything back. The primary note is one of adoration, of bowing before the beauty and majesty of God.

The fellowship offering, in which meat is to be shared out in a feast, expresses a predominating mood of rejoicing, of sharing and of harmony in the presence of God, affirming the essentially social nature of Jewish faith. This is no private offering for some private benefit. Religious practice entails harmony in the community, and its benefit is the peace (shalom) and joy which springs from the fact that here God shares his being with his people, and invites them to share their own selves with others.

The sin and guilt offerings are meant to remove barriers of impurity which stand between humans and God. These include the inadvertent breaking of purity laws; but also cover the concealing of truth, lying, theft, and extortion. Restitution must be made wherever possible, and sincere repentance is necessary—there is no question of some automatic cancelling-out of wrongdoing. A past wrong can never be undone, as though it had never been. Yet some good which otherwise would not have existed may be brought from it, if one can make a sincere offering of the whole of one's life to God. The blood smeared on the altar represents the life which belongs to God alone.28 The offering of life makes God and the human creature one; and because our own self-offering is always imperfect, God accepts our costly offering of a perfect and innocent life in place of ours. This is not a magical transaction, whereby physical blood somehow wipes out a mark on the soul. It is better seen as a symbolic, physical expression of the fact that God can renew the soul which identifies itself in obedience with the ‘perfect offering’ which God has decreed. It is a deeply personal relationship of reconciliation which is at stake here, the restoring of an intimate relationship with God; the offering of blood is the vicarious offering of ourselves, in obedience to God's decree. It is our obedience which makes effective God's reconciling act, though the form of that obedience symbolizes dramatically the depth and form of human penitence.

The fourth type of Levitical sacrifice is the offering of bread or roasted corn. In the Sanctuary and the Temple bread was offered morning and evening, broken and burned, so that the smoke ascended to God as a prayer of adoration and thanksgiving, and as the bearer of the prayers of Israel before the throne of God. Thus, in the form of the sacrificial cult, the proper attitude of creatures to their Lord is ritually represented. Adoration, gratitude, confession, intercession, and dedication are the true marks of worship; and they have little in common with magical incantations to obtain fertility and wealth. The sacrificial cult of Israel decisively transcended its origins in Near Eastern ritual practice, bringing out the symbolically presented truths which those practices had always, if ambiguously, contained. Those truths have remained central to Judaism even after the external rites came to an enforced end.

Because of its concern to distinguish itself from magical practices, Torah contains extremely rigorous prohibitions on and penalties for the practice of such activities as divination, witchcraft, and the use of such fertility spells as boiling kids in their mothers’ milk29 (from which the prohibitions on mixing milk and meat dishes derive). Marriage with non-Jews was prohibited and the ‘Ban’ (herem) recommended extermination of Canaanites who refused terms of peace.30 Commentators like Maimonides argue that since God is creator of all, he has the right to decree the destruction of anyone; but for many, these extremely harsh passages constitute a major difficulty of interpretation. No contemporary Jew would regard stoning to death as an appropriate penalty today, and these laws, in their precise form, are universally regarded as obsolete—though underlying principles may be found which should be attended to. One can argue that such laws were given by God for a very rough and primitive group of nomadic tribesmen; that they were necessary for the establishing of Israel as a nation in a hostile environment; and that circumstances are now very different and encourage new applications of the laws, based on the primary law of loving God and one's neighbour as oneself.31 It can also be said that these laws, like many others, were rarely, if ever, put into practice; and that they present extreme cases of what strict justice would require, though the equally pressing requirement of mercy would almost always prevent the application of such strict rules.

However, the presence of such laws is one of the factors which has caused non-orthodox Jews to adopt a rather different attitude to Torah, seeing it as a developing code of laws built up over centuries rather than as Divinely dictated to Moses. If one took such a view, one would see these laws as indeed belonging to a morally primitive stage of social development; or perhaps as expressing what a later age thought the early settlers would have believed. Laws such as that apparently condoning child-sacrifice in principle (though insisting on the ‘redemption’ of the first-born) seem to express hangovers from earlier primal traditions; or at least that is a very natural way to understand their presence in the text. They would represent very imperfect apprehensions of the will of God, which would need to be modified and even abrogated by later and developing perceptions of the nature of Divine justice and love. Such a developmental view would enable one to say that God never actually commanded genocide;32 but that this was a misperception of an apprehended requirement to put total dedication to the cause of a God of justice above all other values.

The third main group of statutes and ordinances is directly concerned with questions of social justice and morality, and it also contains some laws which represent ideals of justice which have never been put into practice entirely, together with others which may seem to us primitive and even barbaric. Thus the rules commanding leaving food from the harvest for foreigners and the poor and returning the cloaks of debtors at night33 show a degree of charity rarely found in human society. Yet the law that a man who hits his father should be put to death34 or even the thrice-repeated ‘Lex Talionis’—an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth35—seem unduly harsh to most of us and would not be implemented in any modern Jewish society. But even if some of the laws are applicable only to earlier human societies, what is absolutely clear is that the religious law of Israel is above all concerned with social justice. In its regulations concerning slavery, property, crime, and the family it shows a concern to establish a society in which each human being will have dignity and the basic necessities of life, and in which there is a passionate concern for the poor and the weak, based partly on the remembrance of Israel's own experience of slavery in Egypt and poverty in the wilderness.

The central concern with social justice shows that the faith of the Torah is not in any sense other-worldly. Until quite late in the history of Israel and Judah there was little belief in life after death; and when it was considered it was a gloomy and shadowy affair of a sort of half-existence in Sheol. Thus the Psalmist says, ‘The dead do not praise the Lord, nor do any that go down into silence.’36 It cannot be said of Judaism that it sprang from a desire for life after death or from fear of death. Its entire concern is with enjoying the good things that God has created in this world, with sitting under one's own olive tree with one's own family, and with establishing justice in the earth. Although belief in the resurrection of the body had become common by the time of Jesus, it was still not universal (the traditionalist Sadducees rejected it as an innovation). The primary Jewish hope is a hope for this world, for a society in which God will be truly worshipped, justice will flourish, and suffering will be ended. Torah thus expresses a Divine initiative in calling a particular group of people to a special vocation of obedience and it expresses a Divine promise that obedience to the will of God is at the same time a way of relating the life of the people to the life of God which will prove ultimately fulfilling of the Divine purpose for creation. The purity, cultic, and moral laws cannot be separated and distinguished as more or less important; nor can some parts of Torah be regarded as universal, while others are only for Jews. The whole Torah is given by God and must be obeyed as such as a sign of the special calling of a particular people by God.

4. Reform Interpretations of Revelation

This orthodox view is, however, not what is most characteristic of contemporary Judaism. Many non-orthodox movements exist, beginning with Reform movements in the 1840s and continuing with the Liberal movement, more radical in tone, in the twentieth century. The main disputed question is that of the status of the mitzvot, the rules of Torah. I have mentioned that some of the moral injunctions raise grave difficulties in seeming to be unduly harsh; and this led many to doubt whether God could ever have promulgated them, even to a very primitive people. But one might also feel that many of the purity and cultic laws seem to be just too odd or arbitrary to have been directly given by an all-wise God. There is available a plausible account of their existence, which is that sets of laws were collected from many diverse tribal sources; compilations of ritual practices were made, together with oracular sayings from Moses or other prophets; and these were collected to form Torah, the source-text of the law of Israel. One cannot think of this as Divine dictation or as encounter with a personal presence which somehow evoked the Torah all at once in someone. One has to think of a long process in which customary rules grow up and are written down and collected. Oracular utterances, dreams, and visions are parts of this process but they are not the sole sources of revelation. As the community relates to God in worship and seeks to know the will of God, laws are formulated which are claimed to express the intentions or purposes of God. God is believed to guide this long process of formulating laws, testing them through practical experience and final compilation into statutes and ordinances. In that sense the final product is said to be revelation from God.

For this view, the Divine discloses itself primarily as moral demand and as the power of historical being to realize it. This is an encounter with a being whose presence attracts one's thoughts to a deeper conception of morality. That encounter is made possible by the disposition of the prophets to be concerned with issues of social justice and with the precarious situation of Israel and Judah in the political world of the Middle East. Revelation occurs in a historical situation in which the disposition of certain human minds and the existence of a particular history and set of cultural values, centred on the development of laws of justice and on the memory of unjust slavery, permits the character of the Supreme to become apparent in a new and intense way. This suggests that Spirit reveals itself in particular historical phases of consciousness. As human minds reflect on the ultimate conditions of existence under which they live, the Supreme Spirit confronts them through prophetic experience. As Israel's distinctive history and culture made possible the development of new insights into the supreme value and goal of human life, these insights were codified into the canonical Torah, which sets out the way of life relating this community rightly to the God of the patriarchs and prophets.

Such an account enables one to explain the seeming moral crudeness of some laws, or the real savagery of biblical texts such as the notorious Psalm 137, ‘Happy shall he be who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rock’, as very imperfect, or in that case inexcusably vindictive, human responses to the Divine reality. It enables one to explain such seemingly arbitrary laws as forbidding the mixing of linen and wool by seeing them as tribal taboos whose original magical significance has long been forgotten. When they are taken into the body of Torah they are given a deeper symbolic significance. They lead one to think of Israel's covenant with God even in matters of choosing what to wear. Moreover, one can give an account of ‘God speaking’ which is perhaps more in accord with the metaphorical nature of most theistic language in the Hebrew Bible.

The metaphors are unmistakable in the prophetic writings. Habakkuk says of God, ‘His brightness was like the light, rays flashed from his hand… before him went pestilence and plague followed close behind.’ And again, ‘Thou didst ride upon thy horses, upon thy chariot of victory… thou didst strip the sheath from thy bow and put the arrows to the string… thou didst trample the sea with thy horses.’37 Here God is seen as riding on the clouds with spear, arrows, and chariot. He is the storm-, plague-, and battle-god; the lightning falls like arrows from the Divine bow; storms are the trampling of his horses. Micah writes, ‘The Lord… will come down and tread upon the high places of the earth. And the mountains will melt under him.’38 The god who walks the mountain tops is the volcano-god, who touches the mountains in smoke and fire. Even the creation is depicted by the prophet Isaiah in mythical terms: ‘Was it not thou that didst cut Rahab in pieces, that didst pierce the dragon?’39 Using the imagery of Babylonian creation-stories, God is here seen as in human form, the form of order, creativity, and justice, dividing the great sea-dragon and driving back the sea, symbol of chaos and disorder, to bring the cosmos into being.

These metaphors are obvious; but equally symbolic are the pictures of God in human form, as a king or warrior, as in the great vision of Ezekiel,40 where God sits in human form wreathed in light. The Hebrews were fully aware, and stressed with the greatest emphasis, that no image of God can be made;41 thus in the space between the cherubim over the Ark of the Covenant, no image of any god was to be found, human or otherwise. In the light of these facts, it seems that the Genesis stories of God walking in the Garden with Adam, or talking with Abraham,42 or proclaiming aloud the Ten Words from the mountain with fire, smoke and trumpet sounds,43 are mythologized and poetic accounts, not literal descriptions. They may be objectifications of inner or visionary experiences. Some of them are perhaps oracular interpretations of uncanny natural events like volcanic eruptions. Others seem to be literary compositions projected on to the past which in fact express present beliefs about the relation of God to his people. They are symbolic narratives expressing prophetic experiences of God, as providential and morally demanding power, which occur within the Hebrew community of prayer. They are imaginative symbols of transcendent power and value, as apprehended in one developing religious community; and their function is to make present the founding experience which they record. The propositions of Scripture, one might say, are symbols of transcendence whose proper function is to mediate that transcendence in a living tradition of prayer.

5. Revelation and Symbolic Speech

Just as accounts of God having human form are poetic, not literal, so one might expect that accounts of ‘God speaking’ are similarly poetic, since there is no human form present to speak. This makes belief that prophets actually hear words that God directly speaks much less compelling. Is God really to be thought of as appearing and speaking in the words of a natural language? If one assumes, with most biblical scholars, that the book of Numbers, for example, is an editorial compilation of tribal stories and traditions, formed into a continuous narrative, then one will see the long speeches of God to Moses as editorial inventions. Unless God dictated the document word for word, it is highly improbable that even Moses could have remembered such long speeches for any length of time, let alone that they should have been passed down orally for hundreds of years inerrantly. The most probable explanation is that the words ascribed to God in the narrative are speeches constructed out of lists of tribal laws, remembered prophetic oracles, and moralistic reconstructions of history. If that is the case, God did not literally speak with Moses face to face. That is a dramatic way of expressing the assumed closeness of Moses’ relationship to God, such that his words and decisions were taken to be those of God himself. What is reported as a conversation is a symbolic expression of Moses’ own mental thought-processes; the thoughts that came to him as he pondered on the situation of the tribes in the desert and worshipped God. And of course many scholars would say that even this is a projection back on to a dimly remembered prophet of post-exilic prophetic types of experience.

It is interesting that Numbers 12 states that the prophets normally have visions and dreams and speak in riddles. Moses, in contrast, is said to know God face to face; that is, with particular clarity, because of his faithfulness. And to him God's words come clearly; that is, in the form of specific directions, warnings, and commands. Yet Moses was a prophet; and one must suppose that in his meditations, his seeking to discern God's will, his faithful reliance on the inner guidance he received, he believed that the commands and practical instructions of God became clear to him. Moses was a man with a particularly clear consciousness of God, which enabled him to express the providential, judging, or liberating purposes of God at specific times, and to express the commands of God for his people. The guidance Moses gave and the laws he laid down in the name of God have been expressed by the editor in the form of conversations between God and the prophet.

In general, what is reported as an outward physical conversation will be interpreted by the liberal scholar as an inner prophetic sense of presence, guidance, and command. God's will is clear to Moses because Moses’ faith makes the Divine presence particularly clear and intense. The idea that God speaks to give definite information to the prophet is a literalization of myth. The myth, of long conversations between God and the prophet, while the pillar of cloud stands at the door of the tent, is a poetic expression of the prophetic experience. The reality is that, in prayer, God arouses visions, prompts new insights, heightens sensitivity to the possibilities and demands of the current situation, and inspires trust and hope.

Thus the thoughts expressed by, or attributed to, the prophet are human thoughts, formed in a particular historical and social context. They bear the marks of the limitations of that context, in its often crude moral code and anthropocentric view of the cosmos. Yet prophetic thought is not simply a matter of human reflection on empirical facts, aided only by a general belief in the existence of a creator God. The Jewish claim is that Torah enshrines a deeper insight into the demands of morality than unaided human speculation can provide, arising from the inspiration provided by God. It is out of prayer and meditation that Torah arises. It is God-oriented and God-directed. So one has a long communal tradition of prayer and reflection on human existence, seeking objective purpose and good and believing that it is guided and illuminated by the object of prayer in its formulation of rules for social life. Guidance comes to those who seek in prayer and who use their intelligence to its fullest extent. It comes in a communal tradition which is oriented to discerning an objective moral purpose in experience. Revelation, in this understanding of the Jewish tradition, is Divine guidance and illumination of those called to a prophetic ministry in a worshipping community who seek an objective moral purpose, to be discerned in their history.44 Torah is, after all, Divine teaching; and the most effective method of teaching may be to draw out from people their own insights and creative responses.

Revelation, so conceived, is in a sense propositional, though not in a direct dictational sense. It shapes thought to the discernment of objective moral purposes. ‘God speaking’ is a myth for ‘the development of human insights in response to Divine guidance’. Such insights develop slowly over many years and leave the marks of their development in the scriptural record. The idea of a God who demands the deaths of all Amalekites in vengeance for their attacks on Israel develops into the idea of a God who enjoins mercy on friends and enemies alike. The concept of the tribal war-god develops into the concept of the creator of all things. Underlying this process is the fundamental belief that there is an objectivity and urgency about moral demands, a real possibility of liberation from evil and a promise of moral fulfilment. This belief is rooted in the prophetic experience of encounter with a liberating and judging God who, in visions and in mighty acts of power, declares judgement on the nations and deliverance for Israel. Underlying Torah is the foundational experience of Israel, that God has called out Abraham, raised up Moses to deliver the people, and founded the theocratic league of the twelve tribes. Thus Torah is not only a set of laws; it is a history of the dealings of an active God with Israel, calling to freedom and obedience. The experiences of the prophets are of fundamental importance. They claim a vivid sense of the presence of the Divine, as an objective moral will, a judge and deliverer. To accept this revelation is to accept their experience as authentic. God does not only guide thoughts. God is known in personal experience as absolute claim. This, in the Hebrew tradition, is what relativizes all other gods. They may be thought to govern fertility or war or music. But Yahveh makes a total demand on the whole of human life, and thus leaves no place for any other ideal or power. The ‘jealousy’ of Yahveh is the absoluteness of the moral claim, before which any concern for personal success must fade away to nothing.

This sharp sense of overriding moral demand is what distinguishes Hebrew religion from its Middle Eastern competitors. It has two bases—in the personal visions of the prophets, and in the history of the people, as providentially ordered. If it is an essential property of God that God is absolute demand, then Israel is the people in whose experience this becomes clear for the first time. Instead of reverence for the many powers of nature to procure tribal goods, Torah requires total commitment to justice and mercy, even at the cost of death.

Belief in the total moral demand of God does not come from speculation alone. It comes from the experiences of the prophets, and from perception of the mighty acts of deliverance which show God's purposes in history. In accepting this revelation, one accepts the prophetic experiences, the historical records of Israel, and the inspired nature of the laws of Israel. In these three respects, one can see the development and transformation of some major themes of earlier religious traditions. The shamanistic vision-quests of primal religion develop into the prophetic experiences of the God of Israel as a being of moral demand and of love. The magical spirit-manifestations of primal religion develop into a perception of the mighty acts and wonders of a God who delivers from evil and oppression. The spirit-possessed oracular utterances of primal religion develop into the Spirit-guided teachings of the Divine wisdom.

In these three areas, which might be broadly classified as the areas of personal experience, objective event, and inspired teaching, the concept of revelation is used to refer to places at which a Supreme Creator interacts with creation in order to bring the prophets to a knowledge of his nature, providential purpose, and commanding will. These are the sources of revelation in the prophetic tradition of Israel, which form the basis of the later developed religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

Orthodox Jews might well complain that such a fallibilist, symbolic, and developmental understanding of Torah undermines its basis as the revealed teaching of God, binding on the children of Israel for ever. If one accepts it, will one not be liable to reject the purity laws as irrelevant taboos of a past age; interpret the cultic laws purely symbolically, as pointing to inner attitudes of prayer which need no physical expression; and take the social laws as early forms of a concern for justice and peace which must continue to develop in new ways in modern society? Will the distinctiveness of Judaism not be renounced entirely?

In face of this complaint, one must acknowledge that scriptural orthodoxies are characteristic of many world faiths and will remain so. At this point my own view is that such orthodoxies are rather late developments on the religious scene—they require the writing, collection, and authorization of a Scripture before they can get started. They raise the major theological problem of how there can be so many conflicting texts which are all supposed to be directly revealed. They encounter severe difficulties in facing the critical studies of modern historians, scientists, and moralists.45 And they force an interpretation of revelation as the direct communication of information from God, which may give rise to misunderstanding of the nature of religious discourse and the form of Divine-human encounter to which Scripture actually witnesses.

These expressions of personal opinion are not meant to impugn orthodoxy; but they do raise major questions which orthodoxy within any faith-tradition must address. Certainly one can readily see how the reduction of Torah to a demand for justice and for devout prayer to one creator God (a simplification which Liberal Judaism attempted, to some extent) might undermine the distinctiveness of the Jewish calling. There is a case for seeing devout observance of Torah, which itself allows of many Rabbinic interpretations, as a distinctive witness of Judaism to the world. Yet this witness has important implications for those who are not Jews, which can be appropriated with profit by those who cannot accept the strict orthodox account of revelation.

6. Revelation and Morality

Sources dating from the third century CE set out a sheva mitzvot, seven laws46 of Noah, which are binding on all human beings. Since these are fairly basic moral commands, and knowledge of them is not particularly dependent on revelation, it may be asked what revelation contributes to morality apart from some general injunctions to pray.

It is at this point that Judaism makes the important claim, that not only does morality lie at the heart of religion, but that religion lies at the heart of morality, or at least at the heart of one distinctive understanding of morality. For Judaism, morality is not adequately seen as a socially devised code for living together, as a means to whatever one thinks is the greatest happiness, or as a set of moral injunctions existing independently, suspended in some ethereal realm. Morality is essentially related to a right perception of the nature and purpose of God. It is based on the will of God, for it consists of a set of unconditional obligations, backed by sanctions, which the Creator places upon rational creatures. As such, it is not humanly invented, but encounters humans with the force of absolute requirement, imposed by the very structure of the created order and by the Creator's will.

Morality is also based on the purpose of God, for it rests upon the promise of the realization of a just society, which only God's power can guarantee. The Messianic hope of Judaism, the hope for a society of justice and peace, is not some idle dream or wishful hope. It is a vision of the world which God intends to actualize, through or despite our efforts, and as such it has the power to sustain courage and trust through the darkest moments of pessimism about the world and human motivation and power.

Finally, morality is based on the nature of God, which is revealed to the patriarchs and prophets as chesed, loving-kindness. Out of that merciful love God acts to save humans from evil and make them whole. The proper response to him is thus properly one of responsive love, love answering to love. That transmutes morality from being a matter of obedience into delight in the presence of the Beloved. The fundamental note of Torah is not ‘duty for its own sake’—which could be seen as the great Kantian misperception of ethics—but ‘service for the sake of love’; service of the world in its need because one is given and is called to share in and mediate the loving-kindness of the Creator.47

If these are the central notes of human morality, seen in its deepest reality, then a true understanding of morality requires knowledge of the existence, nature, will, and purpose of God. That is what the Jewish prophetic tradition claims to give. It thus becomes comprehensible that the seven Noahide laws should provide a minimal and universal perception, inherent in created human nature, of the demands of morality. The Mosaic mitzvot, given to the descendants of Abraham by prophetic inspiration, provide a fuller revelation of the justice and mercy of God. As all true love is particular, so this revelation of Divine love binds the Israelites in a particular covenant of trust, fidelity, and delight for ever. But as all true love is for the sake of others, so the vocation of Israel is to be a vehicle of Divine justice and loving-kindness in the world. Thus orthodoxy may preserve the particularity and exclusiveness of the covenant relation, while making no claim to be the path to God which all humans should follow, and while refusing to condemn the paths which others take in worshipping the Divine.

For Judaism, revelation comes in the form of Teaching; not a teaching about the nature of the universe, but a set of practical principles for communal life, enjoining wholeness, a loving and obedient relationship to God, and social justice. The Law is a response to an apprehension of absolute value, a power demanding and enabling the realization of a fulfilled, loving, and just society. It can be seen as the result of a gradual and developing process involving the work of law-makers, prophets, historical interpreters, and poets. Although it is definitively codified in a canonical Scripture, it remains a living body of law, to be interpreted and applied within a Rabbinic community as a contemporary response to the God whose will it expresses. It thus essentially embodies a tension between a conservative insistence on the distinctiveness of the Jewish community and a revisionist insistence on the universal and creative task of realizing a just society in the changing conditions of the modern world. That is a tension both Christianity and Islam sought to resolve by renouncing the ethnic basis of Judaism, only to re-embody it in themselves in a different way. For they too are distinctive communities which do not find it easy to combine loyalty to a particular past with openness to the universal future. The postulation of Divine revelation does not resolve this problem; it creates it. A satisfactory general theory of revelation, in seeking to account for the existence of the problem, without dissolving it, and to show how it almost inevitably arises from the revelatory process itself, may at least help believers to live more tolerantly with it.


7. The Context of Indian Religious Thought

In primal societies, religion is a form of relation to the ultimate powers and values which are believed to form a suprasensory context for human experiences. These powers are channelled through diviners, prophets, or shamans who mediate between the suprasensory and the world of everyday human concerns. Mediation, as I have expounded it in this brief account, takes place in three main forms. There is oracular spirit-possession, when the spirits of animals, ancestors, the natural world, or the heavenly realm speak through the shaman. There is visionary experience, in dreams and visions, when commanding values are seen in the forms of culturally influenced images and built into mythic narratives. And there is spiritual empowerment, when the spirit-forces manifest themselves in healings and paranormal occurrences; these tend to become ritualized into priest-controlled sacramental forms of supernatural power.

In the Semitic tradition a succession of prophets was possessed by the Word of God, who was experienced as absolute moral demand, judge of all human conduct. Their visions were of a personal God who demanded justice and mercy. The Divine power was experienced in historical acts of deliverance from oppression. Thus arose the concept of the suprasensory as ultimately unified in a dynamic power which relates to the imperfect present as judge and deliverer. The idea of God became that of one personal, active, and transcendent being with a moral goal for the universe. The Greek speculative tradition of a Supreme Reason and Good, which is the exemplary pattern for the universe and which can be participated in by temporal beings, was never able to combine coherently with the cults of the Greek gods, who passed into oblivion. It did, however, combine with the Semitic revelation to form the concept of one supremely perfect Creator who creates a universe which reflects and participates in its own perfection. Philo of Alexandria developed such a synthesis of Greek and Hebrew thought,48 but it was in later Jewish Neoplatonism and in Christianity that this merging of traditions produced a religion which was both highly reflective and responsive to a revealed tradition of a self-disclosing, guiding, and empowering cosmic ideal.

In India a rather different set of traditions developed. Though these traditions are of enormous variety and complexity, there are certain characteristic features which they share; and there are some features of the Semitic tradition which they seem almost entirely to lack. There were no prophets who felt challenged by a morally judging God and who issued condemnations on oppressive social systems. There was no development of belief in a historical purpose or goal. And there was little sense of one creator God who stood apart from creation, as a being quite different in kind, except in later, largely heterodox, traditions like Sikhism. One of the most intriguing questions for the student of the history of religions is how such important aspects of Semitic faith seem to be wholly lacking in the Indian traditions, and what a Semitic believer is to make of this lack.

One obvious differentiating factor is to be found in the histories of Israel and of India respectively. The Israelites were a nomadic people who felt that they had been delivered from slavery by Divine power, and who were in search of a homeland among a host of more civilized, powerful, and mainly predatory nations. The prophetic tradition arose in the context of beliefs in Divine deliverance, guidance, and promise, together with a judgement on all systems of oppression such as they had themselves experienced. In a violent and insecure world, the prophets spoke of a dream of peace and security, and they defined themselves in opposition to the nations among whom they lived, and therefore in opposition to their religious cults of fertility and land. Canaan was possessed by alien gods; and the god of the Hebrew slaves must drive them out and establish a moral claim to the land by appeal to a special Divine commission and calling. Thus one can see how the basic Semitic ideas were formed in a particular historical situation.

The situation in India was quite different. Even though Vedic religion was probably brought into India by semi-nomadic tribes travelling from the north-west,49 it was brought by people who were not slaves seeking a home in an alien, overcrowded, and small land on the edge of wilderness, but by conquerors seeking to dominate a continent of immense and fertile space. The Aryans succeeded not by elimination of the aboriginal inhabitants of India, but by absorption. Their gods or devas (spirit-powers) simply took over and took up residence in a vast continent where the cycles of nature seemed to be rich and endless, though rent by catastrophic floods and droughts from time to time. In such a context, there was no need of prophetic judgements on the nations. There was rather an osmosis of the Aryan pantheon of nature gods and the native fertility spirits. Without the drive for belief in a better future, the nature religion of cyclical time and unity with natural powers developed in a different direction.

There were certainly beliefs in the providential activities of spirits and gods in early Indian religion. There were rituals of sacrifice, a pantheon of nature deities to whom hymns of worship were addressed, and a plethora of sacred rites and magical spells and charms.50 The gods are invoked to help find prosperity, fecundity, and good fortune; and so they are seen as having causal relations to events in history. But as reflection began to systematize the activities of the ‘three hundred and thirty million gods’ of Indian tradition, from about 800 BCE onwards, it did so by subordinating their activities to an immanent law of the moral ordering of the world, the law of karma. According to this law, each person reaps the rewards of good or bad deeds, through a succession of lives, either on earth or in various heavens and hells. There are various ways to escape the endless round of rebirths, but the classical way is through meditation and ascetic practice, which brings moksa, or release from all attachment and ignorance. Whereas the Hebrew objectivization of God as a transcendent creator led to seeing history as the arena of the activity of one moral Spirit, Indian thought tended to see history as the arena of the working-out of the consequences of human actions, through a series of rebirths. Though the gods act personally, there is not one overall purposive drive in history, realizing the purpose of one creator. Rather, history is a series of repetitions, in which good and bad acts cause good and bad consequences in a wheel of rebirth and suffering, the wheel of samsara. The idea of one creator who shapes the universe for a particular good purpose does not develop as a dominant theme. Instead, the universe is often seen to originate as an expression of the desires of individual beings, who have to work out these desires before returning to the primal state of rest and bliss. Sanatana dharma, the eternal law of cosmic order, might be seen as standing in place of Torah, the Guidance of the Creator. The dharma states the duties and roles of all beings, seeing them as consequences of karma—so that Brahmins, for example, have privileges closed to all others, as a result of their past relatively good karma.

In such a general theoretical framework, there is no place for prophets who speak the words of a God whose historical purposes have been frustrated by human sin. Rather, there are sages who hear the words of the eternal order, who know the causes of suffering and rebirth and the way to release from suffering. By ascetic practice and meditation, their minds are purified of desire; and being cleared of karmic accretions, they are able to see clearly the inner law of reality. The ancient sages are said to have heard the words of the Vedas (sacred knowledge) and to have recorded them as authoritative teachings for all time. The inner core of revelation, for the Hindu tradition, are the four Vedas, which are sruti, ‘heard’ in their Sanskrit form as copies of eternal truths which even the gods must follow in ordering new world-systems.51

The idea that there is a God who is totally other than the material universe is foreign to the tradition. It tends to be argued that matter itself must be an appearance or manifestation of the One reality, so that Brahman (a word originally meaning sacred power, but which came to refer to the one Absolute Reality) is the material cause of all things. The appearing of the world is not due to any purpose. Rather, it is lila, ‘sport’, a natural unfolding of what is implicit in the Real, a fall into forms of individuality which are to be finally overcome (though the whole cycle will recur infinitely).

Of course Indian thought is indefinitely complex, and contains many diverse and conflicting strands. This general scheme is, however, one which is accepted by most orthodox Hindu apologists today as definitive of their central intellectual tradition. It expresses the revision of the Veda, whereby the Upanishads, the ‘secret teachings’ which are accepted in addition to the four Vedas as sruti, as revealed, are understood to complete and provide a unifying interpretation of Vedic religion. This complex of ideas, forming the basic framework of Indian religious thought, is very different from that of the Semitic tradition. Thus, if the Supreme Reality does disclose itself under the forms of conceptual and cultural thought, it will do so in different ways in these traditions. There is little reason to say that such diverse disclosures will all be equally adequate. Before one can decide that, one will have to examine the basic conceptual schemes much more closely. It certainly seems to be impossible to accept both as true accounts of reality as they stand. It cannot be true both that the universe has a moral goal envisaged by a creator, and that the physical existence of the universe has no goal, but is just a natural manifestation of desire, like foam on a wave, which will in time return to its source in a non-dual reality. Yet it may be the case that something of the nature of the Supreme Reality is disclosed in each tradition which is needed for the unfolding of what is implicit in the other. It may be that at a deeper level these traditions are complementary rather than wholly disparate.

The predisposition of Indian culture after the end of the Vedic period, that is, after the ninth century BCE, was to find action as basically unsatisfactory, to see the world as a vale of suffering and to see the restlessness of desire and attachment as the cause of suffering. There was little sense that the world could be changed to become better, or that there was a moral demand to make it better. Rather, the world is a wheel of endless ills, and the fundamental religious quest is to achieve moksa, liberation or release from suffering. The goal is eternal bliss, and this can only be achieved by finding a state of non-attachment which leads one to a deeper vision of the underlying reality beyond change and suffering—unconditioned intelligence, purity, and bliss. To escape from samsara, the wheel of suffering, and achieve unity with the eternal realm—that became the basic orientation of Indian religion, which remained fundamental even through the subsequent growth of Bhakti cults (the cults of theistic devotion which are the most obvious parts of popular Indian religious life) and their much more positive affirmation of the world. Thus Indian tradition has been greatly influenced by a sense of the transitoriness of all things and of the emptiness of desire. In the search for a life beyond change and desire, it has pursued the ascetic way of union with the changeless, and has found there an experience of bliss and wholeness.

8. Revelation in Indian Traditions

It can look as though God is not present in this tradition; not at least as a morally judging and liberating power. The form revelation takes is certainly rather different from that in the prophetic faiths. The Veda are said to be ‘heard’ (sruti); that is, to be communicated from the eternal realm to great seers of the past. They comprise collections of hymns, spells, and ritual rules and, in the Upanishads, a set of reflective discourses which have been gathered to express a characteristic general outlook on religion. They are most like the wisdom writings of the Hebrew tradition; so they are much more like human discernments attained by meditative skill than like spirit-possessions. Brahman, the Ultimately Real, is much more passive in this process, as the Real which is to be found by meditation and ‘read’ by the disciplined mind, rather than as an active inspirer and empowerer.

A personal God (Bhagavan) is prominent in much Indian religion. In the Bhagavadgita, the most popular of all Indian Scriptures, even though it is not part of the sruti material, devotion to a personalized deity, Krishna, takes first place over the way of meditative knowledge (jnana marga) and the way of ritual works (karma marga). In this work, as in many other texts, a theistic element is unmistakable.52 Even so, there is no real concern with a historical revelation. Krishna is a legendary character, or if he existed, it is the legends about him which are important and not the minute amount of historical data. He symbolizes the Ultimately Real as a personal Lord of love. God, one might say, is present to be known in this tradition, as a reality of supreme value and power. But it does not actively disclose itself in events of history. When such a disclosive tradition appears, as in the theory of the avatara of Vishnu, they are almost wholly legendary claimants to Divine power. The avatara, or manifestations, of Vishnu, are said to include a fish, a boar, and a man-lion as well as Krishna and Rama. One is clearly in the realm of mythology here, not of history.

In the Indian traditions, through meditation, moral practice, and self-discipline, the Supremely Real can be known; and in a way which transforms human lives by union with it. Yet there is no historical, particular revelation of a morally judging and redeeming God, a judge and saviour of the world. In that sense, the Semitic revelation remains unique in what it shows of the Supreme, even if it is not the only way to know the Supreme. The Indian traditions develop the idea of the Supremely Real in a rather different though equally unique way. The central strand of Upanishadic teaching—though there are other more theistic or pluralist elements, too53—is that reality is One, being the manifestation of a Supreme Self which is identical with all things and which is supreme reality, consciousness, and bliss, sat-cit-ananda.

Indian traditions are so diverse that even this concept can be developed in innumerable ways, from the Advaita (non-dualism) of the South Indian eighth-century teacher Sankara, wherein Nirguna Brahman, an Ultimate without any qualities, is the only true reality, to the dualism of the thirteenth-century teacher Madhva, for which Isvara, the supreme Lord, relates in love to his eternally distinct devotees. Of course not all these developments can possess equal truth, so the believer must in practice select from a vast range of religious alternatives. Different sects criticize each other quite freely; but they live together by a loose acceptance of the fact that, since there are many rebirths, everyone can come to know the truth (that of one's own sect) sooner or later.

It is thus quite possible to be a Hindu and choose a form of personal and devotional theism which is very like some pietistic forms of Christianity, Krishna replacing Christ as the personal Lord. However, this will still usually be placed within a general context of belief in rebirth and karma, and it will sometimes pay little attention to issues of social justice or historical events, as religious ideas. There is dharma, which could be translated as cosmic law; but it consists largely of caste and ritual duties. The way of works is not a commitment to social justice, but a way of obeying ritual regulations. There is rarely an idea of a morally demanding Lord with a historical purpose whose inner being is quite distinct from that of all created things. Such ideas could arise within Hinduism, since almost any idea could. But they would not be rooted in a particular historical disclosure of demand and prophecy. They would more likely be the speculations or allegedly inspired thoughts of a particular guru (perhaps the Brahmo Samaj, founded in 1828, comes quite near to such a set of ideas;54 not surprisingly, it was influenced greatly by Christianity, against which it was an Indian reaction).

There is no doubt that a personal and moral theism can and does exist within Indian religion. But such a theism is only one option within the Hindu complex, and it takes on specific forms as shaped by its own cultural background of karma and samsara. Theism certainly has not become the exclusive creed that it is in Judaism, for example. Indian theism tends to grow by the blending and adaptation of many forms of faith, whereas Semitic theism excludes all gods except the totally demanding God of the Covenant. The Semitic revelation has a character of absolute bindingness rarely present in India. To worship Yahveh is to forsake all other gods and be loyal only to him; that is, to follow the moral law and seek the realization of a community of love as an urgent and exclusive goal. In Indian religion, the idea of an ishtadeva, a chosen god, is widely accepted. One is not chosen by God; one chooses a god. One is not faced by an inescapable moral challenge; one seeks to eliminate desire which brings suffering. One does not hope for a community of love; one seeks release from the wheel of rebirth, and obeys the dharma of one's caste.

Nevertheless, the Supreme appears in the faces of many gods; it is truly known by the self which is liberated from desire; and it can be the proper object of intense devotional love. It might be said that the Indian metaphysical framework of an endless repetition of universes, the cycle of samsara and the ultimate futility of action and desire, gives rise to the idea of the Supreme as an unchanging reality which realizes no new values in creation, which is inactive and without passion and which offers no ultimate consummation for the finite order. In such a framework, the dynamic creative God of Hebrew faith is unlikely to become a focal concept. Yet whole sects emerge which regard Brahman as a glorious Lord who creates out of love and offers endless bliss to its devotees. Though Semitic faiths tend to stress the moralism of the Supreme, and Indian faiths tend to stress the non-dualism of Being, both express a sense of the world as dependent on the Supreme; a sense of alienation requiring moral or epistemic reconciliation; and a sense of final realization of goodness, whether in the Supreme alone or in a community of relational beings.

The Indian tradition centres on the claim that there is an experience, attained by few, which discloses a value incomparably superior to desire, unitive knowledge of which liberates from sorrow. But this experience might be interpreted either as showing that Brahman, the inclusive Absolute, is being known in enlightened perception (as in Vedanta); or that the soul, free of all desire, exists in pure consciousness and bliss but also in a state of eternal isolated individuality (as in Sankhya); or that nirvana has been attained, a state of freedom from all conditions, from suffering and desire (as in Buddhism). Clearly it is not enough to accept one such account simply on the basis that it has been revealed to a perfected soul. One must have some criterion for accepting one account, and some explanation for why the others exist and how they can be mistaken.

In fact, as has been noted, the orthodox Hindu tradition has a very strong doctrine of verbal revelation, and it is a rather revisionist view of Hinduism that it is based solely on personal experiences of enlightenment.55 Sankara, who is often regarded as the most influential of Indian philosophers, and who is the originator of Advaita Vedanta, the most widely known classical school of Indian religious thought, wrote: ‘The fact of everything having its Self in Brahman cannot be grasped without the aid of the scriptural passage, “That art thou”.’56 Again he says, ‘Brahman as being devoid of form… is to be known solely on the ground of holy tradition… not even by divine beings of extraordinary power and wisdom’;57 and, ‘Brahman rests exclusively on the holy texts.’58 Still further, ‘The soul which, different from the agent that is the object of self-consciousness, merely witnesses it… is known from the Upanishads only.’59 It is not the case that the Vedantic doctrine of the identity of atman and Brahman is based solely on enlightened experience, for Sankara. There is an experience of non-duality; but it can be correctly interpreted as such only by acceptance of the Vedas as inspired Scripture. The arguments of the Vedantins of various schools, as they comment on the Brahma Sutras of Badarayana (the fourth- or fifth-century CE attempt to systematize the teaching of the Upanishads, which is an authoritative text for the school of Vedanta) are not about sorts of human experience, but about the correct interpretation of the Vedas, which are taken as unquestionable texts. It must be said that the Brahma Sutras themselves are extremely cryptic, consisting of two or three words each and often omitting the main referential nouns. Sankara, Ramanuja, and Madhva, the three major Vedantic teachers, all give quite different interpretations of the same sutras; so it may be doubted whether one correct interpretation can in fact be found. Nevertheless, it is important to remember that Vedantins do appeal to an ultimate scriptural authority, and to note how much the interpretation of experience is governed by that Scripture. The Vedas are given an eternal existence, which even the gods must hear and obey: ‘The Vedic words became manifest in the mind of Prajapati the creator… and he created things corresponding to those words.’60 Clearly, if one does not give the Vedas absolute authority, alternative constructions of meditational experience become possible—as happened in Buddhism, but as may happen in other ways too.

It is clear that the Indian intellectual tradition has developed in quite different directions from the Semitic. What one may call folk Hinduism remains to a large extent in the realm of primal religion. Local gods and goddesses are objects of sacrifice and devotion; and the whole system of religious law—as set out in such works as the Dharma-Shastras—ensures that orthodoxy is an ethnic matter, which virtually identifies being Hindu with being Indian. The intellectual development of the tradition, however, has taken place in six main philosophical traditions, of which the best known are Vedanta and Yoga. These are often combined so that yogic techniques can be incorporated into Vedantic systems of thought. From the immensely rich array of Indian religious materials, I can select only one for comment. As my concern is with theology, the systematic articulation of ideas and doctrines in religion, it is natural to choose Vedanta as a major Indian theological system. The atheistic systems can be regarded as analogous to Buddhism, which is to be treated separately. The theistic systems, though the most popular, are less theologically developed. If one is looking at the contrast between Semitic and Indian traditions, Vedanta is probably the most interesting case. Within Vedanta, the system of Sankara, Advaita Vedanta, is both the mostly widely known and the most highly regarded. It is also of interest because it seems to pose a sharp contrast with a personal moral theism, and yet offers many fascinating points of overlap. Many commentators have characterized Advaita Vedanta as a system of ‘impersonal monism’, in strong contrast to Semitic views of God as a personal being who is quite other than anything in creation.61 So there appears to be a doctrine of a supreme reality which is yet quite different from theism. It is the nature and extent of this difference which I shall seek to explore. The text I shall use is Sankara's classic commentary on the Brahma Sutras, in the translation by George Thibaut. While there are many particular points at which this translation might be thought inadequate, it is substantially accurate, and I have tried to avoid reliance on contested passages which might affect the interpretation of doctrine.

9. Brahman and Theism

Sankara holds that Brahman is the supreme reality, complete comprehension of which ‘is the highest end of man, since it destroys the roots of all evil’.62 The quest to know Brahman is thus at the same time the quest to overcome suffering and the ignorance which is its cause, in an experiential knowledge of ultimate truth. But what is Brahman? Is it impersonal and pantheistically identical with the universe? ‘Brahman’, he says, ‘is all-knowing and endowed with all powers, whose essential nature is eternal purity, intelligence and freedom.’63 It would be odd to hold that a being which possessed knowledge and intelligence was wholly impersonal, since these are characteristics belonging only to conscious beings. And indeed Brahman is consistently referred to as ‘the Self’, as an omniscient, omnipotent cause.64 As that ‘from which the origin, subsistence and dissolution of this world proceed’,65 Brahman is described in very similar ways to the God of the Semitic tradition.

What complicates matters is Sankara's doctrine of double truth and of the double nature of Brahman, as saguna (with qualities) and nirguna (without qualities). This doctrine is not generally shared with other schools of Vedanta, and it is what leads to talk of impersonal monism. According to the doctrine of double truth, all common-sense statements are in order at their own level, the level of practical dealings with the world. Yet there is a deeper level at which they fail to characterize reality. The lower Brahman, saguna Brahman, is a proper object of devotion, and Sankara has many devotional hymns addressed to it. But the higher Brahman, nirguna Brahman, is an object of a special sort of knowledge. This Brahman is devoid of qualities and of distinctions: ‘The changeless Brahman cannot be the substratum of varying attributes.’66

Thus has arisen the idea that true Brahman is wholly non-dual, without any distinctions at all; and that it only appears as qualified to unenlightened minds: ‘His omniscience, omnipotence and so forth all depend on… avidya (lack of knowledge)… in reality none of these qualities belong to the Self.’67 So, by the doctrine of double truth, one can say that, ‘In reality the relation of ruler and ruled does not exist… on the other hand, all those distinctions are valid, as far as the phenomenal world is concerned… the view of Brahman as undergoing modifications will be of use in devout meditations.’68

The major problem of interpretation here is of what is meant by avidya. Sankara says, ‘By the fiction of avidya, characterised by name and form, evolved as well as non-evolved, not to be defined as the existing or the non-existing, Brahman becomes the basis of this entire apparent world… while in its true and real nature… it remains unchanged.’69 Further, ‘the fiction of avidya originates entirely from speech only’.70 This sounds as though avidya is the result of a conceptual mistake; that it is a pure fiction, and does not exist at all. But such an interpretation is impossible for Sankara, and would contradict his clear statements that ‘those things of which we are conscious in our waking state… are never negated in any state’71 and that ‘although intelligence only constitutes the true nature of the Self… lordly power… with a view to the world of appearances, is not rejected’.72

So in what sense is avidya a fiction, and in what sense does it arise from speech only? The sense is, I think, rather like that used by Plato when holding that the world of sensory reality is unreal, compared to the intelligible world. ‘Reality’ consists of that which is self-subsistent; which does not change or cease to be; which is not corruptible or dependent on other things. It is to be contrasted with the apparent; that which appears, but the real nature of which is hidden behind the appearances. Of course the appearances exist; for how otherwise could they be known? But they are not self-subsistent; they depend on another reality hidden behind them. Moreover, they exist only as appearances—that is, in relation to minds to which they appear. Taken out of relation to any such minds, they would not exist at all.

When Sankara mentions ‘speech’, he is not thinking of mere words in some natural language. He is referring to the very forms of thought which condition all human apprehension. Without concepts there could be no human knowledge; and of course our concepts divide and split up the world in various ways which are practically useful. The world of appearances is one which is known by means of human concepts. Take away the concepts and there is no knowledge of that world. It is in that sense that the known world of human experience arises from speech alone. Take away the relational appearances, and one has reality itself, beyond both speech and human apprehension; of it nothing can be said. So it is wholly consistent of Sankara to hold that only by revelation could one know anything of such a real-in-itself.

The world of appearances is real though not self-subsistent. It is partly a construct of human minds. And it is a fiction, in the sense that if and in so far as it is taken to be the true reality, we are misled by it. It is as though we take a rope to be a snake;73 or as if elephants seen in a dream were taken to be real74 or as though colours seen through a crystal were taken to be properties of the crystal itself.75 In other words, the world of appearances is real on its own level; it is the world in which we live and move and have our being. It is only when we take this play of relational, conceptually interpreted reality to be real in itself that we are under illusion. For then we do not see the only true Real, which is Brahman, beyond all qualities, though manifesting to us as a glorious Lord of endless perfection.

To see that this view is not really an impersonal monism which stands in total contrast to Western theism one only has to remember the doctrine of Thomas Aquinas, the major theologian of Western Catholic Christianity. He argues that God is utterly simple and without parts; is timeless and changeless; stands in no real relation to the finite universe; and is wholly ineffable, except by the use of terms which, though appropriate, do not signify what we think they do.76 Wherein does this differ from Sankara's allegedly pantheistic and impersonal philosophy? For both, the Divine in itself is beyond conceptual reach. For both, the Divine manifests to us for the sake of our eternal bliss in the forms of time and space. For both, the apparent can truly express or signify the Real, even though it is illusion to take it for the Real in itself. The deep unity of these views should be clear.

10. Appearance and Reality

There seems to be an ultimate divergence between Advaita and classical Western theism when the relation of the individual soul to the Supreme Self is considered. In the Semitic tradition, the soul is created freely and never becomes literally one with God. An infinite gulf separates the soul and God; the gulf of worshipper and worshipped; and it can never be bridged. In Vedanta, the central doctrine is that atman, the true self, and Brahman, the Supreme Being, are one. ‘Brahman, without undergoing any modification, passes, by entering into its effects, into the condition of the individual soul.’77 Further, the ultimate destiny of the human person is to realize this unity with Brahman: ‘He who knows Brahman neither moves nor departs… has become the omnipresent Self.’78 This seems to be a glaring distinction between Semitic and Indian views, a distinction between a view for which God and the soul are identical and a view for which they are always distinct existences. Again, however, on close inspection the differences turn out to be not quite as clear and distinct as one may think at first sight.

Sankara states, ‘It is a matter not requiring any proof that the object and the subject… cannot be identified’;79 ‘They are absolutely distinct’,80 as distinct as the Real and the Unreal. So there is certainly distinction in Sankara's philosophy. He is not saying that no distinctions of any sort exist; at the very least, he is not propounding some sort of monism in which all distinctions fade into an unrelieved sameness. Indeed, there can hardly be a greater distinction than that between the Real and the Unreal—where the Unreal is the realm of appearance.

When Sankara gives some account of ignorance, of avidya, he says: ‘The Self, which in its own nature is free from all contact, becomes a knowing agent.’81 The cause of all evil is the appearing of individual souls as agents and enjoyers, as transmigrating souls; and to attain release is to realize ‘the absolute unity of the Self’.82 What is this Self which becomes an agent and enjoyer? It is in itself not the finite subject which acts in the world and which likes or dislikes various temporal experiences. It is not a temporally developing, desiring, and corruptible entity. It is free from all contact and from all wants; it is ‘the witness of everything’,83 the knower which is not changed by its knowledge and which is not bound to the passions of the individually appearing soul.

A Christian theologian might be reminded by these words of the classical doctrine of incarnation, as developed by Athanasius and Cyril of Alexandria. According to that doctrine, the Word of God is impassible and changeless.84 Yet, in the person of Jesus, it unites a human soul and body to itself, so that the Word can be spoken of as suffering and dying, even though in its own proper nature it is incapable of suffering. It suffers in the human nature which is united with it, in a unique and ineffable manner. In a way not wholly dissimilar, the Self, for Sankara, is not an individual substance among many others of the same kind. There is only one Self, and it is Brahman. ‘That into which all intelligent souls are resolved is an intelligent cause of the world.’85 It is that Self, the Universal Self, ‘One without a Second’, which ‘without undergoing any modification, passes, by entering into its effects, into the condition of the individual soul’.86

As in the Christian doctrine of incarnation, there is here a becoming without change, an appearing which leaves the reality as it was and always will be. This doctrine is quite coherent, if one sees the whole of the spatio-temporal universe as an expression or appearance of a timeless reality which is simple, immutable, and impassible. Then one can say that the Self becomes individual souls, in the sense that it is expressed in that form, without losing or changing its own inner eternity. It is this central idea of the Eternal being manifested in finite names and forms without modifying its own essential nature that in my view gives the clue to interpreting Advaita.

But at this point a Christian will say that here is a clear difference; Jesus is unique among creatures; but on Sankara's view all creatures must equally be manifestations of Brahman, the Supreme Self. Again this is not quite such a clear and unbridgeable divide as it may at first seem. Sankara does not hold that all appearances manifest Brahman equally well. There are at least five ways in which Brahman must be spoken of, five modes of its existence. First, in a doctrine which is distinctive to Sankara and rejected by Ramanuja and other Vedantins, there is nirguna Brahman, ‘devoid of form… those passages which refer to Brahman qualified… do not aim at setting forth the nature of Brahman, but… at enjoining the worship of Brahman’.87 Second is saguna Brahman, ‘all-knowing and endowed with all powers, whose essential nature is eternal purity, intelligence and freedom’.88 Third there is a finite manifestation of Brahman as Isvara: ‘The highest Lord may… assume a bodily shape formed of Maya… to gratify his worshippers.’89 Fourth is the appearance of Brahman in the form of the individual soul: ‘Brahman, insofar as it differentiates itself, is called individual soul, agent, enjoyer.’90 And fifth is the material world of objects as a whole: ‘Everything constitutes one Self only’91 and ‘the creator is non-different from the created effects’.92

Clearly, it would be much too crude to say simply that the world is the appearance of Brahman, so that everything is Divine, just as it stands. The Supreme Lord in his bodily manifestation is worthy of worship, because he is an image of the perfect possessor of all good properties which is saguna Brahman, in a way that the vast majority of souls, enmeshed in ignorance and desire, are not. There is a place here for something rather like (though not identical to) the classical Christian view of incarnation; since avatar a of Vishnu, who appear only once in every world-period of hundreds of thousands of years, are proper objects of worship, as pure manifestations of saguna Brahman. What is meant, then, by saying that the creator and the created are non-different? The main point to bear in mind is that it is common to much Hindu thought to hold that ‘the effect is in reality not different from the cause’.93 Western thought has traditionally held that effects are different from their causes, though they must in some way be like their causes. In a sense the effect is contained in the cause, if only in that the cause has the power to produce a faint image of itself in the finite world. Thus all finite properties are, Aquinas says, more fully actual in God, their ultimate cause, who possesses all properties in a higher manner. So for Aquinas each effect is a reflection of some property which exists in God ‘eminentiorem modem’; and each effect depends solely for its existence upon God. Effects may have some form of independently subsistent reality, but in fact they all depend at each moment wholly upon God, who is the only truly independent reality. Nothing can exist without total dependence on God; and nothing can have any real property which does not exist more fully in God.94

Is this so very different from a view which says that the Supreme Self is the material cause of every finite effect, although such effects are in fact purely appearances, not the true reality of the cause? Sankara even writes sentences which could come straight from Aquinas, like ‘the cause virtually [that is, properly] contains all the states belonging to its effects’.95 It is true that ‘there is only one highest Lord ever unchanging, whose substance is cognition, and who, by means of avidya, manifests himself… as a magician appears in different shapes by means of his magical power’.96 But what, then, are individual beings? ‘Name and form cannot abide in the soul… but abide in the limiting adjunct and are ascribed to the world itself in a figurative sense.’97 This mysterious ‘limiting adjunct’ of Brahman is neither being nor non-being, neither different nor non-different from Brahman; it is the seminal potentiality of names and forms. ‘The soul, as long as involved in samsara, has for its essence the qualities of its limiting adjuncts.’98 These qualities are to be shed when the released soul finds itself as, in fact, that pure non-differentiated intelligence which is Brahman, beyond change and division.

What is clear is that the limiting adjuncts, with all their distinctions and changes, do exist as appearances; but the reality which they manifest does not in itself possess those diverse changing properties which the appearances themselves possess. What is the status of the individual mind, the agent and enjoyer, which we regard as the human soul? Sankara says, ‘The Self does not exist… as an agent and enjoyer… the qualities of mind… are wrongly superimposed upon the Self.’99 But it then follows that the individual soul is in a very important respect not identical with Brahman. Diversity belongs to the realm of appearances, as do all human souls. Yet all appearances are also manifestations of Brahman, arising again and again with seeming inevitability. Thus for Sankara it is not the case that I, in my individual personality and with all my mental qualities, memories, inclinations, and desires, am identical with Brahman, who is pure unrestricted Intelligence. And yet, ‘Those who insist on the distinction of the individual and the highest Self oppose themselves to the true sense of the Vedanta texts.’100

One way of rendering these texts consistent is to say that individuals are not distinct from Brahman, in the sense that they have quite independent being. As Sankara puts it, ‘The effect is non-different from its cause i.e. has no existence apart from the cause.’101 On the other hand, individuals are distinct from Brahman, in the sense that Brahman does not in itself possess the properties of individual beings; only its limiting adjuncts possess such properties. One cannot for example say of Brahman that it is ignorant, idle, and wicked, though one can say that of individual persons. One might say, appearances are not substantially distinct from reality, since they cannot exist without it. Yet appearances are qualitatively distinct from reality, since they have properties that it, as Real, does not.

11. Vedanta and Christianity

I am not attempting to suggest that Christian and Vedantic doctrines are identical. Vedantins disagree widely among themselves, as do Christians, so it would be improbable in the highest degree that one could find identical doctrines spread throughout such different traditions. But it does seem that the differences are very complex and result in large part from the use of differing general conceptual schemes, and differing uses of key concepts such as ‘identity’, ‘cause’, and ‘reality’. It may seem that Vedanta is totally opposed to Judaeo-Christianity in asserting the identity of the Supreme Self and the spatio-temporal universe. R. C. Zaehner suggests that there is ‘an unbridgeable gulf between all those who see God as incomparably greater than oneself… and those who maintain that soul and God are one’.102 Yet in an important sense the world, as appearance, having innumerable properties, is distinct from unqualified Brahman, which has no properties. And Sankara quotes with approval the Upanishadic statement, ‘He wished, “May I be many”’.103 ‘The highest Lord’, he comments, ‘sends forth, after reflection, certain effects.’104 That is, the universe is the effect of reflection and desire—which is not too far from a doctrine of creation. Within Vedanta, it is correct, from one point to view, to see the universe as a distinct creation of a Supreme Lord.

The Christian doctrine of a distinct and independent creation is also modified so as to mitigate the sharpness of this divide. Paul is reported as having said that ‘in God we live and move and have our being’;105 and the aim of Christian life is that Christ should live in the disciple and the whole universe should be united in Christ. The interpretation of the sense of ‘in’ in these phrases is far from easy. It is obviously not spatial; and it suggests a unity of Divine and human which does not sound much like a total opposition of kind. Athanasius said that the Word ‘assumed humanity that we might become God’.106 And it is also standard Christian doctrine that God is omnipresent, so that God is not distant from any time or place. So within orthodox Christianity it is correct to see the whole universe as united in God as it grows into conformity with the being of glory through whom it came to be, and finds its own proper being, not in independence, but in becoming an instrument of the God on whom it is wholly dependent.

It is all too easy to take formulations of religious doctrine in very literal and clear ways, so that they fall into absolute opposition to one another. Impersonal monism is contrasted with personal dualism, and then if one view is true, the other must be entirely false. It may be more appropriate, however, to regard such formulations as faltering attempts to express things that cannot be adequately described in available human concepts at all. Then what one may find are extrapolations from differing emphases and attempts to generalize basic models which work well in one area, to cover the whole of reality. It could be helpful to distinguish between ultimate and proximate religious views of ultimate reality and of the ultimate destiny of human beings. The more one attempts to speak of the ultimate, the more one's basic models are stretched towards incomprehensibility, towards a metaphorical extrapolation into the presently inconceivable. So in Advaita one has the ultimate model of reality as one non-dual Self, appearing in many names and forms; and the ultimate model of human destiny as the sublation of the individual soul into the ‘one simple non-differentiated intelligence’,107 free from all difference,108 which is full acquaintance with the ultimately Real. At a proximate level, however, in Advaita, reality is known to the worshipper as ‘the eternally perfect highest Lord’.109 The proximate destiny of each soul is to come to know the presence of the Supreme Self in all things and, by non-attachment, realize the bliss which freedom from desire brings.

On the other hand, for Christians there is a simple personal relationship between God the Father and the believer which enables the believer to see God in and within all things and experience the forgiveness of sin. In the great saints and mystics of the Church other elements resonate through this relationship, bringing the believer within the very life of God, as indwelt by the Spirit and incorporate in Christ. When the individual soul is wholly indwelt by God, wholly enraptured in the vision of God and wholly embraced in the life of God, must one not say that the soul as we now know it will be sublated in a wider unitary communion in which every trace of an allegedly self-subsistent egoism is overcome?

What is being expressed in each tradition is that all things form a unity and manifest and depend upon one underlying reality which is beyond description. Ignorance of this reality is caused by desire and by the chains of self-will. The cultivation of non-attachment can lead to the realization of the sole reality of this being of unlimited intelligence and bliss which is present everywhere and therefore also within us, a realization which brings us to know our own unity with and dependence upon this reality, and thus releases us from desire and brings supreme happiness. The yawning chasm which separates ‘impersonal monism’ from ‘personal dualism’ disappears as one realizes how inadequate all these terms are to characterize the Supreme Reality which brings full human release.

This does not mean that one can regard everything in these traditions as an equally adequate expression of the relation of the suprasensory realm to the physical universe. It does mean that the Vedantic tradition can be seen as a development of human understanding of the Divine which is a vehicle of Divine self-disclosure and a means of human fulfilment. The Hebrew tradition developed in competition with the fertility gods of the hostile powers of Egypt and Canaan and thus by exclusion of the many gods of the natural powers. It developed an ethical monotheism in which liberation was to be found in history, guided by a morally demanding and providentially acting god who spoke through a succession of prophets. The Indian tradition also developed out of a myriad local primal cults; but it did not compete and exclude. It absorbed the countless local gods and spirits into an all-inclusive unity, so that the key concept became, not that of a subject God, distinct from the world, but of Brahman, including and expressed in all the world. The Supreme did not then appear as a commanding subject, judging the world; but as the inner ruler of the world, expressing itself in it. Non-dualism has no conceptual place for a moral judge and law-giver. Rather, the law (dharma) expresses the true self-manifestive principles of Brahman, which lead to a realization of the inner unity of all things.

For the Hebrew view the world is created good, since it expresses the goodness of God. But it lies under judgement, because human self-will has destroyed the Divine plan. For the Indian view the world results from a fall into desire and ignorance. But it also manifests Brahman, since there is nothing else but Brahman. In place of judgement, one has the inescapable law of karma, which brings evil inevitably upon those who do evil. And in place of creation one has the wheel of samsara, which binds creatures to suffering—and yet which also manifests Brahman in ‘sport’ or the play of the Supreme Lord. In the Hebrew tradition, one seeks liberation from oppression and the realization of one's true, originally created, nature. In the Indian tradition, one seeks liberation from samsara and desire and the realization of supreme bliss and wisdom, which is, of course, one's true and original nature. If there are many oppositions arising from the basic polarity of Semitic moralism and Indian non-dualism, there are also many convergences arising from the shared spiritual quest for liberation from self-will by unity with a supreme reality of wisdom and bliss. The idea of revelation as a Divinely given law of human and social fulfilment can be complemented by the idea of revelation as a teaching of the realization of personal unity with the one self-existent reality. It seems to me that both ideas are necessary for a fully comprehensive view, and that any adequate theology for the next millennium must take both seriously.

One may thus see the classical Indian religious traditions as developing out of earlier primal cults a deeper morality of non-attachment, a search for spiritual integration, and a rational world-view which can include all the gods as forms of the one supreme, self-manifesting intelligence. Yet that classical tradition of Brahminism also retained a very ethnic, hierarchical, and exclusive social system with a strongly ritualistic view of religion and a strict adherence to the letter of the Vedas as inerrant truth. It was to give rise to, and in turn be modified by, traditions which rejected the authority of the Vedas and appealed directly to personal experience. Among these the chief is undoubtedly Buddhism. It may be seen as an attempt to universalize Indian insights in a form which breaks away from the classical dharma or social law and emphasizes in a more rigorous way the theme of release and interior enlightenment. In that respect it stands to Brahminic orthodoxy much as Christianity stands to what was to become Rabbinic Judaism.


12. The Buddhist Way

Buddhism poses a particular problem for any theistic faith. The problem is that within Buddhism there are various techniques of profound meditative practice and a commitment to overcoming selfishness, lust, greed, and hatred in all their forms. There are thousands of monastic communities; there are rituals and holy texts; there is usually a profound reverence for the Buddha and there are teachings about the ultimate nature of reality and the final destiny of human beings. And yet there is hardly any mention of God. There is even a hostility to any idea of a personal creator who might act in history. This is a problem for theists, because if there exists such a creator, who wills that human life is fulfilled by knowledge of and obedience to his will, it seems that Buddhism is profoundly ignorant of the truth and is a way which cannot lead to fulfilment or salvation. That would be no problem if Buddhists were anti-religious; and some commentators have proposed that Buddhism should be regarded as an atheistic philosophy, rather than a religion.110 Yet Buddhism, with its temples, monasteries, and ritual practices, looks like a religion. More deeply, its committed adherents seek a goal of self-conquest and enlightenment through practices which seem far removed from philosophical analysis. Indeed, the European philosophy which looks closest to that of many sorts of Buddhism (that of David Hume) is precisely that which is at the farthest remove from the monastic practices of Buddhism. What Buddhism has which Hume lacks is a concern for liberation; an apprehension of the world as involving sorrow and a belief that such sorrow can be overcome, that ‘there is a further shore’, that liberation is possible. The Buddha is reported to have said: ‘I will teach you, brethren, the truth and the path that goes thereto… the further shore… the unfading… the undecaying… the deathless… the blissful… the state of freedom from ill… Nirvana… release… the island… the cave of shelter… the stronghold… the refuge… the goal.’111

The irony is that, from Hume's viewpoint, the belief that there is such liberation, and that it shows the ultimate nature of reality, is precisely one of the ‘disputed questions’ which the Buddha wanted to put on one side. Hume was a more robustly common-sense philosopher, who confined his views to this life, in which some pleasures, however tainted with grief and anxiety, could be had for a short while. He had no belief in karma, in samsara, or in nirvana, the state in which sorrow is finally overcome. He would have regarded such beliefs as entirely speculative; or perhaps, in the latter case, as the hypostatization of a psychological state of self-hypnosis. One cannot deny that Buddhism does have such speculative metaphysical beliefs; but it is nevertheless true that its heart is the practice of a spiritual discipline which is meant to lead to enlightenment, to a true view of how things are, and to a conquest of selfishness and hatred.

It is hard for theists to regard Buddhism as simply an error, as philosophical atheism would have to be regarded. One strategy for explaining atheism is to say that it is an intellectual error which arises from a lack of concern with, or an antipathy to, ultimate questions about human destiny and a lack of openness to moral and spiritual paths of self-transformation. Buddhists, however, do not lack these concerns; so the theist must grapple with the question of how such a non-theistic yet profound religious practice could come into being and flourish in a god-created world. What does such a phenomenon have to say about the nature of revelation and of theological belief?

The origins of Buddhism lie unequivocally in the teachings of one man, Siddhartha, who probably lived during the fifth and sixth centuries BCE in north-east India, and who is held to have attained nirvana through a long process of meditational and ascetic practice. He then taught the dharma, the teaching of the way to liberation, to his disciples, and according to most traditions his words were remembered and repeated by transmission until they were eventually written down in a number of Sutras—though disputes exist as to which are original or received authentically from his lips. There are many variants of Buddhism, often united more by a common practice than by common doctrine. But there are a number of common features which derive from the Indian religious background. These include, most importantly, the doctrines of karma and samsara—that all actions or intentions to act for good and evil inevitably result in consequences in the way of merit or suffering; and that human beings are involved in a number of rebirths, which will continue as long as desire for and attachment to the world remain.

The Four Noble Truths record in a particularly lucid way the fundamental beliefs that all finite sentient existence involves unease, suffering, or ill; that this is caused by desire or attachment, or by aversion and fear; that the way to end suffering is to attain complete non-attachment or freedom from self; and that the way to do this is to follow the eightfold path of moral and meditational practice.112 What was rejected from the Indian tradition was belief in the revealed authority of the Vedas, with their prescribed rituals and sacrifices and rules of caste. Worship of the gods was demoted to a position of relative insignificance, since even the gods seek release from their exalted but still finite form of being. Most importantly, a new monastic community, or set of communities, came into being within which monks and nuns renounce the world to follow the Enlightened One in the quest for total non-attachment and the attainment of nirvana, in which lies perfect bliss and ease.

Upon this basic framework the immensely varied forms of practice we term Buddhism—following the way of the Enlightened One—came to exist over thousands of years. Differences over what the Buddha taught; how authoritative his words are; what enlightenment consists in; and what philosophical doctrines all this implies are manifold, so that it is quite impossible to give a complete exposition of Buddhism in any work like this. What can be done, however, is to seek to face the fundamental problem of what account of such a set of religious practices can be given by a Christian theologian who seeks, not merely to dismiss them as erroneous and misguided, but to find a positive role they may have to play in the general development of religious thought and practice.

A first consideration is that there is no sense of revelation here, if that is taken to be the disclosure by a supreme God or indeed by any god of truths not otherwise available to human beings. It is sometimes said that Buddhism is a radically non-revealed religion, and that its truth must simply be discovered within the experience of each individual. Such a view is hardly compatible, however, with the fundamental Triple Vow by which lay people define themselves as Buddhist. This vow declares that one takes refuge in the Buddha, the dharma and the Sangha: the Enlightened One, the teaching, and the monastic community. This entails acceptance of a teaching one has not simply discovered for oneself. It is quite clearly Siddhartha's own experience which remains the norm for knowledge of dharma. His experience is authoritative for all who follow him.113 It is not only that he taught the truth, but that he attained the truth in a uniquely full overcoming of the chains of karma and ignorance. There is revelation, then, in the sense that the Buddha reveals the nature of suffering and the way to end suffering. He is to be revered, not as a god, but as a uniquely enlightened human being who has achieved liberation and is able to show others the way towards doing so. If one thinks of Kierkegaard's distinction between Jesus and Socrates114 (that Socrates’ teaching is important, whereas Jesus’ person is important), the Buddha presents a third possibility—his attainment of nirvana is what is fundamentally important, and it is to that attainment, as a possibility for others, that his teaching points. Siddhartha's revelation is from the viewpoint of enlightenment, and that is not a normal means of human knowing.

If one asks what the viewpoint of enlightenment can be, one may say that it is an experience of supreme transcendence of all selfish attachment, of supreme compassion for all beings, of supreme tranquillity and bliss, and of supreme insight into human motivation and duplicity. The theist, however, will not be able to say that it is an experience of supreme insight into the true conditions of human being—since precisely the most important theistic assumption, the existence of a personal being on whom all things depend, is entirely lacking. But the theist has to face a difficult question: how could the most important thing be lacking, after such a determined quest for truth and liberation was taken to be successful?

It seems to me that the exploration of this question is extremely fruitful for a deeper understanding of the concept of God, and that the Buddhist practice has something vital to teach the Semitic tradition. As has been noted, the Hebrew faith is basically moralistic and dualistic. That is, it thinks of God as a spiritual being of supreme power and wisdom, apart from the universe (thus the dualism, not of good and evil, but of God and what is other than God). God places moral demands upon that universe, which can be realized only by dependence upon Divine mercy (by obedience to Torah). This, however, has led to an objectivization of God as a supreme person who is judge and saviour. Such an idea can lead, and sometimes has led, to a belittling of human life and responsibility, to an ethic of blind obedience to authoritative commands and to a spirituality of guilt and flattery. One magnifies God by belittling oneself and placing responsibility in the hands of this all-powerful Other who determines things by an ultimately arbitrary set of decisions, saving some and condemning others apparently at will. These are precisely the moral and spiritual attitudes which the European Age of Enlightenment rejected; but it rejected them in a form which rendered religious practice in any traditional form impossible. For post-eighteenth-century Europe, the rejection of God was the rejection of religion. It was not so in Buddhism.

The strength of Buddhism is that it emphasizes human responsibility and preserves a practice leading to personal fulfilment, while shedding all the myths of authoritative obedience which existed in the Brahminical tradition. Yet it would be a terrible misunderstanding to take Buddhism simply as a humanist protest against religious authoritarianism, against a moralism which subjugates human freedom in the name of God, and against a dualism which reduces human lives to mere adjuncts of an all-determining Divine will. The sort of fulfilment at which the eightfold path aims is not that of human autonomy, understood as the realization of one's present character and potential. It is a fulfilment in a radically different state, and it will require in most cases many lives of ascetic and meditational practice even to understand what it is. The ultimate goal of Buddhist practice is so hard to understand that most Buddhists defer its serious pursuit to some future life, and aim simply at a better birth next time. Yet that ultimate goal is definitive of Buddhism. It is instructive for the theist to seek to understand it in comparison with the final theistic goal of the vision of God. Such an understanding may at least qualify any assertion that Buddhism is an atheistic religion, or not even a religion at all.

13. Nirvana

All Buddhists agree that nirvana is the ultimate goal of spiritual practice. Of nirvana, however, little can be truly said in the concepts available to us; it is beyond our conceptual grasp. In the Questions of King Milinda, the sage Nagasena says, ‘The cessation of craving leads successively to that of grasping, of becoming, of birth, of old age and death, of grief, lamentation, pain, sadness and despair—that is to say to the cessation of all this mass of ill. It is thus that cessation is Nirvana.’115 This sounds very negative, and since the word ‘nirvana’ literally means ‘blowing out’, it may seem that ‘cessation’ is a way of saying ‘extinction’. However, this is far from being the case. One of the three main parts of the Buddhist canon of Scripture is the Abhidharma, which claims to give an analysis, derived from the Buddha himself, of the constituent elements of reality. According to that analysis, the world of apparently solid, enduring objects is in fact made up of eighty-two elements, or ‘dharmas’. Eighty-one of them are fleeting, conditioned, elements; but one—nirvana—is both real and unconditioned in reality. Nirvana therefore exists, though in a way quite different from that of conditioned beings, with their properties of transience, insubstantiality, and unsatisfactoriness (anitya, anatman, and dukkha).

This is unequivocally affirmed by Buddhaghosa, the fifth-century CE monk who is the touchstone of orthodoxy in Theravada Buddhism (the ‘tradition of the elders’, which is found mostly in Sri Lanka, Burma, and Thailand). He writes:

It is because it is uncreated that it is free from ageing and death… it is permanent… because it can be arrived at by distinction of knowledge that succeeds through untiring perseverance, and because it is the world of the Omniscient One, Nibbana is not non-existent as regards individual essence in the ultimate sense.116

Nihilism—the opinion that beyond this world of desire and plurality, transience, and pain, there is nothing—is a false view. Delight in the senses must cease, for it brings suffering and unease. Yet one can say of nirvana that it grants all one can desire, brings joy, and sheds light. ‘Nirvana is something which is.’ ‘It is apprehendable [by some, namely, the Noble Ones] by the [right] means, in other words, by the way that is appropriate to it… therefore it should not be said that it is non-existent because unapprehendable, for it should not be said that what the foolish ordinary man does not apprehend is unapprehendable.’117 Nirvana is not merely a state of the cessation of ill; one must think of it as positive tranquillity and bliss. In the Dhammapada, a very popular Scripture, it is described as ‘the peace supreme and infinite joy’.118 Nirvana is not to be considered as simply a state of mind, for everything in the human mind has a beginning, is in a state of constant change, and has an end. Nirvana is a form of reality which is permanent, free from sorrow, and attainable by mental striving. It is a cessation of conditioned existence, but it has its own greater form of reality. In one Scripture, the Buddha says: ‘Monks, there is a not-born, a not-become, a not-made, a not-compounded. Monks, if that unborn, not-become, not-made, not-compounded were not, there would be apparent no escape from this here that is born, become, made, compounded.’119 The unconditioned reality of infinite joy is the goal of meditation practice; but other than that, little can be said of it.

The idea of nirvana as a distinct, unique sort of reality was developed in a number of ways in the various schools of Mahayana Buddhism (the self-styled ‘greater vehicle’ which was influential in China, Tibet, and Japan). Nagarjuna, the second-century CE founder of the Madhyamaka school, developed the influential view that nirvana is the result of calming the categorizing, conceptualizing mind. It is ‘the calming of all representations, the calming of all verbal differentiations, peace’.120 Though nirvana cannot be ‘pointed to’ (since it is beyond all conceptual representation) much can be said of the stages on the path to nirvana, and it is here that one begins to catch the flavour of Buddhist meditation, its aims and achievements. Madhyamaka practice requires first of all the practice of vipasyana, insight meditation. This enjoins the rigorous analysis of all the contents of consciousness, dissolving them into their ultimate dharmas or parts. The analysis is meant to bring one to the recognition that all things are ‘empty’ (sunya); that is, devoid of inherent or truly substantial existence. One might put this by saying that there is nothing one can experience (and nothing finite that exists) which is permanent or uncaused. All things are contingent, transient, and caused; and the doctrine of dependent origination (pratityasamutpada) is basic to this philosophy. In insight meditation, one becomes aware that there is only a flow of dharmas. There is nothing to cling to, to become attached to, and no enduring self to cling or to become attached. There is only the ceaseless causal flow in consciousness. One might call this an intellectual appreciation of non-duality, of the non-existence of self and its independently existing objects.

But this is not just a philosophical theory. Meditation is both a moral discipline and a practised calming of the mind. The aim is to come to a state in which one sees that all conceptual representations are fictitious or imposed; they are ‘empty’ in not corresponding to substantial, independently existing realities. So one may rest in the pure radiant flow itself, without grasping, freed from illusion, and also compassionate to all beings who are enmeshed in illusion. This is a liberation from Self, from egoistic grasping, and it is the beginning of the path to enlightenment. On this account, nirvana and samsara are not substantially distinct, as they seem to be in Theravada. They are different aspects of the same reality, one aspect perceived under the illusion of the discriminating mind and the other apprehended as what truly is, beyond conceptualization and therefore beyond attachment. As Nagarjuna put it, ‘The limit of nirvana is the limit of samsara. Between the two there is not the slightest bit of difference.’121

What is to be noted here, from the theistic viewpoint, is that there is a definite metaphysical theory at the basis of the spiritual practice. The theory does claim to be rooted in spiritual insight. Certain individuals have not just theorized, they have seen directly and intuitively the true nature of things as dependent origination and non-substantiality (sunyata, emptiness). One's assessment of such claims must depend upon the weight that one gives in general to claims to correct cognition through direct experience. If one holds that all experience carries an element of conceptual interpretation; or at least that in so far as one has beliefs about it at all those beliefs must be made in a specific conceptual framework, then direct experience will not be self-validating. A truly non-conceptual apprehension may be possible. But either it will not be expressible conceptually at all, or one will have to claim that some concepts point more adequately towards its nature than others.

In speaking of nirvana, Madhyamaka theorists are speaking of the one and only reality, as apprehended by one who has transcended the illusions bred by desire. Apprehended as such, it is an experience of bliss, tranquillity, and compassion, even though transcending the ordinary meanings of these terms. The testimony of Buddhist sages is that such experience is possible and does occur. But what does it show about the character of ultimate reality? What it shows is that the pursuit of rigorous techniques of emptying the mind of conceptual content, of visualizing all beings as objects of compassion and of dissolving consciousness into a flow of transient elements can lead to a non-conceptual awareness of experience as a flow of elements allied with a profound feeling of compassion. But is that really surprising? One achieves what the practices one uses are precisely devised to achieve. One does not apprehend what those practices are precisely devised to eliminate as secondary or illusory. It is only if one antecedently believes that the result of these practices will result in an apprehension of reality in its true character that one will take them to do so.

In saying this, I am not meaning in any way to devalue Buddhist spirituality. The same point will apply to theists and indeed to forms of Pure Land Buddhism which visualize and subsequently experience visions of Buddhas in their pure Buddha-fields. The point is an epistemological one: that one's initial conceptual analysis and one's method of spiritual practice will largely govern the ‘objects’ of subsequent spiritual apprehension. As Steven Katz has argued forcefully, ‘Experiences themselves are inescapably shaped by prior linguistic influences such that the lived experience conforms to a pre-existent pattern that has been learned, then intended, and then actualized in the experiential reality.’122

The Buddhist might say that he knows his account is correct, because the omniscient (at least omniscient with regard to the path of enlightenment) Buddhas teach it from their own knowledge. But, since there are no Buddhas physically living now in this impure world, this is simply a belief on authority. That is, one believes it to be true, on faith, that the Buddha had correct knowledge of how things are. However, Christians believe it to be true, on faith, that Christ had correct knowledge of how things are. And the two views conflict dramatically. What one must proceed to do is to investigate the grounds upon which these individuals are believed to have correct knowledge. Among these grounds will certainly be the basic metaphysical scheme of non-dualism, karma and rebirth in the Buddhist case. One must also try to assess such empirical claims to the possession of supernatural powers, such as that Bodhisattvas at the third stage of meditation can fly, remember their previous births, know the thoughts of others, see Buddhas in other Buddha-fields, live for a hundred aeons and emanate the bodies of Bodhisattvas or appear in different forms and bodies at will.123 To the extent that such claims are thought to represent mythological embellishments, one might be relatively more sceptical about the total accuracy of claims to discern the nature of reality correctly. It may not lead one to doubt the occurrence of intense spiritual experience; but it will lessen the authority of cognitive claims based on such experience, if one takes them to be made in a context of fantastic embellishment.

From a theistic viewpoint, it will seem to be false that there is no enduring Self and that there is no permanent and non-contingent reality—for God is precisely such a reality. But one can begin to see how it is that Buddhists, engaging in profound moral and spiritual self-discipline, fail to encounter God and are not the recipients of revelation from an objective God. Neither the Self nor God are evident objects of direct experience, and if one is not prepared to interpret one's experience in terms of encounter with a substantial personal being, such an encounter is extremely unlikely to occur or to be recognized for what it is. If one aims in meditation to cut off all desires and attachments, then the idea of the world as a good creation will not occur, and its arising must be put down to a fall into desire and ignorance, not a willed and good act. If one insists that the non-dual experience is an experience of the Ultimately Real, then one will discount any experiences of a divine being as expressing a lower level of development, as parts of the illusion of samsara, to be transcended rather than embraced. For Buddhists, the whole idea of a person as a substantial entity is a conceptual construct, and the idea of action, being bound up with the notion of desire, is seen as an imperfection. If there is an unconditioned reality, as the Theravadin tradition asserts, it must be without desire and without the sort of action which springs from desire. It cannot be restricted to the ultimately falsifying structure of our mental constructs. Given these conceptual presuppositions, it could at best be an imperfect stage of development to encounter a personal and active God.

So the whole Buddhist world-view and discipline leads away from theism. Nevertheless, even in its Madhyamaka form, for which any Absolute is denied, reality is taken to be very different from the way it appears to the senses and the conceptualizing mind. It has the character of wisdom, compassion, and bliss, though these are not properties of any finite mind or state of human consciousness. They are characteristics of reality itself, when rightly apprehended. At an admittedly rather abstract level, this is not as different as might at first seem to be the case from the theistic, beatific vision of a God who possesses supreme wisdom, compassion, and bliss, and who is immediately present to all finite entities.

14. The Dharmakaya

There are interpretations of nirvana in Mahayana thought, especially in some Chinese and Japanese schools, which are even more analogous to theism. The Mahayana Mahaparinirvana Sutra contains a doctrine of the tathagatagarbha or Buddha-essence. According to this doctrine, all sentient beings contain the Buddha-essence, which is destined to come to full realization at some time. It is not that some people might one day, through great exertion, attain to enlightenment. On the contrary, everyone is already a Buddha, though the vast majority do not realize the fact. Enlightenment is a matter of coming to realize one's eternal Buddha-essence, to free it from the defilements of greed, hatred, and ignorance.

There are many interpretations of what is meant by the Buddha-essence. Paul Williams points out, however, that the Sutra clearly teaches a ‘really existing, permanent element in sentient beings’.124 As a Tibetan Buddhist himself, he writes that the Jo nang pa school of Tibetan Buddhism takes this teaching literally, asserting that ‘there is an ultimate reality, an Absolute, something which really inherently exists. It is eternal, unchanging, an element which exists in all sentient beings.’125 This Absolute is identified with the Dharmakaya, or Cosmic Body of the Buddha. As such, it is one uncreated, unchanging, simple, and ineffable reality, the Absolute of which all things are manifestations, even if somehow trapped in the defilements of egoism. It is the fundamental nature of the universe itself; and it is not surprising that some commentators regard it as one possible notion of what theists might term God. Although this view is only found in some schools of Buddhism, it has been very influential in China and Japan. Williams says: ‘It is impossible to underestimate, in my opinion, the importance of the Buddha-essence theory… for East Asian Buddhism.’126 It finds a very influential expression in the Lotus Sutra which, Williams remarks, ‘for many East Asian Buddhists since early times… is the nearest Buddhist equivalent to a bible’.127

Some scholars date most of the text to the end of the second century CE. For its adherents, this Sutra was the final teaching of the Buddha, representing the highest insights of Buddhism. It introduces the Bodhisattva ideal of compassionate action for all sentient beings until they attain release, and the idea that all pure and wise beings will become Buddhas.128 It stresses the authoritative nature of the Buddha's teaching, which is incomprehensible to normal human persons, beyond reason, and unreachable even by the highest of other beings.129 Moreover, this revealed doctrine does not originate with Siddhartha, who is shown to be only one of myriad Buddhas, existing throughout countless aeons and in countless universes. By all of them the Lotus Sutra is preached. Thus, like many other Scriptures of the world, it comes to have the status, not of the teaching of one wise man, but of an eternal teaching, mediated through or ‘seen by’ a holy teacher rather than simply promulgated by him. Its authority is the authority of eternal truth; and so it is rightly worshipped, honoured with incense, flowers, and by chants. Even one stanza kept in the memory suffices to lead to enlightenment, and more immediately to give one rebirth in a Pure Land, a land without women or sex.130

Moreover, its doctrine of the Buddha, though exceptionally complex, undoubtedly constitutes an apotheosis of Siddhartha. Stanza 3 speaks of him as the ‘father of the world’, mighty in power, compassionate to all. He is the great physician131 and the light of the world, the saviour of all mortals.132 ‘In the whole universe there is not a single spot… where the Buddha has not surrendered his body for the sake of creatures.’133 Even more astonishingly, it is said that the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas have the power of creating their own Buddha-fields, and in the remarkable stanza 15 the Lord Buddha says:

I arrived at perfect enlightenment numberless aeons ago… I preached in innumerable worlds… I created all this to preach the law. The Tathagata [a title of the Buddha] sees the world as unborn, undying… he is unlimited in the duration of his life, he is everlasting… I announce final extinction, though myself I do not become finally extinct… I shall live innumerable aeons to come.

This stanza in particular has been the subject, not surprisingly, of intense debate. Some schools find in it a clear statement of the Dharmakaya or Cosmic Body of the Buddha as an everlasting Absolute Reality. This everlasting, uncreated ‘body’ can manifest in a second form, the Sambhogikakaya, or body of complete enjoyment. It is a physical body, but not the sort of gross matter found on the earthly plane. It is the glorified body of the Buddha, appearing on a lotus throne in a Pure Land and preaching the dharma. It is from such a glorified body that the Lotus Sutra is said to derive, as it is heard from those who attain, by their own meditations, to the presence of such a Buddha in one of many Buddha-fields. In this scheme of thought, the earthly person of Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha for this world-period on this earthly plane, is a nairmanikakaya,134 a transformation body. The earthly Buddha is seen as an appearance for the sake of those on this plane who seek enlightenment. In the fully fledged cosmology of these Buddhist schools, there are innumerable ‘earthly Buddhas’, on innumerable planes of being, of which this is one of the lowest. They are manifestations of the glorified bodies which live in, and even create by thought, their own Pure Lands of enjoyment and purity. And they in turn are manifestations of the one primal Buddha-nature, which is the Absolute Reality of unborn, unchanging, bliss. Commentators like Paul Williams think that this cosmology is a conflation of the Lotus teaching with the thinking of Tendai, a sixth-century CE Chinese school. In his view, the Sutra itself still teaches a Buddha with a very long existence but not literally eternal existence (which would begin to sound very like the doctrine of an eternal Self).135

I doubt whether the Sutra is susceptible of one unambiguous interpretation. The Buddha is certainly said to have arrived at enlightenment many aeons ago, and so was a man who through ascetic practice became a Buddha. Yet can one truly become a Buddha, since there is, in reality, no one to become anything and nirvana, being changeless, cannot be changed by the entry of anyone into it? The Buddha, in so far as he is a Buddha, did not begin to be; and in so far as he was involved in samsara, was not truly existent—‘all things have been declared to be non-existing, not appearing, not produced, void, immovable, everlasting’.136 Are not all the Buddhas then bound to be identical, since there is no form of duality to divide them one from another? And are not the earthly Buddhas just appearances of the Unchanging, without subsistent reality?

This seems to be the implication of the mysterious doctrine of the ‘finally extinct’ Buddhas who nevertheless still appear. In stanza II a previously unknown Buddha, Prabhutaratna, appears in a huge stupa (a burial mound, in which relics are kept). He is said to be finally extinct; yet he speaks and says that he has come to hear the Lotus Sutra recited: ‘the seer, though completely extinct, is awake’. In other stanzas, the Buddha says, ‘I stay under different names in other worlds’,137 and sends phantasms to help the preachers of this Sutra.138 Here the paradox of nirvana which is extinction and yet is also omniscience and supreme bliss (at least according to the Lotus Sutra) is given concrete expression in a Buddha who is both finally extinct and yet omniscient. It is hard not to see in this the doctrine that there is a primal cosmic Buddha-nature, from which in some sense all worlds emanate and to which they return when the veil of samsara is drawn aside. For, after all, ‘when creatures behold this world and imagine that it is burning, even then my Buddha-field is teeming with gods and men’.139 What is finally extinct at the level of samsara is eternally awake at the level of nirvana. Thus the cosmic Buddha and the infinite worlds of samsara are identical. In them, the Buddhas appear as manifestations of the Real among the forms of dreams, mirages, or echoes,140 whether in glorious bodies in Pure Buddha Lands or in earthly bodies, very rarely, in the impure realms of desire.

Although in a sense the Dharmakaya can be said to ‘create’ worlds (stanza 11, where innumerable Buddhas and their fields are creations of Siddhartha); and though in the Karandavyuha Sutra the Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara is said to have created this world and all its gods,141 nevertheless the Lotus Sutra denies a doctrine of creation. Stanza 5 asserts that laws are not derived from an intelligent cause; they have no purpose, but are like bubbles, evanescent and transient in being, without inherent existence. The origin of this world with its mass of ills is a mystery for Buddhist thought, but it certainly cannot be seen as planned by an intelligent mind. Here is a sharp perception of the horror of suffering—though again the paradox is that this world is also the pure bliss of nirvana, and in it innumerable beings can be brought to endless bliss.

Schools of Mahayana thus vary enormously. On the one hand, there are relatively ‘thin’ doctrines of an awareness of the falsifying nature of our conceptual structures with the aim of resting calmly and without attachment in the pure flow of fundamental experienced elements. On the other, there is the ‘rich’ doctrine of a Cosmic Body of bliss, omniscience, and compassion, from which emanate endless worlds of suffering, with the aim of bringing all finite beings to Release by realizing the germ of the Buddha-nature (the tathagatagarbha) within themselves. In most of the richer versions, there are Bodhisattvas in paradisaical worlds who actively help on the way to Release. So stanza 24 of the Lotus Sutra is one of the most popular of all, teaching that Avalokitesvara will save one from danger if one simply calls upon his name. In this strand, the Mahayana traditions contain clear evidence of an experience of grace (of the active help of the heavenly Bodhisattvas), of personal faith (most clearly, but not only, in devotion to Amitabha in the Yodo-Shin-Shu school), and of something very like a Cosmic Mind which seeks to bring all beings into union with itself (most clearly in the traditions influenced by The Awakening of Faith in the Mahayana142).

The ultimate goal of nirvana can be conceived in various ways. It may be thought of as a permanent state of bliss, other than all conditioned elements of the world. It may be seen as this world, when apprehended by a mind free of the illusion produced by desire. It may be perceived as the realization of ultimate unity with a Cosmic Absolute, omniscient and all-compassionate. Underlying these differences, there is the common belief that it is possible to be liberated from this realm of desire and suffering, to apprehend supreme bliss and wisdom. It is not implausible to suggest that theism, in its classical Western forms, offers yet another interpretation of that ultimate goal, characterizing the Supreme Reality of bliss and wisdom by the use of the concept of God.

Buddhism did not take the theistic path. One can understand why this is, when the Buddhist philosophy is seen against the religious context from which it sprang. It began from a rejection of what was perceived as the authoritarian moralism of Brahmin social codes and of what was seen as an overly anthropomorphic representation of the gods. It located the heart of religion in a personal quest for liberation from selfish attachment, not in ritual performances or the casting of magical spells and the use of oracular fortune-telling. In rejecting the doctrine of inherent substance it pursued the course of the relativization of the gods which had already begun in sophisticated strands of Hinduism. The gods (the most real of finite beings) became, not subsistent beings, but aspects of an inclusive reality beyond them all. When the last personalization of the gods is transcended, one finds the confluence of Being and Emptiness which is the true nature of things. In rejecting the final importance of action as a characteristic of the ultimately real, Buddhism pursued the recognition of life as bondage to suffering which had arisen in the Indian tradition. When the last physical representation of finite life in heaven is transcended, one finds the confluence of Bliss and Extinction which is nirvana.

An understanding of the paths by which Buddhism developed its manifold forms helps the theist to see how such a non-theistic faith is nevertheless a genuine exploration of a deep spirituality, a quest for self-transcendence in the pursuit of what is of supreme value. Its value as a complement to theism lies in its firm grasp of the fact that liberation from selfish desire is the heart of religion. Religions must be assessed at least in part in terms of their effectiveness towards that end. One importance of Buddhism lies in its criticism of authoritarian and anthropomorphic practices and images, and in its recognition of the inadequacy of the human mind to grasp ultimate realities in their own being.

Manifold differences between theistic and Buddhist interpretations remain, but often the internal differences between schools of Buddhism and of theism are as important as those between Buddhism and theism as such. No one should claim that all these schools are really saying the same thing. But it is significant that they can intelligibly be seen to be pursuing a common quest, not to be walking in wholly different directions. They also have an idea of their goal which shares a notion of supreme value, however agnostically qualified. One can hardly say that Buddhists worship the same God as Jews, since they disclaim any particular interest in a god. However, one can say that they seek release from selfish desire, and a state of tranquillity and bliss which cannot be described in terms of conditioned reality. Might not Jews rightly say that they also seek liberation from selfish desire in all its forms, through knowledge of a God of whom no image can rightly be made, whether materially or conceptually? The forms of religious life are very different, but some of its central elements are very similar. From a theistic point of view, the Buddhist way affirms the primacy of the practical, in religious life. The goal of liberation from attachment and a personal realization of wisdom, compassion, and bliss takes precedence over any requirement of assent to ‘correct’ beliefs. The source of religious revelation is located in the attainment of such a goal, and its primary function is to offer the most skilful means to lead others towards it. That seems to me an emphasis from which the Semitic tradition can profit, and of which it greatly stands in need.


15. The Transcendence of God

Buddhism universalizes Hinduism, with its teaching of an ultimate goal of supreme value, to be attained by the discipline of non-attachment. Islam universalizes Judaism, with its law of wholeness and justice, and the promise of relationship to a God of supreme value, to be attained by obedience. The problem Buddhism poses for Christian theologians is its apparent lack of any Divine revelation. I have tried to ease this problem by suggesting that the historical and conceptual background of Buddhism militates against the idea of a personal, active God. Though theists must see this as an incomplete apprehension of reality, nonetheless, Buddhism offers a positive complement to Christianity in its rigorous development of a non-authoritarian path of renunciation, leading to awareness of an unconditioned reality of wisdom, compassion, and joy. The problem Islam poses for Christian theologians is different. Islam has a very clear notion of Divine revelation; but it conflicts with Christian revelation at a number of crucial points. This conflict is especially apparent in the case of three central Christian doctrines—the incarnation of God in the person of Jesus; atonement for human sin by the death of Jesus; and the concept of God as Trinity. How is it possible for such basic conflicts to exist, if God does indeed desire one revelation to be accepted by all? Apparently, God has not given an unambiguous revelation and preserved it unequivocally from error. God has permitted many alleged competing revelations to have currency in the modern world. How does this fact modify one's account of the nature of revelation? In this section on Islam, I will concentrate on two of these main areas of doctrinal conflict, the ideas of incarnation and atonement, since I think such reflection suggests further insights into the nature and scope of Divine revelation. Treatment of the doctrines themselves, from within a Christian context, will be undertaken in Part IV. It will then take into account in a more complete way some of the points raised here. For the present, it will be presupposed that the doctrines are central to and even definitive of Christianity in anything like its traditional form.

Islam is a clear case of a propositional revelation. In Arabic there exists a distinction between ilham or inspiration, tanzil, or sending-down, and wahy or prophetic rapture. Ilham can come to any holy person, and is thought of as a raising of natural human insights and creative gifts to a higher level. In this way great theologians may be inspired by God; but what they declare is still a matter of human judgement and derives from a specially gifted human nature. Wahy is found in visions or in words that come to prophets. It is sometimes said to occur in three modes.143 The first is the inspiring of an idea; it is wahy khafi, or inner revelation. It does not come in distinct words, but as an inspiration which puts an idea into the mind. The second is ‘revelation from behind a veil’; that is, in dreams, visions, or trances. Both these kinds of revelation can come to anyone. The third kind comes to prophets alone, and that is wahy matluww, or revelation recited in words. Such revelation comes, according to the Koran, to every prophet of every nation.

The greatest form of revelation is tanzil, which is applied only to the Koran, and which is a sending-down of Divine truth into a human mind. According to Muslim tradition, the Koran (literally, ‘Recitation’) descended in one night—the Night of Destiny—into the soul of Muhammad, to be called forth thereafter bit by bit by the circumstances of his life. As he meditated in the cave at Jabal Nur, his soul was ordered by God to express the uncreated Koran. When he was under the burden of inspiration thereafter, he either heard words dictated by the angel Gabriel or ‘a bell ringing and penetrating me’; an experience which was apparently painful and which produced observable phenomena like a vast increase in weight, which made camels buckle under the prophet.

The Holy Koran was thus a teaching from God given verbally to the Prophet Muhammad.144 It was memorized by him and recited to his followers, who, according to tradition, wrote down the verses just as they heard them. They were arranged and edited later, the standard edition being promulgated about twenty years after the death of the Prophet by the third caliph (successor as leader of the household of faith) ’Uthman. The prophet's claim was that he had not invented them, but heard them during his visionary experiences. The passivity of the Prophet before the speaking of God, through an angelic intermediary, is clearly attested. Of course, Muhammad is believed to have been an appropriate person to be a prophet, and his life is taken as exemplary by Muslims, to be a pattern of human perfection. Yet the message is not seen as a product of the Prophet's wisdom, insight, or sanctity; Muhammad is referred to as the ‘unlettered prophet’,145 to emphasize that the Koran is not written by the Prophet: ‘This Koran is not such as can be produced by other than God.’146 God may have chosen him partly because of his wisdom, insight, and sanctity; but it is God who speaks and the Prophet who hears and recites what he hears.

There is consequently little interest in God's self-revelation in history in Islam, since God gives a perfect revelation in the Koran. The Koran is not a record of Divine providence in the history of a particular people, even though the Prophet and his followers were believed to be providentially guided. Of course the success of Islam is seen as a sign of Divine blessing, but the sort of providential interpretation of history which is found in the Hebrew Bible is not of primary importance in the Koran. There is a stress on the whole of history being the product of the Divine will; and there is an important doctrine of nature giving ay at, or signs of God. But whereas within Judaism, in the notion of the election of a covenant people, there was always the possibility of the Divine manifesting itself in a holy community or in a person who would represent that community, in Islam the Prophet does not express God; he is a channel through whom God speaks. Thus the gulf between the world and God remains absolute and no finite thing can be associated with God in any way—the grievous sin of shirk is that of associating any other thing with God. One of the most frequently mentioned sins is that of associating ‘partners’ with God. ‘To set up partners with God is to devise a sin most heinous indeed.’147

It is difficult to say exactly in what this sin consists, or what is meant by a ‘partner’. It seems clear enough that if one is an out-and-out polytheist, worshipping many gods; or if one worships the stars, moon, or sun themselves,148 then one is associating partners with God. The moral dimension of such condemnation finds an echo149 when it is said that, ‘Their partners made alluring the slaughter of their children’. Again, it seems that what is condemned is a concern with the good things of this world, a lack of concern for others or for eternal truths: ‘You have taken idols besides God, out of mutual love and regard between yourselves in this life.’150 The total worship of the one and only creator God would be compromised by the practice mentioned in Sura 6: ‘They falsely… attribute to Him sons and daughters… how can He have a son when He has no consort?’151

However, the mention of that passage at once raises the difficult question of whether Christians are to be thought of as associating a partner with God, when they worship Jesus. The attitude of the Koran seems to vary between condemnation and approbation of Christianity, though Muslim commentators have tended to stress the condemnation most. The condemnation is clear enough: ‘Jews call Ezra a son of God… Christians call Christ the son of God… God's curse be on them.’152 This passage continues: ‘They take their priests and anchorites to be their lords in derogation of God… far is He from having the partners they associate with him.’ However, there are no orthodox Jews who call Ezra a son of God in any sense of giving him worship; and no orthodox Christians who would worship an anchorite, however saintly. So it may seem that only those who are so ignorant as to confuse human beings and God are here being condemned.

But could one not accuse Christians of precisely that confusion? ‘In blasphemy indeed are those that say that God is Christ the son of Mary.’153 This too, however, is not straightforward. Any Christian who said that God, tout court, was Jesus, would certainly be mistaken and heretical. The important Koranic truth is that there is only one creator God, and that only God should be worshipped. With this all orthodox Christians would heartily agree, of course. They do not think that Jesus was the creator of heaven and earth, any more than they think the Son is the Father. However, if Christians should not say that God is Jesus (meaning, nothing but Jesus), they do say that Jesus is God; more precisely, the Word of God, who is one with God the Creator. The Koran is to say the least uneasy about this identification. One reason for thinking that this is not to be regarded as the obvious blasphemy of shirk, however, is that the Koran repeatedly teaches that the People of the Book will have nothing to fear from God and will have a portion in the Hereafter. Muhammad seemed to regard Christians as confused rather than actually blasphemous.

Muslim apologists such as the fourteenth-century Ibn Taymiyya of Damascus interpret the Koran as accepting Christians who lived before hearing of Islam, but condemning those who remain Christians after hearing of it.154 This, however, is a matter of interpretation which would be contested by other Muslim scholars; and it is hard to square with some Koranic teaching. Sura 42, for example, says, ‘For us our deeds and for you your deeds. There is no contention between us and you. God will bring us together, and to him is our final goal.’155 There is a tone of tolerance and conciliation here which is absent in Ibn Taymiyya's insistence on the righteousness of destroying or closing Christian churches as places of idolatrous worship. It must be said that, within both Islam and Christianity, mutual condemnations, deriving from a sense that the true revelation is being arrogantly rejected by infidels, have been more common than a search for tolerance and understanding. One of the points I am seeking to make is that there are other possibilities within each tradition, which might be, and which are being, profitably explored.

Nevertheless, the belief that Jesus is the son of God is repeatedly condemned. ‘They say, “God most gracious has begotten a son!” Indeed ye have put forth a thing most monstrous! At it the skies are ready to burst, the earth to split asunder and the mountains to fall down in utter ruin, that they should invoke a son for [God] most gracious.’156 This is condemnation in the strongest terms; and yet the Koran itself does not draw back from referring to Jesus as a (but certainly not the) Word of God. A key passage is: ‘Christ Jesus the son of Mary was an apostle of God and His Word which he bestowed on Mary and a Spirit proceeding from him… say not “Trinity”, desist… for God is one God; (far exalted is he) above having a son.’157 This is a very interesting passage, since Jesus is referred to as a Word from God and a Spirit from God. The idea of God issuing a Word can be readily assimilated to Koranic modes of thought; for at the creation God says ‘Be’ and it is; so at the birth of Jesus he said to him ‘Be’ and he was.158 So God's will could be expressed in a Word from him—though it is not too clear how a human being could be identical with such a Word. The idea of God having a son, however, was deeply inimical to Muhammad, perhaps because he was fighting against the sort of Arabic polytheism which gives God sons and daughters, who were additional and distinct deities. This thought comes to the fore in the fifth chapter: ‘Didst thou say unto men, worship me and my mother as gods in derogation of God?’159 What is condemned is worshipping Jesus as another god, a son distinct from the creator God—the Jesus who figured in Arianism, who was the first-born of all creation and yet still another than God, since ‘there was when he was not’. It is possible, then, that what is being condemned is Arian Christology, according to which one can worship a creature who is other than God but who is honorifically called his Son. This seems to be confirmed by the statement: ‘It is not possible that a man… should say to the people, “Be ye my worshippers rather than God's.”’160 For Christians do not hold that they should worship Jesus rather than God. In worshipping him as the Son, they worship him as the manifestation or expression of God himself, in his aspect as the Word.

The Koran, however, regards having a son as dishonouring to God: ‘They say, “God hath begotten a son”: glory be to Him! He is self-sufficient! His are all things in the heavens and on earth.’161 God is so self-sufficient that he stands in no need of a son; and, since God possesses all things, he cannot stand in a special relation of possession to just one person, Jesus. But it must be quite clear that Christians agree that there is only one Creator to whom belong all things in heaven and earth, who is supremely self-sufficient and to whom alone worship is due. It is also clear, however, that Christians do worship Jesus Christ; from which it follows that Jesus must be in some sense identical with the one supreme God. In worshipping Jesus one does not worship another than God; one simply worships God. It is not surprising that Muslims find this puzzling and in the end unacceptable. What is needed is some way of showing how Jesus can be a human person and yet also be Divine; and many have found this a hopeless task. Nevertheless, it must be clear that Christians do not worship a creature rather than God. It is not a question of putting self or the worship of money or the worship of demons in place of the worship of God. Further, Christians do not reduce God to the human Jesus; during the life of Jesus God still rules as the one and only creator and sustainer of all things. Rather, they identify the human Jesus with God the Son, or God the Word (for Christians these expressions are interchangeable and, both being metaphorical, do not have fundamentally different meanings) and worship him only because he has, uniquely among human beings, that identity.

It is repeatedly stated in the Koran that Jesus is no more than an apostle, so there can be no question that Islam repudiates the doctrine of the Divinity of Christ. However, the statement that Jesus is a Word from God is suggestive of a subtler and less condemnatory view of the relation between Divine and human. For Christians there is no physical paternity on the part of God, and the virginal conception (which Muslims accept) does not entail any such thing. Christians would reject as vehemently as Muslims any thought that God begets a son by procreating with a consort. Jesus is truly human. But is it possible that there might be a closer relation between God and humanity than that of Creator with creatures? If the Word that God speaks is both the act and intention of God, by which things are called into being, there is room for the belief that God's Word, as the Divine intention, is not distinct from God in the same way that created things are. It is precisely a manifestation and expression of the Divine Being, as a thought might be the expression of a mind.

Words are distinguished from objects by having a meaning. One might say that, as parts of the finite world, as sounds or marks on paper, words are created objects. Yet precisely in so far as they carry meaning, they express something of the one who speaks. The Koran itself is the Word of God; and as such, has often been seen by Muslims as a physical image of the eternal Koran in the mind of God. Thus there is in Islam the idea of a finite image of an eternal and Divine reality. This is found primarily in the Koran itself; but there are hadith (traditions of the Prophet) which speak of the Prophet himself as a living Koran. It is held by some Muslim scholars that at one point in the Koran itself the Prophet and the Koran are in some sense identified.162 This never, of course, becomes a doctrine of the Prophet's Divinity, and neither the Koran nor the Prophet could be regarded as objects of worship. Nonetheless, one can see how an image of the eternal would be more than an object wholly dependent upon God; more, even than signs (ayat) sent by God to show the Divine power or glory. It would be a manifestation of the Divine will. If the Christian doctrine of the status of Jesus begins with such analogies as these— that Jesus is the finite image of the eternal Father—then it would come reasonably close to the Koranic statement that Jesus is a ‘Word from God’. However, the Christian view clearly goes a great deal farther in taking the image to be worthy of worship, as identical with God and not only truly descriptive of God.

A deep difference exists between Islam and Christianity as to whether it is proper to worship Jesus Christ. The Muslim view stresses the utter transcendence of God, and denies that there can be any form of union between Creator and creature. Christians, however, claim that Jesus imaged and expressed the Divine Being and Will. He was united to God in such an intimate manner as to be the complete expression in human terms of what God is. It is therefore proper to worship him, as the express image of the invisible God—not as a distinct being other than God, but precisely as God manifest in a human life. The difference is, most fundamentally, about the possible forms of relationship of God to creation. The question to be asked is: is God totally transcendent, other than the created order? Or can God unite parts of the created order to the Divine Being, making them expressions of the Divine? Once the difference is located in differing answers to this question, it can at least become clear, and perhaps mutually accepted, that Christians are not intending to worship another than God. They are not denying the unity and proper sovereignty of God. They are not putting another in God's place, or seeking to blaspheme, mock, or insult God. There is a case for saying that the Koranic condemnation is of a view which would make God like the polytheistic fathers of divine dynasties, like Zeus or Jupiter. This would dishonour God, as the one and only Creator, in need of nothing, having no equals, the only omnipotent ruler of the world. A careful statement of the Christian case, however, escapes this condemnation. It will not produce agreement with Islam. However, it may succeed in rebutting the charge of idolatry, and thus lay the foundation for greater respect between these two great religious traditions.

16. Atonement

The doctrine of incarnation is rejected by Islam because it seems to compromise the utter transcendence and sovereignty of God. A second main Christian doctrine, that the death of Jesus atones for the sins of the world, is rejected because it seems to compromise the absolute justice of God. Among the beliefs rejected are that all humans are in a state of ‘original sin’, from which they need redemption; that one man can atone for another's sins; and that God requires more than sincere repentance in order to forgive sinners. Partly because of the rejection of these beliefs, it is regarded as quite unacceptable that a true prophet, as Jesus was, should die a criminal's death. Thus it is almost universally held by Muslims that Jesus did not die on the cross, but was immediately raised to the presence of God, where he lives, awaiting his return to defeat the Antichrist and to confirm the true faith of Islam.

When one comes to examine the puzzling and much discussed Koranic phrase, ‘They killed him not nor crucified him, but so it was made to appear to them (shubbiha la-hum)… God raised him up unto himself’,163 one could interpret this as saying that Jesus did not pass into non-existence on the cross. He continued in conscious existence and ascended to God—a fact which Muslims confess. So, whereas the Jews thought they had consigned Jesus to the world of the dead at least until the final day of resurrection, they were mistaken in this belief, since Jesus was raised to the presence of God. Geoffrey Parrinder favours this interpretation.164 Moreover, Neal Robinson mentions the argument of Catholicos Timothy that what the Koran denies is the Jews’ claim that they killed Jesus; whereas his death was, unknown to them, by the foreordained will of God.165 Nevertheless, the general Muslim interpretation of this text is straightforwardly that Jesus was not actually crucified at all. Ancient traditions, one traced back to a Companion of the Prophet, Ibn-Abbas, state that Jesus’ semblance was projected on to a volunteer while Jesus himself escaped. This tradition that another was crucified in Jesus’ place may owe something to the gnostic belief that Simon of Cyrene was crucified in Jesus’ place; but its actual provenance has not been established. The theological point is that, from a Muslim point of view, it is unthinkable that a true prophet should suffer an ignominious death; so what is important is the ascension of Jesus, his death being only an ‘appearance’.

The death of Jesus does not have the importance for Islam that it does for Christianity; it has no atoning significance, and this is a major difference of interpretation. For Christians, Jesus was not overcome by death; he died and was raised from death, and in that sense his experience of death was unlike that of anyone else. There is a difference between the New Testament and the Koran and it cannot be glossed over. But it is not just a rank contradiction. It expresses in each case a struggle to comprehend the passing-away of a great prophet, whom both religions call Messiah, and to comprehend his status before God. The Koranic view does not express any understanding of Jesus as an incarnation of God and cannot accept the idea of the death of God; but it celebrates the prophethood of Jesus and the fact that his story did not end in death. Acceptance of the inalienable and all-determining power of God makes it very difficult for Muslims to accept the idea of a vindication of Divine love in a freely accepted death at the hands of human beings.

Thus the central Christian idea of atonement is alien to Muslim thought. The Koran teaches that ‘every soul draws the meed of its acts on none but itself: no bearer of burdens can bear the burden of another’.166 At the Judgement, each soul will be punished or rewarded for what it has done: ‘Then shall every soul be paid what it earned.’167 This sounds a very severe doctrine, and it contrasts with the Christian claim that no one can stand justified in the presence of God. For Islam, it is possible for persons not only to do all that they ought, but to do more than they strictly ought, so that they can merit the reward of Paradise.

The idea of original sin is absent in Islam. Indeed, it is seen as a main defect in Christian ethics that Christians morally require people to do what is impossible. One twentieth-century polemical writer speaks of a ‘hideous schizophrenia’ which Christianity introduces into the world by confining true religion to monks and nuns, while the everyday world is lost to flagrant debauchery.168 The argument is that the ‘Sermon on the Mount’ of Matthew 5–7 is a perversion of Jesus’ teaching. It propounds grossly unrealistic ethics, requiring complete retreat from the world, pacificism, and inaction. In trying to follow such an inhuman way, the monastic orders were invented. But their heroic and absurd exertions only make the rest of the human race feel even greater failures. They lead most people to think that, since one is damned anyway, one may as well indulge in complete sensuality. Thus the accusation is made that Christianity undermines morality, both by making it much too difficult to obey, and by accusing people of sin, however hard they try to be good. Islam, it is said, by contrast, propounds a moral code which it is possible to obey, and thus it does not breed the sort of guilt which leads to a breakdown of moral order by reaction.

The Christian view of this would be that it is simply a statement of observed fact that human wills are so weak that they cannot live as God requires. There is a defect in human nature which makes it impossible for humans to reach their Divinely intended fulfilment by their own efforts. A perception that this is so, however, should not undermine moral striving. It should be a spur to greater moral effort, since God requires it, but also a reminder that such effort is not sufficient to realize the perfection that God wills. In this sense, Christianity is a religion of Divine grace, for which God supplies what human effort cannot—a form of loving relationship which renews and perfects human nature. Islam does not deny Divine compassion and forgiveness—far from it. But it nevertheless insists that all individuals are responsible for their own good and bad deeds. At the Day of Judgement, they will receive their reward in accordance with the strict dictates of Divine justice. Those who do wrong must pay, and no soul can bear the burden of another.

However, this strict doctrine is mitigated elsewhere. ‘Those who believe and work righteous deeds—from them shall we blot out all evil in them, and we shall reward them according to the best of their deeds.’169 God will not exact the strict punishment for evil; rather, ‘God forgives all sins’170 and gives a reward due to the best of what a person has done. God is above all merciful; and though each person is responsible for their own conduct, God forgives the penitent and rewards with greater generosity than could ever be demanded. Not only will God forgive sins; but ‘the angels celebrate the praises of their Lord and pray for forgiveness for beings on earth’.171 The apostle of God also promises to pray for the forgiveness of others.172 Since the Prophet's prayers cannot be for what is impossible or ineffective, it seems that the prayers of others—of angels and of the Prophet at least—can be effective in obtaining Divine forgiveness.

The natural way to take this is to think that prayer can aid other people to be penitent, to turn to God and so enable God to blot out their sins. It could be argued that humans all need help from others, and especially from those, like the angels and the Prophet, who are near to God. This thought may be developed in a direction which comes nearer to a Christian understanding of redemption. If one believes that the truest form of prayer is the offering of a life in obedience to God, then a Christian may see the life of Jesus as a pure and sinless self-offering to God, offered as a prayer for the forgiveness of human sin. As High Priest, Jesus offers his own perfect obedience as the most effective of all prayers for the forgiveness of human sin. In the New Testament words, he gives his blood (his life) as a prayer that sin may be blotted out. On this interpretation, the atonement is the reconciliation of humans to God by the blotting-out of evil and the renewing of human life by its fulfilment in God. Jesus’ self-offering, his sacrifice, is the prayer that this may be accomplished. Since, on the Christian view, the life of Jesus mediates the acts of God to humanity, the prayer effects what it requests. Through the self-giving life of Jesus, as it is represented in the community of the Church, God's forgiveness and renewal take effect.

Of course Muslims do not interpret Jesus’ life in this atoning way. My point is that there is an important place in Islam both for Divine forgiveness and for the efficacy of prayer in helping others to be united to God. On at least one interpretation, the Christian view of atonement can therefore be seen as a natural extension of these beliefs to see a perfectly obedient human life as an efficacious prayer for human forgiveness, in a way which does not undermine human responsibility or freedom. Some expressions of the doctrine of atonement would be much more difficult for a Muslim to accept. There have been views which speak of the necessity of a transaction between God and the Devil, whereby God pays a ransom to the Devil, only to deceive Satan by revealing that the ransom is his Son, whom the Devil cannot control. Islam is a protest against such strange views of Divine justice. It is a reminder to Christians that all forgiveness is freely given by God, that humans bear a moral responsibility for their conduct, and that one must not make views of atonement too legalistic or mechanical. At the same time, a Christian will feel that the form of Divine love shown in the life of Jesus is a decisive expression of the true mercy of God and that it accepts the reality of human evil and the extent of the Divine love in a way which a simple view of judgement as being rewarded or punished for one's own deeds does not. There is much room for a constructive discussion on these issues between Muslims and Christians.

Christians affirm that Jesus is the Saviour of the world; he is the one who leads humans out of evil to unity with God, precisely because God is active in him in a unique way to accomplish such liberation. It follows from the Muslim denial of the incarnation that Jesus could not be seen as a Saviour in this way. Only God can save from sin, and God does so by freely forgiving the penitent. Again it seems to be the Muslim stress on the utter sovereignty and power of God which leads to a difference in perception of the nature of human responsibility and the possibility of humans meeting the requirements of Divine justice. If one locates this difference in a common concern to honour God without reserve, to insist on human obedience to moral law, and to assert the possibility of Divine forgiveness for all, then it is plausible to see these two religious traditions as different ways of response to authentic Divine revelation.

17. Islam and Christianity

The idea that there can be different forms of response to Divine revelation is not strange to Islam. It is a central part of the Koranic view that God sends prophets to every nation: ‘Allah raised prophets bearing good news and warning and he revealed with them the Book with truth.’173 Muhammad did not really bring a new revelation. He repeated, corrected, and confirmed revelations which had been given to every people in some way. ‘To each among you have we prescribed a Law and an open way. If God had so willed, he would have made you a single people; but [his plan is] to test you in what he hath given you: so strive as in a race in all virtues. The goal of you all is to God; it is he that will show you the truth of the matters in which ye dispute.’174 Professor Fazlur Rahman comments on this verse that ‘the positive value of different religions and communities, then, is that they may compete with each other in goodness.’175 Every nation has had its prophet, and to them God has revealed the Book. Yet it is clear that Jewish, Christian, and Muslim books differ in a large number of details, explicitly contradicting one another quite often. A common Muslim resolution of this difficulty is to say that the earlier Books were corrupted, which is precisely why Muhammad gave the final and perfect revelation, without flaw. Jews and Christians both corrupted their received revelations, Jews by inventing all sorts of petty legalistic details and Christians by importing false philosophical notions from the Greeks. Islam preserves a pure, uncorrupted revelation. Yet there are other revelations, and while they are in themselves authentic, human responses to them have introduced deviations, disputes, and corruptions.

By this stage in a study of scriptural traditions, one rather expects each tradition to claim a pure, uncorrupted, primal revelation. One also learns to expect that such claims multiply within each tradition, so that one has many competing views as to what the uncorrupted revelation is within each tradition. This does not entail that there is no tradition which is pure and uncorrupted. It does, however, undermine claims to know with certainty that a particular tradition is pure. Moreover, if hundreds of traditions which claim to be pure are seen in fact to be affected by culturally derived forms of human response and acceptance, the probability becomes very high that one's own tradition, whatever it may be, will be similarly affected.

Thus an alternative interpretation to the traditional Muslim one suggests itself. All revelatory traditions, without exception, are subject to reception by human minds in particular historical and cultural settings. None are pure, or without any defect introduced by human understanding. There can be revelations in various cultures, and their interpretations are governed by a basic set of theological suppositions—in the case of Islam, about Divine transcendence, omnipotence, unity, and uniqueness. If God acts to influence but not to determine or overrule human minds, such background suppositions are unlikely to be overcome, though they may be modified and refined in various ways. For reasons to do with the historical circumstances of the prophetic calling of Muhammad, the Koran emphasizes the transcendence, unity, sovereignty, and power of God. In reaction to tribal polytheism in the Arabian peninsula, all talk of sons and daughters of God, who might divide Divine power between them and be worshipped as competitors with the Divine Father, is forbidden.176 This largely accounts for Muslim antipathy to the doctrine of God as Trinity. Thus when the Koran says, ‘They do blaspheme who say: God is one of three in a Trinity; for there is no God except one God’,177 it is polytheism which is forbidden. The Christian God is not in a Trinity; rather, God is a Divine Triad in himself. Moreover, this Triad certainly does not consist of God, Jesus, and Mary, as one passage has suggested to some.178 One might even say that the Koranic phrase, ‘He begetteth not, nor is he begotten’,179 could, strictly interpreted, be accepted by Christians, since God does not beget. It is the Father who begets the Son within God. The Divine Being itself begets no distinct Son, as some of the Arians apparently thought.

There can be no doubt that the Koran rejects Trinitarian views. There is a difference between Islam and Christianity about the nature of the God who is revealed in their respective Scriptures. Muslims see the doctrine of the Trinity as a later philosophically inspired corruption of strict biblical monotheism. Christians see Muslim rejection of the Trinity as based on a misunderstanding of the insight which Jesus gave into the nature of God as essentially love. This is bound up with the fact that Muslims see Jesus as a great prophet, worthy of great honour, whereas Christians see Jesus as a manifestation of the Divine Word, uniting human nature to Divine nature and so reconciling humans to God. That in turn relates to a differing perception of the relation of God to the world—whether God remains the transcendent Will, ordering all things by sovereign power; or whether God shares in created being and raises it to participate in the Divine Life by the persuasive power of love.

It may seem odd to suggest that God guides prophets to conflicting conclusions about such very basic truths. It is odd, if one thinks of God as inserting truths into human minds. If one thinks rather of a human mind, already stocked with concepts and with a tradition of prayer, being guided by God to fuller understanding, then such fuller understanding—say, of Divine unity, omnipotence, and transcendence—is quite compatible with a relative failure to understand other aspects of the Divine: participation of the world in God and Divine self-giving love, for example. One can even see how a strong sense of Divine unity and transcendence could inhibit the mind from any notion of incarnation. If such a notion was inadequately or misleadingly presented, it might well be rejected.

I have dealt with a fairly traditionalist interpretation of Islam, precisely because that is the most difficult for a Christian to appreciate. It would be misleading to leave unmentioned the tremendously influential movements of Sufism, which have arguably made a form of theistic mysticism more accessible to human communities than any other faith. Such movements espouse a life of devotion to God, with stages of spiritual ascent, leading from repentance and renunciation to a final stage of ‘annihilation’ (fana), in which the individual self seems to fade away and nothing remains but the face of God. This doctrine is based upon the Koranic assertion that ‘Everything [that exists] will perish except His own face’.180 In the highest state of spiritual exaltation, one's own self and all other things seem to become annihilated in the only real being, God. They have no independent existence, existing only by the power of God. Thus when they are most truly themselves, they become transparent to the only basis of their reality, which is God.

In a paradoxical way, the religion which most stresses the absolute transcendence and power of God has given rise to doctrines of an identity of God and creatures, when human minds are raised to such a contemplation of God that they come to embody the Divine reality in themselves. One of the best-known cases in Islam is the tenth-century al-Hallaj, who declared ‘Ana'l-Haqq’ (‘I am the Real’).181 Although al-Hallaj was put to death for this claim, it is a recurrent theme in some forms of Sufism that great saints or imams can achieve a sort of identity with Allah. The eleventh-century sage al-Ghazzali, who achieved a synthesis of Sufism and orthodoxy and is generally accepted as the greatest philosopher of Islam, is at pains to state that there is never an actual identity of the soul and God. ‘That [the experience of fana] had not been actual identity, but only something resembling identity,’ he says.182 Orthodox Islam naturally draws back from a doctrine of hulul, of Divine indwelling or incarnation. Yet such a notion is a constantly recurring feature of Muslim spirituality.

There are certainly strands of Islam which are sympathetic to the idea of some form of union between human and Divine. There are also strands (mostly in Shi'a schools) which stress the efficacy of martyrdom, or self-sacrifice, as a help to release others from evil and bring them to God. Christians can find in these strands analogies to some interpretations of incarnation and atonement. Thus it may be misleading simply to oppose Christianity and Islam as conflicting belief-systems. While they each have distinct cores of fundamental belief, there are many points of convergence and overlap which suggest not so much a set of blunt contradictions as a series of conceptual contrasts which arise from different origins, perspectives, and core interpretative concepts.

Christians can thus celebrate the Divine inspiration of the Koran as witnessing to Divine unity, power, and transcendence; and affirm that these truly are attributes of God which have been communicated through an active influence of God upon a particular human mind, raising it to heights of insight and aesthetic perfection. As such, the Koran can be taken by Christians as the Word of God somewhat as the Old Testament is. It could hardly be taken as a prophetic foreshadowing of Christ, of course, since Christians will probably see it as exhibiting a misunderstanding of important elements of the Christian gospel. Nevertheless, it can be regarded by Christians as more than a human construct. It is a profound spiritual response to Divine inspiration and a genuine medium of the Divine presence and power. Naturally, this account will not measure up to the assessment which a believing Muslim will have of the Koran. That, however, is just to accept that Christians and Muslims do have genuine disagreements in matters of belief.

Such disagreements will not, in the foreseeable future, be eliminated. An understanding of revelation as a Divine luring of the mind, however, will lead one to expect such a luring to be universal, so that no great tradition is without some insight into the Divine Being and purpose. It will lead one to expect that no one culture will produce a finally perfect expression of Divine truth, and to look for development within each tradition towards a more adequate view. Thus one will be encouraged to look at other traditions with empathetic understanding, to look at one's own tradition with critical awareness, and to develop a sense of the historical and cultural influences which shape all human beliefs. One will see each religious tradition, including one's own, as one among many continually changing, fallible, culturally influenced forms of life. Many of these forms have a common function, which is to overcome egoism and ignorance, and attain a supreme goal of intrinsic value. A particular religious community tends to be defined by its acceptance of a scriptural canon, which articulates a core concept of the supreme goal, as defined by the authoritative experience of a seminal teacher. Although there is a seemingly universal tendency to accept such a canon as a discrete, complete, and final revelation from a particular uncorrupted source, the reality seems to be that the canon represents a crucial self-defining stage in a complex, gradual, and developing process of experience, practice, and reflection.

Although one can simply regard different religions in terms of incompatible sets of beliefs, this is unjust to their complexity and internal diversity. They are grouped around core concepts of a final human goal which express different emphases and evaluations. Such differences can often be accounted for by noting their originative experiences and differing histories. The Semitic goal of a society of justice and peace, whether on this planet or in a resurrection-life, is complemented by the Indian goal of release from suffering by attainment of a state of bliss and pure intelligence. The fact that Buddhists seem to lack any sense of an objective God is balanced by their stress on the limitations of all human concepts and on the primary importance of obtaining liberation from self and the attainment of compassion and wisdom. Muslim rejection of the incarnation and atonement can be seen as arising from a positive emphasis on Divine transcendence and power. When the Christian faith is placed in its world historical context, these contrasts provide valuable insights into the distinctiveness of Christianity. In uncovering what Christians might properly regard as forms of Divine revelatory activity in different cultures, resources can be found to develop Christian theological thinking in more expansive ways. In seeking to discover the sources and limits of Christian revelation, the attempt to see revelation in its widest historical context provides a valuable indication of the sort of thing a Christian may justifiably wish to claim. In the next Part, I shall try to develop a Christian theology of revelation which takes into account and builds upon the analyses and arguments which have been presented so far.

  • 1.

    Isa. 60: 1–3.

  • 2.

    Seng-Ts'an, ‘Sin Sin Ming’ (‘Believing in Mind’), trans. A. Waley, in Buddhist Texts, ed. E. Conze (London: Cassirer, 1954), no. 211, p. 10.

  • 3.

    Mic. 6: 8.

  • 4.

    Num. 12: 5–8.

  • 5.

    Gen. 18: 1 ff.

  • 6.

    Ezek. 1: 26 ff.

  • 7.

    Exod. 34: 5.

  • 8.

    Exod. 33: 18–23.

  • 9.

    Gen. 12: 1–3.

  • 10.

    Maimonides, Guide for the Perplexed, trans. M. Friedlander (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1904), 311.

  • 11.

    Lev. 17.

  • 12.

    Lev. 7.

  • 13.

    Lev. 17.

  • 14.

    Num. 19.

  • 15.

    Lev. 13.

  • 16.

    Lev. 12.

  • 17.

    Lev. 21.

  • 18.

    Deut. 14.

  • 19.

    Lev. 19.

  • 20.

    Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger (London: Routledge, 1966), 53.

  • 21.

    ‘Fallen no more to rise is the virgin Israel’: Amos 5: 1; ‘Return, O virgin Israel, return to these your cities’: Jer. 31: 21; ‘As the bridegroom rejoices over the bride, so shall your God rejoice over you’: Isa. 62: 5.

  • 22.

    ‘I have taken your Law as my heritage for ever: for it is the joy of my heart’ (Ps. 119: in).

  • 23.

    Gen. 17.

  • 24.

    Deut. 14.

  • 25.

    Exod. 23; Lev. 25.

  • 26.

    Deut. 5.

  • 27.

    Lev. 1–7.

  • 28.

    Lev. 17: 11: ‘The life of the flesh is in the blood; and I have given it for you upon the altar to make atonement for your souls; for it is the blood that makes atonement, by reason of the life.’

  • 29.

    Deut. 14.

  • 30.

    Deut. 20: 16–18.

  • 31.

    Deut. 6: 5 and Lev. 19: 18.

  • 32.

    Deut. 25: 19.

  • 33.

    Deut. 24.

  • 34.

    Exod. ax.

  • 35.

    Deut. 19; Exod. 21; Lev. 24.

  • 36.

    Ps. 115: 17.

  • 37.

    Hab. 3: 4–15.

  • 38.

    Mic. 1: 3–4.

  • 39.

    Isa. 51: 9.

  • 40.

    Ezek. 1: 26–8.

  • 41.

    Isa. 40: 18.

  • 42.

    Gen. 3, 18.

  • 43.

    Exod. 20.

  • 44.

    Thus the model of revelation given at 1: 6 and 2: 10 is confirmed from yet another angle, by an interpretation of the Jewish Scriptures as the expression of the developing teaching of God.

  • 45.

    Cf. esp. Part IV, Sects. 5–7.

  • 46.

    The seven laws are: do not blaspheme; do not worship idols; do not murder; do not commit adultery; do not steal; establish courts of justice; do not eat a limb torn from a living animal. Tosefta, tractate Avoda Zarah, ch. 9, para. 4; and Norman Solomon, Judaism and World Religion (London: Macmillan, 1991), 226 ff.

  • 47.

    A fuller account is given in K. Ward, ‘Christian Ethics’, in G. Wainwright (ed.), Keeping the Faith (London: SPCK, 1989). Cf. also K. Ward, Ethics and Christianity (London: Allen and Unwin, 1970).

  • 48.

    Philo, ‘De Vita Contemplativa’, in Collected Works, trans. H. Colson, G. H. Whitaker, and R. Marcus (Loeb edn.; London: Heinemann, 1929–).

  • 49.

    An excellent introduction to Indian religions is by F. Hardy, in F. Hardy (ed.), The Religions of Asia (London: Routledge, 1990), 37–127.

  • 50.

    Cf. L. A. Babb, The Divine Hierarchy: Popular Hinduism in Central India (New York: Columbia University Press, 1975).

  • 51.

    Julius Lipner, The Face of Truth (London: Macmillan, 1986), ch. 1.

  • 52.

    Bhagavadgita, 18. 62: ‘Fly unto Him for refuge with all thy being, O Bharata; by His grace shalt thou obtain supreme peace (and) the eternal resting place’; trans. A. M. Sastry (Madras: Samata Books, 1977), 497.

  • 53.

    Cf. Hardy, The Religions of Asia, 51–6.

  • 54.

    D. Kopf, The Brahmo Samaj and the Shaping of the Modem Indian Mind (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1978).

  • 55.

    A helpful account of Vedantic views of verbal revelation is given in the first two chapters of Julius Lipner, The Face of Truth (London: Macmillan, 1986).

  • 56.

    Sankara, The Vedanta Sutras, trans. George Thibaut (Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1962), in Sacred Books of the East, ed. Max Muller (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1900), vols. xxxiv, xxxviii; 23.

  • 57.

    Ibid., xxxiv. 307.

  • 58.

    Ibid. 350.

  • 59.

    Ibid. 37.

  • 60.

    Ibid. 204.

  • 61.

    Even F. Hardy says, ‘Sankara cannot accept the existence of a Bhagavan [supreme God]’; Hardy, The Religions of Asia, in. But Sankara wrote hymns to Siva and practised as a Vaishnavite.

  • 62.

    Sankara, Vedanta Sutras, xxxiv. 14.

  • 63.


  • 64.

    Ibid. 19.

  • 65.

    Ibid. 15.

  • 66.

    Ibid. 327.

  • 67.

    Ibid. 329.

  • 68.

    Ibid. 330.

  • 69.

    Ibid. 352.

  • 70.

    Ibid. 352.

  • 71.

    Sankara, 415.

  • 72.

    Ibid. 410.

  • 73.

    Ibid. 190.

  • 74.

    Ibid. 123.

  • 75.

    Ibid. 187.

  • 76.

    Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae Ia. 3, 8–10 (London: Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1964).

  • 77.

    Sankara, Vedanta Sutras, xxxviii. 30.

  • 78.

    Ibid. 375.

  • 79.

    Sankara, xxxiv. 3.

  • 80.

    Ibid. 4.

  • 81.

    Ibid. 7.

  • 82.

    Ibid. 9.

  • 83.

    Ibid. 9.

  • 84.

    ‘It was in relation to the flesh that the suffering occurred, while the Word was impassible’: Cyril of Alexandria, ‘Second Letter to Succensus, 2’ in E. Schwartz (ed.), Acta Conciliorum Oecumenicorum (Strasbourg, 1914–40), 1. 1. 6, 157–62.

  • 85.

    Sankara, Vedanta Sutras, xxxiv. 60.

  • 86.

    Ibid., xxxviii. 30.

  • 87.

    Ibid. 155.

  • 88.

    Ibid., xxxiv. 14

  • 89.

    Ibid. 80.

  • 90.

    Ibid. 104.

  • 91.

    Sankara, 108.

  • 92.

    Ibid. 265.

  • 93.

    Ibid. 94. This is the doctrine of satkaryavada, on which cf. Lipner, The Face of Truth, 83 ff.

  • 94.

    Aquinas, Summa Theologiae Ia. 4. 2.

  • 95.

    Sankara, Vedanta Sutras, xxxiv. 145.

  • 96.

    Ibid. 190.

  • 97.

    Ibid. 279.

  • 98.

    Ibid., xxxviii. 45.

  • 99.

    Ibid. 3. 29.

  • 100.

    Ibid., xxxiv. 283.

  • 101.

    Sankara, 320.

  • 102.

    R. C. Zaehner, Mysticism, Sacred and Profane (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1957), 204.

  • 103.

    Taittiriyaka Upanishad, 2. 6, in Sacred Books of the East, ed. Muller, xv. 58.

  • 104.

    Sankara, Vedanta Sutras, xxxviii. 24.

  • 105.

    Acts 17: 28.

  • 106.

    Athanasius, On the Incarnation (London: Centenary Press, 1944), p. 45.

  • 107.

    Sankara, Vedanta Sutras, xxxviii. 157.

  • 108.

    Ibid. 153.

  • 109.

    Sankara, xxxiv. 80.

  • 110.

    W. D. Hudson, among others, does this, treating non-theistic Buddhism as a sort of metaphysics: A Philosophical Approach to Religion (London: Macmillan, 1974), 16.

  • 111.

    C. A. F. Rhys Davids and F. L. Woodward (trans.) The Book of the Kindred Sayings (Samyutta-Nikaya) (London: Oxford University Press for Pali Text Society, 1927), 261 ff.

  • 112.

    Samyutta Nikaya, 5. 437–8. Cf. W. Rahula, What the Buddha Taught (New York: Grove Press, 1962).

  • 113.

    e.g. from Buddhaghosa, Visuddhimagga, trans. Bikhu Nanamoli as The Path of Purification (Kandy: Buddhist Publication Society, 1979): ‘The Blessed One's possession of clear vision consists in the fulfilment of Omniscience (214)… in the special quality of knowledge and vision of deliverance he is… without counterpart (221).’

  • 114.

    S. Kierkegaard, Philosophical Fragments, trans. H. V. Hong (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1967).

  • 115.

    Milindapanha, 268–71; trans, in E. Conze, Buddhist Scriptures (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1959), 156.

  • 116.

    Buddhaghosa, Visuddhimagga, 580 ff.

  • 117.

    Ibid. 578.

  • 118.

    Dhammapada, 2. 23 trans. Juan Mascaro (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1973), 38.

  • 119.

    Udana, 80. 3; in F. L. Woodward, The Minor Anthologies of the Pali Canon (London: Oxford University Press, 1948), 97.

  • 120.

    Nagarjuna, Madhyamakakarika, 25. 24, in Mulamadhyamakakarikah, ed. J. W. de Jong (Madras: Adyar Library and Research Centre, 1977).

  • 121.

    Nagarjuna, Madhyamakakarika, 25. 19–29.

  • 122.

    Steven Katz (ed.), Mysticism and Language (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992), 5.

  • 123.

    J. Hopkins, Meditation on Emptiness (London: Wisdom, 1983), 100.

  • 124.

    Paul Williams, Mahayana Buddhism (London: Routledge, 1989), 99.

  • 125.

    Ibid. 107.

  • 126.

    Ibid. 112.

  • 127.

    Ibid. 141.

  • 128.

    Saddharmapundarika (Lotus) Sutra, trans. in L. Hurvitz, Scripture of the Lotus Blossom of the Fine Dharma (New York: Columbia University Press, 1976), stanza 2.

  • 129.


  • 130.

    Ibid., st. 24.

  • 131.

    Ibid., st. 5.

  • 132.

    Ibid., st. 7.

  • 133.

    Ibid., st. 11.

  • 134.

    These are Paul Williams's transliterations. Simpler, and more often found, are sambhogakaya and nirmanakaya.

  • 135.

    Williams, Mahayana Buddhism, 155 ff.

  • 136.

    Lotus Sutra, st. 13.

  • 137.

    Ibid., st. 7.

  • 138.

    Ibid., st. 10.

  • 139.

    Ibid., st. 15.

  • 140.

    Ibid., st. 5.

  • 141.

    Trans, in E. J. Thomas, The Perfection of Wisdom (London: John Murray, 1952), 76 ff.

  • 142.

    The Awakening of Faith in the Mahayana, trans. Yoshito S. Hakeda (New York: Columbia University Press, 1967). This is traditionally attributed to the second-century Indian thinker, Asvaghosha, but is completely available only in a sixth-century Chinese text.

  • 143.

    Cf. Koran, 42. 51. I have quoted throughout from the translation by A. Yusuf Ali, published by the Islamic Foundation (Leicester, 1975).

  • 144.

    Koran, 53. 5–11: ‘He was taught by one mighty in power [Gabriel]… he appeared while he was in the highest part of the horizon; then he approached… so did God convey the inspiration… the Prophet's heart in no way falsified that which he saw.’

  • 145.

    Ibid. 7. 158.

  • 146.

    Ibid. 10. 37.

  • 147.

    Koran, 4. 48.

  • 148.

    Cf. Koran, 6. 74–9, where Abraham explicitly distances his worship of God from such practices.

  • 149.

    Ibid. 6. 137.

  • 150.

    Ibid. 29. 25.

  • 151.

    Ibid. 6. 100.

  • 152.

    Ibid. 9. 30.

  • 153.

    Ibid. 5. 19.

  • 154.

    Ibn Taymiyya, A Muslim Theologian's Response to Christianity, trans. T. F. Michel (New York: Caravan Books, 1984), 240 ff.

  • 155.

    Koran, 42. 15.

  • 156.

    Ibid. 19. 90.

  • 157.

    Ibid. 4. 171.

  • 158.

    Ibid. 3. 59.

  • 159.

    Ibid. 5. 119.

  • 160.

    Ibid. 3. 79.

  • 161.

    Ibid. 10. 68.

  • 162.

    ‘We have made a Light, wherewith we guide such of our servants as we will; and verily thou does guide to the straight way’: 42. 52. Yusuf Ali, in his commentary (Islamic Foundation, 1975), comments that ‘The Qur-an and the inspired Prophet who proclaimed it, are here identified’: p. 1322.

  • 163.

    Koran, 4. 157–9.

  • 164.

    Geoffrey Parrinder, Jesus in the Qur'an (London: Faber and Faber, 1965), 121.

  • 165.

    Neal Robinson, Christ in Islam and Christianity (London: Macmillan, 1991), 109.

  • 166.

    Koran, 6. 164.

  • 167.

    Ibid. 2. 281.

  • 168.

    Extract from Sayyid Qutb, ‘Islam: The Religion of the Future’, in an interesting collection made by Paul Griffiths: Christianity through Non-Christian Eyes (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1990), 79.

  • 169.

    Koran, 29. 7.

  • 170.

    Ibid. 39. 53.

  • 171.

    Ibid. 42. 5.

  • 172.

    Ibid. 63. 5.

  • 173.

    Koran, 2. 213.

  • 174.

    Ibid. 5. 51.

  • 175.

    Fazlur Rahman, ‘The People of the Book’, in Griffiths, Christianity through Non-Christian Eyes, 107.

  • 176.

    Koran, 6. 100.

  • 177.

    Ibid. 5. 76.

  • 178.

    ‘Didst thou say unto men, worship me and my mother as gods in derogation of God’: 5. 119.

  • 179.

    Koran, 112. 3.

  • 180.

    Ibid. 28. 88.

  • 181.

    Cf. Louis Massignon, The Passion of Al-Hallaj (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1982), i. 126.

  • 182.

    Al-Ghazzali, The Niche for Lights, trans. W. H. T. Gairdner (London: Royal Asiatic Society, 1952), 1. 6.

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