Tuesday, March 11, 2008

One of the Problems With Christianity

I had a visit today from an old friend who has gone mad and descended into the very depths of destitution. In respect of her privacy, I won't go into any details, but she is completely incapable of taking care of herself and our much vaunted "social safety net" is totally inadequate for her needs.

It got me thinking about and contrasting the messages of Christianity and Daoism. When I was young I went to Sunday School and we were taught a song who's lyrics went

God sees the little sparrow fall,
It meets his tender view,
If God so loves the little birds,
I know he loves me too.

When I grew older I spent a lot of time studying the Christian message and I went to the trouble of looking up the New Testament passage that this song refers too. Actually, the passage in question is more than a little weird.

"What do Sparrows cost? A dime a dozen? Yet not one of them is overlooked by God. In fact, even the hairs on your head have been counted. Don't be so timid: You're worth more than a flock of sparrows." (Luke 6-7, The Complete Gospels, Annotated Scholars Version.)

It is odd because Jesus is asserting that because God is looking out for these birds, people shouldn't be worried about him looking out for them. But the birds in question are trussed up in a market to be taken home, killed, cooked and eaten. This is hardly something that I particularly find reassuring, let alone something to make into a kitschy song and teach to children!

In spite of this fact, the vast majority of Christians have the belief that in some sense or another God is looking out for each and every human being. I had this come home to me when I was asked to sit in a panel discussion at a school after the 9/11 attacks on the US. One of the other participants was a Catholic priest who assured the children that even though it might not seem that there was a loving God looking out for them, there really is a purpose that will be revealed eventually.

I thought about that when I saw my friend. What possible purpose could a "loving God" use to justify scrambling my friend's thoughts into a porridge of paranoia? And as if that wasn't enough, to then consign her to grinding, absolute poverty? If I met such a God I would give him a real talking to, that's for sure.

Ultimately, this is why I gave up on the Christian enterprise. It seemed to be based on a vision of God that ultimately made him into the sort of person who would lower your property values if he bought the house next door.

I think that Laozi is far more accurate when he says that

"Heaven-and-Earth is not sentimental,
It treats all things as straw-dogs."
(Chapter 5, Dr. John C.H. Wu, trans.)

This isn't to say that I gain any consolation from this point of view. I wish I could believe that there was some sort of smiling God in the Clouds that was looking out for my friends and I. But my experience would indicate that we are the only force of compassion that really exists in the universe.


Cherry said...

I was also raised in fundamental religion (Lutheran). For years I've been hoping to find someone who could answer my questions, organize my thoughts - help me put a finger on what's wrong with human thoughts and beliefs. My sisters are prime examples of people who are so righteous, sanctimonious, infallable, judgmental, critical, condemning - so very absolute in their thinking - seriously thinking they have all the answers and everyone else is a least one step behind. Then I have a serious problem with 'Christianity' preying upon the poor, promising something 'in another life' instead of helping them here in this life to take responsibility and make the most of this life. Neat trick. Promise something you don't have, that you'll never have to deliver (salvation) and take their money in this life. Seems to me everyone involved in the scam is a con man and 'Christianity' is a ruse. Please point me to an Inet resource that provides some insight. s@4www.us

Anonymous said...

Would it be too much to say that sufficient impartiality eliminates the need for compassion?

The Cloudwalking Owl said...


I don't think that Christianity is a "con", although there are no doubt many people who profit from it. I just think that it is a form of delusional thinking that is based on an inaccurate understanding of the world.

As for pointing you toward an internet resource, it would hardly be able to present any "insight". Wisdom doesn't come from information you seek outside, it comes from how you transform yourself.

Der Einzige:

There doesn't seem to me to be any "need" for compassion. You either feel it or you don't. The point is whether that feeling is part of the metaphysical underpinning of the universe or simply part of what it means to be a human being.

The Buddhists teach that enlightenment without compassion ("bodhicitta") is ultimately empty and leads to anger, cruelty and unhappiness. In my experience this is not moralizing so much as a observation of how the human mind tends to operate. I suspect, therefore, that manifesting the impartiality you speak of would not be a particularly good way of living a life.

Anonymous said...

Oh, I agree with you, Cloudwalker. Looks like I wasn't being clear. I was trying to get at a distinction between real vs. inauthentic compassion.

To me, intentional compassion seems contrived. Real, impartial compassion seems like it would be spontaneous, not a premeditated moral intention. Only when compassion is effortless and self-generating does it seem genuine...otherwise, it might as well just be labeled politeness.

I'm assuming, of course, that impartiality is at least one of the preconditions for wu wei. If that's the case, then, yes, it seems that real compassion has its source in that deeper metaphysical origin. If not, then acts of compassion are merely attempts to satisfy the desire to be compassionate.

Le Wizard said...

I'm confused as to why Christianity is the issue here. I generally agree, it's just that Christianity, in the mainstream modern interpretations, seems to be about placing a blind sort of romantic belief in something, and letting that romance shape everything around us. But, every religion is like this until one has deep enough insight to have faith in themselves and their experiences. Heck, every passion is like this until insight into its nature arises.

The problem is that Christianity has little open dialog about its scriptural meaning because that is extremely threatening to the majority of religious individuals who have blind faith or a stake in the power scheme (and probably are not realized themselves). It's like debating the rebirth of Lamas and the Dalai Lama for Tibetan Buddhists. Ain't never gonna happen, heretic!

Re: compassion - I feel like true compassion arises from insight and a deeper understanding of people's problems and suffering. It's true, the less attached you are to a person's emotional state or your own, the easier and more legitimately one can help them. In Buddhism this state of mind is referred to as equanimity. Spontaneous compassion does not seem out of step with the concept of wu-wei, since volitional compassion is where the romantic complications arise. Unless I'm missing something, haha!

the Cloudwalking Owl said...

le Wizard:

I was using Christianity as an obvious foil for Daoism---trying to show that there are distinctions between religions. At least at the level of texts, the Dao De Jing does does make statements to the effect that the world is pretty much indifferent to our sufferings.

It's true that most people don't pick up this, but I don't think that this "just happens". Instead, I think that our culture constructs an oral tradition that preconditions most people to think of a benevolent deity. Indeed, I think that is why most Christians don't consider how odd the story about the sparrows for sale in the market really is.

My blog is one minor attempt to "push back". I too am an agent of culture and as such I am a minor eddy in the Dao. Perhaps with time people will stop assuming a white-haired deity in the sky. My understanding is Chinese culture originally started out with a vision of a God-like figure but eventually discarded it in favour of the more impersonal "Dao". I think that the West is long overdue for a similar move.

Le Wizard said...

So, with an impersonal Dao, are we best off abandoning our sense of self? The impersonal Dao may be re-assuring to those of us that reach a stage of self-faith and emotional balance, but how do we reconcile and differentiate this impartiality from nihilism, as it's usually interpreted among the masses?

In other words, Daoism has much less palpable substance, concrete belief structure to temporarily depend on in order to gain emotional balance (if not now, then in some other world that may or may not exist). It strikes me as a process of gradual enculturation more than a straight religious view. Even in Buddhism, we find that the ultimate view usurps the torturous questions of self and salvation -- a result of dedicated practice. I'm just wondering if the Daoist view tries to project this from the start.

Kind of like with the differences between internal/external martial arts. The masses will probably never see the internal essence even if they study for their whole lives, don't you think? It's much easier to attach to physical strength and work with something as tangible as that from the very beginning.

I like your ideas a lot, I'm just poking this a bit! :)

The Cloudwalking Owl said...

Fair comments, Wizard.

I tend to see every comment made as ultimately being contextual. I am specifically trying to express the world as I experience it on this blog, so I'm not trying to "dumb down" things for the masses.

I was talking about this issue at an interfaith meeting yesterday. We each gave a little talk about "faith" and in my case I talked about Zhuangzi's radical doubt (i.e. "how would I know that?".) I also made a point about the idea that Chinese society tends to believe that ritual is enough in and of itself without any belief on the part of the practitioner, which is different from the Western worldview.

A Protestant minister picked up on this and said that while pastors will rarely if ever admit this to their flocks, they often have problems with their faith and go through periods when they lack faith in various credal definitions. He said that it is important to have the same understanding as the one I expressed in order to make it through these low spots in the life of a minister.

As I see it, being a good Quanzhen, the Confucian concept of "li" is important here. Ritual behaviour is the glue that holds society together and on a social level it doesn't really matter all that much if an individual Daoist believes all the hocus pocus because it keeps people from descending into total chaos. But it means that the individual Daoshi has a great well of tolerance and freedom to draw from that someone who is a "true believer" cannot.

If this sounds a bit elitist, well so be it. Daoism is an elitist religion, just like Buddhism.

Anonymous said...

Hey, interesting blog, I got here from Wizard Smoke's place.

I studied Daoism when I was younger and ultimately ended up converting to Islam, which I recently left. While I still see a greater universal order to things the idea of it being sentient or directly humane doesn't really make sense to me anymore.

When I was in China, Daoism and Buddhism often seemed, in practical day to day life, not unlike Christianity in Western society. Where there are supernatural beings that if you pray enough will use their powers to take care of you. And throw some money in the box while you're at it, good karma and all that. I don't think it's necessarily an issue of Abrahamic traditions vs. 'Eastern' Traditions, more like the approach to either most take.

Then again, I don't know. That's just kind of where I am right now. I don't know.

The Cloudwalking Owl said...


I suppose it comes down to whether you look at a religion through the glasses of a sociologist or a philosopher. It is true that with regard to the average "believer" all religions are quite similar. But if you look at the core belief systems in the foundational texts I do believe that it is possible to find streams of thought that are significantly different.

The other complicating issue with regard to Daoism is that there it is important to make a distinction between "Daoism" and "traditional Chinese religion". To the outside observer they may look the same. And I suspect many Daoists would not understand the distinction. But I do believe that many others would.

The idea is that a Daoshi "pays the bills" by performing rituals for the ordinary people who follow "traditional Chinese religion", without actually having much of an emotional commitment to what is happening.

If you want to understand a Western equivalent, consider the fact that the "bread and butter" for many Protestant ministers are marriages and funerals that they perform for people who would almost never go to a church service and are pretty much agnostics---at best.