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In the Flow of Things


Udo W. Middelmann

The Francis A. Schaeffer Foundation

Chalet Les Montaux, CH 1882 Gryon, Switzerland #41 24 498 1656

We have just about come back full circle to an earlier period in history before the arrival of Christianity to our cultures. Or, using another metaphor, the island created by the teaching of the Bible in Europe and her overseas settlements in America and elsewhere is slowly being submerged by the rising waters of non-Biblical ideas. Os Guiness uses the picture of encircling eyes from Jack London, when he speaks of the encroaching wolves around a dying campfire.

What Paul had brought to Europe in Thessalonica (modern Saloniki) and Irenaus in the second century to Lyon, France, and Boniface to the Germanic world was the important distance of God and Man from nature. The person of God in the high order of Father, Son and Holy Spirit was the creator of a real world of distinctions. In addition Man was made in the image of God, a child of the Most High in heaven and not an emanation of nature. Created distinctly as a person, Man's body would fit into the natural context. His thoughts, ideas and creativity would have to be informed by the mind of God, His character and will as communicated in the word of God. God spoke to Adam and Eve. They should live by His word, not merely by the bread to be made from the things of the earth.

Abraham distinguished himself from his surrounding culture by believing God, the God of heaven rather a divinity assumed to be behind the movements of the stars or the changing seasons in the field. Thomas Cahill points out how Abraham stood out from the crowd in Ur. What Abraham believed about God and Man and nature gave us a totally different way of thinking, living and believing. Abraham's God addresses the mind, not the senses. He speaks to individuals, not to the group as a collective. He distinguishes Man from animals by, among others things, the Sabbath command, in which Man is told to remember that he is differently made than the daily repetitions found in the natural world.

From that view of God we derive a high view of Man: Man, woman and child are special, able to understand the revealed mind of God and to work in an unfinished creation to express dominion, culture and responsibility.

In addition to a special understanding of Man, the Bible alone also clarifies that there is a meaning to life for the individual. We were chosen, made in the image of God to be human beings: to love and create, to have dominion and to cultivate creation. That is the purpose for which God chose to have human beings. Our meaning is not found by becoming valuable through production, having children or being liked. We have meaning from the simple fact that God chose to create us to be human rather than to be a plant or a stone.

In addition to teaching about Man and meaning, the Bible also gave an absolute about morals. As Joe Lieberman rightly points out there is no basis for morals unless there is an absolute Moral Being to begin with. A moral Being is one who makes distinctions, who has a distinct character. God is holy (specific and distinct, set apart) and he calls us to be holy. Again, the Bible alone speaks of such a God. Neither the Qu'ran nor Hindu scriptures, neither African tribal religions nor a god assumed in fate, neither nature nor history itself in its entirety give such a view of god, the eternal or the power behind things and events. Only the Bible speaks of a good God, who makes distinctions between good and evil, life and death, right and wrong, wise and foolish.

Abraham, Paul, Irenaus and Boniface taught about God in such a way that we were given a high view of man, a real meaning and a basis for understandable morals. This was possible, because in these areas we are informed by God's word, not by nature. It gave freedom from nature and a call to judge and change nature. Here lies the foundation for all statecraft, science and education, expressions of the constant wrestling for what is good, beautiful and just.

What has been an island of valuing human beings is now being submerged with increasing speed by views born of shame, frustration, and a sense of wishing to belong to another master. Not only is the Bible no longer known as the foundation of all wisdom and truth from God. It is even seen as the cause of most of the troubles we face in the modern world. For by making distinctions the God of the Bible is accused of nurturing elitism, scientific arrogance, destructive progress and disharmony among people. In other words the teaching of the Bible encourages conflict and inequality.

The rising waters that threaten to submerge the Christian and Jewish view of things come from a couple of angles, in which scientific naturalism gets married to a Buddhist view. There is a growing interest in Buddhism in the Western world. One contributing factor is the embrace of the exotic and foreign, when a fatigue sets in about one's own past and present. The other is the search for harmony with the earth, with the self and with history.

The denial of a God out there, who speaks and acts, results in the divinity of all Being. In other words "being" or "everything" is eternal and authority. The only variable is my thought life. History then takes a surprising turn inwards, since outside my head everything remains the same. Life becomes a pursuit of my own personal authority. Only my personal history is relevant. When more people turn to Buddhist thought today, often in deliberate rejection of Christianity, the questions relating to Man, meaning and morals are no longer asked for the bigger picture, but only from selfish interest.

This is not a new direction of efforts from some organization to impose a new religion. More educated people buy books on Buddhist thought than ever before. It is also held as an alternative to the Christian. Our local mayor related an anecdote about a Buddhist prayer on the occasion of the national holiday, in contradiction to the original foundation pact of the country in the name of the God of the Bible. Scientists are rushing to advocate works by, among others, Ken Wilber to show the support of Buddhism from the natural sciences. The Dalai Lhama is admired, honored and portrayed in the context of health and peace. Frustrated expectations of a better world cause the search for a religion for the new century.

U.S. NEWS AND WORLD REPORT featured an article (Into the Zone, July 3rd, 2000) on people in sports, business, politics and the arts, who get into "the flow of things" before each new challenge. ‘Focus', ‘control', ‘flow' are synonyms for mental mastery, internal calm and a submission to the streams of reality, in which a Biblical view of man is considered a disturbance. Buddhist wisdom and Zen instruction are adopted to dissolve tension. Increasingly meditation is used as a means to detach oneself from tensions and disruptions to seek concentration on the task ahead. A single focus will then both energize decisions and eliminate all moral considerations about right and wrong.

A friend from many years ago, who teaches math, now embraces Buddhist thought as a scientist. He suggests that I am still stuck in the old Christian way of "needing a God out there." He has moved beyond that need for outside explanations of nature, man and morals. Ken Wilber's "A Short History of Everything" is a good introduction to his thought. It offers the promise of peace and answers in ‘everything'. Like a seamless web it connects the field of science and his human existence in it. There is no final distinction between what is of science and considerations of what ought to be for the human being with moral choices. Divinity is now in the unity of all Being, in an evolving process. There is nothing and no one outside this ‘everything'. All the larger things contain the smaller; the later are born from the former in successive stages of a dynamic ONE.

The old question of unity and diversity has been resolved on the side of unity. Christianity with its foundation on a God in the high order of Trinity as the eternal being gave answers of true unity and diversity. Everything was related from the Creator to his creation, but does not share in the same Being. This view has been replaced by a unified Being, given a variety of names such as Nature, Gaia, Sophia, Everything or simply ONE. Not only is every thing part of one Being. All choices are merely varieties; they are never moral opposites.

That proposition is not totally new to us. The new age, as it had been called, has the wrinkles of the passage of time. The appeal of supposed serenity from Buddhism stands in contrast to Biblical activism; people search for detachment from everything that personal existence implies, e.g. choice, responsibility, and moral evaluation. Buddha shows the way to final enlightenment by leaving the world of real things behind, for that world exists only as an illusion. Peace is found in the ability to go with the flow, even when the objective world is full of turbulence. No ultimate distinctions exist anymore between being and non-being, between the self and the outside world, between right and wrong.

True, categories create tensions by making distinctions. They complicate life by presenting us with obligations to choose, to notice moral challenges and to seek solutions. Instead, Buddhism suggests, that in the final analysis all is ONE. Rather than acting in search of a solution to the problem, the solution is individual detachment from the habit of seeing a problem in the first place.

People leave the island of Christianity and travel east, in their minds at least or spiritually, to escape from the bonds and responsibilities of a life with challenges. They still want to make choices, but be free from the need to explain them to themselves or others, including possibly a God who exists. For, if finally everything is ONE, what they feel, experience or desire is part of that oneness. There is no life outside of the final ONE. Each person has become part of divinity.

Herman Hesse wrote "Journey to the East" as an invitation to a world in which detachment from the world of time and space leads to a marvelous and festive parade through fields of flowers in the country, far from considerations of space, time or ethics.

This embrace of Buddhist thought in our culture on a popular scale is new. With Christianity we have been trained in the awareness of needed resistance to evil and discernment between moral and factual alternatives. From the Bible we received the warning that we live in a fallen and unsafe world. We are always exposed to good and destructive ideas and practices. In it we live by God's word, not by bread alone or in disregard of it. Our perspective on all of life is shaped by what God has said about the world and life. Life as lived is not the sole criterion of goodness or wisdom. What there "is" needs the corrective of what "ought to be". And that is found in God's word.

Rather than joining the flow of things and bathing in it we are called to understand the world from the perspective of the Creator. His intentions and description is useful. We get in line with God and submit to him. The attachment is to the Creator, leading to involvement in the task of being human.

We were instructed that there was a real world of distinct shapes. Apples are not pears, water is not land, and human beings are not animals. The God of the Bible had created a world of distinct shapes and purposes. In practical life these distinctions have been born out in the different consequences, which result from the choice made by the person.

This perspective uniquely presents a good God, who is not immersed in a broken world. He is not the valley of death, but reaches down to redeem us from it. Neither does this perspective conclude that evil is only a matter of an erroneous perception, so that a change of mind would eliminate it. Detachment from a world of real distinctions does not follow from this reasoning. Instead it calls for involvement, engagement for good and creative intervention to reflect what God's word talks about.

Judaism and Christianity see the world as valuable and distinct, but not perfect. There are real problems that result from the Fall of man. We are a part of that, but not caught in it. We contribute to the Fall by sin, but under God's instruction we can also partially repair the damage by good works. Noah and Job were righteous men, because they did the kind of works that Peter (1 Peter 2:12) tells us we should do to win the respect of outsiders. They did what God's commands required and stood firmly against wrong in the fallen world. We are not saved by good works, but to do good works (Ephesians 2:9,10).

Now of course, that requires a number of things of us, which make life a bit more difficult. Firstly, such discernment requires a willingness to be troubled by wrong. We must allow ourselves to notice that things are not what they ought to be. We must admit that there are wounds, problems and the effects of sin. There are death and frustration and events in the lives of people, which provoke a greater reaction than just making a note of them. We are involved, affected and challenged morally.

Secondly, an effort is required to seek solutions. That effort includes an admission of our own significant part in the problems and a willingness to face the inconvenience of having to do something about it. We are not free from either responsibility. We are engaged, will be frustrated with partial solutions and incomplete remedies.

Thirdly, we cannot shut our eyes to a world with real problems. They need to be judged. Our best efforts will not result in serene peace, though we long for it. We see and therefore we act, even though doctors will see every one of their patients eventually die. No student will fulfill the aspirations of the teacher. There will be no perfect marriages. The world is real, and so is the brokenness of it. Moral choices need to be made. Every attempted solution will also bring with it a whole new set of challenges and problems. But that observation does not prevent our responsible intervention in the first place. Instead, each new problem is also a new challenge.

Fourthly, our desire for solutions will be nourished from outside categories, either realistic from the creator or imaginary from imagination or an ideology. Things and events themselves do not offer moral categories. Only persons make distinctions between what is and what ought to be. Persons live under the critical eyes of others, including our children, who will judge again what we have done or failed to do. That is often uncomfortable, for even the best intentions will not produce a final resolution. We wait for the Messiah to accomplish that.

Fifthly, while we are driven to seek solutions, we must admit that we only have good or bad, wise or foolish choices before us. High expectations require the control of realistic analysis. Since Adam and Eve our temptation has been to be (like) God. The Enlightenment promised again a final solution on the horizon. Enlightenment thinkers believed that in one way or another the real world of people and things can be so effectively manipulated that there would be no more problems.

Science and technology will remove pain, suffering and finally death, they taught. Social progress will eliminate wars. Elimination of Jews and Gypsies will create the pure race. The abolition of private property will create a new egalitarian society. Democracy will introduce a world of equal people without oppression. Economic opportunity will produce moral citizens. The list of proposals of final solutions is endless. And yet we must admit that none of these programs have kept their promise. They were stillborn from their inception and came to us with massive amounts of human suffering.

Little wonder then that people are drawn to a view that allows them to avoid the frustration of unrequited promises by offering personal inner fulfillment, where the outside world with its challenges and problems can be flatly denied. Buddhism and its thought world are for the disappointed, who still want to have their peace. When the perspective from outside, from the Bible, leads to stress and moral conflict they seek a different avenue in indifference. Buddhism is an alternative view that locates the problem in our perception of things. A God out there is a tyrant master, who fails to perform himself, yet demands action on our part. Buddha invites us to become masters of our own serenity.

Buddhism is a marvelous way to avoid responsibility. Just like the prince Siddharta, the Buddha, left wife and child in search of enlightenment. He found it when he was able to detach himself from their needs and the needs of the old man dying next to him under the tree. Buddhism encourages a way of detachment from the real world around us. It teaches us to work on ourselves only, for there alone exist the problems.

The appeal of Buddhism for many of our contemporaries lies in the ability to forget about the real world around us, when that is desirable, and to focus on the personal need to score the next goal, to win the match, to pretend that there are no problems. In that pursuit the real world is neglected. Now we can relax, focus our energies or visualize a winning streak.

Of course that is only possible in the realms of sports and acting. In most other areas it has painful consequences for others. In business it easily leads to single-focus decisions with often very unfair consequences. Trainers and managers are ready to take the blows, secretaries the phone calls. Others around us safeguard the inner sanctum of private pursuits. In marriage conflicts the lawyers will produce a settlement and the partners can still be ‘friends'.

In the real world we need to be on our guard, shuffle between justice and mercy, between schedules and interruptions and consider the needs of both shareholders and employees, and face up to very severe damage inflicted on wife, husband and children.

I thought this already after seeing the film The Witness a few years ago. Pacifist Amish attitudes can well be maintained in all their beauty when there is a police department to limit the crime and cruelty of human beings in the real world around them. I wonder whether the view of some Christians about their "personal faith" and their focus on personal salvation and guidance does not take them in the same direction. It is easy in that mentality to forget about hungering and thirsting for righteousness and justice. Personalized faith allows us to see the world condemned, the non-Christian deserving what he has: the main concern is that I personally get out with the help of my Jesus.

Surprising to me is the scientists' interest in embracing the view of the flow of things, in the way they arrive at a Buddhist view of things, when Buddhism as a worldview denies an objective reality and consequently never produced a practical interest in science. The idea that all things are related is very appealing. It helps one to know the universe, to understand its operations and mechanics. The differences originate in the definition of the nature of this relationship.

It is not surprising that Christianity encouraged an interest to discover what a reasonable God had made and said. That insight could be used to understand the world around us and to express the mandate for dominion as it applies to both the work to be done in an unfinished creation and then in a fallen one as well. Not surprising then that 11 of the founding members of the Royal Academy of Science were Christians. They studied the world in order to understand more of the thoughts of God, the Creator.

But they and later scientists never saw themselves finally as merely a part of the material world to be studied. They understood that for meaning, morals and the distinct definition of man our primary relationship as people had to be to the God in whose image we had been made.

Only in the 19th century did the idea take root widely that the human being also could be reduced to or adequately be explained by cause and effect, by mechanics. At that juncture the difference between man and nature was lost. Nature swallowed up culture, or grace. Both God and what was in his image could now be seen as contained in one continuous whole. God, revelation, miracles, meaning, man and any absolute morals: the whole super-natural was abolished.

Wilber's writings are attractive in their ability to link all forms of being into such a continuous chain of being. Particles are contained in molecules, they in turn in atoms, they again in larger combinations and finally animal life in human beings, consciousness in spiritual states.

You get the picture. We are left with a world of mechanics only. Then, in the early decades of the 20th century, the uncertainty principle of Heisenberg with its random movements of particles and the seeming vitality of "smart" biology are drawn on to support a chain of Being, in which there seems to be purpose and direction. Man is not again unique as a person as under Biblical teaching. This is not a return to real personality in the universe. Now personality itself is seen as an evolving stage in the life-giving and life-supporting and particle-palpitating chain of ONE.

Man with the older view from Christianity is seen as the outsider, even a threat to the rest of them. For the Christian and the Jew have an authority which challenges and judges man in his life, establishes his dominion and sees him not only as a problem, but also as part of a solution.

This present view invites people to merge, to loose themselves, to embrace a dynamic that will carry them, mankind and nature, to ultimate heights. This dazzling picture hides all the marks of reductionism by suggesting a movement in positive and expanding directions. It operates in one field of knowledge, but in the process has reduced the soul, the person and consciousness itself to particle movements in an expanding dynamic materialism.

I see a great flaw in Wilber's presentation. If in fact all earlier things are contained in the later forms of the same, then we have no basis for man, meaning and morals. Firstly, in that case Man is only an elaboration, a stage of development, of everything. Teilhard de Chardin already proposed such a view in the 1950s. Everything else will sooner or later also take on that form.

Secondly, there is no meaning for man for lack of a personal Creator who could give meaning by choosing to make man specifically. You exist in this one marvelous, though wasteful, sequence of Being on the way to something else. (Marxism had a similar view that each person contributed in life though work and sacrifice to the improvement of an abstract "humanity."

Thirdly, there is no basis for morals, since everything takes its natural course without any blame or praise attached to the various stages. Whatever happens then just simply is, always was and always will be. There is nothing to get mad about, or excited, pleased or afraid. A Being without alternatives and choices merely exists in statistical dimensions.

Without a basis for man, morals and meaning there is also no burden of others to carry, no battle for the life of persons. For then everything is normal. There has not been a Fall, reality could not be or become different. The normal has become the norm.

This view is appealing to our stressed contemporaries. Often Eastern religions are held up as ways to get detached from the rush, the stress and tensions of modern life. Look at the serenity, the smiles, the satisfied sufficiency of people who are not always interested in promotion, bargains and distractions. How much better they are off when they do not assume to have a solution? Haven't most efforts in our culture produced more problems than they solved?

Of course efforts should be made to reduce the unnecessary stress produced by much of life. Closing the door on distractions, worries and pressures is at times a very good thing. We need sleep, rest and recreation. We are not responsible for the whole world. That is God' concern and responsibility. As people we should concentrate on the task at hand and protect ourselves against being fragmented, disturbed and side tracked, when these things keep us from fulfilling earlier obligations and promises.

Music, tea and a hike in the mountains or a visit to the museum are such means of taking our eyes off the burdens at hand. Contentment is a good thing, when it is not confused with resignation. We are reminded to keep the Sabbath as a time of rest, a time also for distance from the common things of life in a fallen world.

But even when we recognize the need and pleasure of rest in our life driven by the clock, by appointments and performance obligations we will still always have to be alert, discerning and walking in the light. These are frequent admonitions from the applications in New Testament epistles. They alert us to the realization that we do not live in a safe world. Both people and their ideas seek to do us harm. The call to holiness is a call to specific choices, to deliberation, to sort out what is true, good, just and beautiful in the eyes of God and man.

Therefore the notion of a life free from stress has no place in the Christian and human life. Whether you teach or practice medicine, whether you are a parent or a citizen, a student or a teacher: at all times we should walk with open eyes, recognize real needs and step in to help to meet them, at least to comfort and protect those caught in the pain of life in a broken world.

Buddhism and its Western children try to merge all things with an appeal to the vision of a sweet flow of things. But that brew is poisonous. For we lean on an imagined scaffolding, not a real one. We become brother and sister not only to the ox, but also join a family made up of impersonal and uncaring elements in nature. Like materialism in our own history, Eastern religions and any other form of attachment to the things as they are, under a god or under fate always destroy the glory of man, the life of the soul, the pursuit of justice and real peace. They all finally deny that there is a problem at all.

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