Friday, June 10, 2011

Thoughts about Consciousness and the Wisdom Faiths of the Axial Age

Hinduism and Buddhism are concerned with satisfying karmic debt. The Hindu quest is for the right guru and the Buddhist quest is to be awakened for parinirvana.

The Christian Gospel announces the stunning news that at a moment in geohistory, God is revealed in the  person and teachings of Jesus from Nazareth. The historicity of the incarnation makes the Gospel uniquely relevant to the urgent issues in a scientific age. This makes the Christian Gospel worthy of consideration for both Hindus and Buddhists.

The Christian faith embodies revelatory truths rooted in geohistorical events that culminated in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, the Christ. Such a belief is neither verifiable nor falsifiable by any discipline of human inquiry, including the empirical sciences.

Christianity is a faith that seeks understanding and not a faith that results from understanding. Thus, the primary impulse to believe in the metaphysical must have been hard-wired in our minds. Indeed, contemporary neuropsychology suggests that the human brain is evolved for religious cognition. Our minds are optimized to interpret metaphysical signals that machines and our natural senses are unable to measure.  Thus, belief in God finds corroborative support in our interpreted experience of the divine. This universal desire to make sense of our experience as human beings, who long to understand more than we know, marks us as the religious animal.

One of the most important questions Christians may ask of its own tradition is, “Did God reveal himself outside the Judeo-Christian cone-of-experience?” How can we account for the fate of the 99+% of humans who ever lived, and who died without having heard the Gospel because they existed outside the geohistory of the biblical faith? Does being born in the wrong time or wrong place doom one to damnation? How does the limited cone of experience generated by any religion, say Christianity, with its focus on Palestine from c.1500 BC to AD 30, count as a universal revelation of God to creation?

Another area worth observing is the effort made by many Buddhist communities to engage the maturing disciplines of the neurosciences. Both Hinduism and Buddhism have long been concerned with the nature of human consciousness  and its collateral effects on personality, emotions and memory. The sense of a unified consciousness that we all experience (unless we suffer from schizophrenia, multiple-personalities or other forms of memorial dementia) as colonies of trillions of individual cells, let alone the mitochondrial cells within our somatic ones, cannot be readily explained scientifically. Indeed, in consciousness studies, neurotheology is as much a resource as the philosophy of mind and the neurosciences. The achievement of trance in Hindu rituals and altered states of consciousness in Buddhist meditation remain little understood by modern science and beyond the scrutiny of even powerful machines such as functional MRIs. There is much debate concerning the veracity of interpretations of what these machines measure. Do they measure the cause or the effects of such meditations and mind-controls? Are there Christian analogues practiced by medieval mystics, long forgotten when the Church adopted modern philosophy in its theological doctrines? Can an interdisciplinary approach yield a more holistic understanding of what these ancient religions seek to convey?

These and other such questions are well beyond the scope of this introduction. But I hope to convey the immense amount of interesting work that remains to be labored over by investigators and practitioners of these living faiths. The Christian world ought not to fall behind in understanding how we think and what transpires when our brains are traumatized by physical or psychological stimuli. As we learn to delay our demise and live longer, the essence of what it means to be human, to be alive and to prepare for death takes on new dimensions of urgency.

What we can begin to answer is how the Gospel of Jesus Christ can be relevant to a Hindu or a Buddhist seeking alternatives or simply curious about what other faiths of the Axial Age have produced. Although the basic quest of the Hindus and Buddhists reflects those of other faiths, only the Gospel of Jesus expressly claims a divine will to reconcile us to our maker.

I hope this introduction to the great wisdom beliefs of Hinduism and Buddhism has helped you begin to think through a set of worldviews shared by a quarter of the human race.

Perhaps … if the Buddha met the Christ,
there might not have been a need for Buddhism at all.