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Vedanta, Evangelical Christians, and Faith: A Review

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Around 1960, the English novelist and critic, Christopher Isherwood, wrote a little essay about his conversion to the Hindu philosophy of Vedanta. In “Hypothesis and Belief,” he attempts to explain the nature of his belief in it, despite its non-rational aspects.

Isherwood argues on behalf of the misunderstood convert, like himself, who comes in “for a good deal of criticism from his unconverted and more skeptical friends,” who tend to be “scientists” inclined toward “the cause of reason.”

He analyzes his own attitude about Vendanta and distinguishes between two poles: “belief” and “hypothesis.” Belief rests on “revealed truth,” which Isherwood concedes he does not possess. Hypothesis means “you are not quite sure” that your belief is absolutely true, but you accept it because of the “personal integrity and…authenticity” of the person who pronounced the truth, whether it be Christ, Mohammed, Buddha, or the author/s of the Vedas.

Isherwood has harsh things to say about the extremes on both sides: the religious believer who depends upon “blind faith”, which can lead to “superstition… ignorance [and] dogma,” and the scientist who believes in mere “mechanistic materialism,” which can make of him a “pedant…some sort of non-human creature.” Isherwood strives to find a middle ground, a comfort zone between absolute science and absolute religion; he wishes to avoid “deadlock” between the two world views. “There is no conflict between true Religion and true Science,” he avers, and then proceeds to try to explain what he means.

Alas, for all his heroic efforts, he does not succeed. Isherwood knows that a religious dogma—let us say, creationism, or the Virgin birth, or Christ walking on water—might well fall apart under “the microscope” of scientific testing. A true scientist would “remain completely unconvinced” by the hypothesis of the Virgin birth, because it violates all we know of physical reality. But, Isherwood suggests, there’s a way to have your cake and eat it too: what if the scientist were open to “emotion and intuition as well as reason”? Might he not conclude that the person telling him about the Virgin birth is a “man [with] some authority for his words”? Here, Isherwood introduces, into the tension between Religion and Science, the concept of “the credibility of the witness.”

In his particular case, Isherwood, who had been a rational, scientifically-oriented man all his life (he describes himself in the 1930s as “an atheist, a liberal”), was introduced to Vedanta near the outbreak of the Second World War. In 1939, he traveled to Los Angeles to study with the Hindu Swami, Prabhavananda. In the following years, he found himself the recipient of “satirical, suspicious, or quite frankly hostile and dismayed” remarks from his more rational friends, who told him that concepts such as “soul,” “reincarnation,” and “God,” being utterly unprovable, should not be subscribed to by rational beings. His little essay should be seen as his attempt to rationalize the irrational: to prove (to his friends, ostensibly, but also to himself) why he is able to accept a belief system, so many of whose parts are patently impossible of existence.

In the end, all Isherwood can offer is that “credibility of the witness” argument. Since he has placed all his faith in Prabhavananda, he must convince himself that his Swami is not “a charlatan,” is “sane,” not “mad,” and moreover a man whose “life bears out the truth of what [he] preaches.” Isherwood is intelligent enough to know that he may be auto-hypnotising himself. Perhaps the Swami is mad; perhaps his love for his Swami has blinded him to the latter’s faults. But Isherwood has so much invested in Prabhavananda that he has “to try” to believe in him and his teachings. “I will put myself into his hands,” he writes, “and trust him for at least as far as I would trust my doctor.” 

One senses Isherwood’s essential humanity here—the fact that he is a good man, seeking truth, and yet one who struggles in his own mind. He cannot quite take the leap away from Science into pure Religion, or vice versa. Torn between the two, he remains with Prabhavananda as long as possible. Until he sees that his association with Vedanta has produced “no results whatsoever,” he will maintain his trust in his guru.

Isherwood’s useful little essay makes us sympathetic to the author; it also raises pertinent questions about evangelicals in America. Unlike Isherwood, who strove to keep his balance, they have moved away from science and reason into the realm of dogma and irrational belief. Unlike Isherwood, who never could entirely jettison his rational mind, evangelicals have destroyed the logical, questioning part of their thinking; indeed, they believe that reason is the work of the Devil. Where one feels enormous empathy with Isherwood, one does not with evangelicals. They have no doubt, no second thoughts, only blind faith in their superstitious, unreasoned dogmas. They place themselves in the hands of priests and trust them despite all the evidence of charlatanism and madness; their priests’ lives seldom “bear out the truth of what they teach.” Evangelicals are unable to learn from experience. Isherwood, for all his faults, evolved intellectually until his dying day.

I wish an evangelical would come out and say, “I may be wrong; I freely admit it; I know my beliefs are absurd, and unprovable. I’m open to being shown how ridiculous Creationism, say, is, or the Virgin birth. Until then, though, I will believe in my Christian religion” But no evangelical would ever say that. They do not possess Isherwood’s even temperament, his intellectual fairness, his ability to see both sides of the story. The evangelical must be right, in his own mind: to admit even the possibility of error is to risk his entire world view crumbling, along with the mind that holds it. Isherwood delighted in being able to thrive in ambiguity.

Evangelicals have thrown away that ability, which evolution has struggled so hard and so long to instill in us, to–as Isaiah said–“reason together.” They have thus become like the “absolute materialist” Isherwood criticized—the scientist who cannot accept even the possibility that he is misguided. In a supreme irony, evangelicals are “creatures completely lacking the human faculty” of which they accuse liberals and scientists. Their “world-picture,” in Isherwood’s words, has become “too terrible for even the boldest heart to contemplate,” because it is “pedantic” and “non-human.”

 

 

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