Kristian Karma Konundrum

A lot of Christians like to use the term “Karma” while others feel that it is wrong because of its connection to a wide variety of Eastern faiths including, but not limited to, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism.

For me, a word is just a word. It is a neutral symbol until a meaning is associated with it. (of course connotations are harder to remove from a term than denotations, so one must be circumspect in grabbing a term and changing it).  So to judge the word, one first has to judge the meaning or meanings. I am not an expert on karma as an Eastern concept… and in fact it does not take a lot of research to discover that there are a lot of meanings for karma within Hinduism, Buddhism, and other faiths. One can’t really speak of a “Hindu” understanding of karma, since there are many such understandings. Some are tied to reincarnation. Some seem to allow free will while others seem to work against it. Rather than dealing with all of that (definitely a worthy topic for a different blogsite) lets break it down to broad categories.

1.  Kosmic Karma (Kharma from Universal principles). Some see the universe working with karma in a similar way (perhaps) to how it works with the laws of thermodynamics (zeroth through third) and gravity. How, Who, and Why are outside of the concern. If you do good… you create a positive credit in our karma account (or a reduction through doing bad) and the Universe responds naturally in your life (or perhaps future life or lives).

2.  Kreator Karma (Karma from Divine action). With this one, there is a divine being, “God” who keeps track of Good and Bad and ensures that one “reaps what one sows.” (the passage by Paul on reaping what one sows… is that divine action, social response, natural response, or word of wisdom?  Food for thought for some, perhaps)

3.  Kommunity Karma (Karma from Sociological response). “What goes around, comes around.” You treat people bad… the community doesn’t forget and some time when you need mercy, you will get none. And when one does good, others will remember and be there when you need them.

Are any of these true… or, that is, FULLY true. I would say that none are fully true. The first one (universal principles) may appeal to the atheistic, pantheistic, or perhaps panentheistic (maybe even dualistic) views… none of which are Christian. I have a hard time seeing this going along with God’s Word.

Karma from Divine Action sounds Christian. We describe God as a righteous judge… but karma sort of breaks down fast when it is applied here. First, God’s defining characteristics are HOLINESS and LOVE, not justice. Holiness means that no matter how much good stuff we do… it is not enough to come to Him. Some try to define God’s role here as just… but if it is impossible for our good to overcome our bad… in essence it is a matter of holiness not justice. In other words the Karma account doesn’t work to be saved. Likewise, salvation is through faith, not through actions (or motives or anything else). In other words, nothing in our Karma account saves us. When Christians try to apply karma to God they tend to go in one of two directions. They see injustice today and say that God will make it all balance out in the end (justice in heaven, not on earth). For those who see salvation (through God’s holiness, love/mercy) as evidence that karma doesn’t happen in the hereafter, they suggest that it exists now (even if we don’t always see it). For me, it is pretty evident that the initial part of the argument for both sides is sound (no absolute justice in the hereafter because of God gives unmerited (non-karmic) favor to us; and in the present there is no absolute justice since we clearly live in a fallen world where evil sometimes prospers and good often suffers). In the end, karma is not absolute as pertaining to divine action. (It is interesting to note, than some Eastern faiths do accept the idea of “Transfer Karma”… an idea interestingly similar to the Christian concept of substitutionary atonement… but one might argue that transfer karma is a “patch” for the concept… and admission that karma sometimes fails.)

Karma as community action (sociological response) is often true (help a neighbor and be helped in return). But individuals are unjust and larger social entities can be shockingly unjust at times. The writer of Ecclesiastes noted this well… and we only have to look at the life of Jesus to find one in which “karma” did not work on a sociological level.

So… is karma simply untrue? Is it unChristian?

For me, since there is no set definition for “karma” Christians can use the term as long as they use it in a manner in line with Christian truths.

I believe KARMA is TRUE in terms of Wisdom.The book of Proverbs is a book of wisdom… of general principles in how things are or are supposed to be. In Folk Christianity there is the temptation to treat proverbs as laws (it is amazing how many Christians who live under grace, want to find laws to live by and live under). Some take them further as promises… but other places (one is directed again to the wisdom of Ecclesiastes, as well as Job, to see that wisdom principles are neither laws nor promises. They are principles… words of wisdom.

I believe KARMA is also TRUE in terms of Guidance. Throughout the Bible… I might refer one to the 6th chapter of Micah for example… we are told to side with the poor, the downtrodden, the weak, the innocent, the unfortunate. In other words, rather than passively assuming good happens to good and bad happens to bad, we are to stand on the side of social justice or righteous action. We are to close the loop on sociological karma.

For Christians, karma is not passive… it is not cosmic, not divinely absolute, nor sociologically determined (at least not consistently). Rather, God commands us to stand on the side of the righteous, particularly those who have been wrongly misused by the evildoer.

A Burst of Light and a Gentle Fading Away

I have been teaching Missions History this term in Seminary. Since I live and teach in Asia, I like to focus on missions history in Asia. Frankly, there is a lot more missions history in the East than the West anyway. In the first millennium, the churches of Jerusalem, Antioch, and Edessa spread the faith throughout Mesopotamia, Arabia, India and Persia. Later the “Nestorians” spread it through Central Asia to China, Korea, and beyond. The second millennium has the Russian Orthodox sweep across northern Asia, and the Protestant and Roman Catholic moves into Southern and Eastern Asia. Finally, with the dawn of the third millenium is the incredible reversal with 2/3 world (global) missions going into Asia and coming from Asia. But a good question came up as I was talking about the “Nestorian” (or Church of the East) missions in the first millennium.

Why did the greatest missionary effort (prior to the 1800s perhaps) result in so little long-term gain?

Of course, it is popular to blame Islam, or xenophobic Chinese emperors. But neither truly answer the question. The Coptic church in Egypt has survived (and often thrived) with persecution (of varying degrees). The church has even grown miraculously under persecution (such as in 20th century Maoist China, and in the 3rd century Roman Empire). Some argue that the outreach never really went beyond the Trading centers (perhaps a valid point). Some argue that there was a lack of contextualization and indiginization of the faith regionally (perhaps true in some locations… but not in others). I don’t have a good answer… but always willing to suggest a good theory. I would like to think that there may be a wee bit of truth tucked away in it. Nestorian missions at its height, such as from 628-643 under Patriarchate of Yeshuyab II, was quite organized with a wholistic outreach at cities along the overland route of the silk road. Among the structures that would be set up include:

  • Monastery     (meet sociospiritual needs)
  • Church          (meet sociospiritual needs)
  • Trading post  (meet economic needs)
  • Hospital   (meet physical needs)
  • School (meet educational needs)

The Nestorian missions points were, so I am led to understand, centered on the monastery: Nestorian 2The Nestorians were not the only ones to do this. The Celtic missions movement of the first millenium was also centered on the monastery. But of course, they did not have to do it this way. They could have had the church as the center point. Nestorian 1If one looks at these diamonds, one sees a nice wholistic support system… educational, economic, physical, and sociospiritual. But one might wonder at the apparent redundancy of having two entities that were sociospiritual… the church and the monastery. But the two are very different. Some would describe the church as a modality structure and a monastery as a sodality structure. I guess, to avoid more fancy words, one could say that:

            Church   is centered on       People
            Monastery      is centered on     Purpose

A church exists as an assembly (and assembling) of local Christians. It exists for believers to worship, fellowship, support each other. A monastery is a handpicked group of Christians who have joined together for a specific purpose. For Nestorian missions… the monastery was a missional structure. What do we see when a missional sodality (or purpose centered) structure is the key? Very rapid growth of missions… a nice thing. We saw it in Nestorian missions and in Celtic missions. In fact, most missional movements were driven by sodality (purpose-centered) structures… at least at first. What do we see long-term when sodality structures remain the center? With the Nestorian movement, it eventually lost its missional vigor… and the movement faded (not disappeared… but faded). With the Celtic movement, it was swallowed up by the Roman structure (which was centered, ultimately, on the church, not the monastery).

So if this observation has any merit, what would that suggest?

Missions is driven (at least on the frontier) by sodality (missional purpose-centered) structures. However, to endure, the center should transfer to the church. The people (local people) are the key to longevity.

What to do with Idols

I come from an area where idols (as a physical representation of a god, or a material focus of worship) are rare at best, but we find them more here in the Philippines in different forms. As Christians, what do we do with them?

Some suggest they should be destroyed, noting I Corinthians 10:20 (and Deuteronomy 32:16-17, and more) that at least implies that there are demons associated with physical idols. However, there are a lot of verses that emphasize that physical idols have no power at all (outside of the faith placed in them). Perhaps the truth is that any act that rejects God’s supremacy and worthiness for worship is demonic… rather than that idols themselves are demonic.

Some retain them as cultural works of art. If idols have no power of themselves, then they are simply the physical form of a symbol… and symbols have no intrinsic meaning, only what meaning is given to them. When the symbol of the material idol is divested of its religious meaning, it can be reinterpreted with its cultural meaning. I will leave that for others to decide… however in general if Christians reject everything that has ever had a historical link with paganism or other false religions, there would be little left (even within Christianity) that could be acceptable.

Even if one believes there are demons associated with material idols, that does not mean they are forever tainted any more than a person oppressed by demons is irredeemable.

BUT LET’S TAKE A BIGGER VIEW OF IDOLS, understanding that any activity, concept, or object that takes the place of God is, functionally, an idol… or functionally our god. Christopher J.H. Wright speaks of four.

1.  That which inspires awe.  The sun, moon, and stars, are common objects of idolization… but not alone. Aspects of the cycle of seasons or fertility have also become objects of worship. Or perhaps “science” or “beauty.”

2.  That which entices. We are enticed by wealth. We are enticed by power. Money. Popularity. Drugs. Sex. They draw and seduce us. That can easily become idols.

3.  That which we fear. Much of paganism seeks to fight dangerous spirits, or hold off natural disasters. In fact, all of us have that tendency to worship what endangers us. Personality cults (whether religious or secular/governmental) often lead to a form of worship— sometime based on their personal charm, but as often by the power they have over the people.

4.  That which we trust. This is an obvious response to what we fear. If we worship (or respond with religious fervor) to what we fear, we equally and similarly respond to what may protect us from that fear.

So what do we do about these idols? Do we destroy what we have awe for, what we fear, or what we trust? Doesn’t seem like a good idea. Do we make them cultural artifacts? Again, in many cases, this is not practical. In missions classes many talk about power encounter… sending in God to battle the “gods.” That may have some relevance in paganism where power projection is a major component of the belief system(s). But again, that seems pretty limited and does not take into account the different types of idols. So lets consider the options:

1.  That which leaves us in awe. Commonly, this is nature. But it can include concepts or human constructs as well. What do we do with such idols? We redirect to the ultimate source. The heavens declare the glory of God.

We don’t destroy nature or that which inspires awe… we direct people to the ultimate source of that awe.

2.  That which entices. The lust of the eyes and the lust of the flesh. For many, these idols (money, popularity, power, and so forth) are the most dangerous. These are the one’s that need to be dealt the most unambiguously. They may not need to be destroyed. If beauty entices, the solution would not be to make things ugly. But the things that entice must be revalued—  and replaced with God as the highest.

3.  That which inspires fear. God declares Himself at times with expressions of fear… but typically in terms of fear as it comes to issues of obedience (like “fearing” one’s parents and so obeying them over one’s buddies). For these idols, I believe they should push us towards that which inspires trust. Because of who we trust, we don’t need to idolize fear.

4.  That which inspires trust. God chooses to express Himself to us in terms of trust:  A good shepherd, a loving father, a righteous king. Often what entices becomes what we trust. Again, what inspires trust, other than God, needs to be recognized as heavily limited.

But let’s take this further. I believe that all need to move towards number 4. God as a center of awe is great. As such He may be transcendent, but also objective and abstract. God must be relational and loving and personal. As such, God must be the center of our trust, not merely center of our awe (or fear or desire).

Dual Citizenship and God Flipping a Coin

A former pastor of mine shared the following controversial quotes from William H. Willimon and Stanley Hauerwas in “Lord, Teach us: The Lord’s Prayer & Christian Life”

“To invoke the name of the free, mighty God as patron of our causes is to take the name of God in vain. So when a president prays a public prayer, calling on God to bless our troops going to war, that is blasphemy. God’s name is not to used as a rubber stamp for our causes. Luther said, whatever you would offer your daughter for, that is your God. We justify the sacrifice of our children based on our support for American democracy and freedom, but it may be a matter of worship and prayer.”

“Our culture has a way of driving out of the discussion those who do not bow at the culture’s altars.”

These are strong words… and I am not sure I completely agree. For example, asking God to bless the troops, really does not sound like blasphemy to me. God does not appear to completely reject war, at least in response to greater evils (admitting that there are relatively few evils greater than war… God may not a “hawk” but not a complete “dove” either). And even if God was completely against wars… I can hardly see why it would be wrong to (humbly) ask God to side with individuals forced to put their lives at risk by people of power. I was in the military and, in fact, served in a war (although I neither had to fire on the enemy nor receive fire). I would like to think that people can feel free to pray for my well-being without incurring God’s wrath for “blasphemy.”

Still, the tendency to gleefully mix religion and war, and God and country is a concern for me. The German military put “Gott mit uns” (God with us) on their armor from the formation of the German empire until the end of World War II. Russians did similarly with “Съ нами Богъ!” They are, of course, not alone.

I am an American citizen, since I was born in the USA. I presently live in the Philippines, but I am not a citizen of the Philippines since to do so would require me to renounce my US citizenship. I don’t see myself ever doing that. My wife and children are blessed with the option of dual citizenship… being citizens of two nations.

However, I do have two higher citizenships… giving me three and the rest of my family four. One of those is to HUMANITY. That means that I identify my place as a human as being higher than my place as an American. As a missionary, that is especially important. I have to care about people I serve in the mission field more than I care about people of my own nationality or ethnicity (or maybe I should say that I care about all peoples and people equally). The other is to God (or God’s Kingdom). As a Christian I must serve God first, man second. This is, of course, touchy.

Some people seem to disobey a surprising number of diverse laws on the pretext that it violates God’s higher law. Years ago, a “Christian” School of Law, lied about its tenure policy on the (highly doubtful) argument that God opposes tenure. I doubt God feels that much one way or another about tenure. I have known people who don’t pay taxes because tax money gets used for ungodly things. Of course there probably has never been a millisecond of time anywhere on earth where civil taxes only got used for godly things. Since God’s Word does not condemn paying taxes, one must assume that individuals today are applying sophistry rather than godly discernment to the issue. Still, there are times where God’s commands are in clear unambiguous conflict with human law and one must decide which law is higher in one’s life.

But, changing the subject, and returning to the quotes above, I am reminded of a skit in Monty Python’s Flying Circus. (I can’t seem to find it right now. Do I have the right show?) But there were two medieval kings facing each other in split screen. Each is praying to God as a representative of the righteous against the evil enemy. Obviously, there is a problem here. Both think they are right, the other wrong, and that God should be siding with “The Us” against “The Them”. The screen then splits along the other axis and we see an anthropomorphized God looking down at both and uncertain what to do. Then God flips a coin and based on that coin flip, God decides to favor one king over the other. Obviously, the skit is meant to be funny and somewhat irreverent. But more than this, it draws into question the idea of God.

For me, however, it draws into question a logic that actually goes back thousands of years. In our polytheistic past, gods were tied to countries. When a nation/people conquered another group, it was felt that their god conquered the other’s god.

With monotheism came a different view. There is only one God. Countries then seek to link God to their own nation. “God is on our side so others are on the side of evil.” One might note that this more modern view is simply a monotheistic version of the same logic.

But that is actually minor.  The obvious flaw is that it reverses things. It asks whether God is on our side rather than whether we are on God’s side. (See Joshua 5 for this).

God is not a member of any one nation. God is not even a “dual” citizen. God is also not a member of a particular denomination or religion… nor is He ecumenical or interfaith. We have it reversed. As missionaries, we like to think that God is on our side. But we also have it reversed.

Are we on God’s side?

Historical Christian Mission Movements

I rather liked the chart in Patrick Johnstone’s book “The Church is Bigger than you Think: The Unfinished Work of World Evangelization.” The chart shows the major mission movements from the beginning of the church age until the 21st century.

Historical Christian Mission Movements
Historical Christian Mission Movements

Curiously, I couldn’t find ANYTHING on the Internet that was remotely useful in this area. Ralph Winter’s 3 eras of the Modern Protestant Mission Movement is there… but it is limited to one major movement. The others are extremely limited… often only focusing on Protestant Missions or missions of the Western Church. To understand what God is doing (God works in both time and space so “is” doesn’t mean only in the 21st century) we need to see the broader movements. You will note some things.

  • First, Mission Movements were almost exclusively limited to the Eastern Church in the first Millenium. The second Millenium is mostly the Western church. The third Millenium APPEARS to be global (East and West).
  • Also note that these only include major mission movements… it doesn’t include all missions. For example, the Eastern church is quite active in Missions even today… but doesn’t necessarily fit the (very loose) definition of missionary movement. Protestants were involved in missions (at least on the small scale) from the beginning… but did not reach a level one might describe as a movement until the time of Baron von Zinzendorf.
  • One might describe missions today (Historically Christian missions) as existing in three movements. The Roman Catholic missions movement that began with the colonial powers Spain and Portugal continues strong. The Protestant missions movement, often described as initiating with William Carey in 1792, is still going fairly strong. Both of these could be described as the work of the “Western Church”.  In addition to this is the 2/3 world churches. These are churches and missionaries from countries that only a few years ago would be described as “missionary receiving.” Some of these churches and missionaries would be described as coming from Western traditions… but not all, as many have a strongly indigenous flavor.