Traditional Christian concept of God borrowed from — the Indians?

I recently discovered the writings of W. Somerset Maugham. I don’t know how I avoided him my whole life, but now that I’ve found him I think he’s great. He doesn’t appear to be Christian at all, certainly not Catholic, but he does seem fascinated with religion in general. It could be that he was privately religious but didn’t choose to advertise it. (For all I know his religious leanings are common knowledge, but I’ve only just started reading him and know little of his biography.)

So far I’ve read On Human Bondage and The Razor’s Edge. The following quotes from the latter caught my attention. In particular it struck me that some of the Indian religions seem to have a concept of God, or as they call it the Absolute, that in some ways is very like the traditional Christian conception. I’ve often heard it said that Christianity borrowed its ideas of God’s eternity, infinity and immateriality from the Greeks, but if so then maybe the Greeks got it from the Indians.

Of course there are major differences between these ideas and the traditional Christian God. But there are important differences between the Greek and Christian Gods too. What I’m struck by are the similarities.

These descriptions come from the character named Larry, who has returned from years spent in India seeking spiritual enlightenment:

“I was looking at the colossal image with its three heads which is the great sight at Elephanta and wondering what it was all about when I heard someone behind me say: … ‘Brahma, the Creator,’ he said. ‘Vishnu the Preserver and Siva the Destroyer. The three manifestations of the Ultimate Reality.'” ‘I’m afraid I don’t quite understand,’ I said.” ‘I’m not surprised,’ he answered, with a little smile on his lips and a twinkle in his eyes, as though he were gently mocking me. ‘A God that can be understood is no God. Who can explain the Infinite in words?'” [p. 252.]

“You talk very familiarly of the Absolute, Larry, and it’s an imposing word. What does it actually signify to you?” “Reality. You can’t say what it is; you can only say what it isn’t. It’s inexpressible. The Indians call it Brahman. It’s nowhere and everywhere. All things imply and depend upon it. … It transcends permanence and change; whole and part, finite and infinite. It is eternal because its completeness and perfection are unrelated to time. It is truth and freedom.” [p. 260]

“You see, the difficulty is to explain why Brahman, which is Being, Bliss and Intelligence, which is unalterable, which ever is and forever maintains itself in rest, which lacks nothing and needs nothing and so knows neither charge nor strife, which is perfect, should create the world.” [p. 268]

There is no reason to think this next part was meant to refer specifically to the Mormons, but its description of God to me sounds a lot like what Bruce Charlton has put forth as the type of God belief in which might solve the problem of evil (which Bruce believes describes the Mormon concept of God):

[After having spoken of the problem of evil, Larry says,] “I didn’t see why you shouldn’t believe in a God who hadn’t created the world, but had to make the best of the bad job he’d found, a being enormously better, wiser and greater than man, who strove with the evil he hadn’t made and who you hoped might in the end overcome it. But on the other hand, I didn’t see why you should.” [p. 247]

And now the best, that is, the most expressly Catholic part, though again Maugham was not a Catholic:

[The character named Elliott says,] “Now call up the bishop and say that I wish to make my confession and receive Extreme Unction. … [L]ittle more than half an hour later a black sedan drew up at the door. … “Conduct me to the sick man,” [the bishop] said. … The bishop turned to the nurse and me. “Leave us.” And then to the abbé: “I will call you when I am ready.” …

Through the closed door I could hear the muffled murmur of voices. Elliott was making his confession. … I heard the bishop’s voice once more and I knew he was saying the prayers that the Church has ordained should be said for the dying. Then there was another silence and I knew that Elliott was partaking of the body and the blood of Christ.

From I know not what feeling, inherited, I suppose, from far-away ancestors, though not a Catholic I can never attend Mass without a sense of tremulous awe when the little tinkle of the servitor’s bell informs me of the Elevation of the Host; and now, similarly, I shivered as though a cold wind ran through me, I shivered with fear and wonder. The door was opened once more, “You may come in,” said the bishop. I entered. The abbé was spreading the cambric napkin over the cup and the little gilt plate on which the consecrated wafer had lain. Elliott’s eyes shone. [pp. 228-229]

W. Somerset Maugham, The Razor’s Edge, London:Heinemann 1964 (first published 1944).

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5 thoughts on “Traditional Christian concept of God borrowed from — the Indians?

  1. ” Bruce Charlton has put forth as the type of God belief in which might solve the problem of evil (which Bruce believes describes the Mormon concept of God):…

    “a God who hadn’t created the world, but had to make the best of the bad job he’d found, a being enormously better, wiser and greater than man, who strove with the evil he hadn’t made and who you hoped might in the end overcome it.”

    Just like to clarify I don’t believe this, and I don’t believe that Mormons believe it either! For Mormon theology, Jehovah – that is to say Jesus Christ – created the world we live in. This is likely to be the same as many Mainstream Christians believe (or at least those who beieve Jehovah was Jesus – which seems to be many theologically sophisticated Mainstream Christians).

    The disagreement is over whether God the Father creates from nothing/ ex nihilo – Mainstream says yes, Mormons (and I) say no.

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    • Bruce:

      You’re right, of course. Mormons believe God created the world, meaning the earth. But I was taking “world” in the sense of “everything that exists”. I understood your argument to be that if God isn’t all-powerful, in other words doesn’t have power over everything that exists, since he didn’t create it all, then he can’t be blamed for evil since he can only do his best with what he finds already existing.

      If I misunderstood you I’m glad to be corrected.

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