Oriental Religions and Christianity Part 1

Oriental Religions and Christianity.

by Frank F. Ellinwood.


The following lectures, prepared amid many cares and duties, have aimed to deal only with practical questions which are demanding attention in our time. They do not claim to constitute a treatise with close connections and a logical order. Each presents a distinct topic, or a particular phase of the present conflict of Christian truth with the errors of the non-Christian religions. This independent treatment must constitute my apology for an occasional repetition of important facts or opinions which have a common bearing on different discussions. No claim is made to scholarship in the Oriental languages. The ability to compare original sources and determine dates and intricate meanings of terms, or settle points in dispute by a wide research in Sanscrit or Pali literatures, can only be obtained by those who spend years in study along these special lines. But so many specialists have now made known the results of their prolonged linguistic studies in the form of approved English translations, that, as Professor Max Muller has well said in his introduction to "The Sacred Books of the East," "there is no longer any excuse for ignorance of the rich treasures of Oriental Literature."

Two considerations lend special importance to the topics here discussed.

First, that the false systems in question belong not merely to the past, but to our own time. And second, that the increased intercommunication of this age brings us into closer contact with them. They are no longer afar off and unheard of, nor are they any longer lying in passive slumber. Having received quickening influences from our Western civilization, and various degrees of sympathy from certain types of Western thought, they have become aggressive and are at our doors.

On controverted points I have made frequent quotations, for the reason that the testimonies or opinions of writers of acknowledged competency are best given in their own words.

I have labored under a profound conviction that, whatever may be the merit and success of these modest efforts, the general class of subjects treated is destined to receive increased attention in the near future; that the Christian Church will not long be content to miscalculate the great conquest which she is attempting against the heathen systems of the East and their many alliances with the infidelity of the West. And I am cheered with a belief that, in proportion to the intelligent discrimination which shall be exercised in judging of the non-Christian religions, and the skill which shall be shown in presenting the immensely superior truths of the Christian faith, will the success of the great work of Missions be increased.

It scarcely needs to be said that I have not even attempted to give anything like a complete view of the various systems of which I have spoken. Only a few salient points have been touched upon, as some practical end has required. But if the mere outline here given shall lead any to a fuller investigation of the subjects discussed, I shall be content. I am satisfied that the more thoroughly the Gospel of Redemption is compared with the futile systems of self-righteousness which man has devised, the more wonderful it will appear.


NEW YORK, January 20, 1892.


The lectures contained in this volume were delivered to the students of Union Theological Seminary in the year 1891, as one of the courses established in the Seminary by Mr. Zebulon Stiles Ely, in the following terms:

"The undersigned gives the sum of ten thousand dollars to the Union Theological Seminary of the city of New York, to found a lectureship in the same, the title of which shall be 'The Elias P.

Ely Lectures on the Evidences of Christianity.'

"The course of lectures given on this foundation is to comprise any topics that serve to establish the proposition that Christianity is a religion from God, or that it is the perfect and final form of religion for man.

"Among the subjects discussed may be:

"The Nature and Need of a Revelation;

"The Character and Influence of Christ and his Apostles;

"The Authenticity and Credibility of the Scriptures, Miracles, and Prophecy;

"The Diffusion and Benefits of Christianity; and

"The Philosophy of Religion in its Relation to the Christian System.

"Upon one or more of such subjects a course of ten public lectures shall be given, at least once in two or three years. The appointment of the lecturer is to be by the concurrent action of the directors and faculty of said Seminary and the undersigned; and it shall ordinarily be made two years in advance."




It is said that the very latest among the sciences is the Science of Religion. Without pausing to inquire how far it admits of scientific treatment, certain reasons which may be urged for the study of the existing religions of the world will be considered in this lecture. It must be admitted in the outset that those who have been the pioneers in this field of research have not, as a rule, been advocates of the Christian faith. The anti-Christian theory that all religions may be traced to common causes, that common wants and aspirations of mankind have led to the development of various systems according to environment, has until recently been the chief spur to this class of studies.

Accordingly, the religions of the world have been submitted to some preconceived philosophy of language, or ethnology, or evolution, with the emphasis placed upon such facts as seemed to comport with this theory. Meanwhile there has been an air of broad-minded charity in the manner in which the apologists of Oriental systems have treated the subject. They have included Christ in the same category with Plato and Confucius, and have generally placed Him at the head; and this supposed breadth of sentiment has given them a degree of influence with dubious and wavering Christians, as well as with multitudes who are without faith of any kind.

In this country the study of comparative religion has been almost entirely in the hands of non-evangelical writers. We have had "The Ten Great Religions," from the pen of Rev. James Freeman Clarke; "The Oriental Religions," written with great labor by the late Samuel Johnson; and Mr. Moncure D. Conway's "Anthology," with its flowers, gathered from the sacred books of all systems, and so chosen as to carry the implication that they all are equally inspired. Many other works designed to show that Christianity was developed from ancient sun myths, or was only a plagiarism upon the old mythologies of India, have been current among us. But strangely enough, the Christian Church has seemed to regard this subject as scarcely worthy of serious consideration. With the exception of a very able work on Buddhism,[1] and several review articles on Hinduism, written by Professor S.H. Kellogg, very little has been published from the Christian standpoint.[2] The term "heathenism"

has been used as an expression of contempt, and has been applied with too little discrimination.

There is a reason, perhaps, why these systems have been underestimated.

It so happened that the races among whom the modern missionary enterprise has carried on its earlier work were mostly simple types of pagans, found in the wilds of America, in Greenland and Labrador, in the West Indies, on the African coast, or in the islands of the Pacific; and these worshippers of nature or of spirits gave a very different impression from that which the Apostles and the Early Church gained from their intercourse with the conquering Romans or the polished and philosophic Greeks. Our missionary work has been symbolized, as Sir William W. Hunter puts it, by a band of half-naked savages listening to a missionary seated under a palm-tree, and receiving his message with child-like and unquestioning faith.

But in the opening of free access to the great Asiatic nations, higher grades of men have been found, and with these we now have chiefly to do.

The pioneer of India's missions, the devoted Ziegenbalg, had not been long in his field before he learned the mistake which the churches in Europe had made in regard to the religion and philosophy of the Hindus.

He laid aside all his old notions when he came to encounter the metaphysical subtleties of Hindu thought, when he learned something of the immense Hindu literature, the voluminous ethics, the mystical and weird mythologies, the tremendous power of tradition and social customs--when, in short, he found his way hedged up by habits of thought wholly different from his own; and he resolved to know something of the religion which the people of India already possessed.

For the benefit of others who might follow him he wrote a book on Hinduism and its relations to Christianity, and sent it to Europe for publication. But so strong were the preconceived notions which prevailed among his brethren at home, that his manuscript, instead of being published, was suppressed. "You were not sent to India to study Hinduism," wrote Franke, "but to preach the Gospel." But Ziegenbalg certainly was not wanting in his estimate of the chief end in view, and his success was undoubtedly far greater for the intelligent plan upon which he labored. The time came when a change had passed over the society which had sent him forth. Others, less friendly than he to the Gospel of Christ, had studied Hinduism, and had paraded it as a rival of Christianity; and in self-defence against this flank movement, the long-neglected work of Ziegenbalg was brought forth from obscurity and published.

It is partly in self-defence against similar influences, that the Christian Church everywhere is now turning increased attention to the study of Comparative Religion. In Great Britain a wider interest has been felt in the subject than in this country. And yet, even there the Church has been far behind the enemies of evangelical truth in comparing Christianity with false systems. Dr. James Stalker, of Glasgow, said a few months since that, whereas it might be expected that the advocates of the true faith would be the first to compare and contrast it with the false systems of the world, the work had been left rather to those who were chiefly interested in disparaging the truth and exalting error. Yet something has been done. Such men as Sir Monier Williams, Sir William Muir, Professors Rawlinson, Fairbairn, and Legge, Bishop Carpenter, Canon Hardwick, Doctors Caird, Dodds, Mitchell, and others, have given the false systems of the East a thorough and candid treatment from the Christian standpoint. The Church Missionary Society holds a lectureship devoted to the study of the non-Christian religions as a preparation for missionary work. And the representatives of that Society in the Punjab have instituted a course of study on these lines for missionaries recently arrived, and have offered prizes for the best attainments therein. Though we are later in this field of investigation, yet here also there is springing up a new interest, and it is safe to predict that within another decade the real character of the false religions will be more generally understood.

The prejudice which has existed in regard to this subject has taken two different forms: First, there has been the broad assumption upon which Franke wrote to Ziegenbalg, that all knowledge of heathenism is worse than useless. Good men are asking, "Is not such a study a waste of energy, when we are charged with proclaiming the only saving truth? Is not downright earnestness better than any possible knowledge of philosophies and superstitions?" And we answer, "Yes: by all means, if only the one is possible." Another view of the subject is more serious.

May there not, after all, be danger in the study of false systems? Will there not be found perplexing parallels which will shake our trust in the positive and exclusive supremacy of the Christian faith?

Now, even if there were at first some risks to a simple, child-like confidence, yet a timid attitude involves far greater risks: it amounts to a half surrender, and it is wholly out of place in this age of fearless and aggressive discussion, when all truth is challenged, and every form of error must be met. Moreover, in a thorough study there is no danger. Sir Monier Williams tells us that at first he was surprised and a little troubled, but in the end he was more than ever impressed with the transcendent truths of the Christian faith. Professor S.H.

Kellogg assures us that the result of his careful researches in the Oriental systems is a profounder conviction of the great truths of the Gospel as divine. And even Max Muller testifies that, while making every allowance for whatever is good in the ethnic faiths, he has been the more fully convinced of the great superiority of Christianity. Really, those are in danger who receive only the superficial and misleading representations of heathenism which one is sure to meet in our magazine literature, or in works like "Robert Elsmere" and "The Light of Asia."

One cannot fail to mark the different light in which we view the mythologies of the Greeks and Romans. If their religious beliefs and speculations had remained a secret until our time, if the high ethical precepts of Seneca and Marcus Aurelius had only now been proclaimed, and Socrates had just been celebrated in glowing verse as the "Light of Greece," there would be no little commotion in the religious world, and thousands with only weak and troubled faith might be disturbed. But simply because we thoroughly understand the mythology of Greece and Rome, we have no fear. We welcome all that it can teach us. We cordially acknowledge the virtues of Socrates and assign him his true place. We enrich the fancy and awaken the intellectual energies of our youth by classical studies, and Christianity shines forth with new lustre by contrast with the heathen systems which it encountered in the Roman Empire ages ago.

And yet that was no easy conquest. The early church, when brought face to face with the culture of Greece and the self-assertion of Roman power, when confronted with profound philosophies like those of Plato and Aristotle, with the subtleties of the Stoics, and with countless admixtures of Persian mysticism, had, humanly speaking, quite as formidable a task as those that are presented in the heathen systems of to-day. Very few of the champions of modern heathenism can compare with Celsus, and there are no more subtle philosophies than those of ancient Greece. Evidently, the one thing needed to disenchant the false systems of our time is a clear and accurate knowledge of their merits and demerits, and of their true relation to Christianity.

It will be of advantage, for one thing, if we learn to give credit to the non-Christian religions for the good which they may fairly claim.

There has existed a feeling that they had no rights which Christian men were bound to respect. They have been looked upon as systems of unmixed evil, whose enormities it were impossible to exaggerate. And all such misconceptions and exaggerations have only led to serious reactions.

Anti-Christian writers have made great capital of the alleged misrepresentations which zealous friends of missions have put upon heathenism; and there is always great force in any appeal for fair play, on whichever side the truth may lie. Where the popular Christian idea has presented a low view of some system, scarcely rising above the grade of fetichism, the apologists have triumphantly displayed a profound philosophy. Where the masses of Christian people have credited whole nations with no higher notions of worship than a supreme trust in senseless stocks and stones, some skilful defender has claimed that the idols were only the outward symbols of an indwelling conception of deity, and has proceeded with keen relish to point out a similar use of symbols in the pictures and images of the Christian Church.

From one extreme many people have passed to another, and in the end have credited heathen systems with greater merit than they possess. A marked illustration of this fact is found in the influence which was produced by Sir Edwin Arnold's "Light of Asia." Sentimental readers, passing from surprise to credulity, were ready to invest the "gentle Indian Saint" with Christian conceptions which no real Buddhist ever thought of. Mr. Arnold himself is said to have expressed surprise that people should have given to his poem so serious an interpretation, or should have imagined for a moment that he intended to compare Buddhism with the higher and purer teachings of the New Testament.

In considering some of the reasons which may be urged for the study of false systems, we will first proceed from the standpoint of the candidate for the work of missions. And here there is a broad and general reason which seems too obvious to require much argument. The skilful general or the civil engineer is supposed, of course, to survey the field of contemplated operations ere he enters upon his work. The late Dr. Duff, in urging the importance of a thorough understanding of the systems which a missionary expects to encounter, illustrated his point by a reference to the great Akbar, who before entering upon the conquest of India, twice visited the country in disguise, that he might gain a complete knowledge of its topography, its strongholds, and its points of weakness, and the best methods of attack.

While all religious teachers must understand their tasks, the need of special preparation is particularly urgent in the foreign missionary, owing to his change of environment. Many ideas and methods to which he has been trained, and which would serve him well among a people of his own race, might be wholly out of place in India or China, Ram Chandra Bose, M.A.--himself a converted Brahman--has treated with great discrimination the argument frequently used, that the missionary "need only to proclaim the Glad Tidings." He says: "That the simple story of Christ and him crucified is, after all, the truth on which the regeneration of the Christian and the non-Christian lands must hang, no one will deny. This story, ever fresh, is inherently fitted to touch the dead heart into life, and to infuse vitality into effete nationalities and dead civilizations. But a great deal of rubbish has to be removed in heathen lands, ere its legitimate consequences can be realized. And a patient, persistent study of the false religions, and the complicated systems of philosophy associated with them, enables the missionary to throw out of the way those heaps of prejudices and errors which make it impossible for the story of the cross to reach and influence the heart."[3] It has been very wisely said that "any fragment of truth which lies in a heathen mind unacknowledged is an insuperable barrier against conviction: recognized and used, it might prove a help; neglected and ignored, it is insurmountable."[4]

The late Dr. Mullens learned by careful observation, that the intellectual power of the Hindus had been so warped by false reasoning, that "they could scarcely understand how, when two principles are contradictory, one must be given up as false. They are prepared to receive both sides of a contradiction as true, and they feel at liberty to adopt that which seems the most comfortable. And nothing but a full exposure of evil, with a clear statement of the antagonistic truth, will suffice to awaken so perverted an intellect."[5]

The missionary has often been surprised to find that the idea which he supposed was clearly understood, was wholly warped by the medium of Hindu thought, as a rod is apparently warped when plunged into a stream, or as a beautiful countenance is distorted by the waves and irregularities of an imperfect mirror. To the preacher, sin, for example, is an enormity in the sight of God; but to his Hindu listener it may be only a breach of custom, or a ceremonial uncleanness. The indwelling of the Holy Spirit, as it is set forth in Paul's Epistles, is to the missionary a union in which his personality is still maintained in blest fellowship with God, while to his audience it may be only that out and out pantheism in which the deity within us supplants all individual personality, and not only excludes all joy, but all responsibility.

Chapter end

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