Spiritual practices and evangelism
I was hoping that you would be able to give me some resources, please. A couple of work colleagues are, in their own words, “on a spiritual journey”. One is deep into Buddhism and all that that entails, whilst the other is into spiritual mediums. My understanding is that they both believe in God, though their understanding of Him is obviously skewed.
I do interject my faith as much as I deem wise, but was wondering if you would have any advice regarding what can be said to refute their need to visit mediums, or to meditate and chant to reach their deity to become better people?
Much appreciate your help (and ALL that you do!).
CMI’s Shaun Doyle responds:
Thanks for your email. Sorry for the lateness of my reply. I’ve been trying to put it together in a way that will help you not only with information, but perspectives on how to engage. I hope my thoughts below are helpful to you.
How to engage?
To offer a refutation of their perspective, you would need to know what they specifically believe. However, I think that aiming to refute their ideas is probably not the primary approach you should take to their perspectives. At least, at first. Of course, they are trapped in error, and we want them to reject the error and come to the truth. That’s not the issue. The issue is more about the way you engage.
Since you work with these people, you’re not really in the place of an abject ‘outsider’ who can challenge them without social repercussions, but neither are you a close confidant with whom they would feel safe even while receiving direct criticism. Rather, they’re acquaintance-level co-workers. You’re in each other’s social sphere, but only for set purposes that are not related to personal camaraderie, and those purposes require you to regard harmony as a primary concern. Plus, religious discussions have a huge potential to upset that harmony and cause trouble for you, and Christianity in particular is seen in a very negative light by many people. And sometimes, the reasons why they see it negatively accurately reflect the Christian position, e.g. the claim that Jesus is the only way to God. I’m not saying that aspect of Christianity is a bad thing; I’m saying that they might correctly identify Christ’s claims, but react negatively to them as ‘intolerant’, ‘bigoted’, ‘arrogant’, and ‘exclusivistic’. And this impression will likely be confirmed in their minds if we start off by trying to refute their perspective. Their reaction may be wrongheaded, but it’s a common reaction to the Gospel in our culture, no matter how graciously we present it. The Gospel itself still does offend people. As such, there is generally a decent level of risk one must take into account when talking about such things in the workplace. It doesn’t mean such discussions are impossible, even ones that allow for reasonably sharp disagreement. But you have to be careful about how you engage such things.
As such, I’d suggest as a first step, rather than highlighting the differences between you and your co-workers, you could begin a discussion surrounding the similarities in your practices, beliefs, and concerns.
Consider, for instance, the idea of them visiting mediums, meditating, and chanting. As it turns out, there are analogues to those things in Christian spiritual/religious practice: going to church, praying, and reading the Bible. Of course, they’re not the same. But that might raise an interesting discussion: what are the similarities and differences? And note the orientation of this first step: the goal isn’t to persuade your co-workers that you’re right and they’re wrong. The goal is simply to understand their perspectives. This is your opportunity to learn: how do your co-workers see the similarities and differences? You are likely to have pretty definite beliefs about the similarities and differences, in light of basic biblical claims: there is only one God worthy of worship, we shouldn’t pursue spiritual guidance except from Him and the ways He has provided to us. But it’s really interesting to see how others parse out the differences. What do they think Christians are doing? Do they think it’s good, bad, or indifferent? How do they compare it to what they prefer to do? Put simply, I think your first job is to try and understand their perspective and how it works as best as you can. It’s not about you: it’s about them.
But in the course of such a discussion, the Bible’s prohibition on mediums might come up, and there’s a good chance it will offend your co-workers. They might react negatively, with questions like: “How could you believe that?” If this happens, offer them options for how the conversation might continue. Say something like: “Do you want to know why? I’m happy to say. But if you want to leave it alone, that’s OK too.” They might be intrigued enough to listen, or they might be too offended to listen. The goal is to assure them that they don’t have to stick around and listen to you. You’re not ramming it down their throats. You will only offer a response at their genuine invitation to do so. They can walk away at any time, and you can accept it with grace even if they never want to speak about it again.
But say they say something like: “Well, go on, then!” Tread carefully. If at any point you sense even the slightest degree of insincerity or belligerence in their ‘invitation’ to say why you believe it, back out. Refuse to answer and walk away from the conversation. But do so gently. Say something like: “This feels like it’s getting a little heated. I’m just gonna leave it aside for now.” You do not want to engage in a fight. Remember, they probably judge you on the basis of the cardinal value of our culture: ‘tolerance’. Plus, remember where you are: the workplace. The bosses won’t like the fights. So, if you fight, you lose. You lose them. You lose the argument in their eyes. And you could do damage to your job.
The whole goal here is, if possible, to get to a point where they can receive your criticism of their views in peace. But you have to earn that privilege, and it would be best to critique their views by their genuine invitation. Unsolicited criticism of their views, whether direct or indirect, will most likely be received badly and damage your reputation at work. The way forward is to always be respectful, to show that you can properly understand where they’re coming from, and (when you’re given the opportunity) to be able to give a reasonable account of your views.
In light of that, how might you prepare? The rest of the material below is more for your information than their consideration; I’m not treating them as my primary audience. So, what I say below, while I’m doing my best to ‘play the ball and not the man’, could still come off much harsher to their ears than I’d ever want to portray if I spoke to them personally. And some of what I say may not apply to them personally—especially your Buddhist co-worker.
The rationale behind Christian spiritual practices
First, what is the rationale behind Christian spiritual practices like prayer, Bible reading, and church? Fundamentally, they are acts of worship. They are means by which we commune with God, both individually and corporately. They also serve as practice and preparation for eternal life, which is eternal communion with God and His people.
Prayer is a means for us to communicate with God. We can tell Him how we’re feeling, ask Him for things, confess our faults, and thank Him for his blessings. As such, it’s a relational practice, and not just a spiritual exercise for one’s own benefit.
The Bible reinforces this, since it’s the foundational means by which God speaks to us, making the relation a two-way street. In it He tells us His mighty acts in creation and salvation, He reveals to us His ways, and how we should follow Him. Among other things, the Bible is God’s meditation literature for us. As Paul says in Romans 15:4:
For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.
The Scriptures are there, in part, for us to reflect upon and find encouragement so that we can continue in our hope of eternal life. They also teach us, correct us, and make us wise for salvation. Scripture has an objectivity to its content that is lacking in most eastern mystical texts, in that through it God teaches us about reality. As such, it grounds us in reality in a way other spiritualities and religions can’t do; it points out that there are realities to which we must conform, and not just feelings we need to affirm. Just as ignoring gravity at the edge of a cliff is bad for you, so ignoring truths about e.g. Jesus is bad for you. We’re all on a spiritual journey, but many roads lead nowhere (or nowhere good). A steadying guide is what we need, and that’s what the Bible provides.
And church extends that communion beyond ourselves to other people. We are creatures designed not simply for communion with God, but also with each other. God himself said to Adam before the Fall “it is not good for the man to be alone”, and created Eve as a result. The pre-Fall condition was only “very good” after Adam had a companion like him. We need human companionship, and God provides that for us by uniting us together in Christ. Moreover, there is wisdom in community that can exceed the wisdom we can get by ourselves. When we worship with God’s people, it forces other people before us in the presence of the divine mystery in a way that can help correct our individualistic errors and excesses. We strive together to submit to Someone higher than any of us, and we can help each other smooth off the rough edges we all have, but often don’t realize we have without that interaction.
Why reject mediums?
For mediums, it’s pretty simple: all you need is to know why the Bible prohibits it. If you combine two passages, the Bible’s rationale becomes clear: Deuteronomy 18:14–15 and 1 John 4:1:
The nations you will dispossess listen to those who practice sorcery or divination. But as for you, the LORD your God has not permitted you to do so. The LORD your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your fellow Israelites. You must listen to him.
Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world.
Listen only to those God has sent. Why? They’re the only ones we can know we can trust. If you know they’re not from God, He says we can’t trust them. If you don’t know whether they’re from God, don’t trust them. What’s the concern here? Spiritual safety. We know God is perfectly good, powerful, and knowledgeable. That’s what He is by nature. He is a reliable guide, and anyone He sends is a reliable guide. But people we don’t know? Spirits we don’t know? It’s too risky to trust them. Spiritual lives are at stake.
Interestingly, I think this would be wise advice even if the Bible weren’t true, or even if God didn’t exist. Why? Because God is the only one who is completely trustworthy. He’s all-good, all-powerful, and all-knowing. He is the ultimate source of truth. So, if we don’t know where a spirit comes from, how can we trust it? If God doesn’t exist, what can guarantee a reliable guide to the spiritual world? Nothing, so far as I can see. And since we have no experience of that world, we need to know our guide for it is reliable. But since we can’t know that, the safest bet is always caution.
How to respond to Buddhism?
But what about Buddhism? We have a few resources relevant to Buddhism: The Dalai Lama, the Templeton Prize and Buddhism, Buddha, science and Jesus, and Heaven vs nirvana. The last one offers a very basic outline of the “Four Noble Truths” of Buddhism and how it works.
How might we respond to that? Buddhism in its foundational forms reduces everything in our experience to mere perception/illusion. Nothing points to anything ‘really real’ or ‘truly true’. But if so, how can we know the truth of such a position? If nothing points to ‘true truth’, then have no way to separate truth from falsehood. But that also applies to the claim ‘Buddhism is true’. Therefore, if Buddhism is true, there’s no way to know that it’s true. It’s self-referentially incoherent to hold to.
Or do they avoid saying ‘Buddhism is true’? I think if they’re willing to retreat to such a view in light of not being able to know it’s true, then they’ve given you definitive reason to reject it. Maybe it makes them feel good, or gives them a sense of meaning, or whatever. But drugs can do the same things! The natural retort to this may be: ‘Drugs destroy the body. Buddhism doesn’t destroy anything.’ Not so! Buddhism plausibly destroys the spirit. It avoids dealing in truth, and yet a core doctrine is anatman, which means ‘no self’. The idea is that there is no enduring ‘I’. Functionally speaking, ‘I’ don’t exist. No Buddhist can get around the doctrine of anatman because it’s the core criticism launched at its parent religion: Hinduism. Hinduism talks of the atman or the ‘self’ or ‘soul’ as a person’s foundational reality (either in pantheistic terms as identical to Brahman (the supreme reality), or in more panentheistic (or even theistic) terms as related to Brahman). Buddhism is a fundamental denial of atman. Speculating on the metaphysics of this is pointless because the whole point of this denial is that metaphysics is pointless. But in going this far, as I showed above, this undermines any talk of truth as opposed to falsehood. Indeed, it undermines any talk at all. If they wish to stay in such ‘silence’, then they literally have nothing to offer, let alone anything of value to offer. Even to themselves! The absurdities Buddhism reduces to really should make a person consider whether it is a healthy spiritual path. Of course, their advocacy of a life of moderation is something we can generally appreciate. But one doesn’t need to be a Buddhist to believe a life of moderation is generally good. Indeed, one can’t (consistently) be a Buddhist and believe a life of moderation is truly good. One needs a metaphysically real standard of goodness (i.e. God) for a life of moderation to be truly good. The best of Buddhism points to God, and the rest is by their own doctrines meaningless.
However, Buddhism is a world religion, and a highly syncretistic one. As such, it has a multitude of sects and perspectives, and it’s highly context dependent as to how it manifests. For instance, is your friend a native Westerner? If so, then their Buddhism will almost certainly be very different, and much less ‘spiritual’ (in the sense of accepting the ‘reality’ of spirits—I put ‘reality’ in scare quotes because the very notion of ‘reality’ is slippery in Buddhism) than someone from East Asia or India. My article Heaven vs nirvana describes some of the basics of Buddhism, but how applicable even that is to your co-worker is hard to say. This is why I stress that you need to understand their perspective, and not simply read an article or book that covers ‘Buddhism 101’. What they understand their Buddhism to be may differ a lot from the sort of stuff you’d hear in a ‘Buddhism 101’ class.
Evangelizing in the workplace is tricky business; there are a lot of pitfalls one must watch out for, because they can have serious consequences. But, if done with gentleness and respect, always giving the opportunity for the co-workers to opt out of the conversation at any time, and offering up a reasonable witness for Christ, it can help people see the truth, goodness, and beauty of our Lord. A helpful general resource for this would be Christianity for Skeptics. And you have several commonalities with your co-workers we Christians don’t always have: they believe in spiritual things and have a concern to pursue them. That’s a good place to start from. But always remember to speak the truth in love.
Creation Ministries International