“Mahatma Gandhi said it, ‘I like their Christ, I don’t like their Christian.’ Unfortunately, when Christendom has been hijacked and made into a state religion or a power institution it gets abused… Christianity is a commitment of surrender, not of power over humanity.”
The intellectual pursuit of truth and meaning is a global phenomenon. Whether your truth is that there is no meaning, or that all meaning is found in a metaphysical truth – everyone believes something.
The quantity of time and effort devoted to this pursuit, however, differs widely. For some it is a passing thought or an infrequent activity, but for others like Christian apologist and author, Ravi Zacharias, it is the all consuming purpose of their lives.
The word “apologist” has nothing to do with being sorry. In fact, it has everything to do with thinking one is right. Originating from the Greek word apologizesthai, meaning to “give an account” it refers to “a person who offers an argument in defense of something controversial, typically a theory or religious doctrine.”
Ravi Zacharias has dedicated close to 40 years of his life writing, lecturing, and debating about his belief that the Christian faith is true, and can provide all the answers you seek.
In 1984, he founded the Ravi Zacharias International Ministries (RZIM). The organization now has offices around the world and provides theological training and education through a staff of travelling apologists. Their slogan is: “Helping the thinker believe. Helping the believer think.”
A large part of Ravi Zacharias’ time has been spent creating 20 books, including Jesus among other Gods, The Lotus and the Cross: Jesus talks with Buddha, and Can Man Live Without God?
His latest offering, entitled Why Jesus?: Rediscovering His Truth in an age of Mass Marketed Spirituality, is an examination of the rising popularity of Eastern religion in the West. Zacharias calls the movement “Weastern,” a combination of East and West philosophy. In the book, Ravi argues that the New Spirituality fails to answer fundamental questions regarding meaning and human nature. He juxtaposes these teachings with Christianity and argues that the former rationally fails against the latter.
Following in the footsteps of Christian intellectuals like C.S. Lewis and G.K. Chesterton, Zacharias has positioned himself in the rocky sea’s of religious academia. But that’s exactly where he wants to be: “a classical evangelist in the arena of the intellectually resistant.”
Ravi Zacharias does not shy away from the difficult questions and finds a way to answer with dignity and respect for any audience. Billions wholeheartedly agree with his message. Billions strongly disagree. It’s making for some fantastic debate and stimulating conversation.
There is much I WANNA KNOW from one of Christianity’s sharpest minds.
I spoke with Ravi from his office in Atlanta, Georgia.
From Ravi’s criticisms of the New Spirituality, to Deepak Chopra, to the great intellectuals of our time, to televangelists, to the character of the Biblical God, we cover it all.
(listen/download as a podcast above – or continue reading below)
Ryan Kohls: You coined the phrase ‘Weastern’ spirituality in your new book. What did you mean by that? And, why did you feel now was the time to write a book about this subject?
Ravi Zacharias: There’s a proverb in Hindi which is not the kindest way to refer to a person who is local but acting foreign: Desi murghi pardesi chaal – this is a local chicken with a foreign walk. We used to use that term when somebody had gone abroad and come back and all of the standards, and expectations, changed. When I look at the manifestations of Eastern spirituality in the West, it’s really the reverse. It’s a foreign bird with a local walk. It’s the pantheistic worldview given a Western dress. When you look at Eastern pantheism in the days gone by there was renunciation, there was austerity, there was the retreat from the hustle and bustle of life, and sitting at the foot of a guru – now it’s in the thick of luxury. But, it’s got all the underpinnings of pantheism made more palatable for the West.
The timeliness of it is because so much of it has been mass marketed by the media we now see, and very often in America we absorb ideas without examining the rational or irrational basis for it. So I felt the time had come to respond to these ideas.
RK: You don’t believe that the New Spirituality stands up to rational scrutiny. What do you see as the biggest contradictions in the movement?
RZ: The biggest contradiction I see is a genuine violation of the laws of reason. Now, the laws of logic are not comprehensibly able to explain everything in the universe, but one of the ways of testing a system is if it’s logically flawed systematically, then you have to question whether it’s true or not. It leads you to a relativistic ethic, it leads you to a dehistoricization of all the other worldviews. You have to dehistoricize Jesus, the Qur’an and all the other Monotheistic religions, and put them all into one happy mix. You end up deifying yourself. If this view is right, all the other views are wrong. Both of them can’t be true at the same time, using the same terms and in the same sense.
That’s the first thing. The second thing is that, in the process of self-deification, they totally ignore what is the most obvious glaring reality – the depravity of the human heart. You live with it, I live with it, we all wrestle with it regardless of what we might speak doctrinally. We know our own hearts and how vulnerable they are to self-centerdness, hate, and pride. I think the New Spirituality ignores the most empirically verifiable fact about human experience.
RK: In the book you write that Christianity centers around relationship between God and people, while the New Spirituality ignores this. In your opinion, is the hunger for relationship in humans one of the most convincing proofs of God?
RZ: I believe existentially speaking, yes. I don’t know how we escape this. I think a classic example is in the recent sad death of Whitney Houston. Why is that these icons who have gained and accomplished so much, and that we look to and celebrate, are themselves empty on the inside and seem to pursue something other than their gains and accomplishments? This means the existential search for meaning and relationship is very real, both in pain and in pleasure. God has fashioned us as beings in search of relationship. I remember C.S. Lewis’ conversion story, “I thought I’d come to a place, I found out I’d come to a person.” I think that says it well.
RK: You talk a lot about Deepak Chopra in the book. He’s become a very influential thinker in the New Spirituality movement. However, you believe he’s preaching something very dangerous. Could you elaborate on your opinion of Chopra?
RZ: Deepak Chopra is a fascinating person. Before anything else needs to be said, he is brilliant and methodologically very clever. He knows exactly how to poison the wells when he’s trying to debunk something, and how to defend what he is supposedly defending. For want of another word, the word is epistemology. How do you arrive at the truth measurement of a philosophy? When he writes his book on Jesus, it’s very cleverly done. He calls it the Third Jesus. He says there are three Jesus': the first is the Jesus of History, he says we know nothing. How do you like that statement? The second, he says, is the Jesus manufactured by the Church. So in other words, the Jesus of Christian orthodoxy is a manufactured one. So he creates the Third Jesus, the Deepak Chopra Jesus. This is the Jesus who is the guru who came into this world searching for nirvana and ultimately attained it. How does he know that? Quoting hundreds of verses taken out of context from the New Testament. But wait a minute, that’s the source he already debunked doing away with the historical Jesus. Where it conveniently suites him he takes passages out of context and make it a pretext to support his point.
The second thing is that he has run a foul with many Hindu scholars themselves. For example: Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, who obviously dealt with issues of temper and competition, Deepak Chopra says there are three Maharishi’s too. He loves this three thing. He says there was the ill tempered Maharishi and also the peaceful one who lived in communion with the impersonal absolute. Aseem Shukla, who is also a medical practitioner from Minnesota takes him on saying, “Why are you playing these word games? What you are doing is nothing short of Hindu philosophy dressed up in Western garb.” And the response of Chopra if not so serious would be quite hilarious. I think Aseem Shukla gets the better of him in that debate. So, what does Chopra do? – hide behind a new term: Sanatana Dharma – the pure religion, the eternal religion. Who in the West is going to learn how to pronounce that, let alone debate it?
RK: In “Why Jesus?” you write that Jesus is an Eastern man, and that the Bible is an Eastern text. Do you think that reality is often ignored in cross-cultural debates?
RZ: I think it’s a huge gap. I think it’s the biggest gap in hermeneutics* today. I think about it so often. You see this misunderstanding so often in the New Testament criticism’s. For example, if I read in the New Testament that “all Jerusalem went out to hear him.” I’m from India, and if I read that in the newspaper I know that doesn’t mean that every man, woman, child, dog, and elephant came out to hear him – it means a large crowd turned up for him. The way the Western critics scrutinize the parables, and Eastern texts, reveals a total lack of understanding of how Eastern wisdom and metaphor is used. This is not to take away from the authority of the scriptures, it’s just to help people understand that when generic terms are used we take them that way. Nothing demeans or takes away the person of Jesus Christ. Kenneth Bailey, who is probably one of the finest scholars of our time, has written this massive volume called Jesus through Middle Eastern eyes. It’s a powerful book and so well sustains the argument I’m making here.
(* – hermeneutics is the science of interpretation – in this case the biblical interpretation)
RK: In many of your lectures, Ravi, you often quote great thinkers like Nietzsche, Buddha, and Stephen Hawking. You clearly have an intellectual respect for these people, but how far does that respect go if you believe that they are fundamentally wrong in their thinking?
RZ: What I like to think about with great thinkers, like Buddha and so on, is that few people are in total error. There are elements of truth in their thinking, but they often go into assumptions that are unsustainable and create a systemic failure. Respect does not mean celebration. Granting someone the credentials of being an intelligent person doesn’t mean that you therefore agree with everything they are saying. I think it is not fair to demean them because of their flaws. I take from them what is rationally sustainable, existentially undeniable, and those aspects I see in the Christian faith anyway. So any elements I see in them I have in my faith already, plus the systemic coherence that their systems do not have
RK: You believe that there are actually some elements in the New Spirituality that Christians would be wise to adopt and prioritize. Could you explain that?
RZ: Good point. Great question. I think it’s very important for the Church and leaders to understand this. We seem to think that worship equals noise and activity. You walk into some churches and it’s deafening for protracted periods of time. I ask you, how easy is it to draw away from the hustle and bustle of life if that is the diet you are going to feed on before you prepare to worship? Many times in the Bible you see Jesus going into solitude to pray. He sat aside to pray and be quiet. If the Lord himself did this while in total communion with God, how much more we need to do it in our distance and in our hustle and bustle of life trapped by materialistic enticements.
So, I think the New spirituality teaches us three things that are good. One, solitude and quietness. Two, meditation. The mistake they make is it is all inwards meditation. The Bible tells us to meditate on things that are beautiful. In other words, it’s an other focus not an inward focus. The third thing they look for is harmony on the inside. That is what true worship is all about: a coalescing of all the disparate ideas within you and bringing that unity into diversity in the worship of the living God. So their hungers are very legitimate, they don’t ultimately point in the right direction.
RK: Television has been an extremely powerful medium for spreading ideology. The Christian faith, however, is arguably one of the largest abusers of the technology – names like Peter Popoff and Benny Hinn come to mind. How much damage do you think televangelists have done to Christianity?
RZ: Well, I think what you have here is a medium that’s cold. We think of television as a powerful medium, but let’s not forget that in and of itself it’s a cold medium that needs to be warmed up, you need something exciting. If you see two children in front of a television set and all or a sudden you see two people going into a fist fight, the child will stop whatever they are doing in order to watch this. I think what happened with many who have taken the medium for the propagation for their message, they’ve just made it as a marketing means. They’ve taken a form, abused the substance, made themselves icons in the process, and I think the gospel they’ve presented was so far off from what the gospel actually is. I think they’ve basically cost Christianity immensely because that’s the caricatured version the critic actually sees. And then, the abuse of people. You go and take this message to a place like India, where a hundred thousand people can show up from the villages – the poor, the downtrodden – and they are longing just to come to the front to get a touch of you and be healed. This enticement that is thrown into them only for it to be squelched in the process, I’ve seen it with my own eyes and it’s pathetic what is done. There’s big money and publicity in this and in the end often times people and the gospel are abused in the process.
RK: Do you believe that God still works through people who preach for the wrong reasons?
RZ: You know one of the greatest movies on this – and Hollywood produces some great films – is the Leap of Faith with Steve Martin. It’s a fantastic movie about a faith healer. He’s using people – the whole thing is fake. Sometime in the last few minutes of the movie an amazing miracle takes place to his own shock, and he doesn’t know how to deal with it. He’s been messing around with this and fooling people. He gets into this trailer and he’s driving off as the rain is beating upon the windscreen. There is so much power in that simple story at the end. Yes, I’ve seen healing take place. In my own life, my own voice, when I was in the my 20s living in Toronto I was told to give up preaching because my vocal chords were not made for it. I believe God healed me. I’ve struggled with my back and in some ways God has provided restoration, and in other ways I’m completely dependent on him. I have seen people healed. But, the shenanigans that go on in order to see this come about, I think is where I have problems with it. The Bible tells you to call the elders of the church, or to call those who are devout, and to have them lay their hands on you to pray. This way the glory goes to God, and experience of healing takes place. What’s going on with these mass-healings and so on, I have serious questions about it myself.
RK: You are also subject to similar trappings: you have a following and a substantial amount of power. How do you ensure that you don’t fall into the same traps and work for the wrong reasons?
RZ: I’ll tell you what, this is the hardest thing. It is the most difficult thing to do. I wish sometimes that fame and popularity and success didn’t come with all these things. There was something very beautiful about the calling in the ministry when it was simple, and just a small town type thing. But with all these growth and successes came so much other terrain to cover – so many people listening and watching and they make you into what you are not. It’s a very discomforting thing. The most important thing to bare in mind always is that the very voice you have is a gift of God, he can take that away from you. Humility is the key to be involved in a successful ministry. I don’t believe 90 per cent of what people say to me about who they think I am, I just go back home and I know my kids are much more honest and tell me where my failings and shortcomings are. You proclaim the beauty of the message, not the beauty of yourself, and pray everyday that God keeps you from stumbling so it doesn’t not reflect upon the message. People make you into what you are not and it actually hurts you.
RK: One of the subjects you discuss frequently is the problem of pleasure. Many people see pain as the primary problem we face, but you think pleasure might be the more difficult feeling to understand. Can you explain that further?
RZ: That’s a firm conviction I have. I remember when I was writing my book on Oscar Wilde called Sense and Sensuality. When I saw his massive gravestone in Paris – with a phoenix and wings – the verse he selected to put on it is from the book of Job. The book of Job is hardly known for pleasure, it’s known for pain. The verse had something to do with “my friend saw my misery and wept.” Why would a hedonist choose a verse like that? On his deathbed he looked at his lover and friend, Robby Ross, and he said, “Did you ever love one of those little boys for their own sake?” There’s a clue, and it’s a brilliant question. Why did a hedonist believe love ought to be for it’s own sake and not as a means to an end? How can loving someone for his or her own sake be the best thing, unless we are created out of love? So, when pleasure becomes a means to an end it disappoints. When love becomes the ultimate goal as defined by God himself, it takes you to greater and greater fulfillment, and what I call “perpetual novelty.” The story of Dorian Grey tells of a man who lived for pleasure and ultimately shattered every dream. Pleasure is a good thing as a means, but not as an end, for nobody can remain perpetually infilled with the delights of pleasure without being disappointed in it.
RK: There seems to be a growing number of people who believe all religions should peacefully co-exist. Recently Rob Bell released a book called “Love Wins,” and it essentially argued that truth would reveal itself eventually. What do you make of these arguments?
RZ: That’s a multifaceted question. The first part of it is a practical one. Can’t we all get along with our differences? The answer to that is absolutely and we should. Jesus himself came into a pluralistic culture, the whole nation of Israel was under the heal of the Roman. Jesus told them if the solider is asking you to carry his arms one mile, why don’t you walk the second also. That’s peaceful co-existence, that’s not resorting to arms to overthrow something, that’s winning through the triumphant nature of love. That’s the first part.
The second part is that just because you give a person a right to believe something doesn’t mean that what the person believes is right. Some beliefs are clearly and plainly wrong and in the marketplace of ideas we need to be able discuss and disagree but not do so disagreeably.
Thirdly, justice is an important virtue. Justice is not vice, it is not vile. If justice were not a virtue why do we have our courts? Why do we have our police force? Why do we bring someone who has committed a violent crime to the court so that due justice is done to him? Justice is the firmest pillar of government said Plato. We need to have that. The question is who is the instrument of that ultimately? That is God himself. So, for Rob Bell to suddenly think that it all works out and that there is no justice, he is actually taking away what the virtuous necessity of life and eternity is all about. If he wants to say, “let God be the final judge.” I’m all for it. He’s made it clear in his word that they that are on the side of truth. “Listen to me,” said Jesus to Pilate. But, Pilate replied, “What is truth?” and walked away not wanting to hear it. So, I believe that learning to get along, learning to disagree without being disagreeable is a good pursuit, but justice is a virtue and God alone is pure in his justice and he will deal with those who have chosen even to spend eternity without him. For God to override that is to violate the most sacred thing he has given them which is the prerogative of their will. So for a reason who rejects God even heaven will become hell if they don’t want the presence of God.
One fundamental mistake Rob Bell makes in his book is that he doesn’t seem to understand the biblical concept of salvation. You see in every religion of the world, salvation is earned through works, whether it’s Hinduism, whether it’s Islam, all of them, and they will not deny that. In the Christian faith alone you have a sequence of three: redemption, righteousness, and worship. You can never be righteous without being redeemed, you can not worship without being redeemed and righteous. That is both a logical and chronological sequence. So for him to talk about good people is to miss the heart of the Gospel. You can never be good until you’re first redeemed.
RK: A major criticism of the Christian God is his character in the Old Testament where he both murdered, and claimed to be a jealous. In most societies those are two unambiguously negative qualities. How do you rationalize that behaviour?
RZ: The first question is the problem with the question: how do they all know that it’s so bad? Without any transcendent point of reference, what is so bad about being jealous? What is so bad about taking a life? The only way they can justify that is if life is intrinsically valuable. If jealously is not a good trait, as they define it, but there is no essential goodness without God. That is their view of it. Why is their view correct and someone else’s view incorrect if there is no objective view of reference? So the question actually self-destructs unless there’s an objective point of reference for morality, and the only way we can have that is if God exists.
The second thing is they misunderstand the term jealousy. As G.K. Chesterton said, “there is no such thing as free love. It is the nature of love to bind itself.” A pure and a true love has built in exclusivity to it. You can not look at the wife of your youth and tell her you love her purely, and love her with total commitment when you’re distributing the same level of consummate relationship all over the place. The wife will seriously question whether you really love her, or whether you’re really using her. Jealousy in the context in the purity of love is a necessary aspect, and the purer the love the more exclusive it becomes. So, they misunderstand the term. They’re using the term as a self seeking motive, that’s not what God is saying. What God is saying that if you really want to enjoy love it will be guarded. There is no way to love without protecting it. Love has four terms in Greek: you have agape (God’s love), you have philia (friendship love), you have storge (parental love), and you have eros (romantic love). Only in marriage do all these four come together. Eros without agape is a prostituted love. So love will always be not just romantically legitimate in and of itself, it has to have the love of God in it for purity.
The final thing is that when we talk about God taking life there’s a difference between when God takes a life and when I take a life. I cannot restore it, but God can. The second thing is take it in the context in which it is given. When dramatic revelation is given to people the entailment is equally dramatic in judgement. If, for example, I say to you God suddenly came through the ceiling int he middle of a meeting where 5000 people were present and he warned them not to go out and hurt humanity or judgement would severely come upon them. If that dramatic revelation is incontrovertible and materially demonstrated to the person and they go out and trample on the foot of the poor person and judgement comes immediately upon them can they blame God for the equally dramatic judgement that was proceeded by a profound revelation? So, you have to take it in the context of what was revealed and his capacity to restore life. When you put those two components in it changes the nuance of the question.
RK: It seems to me that, despite all the other things you’ve mentioned here, Christians themselves often do the most damage towards Christianity. Do you agree with that?
RZ: Mahatma Gandhi said it, “I like their Christ, I don’t like their Christian.” Unfortunately when Christendom has been hijacked and made into a state religion or a power institution, any time power gets put into it, it gets abused. Christianity is a commitment of surrender, not of power over humanity. It’s about power over your own struggles and you’re own temptations and how God leads you through the things you battle. When you live a life in violation of your fundamental claims you’ll hurt them, and the biggest roadblock in the Christianity faith is the way it’s been lived out. But, this is not only true with the Christian and the world, the tragedy is the way we even treat our own fellow believers. If a person stumbles, or a person fails, the cruelty with which we deal with them is such a far cry from where even the world seems to be a little more understanding. I think it has been the biggest apologetic obstacle to the propagation of the gospel inside and outside the church. It’s a point well taken, and a warning and a caution to the Christian. Jesus said, “Let your light so shine before men that they will see your God works and glorify your father who is in heaven.” That’s the purpose of living a Christian life, that men and women will lift their praise to God and not us.
RK: The title of the book is Why Jesus?. So, I ask you: despite every other option, why Jesus?
RZ: I give six reasons. Three ceremonial: he is greater than the temple, he is greater than Solomon, and he is greater than Jonah.
The temple give you fear or geographical sense where you will be alright. In Jesus you come into a relationship with a person.
In Solomon, you saw platitudes, words of wisdom, but no power to live them out. In Jesus, you hear not only the beautiful, and platitudes and words of wisdom, but you see the one who lived them out perfectly, and allows you to live them out within.
In Jonah, you see hate. He hated people and wanted them to be judged. God instead took him to proclaim a message of love and repentance. Jonah himself could have been destroyed inside this big fish, but God protected him. He’s the author of life, and he’s the author of love. So these three great things I see in Jesus.
Then I see him going to the needy of the world. The woman of the well, five broken marriages and shattered, yet he gives her the drink of water that would give her eternal life. He sees the woman with the alabaster ointment who comes having made her living in all the wrong ways and says, “wherever the story of the gospel is told, there shall the story be told of what this woman has done to me.” Imagine elevating the repentance of a woman with that kind of a past to a point where the gospel will be preached? When he was asked to describe the kingdom of heaven he didn’t take a philosopher, he didn’t take a religious leader, he took a child and put that child in the middle and said, “of such is the kingdom of heaven.” These are some of the ideas I use to show the beauty of Christ, and the relationship he offers to every one of us. He gives you all the hungers of the spiritual pursuit and gives them in the relationship of him from which we get our objective moral framework as well.
RK: Finally, what’s on your iPod Ravi?
RZ: (laughs) You know what, to be honest, I never track that. I don’t even know what’s being shown on that. I don’t use one myself. I just use my blackberry and my cell phone. I hardly get into this technologically savvy age. I hope I ever remain ignorant of all of this, my goal is to really proclaim Christ and if people are blessed I’m extremely honored in the process.
FOR MORE ON RAVI ZACHARIAS:
1) Visit his website: http://www.rzim.org/