Academic journal article Journal of Ecumenical Studies

The Problem with Karma: A Levinasian Critique and Christian-Hindu Theological Rehabilitation

Academic journal article Journal of Ecumenical Studies

The Problem with Karma: A Levinasian Critique and Christian-Hindu Theological Rehabilitation

Article excerpt


While the Hindu doctrine of karma, which functions as a natural moral law of action and consequence, validates free will, individual and collective responsibility, and the weight of intentional action upon our present and future, its application has often resorted to a complacent justification of the conditions of people's lives. Although it is commonly intended to regulate present actions of responsibility with the promise of future reward or punishment, it is often used to explain why things are the way they are. One troubling aspect of the karmic worldview is the presumption rationally to explain and understand the hidden and nonempirical causes of empirical reality. Insofar as it seeks to explain all suffering in this life as the consequence of prior wrongdoing, the doctrine of karma serves one function of theodicy. (1) Although the project of theodicy, or rationally justifying the ways of God, is rooted in a theistic outlook, the particular question of how to make sense of evil and suffering in life does connect the nontheistic explanation offered by karma--that all suffering can be explained by previous wrongdoing--to the theistic efforts to reconcile God's goodness with the presence of suffering and evil. While approaching the Hindu doctrine of karma as a theodicy is controversial, the function of explaining suffering ties the two together. As a result, the doctrine of karma also is subject to the criticisms of Western-style theodicy. In theistic language, it is very presumptuous to try to understand and explain the ways of an infinite God. God and the sacred, insofar as they are considered to lie outside empirical reality, transcend our finite understanding. Theistic traditions have articulated this as divine transcendence and mystery. Authentic faith does not reduce the mysteriousness of God but enriches one's relationship to it. In the nontheistic landscape of Hindu traditions, the doctrine of karma ought to be used primarily to further theological and ethical talk about human action, not to explain and justify suffering.

A subset of this onto-theological problem of presuming understanding is the expectation fostered in the karmic worldview of a logical equation that can be formulated between our actions and our experiences. Although the natural laws that energy cannot be created or destroyed, only changed in form, or that all actions have consequences may be helpful in scientific knowledge, which is primarily rooted in the economy of work and function, such an equation between our supposed moral actions in the past and our empirical conditions is not religiously valid. By citing the causes of these present conditions in a nonempirical past, it can unfairly allow us to look the other way in complacency rather than respond to any suffering we see proactively as part of the realm of human action. At its best, the doctrine of karma compels human agency by citing the immense power and meaning of human action in the world. At its worst, it allows complacency about conditions of suffering that we witness by assuming that these are the natural workings-out of past actions.

This essay engages in a postmodernist ethical and theological critique and rehabilitation of the doctrine of karma. The critical work of Emmanuel Levinas will help flesh out the problems with karma insofar as it is informed by an ontotheological rationalization and will point the way out of onto-theology to a genuinely metaphysical use of karma in concert with the doctrine of dharma. The second part of this essay will take up the constructive ways in which theological concepts from the Christian tradition as well as the Hindu tradition can help rehabilitate the doctrine of karma as a religious ethic oriented to the value of faith in divine transcendence and grace, forgiveness, and individual and communal responsibility and solidarity with those who suffer. (2)

Karma as Onto-theological Rationalization

First of all, what is entailed in the Hindu understanding of karma? …

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