Grace vs. Karma

I have recently come across two interview transcripts on the subject of Christianity. One was with the pastor of the largest and fastest growing evangelical church in America. The other with a prominent rock star who also claims to be a Christian. Here are a couple of excerpts from the two interviews. I’ve removed any references to who they are so you can think about what they are saying.

Interview 1:

The Son of God who takes away the sins of the world. I wish I could believe in that.

The point of the death of Christ is that Christ took on the sins of the world, so that what we put out did not come back to us, and that our sinful nature does not reap the obvious death. It’s not our own good works that get us through the gates of Heaven.

Interview 2:

What if you’re Jewish or Muslim, you don’t accept Christ at all?

You know, I’m very careful about saying who would and wouldn’t go to heaven. I don’t know …

If you believe you have to believe in Christ? They’re wrong, aren’t they?

Well, I don’t know if I believe they’re wrong. I believe here’s what the Bible teaches and from the Christian faith this is what I believe. But I just think that only God with judge a person’s heart. I spent a lot of time in India with my father. I don’t know all about their religion. But I know they love God. And I don’t know. I’ve seen their sincerity. So I don’t know. I know for me, and what the Bible teaches, I want to have a relationship with Jesus.

[Emphasis mine]

The subject of the first interview had these thoughts on Grace vs. Karma:

“…the thing that keeps me on my knees is the difference between Grace and Karma. At the center of all religions is the idea of Karma. You know, what you put out comes back to you: an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, or in physics—in physical laws—every action is met by an equal or an opposite one. And yet, along comes this idea called Grace to upend all that…. Love interrupts, if you like, the consequences of your actions, which in my case is very good news indeed, because I’ve done a lot of stupid stuff.”

Unless you had read one or both of these interviews, you may be surprised to find out that the first one was excerpted from the book review in World Magazine of Bono in Conversation, while the second was from a transcript of CNN’s Larry King Live Interview With Joel Osteen. It seems that the Rock Star has a firmer grasp on the concept of Grace than does “evangelism’s hottest rising star, pastor for the biggest congregation in the United States.”

Bono was not afraid to lay it out straight:

Michka Assayas (the interviewer): “Christ has His rank among the world’s great thinkers. But Son of God, isn’t that farfetched?”

Bono: “Look, the secular response to the Christ story always goes like this: He was a great prophet, obviously a very interesting guy, had a lot to say along the lines of other great prophets, be they Elijah, Muhammad, Buddha, or Confucius. But actually Christ doesn’t allow you that. He doesn’t let you off that hook. Christ says, No. I’m not saying I’m a teacher, don’t call me teacher. I’m not saying I’m a prophet. I’m saying: ‘I’m the Messiah.’ I’m saying: ‘I am God incarnate.’ …So what you’re left with is either Christ was who He said He was—the Messiah—or a complete nutcase…. The idea that the entire course of civilization for over half of the globe could have its fate changed and turned upside-down by a nutcase, for me that’s farfetched.”

On the other hand, Joel Osteen seems to have his heart in the right place, but there comes a time when you are confronted with the question, that you have to be prepared to give an answer. Calling one religious group sincere and then saying that Jesus is right for you is akin to saying all roads lead to heaven, which is clearly not what Jesus taught.

Perhaps that’s why his church continues to grow—there are too many roads that will get you there…


Hi Mark. It’s been a while. Good to see you’re writing on this blog more often lately.

It’s quite a challenge to write about religion without stepping on someone else’s toes. I’m not here to debate any viewpoints, but rather to ask you what’s your take on atheism - I have several friends I appreciate very much but who I can’t (and won’t) shake them off their atheist values, as absurd they seem to me (I think the longtime personification of God by “official” religion sources is part of the problem). I think life would be very dull and heartbreaking if we just believed everything just made itself somehow and that is all there is to it. How does that then explains the existance of feelings, faith and a conscience that separates humans from animals? Anyway, I’m rambling here. You get the point. Cheers.

Posted by: beto on August 12, 2005 10:41 PM

Hey beto:

Thanks for stopping by.

You bring up some very good points. It is hard to write about religion without offending someone—near impossible, in fact. I think that’s what was holding Osteen back. Larry King, who is Jewish, was asking him if Jews were going to Hell. That’s a tough place to be. It would have been nice to remind Larry that the early church was made up of many Jews. There will be lots of Jewish people in heaven. Jesus was Jewish. In fact Christianity, for a long time, was considered a Jewish sect.

What Osteen failed to do was to delineate that it was Jesus who said that “No one comes to the Father except through Me.” And as Bono said, that puts him beyond a great teacher. He’s either the Son of God or a nutcase. Or, as C. S. Lewis writes, Jesus is either a Liar, a Lunatic, or the Lord. It doesn’t matter whether you are Jewish or Catholic or Evangelical Christian. What matters is what you do with Jesus and the gift He has offered.

So, where does that leave the atheist? I think a true atheist is one who believes that all there is in the Universe is what we can understand through our senses, through entirely natural means. He would say that there is no supernatural realm; everything can be explained through natural processes. And so we have time, chance and evolution to thank for the incredible diversity of life that we see on earth, not to mention the rest of the Universe.

When you have a completely naturalistic view of the world, this affects your worldview and philosophy. Carried to its logical conclusion, we end up with a completely relativistic view of morality. Whatever is best for me at a given time is truth.

Jesus, on the other hand, not only said He is the only way to the Father, he also claimed to have a monopoly on truth and life—in the very same sentence (as pointed out by one of the callers to the King/Osteen interview). This can leave the atheist in a bit of a dilemma. As most people look at Jesus as a great teacher at worst, the atheist, who does not believe in God, can’t very well call Jesus his Lord. But the other choices are that He was a liar, or a nut-case. I’m not sure how many self-described atheists have fully explored this argument.

So, where does that leave them? The same place as it does anyone who does not accept Jesus’ death and resurrection as the atoning sacrifice for their sins—Hell.

Romans 10:9-10 says, “that if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved; for with the heart a person believes, resulting in righteousness, and with the mouth he confesses, resulting in salvation.”

That is the message of Grace the Bono was talking about. It’s a gift that is available to everyone.

Posted by: Mark Newhouse on August 15, 2005 10:31 AM

You are doing what a lot of people do, and confusing atheism with scepticism, or even hedonism. Also, I find this:

“When you have a completely naturalistic view of the world, this affects your worldview and philosophy. Carried to its logical conclusion, we end up with a completely relativistic view of morality. Whatever is best for me at a given time is truth.”

to be, frankly, insulting. How did you arrive at this conclusion?

Posted by: Andrew on August 16, 2005 01:52 AM

Hi, Mark, A friend of mine saw the Larry King interview with Joel Osteen. She thought Larry asked some very insightful and intelligent questions. She was especially excited when Larry asked Joel if there were anything that he wondered at…that filled him with wonder. She said that Osteen thought for a moment and then answered something like, “No, nothing comes to mind.” What a disappointment! It does make you wonder about the sincerity of his faith. How can one who claims to be a Christian not wonder at an all powerful Creator loving us so much that he paid the required sacrifice for our sins by laying it all on His Son, Jesus. What a wondrous thing! I wonder, then, why everyone doesn’t jump at the chance to accept such an amazing gift. Imagine…eternal life…guaranteed by the only Person who can grant it. Carol

Posted by: Carol on August 25, 2005 10:38 PM

Mark, I really appreciate you taking the time to write this article. I found it very enlightening; it was very interesting to hear Bono’s take on the age-old discussion of faith and works.

Its as if Bono put a modern day spin on what grace is all about, while maintaining true to its original essence.

Posted by: Jovan on September 13, 2005 12:20 PM

Hello Mark,

Regarding the view of atheism given above, I’m not really sure if I would agree with all of the answers given.

If you’re familiar with Schopenhauer, you will know that the man was an atheist, yet he also found great value in Christianity and Buddhism.

An atheist isn’t necessarily materialistic. Many just assume that the universal energy is impersonal.

An atheist may believe in cosmic mysteries, but they don’t believe it’s watching over a particular personality’s best interests. It is just there. The creature personifies it according to their own tastes.

This is why certain Buddhist/Hindu dieties have two different aspects — benevolent and wrathful. The idea is that when a deity comes to open some part of your mind, it will either encounter resistance or acceptance. If there is resistance (from the ego) the person will have a tremendously horrifying experience. However, if it encounters acceptance (some divine quality already assimilated within the person’s psyche), there is a wonderfully divine experience.

The muslims also have a saying, “When the angel of death approaches, it is terrible, when he reaches you, it is bliss.” It is basically saying the same thing.

We all have that thing in us which we call the ego, so a spiritual awakening is always going to be both horrific and wonderful simultaenously. For as long as our nature is double-sided, so will our experiences be.

Then again, there is another way to interpret this information, and as it turns out, that is what Schopenhauer did.

It can be admitted that there are two kinds of materialism — spiritual and natural (mystical and sensorial).

The former is pronounced in a lot of mysticism around the globe, while the latter finds expression in most materialistic scientific viewpoints.

“Then Jesus said unto them, Take heed and beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and of the Sadducees.” (Mat 16:6)

We can puff our bread up with a belief in supernatural over natural or natural over supernatural. Still, the Lord is One.

Note that Jesus gave his disciples unleavened bread to eat. As a matter of fact, unleavened bread is preferred all throughout the Bible. Undoubtedly, this symbol deserves to be pondered over at great length.

Simply because a person sees an angel doesn’t mean they are seeing something that is truly divine. It could simply be the projection of another being’s mind, you know?

Our own thoughts become solid objects in our dreams, so why not the thoughts of another? Isn’t it possible that a being with sufficient power could materialize various forms in our field of perception?

It would work something like this — first it sends an angel with some magic words and then it sends a devil. Lo and behold, the magic words “drive” the demon away. The person then worships something that is not really there.

I believe Schopenhauer might’ve been thinking of such a possibility when he conceived of the Evil Will of the Universe. Basically, and according to my understanding (which isn’t very great), Schopenhauer believed the world was a big school and it was filled with bullies, bullies, and more bullies.

He admitted there is a cosmic energy and a profound mystery, but it is impersonal, meaning it can be easily abused by any being who is willing to abuse it.

This philosophy of his was undoubtedly drawn out of observations in the natural world, since we see that this behavior is prevalent in the kingdom of animals.

In the sphere of human activity, we see the same exact food-chain and alpha-male mentality working in personal relationships, the corporate world, the music industry, etc., etc.

So Schopenhauer said the only way to escape from all this is to consciously destroy oneself — the Buddhist annihilation, the Islamic submission, the Christian death on the cross, etc.

It’s either funny or alarming, but it seems that this atheist had a much better grip on Christianity than many so-called Christians!

Posted by: Denny on September 17, 2005 02:49 PM

Also, if we hope to reconcile grace and karma in an intellectual manner, the concepts of return, recurrence, and reincarnation should be studied. Read the following book for clarification —

God bless!

Posted by: Denny on October 1, 2005 08:21 AM

More food for thought —

Posted by: Denny on October 3, 2005 12:55 PM

Time to respond to some comments…

Carol (Mom)—Larry is a very smart and insightful man. He was looking for some clear answers in the interview, and it is very sad that Mr. Osteen did not give them. Apparently Osteen apologized to his congregation about not being more forthright about his faith. Unfortunately it was Larry and the people who were watching with similar questions who need to hear that apology, and who need to hear the truth.

Jovan—I’m glad you found this post helpful. Bono does put a modern spin on grace, so to speak. It can be easy to use religious and scholarly words when discussing things like grace, but that tends to put distance between the concept and embracing it for yourself. Putting it into common language reminds us that grace is for everyone, not just intellectuals and the religious elite. And, of course, that is what Jesus came to earth to tell us.

Denny—Thanks for your comments and input. I’ll have to say that all of them, from Schopenhauer to the ideas of reincarnation, etc. really miss the point. There is nothing we can do to attain perfection or salvation. Only Jesus could do that, through his death and resurrection. And that is a finished work. When we embrace that gift, we are saved.

Reincarnation is a concept that provides us eternal opportunities to do things the “right” way, and someday enter nirvana. It’s all about us. Christianity is all about God. Jesus provides the way. Grace is unmerited favor—no one deserves to be saved, and no one can earn it.

The interesting thing is that once saved, we are motivated to serve others and be a blessing to those we come in contact with. This is not done to earn favor, but because we have received favor. The works come after the salvation, not the other way around. That is what Ephesians 2:8-10 is all about:

“For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast. For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them.”

We’re saved by grace through faith, not through our works. But then we become new creatures, to do good works!

Thanks to everyone for the comments.

Posted by: Mark Newhouse on October 3, 2005 01:30 PM

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In which Mark draws a comparison between a rock star and a preacher

August 12, 2005 | Christianity

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