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Wednesday, January 19, 2005

Ghostly Encounters

Messy Christian is thinking about ghosts, here and here. Many of us who grow up in Eastern cultures are familiar with ghost stories and supernatural experiences and encounters. Haunted buildings, dreams and memories linger on in some of our psyches. In Eastern societies ghosts are commonplace in a co-existence with the living, sometimes in harmony, and sometimes in uneasy discomposure.

For those of us who cross-cultures, or in the words of my wife's grandfather, who used to say that we are like sailors who have either of our feet on a different boat (one on the Western boat, and the other on the Eastern boat, as it were), we live in uneasy awareness of the ghosts of our past invading into the naturalistic, empirical Western mindset of our present. Sometimes, some of us successfully exorcize our past, dismissing such predilections to superstition and uninformed beliefs while at other times we find these ghostly hauntings invade the peace and harmony of our Western, modern lifestyle.

Among those of us who become Christians, the journey can either be comfortably compartmentalized as a past from which we have been saved. Just as the Scriptures declare, the old has passed away, and all has become new, so the ghosts of our past along with our idol-worshipping and other sinful religious practices have been banished, and we have been saved from the enslavement of not only religious bondage but also all that has once spooked us, to newness in Christ.

Yet, every now and then, a memory, an experience, or a story return to haunt us. Surely those were not just imaginations? Or superstition? Ah, our Christian spiritual advisors/teachers/pastors tell us, "But, this is just the deception of the Evil One. In fact, these experiences that people have of ghosts are the masquerading of the Devil, to deceive us. There are no ghosts, you see, there are but demons, who deceive us into believing that ghosts, or the departed spirits still roam the earth."

So, that is often the accepted Christian doctrine that departed spirits do not really come back to haunt the living. According to Eastern sentiments ghosts are spirits of those who have died but who have somehow "unfinished business" and therefore continue to roam the earth. Not all ghosts are necessarily malevolent and not all ghostly encounters are necessarily sinister. But, as far as the official Christian doctrine is concerned, all "ghosts" are evil, spiritually detrimental, even demonic.

Incidentally, Chinese cosmology teaches that there are three levels of existence: the living souls, the deceased souls and nature, and the three levels of existence must be in harmony with each other in order for the cosmos to be in balance. It is the responsibility of the living to take care of the dead and of nature in order to maintain the balance of the cosmos. This cosmology, over the centuries, have been intertwined with religious mythology, doctrine and practices from Taoism,Buddhism and the syncrestic folk religions of East and South East Asian societies.

Therefore, often these philosophical views are grouped with religious doctrines as false even demonic, and are banished by the earliest Wesern missionaries. So, perhaps, even if there are some truth to some of the underlying philosophies, along with modernism and Westernization, all these are lost to our modern sensibilities.

Since there are so much about Chrsitian religion and theology that we need to grapple with, there hasn't been much effort directed to thinking and theologizing what it means to be an authentic Eastern Christian living in an authentic Eastern society, because after all, there isn't probably a quintessential Eastern society anymore. So, are there ghosts? Or are ghosts a fiction of our (or their) imagination? Perhaps a couple more important questions are: Would it be worthwhile for Christians to explicate a theology to interact with the Chinese cosmology divorced from its religious connotations? Would it be worth the while to work towards a basis for cross -cultural theologizing that attempts to take Eastern philosophies seriously and address them in order to construct an authentic Christian theology in an Eastern cultural setting?