Is Karma a Christian Idea?
Below is my personal response to this question I received from a friend. I can only hope that these humble meanderings and thougths can help in making a distinction on this issue.
Karma and how it differs from Christianity can be a difficult subject to handle. At 1a.m. in the morning, I don’t expect to give my best answer, but, I’ll give you my initial thoughts on the subject from what I know and will probably study it further, as I’ll likely find my initial response not adequate enough for such a tough matter. But nonetheless, here goes.
The basic principle of karma is “action” leads to consequence. Cause leads to effect. It’s originally rooted in Hindu and Buddhist teachings which focus on explaining the natural order of life. For example, you plant a seed in the ground and something grows as a result. So, if you do good deeds (plant good seeds), good things will happen in your life (something will grow). now that basic idea is just basic natural laws…and in that sense Christianity agrees “you reap what you sow.” there’s not a major world religion that would really disagree with that general sense of cause/effect…personal responsibility…karma…etc.
But we’re talking general sense here. Once a person starts talking about what karma means in the Hindu and Buddhist teachings, there’s a great difference between the ideas…
Maybe this will help to distinguish what I’m saying….AS A GENERAL LIFE PRINCIPLE: karma means cause/effect….AS A SPECIFIC RELIGIOUS PRINCIPLE (meaning Hindusism and Buddhism): karma means trying to watch your actions in this life so that you can earn a better reincarnation in a future life….and continuing to hopefully practice good karma so that you eventually, after many reicarnations, you can achieve Brahman (Hindu idea of loosing total personal identity into the one big spirit Brahma) or Nirvana (Buddhist idea of self being extinguished and becoming nothing…ceasing to exist).
Now where does Christianity come in on this issue? First, Christianity can agree with a GENERAL sense of the idea of cause/effect, personal responsibility. However, it’s a better practice to avoid using the term for a Christian. Why? Because karma has it’s religious roots in non-Christian religions and really refers to their believes, not Christian ones. Second, Christianity differs on the SPECIFIC idea of karma. Jesus did not teach watch your actions, be good enough, earn my approval, and then you’ll spend eternity in my kingdom. No. Jesus’ taught that through his death and resurrection one is able to participate in His kingdom life right now and that kind of life will endure throughout all eternity. That life will never end like Nirvana, and we will be our own unique, fully redeemed selves, unlike Brahman. So our life in God’s kingdom is all about living a life of faith in response to what Jesus has done for us.
So what about life now and personal responsibility? Well, that’s where the third point comes in. Christianity teaches that our actions will show us for the kind of people we really are. There are a few places where the New Testament refers back to a general principle of personal responsibility (reap what you sow), but the dominate idea in the New Testament is that we will be known by our fruit. Jesus says in Matthew 7.16 that we will be recognized by our fruit. Well, doesn’t that sound a lot like karma? Not exactly. In the context of the gospel of Matthew and the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is saying that our actions will show whether or not we are following Jesus’ teachings or not. And this is a central, key idea in Jesus’ teachings, because Jesus never says that you must pray a sinner’s prayer. He never says come to me if you want to escape the pit of hell. He never make a decision for me so that you can go to heaven when you die. No. Jesus says enter into this life of faith now. Be a part of God’s plan to defeat evil, death, and sin through the cross and resurrection. Experience this new, Spirit-filled, radical way of life that lives inside of you and displays itself by its fruit. Jesus says is basically saying, “by how people live their lives–their attitudes, actions, how they spend their time, what drives them, what motivates them, what they do for fun, what they set their minds and hearts on–by those things, you’ll be able to tell whether or not they’re living by faith, following my teachings, and participating in God’s kingdom.” Now that teaching of Jesus, that our actions show us for who we are, totally differs from Karma’s religious background which says “do more good than bad things so that you can achieve your religiou goals.”
So, to sum up, as a general principle of cause/effect, in that sense, nobody would disagree with karma (which how most people think of it in popular culture). However, the idea of karma, as a religious idea in Hinduism and Buddhism, is a radical enemy of the cross of Jesus Christ and really is not related to what the gospel of Christ is all about.