1998-1-14 Brief Encounter with Hinduism

Eric Paul Lemonholm

January 14, 1998

Dr. Charles Ryerson

HR 345: Hinduism

A Brief Encounter with Hinduism

This course on Hinduism has been a good introduction to a deep and broad subject.  I come to this class as a Christian who grew up in a conservative evangelical context in Northern Minnesota, but I am a new member of the Lutheran Church (ELCA).  When I began this course, I had a vague interest in the pluralistic perspective of John Hick, an interest encouraged, perhaps, by my fundamentalist, particularist past.  Reading Hick was part of my rebellion at my Christian liberal arts college.  I had stumbled upon his writings, and they offered me, or so it seemed, a clear response to the exclusivism that dominates the school.  The basic position of my former denomination is that anyone who lacks a conversion experience (wherein one asks Jesus into one’s heart, and then believes in a literal interpretation of the Bible) will burn in Hell forever. 

Frustrated by my context, Hick’s easy answer to the issue of religious plurality enchanted me.  As I understand his position, Hick holds that all religions are different ways humankind relates to Ultimate Reality, the Real an Sich, beyond our perception and understanding.  All the different gods and ultimate principles or grounds of being are various personae and impersonae, through which we relate to the Real.  The various religions are different paths to the same goal, salvation/liberation.[1]

What troubled me about Hick’s pluralistic position, even back in college, is that I cannot be a Hickean pluralist and a Christian simultaneously; and I have tried.  Hickean pluralism, it seems, is a distinct religious option.[2]  Hick has an exclusive perspective on religion, an overarching explanatory schema within which all the religions fit.  It is a form of inclusivism: my perspective is the one true perspective, but others partake in (the benefits of) mine without knowing it.  Ultimately, my critique of Hick is that he is not conscious enough that his perspective is one among many religious options.  He has a place for all religions (at an abstract level), but not on their own terms.  The danger of pluralism is more of the same: if the differences between religions do not matter, then the religions themselves do not matter; they are just more of the same, and we can do without them.[3]

Dr. Ryerson’s criticism of Hick helped me to see this more clearly: How does Hick know that all religions are the same?  While he has a basic understanding of the major world religions, Hick has first hand knowledge, as far as I know, of only one—Christianity.  I now reject Hick’s basic perspective, although his discernment of some of the analogies, as similarities-in-difference (Tracy), between the major religions is interesting, if not unique to him.  Analogues, such as agape and karuna, can serve as bases for dialogue, provided one does not presume to understand what one’s dialogue partner(s) means by “love” or “compassion.”

My governing principle in encountering other religions is a nuanced, humble inclusivism.  I believe in the Trinitarian God as revealed in Jesus Christ, by the Holy Spirit.  I believe that God is reconciling all creation to Godself through Christ, and that Christ is Lord of all creation, including all humanity.  Since my understanding of Ultimate Reality is governed by a Trinitarian understanding, I believe that when anyone relates to the ‘Real’ they in fact relate to one God in three persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.[4]  In my brief encounter with Hinduism, therefore, I cannot help but believe that, as Dr. Ryerson stated in class, “Christ is Lord of Hinduism.”  I certainly do not believe that all Hindus are damned; but I also do not wish to reduce their rich religious traditions to “more of the same.”  Hinduism is very different from Christianity.  Therefore, while the issue of personal salvation (who is saved and who is not—as if anyone can know or judge!) is not my concern, I want to (continue to) grow in my understanding of Hinduism.  As a living, ancient tradition of great depth and breadth, Hinduism is a virtually unparalleled storehouse of wisdom.  We Christians can afford to ignore it no longer.

Inclusivism, however, cuts both ways.  Jesus Christ has already been incorporated into Hinduism.  Jesus has been understood as a teacher of wisdom or an important reformer.  Jesus has also been seen as an avatar of Vishnu, an incarnation of “God-in-man,” if not “God-as-man.”[5]  Radhakrishnan’s view of Jesus, for example, is that Jesus is one “who incarnates God’s love or develops God within himself.”[6]  Jesus is not unique, because all beings, ultimately, are divine; all have “the eternal within.”  The importance of Jesus is that he shows us the truth that “we are all God.”[7]  A Christ is anyone who has achieved moksha—full sat, chit, and ananda.  Some Hindus also understand Jesus to be “the ideal Yogi, ascetic, sannyasin, that he fulfills the ideal of perfect union with the divine.”[8] 

As Dr. Ryerson noted, this inclusion of Jesus into the Hindu system makes Hindu-Christian dialogue difficult.  We Christians are merely Hindus in disguise, but we do not know it.  We stubbornly and foolishly cling to our avatar Jesus as the one and only Christ.  We take our Trinitarian language not as mere symbolism that points beyond itself to Hindu truth (that we are all one with God, or Brahman), but as symbolic language which truly tells us something about God.  We cling to our dualism (in relation) of Creator and creature, and our view of the Ultimate as personal (even as interpersonal), when we ‘ought’ to recognize the ultimate non-dualism of reality, and the impersonality of the Real. 

Dr. Ryerson has made clear the different ontological foundations of Christianity and Hinduism, and of the Jewish-Christian-Islamic and Hindu-Buddhist streams of tradition.  An important step forward in mutual understanding is the recognition of this gulf between us.  In a sense, I know less about Hinduism now than I did before this course, because I have a better understanding of what little I really know about the Hindu tradition(s).  I am also motivated to learn more about both my own tradition and other religious traditions, because I know that different traditions, even within the broad stream of Christianity, are not more of the same.  Differences make a difference.  I can no longer have a lazy attitude to Hinduism—I must rather take it seriously as a genuine other, a tradition both familiar and infinitely strange and various.  Thus, I must not allow my inclusivist perspective to become wooden, but I must always keep a measure of tentativeness and humility mixed in with my inclusivism.

I cannot help but believe that Jesus the Christ is Lord of all creation, and thus Lord of Hinduism; but I am not Christ (obviously!).  I do not know how Jesus is Lord of Hinduism, or what is God’s will for his Hindu people.  I do not know a priori what truths of God may exist in Hinduism.  Being a Christian by no means makes me omniscient: I am therefore unable to judge Hindu theory and practice lightly.  Rather, my task is to live and learn faithfully within the Christian stream; but Christian love calls me to listen openly and respectfully to my neighbors of all faiths.  Respecting the other as a genuine other means not presuming to comprehend them before serious, diligent conversation.[9]  I cannot speak the good news of Jesus Christ to someone I do not know, and I cannot know someone without taking them seriously where they are—religiously, socially, economically, educationally, psychologically.  How can the good news be good, if the good of the recipient is disregarded?  How can I speak the good news in a language I do not know?

For example, a worshipper of Krishna may experience grace and forgiveness of sin through her devotion to a loving incarnation (or manifestation?) of the Divine.  Now, the specific content of all those terms in this case is not Christian, and thus, is not ‘true’ from my perspective.  Yet, I would rightly hesitate to condemn the worshipper, or question her contact with God. Perhaps the grace of the God of Jesus Christ has been given to her, even though her beliefs are wrong.  My inclusivism in such a situation[10] functions as a provisional agnosticism of the grace of God: I do not know where the Spirit blows, so I cannot judge in whom the Spirit dwells.  The Spirit is not confined by my dogma.

Hinduism challenges my narrow view of God and faith.  For example, if I always conceive of God as personal, it is easy to forget that God is not a mere person like you and me.  Hindu reflection on ultimate Reality as beyond personal and impersonal saves me from a naïve, reified understanding of the personal God.  That is not to say I accept a Hindu concept of the divine, but I am reminded that theological language, though true, is nevertheless symbolic.  Theological language points to the Ultimate, and describes it truly from our perspective, but it does not capture God, or enclose God in our understanding.

The novel by Shusaku Endo, Deep River, is a stark reminder to me of how rarely I read novels while I am in seminary, and how much I should.  As a Christian seminarian, the character Otsu caught my attention.  His encounters with Mitsuko dramatize to me how a commitment to theological understanding can get in the way of pastoral concern.  Otsu never listened to Mitsuko; he never tried to learn about her.  In relation to Mitsuko, he seemed almost self-absorbed.  At the same time, Otsu modeled and revealed a deeply Christian way of living for his Hindu brothers and sisters in India.  Otsu was Christ to the sick and dying of Varanasì.  He did not judge them according to dogma.  He was truly religionless, in Bonhoeffer’s sense.  That is, he focused on prayer and action in the world.  Otsu’s deep respect for the Hindu world view is revealed by the cross he carried daily in Varanasì: he carried the poorest of the devout to their final pilgrimage destination, the Ganges.  Otsu is a Christian inclusivist in the truest sense (as imperfect as he is), for he inclusively loves, serves, and prays for everyone.

[1] John Hick, An Interpretation of Religion, New Haven: Yale, 1989.

[2] A wonderful professor, Stephen Bouma-Prediger helped me to see this point.

[3] David Tracy made this point.

[4] Or, if you will, Mother-Sophia, Jesus-Sophia, and Spirit-Sophia: Elizabeth Johnson, She Who Is, New York: Crossroad, 1992.

[5] Ronald Neufeldt, “Hindu Views of Christ,” in Hindu-Christian Dialogue, ed. Harold Coward, Maryknoll: Orbis, 1989, p. 166.

[6] Ibid., p. 167.

[7] A paraphrase of Vivekananda, in Ibid., p. 169.

[8] Ibid., p. 173.

[9] A point made by David Tracy.

[10] I experienced such situations, especially, during C.P.E.

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