Cambridge, MA. In November, Vincent Nichols, the Archbishop of Westminster and President of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales, visited the great Hindu temple in the Neasden section of London. As the Westminster website explains, “the visit took place on Saturday 21 November 2009 during Interfaith Week and on the birth anniversary of the worldwide spiritual leader of the Hindus who pray at the Mandir (Hindu Temple) at Neasden, His Holiness Pramukh Swami Maharaj.” The Archbishop toured the temple, prayed with those present for peace and understanding, and offered flowers at the central shrines in the temple. As he left, he and the Swami exchanged gifts: “Archbishop Nichols presented Yogvivek Swami with a special candle, ‘a sign of the lovely light of God in our lives and a sign of the prayer which, in return, we offer to God.’ Yogvivek Swami also presented Archbishop Nichols with a memento of his visit to the Mandir.”
It is a very fine temple, which I had the opportunity to visit just once, when teaching at Oxford earlier in this decade. (For a full explanation of the concept of “temple” — or better, “mandir,” see the temple’s own explanation. The founder of the Hindu community with which the temple is associated, the Swaminarayan Community, traces itself back to the 18th – 19th century in Gujarat, north India, and is inspired by the life and example of a holy man known most familiarly as Swaminarayan.)
All this seems very fine, and so it was, until I received from a Hindu friend in India a link to a blog at The Telegraph site by Damian Thompson, "Archbishop Nichols 'offered flowers at the altar of Hindu deities.'" Mr Thompson was highly critical of the visit. According to Mr Thompson, the Archbishop could not have thought through the visit carefully, since when he placed flowers at the altar, he was in fact reverencing Hindu deities. As Mr Thompson puts it, “This is a blunder, however well-intentioned. Inter-faith dialogue is a minefield for Christian leaders, as Pope John Paul II discovered when he prayed alongside non-Christians at Assisi in 1986. This visit sounds ill-conceived from start to finish. The offer of the candle and the words accompanying it imply that Hindus worship the same God as Christians, which I would have thought even a primary-school textbook would make clear is not the case. And there’s the clue, right in Westminster diocese’s own press release – offering flowers at the altar of “the deities”. Yes, there’s a distinction between offering flowers at an altar and offering them to the gods themselves, but I think the general public and the average Catholic can be forgiven if they fail to appreciate it at once. Of course Archbishop Vincent Nichols doesn’t believe in these pagan gods (which is what they are, from a Christian perspective). But, as we saw when he allowed a chapel in Birmingham to be used for a celebration of Mohammed’s birthday, his famous common sense deserts him when he is in the hands of his ‘inter-faith’ advisers.”
I am writing about this small controversy for two reasons. First, it raises some interesting questions about the limits of interfaith courtesy and respect. Second, it compels to ask how our strongest faith beliefs affect how we relate to our religious neighbors. On the first, it seems to me that the Archbishop did exactly the right thing, and rather courageously. We do better in interfaith relations when we are willing to visit each other’s holy places, with an attitude of prayer and reverence; and if we visit, we must observe at least the basics of respect: removing one’s shoes, for instance or, as did the Archbishop, paying our respects at the holy altars, by gesture and tokens of esteem, such as flowers. I would hope that a Hindu Swami visiting a Catholic Church would also come with a sense of respect, bowing or genuflecting as is appropriate, perhaps even lighting a vigil light. Words and theories are not enough; we have to be able to show, by how we act, that we really do respect one another’s religions. And this is what the Archbishop did.
The second question is more complex, since Mr Thompson legitimately asks whether the Archbishop was seeming to worship, or at least recognize, idols, false gods which have no place in Christianity. My understanding is this, as I have expressed many times in this space: yes, we must adhere deeply to our Christian faith, in its fullness; yes, we must avoid watering things down, and must steer clear of relativism. But it is also true that our deep faith commitment to Christ need not translate into disrespect for the beliefs and practices of others, and not-visiting and not-paying respect can end up being a deficiency too; there is nothing to be gained if true believing Catholics avoid the holy places of other religious traditions and by our body language seem unable to respond to what is good and beautiful and holy, in these other places. If we believe that there is one God who made heaven and earth, there is not, I suggest, any reason to think that our God cannot be present in the Neasden Temple, and there is no reason why we would feel compelled to stay away or to refuse to offer signs of respect upon entering the holy space. If a HIndu might conversely still feel that the Christian who comes with this attitude of reverence is too narrow and cautious, and trapped in a limited view of the divine, so be it: I cannot live by my faith while expecting others to refrain from judgments in accord with theirs.
If this makes it seem as if there is a gap between our faith in Jesus Christ, and our intuitively generous respect for the deities and worship of others, it may be so: our beliefs and our theology does not easily translate into exactly right practice; in our bewilderingly complex 21st century, we need not demand that the certainties of faith be acted out in a rigid, entirely logical attitude toward what is holy to our neighbors. Better to say, “I have received the gift of faith, and live by it; as I enter this temple, the God who has given me that faith walks with me; may I be as reverent and gracious as possible, for God is everywhere here too; and may God show me how to make sense of this deeply Christian deep reverence for our neighbors’ faith.” If my experience goes beyond what I can explain, that is probably for the better.
I add a footnote: In fact, nowadays I rarely visit Hindu temples here in the United States – not because I am disinterested, or uncomfortable, but because after so many years, I find it so easy to be at home in the temples, so easy to pray and worship. Since I cannot say, or explain theologically, that God would want me to pray regularly with a Hindu community, then more reserve, more careful abstinence seems the better idea, most of the time. Fasting purifies the heart, and the pure of heart shall see God.
I will stop with that, and leave it to you, my reader, to add your comments. What do you think?