Francis X. Clooney, S.J.December 18, 2009

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?



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11 years 11 months ago
I'm of two minds on this, Fr. Clooney. I've read that the Romans tested the faith of the early martyrs by requiring them to burn incense to the emperor as a god. Those who could not bring themselves to do so were martyred, and we reverence them to this day. The Roman Canon is filled with their names. That's tough to reconcile with the flower offering to images of Hindu deities you mention above.
That said, I recall an instance in the seminary that struck me as truly odd. The guys in the year ahead of me rebelled when their professor, who moved on to work on ecumenical dialog at the USCCB, planned class visits to several non-Christian houses of worship on Long Island. Most of the guys in that class-it was second or third theology-would not go, even though they were not required to make any sort of action that could be interpreted as homage to a non-Christian diety. I would hope a Catholic seminarian's faith would be strong enough to allow him to enter a non-Christian house of worship without feeling he is betraying his faith in Jesus. The whole thing would have made me laugh, albeit for the fact that these fellas-who were ahead of me and whom I genuinely liked and admired-were terribly serious about the situation. The whole thing struck me as goofy as my love for Jesus does not dissipate even the slightest bit when I enter a synagogue or Buddhist temple.
So, I don't know. The jury is out on this one. I think one's ''intent'' when entering non-Christian houses of worship is an important consideration here, and Jesus surely knows our hearts. But the behavior we model to others is also important-as per the example of Eleazar in the Second Book of Macabees. Our actions could be misconstrued. It is, indeed, a dilemma, and a critical one as interfaith dialog and respect is very important as we face numerous cross-cultural challenges in the modern world.
11 years 11 months ago
I think what Archbishop Nichols did was fine.   Appreciating other religions doesn't diminish ours. 
John Adshead
11 years 11 months ago
Well said Fr Clooney.
Beth Cioffoletti
11 years 11 months ago
I am probably way out with my ideas, but here goes.
A person's faith goes so deep into their unconscious world that I think it is very rare for a person who is, say born and seriously raised in a Christian culture, to ever be able to fully assume a Buddhist stance.  Religious faith goes a lot deeper than just stating beliefs and adhering to rituals.  It is formed as we are formed, and is intimately tied with our primal instincts for survival.  The concepts of awareness and consciousness are so different that even searches for "common ground" among the faiths is really just superficial.
THat is not to say that faith is not enriched by learning about and participating in other religions.  God is very mysterious (to say the least!), and the fact that there are different ways of approaching God in our world is part of its magnifience.   But to say that a person can be of 2 faiths at the same time strikes me as impossible. 
I am also not saying that a person can never fully adopt another faith (but I think it is rare).  I know of 2 young men who were born into very a Catholic Irish family, with nuns and priests as aunts and uncles.  These 2 men were cousins, and as teenagers they became interested in Islam and ultimately became fully Muslim.  One is now a Muslim scholar at an American university.  Their family says of them, in all honesty, that they seem to have been born Muslim.  They are both so very devout that I can only wonder at the magnificence of their faith.
So I think that what Archbishop Nichols did was fine, and nothing to worry about.
Marie Rehbein
11 years 11 months ago
I am wondering whether it isn't somewhat disrespectful to enter the worship place of a religion which one doesn't share.  It seems to me that the schoolmates of Matt, above, might have been reacting this way.  If one doesn't share the faith, then the visit seems to be intrusive or voyeuristic.
11 years 11 months ago
I am reminded how uncertain I was as a teenager, attending my brother-in-law's Episcopalian funeral after he killed in Germany in WWII.I was raised in that restrictive Irish Catholic ghetto in the Bronx,which thank God has been leveled by Vatican II. But by the number of Trads that blog on subjects like this, the Ghetto mentality seems nostalgic and comfortable to them. Too bad so sad.
Bill Collier
11 years 11 months ago
I had the opportunity to live overseas for almost five years in a locale that was almost evenly divided religously among Christians, Hindus, and Muslims. There was also a sizeable Sikh community. I interacted on a regular basis with people from all four faith communities. I attended Hindu, Muslim, and Sikh weddings, funerals, and other religious services at homes, mandirs, mosques, and gurdwaras (Sikh places of worship), and I taught for several years at a Sikh high school.  
People knew I was a Catholic, and I never once felt I was anything less than Catholic, but my willingness to be in attendance at religious functions, and to be respectful of, and curious about,  the proceedings was always very much appreciated. I also spent many hours over the years as a guest in people’s homes. I didn’t wear my Catholicism on my sleeve, and I never directly engaged in evangelization, but who knows what effect, if any, my tolerance had on the non-Christians I encountered, some of whom were as curious about Christianity as I was about their religions.
I applaud Archbishop Nichols’ gestures of respect at the mandir he visited. As for JPII’s inter-faith gathering in 1986 at Assisi, he made clear his Christian convictions and, just as significantly, that it was his “faith conviction” that precipitated his call, made with “deep love and respect,” for the gathering.
An excerpt from his address:  
“I profess here anew my conviction, shared by all Christians, that in Jesus Christ, as Saviour of all, true peace is to be found, ‘peace to those who are far off and peace to those who are near‘. His birth was greeted by the angels’ song: ‘Glory to God in the highest and peace among men with whom he is pleased’. He preached love among all, even among foes, proclaimed blessed those who work for peace and through his Death and Resurrection he brought about reconciliation between heaven and earth. To use an expression of Paul the Apostle: ‘He is our peace’.
It is, in fact, my faith conviction which has made me turn to you, representatives of the Christian Churches and Ecclesial Communities and World Religions, in deep love and respect.
With the other Christians we share many convictions and, particularly, in what concerns peace. With the World Religions we share a common respect of and obedience to conscience, which teaches all of us to seek the truth, to love and serve all individuals and people, and therefore to make peace among nations.
Yes, we all hold conscience and obedience to the voice of conscience to be an essential element in the road towards a better and peaceful world.
Could it be otherwise, since all men and women in this world have a common nature, a common origin and a common destiny?”
Full text of JPII’s 1986 address at Assisi:
Michael Maiale
11 years 11 months ago
I presume that he just meant bringing flowers as a nice gesture and so I'm not ready to get all worked up about that.  The press release should have been more careful not to make it sound like he was making an offering to the Hindu God(s) though.
I think it's important to be respectful towards those around us, but I also think it's important that we not be afraid to make clear that, while we have deep respect for our neighbors as humans, we do not believe in their false gods.  Given the difficulty that naturally comes in drawing this distinction (one that often leaves me unsure of how to proceed in my own attempts at interfaith dialogue,) I am far from ready to say that +Archbishop Nichols did the wrong thing here.  Our bishops should be careful and thoughtful in this realm, though, and make sure that they are sending the right signals to both the Catholic faithful and to those of other faiths.
Solomon Anderson
11 years 11 months ago
Fr. Clooney, Why would we not expect that an archbishop treat the certainties of faith with an "entirely logical attitude"? Do we want illogical bishops? Does the "21st century" somehow demand an abandonment of logic? I reject your argument. The times do not demand, and will not ever demand, that we throw logic out the window.
James Lindsay
11 years 11 months ago
In ancient times, paganism was also associated with the state, which was the source of inequality that was abhorant to the ancient Church.
Many Trads think ill of astrology due to its assocation with paganism as well, which is silly unless you think the pagan gods are actually real.
Paganism is more about the nature of man than anything else.  There were no Greek or Roman gods, they were archetypes of human nature.  I suspect that most Hindu mythology also goes down that road as well.
That should not scare us anymore.  Indeed, focusing on the spiritual is a distraction from preaching the Good News of the Kingdom of God, which is important for the afterlife, but much more important regarding the treatment of the poor and marginalized.  This is especially important when we deal with Dalit members of our own faith or with the gripping poverty in much of the world - including and especially in Latin America - where the Catholic Church's traditional attachment to the upper classes have left the peasantry a breeding ground for evangelical Protestantism.
Jim McCrea
11 years 11 months ago
If one reads Damien Thompson regularly, you learn that his idea of True Catholicism is slightly right of most Catholics, be they laity, the "lower clergy" or the episcopacy, especially in the UK.
His take on Abp Nichols' fraternal action is about what one should expect from him.  Anything short of possibly torching the place in the name of Jesus could not be acceptable to Mr. T.
Americans might get the connection brought about by my using "Mr. T."

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