A Hindu America?
Cambridge, MA. I recently came across a column in the On Faith section of the Washington Post by Loriliai Biernacki. A friend of mine, she is a professor of Indian religions at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and a specialist in the study of Hinduism. Her piece is entitled, “A rich and strange metamorphosis: Glocal Hinduism.” She suggests that Hinduism today is becoming much more widely established in different parts of the world, and it is flourishing in many parts of the United States, both among Americans of Indian ancestry, but also among many converts to Hinduism.
In her piece, Bernacki recollects Lisa Miller’s essay in Newsweek a few months ago, on how Americans are becoming Hindus ideologically: “[Lisa Miller] tells us that an astounding number of Americans now believe in reincarnation. This conceptual, indeed cosmological, importation from Hinduism is seeping indelibly into the American psyche. Even a percentage of self-identified Christians have little difficulty incorporating this Hindu notion. Similarly, the word and concept of ‘karma’ is so commonly parlayed in everyday conversation that its Hindu origins no longer even register, as the concept finds its way across wide ranges of socio-economic circles and in all sorts of milieus.” Biernacki speculates that Hinduism — Hinduisms — is uniquely able to be “glocal” — present across the globe, but yet still local in a multitude of particular identities. Alas: before our present era of over-centralization, the Catholic Church too excelled at being glocal!
This Hinduism meets our needs, Biernacki goes on to say, offering “a kind of proliferation of particularities, particular Gods, particular practices among communities that might have not ever had any access to these new, imported Hindu perceptions -- and at least for the West, beckoning a rich and strange metamorphosis.” She concludes by suggesting that Hinduism may help us by showing us where we are going: “Our own increasingly plural world might take some solace, find a steady ease in the Hindu comfort with the multiple -- multiple Gods, multiple practices, and simultaneous multiple ontological structures of monotheisms, monisms, polytheisms, and panentheisms. In this sense, the future of Hinduism suggests a kind of opening to a global world in a way that sidesteps the vision of a one-world government or one-world ideology. It proposes instead a world model without hegemonic center, linked by a thread of cosmology, multiplicity instanced as network, a seamless interconnectivity that echoes a conceptual cosmology from Hinduism's past into our own global and glocal future.”
It is an interesting essay that deepens Lisa Miller’s Newsweek piece, and I recommend reading all of it. I am tempted to confirm her insights out of my own experiences — including my recent brief encounter with Amritanandamayi Amma. But my thought now goes in a different direction: If there is truth in Biernacki’s insights, and there is, then what does this say about Christian identity in the United States now? Catholic identity?
It is probably right that we are most concerned most of the time about issues in the Church, ranging from social ministries to ongoing debates about the ordination of women, and are rightly horrified by the individual and systemic aspects of the clergy sex abuse crisis — but we can overdo it, suffering too much introspection with our good and our bad, when the culture around us is going through deep changes. (One could add many others to Biernacki’s particular focus, since Buddhism is influential, Pentecostal Christian Churches are multiplying, and of course Islam will become more and not less an important presence in this country; but Hinduism is enough for this blog.) Just think of the example she and Miller dwell on, the growing comfort of a wide range of Americans — surely including Church-going Catholics — who accept reincarnation as a good spiritual possibility. This is no small change in the way people think — and it challenges us to speak more powerfully, more simply, about Jesus as one who dies and rises, even today.
The danger then is that we Catholics — to stick with us for a moment — will endlessly build and rebuild our Church in order to improve it and correct its failings, while yet forgetting that many, many people are no longer interested, are not waiting for us to discover spiritual depths, and care so little about us that even being “anti-Catholic” is no longer all that important. If our neighbors are practicing yoga (even Christian yoga), meditating, visiting gurus, and enjoying the prospect of multiple deities and multiple births — then we have to bear down, and think more deeply about who we are and how we speak, act, live.
Yes, we need ever to return to the message of Jesus, as given in the Bible and as celebrated in the liturgical life of the Church; yes, we need really to believe that “loving our neighbor” is indeed what Jesus would do, does do. But no, it is not enough to broadcast our faith without listening, or to insist with open mouths and closed ears that Jesus is the way and that Christian faith is superior to religions such as Hinduism, when we — the Church — seems not understand Hinduism except in a most superficial way, and have no clue why Americans might embrace reincarnation. (Education is lacking: as far as I can see, neither CCD programs nor major seminaries spend much time exploring the religions of India, and few deacons, priests, and bishops have done a single yogic stretch or quiet breathing exercise.) If we commend ourselves for proclaiming the Gospel while not getting Professor Biernacki’s point, we may rather ironically find that for many, the Jesus of the Church will remain a distant and institutional figure, while Jesus seen through Hindu eyes may be the more powerful spiritual figure.
So — to turn on its head the old notion that yoga is navel-gazing — we would do well to be more yogic, more Hindu — less into Catholic-navel-gazing, and more attentive to the very interesting spiritual cultures flourishing around us, and unafraid at a diversity that we cannot control yet that does nothing to harm the uniqueness of Jesus. Attentiveness will help us to see better what it means to be a follower of Jesus in the world we actually have, in the one life given to us.