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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.



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charles jordan
13 years 8 months ago
In as much as God can do anything God wants, re-incarnation is not a stretch for a Catholic believer, or for Catholic doctrine. 

Your point though that catholics can not do much to bring the Good News to the world if we are ignorant of the world is well done. While it is good to have a clergy that is learned, and the desire for this is largely an indicator that we are waiting for it to happen in all parishes, it is even more important that the laity take up the burden of listening to our neighbors and learning about what they belief.

As far as I can tell  re-incarnation does not change very much for catholics in that Jesus is always Lord, we are loved by a Triune God, and People of God and the Eucharist are the same body which is Jesus Christ.
Beth Cioffoletti
13 years 8 months ago
and then there is Gandhi, while never becoming Christian, considered Jesus his teacher of nonviolence.
Molly Roach
13 years 8 months ago
I think that the Hindu doctrine of reincarnation is comparable to the Catholic doctrine of Purgatory.  Karma implies that our actions, even our attitudes have consequences.  And so too, does the teaching about Purgatory: you've got to be 100% to be in perfect union with God.  And we'll help you with that here.  It's a telescoped and highly compressed version of reincarnation without the new body.
James Lindsay
13 years 8 months ago
Hinduism is in essence a pagan religion, meaning that its real subject is the self rather than a universal God (as in, what do I have to do to get to Heaven).  The extent to which Catholic theology is mired in a discourse on sin and its avoidance rather than discipleship and service to the least of these.  It is rather pathetic, actually.

How we relate to sin is also key in understanding our understanding of theology.  If we are obsessed with the state of our souls, we likely believe in a punishing God who keeps a list of our unconfessed sins in order to keep us out of heaven so that only the pure may enter.  That kind of God is rather pathetic too and it is no wonder that people seek alternatives in Hinduism, as a do-over seems more attractive than damnation in Hell for forgetting that you had an impure thought in High School that you never confessed.

Another alternative is to believe that Jesus died not for blood retribution for our sins but to experience human brokeness in a way He could not do without the incarnation and His passion.  In that view, morality is designed for human happiness on earth and that any moral teaching - like telling high school students to never have impure thoughts or for gays to be heroically chaste and forever alone - is not from God at all and should be scrapped.  In such a belief, orthodoxy is not only possible, it is essential - but it does not mean doctrinal rigidity but the search for one truth that has at its roots a belief in divinely ordained human happiness.  Of course, the price of such a morality is a deep commitment to the well-being of all, especially the great unwashed masses yearning to breathe free and live a better life.

Hinduism does not do a very good job at that one and neither does a Catholicism obsessed on personal damnation.
James Lindsay
13 years 8 months ago
I'm not sure how I feel about reincarnation - although truthfully it does not matter.  Whether we believe in either a single life and judgment or karma and many lives matters not to what will eventually happen to us in the end.  What will be will be.  Actually, I doubt the sanity of anyone who can contemplate coming face to face with the Godhead for all eternity, when eternity is reduced to a single eternal moment and not feeling a little afraid of that, since in the end it is almost the same thing as Nirvana, where God is everything and the soul, while precious, is pretty much overcome.  Temporal man is a creature of identity.  Surrendering that utterly or reducing it to a single utternace is psycologically daunting.

The belief in the resurrection seems to allow for some temporality, although what life will be like after temporality has expired is not something that the mind can easily contemplate.

As to reincarnation, I'm not sure it is an entirely healthy belief either, since it begs the question, which me am I?  Am I the me that I used to be, or the me in my next life?  Am I the me that I am between lives or am I even conscious of the interim?  Regardless, the life seems to become not a real thing, but a part in an eternal drama.  I do not like the life as an Act motif that is intrensic to a belief in reincarnation.  There is a certain irresponsibility to it.  When I act in a stage role, as I have been known to do from time to time, I am not really me, although I bring me to part of the role in order to make the character present to the audience.  I don't like thinking that this life is simply one dramatic role in a series of dramatic roles.

I am me and no other.  I will always be me - unless of course the other is true.  We really have no way of knowing for sure - or of even knowing whether our consciousness in the afterlife is dependent upon our future resurrection - which is a perfectly reasonable Christian belief (that when we die, we sleep until the last day).  While that is not the dominant paradigm, in a world of eternity, it really does not matter nor is it any of our concern.  This is one of those areas in which we will have to trust in a loving God - since the three forms of possible annihilation are too scary to think about (the eternal moment with God, Nirvana or simple materialism).
Parveen Jangra
7 years 1 month ago

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