A Hindu-Christian Conversation 2: A Hindu View of Dialogue

Cambridge, MA. As promised in my last entry, for the next several weeks I will share this space with Sri Murali Manohar, who has kindly agreed to share with me a conversation on matters of interest to Hindus and Christians, and hopefully to a wider range of readers interested in religion today. What follows is Mr Manohar’s first entry. After a week or so, I will respond to him. We will also be watching for your comments, to see what you think. Mr Manohar writes:

     “In this post, I will present some of my questions and understanding of  two aspects of dialogue – pluralism and theological value. I will press forward with the provisional acceptance of the importance of dialogue itself, it is to discover the 'why' and 'how' that I like to dig deeper. While at it, I do recognize that there are both scholarly and visceral responses that question the importance of dialogue itself; there are those that believe that dialogue is passé and has reached a stalemate of sorts, and there are those that believe - as one of the comments, from Siva, on the introductory post shows - it is futile and perhaps even corrosive. To be sure, there is a kind of dialogue, where conversion, apologetics, or self definition is the objective. I wish to focus on different questions first.

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     “Let us begin with deeply religious people. There are many deeply religious people in India who are scholars , but not in the way that western academia looks at scholarship in religion. When theological dialogue is not academic or scholarly, it usually presents itself as little more than introductions to the other, or a romanticized travelogue. What of deeply religious people who don't care about theological dialogue? Are they just unenlightened laggards? If not, why not? Popular presentations of dialogue and pluralism also assume that the reader readily accepts- or at least ought to accept  - the universal importance of  dialogue, and tend to talk down to those that don't, those whose concerns may be personal sadhana(spiritual discipline), and not dialogue.  Many learned scholars are content  to stay away from any such theological dialogue – for fear of superficiality and distraction. How should we articulate the value of dialogue  to the individual, beyond platitudes and appeals to social goodwill, so that we may sincerely seek to be enriched by the engagement of such religious people in theological dialogue?

     “Next let us consider the issue of learning from the other. What are the epistemic implications and consequences of dialogue and studying texts of the other? There are two kinds of charges that this leads to. One of need and adequacy, the other of misappropriation.

     “What is it of value that we seek to learn, that is to be found from the other, if our own system is complete and adequate? We often encounter this argument, our belief already has a privileged – if not exclusive - means of salvation, in such a situation isn't it a mere distraction to spend time studying world scripture? We also see a different form of this charge – that we tend to read a lot more into the tradition of the other than is due. Indeed, there are many that have tried a contrived higher narrative of religions, and often such dialogue is viewed with caution. One  encounters in such dialogue an  enthusiasm to show a transcendent unity of religion. There is quite a wide range of this attitude – from deeply reflective and philosophical essays where the authors freely borrow or import ideas from Hinduism to Christianity and the vice-versa (see for example works of Ananda K Coomaraswamy), to popular TV dramas where 'Om' is chanted the way Christians say 'Amen', at the end of something significant. This leads to the charge of misappropriation. How does one defend against charges of misappropriation of theologies and practice? Many Hindu's charge inculturation with such misappropriation, but even more broadly, much of the new age relativism stems from such misappropriation of theologies. 

      “And finally, how far should dialogue go? As we study texts and traditions of the other, we immediately begin to see the aesthetic, allegorical and hermeneutic aspects of that tradition. Should dialogue go just as far as far as joint study? As neighbors and friends we often participate in the religious festivals of each other. Should  this be the boundary of dialogue, where we are comfortable with each others customs? What about praying like the other? There are many charismatic preachers and gurus who include public universalistic prayer – prayers that include chants and hymns from many traditions - as part of their rituals. Is  a sincere and serious acceptance of such universalistic prayer possible in personal life? After all, prayer is one's deeply personal response or appeal. What of visits to the other's place of worship - beyond the initial novelty of how the other prays, is it anything other than a tourist attraction or a political statement? In the end, when it comes down to the individual, how is this useful to one's bhakti [devotion], upasana [meditation] or sadhana [way of spiritual practice], to one's personal spiritual discipline in one's own tradition?”

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