A Hindu-Christian Conversation 3: A Christian Reply

Cambridge, MA. In the last entry in this blog, Mr. Murali Manohar offered some very thoughtful and perceptive reflections on interreligious learning, definitely worth your reading. So please read his remarks before proceeding with this entry. Here I take up just a few of his major points. First, one clarification: While I do think and write and indeed live as a Roman Catholic, I do not speak for the Church in any official sense, nor even for most Catholics. I speak rather as one Catholic who has devoted much time and energy to reflecting on Hinduism, and writing from that experience. But this is not to say that the Catholic context is unimportant. It helps me do what I do. In recent decades the Church has made it clear that God’s salvation is available to all, and does not teach hell or damnation for non-Christians. Yes, that salvation is mysteriously mediated through Jesus Christ, but it is, really, for all. The intellectual tradition of Catholicism is actually open, curious about the world around us, and even a believer’s mind does not merely stop at particular religious borders. As a Jesuit, I have been taught to find God, to expect to find God, everywhere, including in religions other than my own. But now for some brief comments in response to Mr. Manohar, as just one Catholic respondent:
     1. Mr. Manohar writes, “What of deeply religious people who don't care about theological dialogue? Are they just unenlightened laggards?” I agree that there are people, deeply religious, who are not interested in interreligious learning; there is no reason to be condescending toward them. It is only when people state that there is nothing to be learned from other religions that I question them back, since often we work with stereotypes about the other, and find excuses not to learn. But if a person simply chooses not to undertake interreligious learning for personal reasons, I respect that choice.
     2. “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?” I can think of at least three answers. First, learning interreligiously is like other learning; being religious is no reason not to learn, to become wiser as we get older, and it would be most odd to learn in every area of life except religion. Second, being-Christian does have an outward push to it: go to all nations — and if we go, we cannot go simply to teach without learning, talk without listening. Are there no good Hindu reasons for learning from people in other religious traditions? Third, many people, myself included, have found that this learning can be liberative, life-giving, able to help us to see and understand our own faith anew, as we see it through the eyes of another tradition. Isn’t it possible for a Hindu to profit on a deep spiritual level from another religion?
     3. “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?” One model for interreligious learning is motivated by dissatisfaction, a sense that something is missing from what I have. Mr. Manohar is quite right — I can be perfectly happy in my own faith, finding the truth full there, and interreligious learning would be difficult if it meant dishonoring the truth of my own tradition. But I do not believe that God wants us to close down our minds and not keep learning; nor do I believe that all of us have to “stay home” and learn only from our own. Truth does not begrudge truth; learning newly does not dishonor the truth we hold.
     4. “Many learned scholars are content to stay away from any such theological dialogue – for fear of superficiality and distraction.” Yes indeed! It is hard enough to study one’s own religion in depth, and learning across religious boundaries is very demanding. But if it is worthwhile and important, surely some of us must try!
     5. How far should interreligious learning go? Here Mr. Manohar asks a series of wonderful questions: “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 other’s customs? 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?” This is a difficult set of questions. On the one hand, traditions obviously have their limits and do not want outsiders intruding on precious places and rituals, nor do they wish to see words, images, and acts sacred to their own tradition used trivially by others. But on the other, it is hard to draw a firm line, as if to say: learn, but do not empathize; understand, but keep your distance; study texts that have spiritual value, but keep away from the spiritual practice.
     6. "What about praying like the other?" Here too, I agree that prayer is not a matter for casual borrowing; but I also do not think it bad if there happen to be some people of another religion who pray somewhat as we do, somewhat near to us, yet differently enough. I would not mind a Hindu coming to Sunday Mass or saying the rosary, even if she or he did so clearly from an enduring Hindu perspective. But Mr. Manohar, what do you think? Is the problem that too much interreligious learning is Christian-initiated, with too much of a bad history of colonialism in the background? Mr. Manohar will respond in the next entry. As always, reader comments welcome!

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Venki G
8 years 6 months ago
Inter-religious dialogue happens at multiple levels between individuals all the time from the superficial to deep discussions and people take as much or as little from them as they need. To be able to debate (not just have a dialogue) with a person from another tradition, it is important to have obtained in-depth knowledge of the other's tradition and it's intellectual discourse. This is called purva paksha in Sanskrit. Once that is done, then one is ready for debate. In ancient India, two learned scholars would debate each other in front of an audience and the one who loses the debate would become the disciple of the other acknowledging that the other's philosophy or knowledge is superior to his own. That is one end of the spectrum. The other end of the spectrum is superficial enquiry and exchange of information about another's traditions for purposes of knowing. This dialogue is somewhere in between.  Nevertheless, time is finite and anyone can only learn about the hundreds of other traditions in a superficial way. As a personal path (sadhana) or practice, as a wise person once said, it is better to pick a spot and dig deep (say 300feet) so that we may get to the water, rather than dig up hundreds of spots 10feet deep to never hit the water. As individuals we need to decide if we are in the scouting phase or the digging phase of our spiritual journey. In this process a genuine learning from another fellow digger may lead us to more effficiently dig our own well.
8 years 7 months ago
As a Hindu, it seems to me that the problem is not so much that interreligious learning is largely Christian-initiated, but that it is all too often intended towards an end that belies the benign spirit of promoting social goodwill or acquiring knowledge to improve oneself, which should motivate such discussions.  
As you say, Christianity does have "an outward push to it." Perhaps this is too curt, but your scripture commands you to spread your religion to the world. To convince Christians to do otherwise, to hope that you would be content to simply focus on bettering yourself before you set forth to conquer the misguided heathens of the world, would be a futile exercise.
I, like most Hindus, simply wish to practice and preserve for posterity the divine truths that were granted to my forefathers. However, I am fully aware that I cannot dissuade Christians from working towards eradicating those sacred truths. What am I to hope will arise from these dialogues?
8 years 7 months ago
I'm not sure how far dialogue can go without reference to the evangelical imperative in Christianity to make disciples of all nations.  While an argument can be made that much of this can be done on an ethical plane, where common ground can be found, at some point we must admit to ourselves and to those we dialogue with that we do seek their conversion on at least some level - or would at least rejoice at the prospect of it.  This is not to say that dialogue is not important, since there are misconceptions on both sides of any such dialogue that must be overcome and the only way to overcome these is dialogue.  The Gospel has many layers of complexity - many of which most Christians don't even appreciate.  This is why our greatest tool is how we love each other.  Until we do this well, we have no hope of really attracting others the way Jesus meant us to.  We must also love those we would dialogue with and overcome our perceived notions of their faith stories, especially those which are akin to paganism or politheism.  Until we appreciate that such stories are as much an effort to understand the human condition as they are a form of ritual and veneration, we can make no progress in dialogue.
8 years 7 months ago
Fr. Clooney, I do have one quibble about whether you speak for the Chruch officially.  You are a priest in a missionary order.  It's your job to speak that way, as it is the job of every Christian to do so in some way - however unlike the rest of us, evangelization is your full time job.

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