Last week our monthly Faiths in Conversation took an interesting turn. Instead of the usual format with Jews, Christians and Muslims talking with each other about matters of common interest or controversy, this session consisted of a Hindu talking to Jews, Christians and Muslims about what Hinduism is and is not. What follows was my prepared response to the presentation and my rationale for being invested in the exercise. DBS+
“What Hinduism Is and What It Is Not”
Pravrajika Brahmaprana – Resident Minister
Ramakrishna Vedanta Society of North Texas
A Christian Response – Dr. Douglas B. Skinner
The Christian College in Oregon that I attended played intercollegiate sports. Our men’s basketball and baseball teams competed against teams from other small Christian Colleges in our Conference in the Pacific Northwest. But I didn’t play intercollegiate sports in college. I played intramural sports instead. The football, basketball and softball teams from my hall in the dormitory played teams from the other halls and houses on campus. Intercollegiate sports involved playing teams from other schools. Intramural sports involved playing teams from the same school. And here tonight our Faiths in Conversation shifted from being an intramural exercise to becoming an intercollegiate experience.
Up to this point virtually all of our Faiths in Conversation – I can think of one exception – have taken place between communities of faith from the branches of the same Abrahamic family tree. Whenever Rabbi Hanan, Imam Zia or Imam Khalil and I have made a presentation in the past, we have more or less spoken the same language. And that’s because we have a shared history, some common theological assumptions, many of the same spiritual disciplines and a similar moral compass. But not here tonight. Tonight we have been introduced to an entirely different kind of tree, and in many ways our Abrahamic tree and the Hindu tree could not be more different.
Peter Kreeft, the Christian philosopher from Boston College, after inviting his readers to compare the image of Christ on the cross with his eyes open wide, his arms outstretched and his body torn, with the image of a meditating guru with his eyes closed tight, turned inward, and his arms and body self-contained, like a sphere, concluded, “in one sense Hinduism and Christianity are as far apart as two religions can be.” And I’m pretty sure that the Christians in the room would agree. As the befuddled Dorothy noted after her first glimpse of Oz: “We’re not in Kansas anymore.”
But then, Professor Kreeft quickly added, “in another sense, Hinduism and Christianity may be less far apart than Judaism and Christianity.” It’s the Christmas truth of Christianity – the Incarnation, God becoming flesh and dwelling among us – and its logical theological corollary – the doctrine of the Trinity, one God in three persons – that Professor Kreeft sees as bringing Hinduism and Christianity within hearing distance of each other and holding some real promise for Hindu/Christian conversation and understanding. This could be a bridge that we might be able to cross over into each other’s spiritual worlds. Another possible bridge might be found in the realm of spiritual practice.
There are lots of churches these days where Christians practice Yoga while contemporary Christian music plays softly in the background. And I wonder, how does the fact that there are lots of Christians unreflectively practicing yoga without its spiritual assumptions sit with Hindus? I have some clergy colleagues who adamantly oppose this practice as blatant syncretism; the introduction of a Hindu spiritual discipline with Hindu spiritual assumptions into a Christian context, and I wonder if there are Hindu voices on the other side of the equation who are equally concerned by the Christian reduction of a valued spiritual practice to an exercise regimen and a relaxation technique? And more to the point, can the current cultural popularity of yoga in the west be a starting place for some kind of a meaningful Hindu/Christian conversation?
Different as they are, I believe that this Christian/Hindu conversation is as spiritually relevant and urgent to me as a Christian as has been our ongoing Jewish/Christian/Muslim conversations in recent years. While the “ethical monotheistic” religions – Judaism/Christianity/Islam – are branches of the same “Abrahamic” tree, that “Abrahamic” tree exists in a larger forest of trees, the forest of human religions. And so, while the “intramural” conversation between Jews, Christians and Muslims has seemed quite “natural” to us in so many ways and this initial foray into the Christian/Hindu “intercollegiate” conversation feels more “remote” by comparison, it still demands our attention and deserves our effort.
There are two genealogies of Jesus Christ in the New Testament. The genealogy of Jesus Christ in the Gospel of Matthew is designed to establish the claim that He is “the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham” (Matthew 1:1). It is this Christ that stakes me as a Christian into the “intramural” conversation of faiths with Jews and Muslims. In contrast, the genealogy of Jesus Christ in the Gospel of Luke (the only New Testament document traditionally ascribed to a Gentile author) does all the way back to “Adam, the son of God” (Luke 3:38). And it this Christ who belongs to the whole human family, and who came for the whole human family, that stakes me into the “intercollegiate” conversation of faith with Hindus. In both cases, it is my commitment to Jesus Christ that brings me to the table of conversation in the interest of mutual understanding and in the service of the God who made and loves the world and “all who dwell therein” (Psalm 24:1).
This coming Tuesday night (4/28) at 7 pm a special Faith in Conversations program will be held at Congregation Beth Torah in Richardson (720 W. Lookout Drive) on “Betrayal.” Pravrajika Brahmaprana, the Resident Minister of the Ramakrishna Vedanta Society of North Texas, Rabbi Hanan Schlesinger and I will each be sharing the spiritual wisdom that each of our faith traditions (Hinduism, Judaism and Christianity) offers to people who have been betrayed by another.