Christian Dialogues with Hinduism

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Christian Dialogues with Hinduism
K. P. Aleaz*
In this paper some highlights on the Indian Christian dialogues with Hinduism are presented. To begin with some trends in ecumenical responses to other faiths are analyzed. The second section is on a few 19th c. Christian dialogues with Hinduism. The third section deals with the thought of some 20th c. Christian theologians, on how they had dialogues with Hinduism and the fourth and final section provides our concluding observations.
1. Major Trends in Ecumenical Responses to Other Faiths
It would be worthwhile here to outline some of the major trends of the past ecumenical discussions on the Christian response to the plurality of world religious faiths. During 18th and 19th centuries the Christian missionary attitude to other religions and cultures was marked by a spirit of certainty about the superiority of the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the doctrines held by Christians. At the World Missionary Conference of 1910 at Edinburgh the missionaries who had come from lands of living faiths could not avoid the question of the Christian response to other faiths. They stated that on all lands the merely ‘iconoclastic attitude’ is condemned as radically unwise and unjust. The conference recognized the spirit of God working in the higher forms of other religions and affirmed that all religions disclose the elemental needs of the human soul, which Christianity alone could satisfy.1
The fact that missionary as well as scholarly interest continued on the subject after the conference is evident from the writings of missionary theologians like J. N. Farquhar2 and A. G. Hogg.3 According to Farquhar Christ provides the fulfillment of each of the highest aspirations and aims of Hinduism. Hogg disagreed with this ‘fulfillment’ theory through his theory of ‘contrast’, which tried to present the gospel of Jesus through high lightening the differences between Hinduism and Christianity.
The second meeting of the Missionary Conference, at Jerusalem in 1928 thought that the enemy of the Christian mission was communism and secularism. The conference regarded other religions as allies of the Christian faith. Worship and reverence in Islam, sympathy over the world’s sorrow in Buddhism, the moral order of Confucianism and the desire for contact with Ultimate Reality in Hinduism etc. were considered as ‘rays of the same light’. The European Continental missionaries and theologians were later critical of this view of the conference, but the American and the British supported this view.4
A significant contribution came from the American Laymen’s Report of 1932, Rethinking Missions, a Laymen’s Enquiry after a Hundred Years, chiefly through W. E. Hocking5 according to whom the task of the missionary should be to see the best in other religions. The missionary should aim at the emergence of the various religions out of their isolation into a world fellowship in which each will find its appropriate place. The aim should not be conversion. Hocking rejected the methods of ‘radical displacement’ and ‘synthesis’, and instead favoured the method of ‘reconception’. The Continental missionary theologians reacted against such a standpoint and the clearest type of their reaction we see in H. Kraemer6 who wrote The Christian Message in a Non-Christian World as the preparatory volume for the Third World Missionary Conference held at Tambaram in 1938. According to Kraemer Biblical revelation, God’s self-disclosure in Jesus Christ, is sue generis. His Biblical Realism was influenced by Karl Barth and it stressed the absoluteness, finality and otherness of the Gospel. He emphasized the discontinuity between the Gospel and religions including Christianity.
The Tambaram Conference more or less adopted the line of Kraemer’s theology. In Christ alone is the full salvation which humans need. Though in other religions may be found values of deep religious experiences and great moral achievements, though in them may be found glimpses of God’s light as God did not leave Himself/Herself without witness in the world at any time, yet all religious insight and experience including those of Christians have to be fully tested before God in Christ. Humans have been seeking God all through the ages, but often this seeking and longing have been misdirected. The Conference ‘boldly’ called people ‘out’ from world religions to the feet of Christ.7
The ‘Rethinking Group’ of Indian theologians P. Chenchiah, V. Chakkarai etc. were highly critical of Kraemer and the Tambaram message, specially the standpoint of ‘discontinuity’ between the Gospel and religions. According to them God and human person have met and fused together in the incarnation of God in Jesus and we should not have any ‘Barthian nervousness’ about it. The convert of today regards Hinduism as his/her spiritual mother. He/She discovers the supreme value of Christ, not in spite of Hinduism but because of Hinduism. Loyalty to Christ does not involve the surrender of a reverential attitude towards the Hindu heritage.8
Internationally also the debate continued in the 1940s and 50s and the overall outcome was an open-minded approach to other religions and cultures. Though the relevance of the call for conversion to the Christian faith was affirmed, many theologians openly departed from the traditional exclusive and authoritarian approach to other religions and this paved the way for a willingness for dialogue with other religions. Wide ecumenical recognition has been given through both the World Council of Churches and the Second Vatican Council, for this dialogue-approach. According to the Fourth Assembly of the World Council of Churches, which met at Uppsala in 1968, the meeting with people of other faiths must lead to dialogue. In dialogue we share our common humanity. Dialogue for a Christian, neither implies a denial of the uniqueness of Christ, nor any loss of his/her own commitment to Christ. Following the Uppsala Assembly, the WCC established a Department for Dialogue with People of Living Faiths and Ideologies.9
Since the meeting of the Central Committee at Addis Ababa in 1971, dialogue with people of living faiths has been part of the work of the World Council of Churches, it being understood as the common adventure of the churches. The consultation held in Chiang Mai, Thailand, in 1977 on the theme ‘Dialogue in Community’ proved ton be a significant stage in the very conception of dialogue. Dialogue in community has meant entering into dialogue with our neighbours of other faiths in the communities we as Christians share with them, exploring such issues as peace, justice, and humanity’s relation to nature. The Guidelines on Dialogue adopted at the Central Committee meeting at Kingston, Jamaica, in 1979 since then has served as a guiding document for all churches. It has pointed out the relationship between Christian witness and dialogue. To quote:

In giving their witness they (Christians) recognize that in most

circumstances today the spirit of dialogue is necessary. For this reason

we do not see dialogue and the giving of witness as standing in any

contradiction to one another. Indeed, as Christians enter dialogue with their

commitment to Jesus Christ, time and again the relationship of dialogue

gives opportunity for authentic witness. Thus, to the member churches of

the WCC we feel able with integrity to commend the way of dialogue as one

in which Jesus Christ can be confessed in the world today; at the same time

we feel able with integrity to assure our partners in dialogue that we come

not as manipulators but as genuine fellow pilgrims, to speak with them of

what we believe God to have done in Jesus Christ who has gone before us,

but whom we seek to meet anew in dialogue10
Dialogue has been defined in the document as “witnessing to our deepest convictions and listening to those of our neighbours.”11
Dialogue with people of other living faiths leads us to ask questions on Christian Theology of Religions. How do Christians theologically account for the diversity of the world’s religious quest and commitment? What is the relation of the diversity of religious traditions to the mystery of the one Triune God? At both the Nairobi (1975) and Vancouver (1983) assemblies of the WCC, dialogue became a controversial point primarily because of the implicit assumptions made in dialogue about the theological significance of other faiths. At Vancouver, for example, a major stream within the Assembly rejected the possibility of God’s presence and activity in the religious life of people of other faiths. Consequently the Dialogue sub-unit of the WCC undertook a four-year study programme on ‘My Neighbour’s Faith and Mine- Theological Discoveries through Interfaith Dialogue’.12 As the apex of this study a document has been brought out by WCC through a significant ecumenical consultation in Barr, Switzerland in 1990. The Baar Statement says:

We need to respect their religious convictions (i.e., of people of other living

faiths), different as these may be from our own, and to admire the things which

God has accomplished and continues to accomplish in them through the Spirit.

Inter-religious dialogue is therefore a ‘two-way street’. Christians must enter

into it in a spirit of openness prepared to receive from others, while on their

part, they give witness of their own faith. Authentic dialogue opens both

partners to a deeper conversion to the God who speaks to each through the

other. Through the witness of others, we Christians can truly discover facets

of the divine mystery which we have not yet seen or responded to. The practice

of dialogue will thus result in the deepening of our own life of faith. We believe

that walking together with people of other living faiths will bring us to a fuller

understanding and experience of truth.13

  1. Some 19th c. Christian Dialogues with Hinduism

Krishna Mohun Banerjea (1813-1885) was the first Protestant Christian to interpret Jesus Christ and Christianity in terms of the Vedic thought.14 In 1860s his thought on the relation between Hinduism and Christianity underwent considerable changes; he started taking a positive attitude to Hinduism. The purpose of his book The Arian Witness15 written in 1875 was to show the striking parallels between the Old Testament and the Vedas and then to conclude that Christianity was the logical conclusion of Vedic Hinduism. The fundamental principles of the Gospel were recognized and acknowledged both in theory and practice by the Brahminical Arians of India. The original home of the Arians and Abraham was the same namely Media. There are striking parallels between Hebrew and Sanskrit. There are parallels to the Biblical creation stories in the Vedas. The legend of the Deluge is there in the Old Testament and Satapatha Brahmana.

The original sacrifice of the Vedas refers to the self-sacrifice of Prajapati, which foreshadowed the Cross of Jesus Christ. In the two Supplementary Essays16 and in the booklet The Relation between Christianity and Hinduism17published in 1881, he further expounded the similarity between Hindu and Christian thought with respect to the understanding of sacrifice. The two theses of Banerjea were as follows:

1stly.That the fundamental principles of Christian doctrine in relation to the

salvation of the world find a remarkable counterpart in the Vedic principles

of primitive Hinduism in relation to the destruction of sin, and the

redemption of the sinner by the efficacy of Sacrifice, itself a figure of

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