Hindu God, Christian God

In a world with a diversity of opinions and beliefs, it’s necessary for Christians to find a way to have genuine dialogue with religious persons of other faiths.  In Hindu God, Christian God, Clooney gives us some ground to stand on to begin conversing with those in the Hindu faith.  He also aims to show through this book’s examples that theology needs to become an interreligious term and void of its previous sectarian leanings.  While I don’t want to encourage all of his hopes of making theology interreligious, I want to acknowledge the ground he has cleared and show an excellent point of contact for dialogue is found in the concept of divine embodiment.  We will take a brief overview over the book with emphasis on the chapter on divine embodiment.  Then we will consider my disagreements and the implications of my thoughts in this paper.

Clooney begins his work with an introductory chapter that defines his goal and methodology for this book.  His goal is to show that religions are unique and different while theology should be understood as interreligious activity not particular to one religion as he reiterates at the end of the book.[1]   Clooney goes about doing this by dedicating one chapter to four different theological issues of God’s existence, God’s identity, divine embodiment, and revelation.  In each section he shows that Christians and Hindus may have different answers, but reason and think about the issues in strikingly similar ways.  We now will turn to issue of divine embodiment and the insights I have gleaned from Clooney. 

Clooney covers multiple Hindu traditions in great detail, but I want to focus on the Saiva tradition and the Vaisnava tradition.  The Saiva tradition holds that God can hold a physical form without diminishment of the Lord’s perfection.  The main reason they hold to this is because the Lord is all-powerful and can do whatever he chooses, and he chooses embodiment out of love and grace.[2]  The Saiva tradition contends that the Lord, Siva, maintains his divine qualities and freedom while embodied.  This freedom is to help humans discover their own freedom and that their own bodies are nothing but instruments to their inner spiritual lives.[3]

In the Vaisnava tradition, like the Saiva tradition, divine embodiment parallels Christian understandings in significant ways.  Yet like the Saiva tradition, it also contains important differences.  The Vaisnava tradition maintains that divine descent is aimed at overcoming evil to uplift the righteous to liberation and provide more immediate access to the Lord.[4]  They also maintain like the Saivas that divine descent has salvific implications.  However, the Vaisnava tradition holds the divine can be subject to the limitations of a body while embodied.[5]  Also, they believe that the entire world is the body of the Supreme God.[6] 

Both Hindu and Christian theologies argue that divine descent is meant to give us insight into the true meaning of what it means to be a human.[7]  Divine embodiment is a point for both faiths where we learn value of humanity and also how humanity is to relate to God.  It is crucial for interreligious dialogue that there are such staggering similarities.  However, there are still real and substantive differences.  Instead of only affirming one another by saying the same thing in different ways, differences allow Christians and Hindus to engage in an opportunity to learn from one another from their respective viewpoints. 

Knitter places Clooney within the acceptance model as a comparative theologian.  I tend to lean more towards the fulfillment model.  This is why I see real difference but also real sharing of truth between the Christian and Hindu traditions, since the Holy Spirit moves outside the Christian community.[8]  It’s also a motivator for why I think we need to keep theological traditions separate.  That’s why I want to challenge Clooney’s suggestion that we no longer should keep theological traditions separate as much as possible.[9]  I agree that we need to compare and see the ways that different religions reason the same and come to the same conclusions to create a sense of unity.  I would be willing to concede that at these points it may not make sense to confine them to one theological tradition over another. 

However, things really get interesting when we come to the points that we disagree.  With having multiple different holy books, this will result in different theological conclusions, even if there are similarities on the way.  Difference though doesn’t have to turn into denigration of dialogue or even arrogance in the superiority of one’s belief.  For as Professor Ireland has pointed out, you wouldn’t hold a certain position if you didn’t think it was in some way superior to the alternatives.  This doesn’t have to be done in arrogance though.

My point is that, it is the differences that we really care about too.  The differences are what make someone a Buddhist rather than a Muslim, Jewish rather than a Confucianist.  As a Christian, I’m going to have a Christian theology because at the points that define Christianity and my identity, I will differ with other religions.  It is these points that truly define my theology and what makes my theology Christian.  I contend that no matter how many similarities religions have, if you follow them far enough you meet discontinuity.  Those areas of disagreement will most likely be found in most theological issues but most importantly around salvation, God’s identity, and God’s nature.  As such, I think the default should be to understand theological traditions as separate, while acknowledge that they may have some overlap. 

I want to now end with some implications.  I think this book models a great approach to interreligious dialogue.  In evaluating the Hindu position, Clooney shows the actual commonality of belief between Christians and Hindus and also the commonality of thinking between the theologians.  This means that Christians and Hindus can begin to consider issues together.  Instead of only looking at Christian theologians, Christians should feel liberty to consult Hindu theologians in arguments for God’s existence. 

This also means that we can speak each other’s language on a real level in contrast to Heim’s understanding of religions having different languages.[10]  Since we have shown Hindus and Christians have the potential to think the same, we shouldn’t be afraid to learn from Hindus to think differently and borrow from their reasoning as the total replacement model would warn against.[11] This provides an opportunity in ministry for Christians to grow alongside Hindus in an understanding of God without making it all about conversion.  I think this allows for more authenticity and genuineness when making relations with followers of other religions. 

What is important to take away is that the topic of divine embodiment is meant to serve as an example of other doctrinal positions and that Hinduism is meant to stand as an example of other religions.  It’s becoming more and more evident that theological reasoning is something shared between religions.  As such, we as Christians should feel freedom to consult theologians of other religions on how they handle and approach big theological issues like evil, eternity of God, heaven, etc.  Knowing that they aren’t Christians, we shouldn’t expect to be able to use all their thoughts in Christian theology, but we definitely can use some.  Lastly, more importantly, we can engage with other religious people in growing closer to God together, without insisting on conversion first.

[1] Clooney, Francis X. Hindu God, Christian God: How Reason Helps Break down the Boundaries between Religions. New York, NY, Etc.: Oxford University Press, 2001. Pg. 163.

[2] Hindu God, Christian God. pg. 103.

[3] Ibid. pg. 104.

[4] Ibid. pg. 114.

[5] Ibid. pg. 111.

[6] Ibid. pg. 112

[7] Ibid. pg. 111

[8] Kärkkäinen, Veli-Matti. An Introduction to the Theology of Religions: Biblical, Historical and Contemporary Perspectives. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2007.

[9] Hindu God, Christian God. pg. 165.

[10] Knitter, Paul F. Introducing Theologies of Religions. Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 2002. Pg. 192.

[11] Introducing Theologies of Religions. Pg. 23.

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