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Conference Report:

The Destiny of the Soul, A Vaishnava-Christian Conference
East Freeport, Freetown, Massachusetts, U.S.A., 20-21 September 1996


Francis X. Clooney, S.J.

Nineteen people (ten Vaishnavas and nine Christian) participated in this conference at the Cathedral Conference Centre in southern Massachusetts. The Centre, on the shore of a very beautiful lake, provided a quiet and contemplative setting for what proved to be a busy, but rewarding, weekend from Friday night until late Sunday afternoon.

Several features distinguished the meeting as a rich and complex event. It cer- tainly offered challenging opportunities for scholarly discussion due to the fine opening papers by Klaus Klostermeier and Tamal Krishna Goswami on the conference theme, "The Destiny of the Soul". Dr. Klostermeier presented the Christian perspective, touching upon a wide range of materials, diverse in period and genre: Biblical sources; theological perspectives in the early Church and Middle Ages, with special attention to the De Anima of Thomas Aquinas; "medieval visions of soul and God" in mystics such as Elsbeth Stagel and Angela da Foligno; challenges from modern thinkers (such as Darwin, Freud, Jung); and, by way of a single example, the writing of the German theologian Michael Schinaus, an illustration of contemporary theological reflection. His presentation concluded with synthetic reflections on the great mass of material introduced only in the barest sketch, and with an important plea to both Vaishnavas and Christians to rethink their traditional teachings in the light of the contemporary sciences without abandoning their timeless insights. Hearing this challenge, we were reminded to pursue our discussions with a sense of contemporary issues-a concern we came to share more vividly as the conference progressed.

Tamal Krishna Goswami focused his presentation thematically rather than his- torically, focusing on three key aspects of the Vaishnava representation of the soul's destiny with God: consciousness (sambandha), salvation (abhidheya), and the kingdom of God (prayojana). He thereby gave us a strong sense of the role of human responsibility with regard to this destiny, and the journey there-with the help of the guru, the community of believers and scripture; and his vivid presentation gave us many images of the abodes to which devotees may rise after death. Listeners seemed particularly impressed by the latter images, and the Christians among us immediately began to explore whether and how this imagery is accessible to people raised in the Biblical traditions.

The meeting was skilfully planned, so as to be able to move forward at a reflective pace. As soon at the presentations were done and we turned to a shared consideration of them, we also began to ask how we wanted to structure our time and address the many issues placed before us. The group interacted very well, and there was no inclination to separate into smaller groups of Vaishnavas and Christians. Despite the differences in background and occupation among us, we worked well together, and found numerous meeting points where our conversation could begin.

It was clear to us, without much being said on the topic, that this was not the time nor place to pursue the truly scholarly agenda placed before us by the papers; at best, we could provide some inspiration and direction for that kind of research during this weekend. Eventually, we identified five areas that we felt we could talk about more or less immediately.

First, there were the metaphysical and epistemological aspects of the question of the soul's destiny, such as might be considered by a systematic theologian. While we implicitly agreed that they were too complex for this group, on this weekend, we seemed to acknowledge them as setting a realistic frame and set of boundaries for our discussions.

A second area highlighted linguistic issues. While these too had very technical angles, we had more success in opening some of these up as immediately perti- nent-e.g., the delicate balance between "real" and "metaphorical" descriptions of religious realities, the tensions believers have in balancing a commitment to a faith language that expresses things as they really are, with a recognition of the manifold ways in which any human language can only indirectly and more fluidly express what we-as communities, as individuals-really mean and care about.

Our third and fourth areas of consideration focused respectively on the social relevance and spiritual importance of beliefs about the soul's destiny. How does it matter, here and now in today's world, whether Christians or Vaishnavas think one way or another about what happens after death? Do these apprehensions of life after death distract us from this-worldly obligations which should take precedence? Spiritual concerns matter too, in a different way: How do our communities actually find strength in what they say about the ultimate, liberated life after death? How do our discourses about the destiny of the soul help us to live and grow spiritually, now?

As our fifth area, we introduced a range of issues related to sin and death. Although both our traditions recognise the reality and weight of sin, we seemed to find it easier and more urgent to discuss our attitudes toward death: How do our understandings of life after death affect the way we deal with tragic accidents, painful diseases, and even the sense we have of our own finitude?

These issues were thus inviting us into more personal reflections on why we as individuals find it important to think, imagine and speak in certain ways about life af- ter death. During increasingly personal discussions, we began to share a little more deeply, by sharing our individual views of how views of the destiny of the soul shape our lives now: What kinds of hopes, expectations, desires (in small or large ways) characterise how we act from day to day, strengthened by hope about what is beyond the grave? A number of us even took this opportunity to speak "from the beginning", telling our life stories of search, faith, conversion. As one participant observed, to hear these stories was itself a blessed moment, testimony to the power of faith.

In light of the preceding developments, it was proven to be especially wise that the planners understood how theological dialogue cannot proceed fruitfully without the participants also drawing on the communal and personal religious resources of their traditions. The schedule therefore included four periods for shared worship, each morning in the Christian tradition and each afternoon in the Vaishnava tradition. These opportunities marked the wholeness of the meeting: what was read, thought, said, shared, was always meant to be rooted, as best we could, in the realities of religious commitment.

By the end of Sunday afternoon, we realised that we were still only at the beginning of this interaction of the Hindu and Christian traditions here in the West. To explore further our many shared interests and values, and to face up more directly to the things that distinguish and divide us, we need to proceed on all four levels addressed at the meeting:

We need to foster philosophical and theological enquiries by which members of both traditions come to understand the systems of belief, and then compare and contrast them on a technical basis.

We need to keep talking in a creative fashion in order to find a common ground and to understand the ways in which our beliefs matter to us; how we are more or less successful in putting what we believe into words that others can understand.

We need to keep sharing our personal stories, for it is these that give flesh and blood reality, today, to our traditions and to our contemporary encounters.

And we need to keep praying and worshipping together, respectfully inviting one another into the depths of our traditions.

We can start anywhere, but as communities we must move forward on all these levels. Do we really have a common destiny? None of us wanted to take this merely for granted, but we all seemed to thrill to God's grace running through us when we prayed and sang together:

    "When we've been there ten thousand years,
    Bright shining as the sun,
    We've no less days to sing God's praise
    Than when we'd first begun."

Christian Perspectives

Vaishnava Perspectives

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