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Book Review

Jesus and the Other Names

 
Author: Paul F. Knitter
Publisher: Oneworld Publications, Oxford, England
ISBN: 1-85168-125-6

In his book Jesus and the Other Names Paul Knitter sets out to generate a little more light and energy in inter-religious debate, as well as intra-religious dialogue with fellow Christians, both of which he deals with thoroughly and extensively. This book is of interest to Vaisnavas that are interested in entering inter-religious dialogue as well as those who are skeptics. It helps highlight the issues that need tackling as well as suggesting a possible method of approach. More urgently, he seeks to persuade those who are skeptics of the moral imperative for world religions to enter dialogue.

He speaks mainly to a Christian audience (he himself comes from a Catholic background) attempting to convince them that inter-religious dialogue would benefit their tradition, rather than dilute and damage it. To those coming from other religious traditions there are a number of points of interest: his reasons for the necessity of dialogue; the approach he embraces in order to convince members of his own tradition of the necessity for dialogue, as well as some of his proposals towards how an inter-religious debate could be conducted.

The author begins with an autobiographical introduction describing his own dialogical odyssey. He carries the reader through the main events in his life that has shaped his theological approach: the sincere religious non-Christian friends that made him question that Christianity was the only path to God. The ability of Christians, Hindus and Muslims in the Indian sub-continent to dialogue and function successfully within the same community brought the realisation that inter-religious dialogue could and does work on a practical level. The plight of the 'suffering other' poor in the slums of South America who rarely have a say in the making of Church Policy, and the Native American Indians that impressed upon him the suffering and great harm that human society inflicts upon the earth and the animals that live upon it. From these deeply felt experiences, he devised his 'Co-relational, Globally Responsible' model for conducting an inter-religious dialogue.

He seeks to explain with the use of scripture that to enter dialogue is a moral imperative for Christians. Not only will it bring greater co-operation between religions, but it will also help Christians come to a clearer understanding of what makes Jesus unique; to come to a more committed following of him and enable them to ultimately carry out a more meaningful mission to the world.

Throughout he attempts to persuade through practical guidelines how to conduct a workable inter-faith dialogue. More than anything, his sincerity rings true, convincing us that there is an urgent need to address the 'suffering other' (the poor and destitute) and the 'religious other' (traditions not of a Catholic origin). His main contribution to the debate is that the needs of the 'religious other' and the 'suffering other' must be addressed together, because they have both been marginalised historically in Church debate.

After many years working in this, field Knitter comes to the conclusion that the best way to conduct an inter-religious debate is for it to be 'Globally Responsible', based on a shared commitment to promote eco-human well being. This raises an interesting point; an eco-human dialogue would enable dialogue to aim to fulfil a common practical purpose. This may encourage greater urgency to co-operate for a cause that cuts across religious boundaries. It seems that Vaisnavism has a great deal to offer to this debate, but would we agree to this as being a good starting point?

Debate must also be co-relational for it to be useful. By this he means through dialogue, religions can come to a better understanding of truth by sharing their truths. This is achieved by a mutual back and forth, co-relationship of speaking, listening, teaching and learning, witnessing and being witnessed to. He goes on to outline the preconditions needed for a fruitful dialogue, they include co-operation, equality, honesty, respect, and sensitivity towards other participants.

This approach is in line with Vaisnava teachings. In the Shrishastika, Caitanya Mahaprabhu recommends: trnad api sunicena / taror api sahisnuna / amanina manadena / kirtaniyah sada harih. 'One should chant the holy name of the Lord in a humble state of mind, thinking oneself lower than the straw in the street and one should be ready to offer all respect to others without expecting any respect for oneself.' Amoung other things, this text emphasises humility. Humility is a quality that Vaisnavas nurture inorder to cultivate an appropriate mood that will enable them to grow in their spiritual lives. This quality should make Vaisnavas especially capable of entering such a dialogue, as their training should enable them to co-operate, respect and react with sensitivity towards other participants. Moreover, this verse gives Vaishnavs the theological basis in support of entering such a dialogue.

Interestingly, Knitter rejects the pluralist model because to him it suggests an approach that sees different religions as equal in every sense as 'differences are painted away in order to create some kind of common religious soup.' Rather, he suggests that many religions share truth, but they share truth in very different ways, in his model 'differences are maintained, recognized, cherished.' This is encouraging, as it means that participants need not fear that by emphasising theological and cultural differences they will be undermining the purposes of the discussion, indeed, they would be enriching it.

Dialogue enables one to admit that one tradition does not have a monopoly on the truth: 'To stand before the beauty and power of another tradition does not necessarily call into question our own religious truth, but it does announce the limitations of our own truth.' Knitter suggests that the debate must start on the assumption that all religions are limited and that no one religion has a monopoly on the truth. We may not agree that our faith is limited in its revelation of truth. However our understanding or actual realisation of that truth may be limited, and we may benefit from sharing realisations and hearing the realisations of members of other faiths. In doing so, we may actually increase our understanding and faith in Krishna's mercy and revelation.

A humble stance is adopted by Knitter as he and highlights the injustices that his tradition has brought onto others, and he suggests that dialogue 'may even point out how our faith has excluded, demeaned or exploited them.' Through dialogue a tradition can renew and modify itself as well as guard against ideological abuses because, 'Alone in our background, we cannot recognise the distortions of our own truth.'

Indeed, we must ourselves guard against becoming dismissive of other faiths, which is very easily done through ignorance or misinformation. Everyday during their work devotees come across people form numerous religious persuasions. They are continually confronted by question asking where Vaisnavas stand on a multitude of theological issues. How well do we respond to their questions? What do we understand of these other faiths? Inter-religious dialogue could be an extremely useful forum in which we could increase our understanding of other traditions, as well as promoting a better understanding of ourselves in other traditions.

Reassurance is offered to those that might be fearful of entering the dialogue. One of the main fears for any religion entering such a dialogue is the fear that their missionary potential will be damaged and that what their tradition has to offer will no longer be considered unique. This also has relevance for devotees in ISKCON. Devotees may be also be fearful that by entering into a dialogue with other faiths may no longer allow Shrila Prabhupada's teaching to be considered unique. For these fears the Paul Knitter makes some helpful suggestions.

He proposes that with a few modifications in missionary outlook for the Christian Church this need not be the case. To him Christ is known through experience; faith and fidelity are a matter of practically living, rather than having. There should not be any fear that the authority of the Bible will be compromised through dialogue. The Bible affirms that God has 'really and truly spoken the saving word in Jesus' and it remains authoritative because those that live by the teachings of Christ continue to experience it as true. Therefore, the teachings of Christ continue to be unique because He offers a clear and decisive path to follow in order to know God, and this is equally true for those that are practicing the teachings of Shrila Prabhupada. He encourages Christians and other traditions that by simply having some faith in one's tradition; there is nothing to fear because the saving grace of God can transform not only the human heart but also human society.

With this in mind, he suggests mission should be viewed differently. He goes as far as to say that living by Jesus' example is more important than the Christian Church. To him a missionary is considered successful if he enables Hindus, Christians and Muslims to live together in greater harmony through Christian teachings, rather than a missionary who makes many converts to the church, but fails to make a positive contribution by changing the way humans behave towards one another.

He believes strongly that conversions should not be forced, nor missionary success measured in terms of conversion. Having said this, there are still some circumstances where conversion to the Church may be necessary. His approach begs the question, how else would success be measured if not by conversion? To him 'Conversion to the Kingdom of God', and by this I think he means living in God-consciousness, or by God's will 'is more important than conversion to the Church.' Again, the Vaisnava perspective supports this, as practice is more important than precept.

He goes even further to say that the Church would benefit by not only making dialogue part of its mission, but by making dialogue mission, indeed, to him it is a 'moral imperative.' Dialogue is a 'beneficial two-edged sword.' Not only would it help Mission, but it would also help the Church renew and reform itself. He calls for greater co-operation between religions because 'building God's Kingdom is too big and too complex a job for any one religion.' This sounds encouraging and familiar, because Shrila Prabhupada wanted greater co-operation between religions in order to create a more God conscious society.

All these proposals throw up important questions as far as our own tradition is concerned. Some members of ISKCON have taken the initiative and have already taken part in inter-religious dialogue, but as yet many preachers have not yet considered this possibility. How are we going to relate to other faiths in such a dialogue? What rules would we be comfortable with? Indeed, would we be happy with the suggestions Paul Knitter puts forward? Are we clear about what we want to achieve through inter-religious dialogue?

Paul Knitter lays out clearly why dialogue is important, how it can practically take place and the possible positive outcomes that could come about. His voice is significant because of his many years experience of 'coming up against walls' when taking part in inter-faith dialogue, therefore, his proposals come with the wisdom of experience. We need to decide clearly what our objectives would be when we enter dialogue-only by envisioning these aspects clearly will we be able to achieve a constructive outcome.

Arti Kachhia

Arti Kachhia is a congregational member of ISKCON in England. She read History at Trinity College, Cambridge and graduated in 1996.

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  Home > ICJ Home > Issues On-line > ICJ Vol 7, No 1 June 1999 > Book Reviews:
 
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Book Reviews
(Back-of-book abstracts)
 

The Alchemical Body

Author: David Gordon White
Publisher: The University of Chicago Press Ltd., London, 1996
ISBN: 0-226-89497-5 (cloth)

The Alchemical Body excavates and centres within its Indian context the lost tradition of the medieval Siddhas. Working from a body of previously unexplored alchemical sources, David Gordon White demonstrates for the first time that the medieval disciplines of Hindu alchemy and hatha-yoga were practised by the same people, and that they can only be understood when viewed together.  White opens the way to a new and more comprehensive understanding of medieval Indian mysticism, within the broader context of South Asian Hinduism, Jainism and Islam.

Themes and Issues in Hinduism

(A volume in the World Religions: Themes and Issues series)
edited by Paul Bowen
Publisher: Cassel (London and Washington)
First published 1998
ISBN 0-304-33850-8 hardback
ISBN 0-304-33851-6 paperback

This book offers useful insights into the complex and internally diverse realm of Hinduism. It is intended to acquaint the reader with themes and issues that, while of relevance to all religious traditions and systems, contribute to an understanding of the abstract nature of Hinduism as a whole. Beginning with Hindu religious understandings of the human condition, the chapters are arranged so as to form a thematic survey and overview of Hindu religious beliefs and practices. The themes of morality and ethics, the role of women in Hinduism, the Hindu religious construction of nature, and issues such as mythology, the status of texts, forms of worship, and sacred time and place can be systematically considered; or, alternatively, focus can fall upon those topics that are of particular personal interest. Readers should find this book a wide-ranging and balanced introduction to Hinduism's inner diversity.

Written for students of comparative religion and the general reader, and drawing on the chapters originally edited by Jean Holm and John Bowker in the Themes in Religious Studies series, the volumes in World Religions: Themes and Issues explore core themes from the perspective of the particular religious tradition under study.

Tantric Visions of the Divine Feminine: The Ten Mahavidyas

Author: David Kinsley
Publisher: University of California Press Ltd., London, 1997
ISBN: 0-52020498-0 (cloth)
ISBN: 0-520-20499-9 (pbk)

What is one to make of a group of goddesses that includes a goddess who cuts her own head off, a goddess who sits on a corpse while pulling the tongue of a demon, or a goddess who prefers sex with corpses? Tantric Visions of the Divine Feminine deals with a group of ten Hindu Mahavidyas, who embody habits, attributes or identities usually considered repulsive or socially subversive.  It is within the context of tantric worship that devotees seek to identify themselves with these forbidding goddesses.  The Mahavidyas seem to function as 'awakeners' - symbols that help to project one's consciousness beyond the socially acceptable or predictable.

Kinsley not only describes the eccentric qualities of each of these goddesses but seeks to interpret the Mahavidyas as a group and to explain their importance for understanding Tantra and the Hindu tradition.

Hinduism for Our Times

Author: Arvind Sharma
Publisher: Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 1996
ISBN: 0-195-63749-6

No religion ever remains static: it affects and is in turn affected by material reality.  It is the creative tension embodied in this dynamic which makes the world of religion, rich with possibilities.

This book examines the contours of this creative tension in the context of Hinduism in our own times. For Hinduism, a religion of unknown antiquity is also, in several ways, surprisingly modern. Hinduism for Our Times is an attempt to raise this dimension of Hinduism to an unprecedented level of self-awareness.  Thus the choices that Hindus must make in the context of modernisation and globalisation become conscious as opposed to random choices, choices which will place Hinduism at the cutting edge of the contemporary world instead of consigning it to the periphery.  This book will appeal to all those interested in giving religion a modern agenda.

A Hare Krishna at Southern Methodist University

Author: Tamala Krsna Goswami
Publisher: Pundits Press, Dallas
ISBN 0-9643485-2-7

A Hare Krishna at Southern Methodist University is a collection of award-winning essays mapping the convergence of East and West by Hare Krsna leader Tamala Krsna Goswami. Readers are invited to enter the world of a unique spiritual pioneer, who in reality is the seeker in all of us.

Essays include:
  • Destiny of the Soul
  • From Faith to Reason
  • The Perils of Succession
  • Rights of Passage Revisited
  • A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Nirvana
  • What It's Like to Live Now
  • Six Myths of our Time
  • Our Ecological Crisis
  • I Have My Doubts
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