God's love has no limit
Father Murray Rogers, a pioneer of Christian-Hindu dialogue, told
me when I visited his ashram in India more than thirty years ago,
that the 'external' dialogue has to be matched by an 'internal'
dialogue. In 'external' dialogue you learn about the faith of others
and share your own, whereas in 'internal' dialogue your reflect
on what you have learned in communion with the Lord. How does the
faith of the other compare with your own faith? Where is there disagreement?
Where does it correct your own misunderstanding? This 'internal'
dialogue is also a necessary task for a faith community. Do others
have a genuine experience of the Divine? If so, can one claim for
one's own faith a monopoly of the truth?
In recent years, there has been considerable discussion among Christians
about the theological basis for dialogue perhaps because
many Christians want to move away from an exclusive position. There
has been less discussion among Hindus perhaps because many
Hindus, as I was told when I first visited India more than thirty
years ago, believe that all religions are the same, or at least
paths up the same mountain. If that is the case, differences are
only superficial and there is no urgency for dialogue, because questions
of truth are not at stake. ISKCON, however, regards 'love of a Supreme
personal God' to be the highest form of religious expression. Whilst
respectful of other positions, once you recognise one way as 'the
highest form of religious expression', you have the possibility
of disagreement and also of dialogue about the truth.
The ISKCON document, 'ISKCON in Relation to People of Faith in
God' is, therefore, a valuable and important document. It is first
of all an internal reflection of the ISKCON community and, as it
says, will provide members with 'clear principles, guidelines and
perspectives for relationships with members of other faith communities'.
It is also a significant document to members of other faiths who
participate in dialogue with members of ISKCON. There are many motivations
for, and approaches to, dialogue and it is helpful when participants
clarify their approach as this ISKCON document does. This is particularly
the case as, initially at least, ISKCON was seen as a proselytising
body keen to recruit new members.
Part Two of the document addresses the issue of 'Dialogue and Mission'.
When A.C. Bhaktivedanta first registered ISKCON, he said its primary
aim was 'to systematically propagate spiritual knowledge to society
at large'. It is clear that he did not claim a monopoly on the truth.
It is good, however, that this is now made clear in an official
statement as some of his first followers may not have had this breadth
of vision. Indeed, it is a puzzle to any new believer why the amazing
truth that he or she has discovered is not equally apparent to everyone
else. The early Christians could not understand why the good news
of Jesus was not as self-evident to others as it was to them. They
felt that they had been specially chosen to receive 'the secret
of the kingdom of God' (Mark 4,11). They felt that others, who rejected
their message, were blind, wilfully disobedient, wicked or even
'children of the devil'. The ISKCON statement refers to a passage
in the Srimad-Bhagavatam that says the neophyte or
new believer usually expresses the sentiments of fanaticism
and exclusivism. The new truth is so amazing that everything else
must be wrong. The mature devotee, however, recognises other devotees
by the quality of their lives. He or she does not judge them by
religious affiliation. This liberating discovery can, however, be
difficult if one's fellow believers are still at an immature and
exclusive stage of discipleship. Wesley Ariarajah, who did much
to develop the dialogue programme of the World Council of Churches,
tells in his new book Not Without My Neighbour, which
arrived in the same post as the ISKCON Communications Journal,
of his childhood in Sri Lanka, where he grew up with devout Hindu
neighbours. 'I was aware ... that their prayer life was for them
profoundly meaningful. Perhaps what impressed me most was that their
prayer life appeared to bear fruits.' Yet he had to listen to 'hard-nosed'
gospel preachers who described Hindus as 'idol-worshippers'
bound for hell, while Christians were destined for heaven. 'It was
inconceivable to me; it was clearly unfair. I wouldn't want to be
in a heaven where our neighbours were not.' Meeting in friendship
with sincere members of other faiths shatters an exclusive theology.
The ISKCON statement affirms a mature relationship to people of
other faiths. It is respectful of those who do not share belief
in a supreme personal God, and welcoming to those who do. It recognises
the need for people of faith to work together for a better world.
The Srimad-Bhagavatam also recognises a third stage. 'The
advanced devotee sees all living beings as eternal servants of Krsna
and treats them as such. He or she will have no interest in sectarian
designations of race, caste, sex or religion.' This was the awareness
of Francis Younghusband, who founded the World Congress of Faiths,
and of many of its leading members. I doubt, however, whether it
can be the position of a faith community, which, insofar as it is
organised, seeks to develop its own institutional life. This is
why, perhaps, although some great religious leaders recognise this
advanced stage, religions as such and indeed many interfaith
organisations operate at the second stage. That is a great
advance on the immaturity that has so often characterised relationships
Most of us need a faith community by which we are nourished and
to which we contribute. Yet we also need to be disturbed by the
advanced devotees who remind us that God is free to enter into loving
exchanges with whomsoever He wishes.
Ariarajah, S. Wesley. Not Without My Neighbour: Issues in Interfaith
Relations. Risk, World Council of Churches, 1999.