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A Response to: ISKCON in Relation to People of Faith in God
by Saunaka Rsi Dasa, Vol. 7, No.1
 

I have to confess that my first reaction on reading this document was a rather unworthy one: a feeling of envy. There is, as far as I am aware, no generally agreed statement in the Christian tradition corresponding to this document, but it would be enormously helpful if there were, for two reasons.

Firstly, 'ISKCON in Relation to People of Faith in God' surely does fulfil the objective, described by Saunaka Rsi Dasa, of 'providing clear principles, guidelines and perspectives for relationships with members of other faiths'. It does so as an authorised text, setting out a practically oriented path for devotees to follow in their interfaith relations. Lying behind the text there is clearly the accumulated wisdom gained through a broad process of consultation, a wisdom that will continue to grow as ISKCON members put into practice the recommendations here, and further reflect on the patterns of insight that emerge from their encounters. In other words, while this is an official statement of the Society, it also seems to me to that it has the potential to function very much as a living text, part of a continuing process in which experience and reflection are intertwined. This suggests to me a concern with orthopraxis — a term much used in modern Christian theology — 'right action' in the way we express our faith.

A second reason for valuing this document so highly is that it also grounds this orthopraxis in a serious orthodoxy, 'right belief' about the way in which God may be apprehended in the Vaisnava tradition. Over the last few decades, there has been a serious Christian effort to find an adequate theological grounding for our practice of dialogue, yet Christian diversity and the complexities of our history are such that there is no agreed text to which we could point. In fact, it is interesting to observe that the most influential of all Christian documents in this regard is now more than 30 years old: The Second Vatican Council's declaration Nostra Aetate, calling for Christian 'discussion and collaboration with members of other religions' was issued in 1965.

Given then that this seems a valuable document for ISKCON to have produced from a Vaisnava perspective, how as a Christian do I respond to what I read here? Certainly, there is much in 'ISKCON in Relation to People of Faith in God' that I can recognise as convergent with my own Christian understanding of religious plurality, and with the guidelines to which, as a Christian, I would aspire to in interfaith meeting and dialogue. Of course, there is always a danger here of making an easy but misleading assumption: namely, that words taken from the Vaisnava tradition are being used in the same way that they would be in a Christian discourse. We need to be aware, for example, that all of us fill out the meaning of such expressions as 'mission', 'spirituality', 'worship' with references taken from our own religious paths. Even more centrally important terms like 'personal God' or 'religious faith' may be interpreted by Christians and Vaisnavas in subtly different ways. Nevertheless, with these cautions in mind, I am convinced from reading this Vaisnava statement that its theological vocabulary has enough resonance with ours to enable a serious shared conversation. I want to briefly trace, through the document's four parts, some common concerns, as well as some outstanding questions.

Part One, the actual statement on 'Relating with People of Faith in God', underlines the centrality for ISKCON of 'love of a Supreme personal God', and on the basis of this extends a generous recognition and respect for 'other theistic traditions' where that love is to be found. At the same time, there is an acknowledgement of other religious paths and of the contributions of all people of good will. I was interested here to think further about the finely crafted language in which the statement describes three successive levels of response: 'recognising and respecting' (theistic ways), 'respecting the spiritual worth' (of non-theistic religious paths) and 'valuing as beneficial to society' (humanitarian initiatives). Christianity is one of the faith traditions where God is recognised and adored as personal, though the precise understanding of personality in relation to a Trinitarian account of God has always been a matter of some debate. Christian spirituality, which emphasises the love of God, therefore, would seem to fall into the 'recognising and respecting' group. In this sense, we could say that Christians are closer to Vaisnavas than to followers of non-theistic paths. At the same time, most Christians would also want to affirm respect for Buddhists, non-theistic Hindus, and other religiously committed people who do not share a theistic perspective.

What we seem to be facing here is the difficult question of how to emphasise our close-ness to some patterns of spirituality without devaluing others. This challenge also faced the Fathers of the Vatican Council; Nostra Aetate addressed this through implying a series of concentric circles — from the outside in: (1) the community of all humanity, with a certain religious sense; (2) 'the religions which are found in more advanced civilisations' (Hinduism and Buddhism are singled out by name); (3) Islam; (4) Judaism. Something like this concentric schema is quite common among Christians today; yet I have doubts about its applicability. I think more in terms of a Venn diagram, where a series of circles have different areas of overlap. Christianity and Buddhism, for example, seem doctrinally to be as far apart as is imaginable; yet the inter-monastic encounter of Christian and Buddhist religions is one of the liveliest areas of interfaith dialogue today.

Whatever approach we adopt, it is surely significant that the underlying issues for Christians and Vaisnavas are so similar. Equally, the attitudes of respect, understanding, humility and co-operation, which the statement commends, are those that Christians today would want to endorse. It has been no easy position for the churches to reach this position. In the past, the zeal of many for the truth of the Christian message easily slid, by means of the dangerous doctrine that 'error has no rights', into a rigorous intolerance of religious difference. We have had to learn, with difficulty, to respect the integrity of other faith traditions and to safeguard the principle of religious freedom for all. Still today, Vaisnava and Christian believers, in different ways and in different countries, have stories to tell of freedoms denied. From those experiences, perhaps we can together affirm wholeheartedly the value of that freedom which is implicitly commended in this statement.

But our relating with faithful people of other ways also needs to join up in some way with the core affirmations and activities of our own faith. In this connection I was very inter-ested to read the next two parts of the text, dealing with dialogue in the contexts of mission and of theology.

Part Two, 'ISKCON in Dialogue and Mission', will certainly resonate for any Christian who has been involved in the many discussions around the same subject within the churches. Vaisnavas and Christians share a deep-seated instinct for mission, which is both spiritually required by the very core visions of our respective faiths and also historically written into the development of our respective communities. The contents of those visions are quite distinct, and so are the patterns of our missionary development, yet both traditions face the same challenge of relating a missionary imperative with a commitment to dialogue. The churches have not come to any kind of consensus on how to meet this challenge. This situation is not helped by the characteristic Christian habit of different people using the same words to mean different things, and different words to mean the same thing.  'Evangelism', 'evangelisation, 'mission', 'witness', 'conversion, 'proselytisation', and so on, are all important terms in the debate, but Christians find it extraordinarily difficult to agree even on their respective meanings, let alone on how they should be correlated.

I personally do not think that this is entirely a matter of regret; confusion and fluidity are often signs of life, and certainly the mission-dialogue debate is very lively within the Christian community at present. It has been suggested that one sharp way of posing the underlying theological issue for Christians is to ask us the question: 'Do you think that the existence of a continuing diversity of religions is according to the will of God?' As I read this second part of ISKCON's text, it implies to me that Vaisnavas would probably want to answer that question in the affirmative. I notice, for example, the quotation from Srila Prabhupada's 1969 lecture:

Everyone should follow the particular traditions or sampradaya, the regulative principles of your own religion. This is required as much as many political parties.

This is certainly a position that would closely describe the attitude that many Christians would take in an ecumenical context with respect to the existence of different Christian denominations. The number prepared to adopt a similarly pluralist approach in a multi-faith context is smaller.

However, even those in the churches who do not share this statement's attitude to other faiths will have to take seriously another dimension which is present here: the sense of a shared mission to be jointly owned by the faith communities in addressing society. In the ISKCON tradition, as represented in this text by references to Srila Prabhupada and to Bhaktivinoda Thakura, this mission is seen in quite confrontational terms as facing the 'ene-my' of atheism, of growing influence in a 'Godless civilisation'. In relating specifically to western culture, the churches of Europe and North America have generally taken a more nuanced approach, recognising not only the increasingly secularised character of the official structures of society, but also the persistence of attitudes and aspirations which owe much of their inspiration to Christian values in the broad sense of that term. Yet the fundamental religious motivation of 'establishing a God-conscious ethos in our modern world' seems to me close to the Christian project of working towards the realisation of the 'Kingdom of God'. Insofar as other traditions share similar motivations, the idea of a 'shared mission' among our faiths is surely one that deserves further exploration, in dialogue with wider society.

Part Three provides a theological basis for dialogue in two related ways: through pointing to the fundamental categories by which Vaisnava theology interprets the reality of religion (or, more properly, of sanatana-dharma, which is explicitly distinguished from 'any sectarian process of religion'); and through outlining the progressive stages in the development of Vaisnava spirituality which enable dialogical participation on the part of the devotee. It is more difficult to draw obvious parallels with Christian thought here, precisely be-cause the ISKCON text so successfully provides this double anchorage of interfaith involvement within the distinctive grounding of the Vaisnava vision of ultimate reality. This reality is expressed in terms rather different from those of Christian theology and spirituality. Even so, as I read these words quoted from Srila Prabhupada's commentary on Rupa Goswami's Upadesamrta:

In all parts of the world, however downtrodden human society may be, there is some system of religion ... . When a religious system develops and turns into love of God, it is successful ...

I found myself calling to mind the words ascribed to St Paul when he addressed the Athenians on the hill of Areopagus:

God allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live to all the nations, so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him — though indeed he is not far from each one of us. For in him we live and move and have our being. (Acts 17.26-27)

More than tracing parallels in thought between our two faiths, though, the challenge which this part of the ISKCON text presents to us as Christians is to formulate a way of grounding our interfaith involvement firmly in the central affirmations which our Christian faith wants to make about God. If we do not achieve that, there is the real, ever-present danger of a dis-sociation between, on one hand, the language we use in our confessional gathering, sacramental worship and intimate prayer, and, on the other, the language we use in our encounter, dialogue and co-operation with people from other faith traditions. So I read ISKCON in Rela-tion to People of Faith in God as an exemplar of the integration of interfaith involvement with a committed exploration of the central affirmations of one's own faith.

What might be the starting-point for Christians seeking to find, in their own core-faith resources, the grounds for a generous and confident engagement with religious plurality? It is interesting to observe that much of the energy in Christian theology today springs from a rediscovery of the centrality in doctrine and spirituality of the idea of God as a Trinity — Father, Son and Spirit, three personal realities eternally distinguished but also united in a web of mutual love and service. Like Vaisnava accounts of sanatana-dharma as 'Krsna con-sciousness or pure love of God', a Trinitarian approach involves an essentially relational understanding of ultimate reality; as such, it could be well suited to making sense both of multi-faith plurality and of interfaith encounter. The recent report of the Church of England's Doctrine Commission, The Mystery of Salvation (1995), certainly thought so. In words that map out a major programme for Christian theologians, it affirmed that:

The distinctive understanding of God as Trinity should be at the centre of any interfaith reflection.

Part Four of the ISKCON document offers its readers practical 'Principles and Guidelines for Approaching People with Faith in God'. Although these are drawn up specifically with Vaisnava devotees in mind, there is much in both 'principles' and 'guidelines' which would be equally useful for Christians or people of any other faith — this section constitutes in effect a code of etiquette for personal behaviour in interfaith relations. Particularly important is the emphasis that 'approaching people with faith in God' is first and foremost a venture in interpersonal relationships, and therefore basic attitudes of honesty, understanding, trust, humility and common sense are indispensable.

The penultimate guideline advises devotees as follows:

You will meet fundamentalist religionists and atheistic scholars. Offer them due respect and move on. Sincere dialogue on spiritual matters will not be possible with them.

The situation envisaged here is of course that of interfaith encounter. However, the reality, in the Christian case at least, is that 'fundamentalist religionists' are to be met within our own communities also. I cannot say whether this is a pattern of behaviour to be encountered within ISKCON also, but I suspect that most religious groups number among their ad-herents those who are suspicious, hesitant or downright hostile towards any idea of sharing openly with people from another tradition.

It may not in fact be very helpful to bracket such people under the general category of 'fundamentalists'. That term originated in a Christian movement reaffirming what were seen to be 'fundamentals' of the faith, felt to be threatened by a sceptical attitude; but people in any faith tradition will rightly object to any suggestion that they should take lightly matters that they regard as being of fundamental importance to their beliefs. The significant problem, in any case, is not how liberal or how conservative people are in their theology, but how open or how closed they are in their attitudes to others.

To encourage openness in interfaith relations, our communities must themselves be models of dialogue in their intra-faith structuring. That is to say, we need to be engaged as Christians, not only with Vaisnavas, but also with our fellow Christians, especially those who find the idea of another faith threatening or offensive. In fact, having in mind the possibilities of a 'shared mission' outlined in Part Two, it is possible to say that Christians (or Vaisnavas, or people of any faith) are involved in three simultaneous dialogical processes, each of which can be identified by a preposition: We are in primary dialogue with people of other faith traditions; supporting that dialogue within our own faith community is a dialogue about other faiths; growing from the primary dialogue is a dialogue alongside other faith communities addressed to wider society.

'ISKCON in Relation to People of Faith in God' is undoubtedly a very useful resource for the primary dialogue of Vaisnavas with Christians (and people of other faiths). It would be interesting to know to what extent its reception within ISKCON generates an intra-Vaisnava dialogue about approaches to other faith communities. The document encourages us to take more seriously the possibilities of a shared approach to wider society as Vaisnavas and Christians alongside people of other faith traditions.

 

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