Nondual Week: David Henson on ‘How Hinduism Saved My Christian Faith’

Nondual week continues, perhaps out of bounds of the ‘week’ as conventionally understood (because hey, from a nondual vantage point all weeks are in some sense one, right?) with David Henson, a journalist/husband/father/Episcopal priesthood postulant. Here goes!

Hinduism saved my Christian faith. Like others who have engaged in interreligious study, — most famously of late Paul Knitter, it was the introduction to a completely different strain of spiritual thought that opened up my own Christian faith to new, more complex depths of God. As part of my studies in comparative religions, I sought out an interreligious dialogue partner, and when I came to him, I was on the brink of leaving the Christian faith together.

When I left, his wisdom had so enlivened my soul that for the first time in years, I encountered Christ during Holy Week.

But things didn’t start off quite so easily at first, as I brought with me, a great deal of religious baggage I thought I’d left behind. Growing up, my family read the Bible religiously. We didn’t so much reflect on its teachings, its stories or meditate on its truths to tease out its meanings. We read the Bible. I vividly remember, with no small amount of residual angst, the year our family pledged to read the Bible cover-to-cover and how my brother and I would frantically read five dense chapters in Deuteronomy five minutes before dinner on pain of losing our allowance. The only thing I remember from our readings that year was the uncomfortable silence of not being able to answer a question after speed-reading the scriptures. Nevertheless, we still read the Bible.

When I prepared for my meeting with my dialogue partner, I thought I had left all that behind me, the progressive, enlightened Christian that I was. Yet, as if by unconscious habit, the first thing I did after scheduling my first meeting with Swami Vedananda at the Vedanta Society in San Francisco was to purchase the Hindu scriptures – the night before nonetheless – and try to read as much of them as possible. How very Protestant of me.

When I met Swami Vedananda for the first time at the, I told him I had brought the Hindu scriptures and asked him to suggest some readings in it to start off our time together. He smiled wryly, his kindly face bathed in an earthy orange glow from his monk’s robes and wool cap. “Which Hindu scriptures?” he asked.

The look on my face must have betrayed my confusion as I fumbled through my book bag for the texts and handed them to them with a feeble, “Um, these Hindu scriptures.”

Vedananda chuckled good-naturedly as he thumbed through the book, its spine uncreased and the price sticker still on its cover. Not every religion, he said, viewed their holy scriptures the way some Christians do – as the first, foundational and sometimes only needed ingredient for a proper understanding God and the faith. Hinduism, he explained, was not only ancient, but rooted in a culture that sometimes doesn’t translate readily or easily to other modern cultures, and I probably wouldn’t get much out of reading the Upanishads or the Bhagavad-Gita. It would be much better, he said, to begin to learn about Hinduism from experience or at least the experiences of a Hindu teacher, rather than an ancient book that can’t talk back. During most of our first talk, Vedananda held the book of holy writings in hand, close to his chest, seemingly holding its truths outside my reach. At first, I felt irked. He seemed to imply I wasn’t able to grasp what the scriptures taught without some handholding. But, I was seminary student at the time of our meeting after all, and I had made a few As.

“Hinduism is not an acceptance of a certain set of beliefs. It is a path,” he explained warmly.

Then the dim bulb brightened, and I began to understand him. My mind scurried form one topic to the next, trying to keep up with Vedananda as he spoke extemporaneously and eloquently about the Divine, seamlessly weaving the words of the Upanishads with Christ, Buddha and Swami Vivekananda, who founded the San Francisco-based society. Though it took him years to get around to reading Christ’s teachings, Vedananda seemed to hold a better opinion, in general, of Christianity than I did, perhaps a reflection on his training as a monk and mine as a journalist. He focused on the good in Christianity, holding up mystics like St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross. I focused on the bad, mentioning people like Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson and the Church of Christ, the sect of my birth and childhood. I asked him how a Hindu could see good in these things that seem to repress the spirit rather than give itwings. His answer surprised and pierced me. He said one should look for and treasure the eternal truths each teaches and disregard the temporal fallacies. While I hate to admit it, I have too easily demonized these elements of the Christian faith and refused even to consider whether they do perform some good in pointing to or revealing the Divine.

The ability to see the good, the actual Divine in everything is the most striking, the most attractive and most challenging aspect of Hinduism, particularly for someone brought up in an uber- Calvinistic tradition. The doctrine of Original Sin, though I have had no particular affinity for it recently, still echoed inside my head when Vedananda said the Hindu believes that a human’s true nature is good, that humanity and the world is Divine and that one should strive to see not only that the Divine is in everything, but that everything is the Divine. The two positions seemed at odds. The emphasis on Original Sin in the Christianity seems to impress on the human soul a pessimism, where humankind and the world are broken, fallen from grace and in need of redemption that won’t be truly complete in this life.

This is what brought me to contemplating the central nondualistic philosophy of Advaita Vedanta, the notion that God and humanity are not two, but neither are they one, while, at the same time, holding in tension the unity of reality that, in fact, “this atman (self) is brahman (the Divine).” In other words, God and humanity are best described as more more than one, but less than two.

The striking juxtaposition between the idea that when one does evil, she or he does violence against the soul’s true nature and the idea that one can’t help but do evil because that is our true, inescapable fallen nature gave me pause. I began to wonder which Christ taught. When Christ said that the kingdom of God is within and that what we have done to the least of these, so we have done to him, was he speaking of humans as Divine, the divine in us or of a torn, half-faded carbon copy of God’s image.

Colored by Hindu thought, I began to gravitate more toward the human as divine, seeing Original Sin as implying our true nature as Good and Divine. Original sin and “original virtue,” as Vedananda phrased it during our second meeting, have become opposite ends of the same continuum, trying to answer the same question of good and evil in the world, so seemingly polar that they reach around the mountain and almost touch.

In short, though I did not know it at the time, I was moving closer to the Orthodox notion of theosis.

Viewing Christ’s teachings through the beliefs of a Hindu presented the familiarity of my own faith in surprising newness, giving our interpersonal relationships a sense of holy urgency and joy with the idea of meeting the Divine, not a mediated metaphor of God, when we meet someone. So often an eschatological meaning is placed on Jesus words in the Sermon on the Mount that, “The pure in heart shall see God.” In effect, the pure in heart shall see God … eventually, when the world ends, when we die or when Christ returns. Maybe what he meant was that the pure in heart will see God here, on earth, now, everywhere, as everything and in everything.

Shining the blue of his Hinduism onto the red of my Christianity time and again revealed not only depths to my own faith tradition I had never considered, but also echoed and gave definition to unstructured thoughts about the transcendent Divine that have been slowly forming for several months. God isn’t either/or, but often both/and in some mystical way. Or in the words of scholar of religion Raimon Panikker, “no religion, ideology, culture or tradition can reasonable claim to exhaust the universal range of human experience or even the total manifestation of the Sacred.”

But it did more than that. It forced me to face my past a strident religious literalist and conservative, and it made me look for the Divine even in those experiences for which I so often feel guilty. In other words, to use a Christian metaphor, it redeemed my past and made my faith whole again.

Other posts in the Nondual Week series:

Radical Incarnation: Thoughts on Nondual Spirituality by Matthew Wright
Nondual Week: Ken Wilber on ‘One Taste’
Nondual Week: Panentheism & Interspirituality – What’s Jesus Got to do With It?
Nondual Week: Panentheism – Perichoresis – Christology: Participatory Divinity

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35 thoughts on “Nondual Week: David Henson on ‘How Hinduism Saved My Christian Faith’

  1. Great post. I’m finding that many Christian-ish people increasingly see Jesus as “a metaphor for God” rather than – say – God in the flesh. So glad you shared this.

  2. It never ceases to amaze me. Forgive me for my narrow mindedness. But seeking understanding from an individual who, from a biblical worldview, is blinded in darkness, is ridiculous. Do you not realize the Holy One resides in you? If you have been born again truly, you have recieved the Spirit of adoption, which has bought us out of blindness and darkness. “You shall have no other god’s before me.” Recieving counsel from someone believing in 360 million gods (by some accounts) violated scripture. If you are not finding what you need in Christ alone and in your “brothers and sisters,” there may be other things going on. 1/3 of the New Testament gave account of Jesus casting out demons. Am I saying it is wrong to learn about other cultures, faiths and to appreciate and value others? No. But there is a fine line between learing and recieving and believing off unbelievers…hmmm
    Don’t you realize that the same power that resurrected Christ from the grave lives in you? Rebirth…One Way to God, in Christ Jesus – John 14:6

    • I forgive you. :) And I humbly suggest that perhaps you seek out a dialogue experience. It can be difficult to understand exactly what happens in an encounter like this if it is foreign or something to resist. At least, check out the work of Raimon Panikker, S. Mark Heim and Paul Knitter on this subject (and they have three very different views).

      Thank you for expressing your opinion.

      • That is not a simple question. Christians answer that in a variety of ways, all orthodox.

        I believe that all paths lead to their ends. S. Mark Heim, an evangelical, has done some interesting work on this in his book, Salvations. If you’re interested in this topic, that is a great place to begin, as he address all the other typical positions in the theologies of world religions field (from exclusive to inclusive to pluralist, etc).

        • Do you actually consider yourself a minister of the gospel, but can’t answer this question in a straightforward manner? The gospel is clear…please don’t be apart of the new age spirit…in love, I ask, and beg that you stand firm in the faith. Take a stand. However if this is your belief, which you espouse openly, as a teacher, you will be held accountable. grace and peace

          • There is nothing to fear from learning from other faiths, unless your faith is so weak it cannot stand up to a challenge. As is clear in the post, an encounter with Hinduism actually strengthened my Christian faith. This is something you can’t seem to understand.

  3. And here we come to the meat of the discussion. This man’s profound experience was non-dual, and he uses the term “Christian,” but that doesn’t make his a Christian experience.

    Non-dualism is true first and foremost to its critical presupposition, there is no duality. It then re-imagines scripture into any form it pleases, and when it can place three or more scriptures side-by-side with its new imaginings it declares all of scripture to have meant this new thing all along.

    Scripture simply did not mean anything non-dualistic when it was written.

    Non-dualism is a philosophy. It is extra-Christian, and calling non-dualism Christianity is a subterfuge.

  4. I prefer to think of the Scriptures as polyphonic (aka living, active and still speaking, as is God) rather than meaning anything is or was a certain perspective all along. Even within the internally inconsistent texts of the Christian faith, there are contradictory meanings and understandings. We often implicitly take a nondual spin on this (though we don’t label it as such) by saying that God is both Mother and Father, but One; or God is both Father, Son and Holy Spirit but is One, not Three. Thinking the text has always meant something is arrogant whether we are talking about modernists’ biblical literalism or even a liberationists’ re-reading of a text. Which is the point of nondual thinking: it can hold value in both positions without assigning ultimate value to either. In fact, it makes *more* room for God’s transcendence.

    The Trinity, for what it’s worth, is extra-biblical, but we still call it Christianity.

    • Thank you for this offering. I believe this has tweaked my hermeneutical scaffolding and is liberating my spirit.

  5. “Just curious…do you believe all paths lead to God”

    One should only worry about one’s own path. Isn’t that enough for eternity?

  6. What always strikes me in conversations of this sort (i.e. “is there only one way to God?” “How can you call that ‘Christian’ ?” ) is the belief that there is one absolutely defined list of criteria for what constitutes “Christian” against which everything can be measured and judged. The Gospels themselves don’t agree on what was key: Mark doesn’t mention the Virgin Birth though its held as a central doctrine of Christian faith and arguably, originally contained no specific reference to the resurrection, also a central doctrine; Luke contains parables that appear no where else; John places long theological monologues into Jesus mouth that have no place in the synoptic gospels). Paul gives several theories of atonement – again, a central doctrine, yet understood differently over periods of history and by different groups within the church; as David has pointed out theological concepts like “the Trinity” have always been “core teaching” among Christians yet one is hard pressed to find direct biblical support for it….Catholicism, Orthodoxy, Anglicanism, Protestantism – all these differ to varying degrees on how they understand the central sacraments of Eucharist and Baptism, yet all call themselves “Christian”. I believe that when Jesus said “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life…no one comes to the Father but through me” (a saying that again, only appears in one of the four gospel accounts) he was not saying “only those who belong to an organization with my name on it can access God”, but rather “I myself have lived out the WAY to God (a way of compassion; humility, forgiveness, love) to the degree that I have become that way….it is not just a list of rules to follow but has become my very way of being, and only by also becoming like this can one know God”. Understood like that I see no reason why people can’t live out that way of Christ even if they do not call themselves “Christians”….just as many who do call themselves Christians in no way live the values Jesus did.

    • All of this philosophical mumbo jumbo has made one thing clear. The god of this age is in full force working thru deception and confusion in what some on this post are spewing. 1 Tim 4:1 is being manifest. Your understanding of doctrine of the gospels is twisted in multiple ways. There is so many points to go thru, I wouldn’t know where to start, besides, I pray for your salvation. If you are in ministry, and are “preaching a different gospel” you will be held acountable, as a teacher. And all others, including myself, will stand before God, on that great day, and we will know…not philosophise with human logic and reason. grace and peace

      • Human logic and reason are gifts from God we should use to understand,engage and worship God, not attempt to suppress in fear of “philosophical mumbo jumbo.”

        As I understand “salvation” to be an ongoing process of moving toward God, not a static one-time conversion experience that keeps one out of hell, I appreciate your and anyone’s prayers.

        • I agree with everything you said. Yes, God did enable us with human logic and wisdom…ie Paul “reasoning” with the Epicurians. But if we use that human logic to superseed or twist clear doctrine, i believe we become “wise in our own eyes” and in a sense, “blinded from the light of the glorious gospel.” Jesus said, “it is by your faith, you have been made whole.” Not in your lack of faith… Want wisdom on recieving truth from Swami’s? Talk to Ravi Zacharias, who is a former Hindu. I would imagine his human wisdom and reason surpasses mine and yours. I continue to pray that the church isn’t infiltrated with the spirit of antichrist and the new age

          • Yes, yes, I get it. If I think too much, I’ll go to Hell. This is why I became an Episcopalian.

            I could just as easily say that you are blinded from “the light” because you believe in your own wisdom and beliefs about the Scriptures rather than in trusting in God, that your own fear of beliefs different from yours impedes your ability to grow in love because perfect love drives out all fear. And make no mistake, you are scared of this position. Your fear and inability to dialogue about this issue (only offer condemnation) undermines your posture of faith.

            It is ironic that you would suggest that I speak with someone whose “human wisdom and reason surpasses mine and yours” and yet deride my use of human logic and warn me about being wise. It’s speaking out of both sides of your mouth. The truth of the matter is that you think wisdom is only in opinions you agree with. And that is far from wisdom.

            I have tried to be congenial with you, but you seem unable to have an intelligent discussion on an issue. If you are here to simply condemn my opinions, rest assured, I understand your position. If you are simply here to get the last word, then, well, I’ve had more productive conversations with my two year old.

            I wish you God’s peace.

          • How you surmised that reply off of what I said is creative and interesting. You are focusing on a few things I have said and are ignoring others altogether. There are certain truths in the Christian faith that generally most people agree on across the board, laymen to studied theologian. You have beat around the bush to not be accountable to these simple cornerstones of the faith. Why? I value differing opinions. When I asked if all paths lead to God…Your answer was “all paths lead to their ends.” Evasive? Yes. Politicaly correct? Yes. Bold and uncompromising truth that may offend someone? No. Does it cheapen the message of the cross, coming from a supposed minister? I think so. Am I scared of your position? Why would I be scared? I am saved and bought with a divine price. My concern is the message you are pushing outward, the lives you affect, and your own soul. And I am conversing about what you’ve written. Actually more about what a few others have written. It is about a perverted gospel. The love of God compels me. In the last days… You know the rest. Lastly, the gist of everything I am saying is I appreciate philosophy, different worldviews and great thinkers throughout history. I appreciate you gifting to articulate and write. But If our human wisdom and reason contradicts scripture which is clear, we may want to pray, study, and ask the Father to give us discernment. The Spirit searches and knows all things and will make it clear. I pray for God’s power and knowledge to correct me in any way needed. Are you open to whatever God wants from you? Whether it offends, seems contradictory to love, divides, ect? In this divine conspiracy, we will all find out on that great day what the absolute truth is, and will all be without excuse, reason, debate. I pray anything I ever “teach” others be acceptable in His sight…In Christ love…peace

          • “Are you open to whatever God wants from you? Whether it offends, seems contradictory to love, divides, ect?”

            I might well ask the same question of you. Are you open to whatever God wants from you, even if it offends you, seems contradictory to how you understand God?

            I beat around the bush? I confess the Creed every Sunday, as Christians have for centuries. It was enough for them; it’s enough for me. Again, if you are unwilling to engage with the substance of those (of all stripes) studying how Christianity engages with world religions, then I’ll tell you want my professors always told me.

            If you aren’t going to engage in the material and understand it, don’t criticize it. It shows your ignorance. Your comments show the poverty of your faith and your ability to think critically.

            I’m not here to try to prove my faith to you or my fidelity to the Christ or the Christian faith. Instead of speaking substantively about the issue of interreligious dialogue, you have chosen to question my faith and attack me as Christian. It’s petty, childish and immature.

            You don’t like my answers, so you accuse me of equivocation. If you were familiar with the books and critical thought I’d referenced you’d understand that my comment is anything but an equivocation. So, please familiarize yourself with what I’m saying before making comments that show how uninformed you are. You’re not going to get anywhere in this conversation until you do.

          • For instance, perhaps you ought to familiarize yourself with the Orthodox concept of theosis, since essentially this is where I end up — an ancient, orthodox Christian belief.

          • If you take a moment to truly reflect on the idea that all paths lead to their ends and even read a book review of Heim’s Salvations, you’ll understand that such a statement is actually a direct criticism of the idea that all paths lead to the same goal. It is a concept that critiques the pluralist position that flattens the particularity of every faith into a common ethic. It is actually a *conservative* *evangelical* who first made this argument, and blew apart the interreligious dialogue world. So, yes, I have indeed been open to God even when I didn’t like it, given that this is a criticism from a conservative evangelical, which as I mentioned in the post, I have had a hard time appreciating in my past.

            But you wouldn’t know that because you’re too interested in condemnation rather than conversation. If you bothered to familiarize yourself with my position, instead of making assumptions, we would be having a different, more generative discussion. But when you go for the condemnation first, you tip your hand that the conversation scares you.

          • I appreciate you being more specific. Simply, I wasn’t requesting what other people believe, think, ect…but what you believe…I can’t understand why it is difficult to give a straight forward answer to a question. When someone does not give direct answer, especially about a simple foundational doctrine of the faith they say they are a minister in, it sometimes causes the other party to react by what the non-answer insinuates. Why dance around things? I never have, never will, be indirect. There is no fear in my position. “Politicking” as we call it, if frustrating. Why do you need outside sources for me to familarize myself with your positions? I’ve clearly stated mine, revealed from the Word and the Spirit only. No condemnation, unless the shoe fits… If it does not, give thanks to the Lord that His grace and wisdom prevail over your life. And lastly, scared? No! Concerned? Deeply. When a minister of the gospel won’t give direct answers, if breeds concern. In the Kingdom, there is consistent misinformation preached, as I am sure you believe. That is my concern. My only fear is a healthy one in the Creator over all (Matthew 10:28) God bless you

      • When I say all paths lead to their ends that is what I believe. It is simple and direct. You just can’t comprehend it, which is why I pointed you to outside sources. If you are unwilling to engage in the material, you are either fearful or simple-minded.

  7. I absolutely loved this post! The idea of an original goodness, rather than an original sin, that is at the core of all of our natures reminds me of a book I read recently, “Original Goodness” by Eknath Easwaran. I think Hinduism has a lot to teach both the Christian and the non-Christian.

    Until recently I was struggling in my Christian faith…For 13 years I was a Christian until 2 months ago I finally discarded the heavy layers of dogma and doctrine that weighed me down spiritually. I see Jesus in a whole new way. I still respect the Scriptures, and I love and follow Jesus’ teachings but I see what he did on earth as being more significant than anything else people claimed he did on the cross. I feel Jesus indeed came to teach us how to discover our divine natures, our original goodness, and to find the Kingdom within.

    Great post!

    • Thanks Jessica. Are you familiar with Matthew Fox’s work on Original Blessing? He is a former Catholic priest. After this experience, I was directed to Fox’s work by a Jesuit, who I won’t mention by name because I don’t want to get him in trouble!

  8. “Recieving counsel from someone believing in 360 million gods (by some accounts) violated scripture. ”

    So does that mean I shouldn’t listen to my Jewish psychiatrist? My Muslim surgeon? My Mormon President? Or does that mean that I just shouldn’t listen to Hindus? Never quote Gandhi? You sound like a person who 50 years ago might “counsel” against listening to Martin Luther King.

    You may think war is justifiable that it was ok to invade Iraq. That’s not Biblical, is it? At least, it’s not New Testament biblical. Try reading Philemon and 1 Timothy 6 and tell me how “Paul” can extol slavery in one passage and ask for a slave’s freedom in another. But you probably have your “necessary inference” reason to back this obvious contradiction. Sorry to say, but it is minds like yours that turn folks away from Christianity. MY path. MY faith. MY Saviour. MY denomination. MY understanding. MY authority. Get too many mines and you just might step on one and explode.

    Sorry to go off on this, but do you realize just how much damage this kind of thinking does to people? And you sit there in your smug religious certitude….

    So, how does it feel for me to make assumptions about your faith?

  9. Great insights. As Christ taught “the Kingdom of God is within you” and “now we see through a glass darkly.” (what is within me is me. What do you see through a glass? Your reflection)

    The Hindu faith seems to be one of the most compelling to people interested in interfaith exploration, and one of the most frightening (some might call it “demonic”) to those who are firmly entrenched in fundamentalist dogma.

    It’s easy to condemn a foreign faith, or only learn about it through the lens of “why they’re all wrong and we’re right.” (Been there, done that.) I challenge anyone who thinks any/all religions that are not the way you understand Christianity to learn what people of other faiths believe from those believers themselves.

    If you wouldn’t let Fred Phelps tell outsiders what your faith is, don’t believe the representations presented by outsiders of other faiths.