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