Christian philosopher comes to love Lord Krishna

Christian philosopher Michael Sudduth has announced his conversion to Vaishnava Vedanta (he seems to think the “Hindu” label is misleading). Bill Vallicella (who I criticized yesterday) has posted a long letter from Sudduth explaining his conversion (HT: Mark Vuletic). Here’s a sampling:

Despite my long-standing adherence to the Christian tradition, my spiritual journey has now moved me eastward and outside the framework of Christian theism. For the past few years I have been increasingly drawn to the Indian philosophy of Vedanta, specifically the bhakti tradition of Vaishnavism. By being “drawn” to Vedanta I mean both a philosophical attraction to the ideas of Vaishnava Vedanta (and GV in particular) and an experiential attraction to the person of Lord Krishna in my spiritual/devotional life. This began with my readings in the Bhagavad Gita over the past several years (including a reading of Ramanuja’s Gita Bhasya), dramatically intensified in 2011, and culminated in a powerful religious experience of Krishna in the fall of 2011. It was this personal experience of Krishna that inspired me to visit Audarya, a Gaudiya Vaishnava ashram in northern California, during Thanksgiving of last year. There I discovered what I had in a sense known for quite some time: the depth of my love for Lord Krishna as the person who now reveals God to me in a way essential to my spiritual life.

I don’t actually want to trash Sudduth here, because I think he deserves some credit for being willing to consider beliefs outside the culture he was raised in, even if I think those beliefs are wrong. But the above paragraph still sounds to my ear like a parody of a born-again experience, like someone took one and went through replacing “Jesus” with “Krishna.”

From one angle, there seem to be a lot of born-again tropes in there: personal experience of Krishna (Jesus), love of Lord Krishna (Lord Jesus), the role Krishna (Jesus) plays in his spiritual life. I suspect that Hindu-raised Hindus (or Vaishnava Vedanta adherents or whatever) don’t talk that way. Since this doesn’t actually seem to be a parody, I think maybe this should be counted as an example of religious syncretism. And maybe Sudduth would even accept that interpretation, since he says, “I still retain many of my former Christian beliefs.”

The other thing I wonder is whether this feels like a parody of Christianity to Christians. Does what Sudduth says strike Christians as kind of silly, in the way it strikes me as kind of silly? If so, that should help them understand why Christianity can seem kind of silly to atheists. On the other hand, some Christians may be too outraged at this horrifying piece of heresy/apostasy to find it silly. (One data point: Steve Hays of Triablogue seems to find Sudduth both horribly heretical and obviously silly.)

  • http://motherwell.livejournal.com/ Raging Bee

    I’ve always thought that Christianity was, in general, a much clumsier and less mature restatement of ideas that were much more sensibly expressed by Eastern religions such as Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism, etc. It’s quite possible that this guy got exposed to Eastern beliefs and thought “Hey, this is just like what I already believe, only now it makes so much more sense!”

    A lot of this sort of discovery of Eastern religions happened in the ’60s, and I, for one, didn’t really think it was all bad. So no, in my admittedly biased opinion, I don’t really thing this sounds like a parody of Christian conversion stories — most of which sound a LOT more brain-dead than this guy’s story.

  • Annatar

    This is pretty interesting, but I have to say that Steve Hays’ response is fail.

  • sailor1031

    “…culminated in a powerful religious experience of Krishna in the fall of 2011″.

    Sakyamuni warned us not to be taken in by such experiences. He said “these effects are not the reason we meditate”.

  • greasywheels

    One data point: Steve Hays of Triablogue seems to find Sudduth both horribly heretical and obviously silly.

    For Christians I would think the most appropriate response to his hot and heavy love affair with Lord Krishna is to denounce his heresy AND to laugh him to scorn! Martin Luther said, ‘The best way to drive out the devil, if he will not yield to texts of Scripture, is to jeer and flout him, for he cannot bear scorn’.

  • josh

    It sounds very much like a typical Christian (or Islamic) conversion tale to me.

    Contra Raging Bee above, I’ve never found Eastern religions to be any more sophisticated than the Abrahamic traditions, but they are aimed at a slightly different kind of mark, particularly the variety that got carried over to the west by 60s counter-culture.

  • http://www.choosinghats.com C.L. Bolt

    Since you asked:

    As a Christian I find Sudduth’s account extremely silly, not to mention horribly heretical, as you said above. I also find many elements of cultural Christianity extremely silly, but it does not follow that all of Christianity is silly.

    Of course I expect you to find much of Christianity silly, and in particular the Gospel:

    18 For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is ethe power of God. 19 For it is written,

    “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise,
    and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.”

    20 Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? 21 For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe.

    (1 Cor ESV)

    The difficulty I would have as an atheist would be accounting for the alleged fact that not one of these innumerable experiences of the supernatural reported throughout human history has ever once had any correspondence to reality. I find that exceedingly difficult to believe, especially given what follows concerning the mental condition of the bulk of humanity.

  • http://philosophiadeus.blogspot.com/ Deus Ex Machina

    That Steve Hays is a hateful prick.

    Mentioning Sudduth’s use of anti-depressants was out of line, not to mention irrelevant.

  • http://thouwinterwind.wordpress.com Winterwind

    As someone who was raised in the Hindu religion, and still sometimes vaguely considers himself a secular Hindu, I’m always amused by tales of Western converts who start ranting and raving about how awesome Hinduism/Buddhism/whatever the exotic trendy Eastern religion of the month is. So you’ve substituted the deranged rantings of Middle Eastern shepherds for the equally deranged rantings of South Asian cowherds? Congratulations.

    The bhakti tradition is one of the more beautiful aspects of the Hindu religion. (Of course Mr Sudduth considers himself a practicioner of Vaishnava Vedanta, which is one of those narrow-minded Hindu sects aimed at converting gullible Westerners.) Really, he was inspired by reading the Gita? Because while there is some beautiful poetry in there, I’ve always thought it was sexist and violent. I mean, it explicitly says that women have inferior intellects, and the entire first half of the book is Krishna telling Arjuna that it’s his religious duty to kill his enemies and not feel sorry for them, because while their bodies will be destroyed, their souls will survive and achieve enlightenment.

    Pretty sickening. Not the best that Hindu philosophy has to offer. But I suppose it’s similar enough to the Bible to attract fundie Christians.

    • http://a-million-gods.blogspot.com/ Avicenna

      As another ex-hindu I must point out that Arjuna has no qualms in killing other enemies. These ones in particular are related to him…

      The Gita is not as religious as you think. It’s merely fanfic…

      The original Mahabaratha just has Krishna convincing Arjuna to murder his family (who had it coming since they vary between casual villainy to card carrying monsters.) The entire diatribe is about duty and what Krishna was implying was that Arjuna’s duty was to the people of his brother’s kingdom. The rules of the bet were that the kingdom was to return to the rule of the Pandavas after Drona’s regency ends and Yuddhrishta’s gambling problem got them into a forfeit where they left the kingdom for x amount of years and hid away. (Yeah seriously.) The Gita was added in between a fair while later.

      The issue was more aimed at the duties of a king and a general and how Arjuna’s duty was to his brother and his brother is the King (who has a duty to the people). It’s the idea that your action doesn’t matter so much as the effect. That killing your family is not bad IF they are evil (And Durhyodhana is your run of the mill card carrying moustachio twirling supervillain). The Gita’s original purpose was to supersede the laws of Manu which make Sharia law look vaguely sane (Stoning to death of adulterers? In Hinduism you got torn apart by dogs). The idea was that Arjuna was going to break the laws of Manu to achieve good proving that rigid laws do not work when the action means nothing but the effect does. That you can do good for the sake of evil and that you can do evil for the sake of good. This role is enforced by Karna who is a villain BUT is unarguably good. His crimes consist of “killing a cow”.

      I actually like the Mahabaratha (the original! Not the sanitised modern version which removed all the sex and a lot of the violence). It’s very lord of the rings-esque. The weirdest change from the original to the modern version is that the modern version is influenced heavily by christianity hence the solidifying of good and evil sides despite both sides being kind of dicks about different things.

      The problem is that there is a character called Karna whose entire spiel is a mix of Lot and Rambo. He is the hero’s oldest brother who was abandoned by his mother to die because he was born out of wedlock to the Sun God. In fear of her chastity she tried to kill him… But obviously failed.

      The story of Karna is what I find most interesting in the Mahabaratha. In the original Mahabaratha only 3 people at the end achieve morksha (Nirvana). Of which only two really deserved the idea of eternal reward. And Karna does it in style by proving that he is better than God requiring a main character and a god to combine forces to beat him. The story of Karna is so ludicrously badass that it should be set to 80s montage music or the Mortal Kombat theme.

      The Mahabaratha is an interesting moral tale. In that it’s immorality is all over the place. The most moral people are baddies… The good guys cheat like fuck and even the heroes are not very nice. And it’s a great swords and sandals tale and it does well episodically.

      On a comparative note there are a lot of concepts in the Mahabaratha that are mirrored in greek mythology. Infact it is kind of like the Illiad turned upto 11.

      I suggest it as reading material. Because some of it is really tedious prose about duty and the universality of god. And there is some genuinely amusing bits in it…

      And some of it is this…

      http://www.dollsofindia.com/dollsofindiaimages/krishna-pictures/krishna-attacks-bhishma-with-chariot-wheel-QC72_l.jpg

      Yes. That is Krishna zipping along so fast he raises a dust cloud while someone tries to stop him from killing an old man with a chariot wheel…

      Read it. It’s awesome. And I feel more atheists should know about religions other than christianity. That way they can headdesk alongside us when they hear about crazy hindus.


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