[This post is part of an inter-faith response to Brian McLaren's new book Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha and Mohammed Cross the Road?, hosted at the Patheos Book Club.]
When I was asked to respond to Brian McLaren’s book, I did so with hope. I have written and spoken often about the difficulty in separating cultural and religious identity for many Hindu Americans from India – it is part of why I call my life a Balancing Act. Mclaren’s book provided me insight into Christian identity and much to read, rediscover, and research; it also gave me a certain satisfaction that he brought to light many issues that are central to religious pluralism and the role religion plays in conflict – personal to global. But it left me with many questions – and renewed my commitment to interfaith dialogue.
An Evangelical Christian pastor, Rev. McLaren displays his scholarly knowledge and ability to read and digest great Christian theologians and thinkers. To quote a few that he quotes:
James Alison, Catholic theologian: Give people a common enemy and you will give them a common identity. Deprive them of an enemy and you will deprive them of the crutch by which they know who they are.
Paul Knitter, Union Theological Seminary professor: The causes of religious violence are like bad breath: you need other people to make you aware of it.
Anne Rice on Conflicted Religious Identity Syndrome: How do we as Christians faithfully affirm the uniqueness and universality of Christ, without turning that belief into an insult or weapon?
To name many others that Rev. Mclaren refers to, who can help deepen my understanding of religious identity: theologians and/or scholars Karen Armstrong, Claude Geffre, Blaise Pascal, Sarah Sentilles, atheist Sam Harris, writer Upton Sinclair, psychiatrist Vamik Volkan, TED speaker Chinamanda Adichie, Faithhousemanhattan.org founder Samir Selmanovic, former Congressman Mark Siljander, Pope John Paul II, and an exchange between E. Stanley Jones and Gandhi. McLaren sends me to the Bible, to re-read what he calls “Jesus’s paradigmatic story” – the story of the Good Samaritan. He reminds me of Hindu scripture too, by quoting Namsoon Kang, “Every individual human being is equal to everyone else, treated justly, accepted fully as who one is.” This principle is echoed in Hindu saint-scholar Adi Shankara’s five verse hymn, Manisha Panchakam.
Mclaren offers pearls of wisdom:
“So there’s no escaping the human condition.”
“Hard to defend against something that is not aggressive.”
“Being a bridge means you will get walked on from both sides.”
“The single greatest obstacle will arise inside each of us.”
“In religion as in parenthood, uncritical loyalty to our ancestors may implicate us in an injustice against our descendants: imprisoning them in the errors of our ancestors. Yes, there are costs either way.”
“As my sense of American history has been revolutionized, so has my American identity.”
“Clannishness has been reinforced by religion.”
“Religion does indeed play a critical role in human conflict.”
Mclaren could have been part of the recent conversation lead by Hindu American Foundation Managing Director Suhag Shukla, on the role of faith-based organizations in global conflict and emergency response, as part of the Council on Foreign Relations series of conference calls on Religion and Foreign Policy.
The book also raised many questions for me:
- Are all religions “identity religions” – not just Hinduism but also Islam, Judaism, Christianity…?
- If my religion – Hinduism, with its “Ekam Sat, Vipraha Bahuda Vadanti” foundational belief of pluralism – is practiced correctly, would it really have the thing Mclaren says we all hold in common: an oppositional religious identity that derives strength from hostility?
- Why does Mclaren only refer to a “saving mission,” which “vigorously supports religious freedom, including the freedom to change religions, and the freedom to be non-religious, multireligious, or spiritual but not religious.” What about freedom from pressure to change one’s religion? What about the freedom to retain one’s religion?
- Why does Mclaren say that “we are not saying ‘take Jesus and custom-design him to fit into your existing culture or religion,’ even though that’s exactly what we Christians have repeatedly done throughout our history,” and then say he wants “to share the treasures of Christ universally, with everyone, everywhere, in every religion?”
- Mclaren recommends engaging people of other faiths: “Ask them questions. Display unexpected interest in them, their traditions, their beliefs and their stories. Learn why they left what they left, why they stay where they stay, why they love what they love. Enter their world and welcome them into your world, without judgement. If they reciprocate, welcome their reciprocations; if not, welcome their non-reciprocations. Experience conviviality. Join the conspiracy of plotting for the common good together.” Does he realize how hard it is for many to explain away negative stereotypes? Particularly those who have been taught to think with a colonial mindset, or whose understanding of their faith is colored by negative interpretations (think Wendy Doniger and her characterization of Hindus).
- When he raises an example of a Hindu named Sailesh who seeks interfaith parnters in the community service he does, why doesn’t Mclaren explain that pluralism is foundational to Hinduism?
- And later when he raises the example of Eboo Patel and his Interfaith Youth Core, does Mclaren understand that many Hindu young people don’t know how to articulate what their faith is and so can’t really participate in interfaith dialogue at a deeper level?
- And why does Mclaren reiterate the importance of Jesus to the extent that he does, while speaking against religious supremacy? Consider “We need to become better Muslims, better Jews, better Christians. (And we all agree that Jesus has a lot to offer all of us in this predicament.)” Can we actually agree?
- And finally, why did he set Gandhi as the Hindu ideal for Christians? A father of a nation, grandfather of many other movements, Gandhi is a wonderful example of a pluralistic Hindu – but couldn’t Mclaren find a Hindu philosopher like Ramana Maharishi or Swami Vivekananda to put alongside Christian scholars and theologians?
But the hope that I felt initially was definitely validated: “Do what Jesus did; bringing together unlikely people to serve and heal together, to liberate the oppressed and their oppressors together, and to model in their collaboration, the kind of harmony and human-kindness the world so desperately needs.” This is the core of what a group of women here do, as members of the women’s interfaith organization, WISDOM, and at the heart of our book Friendship and Faith.
I am waiting to share with Hindus who are skeptical about interfaith dialogue the content of Chapters 10 and 11. The titles – How Constantine prepared the Way for Columbus and How Constantine Prepared the Way for Today’s Headlines – may help Hindus come to the table. The content affirms why we should strive for separation of church and state.
And I found a strong parallel to the Hindu American Foundation’s experience with its landmark publication on caste, a report published in 2010, to Mclaren’s declaration about Christian history: “Until we face this deep-running current of imperial hostility in our Christian history, we will not be able to forge a robustly benevolent Christian identity. Doing so will be painful. Many will shrink back from it.”
And Mclaren’s words about “the shared journey” – that it “is not the call to convert from your religion to mine. It is, rather, the invitation for both of us to seek a deeper conversion that begins in our deepest religious identity and transforms all of life.” This ideal is embodied in Swidler’s Dialogue Decalogue but it is really hard to find those able to come to the table following such principles. But as Rev. Mclaren says, “Everyone is crossing roads….Some cross the road in compassion and solidarity, moving toward the other to touch, to heal, to affirm human-kindness.”
Padma Kuppa is a writer, IT professional, community activist, wife, and mother working to build a more pluralistic society within a Hindu and interfaith framework. You can also read her blog A Balancing Act, at padmakuppa.blogspot.com. The views represented in this column are not a reflection of the views of any organization of which she is a part.