Editors' Note: This article is part of the Public Square 2014 Summer Series: Conversations on Religious Trends. Read other perspectives from the Spirituality community here.
Though we write for the Progressive Christian channel, not the Spirituality channel, we still have something to contribute to this discussion on the great awakening in spirituality from the angle of several 20th-century Asian theologians. They're not around to speak for themselves any more (the veil between their human consciousness and the divine hasn't just thinned, it's disappeared altogether), but we think they have something to say—or rather questions to raise.
1) Is this a Great Awakening?
A chorus of voices from Asia suggests that the great awakening, the spiritual evolution we are discussing on Patheos, may not be quite the awakening we think it is. More than half a century ago, Asian Christian theologians, because they belonged to a minority religion in the vast sea of Asian religions, were compelled to discover the presence of the divine well beyond the confines of a single religious tradition.
Already at the World Council of Churches meeting in New Delhi, India, in 1961, Asian theologian Paul Devanandan espoused a cosmic Christology that extends Christ's presence to Asian religions. Devanandan detected "surging new life manifest in other religions" and "deep, inner stirrings of the human spirit"—vitality in adherents of other faiths, which he identified, from within his Christian tradition, as the Holy Spirit.
If we missed this decades-long discussion, maybe we've been napping. We are certainly not awakening for the first time!
2) Do we discover the convergence of human consciousness and the divine in a new spirituality?
According to philosopher Raimundo Panikkar, yes. And the focus of that new spirituality is a figure shared, even if unacknowledged, by Hinduism and Christianity—Isvara (Hinduism) and Jesus (Christianity). Isvara corresponds to the cosmic Christ, the divine mediator between the divine and created spheres. The biblical text that peppers Panikkar's philosophical perspective on Jesus comes from the prologue to the New Testament Gospel of John, in which Jesus—Panikkar's cosmic Christ-Isvara—is the "true light which enlightens everyone" (John 1:9).
This sort of spirituality wasn't enough for Indian politician M. M. Thomas and Indian theologian Stanley Samartha. They were adamant that spirituality can't exist in a vacuum, apart from social, economic, and political forces. Not apart from social struggles but in them do we discover the depths of the divine. Samartha put it beautifully: "Co-operation in the struggle against injustice could also mean sharing the pilgrimage to the mountain of peace."
A disembodied spirituality, in short, is useless.
3) Can we do without Jesus?
The premise of this great awakening, that the spiritual life should exist apart from particular religious traditions, makes it pretty clear that we have no more need of Jesus. We can discover spirituality at the deepest levels of mystery without a need for the Jesus of history.
M. Thomas didn't buy this—and for good reason. In a book of breathtaking proportions, The Acknowledged Christ of the Indian Renaissance, he turned the tables both on Raimundo Panikkar and on the terms of our discussion this week on Patheos. Thomas demonstrated time and again through appeal to centuries of India's history that it was not the Christ of mystery who had an impact on India but the Jesus of history. It was not spirituality, unhinged from political and social realities, that reshaped India, but the impact of the life and teaching of the historical Jesus.
Think Gandhi, who followed the nonviolent teachings of Jesus with a radical literalism.
4) Should we do away with religions?
Nope. If we can only discover a deep spirituality in the dirty world of politics, economics, and societal ills, then for all of their liabilities, misshapen aberrations, oblique and explicit patriarchies, religious communities—rather than disembodied spiritualities—provide essential man and womanpower. They are the lived communities that precipitate social change. They are the people who provoke us, through foibles and faith alike, to spiritual doubt and discovery. Rather than setting religions aside, therefore, we should redeem and reshape them in our quest to enter simultaneously into the divine realm and the struggle for justice.
More to read:
For far more in-depth analysis and bibliography, see Priscilla Pope-Levison and John R. (Jack) Levison, Jesus in Global Contexts (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 1992). For selected works of authors mentioned in this article, see Paul Devanandan, "Called to Witness," Ecumenical Review 14 (1962) 155-63; Raimundo Panikkar, The Unknown Christ of Hinduism: Towards an Ecumenical Christophany (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1981); Stanley Samartha, "Indian Realities and the Wholeness of Christ," Indian Missiological Review 4 (1982) 256-74; M. M. Thomas, The Acknowledged Christ of the Indian Renaissance (London: SCM, 1969).