As an active participant in the University of Toledo Center for Religious Understanding, religious pluralism and inter-religious acceptance is an issue close to my heart.
However, in the past, I’ve noticed that comparative religion can, at times, rub me the wrong way. This became evident a few days ago when a friend of mine, Luke, asked me what I thought about the similarities between the Hindu demigod Krishna and Jesus Christ.
I first did what any responsible scholar would do – I admitted that I was biased. I am Catholic, and for this reason, I’m inevitably looking at the comparison from a Christian perspective.
After admitting this bias, it became clear that this was the problem with any comparative religion. No one can compare religion objectively. Even the atheist or non-theist has bias in that he or she has already determined doctrinally that there is no transcendent sacred being or ultimate reality and can’t address the comparison with a true understanding of where those who subscribe to a religious tradition are coming from.
Still, with this open bias, I began to address my friend’s question.
I’ll frame Luke’s question more specifically. He asked if Jesus and Krishna could be incarnations of the same spirit. Krishna explains, in the "Bhagavad Gita," that when people are in need of some sort of spiritual guidance, Krishna visits them in the form of some person. Luke’s question was if Jesus could be one of these incarnations.
When I began to explore Luke’s question, I first thought about it from a Christian theological perspective.
Of course, because of the way Christians understand time and the afterlife, there’s an issue with the Hindu concept of reincarnation, or the idea that time is cyclical and one is reborn into this same world after death into a situation based on their actions and the fulfillment of their duty in their last life. This is inconsistent with the Christian idea of eternal life in heaven in communion with God after one’s earthly life.
When it comes to the idea of Jesus as an incarnation of Krishna, there’s of course the issue that Jesus was not a demigod on earth, not a mere representation, but plain and simply God. Though Jesus was fully God and fully human, he was regardless nothing less than fully divine. Also, as the Christian scriptures state, Jesus is the one true God, not one of many incarnations as Hinduism would have it, all of which are actually just representations of one true ultimate reality.
After addressing the question from the Christian theological perspective, I was curious about the Hindu perspective. If I were a Hindu theologian addressing Christianity in this context, how would I understand Jesus?
Speaking from the perspective of someone with a rather elementary knowledge of Hinduism, I suppose there would be no issue here. It seems that Jesus could very well be an incarnation of Krishna. Someone with a more developed understanding of Hinduism could easily confirm or correct my thoughts.
But fundamentally, Hinduism preaches that the divine is both destructive and constructive while most Christian perspectives understand the divine to be focused on the positive and the constructive.
Observing these discrepancies, there was something unsettling for me as an academic. I realized upon my comparison that it was not largely a doctrinal difference to which I thought people might take issue, but rather the perspective itself.
I concluded that it might be almost disrespectful to examine a foreign religion simply from the perspective of one’s own religion instead of for its own sake.
Is this an appropriate practice? Is it a necessary evil in order to move toward religious pluralism and acceptance? Or, can one move toward accepting another’s religion while respecting that religion for its own sake and not simply within the context of one’s own religion?
I realized, as I did this comparison, that as a Christian I was not necessarily offended by the idea that my religion could be understood within the context of another religion and not for its own sake. But I recognized that others might take offense to this understanding and that even I was slightly unnerved.
This realization made me recognize that we, as Christians, do the same thing.
At the Second Vatican Council, the fathers of the council adopted the idea of the “Anonymous Christian” as developed by Karl Rahner, S.J. This concept states that non-Christians in the world can experience salvation because they too are guided by the Holy Spirit and, if they follow their conscience and live a virtuous life, also will experience salvation through Jesus Christ.
Essentially, Rahner and the fathers said that one is saved through Christianity even if one is unaware. This discounts other religions and is thus philosophically problematic, though it comes from a loving place.
Additionally, there’s substantial evidence that this was the understanding held by many Catholics and by the Magisterium, or teaching authority of the church, even before Vatican II.
I suspect this contextualization of other religions can be found in many religious traditions. Thus, it leads one to ask: Is this unavoidable? Maybe.
The fact remains that while the intentions of Rahner and the council fathers were honorable in every way, they may have failed to honor those religions for their own sake because it was in the context of Christianity, not those religions themselves.
On the hand, my friend James, with whom I consulted because of his expertise in eastern thought, pointed out that perhaps there is a very eastern answer as well. Maybe the outsider perspective and the insider perspective are two different sides of the same coin, both necessary for the growth of scholarship. It’s an interesting idea, one that deserves more exploration.
How can we know if what we say is the truth? Further, if we claim that it is truth, is it possible to study other religions in their own context and for their own sake? And, as James asks, is this even necessary? Does understanding another religion within the context of one’s own religion necessarily disrespect that other tradition? Or, does it lead to better scholarship?
Obviously, I wasn’t able to give Luke any satisfying answer to his fascinating and kind hearted question about Jesus and Krishna. As is often the case when addressing an initial question, Luke and I were both left with many more questions to ponder in the end.
I suppose that, for now, the answers to such questions are to be determined. Still, scholarship must continue, treading lightly as it goes.