Thinking Clearly About Religion and Dialogue
The topic of interfaith dialogue carries some assumptions that need to be challenged. The standard paradigm of “world religions,” whether the “religions” are in dialogue or contribute to civilizations in conflict, is particularly problematic in India.
Dr. Aghamkar’s paper in its focus on informal dialogue makes many commendatory points, but fails to address these macro-level problems related to the understanding of religious faith in India. In the first three paragraphs that set the paradigm for the entire paper there are references to “occasional clashes between the religious communities,” “the Christian community,” and “the dominant Hindu and, to a certain extent, the Muslim, Sikh, and Buddhist communities.”1
This acceptance of a communitarian paradigm for understanding Indian society particularly skews discussion of conversion. Dr. Aghamkar is rightly concerned about Hindu misunderstandings related to conversion, yet his presentation assumes the existence of a Hindu community that one must leave to join the Christian community.
To bring these broad paradigmatic concerns into focus I will examine a seemingly simple statement by Dr. Aghamkar. “Hindu society has never felt comfortable with the idea of religious conversion.”2 After examining this statement from a number of angles, I will close with the suggestion that a rejection of the perspective assumed in this statement leads to a more fruitful dialogue with Hindus.
First, what exactly is “religious conversion”? If this refers to a change of faith or change of focus of worship, such things have constantly been happening within “Hinduism,” which is multi-theological, with numerous gods and ways of salvation. So it seems likely that “religious conversion” in this statement refers to leaving “Hinduism” and joining Christianity or Islam.
But this is a thoroughly modern idea, certainly not something that “Hindu society has never felt comfortable with.” But the “Hindu society” phrase also needs more careful analysis. It is becoming a truism that Hinduism does not fit the “religion” paradigm. One excellent study of mission history in India that makes the case for this is Geoffrey Oddie’s Imagined Hinduism: British Protestant Missionary Constructions of Hinduism, 1793–1900 (2006). An essentialist, text-based description of “Hinduism” as “the religion of India” was developed by Orientalist scholars and was picked up by missionaries, who were slow to recognize the fallacy of the paradigm. (As Oddie shows, the paradigm was convenient for the promotional arm of missions; the simplistic “Hinduism is a false religion” tag continues in popular use in fundraising and apologetics.)
A flawed perception that India had a dominant text-based religion led to the more egregious development of the idea of a single Hindu community. John Zavos studied the roots of this development in The Emergence of Hindu Nationalism in India.3 The existence of “a Hindu community” is dubious at best, yet is a powerful political idea in modern India. That this dubious idea is assumed as valid by Christians as well as by Hindus does not validate the construct.
The roots of these erroneous paradigms lie in the Enlightenment, which developed the idea of a religious sphere separate from normal secular life. This concept destroys a biblical view of life, and of course many biblical Christians have fought and are fighting this ideology. But this Enlightenment worldview wreaks still greater havoc when applied outside Europe, where it is seen in the development of the idea of “world religions.” The Enlightened European defines what is “religious” and what is “secular,” what is “culture” and what is “religion” in various faith traditions across the world, pretty much always doing violence to holistic indigenous concepts in the process. Evangelical Christians share the Enlightenment perspective (this is certainly syncretism) in discussing world religions and cultures.
So Enlightened Orientalists defined a Hindu religion as the dominant faith of India, as they also developed the concept of Buddhism as a single religion (see Tomoko Masuzawa’s analysis of the birth of Buddhism as a world religion in The Invention of World Religions, or, How European Universalism was Preserved in the Language of Pluralism).4 By the 1920s (not before!) there was an accepted list of world religions, despite massive distinctions and disagreements within each of the so-called world religions. In India the idea of “Hinduism” became a dominant paradigm despite the complete inability to develop a meaningful definition of this multi-theological, multi-cultural, and multi-caste entity.
“Christianity” is nearly as dubious an entity as “Hinduism.” The vast diversity of Christian traditions, differing authorities appealed to (Bible, church, tradition, experience, etc.), and mutual recrimination among sects defies comprehensive definition as a single entity. A dialogue between Christianity and Hinduism is thus inconceivable. Significant specificity is necessary for meaningful encounter; an evangelical Baptist and a neo-advaitin can meaningfully understand what each other stand for and can meaningfully dialogue. (This example is presented to make clear that there are meaningful corporate “religious” groupings, although defining them as “religious” introduces the danger of Enlightenment reductionism to merely a “spiritual” area of life.)
This alternate paradigm, deconstructing “world religions” and identifying the Enlightenment error in assuming that Christianity and Hinduism are meaningful categories, opens fresh light on questions of dialogue and of conversion. As a dialogue partner I am no longer speaking for a reified “Christianity” but rather for discipleship to Jesus; I am no longer calling someone out of “Hinduism” but to repentance and faith in Christ within the broad civilizational patterns of India. The dialogue becomes Christo-centric rather than “religion” oriented. “Conversion” as leaving Hinduism and joining Christianity can and should be repudiated; it also is an Enlightenment rather than biblical paradigm. (Conversion as change of heart, repentance, and faith is certainly biblical and can become central to the dialogue.)
This alternate paradigm that flees the syncretism of the Enlightenment “world religions” paradigm would have subtly transformed the dialogical encounter that Dr. Aghamkar had with his friend Mr. Deotale. The end (goal?) of Dr. Aghamkar’s dialogue was reduced misunderstanding and tension between Hindus and Christians; but if a conversion had occurred, with abandonment of “Hinduism” and communal engrafting into “the Christian community,” the end result might well have been an increase in misunderstanding and tension. Plus, one gets the sense that Dr. Aghamkar had to be careful about how he spoke of Christ and conversion, lest he give offense.
The alternate paradigm can be much bolder in proclamation while maintaining dialogical sensitivity. Jesus calls all people to repent and follow him, but that is a very different matter than “religious conversion” as practiced in modern India. Disciples of Jesus do not promote “Christianity” as a separate sociological group; rather, that group also needs heart conversion to the way of Jesus, and disciples of Jesus are to follow him within their own families and cultures. To follow Jesus will mean a change of theology and focus of worship, as often happens within the complexity of Hindu traditions. This no doubt would all be rather new and confusing to Mr. Deotale, who only knows of Christianity as a foreign religion that wants to increase its numbers by decreasing the number of Hindus. But it would focus dialogue on discipleship to Jesus in a way that is not possible when Jesus is seen as belonging to Christianity and the Christian community.
New patterns for discipling Hindus are needed, and the reconstruction needs deeper foundations than merely substituting dialogue for proclamation. My thanks to Dr. Aghamkar and the editors for inviting me into this dialogue towards a more fruitful interaction with Hindus.
1Atul Aghamkar, “Hindu-Christian Dialogue in India,” Evangelical Interfaith Dialogue, Summer 2011, p. 3.
2Aghamkar, “Hindu-Christian,” 10.
3John Zavos, The Emergence of Hindu Nationalism in India (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000).
4Tomoko Masuzawa, The Invention of World Religions, or, How European Universalism was Preserved in the Language of Pluralism (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2005).