Generous Orthodoxy  

Thursday, July 26, 2012

More politically incorrect thoughts about Hinduism

In view of my recent Rumination about Hinduism (please read that together with this), a New York Times article interested me tonight, especially because this voice of Bollywood conscience is addressed particularly to the abuse of women and "untouchables" (Dalits).

I can't prove it, and such views as mine produce wrath from the multi-culti enthusiasts, but I believe that Hinduism, with its cyclical and repetitive view of history, does not have within itself the resources to correct these injustices, and that it is the Judeo-Christian tradition which has influenced the rest of the world in that regard. I had a long conversation once with the famous rabbi Arthur Hertzberg, who was excited about a meeting he had recently attended with representatives of all the world's religions. He said that they had come to a decision about common ground, and that it was "the defense of the defenseless." I expressed doubt that everyone could have come to this conclusion. "What about the Hindus?" I asked. He hesitated, then said with the hint of a twinkle, "Well, they're coming along."

Speaking of Hinduism (and India), I am in the process of watching Satyajit Ray's Apu Trilogy for the first time. It's on all the lists of Best Movies Ever. I agree with whoever it was who said that all other film trilogies, including The Godfather, pale in comparison. It is superb, unforgettable. And the music was especially composed for it by Ravi Shankar, which adds tremendously to one's sense of absorbing something important about another culture.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

The Episcopal Church on the ropes (continued)

The Episcopal blogosphere is buzzing with news of two recent newspaper articles about the decline of the mainline denominations, timed as usual for the just-ended triennial Episcopal General Convention. The article in The Wall Street Journal is best ignored, since it has a nasty tone (typical Rupert Murdoch) and many errors of fact. Several bishops have already written rebuttals.

The New York Times article, as noted in a previous Rumination, is another matter. Ross Douthat may have been a right-wing flamethrower at one time, but is so no longer. He has taken care to be as fair and balanced as possible while still maintaining a strong, forthright commitment to the Great Tradition of Christian doctrine. His op-ed column, which ran at the top of the high-profile page with a conspicuous photo of choristers and stained glass, is called "Can Liberal Christianity Survive?" There is no question about where his heart is, but he is not by any means one of the contrarians found on (for instance) Virtue Online. On the contrary, he writes this:
The defining idea of liberal Christianity — that faith should spur social reform as well as personal conversion — has been an immensely positive force in our national life. No one should wish for its extinction, or for a world where Christianity becomes the exclusive property of the political right.
What should be wished for, instead, is that liberal Christianity recovers a religious reason for its own existence.... the Christianity that animated causes such as the Social Gospel and the civil rights movement was much more dogmatic [i.e. doctrinally based--FR] than present-day liberal faith. Its leaders had a “deep grounding in Bible study, family devotions, personal prayer and worship.” They argued for progressive reform in the context of “a personal transcendent God ... the divinity of Christ, the need of personal redemption and the importance of Christian missions.”
These ideas are only a suggestion of the sophisticated arguments in Douthat's recent book Bad Religion. I can't recommend it too highly. I don't agree with every single thing in it, and he makes a few mistakes (not many!) but anyone who thinks Douthat can be dismissed as if he were out in right field somewhere is as deep in denial as the current leadership of The Episcopal Church. I am far from being the only person to call attention to this stance of denial--typified by the common practice of describing the merging of churches (i.e. the closing of a church) as a step forward.

As the apostle Paul so forcefully declares in Romans 13, it's time to wake up from sleep,

Treasures out of deepest darkness

I have just received a remarkable email from two dear young Scottish friends in Christ, Kenny and Bridget Macauley, whom I met at a church in Edinburgh several years ago. They impressed me deeply with their heartfelt trust in Jesus Christ and their wholehearted, unabashed desire to spread the gospel. When I was invited into their home I discovered the blessed simplicity and earnestness of a loving family with young children growing up in the biblical faith. The next chapter is a long story, but the essential shape of it is that they left urban ministry in Edinburgh three years ago to carry out a mission in Cornwall, the rugged, isolated far-western part of England. During these years I had not heard from them. The conditions have been difficult and the work taxing. They have had bouts of depression and burn-out. But the Lord has sustained them, and they have just sent out an extraordinary meditation on a verse from Isaiah that I had never noticed before. As you read it, bear in mind the conditions of the mines in Cornwall and the fierce struggle required by that style of life. Recall the fabled character of Cornishmen, who do not, on the face of it, represent the most tractable mission field. Then imagine the deep and costly meditation on the meaning of Scripture that was required to produce this profound reflection in the midst of emerging from "darkness visible" (Milton).
As the Cornish tin-miners began the long journey back up to the surface from the depths of the earth they had to haul by hand, or simple barrow, the filthy lumps of rock which housed their ore (silver, tin, even gold). This process of coming back to the surface with their treasures from the shadowy depths was called “bringing up to grass”. “I will give you the treasures of darkness and the hoards in secret places that you may know that it is I the Lord, the God of Israel, who calls you by name.” Is 45:3

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

The Episcopal Church on the ropes

The wunderkind Ross Douthat has an article in the Sunday New York Times (op-ed section, the Sunday Review, July 15) which is all the buzz in church circles right now where I live. I am in the country, have lost my netbook computer and am having great difficulties, so can't give a link right now, but you can easily find the Douthat piece on the Times web site. It's entitled, "Can Liberal Christianity Be Saved?" His recent book, Bad Religion, is the true must-read, however. More about all this when I get up on line again.  

Thursday, July 05, 2012

Reflections about Hinduism: occasioned by The River

I have been interested in India all my life and have always wished to go there. Typically for people my age, however, it was largely British India that I knew, from reading Kipling, and from hints of a mysterious India that would crop up in English books like A Little Princess. (I did study comparative religion in college, and more recently read a long, serious scholarly history of India.)

At any rate, I just got around to looking at the classic film, The River, by the famous director Jean Renoir. Made in India in 1948, the waning days of the British Raj, it was the first Western film to take India seriously on its own terms. Previous ones were shaped entirely from the perspective of the Raj. They were exotic spectacles of the Lives of a Bengal Lancer variety, or Kipling-based movies like Kim. Renoir collaborated with British author Rumer Godden, who was raised in India, to write the screenplay based on her book of the same name. Renoir fell in love with India and spent five months there making The River.

The film depicts an English family in the waning days of the Raj. More about the movie itself (available from the Criterion Collection) later, but first, some thoughts about the Hindu religion, which is depicted reverently and in detail throughout The River. Indeed, the Hindu outlook pervades the movie and seems to be its heartbeat.

In the movie, the Hindu festivals and seasonal cycles are depicted lovingly, without irony of any kind. Renoir was, apparently, enamored of the whole Indian way of life. There is no criticism of poverty, castes, or strange customs. The camera gives us a lyrical, contemplative depiction of river life and religious practices in almost hypnotic rhythms. The central religious observance, the one most important to the film’s story, is the ritual involving the goddess Kali. She is represented by a statue, painted black, made of clay. Devotees come with prayers, petitions, offerings, and ornaments. At the climax of the ritual, which apparently goes on for several days, the statue in its finery is put into the river where it drifts out into the water and gradually sinks, clay dissolving and disappearing. Kali will reappear the next year and the cycle will begin again.

To what extent do the people participating believe that a statue has intrinsic power? Do the uneducated among them think that the idol is really a goddess? Do people who rub the foot of St. Peter at the Vatican believe in the efficacy of a bronze statue? Do worshippers in Eastern Orthodox churches think that an ikon of a saint has spiritual powers? Do Tibetan Buddhists believe that turning a prayer wheel is in itself a sufficient mode of praying? I have been told repeatedly that the answer to these questions is no, but I remain partially unconvinced. It is a very easy matter to transfer one’s hopes and dreams to a simple ritual involving an inanimate object; isn’t it much more challenging and potentially more transforming to refuse material aids and direct one’s thoughts and prayers to the God who has revealed himself exclusively through his Word? In that respect, at least, Islam offers a more rigorous view of God.

It behooves us all to work at understanding world religions the way that we would like Christianity to be understood. Most readers of this blog don’t want Jerry Falwell and Joel Osteen to define Christian faith, and we should not judge religions by their most egregious or uneducated practitioners. Although most Protestants are disturbed by the veneration of relics and the cult of the saints in many circles of Roman Catholicism, we don’t believe that is the best of Roman Catholic theology and practice. Surely educated Hindus do not really believe that a little statue is a god. Hindu philosophy is very advanced and worthy of our respect and study. Still and all, I find it baffling that anyone would find the symbolic cycle of death and life of the goddess Kali (only one of a multitude of Hindu gods) to be even remotely as compelling as the story of Jesus of Nazareth.

In the movie (spoiler alert), a child dies. I personally found it disturbing that there was very little mourning or grieving in the family. It was all very Eastern. This is the way things are, we conclude; the idea of resistance or protest against the way things are is missing, and death is not really seen as an irreparable loss—not even the death of a child. The child’s coffin is prepared with garlands, which we see being made according to Hindu traditions hundreds if not thousands of years old. An Anglican priest (who appears to be Indian) appears at the head of the small funeral procession for a few seconds, but that is the only reference in the movie to anything other than Hinduism. Within just a few days, there is a birth in the family, and the implication is indeed one of cyclical life and death, with life going on as if the dead child was scarcely missed. We see life continuing on the river as it has from time immemorial. The images are soothing, meditative, and pantheistic. Kali is gone; Kali will come again.

I find this very problematic. The passivity of Eastern religion goes hand-in-hand with this cyclical, repetitive, all-accepting view of reality. It is not a coincidence that Gandhi was educated in London and had read the Bible. He remained a Hindu, of course, but I am not persuaded that either Hinduism or Buddhism untouched by the West would have led to activism. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi was also educated in England, and married an Englishman. I can’t prove it, but I believe a good argument can be made that the protest movements that we see in Asia today were influenced by the Judeo-Christian West. It is also significant that self-immolation, widely used by Buddhists as a means of protest, finds no foothold in the Judeo-Christian tradition.

In any case, The River is extraordinarily beautiful—some say one of the most beautiful films ever made—shot in rich, saturated Technicolor. It is celebrated for its lavish and loving depiction of India in its own right. For many, certainly for me, the most electrifying moment comes when, in a dreamlike story narrated by the young teenaged English girl (who is essentially the voice of the young Rumer Godden), an ordinary Indian bridegroom is suddenly transformed into the Lord Krishna, complete with blue body paint, and the bride, who is likewise metamorphosed into his consort Radha, dances for him. Astonishing in its unexpectedness, it is classical Indian dance, admired the world over, and simply transporting. (The dancer is Radha Burnier, who later became a leader in the peculiar Theosophy movement.)

The “universal spirituality” of Jean Renoir, always named among the greatest of directors, is praised by many. But is there such a thing as a “universal spirituality”? The Dalai Lama has called Jesus “a great master,” humbly saying that he is not in that category, but still, including Jesus among other “great masters.” As John Stott has written, however, we do not speak of Jesus the Great, as if he were Catherine the Great or Alexander the Great. “He is not the Great. He is the Only.” There is nothing whatsoever in world religion to compare with the story of Christ, the only Son of God, who though he was “begotten before all worlds” nevertheless took upon himself not only human flesh but, in his horrific, godforsaken death, absorbed and conquered all human sinfulness and the power of Death itself.

P.S. If you watch this movie, be prepared for some stiff, unconvincing acting. Renoir used mostly untrained amateurs, and it shows. For this reason, the actual narrative of a wounded warrior stirring up adolescent passion is (to me at any rate) dull and unconvincing. The reason to see The River is its poetic depiction of “timeless India,” which was revolutionary in 1948 and remains, by all accounts, unsurpassed.