Vanity thought #1578. Theologizing

Just to illustrate my previous post here’s an old article by Kenneth Rose from ISKCON Review journal, Vol 2, 1986 – almost twenty years old. I don’t think much has changed since, nothing that would matter here.

Christianity has accepted homosexuality, for example. The Pope himself is ambiguous on the subject and last I heard about it half of American Christians don’t consider it a sin anymore. Does it change anything in terms of attempted mashup of ISKCON and Christian theology? No. Things have only become dumber since, judging by the language. The poll results are here, btw – even majority of Catholics are for gay marriage there.

Once again – the way things are going we have nothing to talk about with Christians. If they insist on seeing themselves as such it’s a rather unfortunate conditioning and it comes with supposedly dogmatic views that easily fold under public pressure. If you are a Christian it seems you don’t have any moral principles and go with the flow. Same as atheists but unlike them you won’t even admit it. Modern Christianity is a terrible platform to seek common language on in our preaching, better to avoid it altogether, but I digress.

I don’t know why this article was chosen for ISKCON Review, probably because it was largely favorable and we could take any good publicity in those days. It also comes from a person who had been in ISKCON for a year and a half and so supposedly knows what he is talking about. Maybe from a Christian perspective his could be considered as an inside view but I doubt he ever read anything but the Bhagavad Gītā and hadn’t seen Caitanya Caritāmṛta, Nectar of Devotion, or most of Śrīmad Bhāgavatam. As far as I can see, he has/had only rudimentary knowledge of our philosophy, and yet still it impressed him.

Speaking of language – I don’t know if it was a trick but there are lots of big words there that I needed to look up in a dictionary to fully grasp their meaning. It isn’t particularly academic but certainly wants to be seen as more than just light reading, and yet the thoughts behind the language are simplistic, at least from a vaiṣṇava perspective.

Rose chosen three areas in which Christianity can learn something from vaiṣṇavism, and Gauḍiyā vaiṣṇavism in particular – revelation, God, and eschatology. On revelation he sees our exclusivity as being on par with Christian belief that Christ is the only God (or part of the Trinity, doesn’t matter). We, instead, insist on Kṛṣṇa being the fountainhead of all the avatāras. Rose also cites a passage from one of the purports to Gītā where Prabhupāda says that it’s a unique scripture that contains knowledge no available elsewhere.

He cannot accept such claims and does not consider the possibility that they could be true. He does not condemn us for making them either but that is not enough. Gītā does indeed contain information about the soul that is unavailable in Abrahamic religions, as well as information about yoga and lots of other important things. No one disputes Gītā’s position within the body of Vedic knowledge either but Prabhupāda was clearly writing that purport for the western audience where knowledge of the soul is still not common and reincarnation is still rejected.

Just because Christians make similar claims to exclusivity doesn’t make us wrong. It does not follow. Plus we can easily put their Christ in our context and explain his position and his mission and why and how it works but they have absolutely no place for any of our characters in their religion. They have no place for Kṛṣṇa or Lord Caitanya, they have no spiritual place for our gurus/prophets, it’s all demoniac to them. We, otoh, do not deny JC’s divinity and we are quite comfortable with it.

None of that had registered with Rose and instead he offered three ways to deal with our claims to exclusivity – repress them, embrace them, or construct a general theory of theism that would accommodate both theistic traditions. Sounds reasonable on the surface but he is still concerned with his own attempts to understand God, not with God’s nature as He reveals Himself. It must make sense to Rose with his limited knowledge and intellect, he wants to construct a universe he understands himself. It’s still an egocentric and selfish approach, and he decided to pursue it in the section he called “revelation”!

I don’t know what “revelation” means to him at all. He jumps to the next section where he attempts to construct the nature of God without pausing to contemplate that this kind of mental gymnastics is incompatible with revealed knowledge, but at least he discusses some aspects of it when trying to talk about God and he gives arguments from prominent Christian philosophers on the apophatic vs cataphatic theologies. Apophatic would be our “neti-neti” but it would also mean that we can’t use our brainpower to say anything positive about God, which, in turn, would mean that revelation must be the only source of positive knowledge here. We can say “God is not human” but we can’t say what God is, for example. We don’t have words or concepts to describe God and we won’t understand Him unless He reveals Himself.

On the cataphatic side we have an argument that since we are created in His image we can deduce at least something positive about His nature. Rose slides into praising our doctrine of simultaneous oneness and difference here. Thanks for it being appreciated, it makes sense – if we all have forms, bodies, and personalities then it must mean the God has a form, body, and personality, too. It’s our go to argument against advaita, but it misses the point of revelation again – unless God reveals Himself all our cataphatic statement about Him will be grossly inadequate. Simply knowing that He has a form is not the same as seeing that form.

Rose’s construction of new, encompassing theology will never reveal God, neither Kṛṣṇa nor Christ. To be fair, those Christians who do appreciate the power of revelation are not concerned with theology as much as him. Philosophy seems to be a substitute for those who do not have actual spiritual knowledge, which is true in our tradition as well. Rose claims that our theism is a “logical implication of the metaphysical axiom of inconceivable” and maybe he is right but this “theism” has nothing in common with actual spiritual knowledge arising in one’s heart. Spiritual knowledge is not a matter of logic but what more can you offer if you don’t have it? Can’t expect much from Christians here, and many of them aren’t even aware of the limitation of the philosophical approach.

What Rose got right is the recognition that our tradition offers people a concrete view of what spiritual world is like – to the degree that it can be described in words, of course. None of the Abrahamic religions offers anything substantial in that area. “God will wipe away all tears” is probably as far as they can go. We, otoh, have plenty of people who talk about nothing else but happenings in Kṛṣṇa’s Vṛndāvana. Personally, I’m skeptical about this practice but it shows the vast difference in the ability between our traditions to at least construct a picture of a spiritual world.

Finally, Rose raises the subject of vegetarianism – he likes the idea but he says that vaiṣṇavas put orthopraxy before orthodoxy there, which shows his misunderstanding why it actually matters. He doesn’t get purity, neither internal nor external. This is not true about all the Christians in the world but many would argue that power of Christ transcends our personal imperfections, therefore eat away all the animals you want to kill and wash it down with wine, legitimate Christian tradition going back to JC himself.

Once again I’ll remind of that concluding Gītā verse which describes pre-conditions for preaching and saṅkīrtana – we should not disclose this knowledge to those who are not austere and therefore unclean in their habits (BG 18.67). We are explicitly forbidden from doing so. Our only excuse here is that once we get to the point where we can tell people about God, after discussing the relationship between the body and the soul, and they remain receptive to our message then their sins immediately get cancelled, and so we can continue preaching until their next hamburger. Those who heard the message and then go back to sinful activities should be excluded until they clean up their act. I bet Rose didn’t digest this last section of the Gītā at all.

The whole point of this post is that trying to communicate with Christians on their own platform will be fruitless even if we run into genuine well-wishers. Being a Christian is insufficient for hearing the message of Lord Caitanya, we need to take people beyond such bodily conditioning first.

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