A celebration of two beliefs – or one?

The Los Angeles Times reported today on a service that took place yesterday at St John’s Cathedral (Episcopal) in which “two beliefs” were “celebrated”.

Hindu nun Pravrajika Saradeshaprana, dressed in a saffron robe, blew into a conch shell three times, calling to worship Hindu and Episcopal religious leaders who joined Saturday to celebrate an Indian Rite Mass at St. John’s Cathedral near downtown.

The rare joint service included chants from the Temple Bhajan Band of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness and a moving rendition of “Bless the Lord, O My Soul” sung by the St. John’s choir.

“This was a once-in-a-lifetime experience in worship service,” said Bob Bland, a member of St. Patrick’s Episcopal Church of Thousand Oaks, who was among the 260 attendees. “There was something so holy — so much symbolism and so many opportunities for meditation.”

During the service, the Rt. Rev. J. Jon Bruno, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles, issued a statement of apology to the Hindu religious community for centuries-old acts of religious discrimination by Christians, including attempts to convert them.

“I believe that the world cannot afford for us to repeat the errors of our past, in which we sought to dominate rather than to serve,” Bruno said in a statement read by the Rt. Rev. Chester Talton. “In this spirit, and in order to take another step in building trust between our two great religious traditions, I offer a sincere apology to the Hindu religious community.”

Read it all.

I am not shocked by this news – such syncretic services have occurred more than once in Episcopal churches, usually cathedrals – but I am dismayed and made heartsick everytime I read about one. It is deeply saddening that “those who have once been enlightened, and have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come” (Hebrews 6:4b-5) should mistake the true light of the Word made flesh, Who “enlightens everyone” (John 1:9), for some “religious” principle.

The reporter has it precisely wrong, you see. This service didn’t celebrate “two beliefs”. It celebrated one belief, a belief in something known as “Divine Presence”, of which (Whom?) Jesus is merely one embodiment, if perhaps the “preeminent” embodiment “for Christians”. God has been reduced to a universal religious principle, and Jesus is merely an exemplar – not the embodiment of God himself, but only an embodiment of “divine presence”, not unlike any number of figures who “embody the divine light, who teach the divine truth”. Thus Jesus, and the revelation of God in him, whom the Apostle Paul called the “ikon of the invisible God”, is ripped from the scandalous particularity of his historical context and simultaneously from universal significance and is made simply one of a succession of swamis and prophets of the Divine Presence. This is nothing other than gnosticism, a theological alchemy of distilling Christian faith to some fantastical quintessence, leaving behind the impurities of the universal claim that Jesus makes on every person as the only Savior and Lord.

Bishop Bruno’s “apology” for Christian attempts to convert Hindus to Christianity is an arrogant dismissal of nearly two millenia of Christian witness in India, including the missionary witness of many Anglicans (like Bishop Reginald Heber) and of Churches with whom The Episcopal Church claims to be in communion; viz., the Church of North India and the Church of South India, who still carry on the missionary work of witness among Hindus, Sikhs, Muslims and others in their country. The late Bishop Lesslie Newbigin, a noted missiologist and a former Presbyterian missionary and later bishop of the united Church of South India, spent the years of his episcopate in South India both in the pastoral care of his diocese and in missionary proclamation, often in remote villages, of the Gospel of Jesus Christ to those who had never heard it.

This is not to say that we cannot cooperate with Hindus in those works of mercy and charity that we are able to share with them. But interreligious dialogue and cooperation is never served by denying who, and Whose, we are. Nor is it served by claiming that the one Lord, Jesus Christ, is only one of many “embodiments of the Divine Presence”.

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7 thoughts on “A celebration of two beliefs – or one?

  1. Thank you for this. Recently a young Indian theology student in Kolkatta came to me seeking my friendship, after writing my writing in some public Christian groups. He is an Anglican. Two nights ago was the first I heard of the Anglican church in Kolkatta, from someone living and studying theology there, and now my mind is all ablaze with curiosity. Tonight I find this article, answering my questions that I haven’t even written down yet. Thank you. Please keep us abreast of Anglican Indian news.

  2. My husband pointed out that it isn’t even their right to apologize if they aren’t the same people who desire to proclaim the gospel. This bishop probably apologized because he feels embarrassed by mission work in general. Thanks for a good critique of this bizarre and sad event.

  3. twosquaremeals, forgive my ignorance, but what is the history of Anglican missionary work in India? Also, can we talk about why people desire to proclaim the gospel?

  4. I spent the two years just past in Maharashtra state, India. My Anglican pastor and his church would be outraged and confused by this event in Los Angeles. My pastor and most of his congregation were converted from lower-caste or dalit Hindu groups by the efforts of Anglican missionaries beginning in the mid-1800s. They are mostly poor. They are devoted to the Gospel and to converting Hindus. They endure discrimination in schools and jobs. They endure threats and violence when they preach, and sometimes in their own neighborhoods. Western missionaries and Indians alike have been killed in recent years.

    Bruno, et al., have accepted the Hindu view. Your summary above is exactly right. Hindus think that all religions are true, and are quite willing to view Jesus as just another one of their 33,000 deities. My husband was repeatedly pressured to attend and participate in Hindu ceremonies inside the manufacturing plant he managed. The Brahmin local managers, all really nice people, just couldn’t get their minds around the idea that a Christian cannot offer worship to a Hindu idol. They couldn’t absorb the idea that it was an offensive request when made repeatedly, yet they themselves would have been deeply offended by the insistence that they eat a hamburger. They don’t understand Christianity, and apparently neither does the bishop of Los Angeles.

  5. Well put, Katherine. Thank you for sharing your family’s experience “on the ground”.

    artisticmisfit, Anglican missions in India began in the early 18th century with the work of Danish missionaries in south India funded by the Anglican Society for the Promotion of Christian Knowledge. The SPCK subsequently funded their own English priests as missionaries in those parts. Much of the original Anglican missions work was under the control of the British East India Company, which was sometimes not particularly friendly to Christian missions to the Hindus. But by the early 19th century, there was a diocese centered at Calcutta (Colcatta).

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