Monday, January 25, 2010

Elephants and gods: writing about an article in Hungryhearts

I asked my family a question.

There were about 10 of us this evening, my husband, a daughter, granddaughters, two babies and one granddaughter’s friend. We had gathered for an impromptu evening of homemade tacos. I got the idea for the question from reading some articles in the fall/winter 2009 Hungryhearts journal published by the Office of Theology and Worship, PC (USA) under Spiritual Formation. Picture by Stephen Larson

The particular article was “Blessed by an Elephant? Why Not?” by M. Thomas Thangaraj who is Emeritus Professor of World Christianity at Candler School of Theology. The question:

If you were with a group of interfaith people visiting a Hindu temple in India and the priest took you to the elephant who in Hinduism represents a particular manifestation of god in the form of a human body with an elephant head and told you that if you offered a gift the elephant would place his truck on your head and bless you, would you give it money and allow yourself to be blessed?

One of my granddaughters said that because she thought it would be cool to be close to an elephant which was not in a pen she would explain that she didn’t believe the elephant represented or manifested god but she would like it to touch her. Others said no, that as Christians they wouldn’t participate.

The author, Thangaraj, noted that his entire group thought deeply about whether they should do this. He writes, “any non-Hindu could reasonably have second thoughts about receiving a blessing from the temple elephant.”

And while he writes about a Jewish member of the group who was troubled because she did not want to worship a “strange ‘Hindu god’ and thus affirm polytheism,” he did allow the elephant to supposedly bless him.

But Thangaraj, who was brought up in a Christian village in India, which was surrounded by smaller Hindu villages, was remembering times in his childhood when the Hindu priests brought the elephant to their village and he along with other Christian children and parents took advantage of the supposedly magical properties of the elephant’s dung and saliva. As I read this I felt the author was attempting to relive memories of childhood. Something we all do.

But as I read further I was troubled. The author equates the childlike feelings he had with the verses in the New Testament that speak of having faith as a little child. (Luke 18:17; Matt. 18:3)

He at the end writes, “It is a childlike trust in the presence and manifestation of God and God’s blessing in all that is around us, including the elephant that nourishes our soul and nourishes our relationship with people of other religious traditions such as Hindus.”

But is God manifested in the elephant or any other created thing? And can those verses be explained in that manner.

I want to look at the verses first. Matthew here is not writing about the qualities of a child but instead about their station in life. That is, taking the humble place of a child, not seeking for honor or respect but accepting the lowest position for one’s self. (Matthew, Tyndale, R.T. France) Luke on the other hand sees the quality of childlikeness as a quality one must have to enter into the Kingdom of God. Leon Morris in the Tyndale series refers to “utter dependence,” “unworldliness,” “openness,” and “completeness of their trust.” But this is about entering the Kingdom of heaven and not about seeing God in creation.

So some definitions are in order.

For the Hindu a manifestation is God in some form. It is not the unique Incarnation where God takes on human flesh forever. No human flesh is forever in Hinduism. In the Hindu temple it is probably the more popular understanding of the various gods of India of which there are around 33, 000, 000. Here a manifestation is a god. (In classical monistic Hinduism the manifestation would eventually lead to the absolute oneness)

Biblically the difference is put succinctly by Paul in the book of Romans:

"For since the creation of the world his invisible attributes, his eternal power and divine nature have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they [humanity “who suppress the truth in unrighteousness”] are without excuse. (Romans 1:20)

Paul goes on to call foolish those who imagine God in the form of any created creature. This of course does not mean that Christians will win the hearts of the Hindu by calling them foolish but neither will we win the Hindu to Christ by participating in the religious rites of their religion.

But even more importantly those who misunderstand the difference between Jesus Christ, the Incarnation, and the Hindu’s understanding of a manifestation of the various gods in creation will undoubtedly find it distasteful to take the good-news of Jesus Christ to those in other faiths who so desperately need his word.

I will write on several of the other articles in future postings.


Fr. Chris Larimer said...

Solid (and generous) critique, as always.

What kills me about this is that it gets a free pass in the name of diversity or openness within the PCUSA (and other mainlines). But if you were to mention, say, having a Marian statue to remember her humble obedience in bringing about the incarnation, or wanted to have some candles blessed by a catholic priest, or use holy water - all of which have centuries of track record in helping the Christian faithful express their trust in God - it would be met with disdain.

It's an upside down world when you'd rather hold together under some abstractions of cultural civility than under ones own traditions and heritage.

Worse, when you'd rather find something in Hinduism or Judaism or Islam or Buddhism that has a parallel to a "Reformed distinctive" (whatever that is), but do so at the expense of a Christian essential. (Like the whole nonsense a few posts back blasphemously likening an avatar to the Incarnation.)

John said...

Dear Viola,

Do you really think that Hindus desperately need the message of Jesus Christ? I'm sure there are things about Hinduism that need reforming but, when I look at India, I see a nation with a rich tradition and an increasingly successful economy and democracy. I see many wonderful people with a lot of compassion and wisdom. And, of course, there's Gandhi.

I would rather see us put our evangelistic energies into a prophetic and pastoral presentation of the Good News of Jesus Christ to the increasingly greedy and violent citizens of the American Empire.

As an advocate of interfaith dialogue and understanding, I have no problem with a reasonable participation in the ceremonies of other wisdom traditions. I'm sure you would welcome their reasonable participation in our ceremonies.

love, john a wilde, whitesboro ny

Fr. Chris Larimer said...


Do you think Christians desperately need the message of Brahman? Or at least "the greedy and violent citizens of American Empire"?

Do you think Jesus was the Way, the Truth, and the Life - that no one comes to the Father except through him? Unless he is somehow the only way for humans to come to the Father, that's a pretty awful statement. Certainly not one to be commended or lauded in a spiritual teacher...if he's merely an expression of transcendent human consciousness. (In which case, he failed to be as transcendent as Ghandi - or you & Mr. Shuck, for that matter.) I wish I could be that humble and self-doubting.

You've been set apart as a public steward of the mysteries of God, and you claim to be an advocate for interfaith relations, so let me ask: What would constitute "reasonable participation in [Christian] ceremonies"?

Bruce said...

I believe Hindus desperately need Jesus every bit as much as I do.

Bruce Byrne
Concord, CA

Viola Larson said...

Yes, John, I really think that Hindus desperately need the message of Jesus Christ? And some of them have embraced it with such great love for Jesus that they have suffered a great deal in various areas of India.

Dave Moody said...

I'm beginning to sound like a broken record, but that Bruce Byrne is one smart cookie.

Having spent significant time in India, it is my humble conviction that Jesus is the one who sets captives free, gives sight to the blind, heals the lame - and forgives sins. I think Hindu's need this hope as much as anyone. Just ask Ravi Zacharaius (sp?).

Dave Moody

John said...

I realize that not all Hindus are as open to the teachings of Jesus Christ as Gandhi was and as many Hindus are, but I am not ready to say they all need to be converted. I subscribe to the idea of mutual conversion where I offer the Good News of Compassion, Peace and Justice as I have found it manifested in the message of Jesus and the practices (at least some of the practices) of the Church and I simultaneously receive the offerings of the Good News of Compassion, Peace and Justice which are found in other Wisdom Traditions.

I see this as the only hope for avoiding war. If our wisdom tradition was truly better than others, maybe we would find a way to stop putting Bible verses on our weapons. Ugh!

Check out the history and the current events of so-called Christian nations. You will see huge amounts of violence and hatred. Sad but true. One of the reasons so many Europeans have rejected Christianity is because of that legacy.

+ Love + John A Wilde + Whitesboro NY + + "My religion consists of a humble admiration of the illimitable superior spirit who reveals himself in the slight details we are able to perceive with our frail and feeble mind." -- Albert Einstein

Fr. Chris Larimer said...


Is Christ the Wisdom of God? Or did he have some wisdom that transcended his cultural context? (Making him almost as wise as we are?)

Dave Moody said...

Many Hindu's have no problem with calling Jesus Lord- and putting him up on a shelf alongside Lord Krishna, Ram, Shiva, etc...- its when He says, "I am THE way...No one, comes to the father, but through me." that things get dicey. Witness the killings in Orissa state.

Hinduism is caste. It is not freedom. It is not healing. It grinds people down, and keeps them where they were born. The Rural Presbyterian Church, begun in 1985ish, now has several million dalit members. Schools, Healthcare, Education for women, job training...

Jesus' Lordship is good. For everyone. He is very inclusive in his exclusivity, and as his followers, it seems to me, we should be too.

Fr. Chris Larimer said...

Dave - Saw a recent show on PBS talking about hindu religious programming in India. One area that is less than 2% Christian reports 40% of the population have Jesus as their personal deity.

John - Have you interacted with Lesslie Newbigin's writings? He was so influential in ecumenism in India, and an effective evangelist in that culture. He does not agree with your syncretism.

(Yet again, another historically-tried dead road - and a violation of the First Commnadment.)

John said...

Dear Dave,

It is important to try to separate religion from culture and yet that is an impossible task since religion and culture are so intertwined.

To say Hinduism is caste is like saying Christianity is serfdom. Gandhi was a Hindu and worked hard to end the injustices within the caste system. I am no expert on India but I believe a lot of progress has been made and I'm sure a lot more is needed. The same is true here in the USA where injustice runs deep. Poverty is growing. Income Inequality is growing. Environmental destruction is growing. African-Americans and other minorities are still kept down almost everywhere.

It seems that you want to ignore what I have said about the historic and current problems of Christian violence and hatred. Moslems and Hindus and others have no monopoly on these human sins. let the one without sin cast the first stone. We have alot of work to do to clean up our own house.

That said, I know that there are many wonderful, compassionate Christians doing great work in India and other places where Christians are a minority. Some Christians are really wonderful. So are some Hindus and Moslems and Buddhists and Native Americans and Jews, etc.

love + john a wilde + whitesboro ny

John said...

Dear Dave,

"Your side" (of the tent) often points to the passage where Jesus says "I am the Way, the Truth, the Life and no one comes to the Father except through me. It doesn't take a whole lot of interpretation to see how that passage can be used by "my side" (of the tent) and I do. Jesus is saying (words put in mouth by John) that he identifies himself with the I AM of the Burning Bush. So, he is identifying himself with God. God is Love. So, Jesus is calling on us to embrace Love. Love is the Way, the Truth, the Life and No one comes to the Father (which means source) except through Love.

Compassion, Peace and Justice are the absolutes and whenever Hindus or Buddhists or Jews or Moslems or Native Americans etc. display Compassion, Peace and Justice, I know that they have found THE WAY.

+ Love + John A Wilde + Whitesboro NY + + "The day will come when, after harnessing space, the winds, the tides and gravitation, we shall harness for God the energies of love. And on that day, for the second time in the history of the world, humankind will have discovered fire." -- Teilhard de Chardin

Fr. Chris Larimer said...


Is there any other attribute in Scripture that is elevated to such a high degree? After all, while the first epistle of John does say "God is Love," there is a much more emphasized message of God's defining attribute that spans Old and New Testament.

God's HOLINESS is the only attribute raised to the third degree (in the Tersanctus / Trisagion) - and with which He is eternally surrounded and lauded.

Where does holiness come into your understanding of God and his self-revelation in the Son?

Anonymous said...

John: Three questions:

1) Christianity is not simply a set of abstract beliefs--it is, at its heart, about an ontological change that is brought about by the Holy Spirit in the individual that creates faith in Christ and enables the restoration of relationship between God and that person. In the effort to relate ecumenically to Hindus (and others), do you think this central soteriological claim of Christianity should not be offered to them?

2) To the extent that Christianity offers both truth claims and a description of reality that differs drastically from Hinduism and other world religions, do you think that we should downplay such claims or not talk about them at all?

3) In your view, is the moral and ethical teaching of Christianity more important than the theological teaching? Do you think the theological teaching has any importance or consequence in the real world?

David Fischler
Woodbridge, VA

Viola Larson said...


There is a vast difference between what some of us are saying and what you are saying. Here I am not speaking of our differences in theology but our differences in focus.

This understanding of conversion, " I subscribe to the idea of mutual conversion where I offer the Good News of Compassion, Peace and Justice as I have found it manifested in the message of Jesus and the practices (at least some of the practices) of the Church and I simultaneously receive the offerings of the Good News of Compassion, Peace and Justice which are found in other Wisdom Traditions," has nothing to do with the conversion that the rest of us are writing about.

We are writing about our broken humanity that is unable to be fixed or even come to God to be fixed without the Holy Spirit’s urging. The Hindu who knows they cannot live up to the bhatki (devotion) that their religion demands finds grace in the gift Jesus gives to the sinner.

There are undoubtedly as many sinners waiting in India to hear of that gift of salvation as there are in the United States. Do you know that you are a sinner? Do you know that Jesus died for you? Do you love Jesus because of his life, death and resurrection? Or does that have any meaning at all for you, because that is what we are talking about.

And the good works follow.

John said...

Thank you so much, Viola and David (Fischler), for your sincerity and curiosity and courtesy.

Viola, I can affirm all of the creedal statements that you have made. Christian myth and ritual works for me. I shout it from the housetops.

Everything else I'm saying is simply my attempt to understand the core meaning, the reality, the essence, the heart, of what our
myth and rituals are all about.

David, Question 1. Yes.

Question 2. No, we should not downplay our differences. But we should also seek as much common ground as possible. I do believe that Christianity is a thought system which makes sense to the Western mind (particularly since the Greek orientation replaced the Hebrew orientation) and not so much to the Eastern mind. I would be glad to discuss this further if you are interested ... perhaps on my blog or yours.

Question 3a. No.
Question 3b. Yes. I'm surprised that you would ask. Can't you see that theology is very important to me and I am wrestling with meaning -- FAITH SEEKING UNDERSTANDING (St. Anselm) -- with all my heart, soul, strength and mind ... just as you are?

I see our fantastic wisdom tradition as a dynamic process. The Spirit is moving us to understand the meaning of our beliefs in new ways. Nothing new about that! The entire Bible is about change, change and more change in the way we think about reality. We are changing all the time and Revelation is Progressive. The Christ Event is the decisive revelation within our wisdom tradition. Any one who chooses to embrace our wisdom tradition needs to say the things Viola says we need to say. And I do. We simply have different interpretations of the meaning of those statements. I see everything that's important, the basic truth, as metaphorical, symbolic, sacramental and not as historical fact. Much of the meaning was realized in the decades and centuries after Jesus lived. Increasingly, Jesus of Nazareth became identified with the Logos-Sophia which created the universe and is co-equal with the Father (source) and Spirit. Son means like the Father or like the source and we are all adopted into that likeness, full divinity or full humanity, as we follow the model of such fullness, Jesus Christ.

I really appreciate your questions and continuing dialogue. Faith seeking understanding is a life-long task and I'm still working on it, wrestling with God. That's the very meaning of Israel and the Church is the New Israel as one of those wise thinkers of New Testament times points out.

Peace, Joy and Love + John A Wilde + Whitesboro NY + + "My religion consists of a humble admiration of the illimitable superior spirit who reveals himself in the slight details we are able to perceive with our frail and feeble mind." -- Albert Einstein

Viola Larson said...

I have listened very carefully. I have not heard you shouting it from the house top. If you accept Jesus Christ as Lord and savior why would you refuse the Hindu or the Buddhist the same gift, joy and transformation by not giving them the message of their need. If you need Jesus Christ as a Savior because of your sin and brokenness why not the others?

"FAITH SEEKING UNDERSTANDING (St. Anselm)" I don't think you have that quite right.

"Teach me to seek Thee and reveal Thyself to me when I seek Thee, for I cannot seek Thee except Thou teach me, nor find Thee, except Thou reveal Thyself. Let me seek Thee in longing, let me long for Thee in seeking; let me find Thee in love and love Thee in finding. Lord I acknowledge and thank Thee that Thou hast created me in this Thine image, in order that I may be mindful of Thee, conceive of Thee and love Thee. But that image has been so consumed and wasted away by vices, and obscured by the smoke of wrong doing that it cannot achieve that for which it was created except Thou renew it and create it anew.

I do not endeavor, Lord, to penetrate Thy heights, for in no wise do I compare my understanding with Thine; but I long to understand in some degree Thy truth which my heart believes and loves. For I do not seek to understand in order that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand. For this also I believe-that unless I believe I shall not understand.

He already believes-

Viola Larson said...

I should have made the last sentence of that quote in bold also.

"For this also I believe-that unless I believe I shall not understand."

Fr. Chris Larimer said...


I think my response to Dwight in the other post is appropriate to you as well.

If there were another way to unity with God, would Jesus have gone to the cross? Would the Father have put Him through that?

Have you set apart Christ as Lord in your heart? Or are you open to another? Do you want other people to be open to another?

John said...

Dear Viola,

I am totally frustrated now and I think it's time for me to move on. Your belief that my belief is not as solid and truthful as yours is simply nonsense as far as I am concerned.

I have gone round and round for decades with people who find their safe harbor in the very narrow confines of Jesus-olatry and Bible-olatry. I keep trying to develop mutual respect but your side always says that my side is apostate and heretical.

Fortunately, your side is in the minority in the PC(USA) and I pray to God that it stays that way.

Having said that, I do thank you for your very sincere effort to listen to me as hard as that is for some one within your very narrow confines. Your blog is really interesting and I may be back but I need to move on for now.

A Final Word: I have tried to explain how orthodoxy is simply not the way you and others here see it but that's a losing battle within this space. It's your Blog. I hope you will be as open as you can possibly be to Truth and I hope you will change and grow.

Thanks again.

love, john a wilde, whitesboro ny + "The spirit of liberty is the spirit of not being too sure you are right.” – Judge Learned Hand

Fr. Chris Larimer said...


Jesus-olatry ... does that mean worshiping Jesus? If so, I'll take that charge happily. Because the orthodox (lit. "right worship") position is that Jesus IS Lord and that He is to be worshiped because He is God. That's the faith the apostles and martyrs died for. It's the faith in which I hope to die (God graciously preserving me). And it is the truth in which I will be resurrected.

What separates us isn't modernity vs. fundamentalism or Reformed vs. something else. It's the essence of the Christian faith as far back as we have record (think of Pliny's letter to Trajan describing early Christian worship "carmenque Christo quasi deo dicere secum in vicem").

And if you don't find that to be your faith, you may be a Presbyterian minister...but not a Christian.

I will pray that He convert you - because you can seek forever without finding. But if He should turn His grace upon you, nothing would keep you from His love.

Viola Larson said...

I believe your belief is very solid otherwise you wouldn’t keep repeating it. But it isn’t biblical truth, it isn’t orthodoxy.

I love the wonderful confines of worshiping Jesus, knowing he is my Lord. And I love it that since he is God, the second person of the Trinity, the Bible is his word.

Are you sure that we are in the minority? Hmmm – I am not so sure. Have you read the story of Elisha and his attendant? They were surrounded by an army, but Elisha was not frightened. He told the attendant “Do not fear, for those who are with us are more than those who are with them.” He prayed that God would open the attendant’s eyes and God did.

“And the Lord opened the servants eyes and he saw and behold the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha.”(2 Kings 6)

Debbie said...

Jesus-olatry! That's amazing!

I would shout THAT from the rooftops! Yes!! I worship Jesus! He is God the Son! He is not just a great teacher, someone who realized the Christness or however some progressives phrase that. He is God. Yes! I worship Jesus!

If anyone thinks that Jesus-olatry is something bad, then surely that person believes some religion that is not Christianity. That person may call it Christianity, but it is not. And I am not part of a minority.

Debbie Berkley
Bellevue, WA

Debbie said...

John Wilde, you're not just disrespecting Christianity when you say that all "wisdom traditions" are basically similar paths to God, you're also disrespecting Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, etc. I don't think believing Muslims, for example, would thank you for telling them that their beliefs are at heart basically the same as Christianity.

Debbie Berkley
Bellevue, WA

steve scott said...

Excellent point, Debbie! This (appears as, sorry.....) `smash and grab' approach to other people's spiritual traditions MAY represent a sincere seeking among multiple `wisdom traditions' for some, but has all the appearance of `spiritual imperialism' to others. Take what you like and leave the rest behind? Sounds aggressive (i.e `Western' LOL) and a bit too familiar......