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.