Is Christianity (or Hinduism) a Prada handbag?

Walking to work this morning, I was thinking about Dom Bede Griffiths, the English Benedictine monk, who, in his forties, went to India and founded (or refounded) two monastic ashrams that sought to bring elements of Christianity and elements of Hinduism (and other religious traditions) into fruitful experiential dialogue. He was a Patron of the Prison Phoenix Trust, that I helped found, and often wrote encouraging and insightful letters both to prisoners and myself! We finally met on his last visit to England before his death - a man of gentle calm and depth (though often a scourging critic of patterns in his own Catholic tradition).

Over lunch I casually looked up his Wikipedia entry and saw a reference to a critique of his writings (from a traditionalist Catholic website) that I found fascinating.

It starts well with a brief synopsis of the Catholic Church developing approach to inculturation in its encounter with new cultures and religious traditions but when it turns to examine Bede Griffiths in the light of this, the article, written by two professors at Catholic institutions, goes seriously awry.

They ask: "In light of the popularity of Bede Griffiths as a type of Christian Oriental guru, we need to ask whether he represents either authentic Hinduism or authentic Christianity." I am afraid the problem with this is that it's a wholly implausible question. Both traditions are polyvalent, houses of many mansions, you may presume (as this article does) that the Catholic magisterium is the voice of 'authentic Christianity' by which all Christianities might be judged but I am afraid this will not do for the Catholic tradition is, itself, a polyphony (for all attempts to reduce it to a monotone), and do we, as Catholics, truly want to enter a beauty contest for who is the most radiant Catholic? I vote for me!

You might ask a more restricted question namely was Fr Bede an 'authentic Catholic' to which the only possible answer must be yes - he was a monk, an ordained priest, was never disciplined for any doctrinal error, and died in the bosom of his ashram (an ashram sanctioned by the local bishop) and member of the Camoldi congregation.

Incidentally, the question presumes that Fr Bede thought of himself as a 'guru' which, as far as I could tell, he did not. He was a monk, a confessor and a guide but his key concern was always to point the person back towards their own search and practice, whilst sharing his own discoveries and thoughts, with a quiet humility as experiments after truth.

However, the whole notion of 'authentic' is deeply flawed. A Prada handbag can be authentic -it was designed by people working for Prada, made at a factory licensed by Prada and sold in a Prada shop. A Christian or a Catholic can be a practising one, more or less, but authentic? Who can tell? One presumes God alone (and He is not telling and if He were we might be surprised by the answer). Indeed Christ enjoins us not to judge others worth; and, the disciples are criticized precisely for one claiming to be 'more authentic' than the other.

The article is right to presume that Father Bede was not a theologian (nor did he claim to be), you can criticise him, as they do, for using certain Hindu terminology inaccurately (against the canons of certain schools of Hindu traditional thought) and applying this to Christian thinking inappropriately (by the accepted canons of certain traditions of Christian thought) but this is hunting out of the 'authentic' is best left to the protagonists of fundamentalism. Nor does it occur to the authors that he may have being using this terminology creatively, by manner of analogy rather than identity. He was after all a writer steeped in poetry and is more given to the poetic leap than the theological plod.

A better question to ask is whether what Father Bede has to say true - and by what standards of conversation and life would that truth be tested - of this the authors have precisely nothing to say. The model of such an assessment might be found, for example, in Harry Oldmeadow's excellent account of Fr Bede's contemporary, Swami Abhisiktananda (or Fr Henri Le Saux): 'A Christian Pilgrim in India'. This has a sophistication and a generosity about both the traditions concerned and the person involved that the article sadly wants.

Meanwhile, their quest for 'authentic Hinduism' is, if anything, even a worse caricature than their assertion of a Christian variety. Hinduism is, we are told, an hierarchical faith -  well in the minds (and hopes) of some practitioners possibly but this is hardly the sociological or religious description that best comes to mind (thankfully yet). Apparently 'authentic' Hinduism excludes anyone who may have been influenced by Western philosophy - Swami Vivekananda is mentioned by name - though why being influenced by other strands of thought renders you inauthentic is a mystery. Christianity, by this standard and by the authors' argument on inculturation, would have been rendered impotent at the outset - if the Semitic Oriental religion of Christianity had not encountered Platonism, it would not have taken on its present form. Etc etc...

The article highlights a deeply sad tradition in religion namely a greater interest not in the truthfulness of what is said and lived, in the light of our best experience, but in whether or not what is said is aligned with what one group or other 'thinks' is true (or ought to be).

It is a miserable way of proceeding not least because our truths, this side of enlightenment, are provisional and better judged as such.


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