Christian Vedanta? (and other inter-religious matters)

Wayne Teasdale in his book Bede Griffiths speaks well of the fruits of “intermystical exploration,” and I can personally attest to these fruits. My relationship to God would not be where it is today without such exploration, and to say I’ve gained from it immensely would still be an understatement. In fact, I do not think I would have the deep Catholic faith I have today, had I not studied and practiced other traditions at various junctures of my life. (This is not to set it up as a requirement, only to legitimize it in the eyes of skeptics.) It would be too much to recount, but since my high school days I have had a passion for understanding and integrating into my religious life elements of Buddhism (Zen, Mahayana, Shambala), Hinduism (Bhagavad Gita, Advaita Vedanta), and especially the Integral Yoga of Sri Aurobindo. To this day I draw inspiration and clarification from research into non-Catholic ways of approaching the divinity. Intermystical exploration for me now always confirms these two fundamental truths:

  1. God is the Creator of everything and everyone, and wherever there is goodness, truth, beauty, his Spirit is present in some way (Phil 4:8, Acts 16:23). Whatever genuinely draws us to love and oneness must participate in the ground of Being, because no one but He is the source and end of the human quest for divinity, meaning, etc.
  2. Jesus Christ is God’s unique and final dispensation of redemption (Heb 1:1-3). While humanity’s quest to the Divine everywhere meets limits or fails, God speaks his own Word of redemption, sending his only Son for our justification and sanctification–and in countless ways, Jesus turns everything humanity expected from religion on its head.

Nonetheless, it is our duty as members of a common, historical humanity to seek out convergences between other traditions and the Catholic faith, through both reason and contemplation. This will enrich our own perception of God’s grandeur, both in seeing the movement of Spirit in the non-Christian quest and in marveling at the radical revolution effected in Christ. It will also assist those of other faith backgrounds to see the light of Christ, for evangelization becomes much smoother and effective if we engage other cultures in a dignified and thorough way, knowing them from the inside rather than judging them from without. Then we can best highlight what is so unique about God’s revelation in Christ and graciously present the Gospel invitation to become “partakers of the divine nature,” of the triune life. Teasdale offers a nice framework for understanding this engagement:

“Intermystical exploration” for Teasdale is a kind of osmosis of other traditions through study and practice, without of course slacking in one’s Christian faith. In that process–which is life-long and need not rush to conclusions, since Jesus Christ alone is “our hope” (1 Tim 1:1)–not only is our own faith illuminated, but there is an “interior assimilation” of the different faith-systems. This means that the point of complementarity is found, not in mental speculation, but in mystical contemplation. A Christian practitioner of Vedanta may then come to see both Sacchidananda and the Trinity as experiences of the deep unity of reality which lie on one and the same “ontological continuum.” This is only logical, after all: as they both stem from man’s encounter with the highest divinity, they are bound to “converge.” However, existential convergence does not mean equality or equivalence, for, as Teasdale describes it, this ontological continuum is also a “spiral of realization,” meaning that there are deeper realizations of that same deep unity (which is the ultimate “matrix of convergence”). This allows Teasdale (and us) to uphold the Trinity as the most penetrating realization of the highest divinity, as revealed by God in Christ, while still highly valuing Vedantic truths like Sacchidananda–and even “worshiping” with them, where and insofar as they resonate favorably with the deep essence of revealed Christian truth.

While that idea may put off some readers, we must remember that Christians from the earliest days took an approach of assimilation, integration, and transformation with other cultures. Many detractors of Christianity today mock it for having so many ‘pagan’ elements–but the Catholic ought to embrace the fact that the Church, in its wisdom, knew how to utilize for the truth of Christ whatever piece of truth, symbolism, ritual, and beauty it found out in the world. Remember also that many Church Fathers borrowed Greek and Neoplatonic categories to make the Christian revelation intelligible, just as Jean-Luc Marion uses categories from Phenomenology and Modern Metaphysics to do the same. One might argue that some theologians go too far in relying on those tools, but the Church is here for the long haul. It will always self-correct by returning to the Gospel and the joyous revelation of God in Christ.

As Christians, we ought to be bold and threatened by nothing. We ought to know that the “evolution” of the religious consciousness of man is in God’s hands. We needn’t rely on the borderlines we draw; rather we might project ahead a few centuries, when all the borders we now rely on will have changed, and the face of Christianity, too, will have “evolved” to bring its ageless truth to new ears and eyes. We can and must take this chance–“Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost”–because we believe that Christ is God’s final word and the Trinity is the highest realization of the highest divinity. None will surpass it, and all may find a place within its loving embrace through Christ–though in finding its place, each will no doubt be transfigured and led to the Cross.

Thus, while the Trinitarian distinction-in-unity of Persons, which shows that the Divine Life is a communion of Being, is indeed farther along the “spiral of realization” than Advaita, the intuition of Sacchidananda still points toward the deep, personalistic Center of revelation. If we read Ramanuja or the Svetasvatara Upanishad, we will see that even among Hindu scripture these lie further along the “spiral” heading in the direction of the Sacred Heart of God. They do not make any leap from the One Reality to the Communion of Persons, nor can they anticipate the sin-shattering event of the Cross. But they do know that the Divinity resides in the heart, they do affirm the supreme Lordship of God, they do seek to live in service of Him with the highest degree of adoration they know. Not knowing Christ, they could not praise Christ; but in praising the most glorious Lord to which heart and mind and soul had access, their praise leads to Christ unknown and–for the perceptive, gentle, generous explorer–even today enriches our own praise of Christ.

A Christian Vedanta is thus possible. We must accept that the established forms of Christianity on earth have hardly caught up with the momentum of Jesus Christ. We have hardly manifested his full intention for the transformation of man’s religious consciousness, and every century and region has its own work to do. At the same time, the Holy Spirit has so established his Church on earth that she will forever protect the essentials–Incarnation, Trinity, Eucharist, Sacraments. As Teasdale puts it, the Church is the “universal form and vehicle” for humanity to attain its destiny in the Divine. She gives (above all in the Sacraments) but she also acquires–for “all spiritual riches belong to Christ.” This is not about syncretism or a confusion of differences. Intermystical exploration leads rather to a realization of the overarching reality and underlying selfsame fabric connecting all religious thought and experience on a continuum leading to Christ. Thus we can be sure that, no matter where we are at on the “spiral,” no matter how we enter upon it, if our aspiration is sincere it will lead us into the deepest Mystery of God there is–the Mystery of Triune love as revealed by Jesus Christ, Son of the living God, Light and Life and Savior of the world.

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