“We know more than we can tell,” said Michael Polanyi, the philosopher of science. There is knowledge within us that hasn’t made it to the tips of our tongues. One thing a lot of people are beginning to know here in America, but haven’t yet found the words to express, is that no one religion has all the answers to life’s ultimate questions. Many religions contribute vital pieces to the puzzle.
This is evidenced by statistics from the Pew Research Center’s studies of religious beliefs and practices in the US. “The religious beliefs and practices of Americans do not fit neatly into conventional categories,” its website reports. Even people who affiliate with very traditional Christian churches often have a mix of beliefs that may include astrology and reincarnation. This represents a long-term trend in America, as people move away from exclusive, "one-way" theology and toward a pluralistic attitude toward world religions.
This religious perspective is news in America, but old news in India. What is now known as “Hinduism” is a very broad, deep, rich, old, but constantly changing mixture of beliefs and practices. Hindus tend to be natural religious pluralists, very accepting of multiple forms of religious devotion. My boss, Varun Soni, the Dean of Religious Life here at USC and himself a Hindu, says it is “the oldest and youngest religious tradition”. The British colonists rolled this spectacular religious diversity into one category and named it after a river, the Indus. Philip Goldberg, in “American Veda”, his fascinating recent account of the influence of Hinduism on American culture, puts it this way: “In many ways, Hinduism is more diverse than the sum of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, which, if history had been reversed, might have been lumped together as Jordanism, after the river valley in which those traditions were born…. Hinduism… has been called the world’s largest disorganized religion.” (p 3)
That might change, once Christians are able to tell what we are beginning to know: our religion is one way, not the only way, to know and worship God. And within Christianity, there are many ways, not just one way, to experience the Christ authentically.
I was inspired years ago by a little book entitled “Prayer”, written by Abhishiktananda. It is a classic on the topic of contemplative, meditative practice. This swami, living in India, was a French Benedictine monk, Henri Le Saux. He chose to practice Christian spirituality as if it were part of Hindu tradition. Through his encounters with the great guru Ramana Maharshi and others, he came to identify himself with both religions. He believed that “dialogue about doctrines will be more fruitful when it is rooted in a real spiritual experience at depth… and when each one understands that diversity does not mean disunity, once the Center of all has been reached.” (quoted in Goldberg, p 326)
Abhishiktananda pointed to a possibility that may be on its way to reality in America: Christianity practiced and understood in the manner of practical, pluralistic Hinduism. There is a “Center” to which all religions face, and to which all souls are drawn. But there are many ways to approach it, and many languages by which these approaches are described. Hindus tend to make room for “whatever works”, whether it is a very old or very new religious practice, whether or not it fits into traditional Hinduism.
I have two friends who went to India to experience the spirituality of the East. They meditated for long periods with Indian teachers, who in the end told them both the same thing: go home and practice the religion of your own culture. One of them was my seminary roommate, Ken Meece, who went on to become a Presbyterian minister and hospital chaplain. Ken became my “guru"; I was eager to learn something of what he had discovered in India. Before studying Christian theology each day, we went to the seminary chapel at 6 am to practice Eastern meditation disciplines. Ken’s teacher in India knew what would work best for his enlightenment: to follow the religion into which he had been born. He told Ken not to follow it in a rote, dogmatic, exclusive way, but rather to follow it all the way to the same holy Center that the teacher had found through his own tradition.
What would Christianity be like if Christians had the same attitude as the gurus who sent my friends to Christian seminaries in America, because they knew that was the path most likely to work for them? What would it be like if it was focused on spiritual growth and compassionate action, rather than on doctrines that define who is “in” and who is “out”?
Progressive churches offer a taste of Christianity, Hindu-style. These churches make room for “whatever works”, whether it carries the Christian brand-name or not. They are unabashedly Christian, but they offer the treasures of the tradition without suggesting they are the only means of approaching the divine. Not only do they allow great freedom for members to explore other religions and practices, these churches are willing to be influenced by other traditions. Their members grow in their Christian faith through intimate exposure to people of other faiths. Many progressive churches welcome leaders of other faiths to preach and teach in their congregations, for special occasions such as Pluralism Sunday. I know of one church, Manhattan Beach Community Church (United Church of Christ) in southern California, that has a rabbi on its staff; he teaches the Hebrew Bible from a Jewish perspective. Many churches offer classes in yoga and in Eastern meditation practices.
According to the Pew Research Center, 65% of Americans now believe that “many religions can lead to eternal life”. This isn’t what most of their preachers tell them. It isn’t what most of their churches declare in their doctrines. But slowly and surely, as people begin to tell more of what they know, the people will lead and the leaders will follow. As religion editor Lisa Miller wrote in the title of her op-ed piece in Newsweek in 2009, “We Are All Hindus Now”. She argued that relatively few Americans may be Hindus by affiliation, but we’re taking more and more of a Hindu-style approach to religion – including Christianity. She concludes with this benediction: “So let us all say om.” And to that I add: Amen!