Co-Existing Without Understanding

(Editor’s Note: This interesting article argues that followers of Jesus need to seek out a deeper level of understanding of the Hindu people with whom they interact. This idea, of going deeper in our understanding and our relationships with our Hindu friends, is the theme of this year’s Rethinking Forum in Philadelphia, PA.  This year’s RF will feature sessions from HL Richard and many others on topics including discipleship issues in Hindu communities, field research, encouraging testimonies, and lessons learned as an Alongsider. The Rethinking Forum is happening in just four weeks, from June 14th-16th, 2024.   Sign up now to join us in-person or digitally.)

Co-Existing Without Understanding

(A paper from a July 2023 consultation; slightly edited from Mission Frontiers 46:2, Mar/Apr 2024; used by permission.)

A highly esteemed Roman Catholic missionary to India, R. H. Lesser, who died in 2015, wrote a paper on “Hinduism and the Western Missionary” for the 2010 volume 3 of The St. Thomas Christian Encyclopaedia of India. In that paper he said,

The strange but tragic truth is that though Christianity has been in India for nearly 2,000 years, though there are Christians in every corner of India, yet Christians and Hindus have never really met. (2010, 50)

Obviously in the standard sense Christians and Hindus are always meeting, so what is the sense in which Lesser suggests they have never met? We are meeting on the surface, but never penetrating below the facades and talking points of our various camps. Are we seeking a new set of talking points, or can we determine to engage the hearts of those who have shown themselves resistant to historic Christianity?

My research on these matters has led me to many striking individuals from Hindu families who have wrestled with these matters. I have not found missionaries who compel attention and deeper probing, excepting an obscure British Methodist who served in south India in the 1880s, Benjamin Robinson. Robinson, reflecting on the advaita Vedanta system of Hindu thought, wrote this:

As a record of thinking it amazes one the more one studies it. There our axioms are questioned, our certainties are illusion. But when the spreading influence of that system of thought touches us more nearly, and when we have learned enough to feel its force in India, we shall find that conflict with it will compel the reconsideration of all our own schemes and systems. (Robinson 2020, 42)

This helps explain Lesser; we need to be touched “more nearly” by Hindu life and thought. It is too easy to dismiss Hinduism as full of error and superstition, and never feel the truths that resonate so deeply with Hindus. As we begin to feel what Hindus feel about Christianity, we increasingly see the need to reconsider just what is truly good news to Hindus, truly a reconsideration of all our “schemes and systems.”

Reflecting on Robinson and the issues he struggled with, one of my conclusions was: “This should be the first lesson in missionary training; how alien both we and our message are, and how much we need to listen and learn” (Robinson and Richard 2020, xxiii). Andrew Walls, in his study of the history of The Missionary Movement from the West, makes the point I am trying to make in a different way in reference to China:

…not only must the missionary get into China and Chinese; China and Chinese must get into the missionary. This involves penetration to the heart of the central traditions of China, the consciousness at the core of the nation formed by centuries of reflection, influencing millions of people who are never aware of the source of that influence. (2023, 131)

My recent work on R. C. Das of Banaras also pointed in this direction. In a paper outlining his life and thought, one of my conclusions was that “We are ignorant, ill-equipped, unaware even of how far we are from ready to engage the Hindu world” (Richard 2022, 133). Hindus and Christians have never really met. One could blame Hindus, but this is not their problem; they do not claim to have good news that we need to understand. They do not have any reason not to ignore Christianity.

Devout Hindus are Anti-Church but Not Necessarily Anti-Christ

This second section of my paper, that devout Hindus are anti-church but not necessarily anti-Christ, needs brief exposition, and defining these terms will conclude my paper. Especially when dealing with India and Hindu issues, all terms must be defined, granting that most terms have various meanings and so one can only provide the sense(s) one will assume.

“Hindu” or “Hinduism” is notoriously difficult to define; let me first just say that for this presentation it is forward (“high”) caste Hindus primarily in focus. But we need a working definition for this slippery concept, so I submit this one as the best “definitions” of Hinduism I have come across, mainly because it outlines the range of meanings of the term and particularly as it grasps the practical and popular meaning:

It is now a matter of heated debate as to whether or not there is such a thing as “Hinduism.” On the one side is an academic analysis that suggests that what is known as Hinduism is more a collection of loosely related traditions, communities and partly shared customs and concepts that, only through the Western Enlightenment creation of the category of “religion” and the vested, unifying interests of upper caste Hindu informants, led to the construction of “Hinduism.” On the other side is a range of views from vehement, ideological assertions of an ancient and single Hinduism through to an instinctive contemporary fellow feeling amongst Hindus that they belong to the same “religion.” (Ram-Prasad 2006, 178)

My focus is on serious Hindus, or “religious” Hindus, but the best term to carry these meanings is “devout” Hindus; Hindus who are devoted to their traditions but particularly to some particular god or guru. This is the path of bhakti or devotion, by far the dominant expression of living Hindu traditions (contra foci on philosophy, texts, or political machinations).

“Anti-church” in this context refers to the institutions of classical Christianity (denominations and church buildings, Christian schools and hospitals, seminaries and Bible colleges, etc.) which carry a stench of colonialism and foreignness. By no means are all Hindus opposed to all forms of expression of Christianity or church, but they are most strongly suspicious towards (with many being outright hostile towards) conversion agendas which are a core aspect of the heritage of many Christian groups.

“Anti-Christ” is generally a highly pejorative term for extreme opposition to Jesus and the Bible. In broad terms, among Hindus opposition to Jesus is much less than opposition to evangelism and conversion, but positive response to Christ has been very slow, so there is clearly an underlying hesitancy that is very strong among Hindu peoples. Like Lesser, we would say that this is primarily due to never really meeting Christians, or never really hearing the gospel, or never really encountering Christ. The trappings of Christianity disguise the glory of Christ.

I wish there was a simple solution to the problems outlined, but I know none. I can only advise that we slow down, listen carefully, reflect deeply, and expect multiple expressions of “good news” and “church” to develop as Hindus and gospel messengers finally begin to meet.

References Cited

  • Lesser, R. H., 2010. “Hinduism and the Western Missionary.” In George Menachery (ed.), The St. Thomas Christian Encyclopaedia of India, vol. 3, Thrissur City, Kerala, India: The St. Thomas Christian Encyclopedia of India.
  • Ram-Prasad, Chakravarti, 2006. “Hindu Perspectives on Islam.” In Jerald D. Gort, Henry Jansen and Hendrik M. Vroom (eds.), Religions View Religions: Explorations in Pursuit of Understanding. Amsterdam and New York: Editions Rodopi, pp. 177-196.
  • Richard, H. L., 2022. “The Life and Thought of R. C. Das: His Theology of Interreligious (Hindu-Christian) Relations.” International Journal of Frontier Missiology vol. 39 no. 2-4, Summer-Winter 2022, pp. 127-134.
  • Robinson, Benjamin, and H. L. Richard and Arthur G. McPhee, 2020. Cultural Gaps: Benjamin Robinson’s Experience with Hindu Traditions, H. L Richard (ed.), Littleton, CO: William Carey Library.
  • Wall, Andrew, 2023. The Missionary Movement from the West: A Biography from Birth to Old Age, ed. Brian Stanley (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans).

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