I once heard an evangelical Christian missionary describe his work among Hindus in India. This was the way he framed his work: “There are over 3000 gods and goddesses in Hinduism, and it is impossible to please all of their various deities. You are constantly terrified about making one or more of them angry, and then you will be doomed to be reborn. Accepting Jesus as your personal Lord and Savior frees you from that oppressive system.”
This is a stunning mischaracterization of Hinduism. Hear this passage from the Bhagavad-Gita:
After many births the wise seek refuge in me, seeing me everywhere and in everything. Such great souls are very rare. There are others whose discrimination is misled by many desires. Following their own nature, they worship the lower gods, practicing various rites. (BG, 7:19-20)
The above passage from the Gita is an internal critique within Hinduism: “There are some practitioners of our faith who don’t understand the point of it, who obsess over rituals and worship lower gods.” Both the missionary and the Gita agree that this is a problem; they disagree—sort of—on the solution.
In many faith traditions there are people whose grasp of their faith is little more than superstition. They believe that if they pull the right cosmic levers and get lucky that the universe will spit out a jackpot of blessings. But this is not a difference between Hinduism and Christianity—it’s a difference between immature faith and mature faith.
I’ve heard the same kind of ignorant Protestant rhetoric applied to Roman Catholicism, claiming that Catholics worship Mary and the saints. And out of hundreds of millions of Roman Catholics, it is certainly possible to find a few who practice this way, whose faith is rudimentary. Again, this is not a difference between Catholicism and Protestant Christianity, but a difference between immature and mature religion. If you live in the Bible Belt, you also know that among evangelical Protestants there are also many immature, hate-filled Christians who wouldn’t know Jesus from a hole in the ground, who think of God as a cosmic policeman.
You can find plenty of ex-Hindus, ex-Catholics, and ex-Evangelicals who detest the legalistic, guilt-ridden way they were raised. It is not fair comparing the worst of one religion with the best of another. Krister Stendahl made this one of his main rules of interreligious study.
This is also one reason why when we read Jesus’s words about the Pharisees or “the Jews” (in the Gospel of John), we need to hear him criticizing Judaism from the inside. When Jesus complains about religious legalism, he is making the critique as a faithful Jew. Too many Christians receive Jesus’s words a criticism of Judaism, instead of hearing them as a criticism of immature, self-serving religion.
When some people outgrow the immature, literalistic, legalistic version of their faith tradition, they will reject faith altogether, or embrace a different tradition. Others will find resources and wisdom within it. These are all signs of faith development. More on this tomorrow.
God of Growth and Life, as flowers bend toward the sun, help us grow toward you.