Vaiṣṇava-Christian Dialogue: The Power of a Conversation

The Power of a Conversation

Gerald T. Carney

For twenty-three years, a group of committed Vaiṣṇavas and Christians has gathered yearly in a Washington suburb to share the visions of their faith, with a focus on particular themes that are foundational for their religious lives. (In the spring of 2020, the meeting was postponed to September and took place via Zoom.) What is this Vaiṣṇava-Christian dialogue? What function does it serve for us as Christians and Vaiṣṇavas? And what do we talk about?

The conversation is between believers, speaking of and out of their own faith, within their own faith traditions, and joining with other participants to address a chosen question. In dialogue, in the presence ofother believers, we try to see things differently. My seeking to understand the divine presence in the world and in my life finds expression in the prologue to the Gospel of John (1.1–14): the eternal Word of God, source of all life, shedding light to all, present in the world, giving new life to all who accept him, full of grace and truth. But we choose to read this text in tandem with select passages from the Bhagavad-gītāthat talk of Kṛṣṇa’s love for those who have renounced the fruits of action, not clinging to self, with discerning mind focused on him alone, to whom he reveals the supreme secret: such ones are dearly loved by Kṛṣṇa, none more dearly, and they come to him (18.68–9). Reading these passages with the eyes of faith sets off echoes and resonances when re-reading texts from one’s own tradition.

This kind of learning is not restricted to scriptural texts. The story of the “widow’s mite” in the Gospels of Mark (12.41–4) and Luke (21.1–4) recounts the response of Jesus to seeing the big contributions to the temple treasury by wealthy worshipers in contrast with the small coins of a poor widow: “This poor widow has given more than all those . . . for the others who have given had more than enough, but she, with less than enough, has given all that she had to live on (Mark 12.43–4). There has never been a morning at maṅgala-ārati in the Radharaman temple, in Vṛndāvana, when I have not been awed by the candle stubs offered to the deity by poor widows, even as I wish that their lives were more secure. Their devotion surely far exceeds that of the visiting vīdeśī [foreign] scholar!

So the dialogue is about core beliefs and between believers. This kind of dialogue differs from others in that it does not take place between religions or denominations with the objective of arriving at some form of consensus or action document. These kinds of dialogue are important and contribute much in our fractured world, but this dialogue is not one of those. While a few papers have been published by dialogue participants and an entire issue of the Journal of Vaishnava Studies (Vol. 20.2, Spring 2012) was devoted to its first fifteen years, this dialogue is addressed to the participants themselves: The work is what happens there and what results from that. Nor is there an effort to translate intellectual and spiritual sharing into some mode of agreement. The Christian and Vaiṣṇava traditions (and all their variations) remain essentially different, but there is a sense in which each tradition has been experienced as nondifferent: the profound truth of difference-in-nondifference (bhedābheda) on experiential and mystical levels. Deep bonds of friendship have formed over these years as witness of our shared journey.

The first meeting took place on a single day, but it was immediately clear that more time was needed for sufficient reflection and interaction. All subsequent meetings lasted two days: Friday 1 p.m. to Saturday 4 p.m. Texts related to the Christian and Vaiṣṇava presentations are usually sent out prior to the meetings. We gather around 1 p.m. (lunch on our own) and shortly start a process of introducing ourselves and providing an update. This welcomes new members and lets them get to know the rest of the group, a process that can take a while (despite gentle nudges to be brief). Then we begin the first presentation, alternating each year as to whether Christian or Vaiṣṇava goes first. There is time for questions of clarification following the presentation. The second presentation follows a short break. That leaves about an hour and a half to two hours available for open discussion before dinner. When most of the group stayed overnight at Rockwood Manor (and some of us were younger, truth be told), there were music and dance presentations in the evening. Now everyone scatters after dinner.

After breakfast, the second day begins with sharing prayer, a practice in itself as well as a teachable moment about each prayer form and its texts and symbols. Christian prayer has included chants from the monastery of Taizé; monastic morning prayer of psalms, scripture, and commentary; singing hymns traditional and modern; and significant time for silence. Sam Wagner has combined his sitar playing with Taizé prayer forms as an invitation to centering and inner silence. Christian rituals that would exclude Vaiṣṇava participation, like the Eucharist, simply cannot be used. Vaiṣṇava prayer includes explanation of the various symbols from the Gauḍīya tradition but also illustrates the vocabulary of bhajana, ārati, mahā-mantra, kathā, and commentary. Christians and Vaiṣṇavas have a rich vocabulary of prayer that can inform and form dialogue participants, a process central to the dialogue. Then the group returns to points raised in the presentations and questions remaining (or arising overnight). Lunch is routinely postponed to give additional space for discussion, which continues after lunch. The last task is for the group to look forward to the next year’s date and program. There are always too many possible topics to address, but the decision hinges on the topic, those who could facilitate its presentation, and their willingness to attend and do the presentations. Most of the work of this dialogue is self-directed both in the discussions and in the development of future programs: The group is self-perpetuating!

During one three-hour segment of the aṣṭa-kālīya-līlā-smaraṇa, I counted at least five servings of food for Kṛṣṇa’s cowherd friends, not counting a raucous food fight. Yes, meals — besides hearing about them — are an essential part of the dialogue process for they offer an opportunity to sit and speak with other participants, to explore some points raised in the discussion, and to strengthen relationships forged over the years. Mealtime is important for the Vaiṣṇava group as well, as they reconnect with their colleagues. One of my Vaiṣṇava friends lives only a few hours away, but I see him only at the dialogue (my bad). The informal images I have saved from previous dialogues show much of the work of the dialogue taking place in twosomes and threesomes outside the program’s formal structure. Over these years we have become friends, partners in more than dialogue. When Jesuit Father Jim Redington suffered a life-threatening “event,” one of our Vaiṣṇava colleagues immediately got ready to drive to Scranton, Pennsylvania, to encourage Jim in his recovery — bonds beyond dialogue.

Participation in such a dialogue is a function not only of professional interest but of each one’s life story. I started graduate work at Fordham expecting to focus on the Christian scriptures, the New Testament. Then I took Thomas Berry’s Introduction to the History of Religions. There I read for the first time the Upaniṣads and the Bhagavad-gītā, but also Confucius, Mencius, and Lao Tzu. I did not run away when Thomas suggested that I stay after class in the evening to “do a little Sanskrit.” In 1971, I participated in a seminar on “Appolonian and Dionysiac Currents in Religion” and chose to drive down to Henry Street in Brooklyn to study the devotees and try to understand the mix of ecstasy and discipline in Kṛṣṇa consciousness. Many of the neophytes I met were but a few days off the streets, but their enthusiasm was real. Thomas Berry was convinced that the vernacular poets, Śaiva and Vaiṣṇava, breathed new life into their traditions, and I spent a summer reading their works in translation. Preparing for a doctoral exam topic on “the erotic aspects of Kṛṣṇa mysticism,” I read the Bhāgavata Purāṇa and Gītā Govinda and re-read the bhakti poets. The departmental secretary, sure that the professor had erred in spelling, first transcribed the topic as “exotic.”

When the time came for a dissertation topic, my mentor, who had despaired of my flowery gloss of theological texts, assigned me Kavikarṇapūra’s Caitanya-candrodaya-nāṭakam. He wanted his students to do work in each of the main devotional and theological traditions, and he supported my topic as an approach to the Gauḍīya tradition. One might see where this is leading . . . When I went to India for the first time in 1980, Diana Eck urged me to visit Vṛndāvana and sent me to Shrivatsa Goswami. He, in turn, invited me to return a few weeks later for Janmāṣṭamī. It was unbearably hot, I was sick, and I’d been robbed, but I knew that I would return, as I have, again and again, the last forty years. While I try to be a disciple of Jesus, I also inhabit and am nurtured by the grace of participation in the Vaiṣṇava traditions. Some dialogue friends wonder which side I am on. But this kind of serendipitous journey is reflected in so many different ways by the other Christian participants in this dialogue. Vaiṣṇavas and Christians alike bring our own stories to the dialogue as a gift to share.

This ongoing dialogue has been gifted from the start by a number of mentors from Christian and Vaiṣṇava traditions. They include Bill Cenkner, Frank Clooney, Kenneth Cracknell, James Wiseman, and David Rodier from Christian traditions, and Ravīndra-svarūpa, Tamāl Kṛṣṇa Goswami, Bhakti Tīrtha Swami, and Graham Schweig from the Vaiṣṇava. The moderation of the dialogue was shared by John Borelli and Anuttama Dāsa. Then there were the usual suspects: Carol Crumley, Clark Lobenstine, Jim Redington, Ed Shirley, Philip Simo, Leo Lefebure, Pim Valkenberg, Judson Trapnell, Erick Schwarz, Sam Wagner, and me; and Sara Adams, David Buchta, Vineet Chander, Gopal Gupta, Ravi Gupta, D. C. Rao, Rukmini Walker, Brahmachari Vrajvihari Sharan, Giri Govardhan, and Haridas Das. A succession of interreligious affairs officials at the Catholic Bishops’ Conference attended meetings of the dialogue. The accumulated experience and wisdom of these mentors and participants have made the dialogue possible and breathed life into its sessions. It is very important to identify those “elders” (even in their youth!) who bring inspiration and challenge to this enterprise.

This dialogue has developed with the explicit support of critical documents about changed attitudes toward interreligious relations in the Catholic Church and iskcon. These documents were an important agenda item of the dialogue’s meeting in 2000. The document known as Nostra Aetate, which the Second Vatican Council adopted in 1965, praised the beliefs of Hindus “for in Hinduism men and women contemplate the divine mystery and express it through  an inexhaustible abundance of myths and through searching philosophical inquiries. They seek freedom from the anguishes of our human condition either through ascetical practices or through profound meditation or through a flight to God with love and trust.” In response to this, “The Catholic Church rejects nothing that is true and holy in these religions. She regards with sincere reverence those ways of acting and of living, those precepts and teachings which, though differing in many aspects from the one she holds and sets forth, nonetheless often reflect a ray of that truth which enlightens all.” The document then points to the central Christian belief that Jesus Christ is “ ‘the Way, the Truth, and the Life’ (Jn 14.6) in whom men and women may find the fullness of religious life, and in whom God has reconciled all things to Himself.” This statement reflects the tension between seeing and respecting the divine light in the beliefs and lived experience of other believers and the call to proclaim in word and to witness in life to the truth which Christians believe. But, despite such tension, the Church goes on to urge “her sons and daughters to recognize, preserve, and foster the good things, spiritual and moral, as well as the socio-cultural values found among the followers of other religions. This is done through conversations and collaboration with them, carried out with prudence and love and in witness to the Christian faith and life.” Thus dialogue is a positive response to other religious traditions as well as a mutual and shared witness. Pope John Paul II invited representatives of thirty-two Christian denominations/organizations and eleven other religions to a shared prayer in Assisi in 1986, an action which spoke loudly of the commitment to live shared lives for the sake of the world.

But we meet also against the background of “ISKCON in Relation to People of Faith in God,” a document developed by a group of scholars and devotees and approved by the Executive Committee of iskcon’s Governing Body Commission. Iskcon, is “a Vedantic, monotheistic Vaiṣṇava tradition” that has a profound missionary impulse with universal scope. Vaiṣṇavas and, in particular, Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇavas, hold that śrī-kṛṣṇa-svayaṁ-bhagavān and “keval, keval, keval Hare Nam” in addition to their beliefs about Caitanya Mahāprabhu: These core beliefs in a missionary tradition — about Kṛṣṇa’s identity as the Supreme Personality of Godhead and about his divine name as the sole refuge — would not seem to anticipate a path of dialogue. However, this iskcon document expresses esteem for followers of other theistic and scripture-based traditions, affirms the value of dialogue with members of these other traditions, denies that any tradition can claim a monopoly on truth, and calls for iskcon members always to approach others with respect and humility, following the command of Mahāprabhu: “One should be more tolerant than a tree, more humble than a blade of grass, and ready to offer all respect to everyone and yet expect no respect for oneself. In such a humble state of mind one can glorify the Lord with pure devotion.” (Śikṣāṣṭakam 4) The document goes on to explain, “While cherishing our own spiritual culture and working to proclaim our faith in Kṛṣṇa in Vṛndāvana, we consider it inappropriate and unbecoming for a Vaiṣṇava to try and attract people to the worship of the Supreme by denigrating, misrepresenting, or humiliating members of other faith communities. . . . From a Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇava perspective, we work not at ‘conversion’ but spiritual development.

Through dialogue, theistic people and those engaged in the pur suit of Absolute Truth can encourage one another to be more true to their own practice. Dialogue offers a challenge of faith to devotees of every tradition. This challenge is a necessary and welcome part of spiritual life in a multi-faith world. Such dialogue can help strengthen the faith and character of individuals, the integrity and vision of institutions, and the support and appreciation of those who expect enlightened spiritual leadership. Thus dialogue can lead to a profound realization of mission, in the broadest sense of the term.” Dialogue is faithful witness by believers, and it advances iskcon’s mission of spreading Kṛṣṇa consciousness.

We returned to examine “Why We Dialogue” in 2008, with consideration of Bhaktivinoda Ṭhākura’s Śrī Caitanya-śikṣāmṛta and dialogue documents from the World Council of Churches (largely Protestant Christian) tradition, including texts by Diana Eck and S. Wesley Ariarajah, whose title Not Without My Neighbor suggests the wider ecumenism of this perspective.

The strategy of our dialogue from 2001 to the present has included selected texts from each tradition, available in advance and forming the basis of the presentations and discussions. Embracing this strategy provided a common ground for participants and was a critical choice of our style of participation and interaction. It bears repeating here that our dialogue was based on the shared experience of prayer that was described earlier.

Broadly speaking but with considerable overlap, the other sessions of the dialogue can be grouped under three headings: unfolding the core beliefs and their implications in the lives of believers, the process of spiritual growth from neophyte to advanced, and the tensions within the heart of our traditions, both historically and in the contemporary period. In each case, these topics were developed to make explicit the implications in the life of the believer. Going forward, there was no fixed plan but the topics and discussions developed from the interests and resources of the dialogue participants. 


Discussion of core beliefs

We devoted one complete session to discussion of the Vaiṣṇava and Christian understandings of divine presence through incarnation. In both cases, there is a complex theology, including Kṛṣṇa, Rādhā-Kṛṣṇa, Caitanya, and the Pañca-tattva on the Vaiṣṇava side, described by Ravīndra-svarūpa, and the various forms and layers of Christology, explained with clarity in a long article by Ed Shirley (published in Journal of Vaishnava Studies, Vol. 20.2, Spring 2012). But, at each dialogue, the display of Vaiṣṇava faith symbols has encouraged further dialogue on this central focus of faith. Both traditions place the believer within the dynamism of the divine, as participants in the heart of God.

We moved from consideration of the divine to our relation with the material world, the non-divine, even the non-spiritual. Jon Pahl challenged us with spiritual elements lodged in American consumer culture—the shopping mall as sacred place, a stairway to heaven. In the Christian prayer time, Pahl led us with his rousing and enthusiastic hymn-singing. While Pahl’s presentation was descriptive and sociological, Rukmini Walker shared Clare Robison’s treatment of texts from the Bhagavad-gītā, the story of Prahlāda from the Bhāgavata Purāṇa, a passage from the Mahābhārata, and a reflection by a contemporary Vaiṣṇava author, Satsvarūpa Dāsa Goswami, on “Vaiṣṇava Compassion.” These differing styles show a greater engagement with secular social science among Christian



theologians as well as the varied and productive ways that Vaiṣṇavas use their textual traditions.

We generally have a single presenter about texts from their tradition but tried to expand the conversation by having insider/outsider respondents to the text of the Song of Solomon (“The Song of Songs,” Graham Schweig and James Wiseman) and the Gītā Govinda (“The Indian Song of Songs,” David Buchta and Gerald Carney). We developed some interesting resonances because of the varied personal and professional views but it proved too cumbersome to repeat.

We chose to look at the role of the holy name in religious life and practice. It is central in the Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇava tradition (“keval hare nam”), but what about the Jewish and Christian traditions? It became clear that the revelation of the personal intimate name of God to Moses and the Jewish people was central to Judaism: God’s name in their history and written on their hearts. This sacred revealed character of God’s name carries over into the Christian tradition with emphasis on the name of Jesus, saving and sanctifying, as well as the name by which Christians call upon God with the intimate “Father.”

We turned also to see how our traditions present the Mother of God, building on the 2004 study by Frank Clooney, Divine Mother, Blessed Mother: Hindu Goddesses and the Virgin Mary. Leo Lefebure showed how the title “Mother of God” reflects a core theological affirmation about the figure of Mary. He illustrated her role through three Marian prayers: the Memorare, Salve Regina, and Stabat Mater, reflecting her intercession, her revelatory character, and her participation in the cross and redemption. Anuttama Dāsa explained the yoga of vātsalya-rasa, centered on not one but two mothers of God, Yaśodā and Śacīdevī.


Spiritual growth and practice

Emphasizing the engaged and practical basis of dialogue, we have returned repeatedly to the ways in which we embrace and deepen the spiritual path we follow. The first session described spiritual growth through Bonaventure’s The Soul’s Journey into God (James Wiseman) and Viśvanātha Cakravartī’s Mādhurya-kadambiṇī (Ravīndra-svarūpa). Unfinished with the subject, we looked the next year at “Stages of Awakening Love of God,” in Bernard of Clairvaux’s On Loving God (David Rodier) and selections from the Nāradabhakti- sūtra (Graham Schweig). In a third meeting, we focused on the specific dynamics of spiritual disciplines found in the Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius (James Redington) and Rūpa Gosvāmī’s Bhakti-rasāmṛta-sindhu (Ravīndra-svarūpa). The emphasis in both of these texts about the dynamic process of entering into the heart of tradition created significant resonance both within and between our traditions.

Rather than looking at prayer in general, in 2015, we were tasked to bring examples of how we pray and how we practice. To provide a context for this sharing, James Wiseman spoke about the structure of monastic prayer (the “Liturgy of the Hours”) and “mental prayer.” I underlined the importance of prayer in personal transformation, with the proviso that what is absolutely essential is service to the poor and downtrodden, as described in chapter 25 of the Gospel of Matthew. Abhishek Ghosh drew prayers from the Bhagavad-gītā (11.1–55), the Bhāgavata Purāṇa (1.8.18–43), the Caitanya-caritāmṛta (Madhya 15.158–71), and the gopīs’ prayers of virāha, or separation (Bhāgavata Purāṇa 10.31.1–9).

The following year we explored “Sonic Theology,” the way in which sound and music and mantra create resonance on the heart. The theme came from Pim Valkenburg, who led us on a journey through music specifically designed for a liturgical context and other religious music directed to popular audiences, even secular ones. Such classical music allows for many levels of audience participation in the mysteries of the life of Jesus, especially yearning expectation of his coming, accompanying his passion, and experiencing his resurrection — theological tensions resolved through music. Gopal Gupta placed our discussion within the traditional structure of Vaiṣṇava aesthetics. In the Christian prayer session there was an interplay within the experience of Taizé-style prayer of long periods of silence, broken with words from the heart and with simple mantra-like songs. This resonated with the theme of Vaiṣṇava prayer: hearing Kṛṣṇa, not about, but straining with the ear and heart for a hearing that cleanses heart and mind. In Bhagavad-gītā 7.1, Kṛṣṇa promised “You shall know me completely… hear about how this is so.” This is the invitation to kīrtana, drawing texts from Bhaktivinoda, the Pañca-tattva, and the mahā-mantra itself. All this increases the eagerness to hear the sound that cleanses: the holy name of the Lord.

One of our Christian members, James Wiseman, a Benedictine monk of Saint Anselm’s Abbey had been elected abbot there. He offered us the Abbey as our meeting site in 2017, and we had the opportunity to observe the evening prayer of the monastic community. No coincidence, then, that we chose to examine monasticism from Christian and Vaiṣṇava perspectives the following year. Brahmachari Vrajavihari Sharan, a renunciant in the Nimbārkasampradāya and Hindu chaplain at Georgetown University, presented the fundamental dimensions of monasticism as practiced in several Vaiṣṇava traditions, especially the years-long process before entering that path. Abbot James highlighted the centrality of life together in a community of prayer and work, prayer in common (along with private prayer and Lectio Divina) and the shared work of the monastery. We have enjoyed having another Benedictine priest, Philip Simo, as a frequent participant in the dialogue.

Under the title “Cultivation of the Heart,” we opened the question of how a believer develops from an initial conversion or epiphany moment into a mature and tempered faith. Relationships to mentors and institutions change over time in tandem with deepened conviction and personal autonomy. This point is both theological and socio-psychological. Haridas das (Harvey Stempel) gave a candid account of his own religious journey to the present, and I suggested some touchstones of scripture and doctrine along the path to adult faith and commitment.


Tensions in traditions and the dynamics of life and heart

Two of the earliest meetings of the dialogue emphasized the ten sions and polarities in religious life. Yes, there is the Divine, the Spirit, but it is manifest, present, in the world. What is the relationship between Spirit and the world? How does the individual affirm that presence but still stand apart in some manner of renunciation? How are these tensions reconciled in life and practice?

Examining the topics treated in the dialogue shows an emphasis on confronting suffering, love and suffering, the hidden God, and the tension between unity with God and separation from God. One session explicitly dealt with Christian and Vaiṣṇava theodicy, the attempt to give faithful meaning to the experience of evil and suffering. But the titles don’t tell the whole story of the texts and the underlying themes discussed. “Suffering” focused on the passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus in the Gospel of Luke (James Redington) and the dance of the gopīs with Kṛṣṇa from the Bhāgavata Purāṇa (Graham Schweig). These core narratives and their symbolic representation in cross and rāsa-maṇḍala reflect the central experience of Christian and Vaiṣṇava faith and life, respectively. “Love and Suffering” introduced readings from St. John of the Cross on the stages of mystical love, including the dark night of the soul (Steven Payne, a Carmelite priest) and from the last chapter of the Caitanya-caritāmṛta (Antya 20) with the description of Caitanya’s virāha, or separation from Kṛṣṇa, resolved only in saṅkīrtana, and the establishment of kṛṣṇa-prema as the highest end of life (Madhya 23), chosen by Vṛndāvana Dāsa Ṭhākura. “Love and Fear,” a conversation between Benedictine monk Philip Simo and David Buchta, addressed the polarity of divine majesty, aiśvarya, and sweetness, mādhurya-līlā and bhāva. While there is fear of judgment and punishment, there is the “holy fear” of offending the beloved and the “sacred awe” of approaching God as sinners and mere humans. Graham Schweig and Ed Shirley presented “The Hidden God” as revealed to our hearts and obscured from our human sight through a return to Bonaventure’s Mind’s Path to God together with the Mystical Theology of a writer known as Pseudo-Dionysius. The Vaiṣṇava sources were drawn from Schweig’s translations of the Bhagavad-gītā and the chapters on the rāsa-līlā in the Bhāgavata Purāṇa with its many layers of intimate revelation, but lost to the grasping mind. Finally, in the most recent meeting of the dialogue, on “Union with God, Separation from God,” James Redington presented Ignatius’s “Contemplation to Attain Love of God,” which reaches its climax in the surrender of everything we have and are.

He links this with the intimate participation in divine life experienced by Catherine of Siena and Thérèse of Lisieux but contrasts it with Mother Teresa of Calcutta’s experience of desolation that is again resolved by simple and complete surrender. Rukmini Walker commented on the texts of Caitanya-caritāmṛta Antya 8.1–35, which reflect Mādhavendra Purī’s yearning to attain Kṛṣṇa, to abide with him in Vṛndāvana, and to satisfy the thirst for prema.

To explain evil and suffering, theologians try to make sense of God’s role through “theodicy,” to “justify the ways of God to humans” in John Milton’s phrase. I showed how suffering was taken seriously by the Jewish tradition in the book of Job, by the Christian mystery of the cross, and by Augustine’s long struggle to believe in God in a world that contains evil. He suggested that, with “liberation theology,” the only solution to evil and suffering is to live a life to overcome it: Where is God? — God is in our response. Ravi Gupta presented a view of suffering as beyond karma, or destiny — as the direct will of God. In the Mahābhārata and the Bhāgavata Purāṇa, he showed the hope that “devotional heroism” can overcome all obstacles by turning eye and heart to Kṛṣṇa.

In all of these examples of presence and absence, of union and separation, there is one lesson: it is complicated. This is never more so than in addressing the religious response to environmental destruction, especially as we become aware of our collective — and even personal — complicity in this destruction. Presenting a Vaiṣṇava vision of eco-theology, Krishna Kishore spoke of a theological framework in which the earth is not just material stuff but the earthly manifestation of God’s powers, calling all to establish renewed personal and familial relationships: bhakti breaks traditional social structures in favor of sustainability and symbiotic development. Tom Ryan reviewed the changes in Christian environmental thought since the 1970s, starting with the World Council of Churches and leading to Pope Francis’s letter Laudato si’. Living on earth, we are in the Lord’s temple with the obligation to develop an integral ecology for the earth as a collective good that must not be exploited. Christians are summoned to enter into the story of creation with fidelity and imagination. We were not creating solutions but sharing our diverse commitments to the environment. We have chosen to address the roles of “Women in Leadership Positions” in our respective traditions during our dialogue in 2021. Theme, speakers, and texts will challenge us anew.


What matters...

This long narrative of our journey together these past twenty-three years is argument itself for the lessons we have learned, for the space of dialogue that we have created within and between our traditions, and for our deep bonds of understanding and friendship. It illustrates the power of a sustained conversation to establish relationships. I would like to close with some points that characterize what we sought to do. Some of these points are clearer in retrospect; others may apply only in our circumstances. But they have made us what we are and sustain our dialogue.


  • Mentors matter. Let them guide the early development of dialogue with wisdom.
  • “Street creds” matter. Prior participation in interreligious and interfaith groups creates credibility, an audience, and resource people.
  • Size matters. Twenty people or so are partici-pants. At a certain point, participants become an audience. Dialogue is a participant game.
  • Topics matter. It is best to look together at a topic that has a shared resonance. The topic serves to let us see together . . . and to see each other.
  • Texts matter. Reading texts together in advance, selected from each other’s tradition, promotes a common experience.
  • Belief matters. We are not all scholars; all the scholars are scholar-practitioners; we are all believers and practitioners.
  • Lives matter. We are here today because of the kind of lives and faith that we have lived. Time spent introducing ourselves is an essential investment in meeting each other.
  • Food matters. We bond over shared food; conversation flourishes as we can seek out people we want to talk to over meals.
  • Time matters. Not clock time but enough prime time for discussion and listening. And so…
  • Breaks matter. Dialogue is not about talk but conversation that happens in twosomes and threesomes. This does not have to be organized; leave space for this to happen.
  • Prayer matters. Sharing one’s form of prayer can be a profound experience; so is going as deep as one can into the prayer of another. This prayer should be inclusive at least to the level of everyone appreciating what is happening and why.
  • Ownership matters. Joint decision-making for the year’s dialogue and for another meeting is very important. What do the participants want to think about? What questions do they have for each other? Who else would you recommend coming to the dialogue?
  • Planning matters. We make commitments a year in advance to date, topic, and presenters. Of course, life happens, but this kind of participation and planning cements the next steps. Notice goes out to those who attended (and not) about the next steps right after this year’s dialogue. Reminders go out several months, then again weeks before the event. There is a magic multiplier in “reply all” that does more than fill in-boxes.
  • Flexibility matters. All this could be wrong for you, for us. Nothing is written in stone. There is a power of Spirit and līlā [divine play] that is really running the dialogue. This we believe.



GERALD T. CARNEY is professor emeritus of South Asian Religions at Hampden- Sydney College in Virginia. His doctoral work, at Fordham University, was a study of the theological implications of Kavikarṇapūra’s devotional drama Caitanyacandrodaya-nāṭakam; subsequent work concerned the devotional dynamics mirrored in the drama’s “play within a play” and Kavikarṇapūra’s treatment of the iconic scene of Caitanya’s farewell to his mother Sacīdevī. More recent work has focused on Bābā Premānanda Bhāratī, an early twentieth-century Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇava missionary to the West, material that was published in an extended introduction to a new edition of Bābā Bhāratī’s 1904 book Sree Krishna—The Lord of Love (Blazing Sapphire Press, 2008). A summary paper on Bābā Bhāratī’s place within Bengal Vaiṣṇavism, “Bābā Premānanda Bhāratī —his trajectory into and through Bengal Vaiṣṇavism to the West,” was published in the conference volume The Legacy of Vaiṣṇavism in Colonial Bengal (2020). A current project concerns the Urdu work Nimāī Chand (1911) by Krṣṇa Gopal Duggal, a Punjabi disciple of Bābā Bhāratī. He has published studies of two other significant figures in modern Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇavism, Śrī Kṛṣṇa Prem and Mahānambrata Brahmachārī. As a photographer, he has documented the impact of contemporary socio-religious-economics on the devotional ecology of Vṛndāvana through the transition from ashrams to condo developments. His documentary work also includes images of traditional jal-seva and illustrates the critical role of money changers in the pilgrimage process.