Has ISKCON Anything to

Offer Christianity Theologically?

Kenneth Rose

Kenneth Rose is in a good position to help us understand what ISKCON has to offer Christianity in terms of theology. He is a scholar and has been a student of both Vaishnavism and Christianity. Consequently his observations here give us valuable perspectives on the Vaishnava theology and some ways in which members of the Christian community can use it to enhance their understanding of cited theological issues. It will also serve as a useful tool for devotees to examine Vaishnava theology from a Christian point of view.

In the summer of 1970, I entered ISKCON as a disillusioned nineteen year-old Roman Catholic seeking to deepen my devotion to God, to Krishna. I remained in the Krishna consciousness movement a year and a half and was initiated by Shrila Prabhupada. I left the movement at the beginning of 1972 in order to fully commit myself to the practice and study of Christianity. It is from this perspective that I approach the question: "Has ISKCON anything to offer Christianity in theological terms?"

My central theological interest is the construction of a global systematic, or dogmatic, theology out of the diverse materials of the religious traditions of the world. God, I believe, is the source of these traditions, yet the knowledge of God and of God's saving activities is not exhausted by these traditions. For this reason, I believe that an adequate theology must be global; it must be a sustained and universally receptive effort of what Gordon D. Kaufman (1981:12) has called "constructing toward God".

My theological position is itself an attempt toward such construction. My essentially orthodox Christian theological outlook, nurtured by both Roman Catholicism and Evangelical Protestantism, has, over the years, been challenged to critical reformulation by the lingering influence of my intensive experience as an American Vaishnava. Although I left ISKCON fourteen years ago, some of the central images and doctrines of Gaudiya Vaishnavism it propagates still remain as lively theological truths for me. It is these elements of Vaishnavism, above all other factors that have prevented me from remaining a traditionally orthodox Christian. The formative influence upon me of the vibrant piety of ISKCON has for a long time challenged me to attempt the construction of a dogmatic theology that is sensitive to both traditional Christian piety and Vaishnava bhakti. In attempting in the following pages to answer the question that has been assigned to me, I will take a preliminary step toward global dogmatic construction that is sensitive to what the Vaishnavism of ISKCON has to offer to Christianity theologically with respect to three central theological categories: Revelation, God, and Eschatology.

With the exception of Evangelical Protestantism,1 Christian openness to other religions has steadily increased over the course of the past century. The arrogance that allowed Monier Monier-Williams (1890:185) to assert in the late nineteenth century that the people of India will find "in Christianity alone their true home" has become muted. Among mainstream Protestants the quaint claim made by Rudolf Otto in 1930 (p.104) that "Christianity is the religion of the conscience per substantiam, bhakti-religion that religion per accidens" would be indulged with a wry scepticism. And the charges brought against the worship of Krishna in 1915 by Nicol MacNicol (1968:264) that it is "incurably idolatrous", "sensuous", "nature-worship", "lacking a content of revelation", would be discounted as the tendentious misjudgements of a missionary propagandist.

In place of these dated opinions, contemporary liberal Protestants might adduce more enlightened sentiments. For example, a current Protestant student of the Shri Vaishnava tradition, John Carman, believes that because of the deep similarity of the Christian and Shri Vaishnava traditions with respect to the tension between God's sovereignty and accessibility, Christians are able to appreciate the writings of Shri Vaishnavism's outstanding theologian, Ramanuja. And so, in place of the missionary triumphalism that marred earlier Christian explorations of Vaishnavism, Professor Carman (1974:271), in a gracious display of Christian humility, closes his book on Ramanuja by suggesting that the "significance of this understanding poses an important and as yet unresolved question for Christian theology". For me, this unresolved question takes the form: What can Christian theology learn from Vaishnavism in general and from ISKCON in particular?

Despite the openness of mainstream Christianity to other religious traditions, a residue of exclusivism remains. This is evident in a recent book by a Roman Catholic theologian, Aylward Shorter, in which an expansive generosity toward non-Christian religions is given expression. "There is no doubt", writes Shorter (1983:172), "about the current teaching of the Catholic Church that God's universal salvific will is effective and that every human being is given a chance of salvation. Grace is offered to all." Shorter quickly points out, however, that this universal opportunity for salvation is predicated upon the saving death of Jesus Christ, as the Vatican II document Gaudium Et Spes proclaims. It was the linking of the notion of universal opportunity for salvation with that of Christ's own redemptive work that earlier gave rise to Rahner's (197S:214) theory of "anonymous Christians". The logical contortions evident in this concept are indicative of a desire not only to generously include all human beings within God's saving providence but also of a desire to maintain the decisive primacy of the Christian revelation.

Despite the latitudinarianism of Rahner's and Shorter's position, it is still ultimately a Christ- centred exclusivism and it seems incapable of becoming broad enough to fully appreciate that the irenic exclusivism it exemplifies is also a feature of some non-Christian religions and of ISKCON Vaishnavism in particular. For example, where some irenic Christian might assert that ultimately all redemption, including that which is discovered through non-Christian religions, is made possible by Christ; Prabhupada, following the Bhagavad-gita (4.8), would trace all salvation to Shri Krishna, who is "the fountainhead of all avatars" (Bhaktivedanta, 1983:229). And contrary to the Christian belief that the Biblical record affords the deepest insight into the divine truth available to humanity, Prabhupada (ibid.:36) claims that,

One will find in the Bhagavad-gita all that is contained in other scriptures, but the reader will also find things which are not to be found elsewhere. That is the specific standard of the Gita. It is the perfect theistic science because it is directly spoken by the Supreme Personality of Godhead, Lord Shri Krishna.

On the basis of these and many other passages in Prabhupada's writings, it is quite conceivable that in dealing with the problem of other religious traditions, some Vaishnava theologian might begin speaking of the devout of other faiths as "anonymous Vaishnavas". Something like this is implicit, in fact, in Prabhupada's frequently repeated claim that all creatures, whether or not they acknowledge it, are eternal servitors of Lord Krishna (Bhaktivedanta, 1974:55).

In the face of this ISKCON Vaishnava claim to ultimacy for Krishna and His revelation, three courses of thought and action are open for Christian theology: We can repress the Vaishnava claim to ultimacy; we can acquiesce in it and become disciples of Krishna's representatives; or we can attempt the construction of a systematic theology that will, on the basis of these two ultimates, Christianity and Vaishnavism, articulate the essential doctrines of a general theism that endeavours to coherently explicate the theological insights contained in these two diverse and equally rich and philosophically defensible revelation traditions.2

To take the first alternative, repression, would be a futile, unreasonable course, for it simply denies what is obvious: the self-sufficiency of a non-Christian religion to abide faithfully in the presence of a redeeming, self-revealing God of love. The second alternative, acquiescence, seems unlikely, for just as Vaishnavism has a rich heritage of revelation and devout practice to lovingly maintain and proclaim, so does Christianity. It is for these reasons that I have decided on the third alternative, that of learning from one another about the ways of God in our respective traditions. Beginning with our very different revelation traditions, we can start constructing a general theological picture of reality that may be more adequate theoretically than that which is provided by either tradition on its own. But to do this demands the humility that recognises that God may have spoken, through a tradition alien to ours, truths that can supplement what God has spoken in our own tradition. If this were all that Christianity were to learn in its encounter with ISKCON, that would be valuable and significant. But, as the following discussion will attempt to show, there is much more than this to be learned by Christianity in its encounter with ISKCON.3

Carl Raschke, a theologian attempting to apply the deconstruction of Derrida to theological discourse, asserts (Altizer, Myers, et. al., 1982:4) that "neither language nor human self-awareness conceals any thread of reference to things as they are." Basically, Raschke is denying predication, that which makes thought and language possible (Peukert, 1984:131-132). This extreme negation of the capacity of discourse to capture in concepts and words features of extra-subjective reality is hermeneutical nihilism. It implies not only the undermining of the persistent regularities that ground science and philosophy, but also of those that ground theology.4

Despite the sensation of novelty that attends deconstruction, it is not essentially a new method; indeed, it seems to me to be just a reformulation of the apophatic, or negative, method in theology and philosophy. In Dionysius the Areopagite,5 for example, the negative method of theology is pushed to the extreme in the denial that the predicative capacity of discourse can be applied successfully to God. The result of this radical apophaticism is that knowledge of God is thought to be forever beyond the reach of reason. Such a negative tendency, if it is not dialectically checked by a cataphatic, or positive, method in which the capacity of thought and language to at- tain to knowledge of God is maintained, foretells the ultimate destruction of theism.

In the West, the most sublime dialectical balance between apophatic and cataphatic theologies was achieved by St. Thomas Aquinas. Because human beings, in Thomas's view, are related to God as effects to their cause, whatever perfections are to be found in human beings must pre-exist super-excellently in God. Consequently, human discourse about the perfections of human existence, personality, goodness and so forth, must in some degree be predicable of God. On this view the extremes of either a purely negative or a purely positive theology are ruled out. Theological discourse must be a mean between these two methods. In other words, knowledge of God is based on the belief that the being of God is like, yet unlike, that of human beings.6 This mediating method is a form of analogical reasoning ( Summa Theologica, I.13, 5).

In the East, a formally similar dialectical balance between the apophatic and the cataphatic approaches was achieved by Shri Chaitanya in his doctrine of acintya-bhed�bheda. Against the extreme monism of the Advaita-vadins (which, like Dionysius's apophaticism and deconstruction, involves an ultimate negation of predication [Kar, 1978:105]), Chaitanya argued for the inconceivable, simultaneous oneness and difference of Krishna and finite creatures. In this view, we are one with Krishna insofar as we participate in Krishna's being, but we are different from Krishna insofar as we do so only finitely, and hence imperfectly.

The similarity of Chaitanya's principle of acintya-bhed�bheda and Thomas's principle of analogy will seem remarkable only if it is not understood that this logical similarity is a function of the logic of theism itself. Any theism that does not suppose that whatever perfections exist in creatures must first exist in their fullness in the Creator is logically incoherent.

It is precisely at this point that ISKCON can be of service to liberal Protestant theology, for the lingering fideism and biblicism of post-Barthian theology is still the source among liberal Protestants of a suspicion of philosophical theology of the sort pursued by Thomas. Consequently, among liberal Protestants the notion of a personal God has the status more of a mere affirmation of faith than of a rationally justifiable metaphysical truth. But a theism of this sort is, in Prabhupada's view, nothing more than sentimentalism.

The theism preached by ISKCON is, on the contrary, not a sentimental affirmation but a logical implication of the metaphysical axiom of inconceivable, simultaneous likeness and unlikeness. Consequently, it can offer a powerful logical defence against all forms of theological scepticism, whether derived from Derrida, Dionysius, or Shankara. For these just-named thinkers, the formlessness of ultimate reality provides no foundation for form; to speak, therefore, about the personality of God, from this perspective, is ultimately to speak nonsense. A disastrous problem, however, is generated by this view: How, even as illusion, can the experience of form arise if there is absolutely no ground for it in reality? Chaitanya Vaishnavism avoids this problem because it argues, contrary to the above-stated impersonalist view, that if any finite entity possesses personality, it does so because it derives this attribute from its original cause, the all-attractive reservoir of all perfections, Lord Shri Krishna.7

 In bringing us to this point, Prabhupada has brought us as far as Thomas had brought theology in a more philosophically acute age. Christian theology would do well to examine the rational foundations of theism as set forth by Vaishnavism, for not only will it enable us to restore a neglected element of our tradition, but it can also help us probe into an area avoided by Christian theology. I am referring to the notion that God possesses an eternal form, a spiritual body.8 Thomas outright rejects this notion on the grounds that it represents the projection by the imagination of corporeal form upon the incorporeal (Samma Contra Gentiles, I.20, 37). Actually, this rejection seems to violate the principles of analogy central to Thomas's thought, for if creatures have personality in virtue of God's personality, on what grounds will it be denied that this reasoning can be extended to also conclude that creatures possess bodies in virtue of God's possessing a body?

To those of us who have been nurtured within cultures shaped by the Bible, such reasoning is shocking and would likely be dismissed as childish nonsense.9 If, however, on the basis of something like the anthropic principle in astronomical cosmology,10 we were to understand universal evolution as intending the specific conditions necessary for human existence, then the notion that the human form is a material attempt to reflect the spiritual body of the ultimate personality, God, seems less nonsensical. Even from the standpoint of the Biblical writings, this idea cannot be dismissed, for, according to the apostle Paul, the destiny of the Christian is resurrection to a future life in a spiritual body that will be fashioned after the model of the "reanimated and glorified body of Jesus" (Wilhelm Pesch in Bauer, 1981:84). 11

The result of this preliminary study of the doctrine of God is, I believe, the discovery that ISKCON can help Christian theology to recover the metaphysical basis of theism and to enrich its understanding of embodiment.

Above my desk at home are two prints. One of them, in a display of traditional Roman Catholic piety, depicts Jesus in agony upon the cross. Winged angels are collecting in golden chalices the saving blood flowing from his spiked hands. Mary Magdalen, crowned with a golden halo, is soaking a white cloth in the precious blood flowing from his spiked feet. It is a moment of supreme agony. Above this print, I have placed another one; it is one of the earliest and finest examples of the work of ISKCON's illustrators. Beneath a tree alive with exotic birds, in a verdant field decorated with wildflowers, and surrounded by placid peacocks, swans, and surabhi cows, stand Radha and Krishna in loving embrace. It is a moment of gracious delight.

When asked by friends why I have these prints placed on the wall like this, I explain that it is through the perpetual conversion of taking up our cross that we may begin to enter into the resurrection life in which all creatures will experience the perfection of personal and social fulfilment in the loving play of God. To my way of thinking, the cross is the way to the eternal kingdom of God, and the images provided by ISKCON of Krishna at play on His spiritual planet, Goloka Vrindavana, are the most suggestive intimations available to us of what God's kingdom will be like. Let me elaborate on this theme.

The resurrection of Jesus Christ is an emblem of hope. It is one of the most vital religious truths available to human beings, who are in all ways marked by limitation and death. It assures us that the deepest desires of our hearts for fulfilment, justice, healing, understanding and love will not be finally and irrevocably defeated by non-being.

The Bible, however, gives only the scantiest picture of the kind of life that awaits those who are raised from the dead to dwell in the new Jerusalem.12 And so my imagination is always leaping ahead of the spare Biblical vision of the resurrection life. In this leaping, my imagination and hope are aided by the rich pageantry of the pastimes in heavenly Vrindavana of Radha and Krishna and Their loving and playful entourage of friends and family. One of the most useful services that ISKCON, in its propagation of Chaitanya Vaishnavism, can render to Christian faith, hope and knowledge is its providing rich emblems of the resurrection.13 It can help us to visualise the perfection of personal spiritual existence that is God's promised restitution to a creation that has been marred by sin and death.

It is evident that no religious teaching that solves the problem of suffering by denying the ultimacy of personality can be a satisfactory or just answer to this problem. The human heart, both collective and individual, cries out not for the annihilation of hope but for its fulfilment. In his ardent defence of a personal God and of the persistence of the individual even in the state of liberation, Prabhupada speaks powerfully to our hope of ultimate fulfilment beyond death. This fulfilment is not a private self-gratification, but is the bodying forth of the deepest hope of humankind: to live in peace and justice in a community centred upon the bountiful source of all that is good.

The emblem14 of Goloka Vrind�vana is a revelation that God's power to make a world is not exhausted in the making of this material universe in which limitation and death are supreme. It tells us that God is able to bring us into a spiritual realm not marked by death and sin, where the Biblical promise "God shall wipe away all tears" (Rev. 21:4, K JV) shall be made good by the rasadi-vilasi (Chaitanya-Charitamrita, Adi-Lila 7.8), "enjoyer of the rasa dance".

Other Topics of Importance
The above discussion offers only an introductory glimpse into the possibilities of enrichment offered to Christian theology through a serious encounter with Chaitanyite Vaishnavism. Just as a great deal more remains to be said concerning the above theological categories vis-�-vis the two traditions, so also the dialogue between Vaishnavism and Christianity needs to be pursued further with respect to various theoretical and practical issues of concern to both traditions.

One issue of particular interest to Vai��avas, for whom orthopraxis is prior to orthodoxy, is that of vegetarianism. The practice of ahimsa (nonviolence) with respect to animals is central to ISKCON's ethical life. ISKCON devotees find the meat-eating of Christians to be a stumbling block in the path of dialogue more serious than any theological issue.

Christians, for the most part, find this issue to be of minimal importance. I am of the opinion that Christians have much to learn from Krishna's devotees on this issue. Christians can learn, without danger of pantheism, to cherish non-human life as also sharing in some way in the divine life. To learn this might deepen the dormant Christian reverence for nature. (For greater detail on this issue see my article "The Lion Shall Eat Straw Like the Ox: The Bible and Vegetarianism" [Rose, 1984].)

Another issue of great importance concerns the stages of relationality between the soul and God. The writings of such mystics and mystical writers as Jan Van Ruysbroeck, St. John of the Cross, St. Teresa of Avila, and A. Poulain reveal the rich possibilities, within Christian experience, for intimate and diverse relationships with God, leading up even to the mystical marriage of the soul and God.

These possibilities, nevertheless, seem to have dropped out of the experience and conceptuality of contemporary Christians. Chaitanya Vaishnavism, on the contrary, has maintained as its central object of contemplative practise the discovery of the individual soul's particular relationship with Krishna. Love for Krishna may develop in accordance with five basic rasas, or relationships: Krishna may be approached as the all-powerful Supreme Brahman, as master, as friend, as child or as lover.

While this conceptuality may seem odd to the Christian at first glance, it has great humanising power, for in upholding the just-named varieties of devotion to God (especially the last four), Vaishnavism asserts the utterly personal character of the divine-human relationship, for what personalism could be content to dispense with these basic relationships that constitute personal existence?

Christian personalism, therefore, can be enriched through encounter with the variegated and highly articulated conception of the divine-human personal relation elaborated by Chaitanya Vaishnavism. Perhaps Christians might even be moved to devoutly study the Christian classics of personalistic mysticism with an eye to the remedying of the current imbalance of Christian experience in the direction, on the one hand, of political and social activism without contemplation and, on the other, toward a relation to God that centres on God almost exclusively as saving Lord and occasionally rises toward friendship.

In Vaishnavism, we who are Christians can discover a tradition, no less vivid and profound than Christianity, in which an absolute Providence is experienced in a variety of personal relationships, all of which are designed to restore to perfect loving fellowship in a blessed society those who respond to God's loving initiatives toward us. This discovery should persuade us to lay aside our proud and false claim of having, along with Judaism, the only direct historical and scriptural relationship with God.15 The consequence of this divestiture need not be a scepticism that doubts the very possibility of revelation; on the contrary, the outcome should be that we will come to see that the Jewish-Christian history of salvation is an important strand in the garment of universal redemption, that God is weaving a garment that needs the contributions of Vaishnavism, as much as it requires the contributions of Christianity. This, I believe, is the most important lesson that Christianity can learn from Vaishnavism and its Western representative, ISKCON.

This article was originally published in ISKCON Review, Vol. 2, 1986