The Hindu Temple — an Outsider’s Perspective

Fundamentalists are typically anti-ecumenical. This is unsurprising. However, in certain circles, this often manifests not only as a desire to avoid formal social alliances but more fundamentally as a predisposition to reject out of hand ideological trends which have emerged in competing traditions, which trends are also out of step with perceived orthodoxy. Considering the historical-contextual nature of the development of dogma — by which I mean simply that dogmatic positions are formulated in and to a certain degree governed by the intellectual-ethical-religious culture in which it is housed — the fundamentalist rejection is at heart an obfuscation of material influence by means of an appeal to (supposedly) true doctrine — i.e. an untainted withdrawal of truth from Scripture, Scripture and Tradition, etc.

Given this psychological bent away from finding truth “wherever truth may be found,” one would anticipate that fundamentalist students would find themselves in a field trip to a Hindu temple as pure spectators, with nothing of themselves at stake. A true participatory dialogue is one in which we expect to receive not merely facts about another’s tradition but also different perceptions that at least partially correspond to reality, albeit under language and paradigms which are foreign to us. Of course, such a dialogue is risky, because it endangers any number of doctrines and beliefs which many hold sacred, whether they are fundamentalist or not. Honest participation ought to be risky, because the risk is tied to the sincere-self being endangered; short of this, we do not give ourselves but a mannequin in so-called discussion. The exclusionary posture of fundamentalism would engender an avoidance to participatory dialogue.

The middle ground between pure spectator and complete immersion is the participatory dialogue, in which both sides expect to leave the exchange with a different perspective concerning not only the other but themselves. This middle ground is the way I attempt to approach all intellectual-religious exchanges, because one cannot enter a conversation having partitioned one or another doctrine from revision without hearing from a potential reviser, such as, for example, a Hindu and his conception of time, the universe, or God.

And so we arrived at the India Cultural Center and Temple, and my first perception was that the physical space was permeated with a sense of holiness. There was a clear demarcation between the compound and religious space and the outside world. A large metal gate, a long driveway, and stone arches at the end of the drive into the compound amplified this sense of separation from the outside. When an outsider enters the ICCT for the first time, she would need to be quite dense to mistake this area for just another section of Munford, TN. Enclosed by an explicitly religious atmosphere, we had left typical Southern society and come upon a world purposefully kept separate from our own insofar as it were possible.

The physical space bore a striking appreciation for the created order, by permitting the edges of the ground to grow as-is, without great disruption to the natural environment. Such an appreciation would do well to counteract the anti-environmental position advocated by many who believe ‘the world is going to hell in a hand-basket, so why bother?’ The aberrant foundations of Hindu love for the world notwithstanding, a responsible and moderating corrective to the gnostic, anti-earth tendencies of contemporary evangelicalism is quite welcome. Far beyond treating trees and shrubbery as merely aesthetic additions to the physical space (even though there is an intrinsic value to aesthetic qualities), we ought to treat the creation as a creation of the Divine hand, not as an external, neutral, or perhaps evil force to be conquered. The sacred space should incorporate the created world as an icon of the glory of God.

After exploring the grounds for some time, we were greeted by our guide. I was struck by the philosophical posture of the Hindu faith. He answered questions concerning the nature of time in Hinduism, the nature of man, the nature of God, and the end to which the whole universe is headed. While the descriptions of the many gods and goddesses of Hinduism were often muddled in my own mind, I appreciated the detail and sophistication with which our guide was capable of speaking about his faith. It is refreshing to encounter people who take seriously the spiritual dimension of reality. One must yet wonder why certain evangelicals do not see a reasonable correlation between one’s faith in a Divine and one’s treatment of the divinely created order, of which one has been given charge.

Even after our departure, I was impressed with the sincerity and seriousness with which the adherents of Hinduism (in this context — one must understand that most of the world’s Hindus treat Hinduism as most of the world’s Christians treat Christianity) worshiped. Our guide mentioned that he frequently comes to the temple. Many families make more than one trip per week to the temple to give offerings to the divine figures. There seems to be a much higher cost for worship in the Hindu faith than for Christians, in the sense that people will bear an extra burden to worship even when inconvenienced.

The trip incarnated the material in the classroom in two ways. It allowed us to perceive firsthand the intricacies of the Hindu tradition in terms of its practical worship – the acts, places, and methods that are used in Hinduism. It also revealed that Hinduism is not an abstract theory but a posture of life undertaken by its adherents. It is easy to forget that actual people believe and act according to foreign traditions, even ones as esoteric (to Western eyes) as Hinduism. Trips to the ICCT can shape individualistic Westerners to see beyond their own systems of belief and practice.

Nevertheless, such shaping still leaves a number of obstacles to effective evangelization, especially among Westerners. To begin, Christians in the West have imported Western ideals and motifs into their theology, accepting them as part and parcel of Christian orthodoxy. These would include the idolization of individualism and rationality, for example. Such importations are completely natural and to be expected, but, when interacting with a philosophy of life which has its roots in a culture and intellectual tradition foreign to both Scripture and the West, one must work especially hard to overcome these unnecessary burdens. That is to say, one must distill the essence of the faith in terms and concepts which are simultaneously faithful to the orthodox faith and comprehensible to another culture, which is the task of the evangelist.