A couple weeks ago I was checking in to “Trinities” (a great blog run by several very smart philosophers with good senses of humor) when I read an article by Dale Tuggy commenting on the conversion of Christian philosopher Michael Sudduth to … Hinduism, specifically Vaishnava Vedanta.
I took Frank Beckwith’s conversion to Catholicism quite well and of course I cheered Antony Flew’s conversion to deism. (Atheism to theism. That’s the direction things are supposed to go.) But Hare Krishna?
Okay, I admit that my image of Krishna devotion was formed by the guys I used to see dancing down New Oxford Street in London in their saffron robes and blissfully chanting “”Call out gouranga! Be happy!” Yeah, they looked happy. But then I figured I’d rather have a scowl with jeans and a shirt than a smile and an orange gown.
So my initial impression wasn’t positive.
Dale Tuggy on Sudduth’s conversion
Dale’s comments are really interesting. He quotes Sudduth as claiming that his new view of a mystical identity with God provides a good balance between monistic and dualistic metaphysical schemes. Dale demurs:
“Honestly, I don’t see how this can be a “wonderful balance.” The mind has nowhere to rest; as with all negative mysterianism, a commitment has been made to simply think inconsistently, but insist that really, this is sort of just pointing at an inconceivable fact, an ungraspable one. This sort of move insulates one’s claim from refutation, but it also leaves unclear why anyone else should agree with it.”
Dale makes a number of other incisive comments as well. I recommend you check out his full comments.
Experiences of Krishna
Now we turn to the link provided by Dale to read Sudduth’s own account of his conversion. It was an interesting read, that’s for sure.
Clearly Sudduth’s experiences were key in his conversion, among them a near fatal car accident in March 2011 and an experience of Krishna early in the morning of September 16th, 2011:
Upon waking I immediately had a most profound sense of Krishna’s actual presence in my bedroom, a presence no less real than the presence of another living person in the room, though I was alone at the time. I responded to this felt presence, first through my thoughts that repeated Krishna’s name (and inquired of his presence), and then verbally out loud by uttering Krishna’s name twice: Krishna, Krishna. I was seized at this moment with a most sweet feeling of completeness and joy. I felt as if Krishna was there with me in my room and actually heard my voice, and that my response had completed a process that began with his name within my mind. I pondered this experience for several minutes, while at the same time continuing to experience a most blissful serenity and feeling of oneness with God, not unlike I had experienced on many occasions in the past in my relationship with the Lord Jesus. It was a most profound sense of both awe and intimacy with God in the form of Lord Krishna.
There is much one could say on these experiences. But from here I want to turn to the end of his account when Sudduth makes a really intriguing claim:
the basic principles of Gaudiya Vaishnavism are logically compatible with a number of fundamental Christian beliefs: the deity of Christ, virgin birth, his resurrection, and the soteriological importance (even necessity of) his incarnation, life, death, and resurrection. In converting to Vaishnavism I do not relinquish these beliefs but simply situate them in a different philosophical and theological context.
Sudduth then adds that he intends to write at more length on this topic in the future. I, for one, look forward to the discussion.
But for now you might be thinking how he can seriously argue for a harmony between the two belief systems. (After reading Dale’s full critique you’ll no doubt wonder that all the more.)
In closing let me offer some comment on the direction that Sudduth might go.
In the latter part of the sixteenth century the radical Domnican friar Giordano Bruno scandalized much of Europe with his radical teachings, including the claim that the universe was static and unchanging and included countless suns with countless worlds with countless peoples. Said Bruno: “Innumerable suns exist; innumerable earths revolve around these suns in a manner similar to the way the seven planets revolve around our sun. Living beings inhabit these worlds.” On the Infinite Universe and Worlds (1584)
Bruno’s speculations didn’t win him much support as his career went down in flames (sadly, Bruno went with it). Despite this ignominious end, Bruno stands at the headwaters of a new theological discipline called exotheology, a companion discipline to exobiology. The discipline of exobiology is concerned with the possibility of life on other planets and the form that that life might take. Exotheology address the same topic from a theological perspective. If there are intelligent creatures on other planets, how does God relate to them?
In particular, the question of salvation arises. If these aliens need salvation, do they not likewise require an incarnation? Paul Davies writes:
“The existence of extra-terrestrial intelligences would have a profound impact on religion, shattering completely the traditional perspective on God’s relationship with man. The difficulties are particularly acute for Christianity, which postulates that Jesus Christ was God incarnate whose mission was to provide salvation for man on Earth. The prospect of a host of “alien Christs” systematically visiting every inhabited planet in the physical form of the local creatures has a rather absurd aspect. Yet how otherwise are the aliens to be saved?” (God and the New Physics (New York: Simon and Shuster, 1983), 71.)
Let’s grant for a moment the possiblity of multiple incarnations. (I will come back to this thesis in a subsequent article.) Once we open up the possibility that God (or God the Son) could have incarnated in other forms on other planets, we raise another possibility: could God (or God the Son) have incarnated in other forms on this planet? As John Hick puts it,
“If … we grant … the possibility of such other incarnations of the eternal Word, the natural next question is whether, from a Christian point of view, such epoch-making spiritual leaders as Moses, Gautama, Confucius, Zoroaster, Socrates, Mohammed, Nanak may not in fact have been such divine incarnations. From their own point of view, of course, none of these great figures would have accepted such an identification.” The Metaphor of God Incarnate, 2nd ed. Louisville, KY: John Knox Press, 2005), 96.
In other words, once you admit the possibility of incarnations on other planets, why not countenance multiple incarnations on our planet? My guess is that Sudduth will probably develop his own thought in this direction. We’ll have to wait and see.
But for now we have a more immediate issue to deal with. You see, we’ve opened the pandora’s box of multiple incarnations. Are multiple incarnations on other planets possible? If so, is it possible that there be multiple incarnations on our planet? And is it possible, as Hick says, that various individuals on our planet may all be divine incarnations?
I’m not much for suspense myself so I’ll render an opinion here: on other planets I think probably not, and on our planet I think definitely not. I’ll say more about that later. If I’m successful then I’ll be closing and locking one possible door Sudduth may try to pass through to establish his surprising claim of Christ/Krishna continuity.