On religious exclusivism

21 12 2020

I have been asked / goaded into responding to the latest two hour interview with David Bentley Hart. I really would rather not, but as this particular interview was hosted by a fellow Hare Krishna devotee, I feel that I must clear up certain misrepresentations of Krishna consciousness. I am submitting this to the unconvinced or third parties who may have gotten the wrong impression of Gaudiya Vaishnavism and Hart’s position in contemporary Christian discourse.

While the devotee should be commended for organizing this discussion, admittedly he was not quite prepared for it. The host had a Christian background, but not a very informed one. It was only when he encountered the Hare Krishnas that he really began to study theology in depth. Thus, he was coming somewhat cold into the discussion with Hart, who could then attempt to distort and misrepresent the place of his thinking in Christian theology. Hart likes to use mote and bailey tactics to portray his own position as the sensible one, while portraying his adversaries in the worst possible light. Hart will inevitably bring up Origen or St. Maximus Confessor in any given conversation, and while these thinkers are compelling, they don’t necessarily prove very influential in the grand scheme of things, at least directly. Perhaps these mentions are by design, as Hart is more inclined to push his very idiosyncratic view of Christianity, while openly rejecting sources or traditions that he finds distasteful. More on that later.

Since the subject of the talk was religious pluralism, the antagonist in the conversation was confessional fundamentalism. But Hart has a rather strange view of what constitutes “fundamentalism”. Whenever the host brought up his own Hare Krishna beliefs, Hart could barely contain himself in labeling anything remotely specific relating to belief as “fundamentalism”. Indeed, I have been labeled this personally by Hart himself. In contrast, at least in the Indian schools of thought, he stated that he is friends with many Vedantists like those of the Ramakrishna Mission who preach a monist but more “sophisticated” philosophy. For Hart, one has to always contextualize one’s beliefs so as to not get “carried away,” thinking that we can know more than what we can possibly know, and so on. The true foundation of religious pluralism isn’t merely tolerance of other confessions, but a tinge of agnosticism towards one’s own beliefs based on the numerous reservations of accredited scholars (Hart’s milieu).

For a while now, I have been of the conviction that real tolerance is not based on watering down one’s own tradition, but in finding oneself woefully inadequate in following it or any others. There are many things in our past that simply do not make sense, but they have been on the scene longer than we have. They have a purpose and a logic, even if we do not understand them. And yes, hermeneutically speaking, every single position we adopt carries the weight of our own prejudice and ignorance in the process of interpretation. But that does not mean we resign ourselves to simply knowing better. That is what unsettles me about Hart’s recent work: it seeks to replace the authority of tradition, Christian or otherwise, with his own. He has no real convincing narrative concerning why he is right and everyone else isn’t. He dismisses centuries worth of texts and experience based on his own mere distaste for it. And he surrounds himself with acolytes who guard his echo chamber with their own irrational zeal.

In terms of fundamentalism, then, there is no particular reason why having a firm conviction in the uniqueness of one’s experience of God should lead to violence and exclusion. Let’s take the Hare Krishnas: for all of his insinuations of supposed simplistic fundamentalism in Srila Prabhupada’s books, is some sort of Gaudiya Vaishnava ISIS then on the horizon? Of course not. Indeed, I found it a bit awkward for him to bring up how unbelief is what led to the mass slaughters of the 20th century, but then turn around and make people who are a bit more certain about their beliefs the villains of his narrative. Perhaps we should await the possible emergences of an Episcopalian or Unitarian Universalist ISIS. The point is: one can be a jerk or a tyrant or just intolerant based on all sorts of flimsy reasons. Firm belief that one is right doesn’t lead to anything other than what the believer otherwise brings to the table.

Is Krishna consciousness itself unsophisticated or fundamentalist or whatever other pejorative Hart insinuates? Hart states that he has read Srila Prabhupada’s Bhagavad Gita As It Is and (at least part of) his Srimad Bhagavatam. Hart seems to be more sympathetic with his Vedantist friends’ position that these are inferior texts to the Vedas and Upanishads. I won’t get into the details contrasting shruti vs. smriti, which would be beyond the scope of this intervention. I will say that what Hart missed, and what the host somewhat insinuated, is that the genius of Gaudiya Vaishnavism lies in the study of rasa: mood or mellow. The reason why impersonalist Vedantist (Mayavadi) writings are our main enemy is because they bring forth no rasa. This is not to say we are out to make enemies, or hate people, it’s just that we cling to our personalist and very specific understanding of the Vedas and Upanishads precisely because we recognize the overwhelming reality of the Personhood of God or the Absolute Truth. And to know the Original Person (Adi Purusha) you have to delve into the specific, and not just remain in idle speculation under the aegis of a false humility or a pessimistic epistemology.

God is not merely as real as any object we encounter with our senses: He is more real. He is the foundation of our reality, in fact, He is the only reality. What we experience in this world is maya, His external energy, but it is temporary, it is not the real “Aristotelian” object of our faculties. Deliverance from maya comes from an absorption of our attention into God in the spirit of service. In fact, our destination in the next life will be determined by our last thought in this one. If we focus on God, we go to God. If we bind ourselves to something temporary, we return to the temporary, into another mother’s womb to suffer this life all over again. We bind ourselves to God by thinking of Him, but for that to happen, He must have qualities. We can’t just empty our head of things, as nature abhors a vacuum. God must have a face, He must have likes and dislikes, and He must have a proper name: Krishna. That doesn’t mean that these qualities are exclusive: Ramanuja states that there is an overabundance of all qualities in God, not a lack. But we see God in various moods and contexts, some more intimate than others, and we serve God according to our own internal and eternal disposition. This is rasa: this is what draws us in particular to God. It is not necessarily exclusive of other paths, but it is very particular.

Arguably the main problem with religious experience, one that I have acutely felt, is that it is almost completely detached from daily life. Both agnosticism and actual fundamentalism are extreme responses to this lack of reality of religious experience. I would argue that the impersonalist and perennialist positions do not help matters. To state that all religious doctrine is inadequate, that no one position holds a monopoly on truth, etc. may seem like a relatively safe position, but it just kicks the proverbial can down the road. Either you are certain of something, or certainty is provided to you by other means. Hart may not be absolutely certain of the truths of the texts he supposedly professes, but he is certain of his doubts about them, especially when it comes to things that make him uncomfortable. Descartes tried to build certainty from doubt, but I don’t find that project particularly appealing or effective. So when we Hare Krishnas state that the Original Form of God plays a flute, chases cows, and dances with gopis, we do so to indicate that the things of God are not one (subordinate) reality, and the things of the world another. In fact, the latter are merely a dim shadow of the former. And just as we have real, deep relationships with actual people in this world, we are meant to have eternal ones, our original ones, in the next. You can’t love a void, or a theory, or a premise, but you can know, love, and have a deep relationship with a person. We cling to our “fundamentalism” because the primordial fabric of reality is personal, or rather, a person. Barring that, we might as well become nihilists.

But even this is a bit too impersonal. Our relationship is only made real by someone who we can touch, see, and hear right now. That is the spiritual master, the guru. One does not approach Krishna without the guru, indeed, it is better to worship the perfect servant of Krishna (the guru) rather than directly worship Krishna Himself. That is precisely because our belief is personal: it is not something one can learn in books. While jñāna (knowledge) is important, it is not the goal. The goal is that loving relationship in service (bhakti) which can only be given to us by the mercy of guru and Krishna. That is why we Hare Krishnas are so single-minded about Srila Prabhupada and his writings, and feel ourselves fortunate at having encountered him. One cannot liberate oneself, since if this were the case, it would have already happened. The purpose of the guru is to make God real, since God is a person with a form, a body, and a particular identity.

Where does that leave others who don’t agree with our view that God is originally a cowherd boy? All we can say is that it is fortunate that God is a bit of a trickster with a mischievous nature. There are many, many bonafide names of God, and numerous legitimate ways to worship Him. We don’t have so much a confession as a specialized knowledge we want to share with the world. That doesn’t mean that other paths are necessarily illegitimate. It’s just that ours is more intimate. Prabhupada stated that love of God is the only real religion. Even people who are erring, people who are in Hell, have Krishna sitting in their hearts, accompanying them in their journey. If there is punishment, it is purely punitive and temporary, not metaphysical and permanent. Hare Krishnas come to inform, witness, and serve, not to judge or chastise.

I say all this because I want to demonstrate that Hart and others of his inclinations have nothing to fear from Gaudiya Vaishnava “fundamentalists,” and to indicate that we’re not mindless babbling idiots following our swami off a cliff like lemmings. Gaudiya Vaishnavism has engaged actively with the ancient texts and has come to other conclusions than those of Hart’s Vedantist friends. If one would like, one can engage the dozens of volumes that Srila Prabhupada wrote in his lifetime, as well as the dozens of others authored by his predecessors and followers, to engage in the richness of knowledge of krsna-bhakti.

Defending Krishna consciousness is the main purpose of this post, but I feel I need to comment a bit on Hart’s Christianity itself. Though at this point I don’t believe in Christian exclusivism or eternal Hell, I have more respect for “erroneous” orthodox Christianity than I do for Hart’s weird theological concoction. If I wanted to deal with reality, I would get more mileage reading mainstream Christian theology than Hart’s enlightened Origenist revisionism. I don’t simply want to know that St. Augustine, St. Teresa of Avila or the Curé d’Ars were wrong to believe in an eternal Hell, but rather why they believed in it. (My hunch is that it more has to do with the Christian idea of linear time than it does with God’s being a cosmic monster.) I am simply not comfortable excising so much Christian doctrine, experience, and practice in order to start over at a theological Year Zero, where those things which were hidden from time immemorial are suddenly revealed by a 21st century U.S. academic. I simply do not find that a compelling narrative. It smacks too much of a new, (if erudite and ecumenical) Mormonism: the quintessential American religion.

It also seems like Hart’s understanding of evil is a bit Manichean, if not a little cartoonish. For him, evil is just a hiccup in God’s grand plan, and not a stubborn and pervasive reality. That seems quite detached from the reality of our current society, where, let’s face it, few think of God, and perhaps a few more think of neighbor if only to exploit him. Hart would say that I doubt the mercy of God, that I consider God one entity among others to choose from, which is erroneous. Here again, Krishna consciousness comes to the rescue of inadequate Western metaphysics to point to how even maya or material illusion is Krishna’s external energy: even people in error are talking about God, just in a very distorted and self-destructive way. God is leading them down the wrong road because, in the end, that is what they want. The only difference is that the clock never runs out for anyone, so no one is (theoretically) hopeless. But that doesn’t mean that the modes of passion and ignorance don’t pervade in most living entities in the universe.

In our theology, God doesn’t restore all things precisely because He doesn’t need to: He is giving the living entities entrapped in the material world what they want, even if they end up in Hell or being a snail. His disposition towards them remains the same. When they cast off false ego, that is, their identifying with the material energy and their temporary bodies, at that very moment they are “liberated”. Indeed, that “liberation” doesn’t even mean they necessarily have to leave this material world: Srila Prabhupada was “liberated” while he was walking the streets of New York City, preaching Krishna consciousness to a bunch of hippies. For real liberation is service: bhakti. It is the same in this life, and in the next.

There is no point about talking about evil if one does not refer the discussion to one’s internal disposition. We battle the modes of passion and ignorance within ourselves primarily. Our main enemy in Krishna consciousness is monist impersonalism: the idea that everything is one, and that our ultimate aim is to merge back into the oneness without quality, form, or personality. Another related idea is that God and we are ultimately the same, and all else is illusion (maya). That’s not just an error outside of us, but something that compels us on the path of passion and ignorance. As I stated above, the issue is that, when you exclude everything else, either through jñāna or universal skepticism, something always fills its place, and one begins the cycle of desire and suffering all over again. In the case of David Bentley Hart, in his effort to judge and knock down every supposedly atavistic belief, he leaves unspoken the criterion by which he judges. One is reminded of Karl Marx’s contention of creating a ruthless criticism of all that exists. One might add, “all that exists… except itself”. For if we refuse to be judged by the savage war god of the ancient Israelites, I would contend that we should also refuse to be governed by the liberal bourgeois god of the academic, who never saw a doctrine they could not knock down except for the ones upholding their most banal secular biases. Hart’s god has no qualities, no rasa, he is safe, proper, and undefined lest he offend this or that sensibility. But ultimately, he is Hart’s reified prejudices and tastes, and we can only know what he speaks through the Prophet, who proclaims all that came before him impure except for the approved sources. May we all be delivered from the deus absconditus of David Bentley Hart.



2 responses

18 01 2021
Bhagavad Jesus

Hart is tortured by the vision of hell, as many of us are. and he is correct that the traditional christian exposition on hell is philosophically untainable. and the modern popularity of hopeful universalism (ala balthazar) is merely catholics edging their bets that they might be more merciful than God. if you’re honest with yourself, eventually you either have to give up on eternal hell, give up on christianity or, as i do, throw up your hands and simply say that none of us can truly know what hell is.

21 12 2020

Hart is engaged in a bit of a switch and bait. It’s clear he is trying to design his own brand of Christianity, but it’s under the guise of “re-discovering the real message of the faith”, which somehow, miraculously, he is the first person to be able to communicate fully since Origen, Maximus and a few select others.

For all his hatred of the Reformers, he sure sounds like them in tone and posture.

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