A Conversation with Jim Redington, S.J.
Father James D. Redington, S.J., is the newest senior fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center. Father Redington arrived at Woodstock in August after having spent the past six years teaching young African Jesuits at Arrupe College in Harare, Zimbabwe. From 1978 to 1994, he was a professor in the Theology Department at Georgetown University. Jim entered the Jesuit seminary in 1962 and was ordained in the Maryland Province of the Society of Jesus in June of 1978. In this interview, Father James L. Connor, S.J., director of the Woodstock Center, speaks with Father Redington about his latest book, his interest in Hinduism and interreligious dialogue, and his plans for his research and work at Woodstock.
(JLC:) Welcome to Woodstock, Jim. I am happy for this opportunity to introduce you to our friends, the readership of the Woodstock Report. To tell people you have just published a new book is one way to let people know who you are! What’s the title and what’s it about?
(JR:) Thanks so much for your kind welcome. The title of my recent book is The Grace of Lord Krishna: The Sixteen Verse-Treatises of Vallabhacharya. Vallabhacharya is a sixteenth century Hindu theologian-saint who founded a Hindu system numbering about five million people today. The book translates sixteen short theological treatises by Vallabha, plus interpretations by other theologians and commentators, one of whom is the person whom I call my "guru," Shri Shyam Manohar Goswamy. He is probably the most eminent theologian of that particular Hindu system today. He lives in Mumbai (Bombay).
What are these sixteen treatises about?
The system Vallabha founded is called the "Path of Grace" and the message of Vallabha’s treatises is that Lord Krishna, who is the supreme deity in this system, will save his devotees. Therefore, offer everything to him, and don’t worry. Worship him, trust him, love him while living in the world.
It’s what we would call a practical theology, a theology that answers questions such as: How and why to worship Lord Krishna? How love of God, love of Krishna, may develop? Whether to live in the world or to renounce the world in order to seek love of God? So, it’s more on how to practice love of Krishna than more theoretical matters.
So Krishna is the supreme God for Hindus?
For these Hindus he is, but there are Hindus in other traditions. Shiva is God supreme for millions of Hindus. For still others it is Vishnu. The Vaishnavas, those who follow and worship Vishnu as Lord, might well form a majority of the 800 million Hindus in the world. To oversimplify a bit, in South India the supreme God is called Vishnu; in North India the supreme form of this same God is Krishna.
What drew you to this study of Hinduism and how did you see this relating to your Jesuit vocation?
From the time I was eleven or twelve years old, I used to watch a half hour TV show on Sundays called "Going Therefore Teach." It was produced by the Maryknoll Fathers and was about their missions. And so the idea of mission was planted in my mind, usually, I think, about either South America or Africa.
When I entered the Jesuits, I felt drawn to India because our Province had a mission there. But beyond that, I found the Jesuits who came back from India enormously attractive in their kindness and freedom of spirit.
So, what drew me to Hinduism was really my being drawn towards the India mission. As I proceeded in the course of my Jesuit studies, I began to think in terms of how theology might be done in the India mission. Church documents of
that time, say 1966 and 1967, were speaking of putting the Christian Gospel in Indian terms. It was a big theological challenge because Hinduism has very complex and sophisticated theologies and spiritualities. It would require a very significant study of Hinduism. So I asked permission then to begin training for this task, with the idea of going to India permanently.
You began special studies on a graduate level?
Yes. I went to the University of Wisconsin and did doctoral studies in South Asian Languages and Literature, with emphasis on Hindu philosophical, theological, and religious literature. It took seven years, three of which I spent in India, in the course of which I learned Sanskrit and Hindi. I spent a year in Pune, which is a major cultural center of Hinduism, and then two years in Bombay studying the works of Vallabhacharya with my guru, Shri Shyam Manohar Goswamy, as I have mentioned.
After studies and ordination did you return, then, to India to work as a theologian adapting Christianity to the religious culture of Hinduism?
No, as a matter of fact. Since quite a few Indian Jesuits had taken up studies similar to mine around that time, and the field of world religions was becoming important in the United States, I was assigned to Georgetown University to continue research in the field and to teach in the theology department. While at Georgetown, I published my first book, based on my doctoral dissertation. It is entitled, Vallabhacharya on the Love Games of Krishna. Educationally or pedagogically at Georgetown, I found that what had happened to me personally was also true for my students, namely, that studying another religion is one of the best ways to clarify one’s own religion, as well as to learn about others. In addition, I created a course called "The Hindu-Christian Dialogue," based on what I had learned from Christians (and Hindus and Muslims) in India. And I wrote a few articles about such interreligious dialogue.
And it was from Georgetown that you came to Woodstock?
No, I came from Zimbabwe. You see, even when I started at Georgetown, I had in mind teaching about ten years there, and then maybe working for five years in India, if my health was good. I had never really got the idea of the missions out of my head. So when a call came for volunteers to found a college giving a strong bachelor’s degree in philosophy and humanities to African Jesuit seminarians, I offered my services. I spent the past six years, then, at Arrupe College in Harare, the capital of Zimbabwe, teaching Religions of the World, Interreligious Dialogue, Speech, and Comparative Philosophy. I also shared responsibility for the personal and religious formation of our eighty or so scholastics there. Indirectly, all this enhanced my competence in my field, by deepening my knowledge of African religions and Islam.
Why Woodstock now? What is the "mesh" between your specialization and Woodstock’s mission of doing "theological reflection on human problems of today?" What have Hinduism or other world religions got to do with issues of social justice in areas like business, or government, or the global economy?
One obvious answer is that religion is one of the "human problems of today!" I am not pessimistic about religion, but I want to be realistic in saying that the focus of quite a few problems, not all, but quite a few problems is religion. To put it neutrally, one of the most significant human phenomena of today is religion. And so in that sense, within its mandate, the Woodstock Center is right to focus on religion.
Spell that out a little bit. Why do you see religion as such a major problem? What are the dimensions of that problem? How does it express itself?
Take an example. Just today in the newspaper it was reported that in Indonesia Jihad troops are sailing to the Moluccas from as far away as Aceh. Aceh is almost as far away as one can get in Indonesia. It is a huge stretch. These Jihad fighters have come to participate in the Jihad against Christians in the Moluccas, in which about 3,000 have died in the last year and a half. Religion is a problem there. It is true in many, many other places too. We shouldn’t immediately buy into analyses that say something simply appears to be a religious problem but is really economic, ethnological, racial or some other category. It may be all of those also, but we must be ready to admit that it is religious oftentimes. Other examples might be the problems in Northern Ireland, or Sri Lanka, or Tibet.
If religion can be a major problem, can it also be a major benefit?
Of course. But a lot depends on how a society and a culture allow themselves to think about religion. A good ten years ago an Anglican theologian by the name of John Bowker gave a talk here at Georgetown University that has stayed with me ever since. He said that, for different reasons and in different ways, both the United States and the Soviet Union systematically overlooked religion as a serious factor in human problems. The United States tends to marginalize religion under the rubric of separation of church and state. On principle, therefore, it is not taken seriously either in evaluating social problems or in working out good solutions.
For its part, the Soviet Union systematically ignored religion as an important social factor because, according to Marxist theory, religion will eventually die out in a society which thinks realistically. Atheism will replace religious belief, which is simply an opiate of the people.
So, each for their own reasons, the world’s two major powers systema-tically discounted religion as an important factor in human life—according to Mr. Bowker?
Yes. And he denounced both positions as wrong-headed. In his view, religion is a very important factor in human life. He then made a kind of plea for establishing something like a "Center for Taking Religion Seriously," and added, "Why not in Georgetown?" Now that I am here, I am thinking, "Why not in Woodstock?"
Why not? There is a lot of talk these days of the role of religion in the public arena and the valuable social contributions of faith-based
communities. So, it would seem appropriate to study and promote the constructive benefits that religions bring to society.
I think it is worth considering seriously. We ought to explore the positive aspects of faith-based communities. It may be of special importance to focus on the situation in the United States. There has been a substantial development of religious life and worship in Russia since the time Professor Bowker spoke at Georgetown. But many of his criticisms of the way the United States regards religion are still largely true. It’s my impression that the Supreme Court, as well as legal and intellectual thinking generally, on the liberal side especially, continue to drive a wedge between government and religion. They define religion as a purely individual matter; religion should not influence matters of state.
I am convinced that the right interpretation both of the Constitution and of the mind of the founding fathers is that there is separation of church and state not because religion is insignificant, but because religion is very significant. It is just the opposite of those who say there should be separation of church and state because religion is really insignificant or dangerous to public life. It can be dangerous if misused; but it can and should be very positive.
I am also of the impression that the founding fathers were interested in having the full panoply of religious faiths make a rich contribution to the fabric of American society by assuring that no single faith should be the basis of a "theocracy" in the realm. I think that’s why the government, as such, should not profess and promote one religious faith, to the exclusion of others.
I would agree with that as far as I know. But I’m sure you’re aware of the difficulties with freedom of religion that are expressed in that famous saying of one of our major founding fathers. In a letter to John Adams, Thomas Jefferson said that we chose freedom of religion and we have to be aware of the bad results of it. It makes even the "hell hounds of Ignatius," the Jesuits, able to practice freely in the United States!
How compli-mentary to the Society of Jesus! But to pick up again on Professor Bowker’s suggestion, if we were to set up a "Center for Taking Religion Seriously" here at Woodstock, what would its job be? What kinds of things would it do?
Basically I think there are three jobs that ought to be done: First, it should be a resource, as well as a gadfly to all the different Woodstock projects, whether they be focused on the economy, on business, on government, or even on the church, to see whether these projects and these institutions were in fact "taking religion seriously." Secondly, it should be engaged in continuing serious interreligious dialogue with professional theologians and institutional leaders in the major world religions, in a search of mutual understanding, clarification of the roots of our differences, and insight into the common grounds of our faith, companionship and service. Thirdly, it may coordinate a specific Woodstock project which addresses a social or cultural issue which is predominantly religious or interreligious in nature.
It would seem to me that continuing engagement in the process of interreligious dialogue would be indispensable for doing the other two tasks well. If you don’t stay current and alive on what people in other faiths are thinking and doing, you don’t have the wherewithal to bring to Woodstock projects. So, tell me more about what interreligious dialogue is and tries to do.
Sure. I mentioned earlier that my original motivation in studying Hinduism was to be part of the endeavor to put the Gospel in Indian terms. That is called inculturation of the Gospel: choosing the terms and rituals and ways of being religious that, in India, would best express the Christian gospel, not in European terms but in Indian terms. That is the object of inculturation— making the Christian Gospel at home in a given culture. One of the best ways to find out about Indian culture for the purpose of putting the Gospel in Indian cultural terms is to dialogue with the experts in that culture. And so interreligious dialogue is a way to prepare oneself for and to go deeply into inculturation.
But interreligious dialogue can be regarded as an end in itself, even without a specific goal, because of its intrinsic worth. Father George Gispert-Sauch, a Jesuit in India, puts it this way: questions invariably arise for any intelligent Christian living in India, questions like: what is God doing with these Hindus and Muslims? Is God saving these Hindus and Muslims and is God saving them through their Hinduism and Islam? To what extent and what relation does that have with Christ and Christianity? So the dialogue questions arise right out of Indian life, as well as from their connection with inculturation.
Does this dialogue help you to relate better to people in different cultural situations?
Absolutely. And on the deepest level possible. I find it useful to put dialogue in the context of "love of God and love of neighbor." Dialogue responds to both of these two great commandments given by Jesus. Dialogue responds to love of God since, in dialogue, we are trying to see how God is acting and loving in these other religions and in the followers of these religions.
But secondly, dialogue is part of love of neighbor. Tom Michel, S.J., who heads up the international Jesuit interreligious dialogue office in Rome, defines interreligious dialogue as how Christians relate to people who do not have any desire to become Christians. He is speaking of people that are Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus, African religionists and all other religionists, who are not hostile to Christianity. If they are Muslims or Hindus, they intend to continue to be Muslims and Hindus, they see themselves as reaching God through Islam and Hinduism, and so they don’t have any desire to become Christians. Yet we as Christians are commanded to love them as neighbors.
That’s a lot of dialogue partners!
It’s got to be two to three billion out of the six billion on earth because by rough estimate there are about 1.2 billion Muslims, about 800 million Hindus, 350 to 400 million Buddhists, 200 or 300 million indigenous religionists, not to mention agnostics, humanists, perhaps even atheists who would swell the numbers still farther. There are about a billion atheists, humanists and non-religious people. But I don’t exclude dialogue with them.
It must take enormous openness to others, sympathetic listening, and tremendous patience to carry on these dialogues year after year.
The dialogue has to be open to what the other people think dialogue is and to what is worked out in the dialogue. Raimundo Panikkar, one of the great dialogue theologians, has a key sentence in his book, The Intrareligious Dialogue: Love of neighbor also makes intellectual demands. He means that, when we think of loving the neighbor as ourselves, we Christians most often think of helping our neighbor in some physical or social or spiritual way. We
don’t often enough think that love of neighbor also means and may require learning what the neighbor thinks and what the neighbor believes and how inspiring it is in some respects, and taking that seriously. So our love of neighbor should be learning their religion and dealing with them in terms of their religion.
Doesn’t interreligious dialogue also, at least in some places, aim to help representatives of various religions cooperate together in addressing social issues of deep concern?
Clearly that is a key motivation of the Jesuit Order in engaging in interreligious dialogue. It is another aspect of "love of neighbor." I don’t know if every dialogue will have that kind of commitment.
Does it vary from religion to religion? The Christian and Jewish traditions stress care for one’s neighbor in justice and charity. Is the same true of Hinduism, of Islam, Buddhism, and other main-line religions? It is true in Islam and Buddhism more visibly than in Hinduism. In that respect, Hinduism is very complex. As Panikkar says, there is a bundle of religions that goes by the name of Hinduism. And so there is great variety within Hinduism. But what Krishna devotees like my guru say is that one’s duty to others within the world and to worldly action for others is covered within the rules and writings called dharma, which can be translated as "duty (or rule of life)." All Hindus are committed to dharma, but, when Hindus talk about religion, they really mean more love of God, knowledge of God. The degree of prophetic social commitment in Hinduism is significantly less in the very center of their faith than in Christianity, Judaism, and Islam.
Hinduism has space for the kinds of almost unparalleled social action of someone like Mahatma Gandhi, who was very much a Hindu. But the central mood of Hinduism would be to go to God by means of wisdom and/or love, a path which is unbelievably demanding.
How about Buddhism?
The suffering of living beings and compassionate love towards those living beings and the endeavor to free them from their sufferings is central to Buddhism. Buddhism is a little different in the sense that the very starting point of Buddhism was the not-yet-Buddha’s perception of the suffering of human beings.
Before we wrap up this interview, I have to confess to some confusion. When I asked you above if Krishna is the Supreme Deity for Hindus, you said, "For some of them Krishna is supreme, but for others Vishnu is, and for still others Shiva is." How in the world can one religion have three Supreme Deities?
Much depends on whether Hinduism is one religion, closely defined, or whether, as I think, Panikkar is right when he speaks of "that bundle of religions that goes by the name of Hinduism." In addition, one would want to ask Hindus in dialogue how they understand or think it possible for different Hindus to believe in different persons as Supreme Deity. Hinduism is the most differentiated and complicated of the world’s religions, but not senselessly so.
Did Krishna ever live and walk the face of the earth?
Yes, Hindus believe that Krishna lived and was active on earth. But they also believe that Krishna, even in heaven, has a body. So, the Krishna descent to earth is not conceived of as an incarnation where he would have taken a human body. Thus, for Vallabha’s followers at least, Krishna’s descent to earth, in terms of a Christian parallel, is more like the Father himself descending than the Son becoming incarnate as Jesus.
But embodied in such wise as human beings could recognize him?
For Hindus there would be no question or problem about that. He would be embodied in the first place. For Jews, Christians, and Muslims, of course, God is not embodied in the first place, and so the difference would have to be discussed in dialogue. To speak about the structural parallel between Krishna and God the Father or Jesus would take a bit of theologizing.
Is Krishna our creator?
Creation, maintenance, and destruction of the universe goes in cycles. Those cycles are never ending and never beginning. Vallabha and his followers will speak of Krishna creating souls (as well as everything else) out of himself. Our souls are ultimately Krishna. They came like sparks out of the fire that is Krishna. In that sense you would speak of the beginning of this cycle. But at the end of this cycle, either you or I, or both of us, may have achieved love of Krishna and salvation in Krishna (that would be eternity with Krishna) or we may not. If we do not, our soul simply goes back into the dissolution of the creation. The creation is dissolved back into Lord Krishna. He will sleep as long as the creation had lasted, and then he will wake up and create again.
It sounds like creation is more an emanation than a fresh start and beginning. Our souls are eternal with Krishna. They come forth as sparks from the fire. Then, depending upon the behavior and devotion of one’s life, you will join Krishna once again, return to the Godhead, or you will be in this state of dissolution.
That’s right. Creation is an emanation. But even more fundamentally, Krishna is all that there is. He emanates himself as everyone and everything, according to his wish. Those who are saved are eternally out of the cycle but those who are not saved are dissolved into Krishna again and then perhaps get projected forth again. As my guru put it to me, "If Krishna puts his love in you in seed form at creation, there is no way you can avoid being saved even if you are a Christian for ten lives!" In other words, Krishna will seek you out in his love even though you may resist for thousands of lives, or pay him no attention.
I’ve got to be honest. I have been plying you with these questions principally to convince myself of how different this religious mind-set is from my own as a Christian. In fact, I suspect that underlying the Hindu mind-set is also a cultural structure that is very different from our Western culture.
Exactly. And it’s an internally complex and pluriform cultural structure, at that. So study and dialogue, both in a prayerful spirit, are needed to penetrate to understanding, which can then result in enrichment of faith and some practical, faith-based help to the world.
So, the Jesuit General Congregation was really onto something when it insisted that the pursuit of justice, sensitivity to cultures, and interreligious dialogue, all three, need to go on at the same time?
I think so, definitely.
A final question. We have talked a lot about religion–its role in public life, its importance as a human phenomenon, interreligious dialogue, and the religious dimension of every social and cultural situation. Would you be willing now to take a shot at telling me briefly what religion is in your understanding and experience? How would you describe or define it in a few sentences?
For me Clifford Geertz’ definition has been very influential and useful. I don’t think I can improve on it. In his book, The Interpretation of Cultures (page 90), he says:
"[A] religion is: (1) a system of symbols which acts to (2) establish powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting moods and motivations in men [sic] (3) by formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and (4) clothing these conceptions with such an aura of factuality that (5) the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic."
I have also been helped by the way Mircea Eliade expands Rudolf Otto’s idea of "the holy" into "the sacred." In his introduction to his The Sacred and the Profane (page 10) Eliade says,
"What will concern us is not the relation between the rational and nonrational elements of religion but the sacred in its entirety."
What I would emphasize is that religion is a communally developed and symbolized way of thinking, feeling, and doing with respect to the ultimately real/beautiful/powerful and its embodiments; it is experienced deeply individually, as well.
Thanks, Jim. And I know I speak for our whole reading audience in expressing this gratitude, as well as best wishes on your future contribution to Woodstock’s work and the work of the church.
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