My Swami Said So

By Daniel Hendrickson SJ

With a nod of his head to the left and a smile, my swami said, “Yes, well, God is hiding in you. Now come.” He was expounding a truth while ushering me to the door, concluding a last conversation of a short series of meetings through last spring’s academic semester.

Originally from India’s Bengali region, Swami Aparananda is the proud pundit of The Vedanta Society of Berkeley, located not far from the University of California’s Sather Gate. Landscaped with lush colors, his compound seems like a quaint, well-kept mission preserved and presented by the state of California. The auditorium-like temple looks rather Western. Inside, moreover, padded chairs sit like pews in forward formation, facing what could pass easily as a Christian sanctuary. My saffron-wrapped swami will convince you otherwise, yet, pointing – as he did with me – to the centralized picture of another swami, Swami Vivekananda. This one preceded mine by a couple of generations and is responsible for what emerged as a network of Upanishadic, Vedantic places of study and worship in the western part of the world. These gurus and their Vedanta Society vie to share “the immortal teachings of the Upanishads” with curious people like you and I, and to make it easy they speak three truths.

The first insists upon recognition of a supernatural force which underlies all reality. God is omnipresent and there is nothing his ubiquity does not pervade, you and I included. As God is present in all things of the world around us, God is also present in us, ideas not unfamiliar to practitioners of Jesuit spirituality.

The second truth unfolds from the first. God’s presence within human life is hidden. A worthy goal for any of us, then, is to expose God. My swami told me that good moral behavior achieves this. Spiritual practices of prayer and mediation help, too. We can divulge the divine within and discover it of another alike.

My swami said the third, professing that truth is universal. “We are all of one heart and one mind, yes?”

Certainly not, I thought. Not in practice for sure, nor even theoretically: people are different.

The springtime swami-talks were part of a project of Fr. Jim Redington’s (MAR) interreligious dialogue class at the Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley. Regarding the work of interreligious dialogue, I wrestled with a basic question those months. Should the work of this kind of good chatter reveal human spiritual similarity on a global perspective, or reveal its difference?

The often poetic and always complex work of Emmanuel Levinas from a different scholarly discipline might have something to say. The human face is Levinas’ mighty metaphor. With it, Levinas wants to teach us that other people – any and every other person, in fact – are quite different from our individual selves. A firsthand witness to totalitarian regimes of the Second World War Era, the philosopher hastened to philosophically harrow distinction! His colleagues were boasting that relationships with others – you and me, for instance, or you and my swami – reveal how similar we all are. We are the same kinds of beings, fundamentally. Levinas bristles, though, because for him the dimension of sameness means that I can “know, comprehend, encapsulate” you and anyone else. Selfishness and self-centrality is a pretty natural instinct that we try to diminish in our lives. For Levinas, the egoistic impetus amplifies with the talk of human sameness.

Levinas’ philosophy is not as simple as I make it out to be, but in part he is trying to ward off forms of political and moral totalitarianism in all shapes and sizes. He wants us to recognize every other person as, well, just that: an other. Then what?

Levinas’ ultimate desire is for us to admit that the face of another human person has a power over us: it demands respect and commands us to be both responsible and hospitable. Levinas bellows a broad kind of preferential option. One’s own self does not become irrelevant, but, in some ways, one is less important. The face of another creates an ethical opportunity of reverencing this other person. The operative kind of command for this comes “from on high.” It warps Levinas to say that we experience the face of God in other people, but the insight of poet Gerard Manley Hopkins – “For Christ plays in ten-thousand places, / Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his / To the Father through the features of men’s faces” – cannot be fundamentally foreign to Levinas. Oft quoted, Hopkins’ reference to the face of the other is wonderfully coincidental. Whether Levinas wants to agree or not, his own work suggests that the other flickers something of the divine. The trace of God is present in the face of the other, and we thereby have an experience of something otherwise than [human] being. Through another we get a glimpse – mysterious and distinct – of God.

My swami’s truths and Levinas’ “face” well inform the aspirants of interreligious dialogue. They both represent a dimension of holiness in all of our lives, Christian, Hindu, Jewish, Muslim and more. It is important to recognize grace – to use a Christian term – swirling through another’s life no matter what his or her religious orientation represents. But Levinas’ stress on an appropriate ethical response to the other magnifies a social dynamic that, I think, keeps justice in close relationship to faith. If interreligious dialogue engages conversation and contemplation in matters of faith, it does so hand-in-hand with hope for more justice in the world in whatever form.

A couple of summers ago I visited Northeast India as a delegate of the Wisconsin Province. Part of the summer’s agenda was to engage the people of the region in good friendship. Beyond that I was asked to watch the Society there, particularly regarding the ministry it provides. Serving animist worshipers, Muslims and Hindus, as well as people with a combined religious sense of any of the above, the Jesuits and their partners hope to evangelize the Christian Gospel. They are doing so through schools, mainly. I remember a great conversation with another Jesuit scholastic. We pondered two goods: baptizing and educating. Which one is better, making more Christians or simply educating others through the work of Christian ministry?

I left India that summer conflicted about evangelization in foreign lands. Educating poor tea-pickers beyond an oppressive poverty seemed exciting, but so too did preaching a message of salvation that offers a new sense of reality. The two might be two realities on the same side of a coin, but as priorities they can operate quite differently.

So I’m still thinking about the nuances of evangelization in poverty-pervasive and generally spirit-worshipping Northeast India.

With the teaching of my swami, at least, and Levinas’ face, I have useful tools: see God – hiding maybe? – in another, and care. But cherish distinction.

Hendrickson (WIS) is a second year theologian at the Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley.

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