Earlier this semester, I took a class trip to the Shri Radha Krishna Temple down the street from the seminary. Although it was my first visit to a Krishna consciousness worship space, it was my second to a Hindu temple. During much of the worship, I kept thinking about how different it was from my first trip, which was organized by the non-denominational “born-again” church where I had been attending Bible studies. Before we left, the leader gathered the group and told us two things. First, he warned us not to eat anything the Hindus offered us because it had all been offered to the “demon idols” they worshipped. Second, he read Romans 1:20-25 (on worshipping the created rather than the Creator) and asked that we pray for these Hindus to stop rebelling against God and repent.
As facilitators, my class's professor and the leader of my first visit couldn’t have been further apart. When we arrived, some of the worship had already begun, and while I spent several minutes in a state of discomfort, I noticed my professor putting his hands near the flames that were being brought around the space and wiping his face with his hands. Later, I saw a few of my classmates bowing to the ground when the Krishna devotees did. As accepting of other religions as I am, and as much as I knew that many Hindus claim to worship the Supreme Being rather than the statues or individual deities themselves, I said to myself: “This is still idolatry, isn’t it? How are my professors and some of the other students doing this?” With time, I became more comfortable and joined in with the singing and clapping. I came to really enjoy the simplicity of the songs, as well as the fact that the walls of the worship space served as a sort of replacement for our Lutheran hymnals.
For me, the real value of the visit began after the worship and Q&A. While outside waiting on line for food (which ended up being some of the best Indian food I’ve ever had), I started talking to a young devotee named Billy. What began as interested small talk became a long, intense conversation. Early on, he told me that he lived and studied Hinduism on the temple property, which immediately brought out parallels between us in our minds. At one point, he joked that he was a “Krishna devotee seminarian.” When the conversation drifted to our faith stories, we both found them remarkably similar, even in some of the details. The only significant different between us was where our fervent quests for spiritual truth had landed us. After about two hours, we exchanged phone numbers, recommended some books to each other, and promised to get together when he returns from a stay in Canada in February. The experience is one of my favorite that I’ve had at seminary.
As I somewhat reluctantly walked away from the Krishna temple, I couldn’t help but think, “If things in my life had been a little different, if I had been interested in Hinduism in college rather than Islam, that could have been me.” (Although, to be honest, I would have had a real struggle with the no meat/no alcohol/no coffee aspect of the devotees’ faith.) If I had converted to Krishna consciousness instead of Christianity, would that have made me an idolator? Is my friend, Billy, an idolator? Do the love for the Supreme Being and passion for helping other people that he expressed during our conversation bear any resemblance to the idolatry railed against so often in the Bible? Has Billy’s sincere search for truth left him under the wrath of God, and if so, will that always be the case?
We Christians might answer these questions differently from each other. For example, many of the participants of my previous trip to a Hindu temple would say “yes” to each of them, pointing to many books in the Old Testament and to Romans to show that people like Billy are in willful opposition to God’s will. Personally, I would lean toward answering them in the negative, not because I don’t believe that God was specially revealed in Jesus Christ, but because I do believe that. In Jesus, I see a god of unimaginable mercy. I see the One who knows the hearts and intentions of all people. I see a deity who, I believe, would not allow physical death to be the cut-off point to having a relationship with such a gracious God.
In his love, Jesus Christ took hold of me two and a half years ago. I wish everyone would know that love. But my years of searching for spiritual truth that led me to accept Christ were propelled by a powerful sense that there is an underlying meaning to our lives, and that the world consists of more than we can see and hear. I can’t help but see in Billy that same sincere yearning for relationship with the Divine Reality. I can’t help but recognize the worshippers at the Krishna temple as my brothers and sisters in desiring a connection with the force that underlies all things. May God lead them wherever God wills.