The ‘Fullness’ of Christ: Dom Bede Griffiths and the World Religions

The recent death of Father Bede Griffiths, O.S.B.Cam., calls to mind the career of one of the more interesting figures in twentieth-century Catholicism. Certainly his life and work deserve, and will undoubtedly get, more study than they have hitherto received. Yet his much-lamented absence from the recent meeting of the World Parliament of Religions held in Chicago this past September is the occasion of some brief thoughts on Dom Bede and the meeting of Christianity with the great world religions.

The Catholic press has been unusually quiet about the death of Bede Griffiths on May 13. There is no doubt some perplexity about what to make of his life and work. He was in no way a theological “dissenter” as that term has come to be used, so he did not always find a ready welcome among them. But neither were the orthodox entirely comfortable with him. I think the key to understanding Bede Griffiths is to realize that he was a mystic. This is to say that he was continually in search of experience of the divine. One must be careful here. The tag “mysticism” is used rather indiscriminately these days, particularly as an excuse for whatever dubious religious phenomenon becomes the fad of the moment (Teilhardism was a prime example in the 1960s and ’70s, as various New Ageisms are today). But it is an accurate description in the case of Dom Bede.

It is obvious from his 1954 autobiography The Golden String that Griffiths, who was born in 1906, was from his earliest days eager to embrace the divine. His approach to the divine was not in the main theoretical, but rather he sought simply to live a life of devotion. He later made this a principle of his thought, seeing, for example, that “All the great errors of our civilization from the Reformation to the Russian revolution have arisen because of the failure of Christians to embody the truth of Christ in their lives.” And accordingly he attempted to put this principle into practice. After taking his degree from Oxford under the able tutorship of C.S. Lewis, he undertook an experiment in self-sufficient, communal, and ascetical living at Eastington. This was followed in rapid succession by his conversion to Catholicism in 1932 and his vocation to the monastic life (undertaken at the Benedictine Abbey of Prinknash and its dependent houses). All of these experiences give witness to his quest for lived experience of God. But this quest is most dramatically apparent in his passage to India in 1955, after years of pondering Eastern spirituality.

Dom Bede’s initial inspiration was to live the Benedictine life in dialogue with Indian life and spirituality. But he came to discover a way through the indigenous oriental Christianity of India to a greater synthesis. This fascinating “project” always seems to get lost in short resumes of his career, but it is perhaps the most important work he undertook in India. Kurisumala Ashram was begun in Kerala in 1956 by Dom Bede and a Belgian Cistercian, Francis Mahieu, who had come to India at the same time as Dom Bede and with whom he then joined forces. The life of Kurisumala involved the synthesis of the Benedictine Rule and Cistercian customs (i.e., the charter of the Western spiritual tradition and arguably its most rigorous customary manifestation), the Syro-Malankar Rite (the most vigorous and at that time purely oriental example of Indian Catholicism), and the tradition of sannayasa (the native Indian form of asceticism, a way of solitude, poverty, and total renunciation of self). This was undoubtedly a wonderfully Catholic attempt at inculturation (Catholic, if not entirely original: one thinks of the Jesuits De Nobili and Ricci, or of the countless Western monks, friars, and other religious who have adapted their rules or adopted Eastern rites and customs the better to meet their oriental brethren). He outlined this project in a collection of essays published under the title Christian Ashram in 1966 (republished in 1984 as Christ in India). Included in Christian Ashram are his reflections on the beauty and spontaneous religiosity of the Indian people; on the problem of development in post-independence India (he advocated a kind of distributism, part “small is beautiful,” part Gandhi, with emphasis on the importance of mediating institutions); and on the attempt of the Jesuit editors of The Light of the East to extract a purely philosophical system from the Hindu Vedanta that could be used by Christian theologians, as the fathers of the Church made use of Greek philosophy. On balance, Christian Ashram remains a profoundly Catholic vision of the meeting of East and West and of the potential of Christ in the East.

In Dom Bede’s later work, however, there are to be found some disquieting signs. As was typical for him, this development in his thought was contemporaneous with a change of life. In 1968, he moved from Kerala state to Tamil Nadu and from Kurisumala Ashram to Saccidananda Ashram. Saccidananda Ashram had been founded in 1950 by a pair of French priests, Jules Monchanin and Henri Le Saux. Their founding vision was of a much more immediate meeting of Christianity and Indian spirituality, unmediated by the Eastern Christian traditions like those followed at Kurisumala. This vision Dom Bede came to share, and when, in 1968, Saccidananda passed to the control of the community of Kurisumala, he moved there as superior of a new community and began a new theological experiment. Besides the duties of leading a struggling community, Dom Bede continued to study and to write. This in fact became a most prolific time for him. He also travelled the world giving lectures and conferences on his experiences as a Christian sannyasi in India. Among his works from this period are Vedanta and Christian Faith (1973), Return to the Center (1976), and The Cosmic Revelation (1983). The work that sums up this period of his life, though, is The Marriage of East and West (1982), subtitled “A Sequel to The Golden String.” Here, as throughout these later works, are to be found differences from his earlier work. There are suggestions of theological “limitations” to the Semitic roots of Christianity and hints of an insufficiency in the Christian revelation itself. In the style of the Vedanta, Dom Bede puts great emphasis on “transcending dualism,” the dualism of finite and Infinite, of creature and Creator. And there are calls for a “going beyond” Christianity as we know it. Despite all of his nuance, Dom Bede seemed to be moving toward a theologically untenable position. Yet, if he fell into error, it was an error that has at least perceived a great and terrible truth.

In 1949, Fr. (later Cardinal) Jean Danielou published a small book on the problem of mission and non-Christian religions (The Salvation of the Nations) to which the following striking passage was appended: “To believe that the Church is Catholic, yet to take it as normal that the majority of the human race does not belong to it, is a kind of monstrosity. To see that the present situation is abnormal, yet to do nothing about it, is a related monstrosity.” The truth of this observation should hit us all the more powerfully today given how small and interconnected the world has become. The traditional reaction to this feeling was to set about the “conversion of the world.” Yet, two other reactions, unacceptable reactions no matter how well intentioned, are now also prevalent. The first is a form of despair, which entails the renunciation of the uniqueness of Christianity and the embracing of the notion that all the world’s great religions are more or less equivalent paths to the divine. (Someone of this mind may, for example, attempt to formulate a common moral code for all believers, but it will inevitably be one based on the lowest common denominator.) This is the way of indifferentism. The other reaction seeks to reconcile all the paths to the divine, either by some kind of fusion of their component beliefs, or, more commonly, by way of recourse to a supposed higher commonality, the path of mysticism. This is a mysticism that, though accessible from all the traditions, claims to supersede all dogmas. This is the way of syncretism. (It should be noted that these two ways are not necessarily mutually exclusive. They are rather ably combined, for example, by Karen Armstrong, whose 1993 book A History of God has received a surprisingly warm reception for a new representative of a rather stale “radical” theology.)

These are dangers that the Christian Church has always faced. And given the variety of cultural contacts that the Church has experienced over the centuries, it has in general remained surprisingly faithful and resilient. But over the past several decades the tenacity of the Christian Church has been weakened. General secularization in the West and a renaissance among the oriental religions, massive immigration and more widespread travel and communications, an unbalanced interpretation of Vatican II’s “opening” to the world, and creeping doubts internal to Christian theology have combined to make the modern encounter with the East more problematic than previous meetings.

The case for indifferentism has been given a recent boost by such serious theological works as The Myth Of Christian Uniqueness, a collection of essays edited by John Hick and Paul F. Knitter and published in 1987, and the recent works of Hans Ming, among others Global Responsibility (1991). It is interesting to see how blatantly this approach has been influenced by concerns for “political correctness.” In The Myth Of Christian Uniqueness, syncretism is eschewed as a sin against what the authors call “pluralism,” a pluralism that seems ultimately to be indistinguishable from indifferentism. Similarly, the final draft of Fr. Kung’s “Declaration of a Global Ethic,” the new show piece of lowest-common-denominatorism, which was adopted at last September’s World Parliament of Religions, steered clear of any reference to God, but was quite explicit in its condemnations of “ethnic cleansing,” sex discrimination, and sensationalism in the mass media. (The assembly of the Parliament was also lobbied, unsuccessfully, for further amendments to the “Declaration,” some notably aimed at the Catholic Church.) Meanwhile, the case for syncretism has been given the assistance of two of Oxford’s most prominent theologians, Keith Ward, Regius Professor of Divinity, in his book A Vision to Pursue: Beyond the Crisis in Christianity (1991) and Maurice Wiles, Lady Margaret Professor of Divinity, in his new book Christian Theology and Inter-Religious Dialogue (1992). These foremost representatives of what Aidan Nichols has called the “contemporary theological radicalism” in Anglicanism together express the need for “a strongly revisionist understanding of religious belief, according to which truth is the goal rather than the present possession of every religion” which may result in “an age of convergent spirituality.”

Although he was described in a British press report in 1992 as by “far the most radical of [these] inter-faith prophets,” Bede Griffiths was as theoretically far from these radical theologians as his Indian ashram is from their Oxford cloisters. Despite his many failings, he specifically condemned the syncretistic approach and continued to the end to live a life of deep Christian spirituality: “I’m a Christian because I do believe that within the Christian churches… the Holy Spirit is always present.” In respect of this, he was always submissive to his religious superiors, and always cautious when he exercised spiritual authority. In his last book, A New Vision of Reality (1990), though he begins with a plug for the “New Physics” of Fritjof Capra and the “New Biology” of Rupert Sheldrake and leads through a whole course on comparative religion, he concludes that one of the most pressing problems of the New Age is “reconciliation within the Christian church.” He finds the models for this reconciliation in the traditions of the Christian East, in the patristic, sub-apostolic, and apostolic ages, and in a revitalization of monasticism. The monastic life remained central for Dom Bede, as it has been for many Christian pilgrims to the Orient. In 1982, in order to stabilize its situation and insure its future health, Saccidananda Ashram was received into the Camaldolensian Congregation of the Benedictine Order. Thus, in the final stage of his life, Dom Bede was able to reintegrate his visions for India with his original vocation to the monastic life.

Unfortunately, there are some who have taken inspiration from Dom Bede’s post-Vatican II work who would not have received his encouragement. (A similar phenomenon has undoubtedly occurred with the influence of Thomas Merton on the practitioners of what has derisively been called “Beat Zen.”) Some, perhaps the more secularized, have followed the path of apathy and religious indifference. But for those who have retained some religious sensibilities, the more likely danger is the temptation to sacrifice the uniqueness of Christ on foreign altars for the sake of a mystical syncretism.

While it is true that Vatican II affirmed that the “Catholic Church rejects nothing of what is true and holy in [the world] religions,” yet at the same time it proclaimed “Christ who is the way, the truth and the life… in whom God reconciled all things to himself [and] men find the fullness of their religious life” (Nostra Aetate, 2). The “fullness” (universal potential) of the way of Christ corresponds to the universal receptivity to which Nostra Aetate points: the followers of the world religions exhibit “a certain awareness of a hidden power” and “a recognition of a supreme being,” and their doctrines “often reflect a ray of that truth which enlightens all men” (Ibid.). The reading that Nostra Aetate has so far received has emphasized the “regard” that the Church has for the great world religions and their practitioners, but this reading must be balanced with an appreciation of their unactualized fertility, the receptivity of these religions and their followers to the Gospel. It might be argued that the great world religions (specifically Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam in their various manifestations) have shown themselves impervious to the approach of the Gospel, responding to its message either by intransigence or by a relativizing syncretism. There is no doubt some truth to this claim, but to accept it completely is to deny the power of grace and to renounce the fundamental Christian obligation of mission. It is also to ignore history, both the “triumph of Christianity” in the West and more modest signs in the East. I offer the following signs which, though neither exhaustive nor by themselves conclusive, are to some degree suggestive of the receptivity of the East to the Gospel:

•Brian Daley, S.J., recently related this story in America magazine: “an American Jesuit who works in Nepal… tells the story of journeying high up into the Himalayas once to visit a monastery of the Karma-pa order of Tibetan Buddhism. While he was there, he was granted an audience with the leader of the sect, who is known as the ‘Black-Hat Lama’…. When [the Jesuit] was getting up to leave, thanking the Black-Hat Lama for having received him so graciously, his host suddenly looked up at him and said, Will you bless me in the name of the Lord Christ?’ And of course the Jesuit did….” Similar stories are told by missionaries from all over Asia.

•The Christian religious literature that was forwarded to Gandhi by his many interlocutors and correspondents usually met with his disfavor. But the effect of the New Testament on him is well known: “especially the Sermon on the Mount,” he wrote, “which went straight to my heart.” Despite his avowed hostility to Christian mission, evangelization, and conversion, Stephen Neill concluded that “Gandhi’s known interest in the teaching of the New Testament encouraged many hundreds of young Hindus, who would not otherwise have done so, to read the Gospels.”

•As impermeable as Islam may appear to be, it has in fact been greatly affected by Christianity at various times in its development. Margaret Smith has noted that: “In reviewing the history of the rise and development of early Islamic Mysticism… it would appear to have been influenced in the main by the teaching of Christian Mysticism, an influence which was exerted indirectly through orthodox Islam itself, and directly through the teaching of the Christian mystics, transmitted orally by their disciples and followers, or by means of their writings.”

•And in the modern period Islam has responded in an intriguing way to Christian evangelization. As Stephen Neill noted: “The effects of Christian missions on Islam are far more considerable than the actual number of converts would suggest. Nowhere was this more clearly seen than in modern presentations of the person of Muhammad. At point after point the figure was subtly Christianized until the desert ruler of Arabia became much more like the Carpenter of Nazareth than earlier students would ever have supposed to be possible…. The deep, though not always enlightened interest of Muslims in the story of Jesus Christ can hardly fail to lead to better understanding between Muslim and Christian.”

•More provocative still are the questions recently raised by Samuel Hugh Moffett. In his discussion of the great eighth-century Nestorian bishop and scholar Adam, Moffett notes the interaction of Christians with other religionists at Chang’an, then the western capital of T’ang Dynasty China. Adam, a Persian by birth, was apparently fluent in many of the languages of central Asia and so was called upon to make translations into Chinese even by Manichaeans and Buddhists. In 782, Adam was approached by the famous Indian Buddhist missionary Prajna to undertake translations of some Buddhist sutras. Moffett notes: “This incident of interfaith collaboration has further ramifications, both missionary and theological. In the same Buddhist monastery with the Indian missionary there were living and studying at the time (804) two equally famous figures in the history of Japanese Buddhism. One was the great Kobo Daishi (Kukai), founder of Japan’s Shingon (`true word’) sect of Tantric Buddhism, who carried back with him to Japan as one of his treasures the sutra on which Prajna and Adam might have been working together. The other scholar from Japan in Chang’an at the time was Dengyo Daishi (Saicho), founder of the Tendai (or Lotus) school of Japanese Buddhism, out of which grew such later popular reform movements as Pure Land, Zen, and Nichiren Buddhism. Few have so powerfully influenced the whole course of Buddhism in Japan. Who can resist the temptation, therefore, to speculate on how much a chance association of these men, through Prajna, with the cooperative Nestorian scholar Adam, might possibly have seeded Christian ideas into the variations of northern Buddhist belief as it developed in Japan?”

Others have similarly theorized that, for example, Madhya (1197-1280), founder of the Dvaita philosophy, one of the three principal schools of Vedanta in Hinduism, which recognizes a duality between God and the world unique in Vedanta, may have been influenced by the Syrian Christianity of southwestern India, or even more speculatively that the earliest portrayals of Avalikitesvara, the bodhisattva of compassion in Mahayana Buddhism, may have been influenced by the image or idea of Christ crucified. Be that as it may, we can hope that these signs are evidence that some of the seeds sown in the East over the last hundred years (or perhaps over the last 1200 years or more) have taken root in the rich ground of the praeparatio evangelica of the world religions and may now be ready to sprout.

This then would be the tragedy of the modern Christian “discovery” of the great world religions, if the meeting of Christians with the Eastern religions took place on the level of an indiscriminate commingling on the one hand, or of a mutual turning away on the other. If the seeds of the Christian faith are not resown and cultivated at this meeting then we are missing a great evangelical opportunity, perhaps one prepared for centuries. As Bede Griffiths emphasized in 1986, whatever the riches of the Eastern religions of which we may partake, “There is a unique Christian gospel and message that we want to share with others.” In our flight into indifferentism, or in the uncritical and syncretistic approach to the religions of Asia, we may be missing the great though hidden possibility that sincere Buddhists and Hindus and others may be waiting to hear the Gospel.



  • William M. Klimon

    William M. Klimon has studied history at the University of Pennsylvania and at Cornell University. At the time this article was published, he was on the staff of the Milton S. Eisenhower LIbrary at Johns Hopkins University.

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