Note: Posting this here because I typed out this giant essay on a Facebook comment, and there was some kind of network error.
I think that we (Bryan and I) are exploring the divide between orthodoxy and orthopraxy. Bryan, you seem to be suggesting that what is important is what your beliefs about the True Nature of the Universe(tm) are, and that there is some sort of advantage to being on the right team when it comes to picking your religious group. (Since that view is foreign to me, it’s likely that my description of your viewpoint may come off as dismissive — it’s not meant to belittle your position, but rather to demonstrate how my perspective differs from yours).
As someone who believes in orthopraxy, the basic currency unit of my faith is that God cares about what we do and how we act, not WHY we do things. I believe that God understands that we struggle between our conflicting desires, that sometimes we don’t want to be The Good Guy, that sometimes its hard to respect other people’s civil rights, that I will have days when I do not argue with my beloved from a place of compassion and faith. I believe — or rather, I *have faith* that God doesn’t mind that internal struggle, and judges us on whether or not we muster up the courage to be good people regardless of those circumstances, and that our afterlife experience will be an opportunity to work on further improving ourselves in the areas we did poorly in this time ’round the Merry Go Round.
I think that it’s important to note that this is a personal belief, that orthopraxy is my CHOICE about FAITH and its impact on my life and the lives of those around me. Not all Hindus believe this way. My mother, for example, believes in doctrinal practices. She thinks that if she prays when she’s told to pray, and shows up for the festivals, and sings the hymns you’re supposed to sing, that makes her a Good Hindu(tm).
Since I believe that what I do is more important that why I do it, it doesn’t matter to me what groups I support or associate with, EXCEPT for how membership in that group encourages or discourages Right Action.
Membership in a particular faith-based organization inherently causes conflict (because, hey, conflict is the nature of the universe) between your social, spiritual and physical duties. They are social organizations, and they create political situations. As organizations, they choose doctrine which they believe will encourage spiritual growth among their membership. That is why it is important to have a multitude of conflicting faith-based organizations — to provide a variety of options for the spiritual growth of all the different people out there.
That last paragraph is pretty in-line with “general Hindu belief,” although it’s tricky to say some things like that because there are several other important distinctions between Hinduism and Christianity which seem to be part of what you’re struggling with, Bryan. Notably:
* Christian Churches are hierarchical structures, with a clear line of power and responsibility leading from a central authority down to successive stages, ultimately coming down to a priest or pastor, who holds power and responsibility over a particular congregation.
* Hindu temples and religious organizations are non-hierarchical, and independent of each other. In America, where Hinduism is a minority religion, this is harder to see, but in India, there is a clear division between temples maintained by brahmins (which provide the opportunity to perform artha, your spiritual obligations to treat God like he’s a cool guy you want to show up to your parties), and religious organizations (I forget the term for them) which study the writings of theologians (swamis) and encourage the practices which enlighten your soul. These organizations are typically fairly grassroots, and can be vaguely grouped into “schools of thought,” but we don’t have anything akin to the Catholic Pope.
* Christianity teaches that contact with the divine is primarily managed by an mediating third party (ie, the priest). Although there is theoretically room for an individual to experience connection with divinity unaided, in practice there are extremely few cases which are deemed authentic divine experience, and they are subject to organizational scrutiny and approval.
* Hinduism teaches that contact with the divine is actually going on all the time with everyone, and that there is a basic set of practices which anyone can practice on their own in order to gain a greater understanding of their ongoing connection with the divine. In other words, Hinduism believes that unaided, unsupervised divine experience is happening all the time, and there are a couple hundred schools that can help you achieve that if you’re interested — let the buyer beware.
* Christianity accepts only one book as an authentic religious text.
* Hinduism has, quite literally, thousands of religious texts, including the Bible (although, admittedly, we tend to think it’s poorly edited). You’re encouraged to find some of those texts to be ludicrous and off the mark.
So [deep breath], hopefully all of that will help to inform your understanding of what I say next:
> …if I first say that I sincerely believe that admission to heaven requires baptism, but then later say that another person’s belief that admission to heaven only requires God’s grace is equally valid, am I not impliedly undermining the first statement that I sincerely believe that admission to heaven requires baptism?
Yes. Absolutely true. Because you’re making generalized statements about what OTHER PEOPLE need to do in order to get to heaven. And mind you, there are Hindus out there (like my mother) who will argue over what OTHER PEOPLE need to do also.
But I don’t make those sorts of arguments, because I don’t believe I have any right to tell another person what they need to do in order to achieve spiritual salvation.
At best, I might talk about why *I* chose to undergo a baptism (or a hatha yoga practice, or a monastic retreat, or a flesh hook ritual, etc etc) and what that experience did FOR ME; how that baptismal experience felt for me, and why it turned out to be the experience it was on my journey towards a more compassionate life. If I saw someone who seemed to be stuck in a rut that I found familiar, I might encourage them to explore engaging in a milestone ritual akin to my baptism, and would view that conversation as an opportunity to explore my own spiritual needs in this moment, and examine why I felt inclined to encourage them to follow one particular path over another.
> This raises a pair of related questions: can one be Christian if one doesn’t believe in the divinity of Christ; and can one be Hindu if one doesn’t believe in iterative reincarnation? Or, can I be Hindu if I believe that I’m finding spiritual truth through Christ?
While I can’t tell you what the requirements for your religion are, as far as Hinduism goes, Swami Vivekananda is quite famously quoted as once having said, “There are only two requirements for being a Hindu: You have to believe in the existence of a Divine Being, and you have to like that He or She exists. Everything after that is just gravy.”
> …[begs the question of] whether strict adherence to the idea that “everyone’s spiritual journey has some validity” requires surrendering the Hindu label. Otherwise, isn’t he claiming that Hinduism has the uniquely correct view of spiritual truth?
Strict adherence to a lax set of parameters? I think you’re missing the whole “I don’t judge other people’s paths” point. Again, you’re confusing prescriptivist and descriptivist labeling habits.
Think of it this way: Where do I live?
The answer to that lies partially in who is asking the question, and where we are when you ask me that. If we’re in Germany, then I tell you I live in America. Closer in, and I might tell you “Illinois,” or “Northern Illinois” or “Chicago.” If you’re actually in Chicago with me, I might tell you what neighborhood I live in. If it mattered to the discussion, I might give you the nearest major intersection, or my exact street address.
Similarly, when talking to a Christian who needs me to “briefly overview the basic tenets of your religion,” I am a Hindu. But within that larger label are many smaller labels. I believe in a specific set of religious texts, and I worship a specific set of God/Avatars (loosely analogous to the practice of worshipping Saints). I engage in a specific set of practices that help me maintain a daily sense of spiritual growth, and there are other practices I hope to engage in someday once I feel I am spiritually ready for them. Each of those carry additional labels that I would use to describe myself to someone who understood their meaning.
I use those labels to describe what has and has not worked for me in my spiritual journey.
I don’t really care what labels other people use to describe those beliefs. So if it helps you to understand my beliefs as “similar to UUA,” then go for it. You’re losing a lot of nuance in that transcription error, but the data loss will only matter if you try to dig deeper into what I actually believe, and besides, YOUR labels are meant to help YOU understand things. They do not “describe” me.
And really, at the end of the day, I believe that the point of all of this is how it impacts the way you treat other people today and tomorrow. Any discussion of an afterlife is really just about what sort of carrot I dangle in front of my nose to get me to move forward in the direction I want to get this stubborn ass to move in.