Vaishnava (Hindu)-Christian Dialogue Discusses Relationship Between God And Suffering

April 30, 2007 By Public Affairs Office

WASHINGTON (April 30, 2007)- - The most recent in a ten-year long series of meetings between Vaishnava Hindus and a group of Catholic and Protestant Christians took up the difficult topic of "theodicy": the relationship between God and suffering, and the origin of evil in the world.

The 10th annual Vaishnava-Christian Dialogue was held at Rockwood Manor, Potomac, Maryland, April 13-14.

Since Christianity, Judaism and Islam are all committed to a monotheistic doctrine of God as all-good and powerful, there is the persistent problem of explaining how evil can exist without altering God's attributes. Theodicy is an attempt to reconcile God's perfect goodness and power with the reality of evil in the world and in one's own human life. Scholars in the Vaishnava-Hindu tradition have also addressed themselves to the great questions of theodicy: "Why has God permitted so much pain and suffering in the universe?"

Gerald Carney, professor of Religion at Hampden-Sydney College in Virginia, gave an overview of historic Christian responses to the problem of God and evil. Drawing on depictions of God being confronted with human cries of suffering in the Psalms and the Book of Job, Carney showed that the older biblical idea of God only punishing the wicked proved to be inadequate to Jews in the centuries leading up to Christ. In the life and ministry of Jesus of Nazareth, one finds the culmination of the Jewish insight into God's solidarity with suffering humanity.

Modern thinkers, however, have challenged the ancient discussions of theodicy on the grounds that some instances of evil seem to call into question God's compassion and omnipotence. The persistence of moral evil and violence in the oppression of the poor, as well as the mass murder committed in the Nazi concentration camps, seem to require a clearer identification of God with the economically poor and socially oppressed. Professor Carney cited various liberation theologians, including Gustavo Gutierrez, who argue for a response to the problem of evil that takes the form of working for justice. It was noted that the response to human suffering cannot be about blaming God, but about taking the side that God takes which is that of transforming unjust social practices and structures as a way of anticipating the kingdom of God.

Dr. Ravi Gupta, an assistant professor of Religion at Centre College in Kentucky, spoke of several classic Hindu responses to the problem of evil. "Is God perfect or imperfect within a Hindu framework?" Gupta asked. The theory of "maya" ascribes evil to the illusory nature of the world perceived by the senses. On account of ignorance regarding the ephemeral nature of things, human beings experience many evils in a lifetime. Gupta went on to explain that to overcome evil would mean a liberation from all human ignorance, suffering and pain.

The Vaishnava (Hindu) traditions emphasize the inherent vulnerability of human beings, and also acknowledge the role of karma in causing suffering in one's life. In Hinduism, generally speaking, each human life is conditioned by acts or deeds of a previous existence. Together these acts or deeds make up the karma that accompanies the transmigration of souls. What is unique to Vaishnava theological approach is the attainment of liberation through a total, devotional commitment to a loving relationship with God. Devotion completes what may be lacking in terms of karma and ignorance.

Both sides of the discussion found among their differences on the nature of God and human beings a number of convergences. Christians and Vaishnava Hindus together emphasize that God wishes to enter into a loving relationship with mankind. Once a human being accepts God's offer of love, all the circumstances of that person are changed, even if on a material level there is still suffering to be endured. Participants also explored the ways in which the attributes of God as transcendent can be joined to an understanding of God's compassionate engagement with people who live in oppressive conditions or who are undergoing profound personal loss.

The Vaishnava (Hindu) – Christian Dialogue is co-sponsored by the Secretariat for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs, United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, and on the Vaishnava (Hindu) side by the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON).

The next dialogue meeting will address the reasons that motivate commitment to interreligious dialogue on the basis of the respective traditions. The presenters on April 18-19, 2008 will be the Rev. Dr. Clark Lobenstine and Professor Graham Schweig.