Posted by: hansgustafson | February 7, 2012

Review of Kristin Johnston Largen’s “Baby Krishna, Infant Christ: A Comparative Theology of Salvation”

978-1-57075-932-1In this text, Kristin Largen sets out to apply the task of interfaith learning and comparative theology par excellence to the soteriologies of the Christian and Hindu traditions insofar as they grow out of the infant Christ and baby Krishna respectively. That is, the guiding question of the text is, “What might be learned about who Jesus is and how he saves, not only by examining theologically the stories about his infancy and youth – both canonical and noncanonical – but also and particularly through an explicit comparison with ‘baby Krishna’?” (6). In this sense, it is a work in “Christian” comparative theology, which is to say that it is about what the Christian might learn from Krishna, and not necessarily what the Krishna devotee might learn from Christ.

The introduction and opening chapter serve the text well both in terms of staging the task ahead, and offering a definition and defense of Christian comparative theology. The explanation of comparative theology and its importance is as good as any I’ve seen. The structure of the text is intuitively arranged, first presenting the data and then comparing and analyzing it. Part one examines the baby Krishna, part two examines the infant Christ, and part three examines their respective adulthoods and enters into interreligious learning and comparative theology.

Baby Krishna
Largen’s chapter on Baby Krishna does not presume prior knowledge of Hinduism. It offers an accessible introduction to the diversity of Hinduism, its texts and worldview, and situates Krishna therein. Largen emphasizes two key stories from Krishna’s childhood which serve the later section on comparative soteriology. These stories demonstrate the universal form of Krishna and the divine attribute of lila (“play”). The concluding chapter to part one focuses on how Krishna saves, particularly through lila and relationality. As a result, several theological implications about the nature of God arise such as: divine freedom, divine movement, divine beauty, God’s love as eros, and the place of joy and physicality. Largen argues that the infant and childhood stories of Krishna are of particular soteriological importance. She writes,

It is during Krishna’s boyhood, as in no other stage in his life, when Krishna is most willing and able to facilitate they type of relationship that is seen as salvific. Thus, it is that special relationship that Krishna had with his mother Yashoda and the gopis  in particular that contemporary devotees most try to participate in and emulate in the course of their own daily lives. … In all this, Krishna’s devotees hope to receive his grace and the blessing of liberation both in this life and in eternity. (72)

Infant Christ
In chapters four and five, Largen presents the infancy stories of Jesus and their soteriological implications. Similar to her presentation on Hinduism, Largen does not presume prior knowledge of Christianity, its sacred texts, nor its soteriology. Drawing on the gospels of Matthew and Luke, in addition to the noncanoical gospels of James and John, she presents an infant and child Christ that emphasizes his tenuous birth, his virgin mother, his “womanish-ness,”[1] and his full divinity and full humanity. The carefully presented scriptural data is then used as the foundation upon which Largen presents her Christian soteriology. In particular, she emphasizes the fullness of Jesus’ humanity, which is often buried, at the expense of his full divinity, in the classical western portrayal of the Christian Godhead. After summarizing the various so-called heretical Christian groups of the first centuries (e.g., Marcionites, Gnostics, Ebionites), Largen locates the orthodox position in the council of Chalcedon. Drawing on Mathew and Luke, she proclaims that Jesus’ humanity is fully real, all humans bear the image of God and have the potential to be fully united to the Divine, Ebionite adoptionism is false, Jesus’ power lies in weakness and vulnerability, and Jesus’ growth in the gospels demonstrates the possibility that God changes, grows, and transforms as an active relational agent in the world. The infancy gospel of Thomas presents a spontaneous, impulsive, and inventive God at play, which, as such, challenges various Christian doctrines such as predestination and the idea of an emotionless, static God. Instead, argues Largen, the Christian God, based on the infancy narratives, is a God that values play (for the sake of play as such), and is a God with emotion (including anger at injustice). These qualities form the basis for “a new way of envisioning discipleship” (137). To a greater extent, the infancy narratives illuminate Jesus’ soteriological efficacy more than the passion and resurrection stories – that is, Largen endorses an incarnational soteriology.

Beyond Infancy to Today
The final part of the text traces the theological and soteriological claims made about the infant Krishna and infant Christ into adulthood as reported by their respective sacred texts (e.g., the Mahabharata, the Bhagavad Gita, and the New Testament). The text culminates with an impressive proposal for a Christian incarnational soteriology with far reaching implications. In many ways it challenges various tenets of classical Christian theology. In “rethinking the incarnation,” (191) Largen draws on Krishna and the infancy narratives of Jesus (both canonical and noncanonical) to put forth a Christian theology that re-envisions divine love as eros and presents a God that loves humanity in toto, is passionate, can change and suffer (similar to Abraham Joshua Heschel’s theology of divine pathos and Sallie McFague’s passionate lover God), and is playful. Furthermore, the canonical infancy narratives demonstrate the relational aspect of God’s salvific activity (i.e., human relationships matter for salvation), and the salvation of the flesh, which is often downplayed by the non-sacramental Protestant traditions (i.e., those other than Anglicanism and Lutheranism). The gospel of Thomas “suggests to Christians that salvation happens in the most ordinary moments,” (211) – in the mundane – which reminds the Christian that she need not have a dramatic mountaintop epiphany to experience the in-breaking of God’s miraculous salvific efficacy.

To be sure, there is a lot going on in this text, especially in the final two chapters. Largen makes many constructive and progressive theological claims about the nature of God and God’s action in and upon the world. Though they certainly fit appropriately within the comparative context which she places them, they demand a much more rigorous philosophical and systematic treatment within the larger scope of Christian philosophical theology. Although the author does not spill much ink on analyzing the content of God in each tradition, she does spend time examining the content of salvation for each tradition. To be clear, Largen is “not arguing that Krishna and Jesus are somehow ‘the same’” (191), but rather is promoting the claim that “doing theology interreligiously is not merely an academic luxury but a necessity in the twenty-first century world in which we live” (217).

Above all, Largen’s text offers both an introduction to, and a concrete example of, comparative theology. It will certainly inspire many Christians to continue this comparative exercise and take up the sacred Hindu and Christian texts to read further about Krishna and Jesus. The text will successfully serve upper division undergraduates, graduates studying comparative theology, and reading groups alike.

Kristin Johnston LARGEN. Baby Krishna, Infant Christ: A Comparative Theology of Salvation. Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 2011. pp. 246. $30.00 pb. ISBN 978-1-57075-932-1.

[1] A term Largen borrows from Alice Walker’s book In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens “used by African-American women to describe their daughters when they engaged in ‘willful behavior’” (85).

Image courtesy of Orbis Books

T

his review was first posted on CatholicBooksReview.org

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