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


his review was first posted on CatholicBooksReview.org

Posted by: hansgustafson | April 3, 2011

The Search for Spirituality by Ursula King

A review of : Ursula KING, The Search for Spirituality: Our Global Quest for a Spiritual Life. New York, NY: BlueBridge, 2008. pp xi, 244. $13.95 pb. ISBN 978-1-933346-27-4

kingIn this very accessible text, Ursula King captures the attention of both academics and non-academics alike. Timely and relevant, this work traces the seemingly permeable boundaries of the very difficult subject of ‘spirituality,’ a subject that Philip Sheldrake famously reminds us, “is one of those subjects whose meaning everyone claims to know until they have to define it.” [Philip Sheldrake, Spirituality and History: Questions of Interpretation & Method (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1998), 40]. Here King sets out to define the term with grace and generosity in her consideration of this inherently interdisciplinary and multi-faceted phenomenon. Essential to any serious contemporary approach to spirituality is an effort to distinguish it from, or relate it to, religion. The opening chapter offers several ways to appropriate spirituality respective to religion. Further, King justifies the need for contemporary conversation about spirituality, and claims “there can be little doubt … that spirituality is attracting immense interest in very different, even contradictory contexts in contemporary society” (1). I can personally attest to this having just returned from the interdisciplinary 1st Global Conference on Spirituality in the 21st Century, at which the subject was approached from all fields and professions, most of which are enthusiastically recognized by King in this text. Chapter one is devoted to defining the term and recognizing the (re)birth.

The remaining nine chapters examine the various aspects of spirituality, or perhaps more accurately, attempt to understand various ‘spiritualities.’ These concerns include practice, ecology, pluralism, interfaith dialogue, embodiment, childhood, aging, death and dying, education, children’s spirituality, adult learning, health,eudaimonia, secularism, psychotherapy, gender, feminism, nature, materiality, natural sciences, the arts, cosmology, social science, ethics and globalization. Needless to say, such an extensive list covered here in King’s short text denotes the obvious vastness of the subject. However, King succeeds in providing a primer to spirituality, which should be approached as an introduction to the contemporary situation of the conversation on spirituality.

Despite offering a rich vastness of approaches, King manages to posit her own positions. She anthropologically locates the desire for spiritual transformation in the human psyche (30) and states that “the capacity for spirituality is present in every human being, but it needs to be activated and realized” (88), which are claims that some may find problematic. Going further, she stresses that, “human thinking must now change from an anthropocentric to a biocentric and ecocentric focus” (49). This may be perceived as threatening to or incompatible with those who understand spirituality as primarily an interior pursuit of self-hood. King opposes this sentiment drawing on the Russian religious and political philosopher, Nikolai Berdyaev, who deems this “bourgeois spirituality” (180). Instead, Berdyaev claims, spirituality must not be separated and understood distinctly from social life.

As the title suggests, King asserts that “spirituality needs to be a ‘global spirituality’ – … that is both rooted in the earth and connected to the diversity of peoples, cultures, and faiths around the globe” (44). In her examination of children’s spirituality, King recognizes that the adult educator strives to “encourage the growth of children’s innate spiritual sense,” and motivate “their original trust in the ultimate goodness of the world and life” (110). Though largely uncontroversial in the wider context of spirituality, King might have recognized the fundamentalist (and perhaps some secularists) urge to deny the anthropologic and the corporal ‘goodness’ of the world.

King does an admirable job of recognizing the complexity of contemporary spirituality, for the task of exhaustively covering all modes of this dynamic subject would surely require several volumes. Some areas lacking attention in this text include the relationship between spirituality and space/place, a spirituality of suffering (though, in the final chapter, King hints at ‘spirituality as struggle’ in some mujerista theologies), and the problem of evil in a good world. In the final chapter, King recognizes that most often the interfaith encounter spurs the development of a global ethic (185). Any text pursuing a globalized spirituality might properly recognize the danger of reducing spirituality to a mere set global ethics (i.e the ‘lowest common denominator’ of all spiritualities), which may potentially ignore the very real and deep ideological and theological differences that lie beneath and motivate such ethical actions. King recognizes this in her definition of global spirituality as that which affirms the diversity (and thus differences) of people, culture and faiths.

Clearly influenced by Teilhard’s ‘zest for the divine milieu’ (to combine two Teihardian terms) and Thomas Berry, the self-described ‘geologian,’ Ursula King offers a great beginning to the global conversation about spirituality. This highly recommended text will remain valuable for both academic and non-academic alike. It might be used referentially and topically (chapter-to-chapter) or read cover-to-cover as a primer. For further study, King includes several key texts on the intersection of spirituality and: the search, philosophy, practice, globalization, interfaith dialogue, life and death, education, health, psychotherapy, gender, nature and science, art, and ethics.

Image courtesy of BlueBridge

This review first appeared on CatholicBooksReview.org

Posted by: hansgustafson | June 30, 2010

The Theological World

“To me the theological world is like the road along the coast on a Sunday afternoon during the races – they storm past one another, shouting and yelling, and when they arrive, covered with dust and out of breath – they look at each other and go home.”  – Søren Kierkegaard

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