Binocular Wisdom and the Way of Love

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On this path effort never goes to waste,
and there is no failure. Even a little effort
toward spiritual awareness will protect you
from the greatest fear.
2:40 The Bhagavad Gita

Recently I was privileged to attend a retreat featuring John J. Thatamanil, a professor of comparative theology at Vanderbilt Divinity School. The subject of this retreat was a comparative reading of the Gospel of John and the Hindu Scripture the Bhagavad Gita. The Gospel of John is often called the mystical gospel with its emphasis on the union of Christ and humanity; ‘Abide in me as I abide in you.’ (15:4) ‘Abide in my love.’ (15:9).

But John?s gospel also contains and is perhaps most identified with Chapter 14:6:
‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the father except through me.’ Since this verse is so often read as an exclusivist pronouncement that Christianity is the only way to salvation, it may seem to be a curious starting point for a dialogue in comparative theology. But as Dr. Thatamanil guided us through a reading of the Gita-with a particular emphasis on chapter 9, we were able to see some striking similarities between the two pieces of scripture, and to look more deeply at the meaning of John 14:6.

The Bhagavad Gita is the best known of all the Indian scriptures. It takes place on a battlefield between two warring armies. The warrior Arjuna is beset with doubts about engaging in battle and he turns to Lord Krishna for answers to his essential question about how to proceed. The battlefield provides a dramatic setting but the real battle Arjuna must fight is the war within-the struggle for awareness that we all must deal with. Lord Krishna at first seems to be merely a powerful and wise king but as the conversation proceeds he is gradually revealed to be the Divine.

Chapter 9 of the Gita is called the ‘Royal Path’ and in this chapter Krishna reveals that this path is the way of love. The renowned translator of the Gita, Eknath Easwaran, in his commentary on this chapter says of Lord Krishna, ‘Those who are truly devoted to Krishna live in him and he abides in them.’ In this way he points to the similarity of 9:29 in the Gita ‘men devoted to me are in me // and I am in them? to the verses in John 15 that I quoted above.

Chapter 9 of the Gita also contains many ‘I am’ statements just as the Gospel of John does. Lord Krishna tells Arjuna: ‘I am the way, sustainer, lord // witness, shelter, refuge, friend, // source, dissolution, stability // treasure, and unchanging seed.’ (9:18). Easwaran concludes that the meaning of this chapter is the way of love. ‘No one who has genuine love and devotion can perish. The meaning here is taken to be ?perish’ in a spiritual sense, come to spiritual harm. The one message is: anyone who has real love, love for the Lord of Love who is in all creatures, will in the end attain the goal.’

Jesus’ way is the Way of Love. To read John 14:6 as an exclusivist statement is to miss the meaning of the way of Christ. This is the way of the cross, the way of the self-giving life of love. Binocular wisdom is the phrase that Dr. Thatamanil uses to describe the fruits of comparative theology. To study even a little of the scripture of the various wisdom traditions is to attain a depth of perception that not only deepens your connection to your own tradition but helps to heal the polarities that threaten to tear our world apart. It is good then, I think, for us to remember the counsel given by the Catholic Church in the writings of Vatican II,

‘She regards with sincere reverence those ways of conduct and of life, those precepts and teachings which, though differing in many aspects from the ones she holds and sets forth, nonetheless often reflect a ray of that Truth which enlightens all men (sic).’