Christopher Dawson and Dom Bede Griffiths on Catholic Evangelization of India

Author: John Mulloy


John J. Mulloy

The death of Dom Bede Griffiths in May of this year, after many years of his living in India and adapting the Catholic ritual to Hindu symbols and readings from the religious texts of Hinduism, makes especially significant the letters which the Benedictine monk and Christopher Dawson wrote to The Catholic Herald of London back in 1956. These letters dealt with the idea of Dom Bede that Catholic missionary activity in India must be prepared to accept a great deal of Hindu spirituality if it was to have any impact on the Hindus. The exchange was occasioned by Griffiths' review of Gilson's Unity of Philosophical Experience, Although I do not have the review, the nature of Dom Bede's position on philosophy in the West becomes clear in the course of the exchange.

Christopher Dawson's first letter to The Herald was occasioned by a letter from an English correspondent who probably overstated the case which Griffiths had originally made. Passages from this letter follow:

"It is too easily forgotten that two principal sources of our Western Christian civilization were Greece and Rome and that the philosophical heritage derived from these two centres has played absolutely no part in the cultural development of the East. It is our duty to bring the truths of Christianity to the great peoples of the East and to do so effectively means divesting the original Hebrew thought of Our Lord of its rationalist Greek dress. The attempt to teach Orientals to see Christian Truth through the eyes of Aristotle and Plato is doomed to failure, and we ourselves miss much by restricting our field of vision and excluding from our viewpoint the ancient philosophical systems of China and India....

"A cardinal principle of modern missiology is that all the irrelevant Western trimmings of our theology and religious practice must be ruthlessly cut away if Christianity is not to be regarded as something alien to the cultural heritages of the East....

"The fact is that the philosophies of Sankara and Romanuja, the great commentators on the Hindu Upanishads, are closer to Catholic theology than any other philosophical system."

This letter gave Dawson the opportunity to reply to some of Dom Bede's views, without directly challenging him. Dawson defended the historic culture of Christianity and Catholic theology in these terms:

"The problem raised by Dom Bede Griffiths in his review of Gilson's Unity of Philosophical Experience is of the greatest interest and importance. At the same time it is not so simple as your correspondent, M. A. Doughty, seems to suggest.

"The fact that Indian philosophy is more religious than Greek philosophy does not necessarily male it more adaptable to Christianity. Sankara may seem closer to Christian theology than Aristotle is, but that is because he writes as a theologian as well as a philosopher, and his most important works are written in the form of a running commentary on sacred texts which he believes to have been divinely inspired.

"In other words the religion of the Vedas and the philosophy of the Vedantists from an organic whole, and you cannot switch the latter over to Christian theology without doing violence to both form and content. But in the case of Greek philosophy this difficulty does not arise. Aristotle wrote as a man of science not as a theologian expounding revealed dogmas, and consequently Christian theology has been able to make use of Greek philosophy, just as the modern Christian can make use of Western physical science.

"It is certainly desirable that we should learn to know more about the ancient philosophical systems of India and China, but this does not mean that we should try to undo the work of the Fathers and of St. Thomas by `divesting the original Hebrew thought of our Lord of its rationalist Greek dress.'

"For where are we to begin? The Church used the categories of Greek thought to define the dogmas of the Faith and the Gospel itself has been transmitted to the world in a `Greek dress.' It is the mission of the Church to teach all nations, but she cannot disavow her own past and start her mission all over again. That was the great end of the Protestant Reformation which attempted to abolish a thousand years of Catholic development and to construct a new model of evangelical Christianity on exclusively scriptural foundations."

(Letter of Christopher Dawson to The Catholic Herald, Jan. 13, 1956.)

Bede Griffiths, who held Dawson in high regard, and who had spoken of Dawson's volume Progress and Religion, as one of the factors that led to his conversion to Catholicism, wrote from India in response to Dawson's letter, taking a less extreme position than Doughty, although it is possible that Doughty was in fact in accord with many of Griffiths' views. Dom Bede wrote:

"Mr. Dawson is certainly right in saying that we cannot divest Christianity of its Greek and Latin dress. Greek and Latin have been built into the very structure of our theology and we cannot afford to sacrifice anything which they have brought to the understanding of the faith. What is required is surely a new development of theology, which will build upon the past but also go beyond it. "The Greek genius, particularly through the influence of Aristotle has given to our theology its predominantly rational character; what distinguishes the Indian genius is its capacity for intuitive thought. It is true, as Mr. Dawson says, that Hindu thought is theological, but I would say that its entire system of theology rests on a very profound metaphysical intuition. If there is to be a meeting of Catholicism with this theology, it must take place on the level of this metaphysical intuition.

"The difference between rational discursive thought and integral intuitive thought is expressed by St. Thomas by the distinction between ratio and intellectus, in Greek between dianoia and nous, in Hindu thought between manas and buddhi. What is required is that our theology should rise above the merely rational order and reach to a deeper level of intellectus. There is already a strong movement in this direction, which is taking us back to the Platonic element in Christian thought, which is found in St. Augustine and the Greek Fathers, and in St. Bonaventure as well as in St. Thomas.

"If this movement could be brought into contact with Eastern thought, then a really fertile exchange might take place. The original meaning of theology was not that of a rational system which it has now become, but that of a form of contemplative wisdom. This is how theology has always been understood in the East. As long as we continue to present Christianity to the Hindu as a system of rational thought it will make no impression on him; if we could begin to make it known as a way of contemplative wisdom I believe that he would welcome it with open arms. It would then be possible for our theology to develop a new form, losing nothing of the precision which it has learned in the school of Aristotle but acquiring a new character adapted to the genius of the East."

Bede Griffiths, O.S.B., Nirmalashram, Kengeri, Bangalore, India. (The Catholic Herald, March 2, 1956.)

One important question raised by the letter from Dom Bede is this: What is the nature of that "very profound metaphysical intuition" on which Hindu theology, according to Dom Bede, is said to rest? Does it avoid the danger of pantheism which pervades so much of Hindu theology? This matter is especially important because advocates of Vedanta is the West recommend Hinduism precisely because it does involve pantheism. Moreover, as Dawson has pointed out elsewhere, almost thirty years before this correspondence, concentration upon an exclusively Oriental view of reality, "leads to a depreciation of the normal human activity of the discursive reason, and to a contempt for all knowledge of the particular and for the humble but necessary discipline of physical science." Christianity on East and West, p. 27.

Dawson's response to the letter of Dom Bede was tactful and presented his point of agreement with Dom Bede (in the first paragraph), before he set forth certain views which would undermine the practicality of what Dom Bede was trying to promote. One of these points was that the learning of the Brahmins was no longer so important an influence in India, because of the radical social transformation India was undergoing. Thus to talk of the need to adapt Christianity to the theology of the Brahmins was to miss the point and to think of India as though it were still in the same state as in the 19th century, instead of facing the changed social conditions brought on by modernization and Westernization.

The second point, about the value of the corporal works of mercy for evangelization, tended to make the appeal to Hindu theology appear as something esoteric and out of touch with the real world. Dawson's letter read as follows:

"Sir—I am entirely in agreement with Dom Bede Griffith's of the need for a Christian approach to India and the East by the way of contemplative wisdom. Catholicism is not a system of rational thought, it is a whole spiritual world and the problem is how best to make this world accessible to the Indian mind. It may well be that the way of St. Augustine and St. Gregory of Nyssa and Dionysius the Areopagite is better adapted to oriental needs than the Aristotelian approach.

"Nevertheless we must not forget that Indian culture like that of China is undergoing a process of profound change which affects even the most sacred and long established traditions. The prestige of the Brahman culture is threatened, and in regions like Tanjere which were formerly the strongholds of Sankara's teaching, his countrymen are showing more interest in Marxism than in Vedantism.

"In view of all this, it is possible that there is more to be said for the traditional association of missionary activity with social problems and poverty, than some of your correspondents are prepared to admit. The appeal of this approach is recognized by modern Indian writers such as Mrs. B. Tilak whose remarkable autobiography Smriti Chitra has recently been translated into English.

"But above all it finds its justification on the highest spiritual level in the words of the Gospel—`The blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are made clean and the poor have the gospel preached to them.'"

[Letter to The Catholic Herald (March 23 issue) by Christian Dawson.]

Certain basic points of disagreement between Dom Bede and Christopher Dawson were brought our more clearly in a series of letters which they exchanged, with the present writer serving as intermediary. After Dawson made me aware of The Catholic Herald correspondence, since he knew of my interest in the subject, I wrote to Griffiths and indicated to him that I was in communication with Dawson. That led him to write letters to me which I could then, with his permission, pass on to Dawson. And Dawson would write to me certain observations on Dome Bede's ideas which I would then send on to Griffiths. In this way a certain three-way correspondence developed in 1956 and 1957.

The issue which was central to the discussions was concerned with the Catholic evangelization of India, but as the discussion developed, it was by no means clear that Dom Bede favored evangelization. While Griffiths had spoken of the importance of contemplative wisdom and making use of Platonic elements in Christian thought, such as were found in the Greek Fathers and St. Augustine, it did not seem that he was at all anxious to make use of those to convert the Brahmins. Instead he was concerned with how he might incorporate a great deal of Hindu theology into Catholic thought. How much might be left of authentic Catholicism when this process was completed, was an issue he never really faced.

Moreover, his claim that Hinduism and Buddhism were true religions, derived from a revelation made by God to mankind in the beginning, certainly seemed to make Catholic conversion of the Hindus quite unnecessary. Here is the way Dom Bede spoke of this fact concerning Indian religion:

"It concerns this question of the `truth' of Buddhism and Hinduism. The view which I expressed that they are essentially true religious is one to which I attach an extreme importance, and I would like to give you may reason for it. The doctrine on which I base this view is that there was an original `primitive revelations' given by God to man and that the tradition of this primitive revelation has never been lost. I derived from Eliade's comprehensive survey of all the existing evidence, that the existence of this tradition can be shown to underlie all the known religious of mankind. I also gathered from Rachel Levy's Gate of Horn that the same tradition can be traced through archaeological evidence from the time of the paleolithic caves. The content of this revelation I would express very briefly in this way, though properly speaking it cannot be expressed in conceptual terms. There is one, infinite, eternal, absolute Being, which is essentially `holy,' `sacred,' `divine,' `supernatural'; this Being cannot be properly expressed in words; it is essentially `beyond' us, above us, `other' than anything we know. It can only by expressed by means of symbols, and all primitive religion is an attempt to express in symbolic terms, often inadequate, this ultimate incomprehensible mystery.

"This is an extreme simplification of a vastly complex whole, but I hope that it may be sufficient to indicate the basic character of the original revelation from which all religion is derived. It is essentially a `supernatural' revelation; the divine is by definition supernatural and that is why I object to any attempt to describe pagan religion as `natural'. The Aristotelian conception of a God of nature and reason is a purely academic concept which has no place in primitive religion as we know it.

"Now in my view Hinduism and Buddhism (as well as Taoism and Confucianism) are simply developments of this universal primitive religion.

"According to this view the divine being as manifested in all the forms of nature and the whole universe is what Mircea Eliade calls a `theophany'. Thus God may be worshipped under any form (all forms being equally incapable of expressing his true nature). Of course in practice people may come to worship nature as God and to adore the many gods apart from the one infinite Being; but this is a corruption of Hinduism (just as the worship of the saints may become a corruption of Catholicism)." (Emphasis added.)

These statements indicate how far Griffiths was willing to accept all the different aspects of Indian religion, since by means of this primitive revelation he was now able to incorporate much of what was previously regarded as polytheism and idolatry. So, while he might speak of the importance of taking the approach of the Greek Fathers and St. Augustine in an apostolate to the Indian people, in fact he would not make the clear distinction which they did between the heritage of Greek philosophy and the practices of Greek popular religion. The latter these same Fathers regarded with rejection and abhorrence. On Dom Bede's terms, since "God may be worshipped under any form," the object of one's worship was a matter of indifference, since what one was really worshipping was the one infinite being; and while Bede might speak of the adoration of many gods as a corruption of Hinduism, he was prepared to ignore the reality of what Hinduism on the popular level actually consisted of.

In addition, the philosophic religion of the Brahmins, to whom Griffiths wished to make his special appeal, saw God as an impersonal Absolute, which is certainly at the opposite pole from the living and personal God of Scripture, both in the Old Testament and in the New. And the idea of pantheism in which God and the universe became one, so that there was no idea of creation, and all of human existence was an illusion, was an idea quite widespread in the religion of the Brahmins. Dom Bede, therefore, leaves no room for Catholic evangelization. For the Catholic offers a conception of God and His Son, Jesus Christ, which Dom Bede's undiscriminating defense of Hinduism renders quite meaningless.

Moreover, because of his desire to make his appeal to India on the intellectual level, but with what crippling results for true evangelization we have just seen, Griffiths was completely opposed to the idea of the corporal works of mercy as having any significant value for spreading the Gospel. As he put it in this letter to the present writer of Oct. 23, 1959, from which I have been quoting, "I cannot but disagree strongly with Mr. Dawson's view that works of mercy are the best method of a Christian apostolate." He spoke of these as something for which the State is better equipped. This was, incidentally, some eight years after Mother Teresa of Calcutta had begun her work among the poor of India; but it is possible that her work might not yet have become well known enough for Dom Bede to be aware of it. However, one senses that it might have made little difference to him, since his system of thought tended to discount works of mercy and to leave all such help to agencies like the government as more able to provide it.

In reply to this last point, Christopher Dawson, elaborating on his view that the works of mercy have been an important element in Catholic evangelization from the very beginning, wrote this to the present writer in a letter whose contents I was free to communicate to Dom Bede:

"And in reply to your previous question, I should say that no people has ever been converted to Christianity by a learned apologetic or by mysticism, important as these things are. The great examples of Christian evangelization are St. Paul's apostolate in Asia Minor and Greece, St. Francis Xavier and his successors in Japan, and perhaps St. Patrick's in Ireland. In all these cases it is a very simple type of evangelism, joined with miracles and works of mercy—just as described in the passage I quoted from St. Matthew, xi, 4-6. It is of course simply a question of spiritual dynamism: Where there is direct spiritual communication though a saint or an evangelist, you always find results, but where it is a matter of routine organization and activities, you do not. India has had too much intellectualism rather than too little. And as in the case of Gnosticism, it is very difficult to defeat an overintellectualized spirituality by spiritual means. And in dealing with the Brahmins, one has to face the immense spiritual pride or a great intellectual tradition reinforced by a tradition of social privilege.

"On the other hand, Indian religion has always felt the need for a personal saviour, and thus the preaching of an historical personality as in Christianity must exercise a stronger appeal than purely mythological figures like Krishna and Rama and the rest.

"So too as regards works of mercy—the Indian is very sensitive to the idea of compassion—he finds this in the Gospel and in Christian charity, but not surely in the welfare state, which is a cold monster even when it is a beneficent one....I think Dom Bede has interpreted my idea about the apostolate of works of mercy in too external a form. It is nothing without its internal source in charity and divine grace; these ideas are as comprehensible to the Indian as to ourselves. All he needs is to discover their vital roots in the Gospel and the historic reality of Christ. And the works of mercy do not minister to the body as such but to the soul in the body, just as the Christian Saviour is God in the flesh."

(From Letter by Christopher Dawson of December 30-31, 1956.)

In conclusion: It would seem that the contemporary Catholic approach to India is far better exemplified by the work of Mother Teresa of Calcutta than by the accommodation to Hindu theology and polytheistic religious practices exemplified by Dom Bede Griffiths. And it is clear that the work of Mother Teresa is inspired by the ideal of the corporal works of mercy which Christopher Dawson was giving voice to in the letter we have just quoted. It is ironic that Dom Bede seemed unaware of the value of the work of Mother Teresa and how it manifested the value of an authentic Catholic spirituality which found its center in adoration of our Eucharistic Lord.

Taken from the Spring 1993 issue of "The Dawson Newsletter." For subscriptions send $8.00 to "The Dawson Newsletter", P.O. Box 332, Fayetteville, AR 72702. John J. Mulloy, Editor