01/22/2015 12:12 pm ET Updated Mar 24, 2015

Vivekananda's Contribution to Christian Religious Pluralism

(This is the speech I gave at a commemoration of the birthday of Swami Vivekananda at the Vedanta Society in Hollywood on 1-11-15.)
Dear Vedanta friends, I share in the reverence that you hold for Swami Vivekananda, whose birthday we remember today.  His memorable speech at the first Parliament of the World's Religions in Chicago on September 11, 1893, and his subsequent tour of America, put Hinduism on the cultural and religious map in this country.  The Vedic tradition already had influenced America indirectly through Emerson and other Transcendentalists.  But with Vivekananda, Americans got a look at an impressive embodiment of the tradition.
And that itself was revolutionary.  Vivekananda not only did a service to his faith, bringing it respect and a fair number of new adherents here in the West.  He also did service to other faiths -- especially mine, the Christian religion. 
The first Parliament of World Religions was convened by people with a very different agenda than the one that drives the Parliament today.  It was an attempt by Christian leaders to show magnanimity toward people of other faiths, all of which, of course, were seen by these Christians as inferior or outright false.  Let's get to know our little brown brothers and sisters from India and elsewhere, and give a respectful ear to their traditions, so that, ultimately, we can shine on them the light of the one true religion. 
But instead of an inferior little brown brother from India, they got the impeccably and exotically dressed, unfailingly polite, confident and eloquent Hindu, Swami Vivekananda.  He made it hard for the Christian leaders to see him as anything but a spiritual peer.  He rocked the house.  He stole the show and changed the agenda.  And in the process he changed Christianity.  He embodied his message, which was the Vedic tradition of religious pluralism: that your way to God might be just as good for you as mine is for me.  This was and is normal in India, where different members of the same family think nothing of going to different temples to offer puja to different manifestations of the divine.  But this was a new idea for a lot of Christians at the time.  It's still a radical notion in a lot of churches.  But an increasing number of Christians around the world have examined their hearts and their faith tradition, and have embraced and applied Vivekananda's message to their religion. 
I'm part of the progressive Christian movement.  This is an expression of Christianity that takes the Bible seriously because it does not take it literally.  That's old news in the Vedic tradition, where the myths of Hindu scripture have long been read for their spiritual meaning rather than as historical accounts.  Progressive Christians are also pluralists.  Like most Hindus, we do not believe that our religion is categorically superior to others.  Now, we don't teach that all religions are equal or somehow the same.  But we don't presume that everyone has to accept Jesus as his or her personal savior in order to experience salvation.  Nor do we assume that the value in other faiths can be seen only by looking at them through a Christian lens.   
Our movement owes much to Vivekananda, I believe, though not enough of us recognize his contribution.  He initiated a much-needed Hinduization of Christianity in America.  He inspired a holy jealousy in the hearts of many Christians.  He kindled in them a yearning for a humbler, kinder form of our faith.  A yearning for a more sophisticated kind of Christianity that could continually evolve out of narrow-minded, chauvinistic forms.
Since the turning point of Vivekananda's visit to America, other events have contributed to the Hinduization of Christianity.  The 1965 immigration reform that ended racist rules preventing Asians from coming to live in America brought Indian Hindus and Muslims to our shores in big numbers, exposing many Christians to world religious traditions besides Judaism in a personal way for the first time.  Now we have Muslim mosques and Hindu temples even in the middle of the Bible Belt.  It has become harder and harder for Americans to maintain the belief that Christianity is the only way, when people are confronted with the undeniable reality of polite, kind, caring, devout Hindu and Muslim and Zoroastrian and Sikh neighbors.  Today, according to recent polls, most American Christians  - even most evangelicals - believe that non-Christians can get into heaven.  The tide has turned away from religious chauvinism.  But the people in the pews are way ahead of their pastors.  Christian triumphalism and exclusivism are still preached from most pulpits.  There is much work to do in order to get the leaders to follow their followers on this subject.  But the trend is clearly positive.  In my work on campus at the University of Southern California, where students from all over the world, practicing all the religions of the planet, gather in harmony and seek mutual understanding, I witness the way that Vivekananda's vision in his 1893 speech is coming true:  "I fervently hope that the bell that tolled this morning in honour of this convention may be the death-knell of all fanaticism, of all persecutions with the sword or with the pen, and of all uncharitable feelings between persons wending their way to the same goal."
And when that full and glorious eschaton of Christian religious pluralism finally arrives, we will have Vivekananda to thank for it, in significant measure.  And for that, I and other Christians honor him with a hearty Happy Birthday!
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Associate Dean of Religious Life, University of Southern California