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Geoffrey Parrinder: Interfaith Master

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I’ve been interested in comparative religion ever since my university days, when I used to spend hours listening to recordings of talks given by the philosopher Alan Watts. Watts, with his knack for communicating Zen paradoxes, has these days become somewhat of a cult figure in spiritual circles.

After joining a central London library a few weeks ago I felt eager to explore the Religion section, and was delighted to find a couple of shelves dedicated entirely to works of comparative religion. I’m sure the contents of these books could keep me entertained for years, but in this post I just want to talk briefly about one book which has been a delight to read, and which I would highly recommend.

The book is entitled Upanishads, Gita, and Bible and was written in 1962 by an English philosopher named Geoffrey Parrinder. I was unable to find out much about the author, except that he was a Methodist minister for some time, published around 30 books in his lifetime, and was active as a professor at Kings College London until 1977. He also undertook extensive missionary work in West Africa.

It was interesting that when reading this book, I had no idea whether Parrinder was writing from a Christian, Hindu, or other standpoint, such was the impressive impartiality of his writing. It was only after finishing the book that I discovered he had been a Christian minister.

The book’s structure is clear and intuitive. It begins with a comparison of the creation stories of the Bible and the Indian religions, before proceeding to tackle many of the key topics of fruitful interfaith dialogue, including ‘The One and the Many’, ‘What is Man?’, ‘Immortality’, ‘Mysticism’, ‘Conduct and Suffering’, and a few others. The subject matter is tackled with a great depth of knowledge, and as I read the book I felt as though each paragraph had been carefully and thoughtfully constructed, with no words wasted.

There were a few insights in the book that really struck me, and which I believe will stay with me for years to come. By way of example, I will share three insights that really stood out for me.

1. Parrinder points out that the Bible, and in particular the Old Testament, is very sketchy when it comes to the idea of souls. This is something that has occurred to me in the past, and I once wrote an essay on the subject. It is very difficult to discern what a soul might be from what is written in the Torah.

2. The author used a phrase that really struck me. He described the human experience as being a journey ‘from the alone to the Alone’. This captures something very beautiful about Eastern spirituality; the idea that the individual, upon death, is absorbed into the being of God. This short phrase expresses the relationship between the Atman (the human soul) and Brahman (the universal soul).

3. Another beautiful concept from the book is that the Eastern religions have an ‘I-it’ relationship with God, whereas the Abrahamic religions have an ‘I-Thou’ relationship with the divine. The difference, of course, is that in the first example God is not personal, whereas He is in the second. This is an important distinction between Hinduism and the Abrahamic religions, and a fascinating point for interfaith discussion.

I know that among the readers of this blog there are many Christians who are very sceptical of non-Christian religious traditions. I do understand and respect that, having been an evangelical Christian myself in the past. But I would suggest that to open one’s mind to the beliefs of billions of people who have lived and died outside of the Christian faith is a wonderfully enriching thing to do.

I would love to read more of Parrinder’s works, and I note from a quick search that he has written books on the Qur’an, African Mythology, the Wisdom of Jesus, as well as many other interesting topics. If you’re looking for a book that contrasts Eastern and Western traditions in a clear and intelligent way, Upanishads, Gita and Bible will serve you well.

20 comments

  1. Steven, I appreciate your ability to let yourself be open to understanding other points of view! I have friends who struggle with the idea of Christianity because there are so many different religions out there. I encourage them to believe that we can still meaningfully interact with other religions while maintaining biblical truths. Thanks for sharing!

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  2. Indeed, Steven, “a wonderfully enriching thing to do.” We would call this, I believe, expanding our worldview, exploring our belief systems more deeply and maybe… coming into some new acceptance. Thank you for the book recommendation.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. I’m taking a course through the honors college entitled “What is Humanity?” This post echos of some common themes that we have discussed. One thing we’ve explored is the Old Testament view of the soul after death. Today we seem to have a more individual-centered view, concerning ourselves with what happens to the individual soul after death. It seems as though, however, that those in the Old Testament were more concerned about the nation as a whole. They understood that no matter what happened to their individual souls after death, God was a God who had proved Himself loving, trustworthy, and honest…a God who would continue to keep His promises. While they believed in a sense of being joined with their creator… no matter what happened to them, they primarily placed their hope in the promise of Israel becoming a great and priestly nation from which the messiah would come. They knew that at the end of it all God would be faithful and make all things new and perfect again… What do you think? Is there any truth to these ideas that we were presented?

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    1. Hello! I think what you’re saying makes a lot of sense. I suppose the subject of the soul seems important to me because I’m very interested in the metaphysical and what life after death may entail. This seems to be discussed more in the New Testament (in the book of Revelation, for instance) than the Old. I think your insights are important – thank you for sharing!

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  4. Very interesting about Parrinder. I hadn’t heard of him before. Eastern Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart talks about his study of the Hindu Vedas and their similarities to Christian theism. It’s thought by some scholars that the Jews were inspired by Zoroaster traditions in Babylon because the development of Satan and spiritual principalities were developed after they returned from captivity. It’s hard to say for certain but it shouldn’t be problematic for us as Christians that various religions have gleaned truth about God and the spiritual world. I don’t think any religion was developed in a vacuum. We humans intuitively believe in the transcendent and have searched for God from the beginning. Paul addressed this in Acts 17, when he quoted their poets, “In Him we live and move and have our being.” God can reveal Himself wherever He wants. We shouldn’t try to limit Him to our understanding.

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  5. Certainly going to try and find some of his work. By the way, in relation to the “I-it” aspect of Hinduism, did he go into detail on how Hindus use deities such as Brahma, Vishnu etc., to manifest a more personal aspect of the Absolute?

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    1. Hi David, yes he did discuss that to some extent, but it’s quite a short book so he didn’t go into too much depth from what I recall. I do think you will love the book though, if you do manage to track down a copy!

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  6. I like Parrinder too. Another good old school guy is S. G. F. Brandon. Both have published really good dictionaries of comparative religion. Parrinder’s is about “non-Christian Religion” —at least the one I own. Brandon’s is a classic that our local library discontinued because it wasn’t flashy enough. It really ticked me off so I went to Amazon and bought a used copy that originally was in a British library! I’m happy to own it. Highly recommend it for good, quick browsing.

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  7. Love this article! I took a few courses with the Oxford Centre for Hindu Studies a while back, and have been slightly hesitant to reveal my interest in Hinduism to the followers of my own blog. The book sounds great, too. Thanks and God bless you.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi there! Thanks so much, I’m really glad you enjoyed the post. I’m actually from Oxfordshire, but I never knew there’s a Centre of Hindu Studies there. Very interesting. Thanks again for the reblog!

      Like

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