It can be both illuminating and disconcerting to find practitioners of religions other than your own commenting on aspects of the faith you follow. Sometimes they can help you see things in helpful new ways. But other times they can be annoying and even seem to be purposefully misrepresenting what you think you know so well.
I've had that dual experience recently as I've read excerpts of a remarkable new two-volume work by a man who died in 1952 - Paramahansa Yogananda, credited with introducing yoga to America. Yogananda's posthumous book is called, of all things, "The Second Coming of Christ: The Resurrection of the Christ Within You." It will be published Sept. 1. As a Christian, I quickly wondered what this follower of the Hindu philosophical system of yoga could tell me about Christ's return.
Yogananda acknowledges right in the introduction that "I am not referring to a literal return of Jesus to earth." He says that is "not necessary for the fulfillment of his teachings. What is necessary is for the cosmic wisdom and divine perception of Jesus to speak again through each one's own experience and understanding of the infinite Christ Consciousness that was incarnate in Jesus. That will be his true Second Coming."
That's part of what Christians will reject and maybe even find annoying. Many Christians will be tempted to abandon the book in the introduction and stick to more orthodox treatments of Christian theology. Indeed, if you are trying to get a clear picture of how Christianity has understood the Second Coming, you would do well to start with an authoritative Christian voice, not with Yogananda.
Yogananda came to the United States in 1920 and founded the worldwide Self-Realization Fellowship. It's still based in Los Angeles, where he lived for many years. Yogananda traveled extensively, devoting himself to introducing yoga to the West and sharing his ideas about spirituality. He also wrote a prodigious amount, including his 1946 "Autobiography of a Yogi," which has been in print for more than 50 years.
Among his writings was an almost verse-by-verse commentary on the four gospels of the New Testament. Although he wrote some magazine commentaries on this subject starting in the 1930s, most of the writing in the new book has not previously been published, his publisher says. The book's subtitle will give many Christians an immediate tip-off that Yogananda is not offering traditional Christian theology. The phrase "the Christ Within You" is more often used by adherents of Eastern or "New Age" religions than by orthodox Christians.
Nonetheless, there's value in listening to outside interpretations of one's faith. It can provide insight into how well that faith is understood elsewhere and it can offer fresh ways of seeing what has become commonplace to the eyes of the faithful.
For instance, Yogananda offers this definition of the Holy Spirit, or Holy Ghost, whom Christians describe as one of the persons of the Trinity: "Holy Ghost is the sacred, invisible vibratory power of God that actively sustains the universe."
That is not, to be sure, an exhaustive description of the work and personhood of the Holy Spirit, but I find the wording fresh and engaging.
Similarly, I liked Yogananda's forthrightness in this acknowledgement of ways in which religion can go wrong and yet be right: "In spite of the meaningless superstitions and pitiful provincialism in religious thinking that have crusted on both Hinduism and Christianity down the ages, each of them has done immeasurable good to mankind - each has brought peace, happiness, consolation to millions of suffering souls; each has inspired people to highest spiritual endeavor and granted salvation to many."
It is, of course, important, to read such commentaries with a discerning eye and a mature understanding of one's own faith. In the sentence I just quoted for instance, I would argue that Christianity itself is not what has "granted salvation to many." Rather, Christians would say that's the job of God in Christ.
As a boy, I lived for two years in India and was surrounded by Hinduism, Jainism, Sikhism, Islam and other faiths. The experience taught me it's important to know and articulate my own religious faith but also to be able to hear that faith critiqued by people outside of it and to learn from that.
That kind of openness does not have to be threatening. Rather, it can help move one toward what Buddhists call enlightenment (though it's likely that this Christian doesn't fully understand what Buddhism means by that).
Bill Tammeus is a columnist for The Kansas City Star. Readers may write to him at: The Kansas City Star, 1729 Grand Blvd., Kansas City, Mo. 64108-1413. Or e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.