Faith Matters

A toast to Ramanuja

Martin Luther isn’t the only theologian for whom we celebrate a major anniversary this year.

Political upheaval aside, 2017 is a memorable year for anniversaries. Three have been on my mind: the 1,000th anniversary, according to traditional reckoning, of the birth of Hindu theologian Ramanuja, the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s 95 Theses, which launched the Reformation, and the 100th anniversary of Our Lady of Fatima. I think I see some connections between them.

What Ramanuja accomplished so long ago was to defend the logic of theistic worship against the dominant monistic mysticism that erased the distinction between individual souls and God. He wrote Sanskrit commentaries on the Brahma Sutras and the Bhagavad Gita, yoking philosophical theology to popular devotion and making vernacular piety intellectually respectable. As the authoritative teacher for the South Indian Sri Vaishnava tradition—devotees of the deity Vishnu and divine consort Sri—he reformed the temple cult, purifying it of non-Vaishnava elements. Ramanuja’s God is not an impersonal absolute but a personal Lord, creator, sustainer, and dissolver of worlds, who by his boundless grace descends into embodied forms and deigns to dwell in consecrated images, so that all may see and worship him. The way to God is through loving devotion.

What Martin Luther accomplished 500 years ago is analogous. He, too, defended the logic of theistic worship, purified the temple of idols, and preached the message of divine grace. In the process he reaped a catastrophe for Christian unity; but perhaps it took someone of such vivacious genius and brash vulgarity to bring the church to its knees, where it belongs.