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The Human Icon by Christine Mangala Frost

25 May 2018

David Brown learns from a comparison

THE author, who was brought up in a priestly Hindu family in India, converted as an adult to Anglicanism before “it took a direction that began to politicise worship” (whatever that may mean!), which led her to seek refuge in the arms of Eastern Orthodoxy, while still living in Cambridge.

As we all know, Orthodoxy claims that it alone posses fullness of truth. So, in this dialogue with her former Hindu past, only Orthodox theologians are quoted as indicative of what Christianity might mean, although at least such voices are accepted from across the Orthodox world, and not just from within one particular stream. The “icon” of the title might easily lead an unwary reader to suppose that comparisons will be drawn on the basis of the shared delight of Hinduism and Orthodoxy in the visual, but, in fact, it is religious experience that lies at the heart of her concern: how divinisation of committed individuals is envisaged within the two systems, and what might flow from this in respect of such issues as religious devotion more generally, attitudes to suffering, the treatment of the body, and the cult of saints.

A dialogue in which one side believes that it already possesses all truth will inevitably be somewhat lopsided; and, indeed, admissions of imperfection even in the practice of Orthodoxy as distinct from its doctrines are few and far between. None the less, despite such faults, this is, perhaps somewhat surprisingly, a rich and rewarding book.

One reason is that Frost is not only very widely read, but also frequently judicious in her evaluation of what others have written. But there is a deeper reason, in that her account of Hinduism is still, as it were, written from the inside. So she is able to reflect deeply and seriously on prayers, hymns, and mental images that were once her own and remain so for some of her family and friends.

Often when Christians write on another religion, they press home apparent inconsistencies rather than acknowledge that lived religions (including Christianity) sometimes prefer unresolved paradoxes. Frost, however, is fully aware of such problems, and so, for instance, on karma notes how freedom and determinism are both allowed a legitimate place in Hindu thinking more generally.

The experience of Hinduism as a lived religion is so well described that this reader at least found new sympathies that had hitherto not existed, indeed so much so that, when it came to the critique, I sometimes found myself wondering whether the alleged fault was any worse than what is present also within Orthodoxy or Christianity more generally.

Most of these issues are too complex to note briefly. An exception, however, is the new Hindu cult of Mother India (the goddess Bharatamata). While deeply regrettable, is it any worse a perversion than the close alliance of Russian Orthodoxy with, first, the Tsarist state and, now, with Vladimir Putin?

The Revd Dr David Brown is Emeritus Professor of Theology, Aesthetics and Culture at the University of St Andrews.

The Human Icon: A comparative study of Hindu and Orthodox Christian beliefs
Christine Mangala Frost
James Clarke & Co. £25

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