Book review: ‘Mennonites Encounter Hinduism’

Dec 7, 2015 by

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Fifty years ago there was little public discussion of interfaith or inter-religious dialogue in Mennonite circles or in the Christian community generally. Some academic specialists and missiologists were engaged in interaction with other religions and wrote about it. But now there is wide interest in understanding other faith traditions and reaching out to encounter them.

Mennonites Encounter Hinduism

Mennonites Encounter Hinduism

What has changed? First, the world is much smaller today with technical advances bringing to our television screens and radios the views and religious practices of people everywhere.

Second, through Mennonite Central Committee and other service agencies and students studying abroad, more people have had personal encounters with other faiths in the cultural contexts of those religions.

Finally, other religious groups have come to us. Many of us have neighbors or work associates who have migrated to our communities, bringing with them religious views and practices we may have had only a vague awareness of before. Now those other religions are next door.

The Mennonite experience with religious pluralism has often focused on relations within the Abrahamic faith traditions — Islam, Judaism and Christianity. We have encountered the Asian religions, primarily Hindu­ism and Buddhism, but have had relatively little reporting or reflection on these interactions.

Dorothy Yoder Nyce has mined the archives and published accounts to discover more attention to Hinduism than most of us were aware of. Yoder Nyce lived in India from 1962 to 1965 and has returned on short assignments eight times. Her interest has been more than theoretical and academic, although her thesis for the doctor of ministry degree focused on interreligious dialogue. The basis of her approach to the subject has been her personal interaction with people of other faiths. She was curious about how the early missionaries to India viewed the Hindu beliefs and practices they encountered.

She describes her book as an annotated bibliography. She gives the reader a reference and then summarizes and comments on the views expressed. These annotations range in length from a few sentences to several pages. The writers are from three groups involved in missions in India: General Conference Mennonite Church, Mennonite Church (these two now united) and Mennonite Brethren.

We owe Yoder Nyce a debt of gratitude for the research she has done and for bringing the results to us in a way that invites more reflection on the reported encounters with Hinduism and the significant questions that arise.

The book is divided into seven chapters, with three on different eras: 1900-1940s, 1950s-1980s, and, after a chapter devoted to Mennonite reaction to Mohandas K. Gandhi, 1990 and later. The fifth chapter re­cords more published academic reporting and analysis, both by individuals working in India and by more broadly based theologians and anthropologists such as Paul Hiebert, James Pankratz, Chad Bauman and Ronald Neufeldt.

The sixth chapter is a fascinating collection of short reports on missionary encounters with Hindus. A final brief chapter introduces several Mennonite writers addressing the broader question of a theological understanding of religions.

Early missionaries to India settled in remote areas where there was little education. Understandably, few Indians recorded their ideas and observations about their religion. In the 1900-1940s era, only one reference is from an Indian, compared to 25 expatriate voices. From the 1950s to 1980s, three Indian references and 30 expats are noted. After 1990, increasing interest in Hinduism is indicated by more than 40 expat references and 10 by Indians who have achieved higher levels of education.

The writer’s personal views about Hinduism and Christian interaction are not directly stated. But they can be inferred by her positive interest in religious pluralism and her appreciation for the different perspectives various faiths bring to the understanding and experience of God. Readers interested in Yoder Nyce’s views on this subject can consult her book, Multifaith Musing: Essays and Exchange.

This is an annotated bibliography, not a narrative. That may be frustrating for those who want more information on the items the author has discovered. The archival materials will be difficult to access. But there are references to more readily available published works that will guide the reader toward a fuller understanding of interacting with other religions.

Perhaps the next step for the author would be to use this research as the basis for a sustained discussion of the implications of our encounters with Hinduism. Others with experience with other religions might contribute to a series on Mennonite encounters with the various religions.

This book is available for $10 plus $2 postage from Dorothy Yoder Nyce, 1603 S. 15th St., Goshen, IN 46526-4558, dyodnyce@bnin.net.

Edgar Metzler lived in the Hindu cultures of India and Nepal for more than 15 years, working first for the Peace Corps and then with the United Mission to Nepal, sponsored by Mennonite Central Committee and Mennonite Mission Network.


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