Immigrant Bengalis

Christianity -- Final Frontier of Americanization?
Basab Dasgupta

Although I do not appear to be an "American" because of my skin color and accent I certainly live my life like most Americans. I eat/drink American food (including beef and alcohol), listen to American music, speak in English (even with my daughter and grand-children), socialize mostly with American friends, drive an American car, follow American politics and sports and probably even feel and think like them. I stand up for the national anthem and root for American athletes at the Olympics. There is one major exception though. I do not go to church on Sundays like many Americans even though I celebrate Christmas as a social festivity.

Of course, I have been to many churches, not for a Sunday sermon but just to appreciate their architectural beauty.. Actually, I like being inside churches, especially the cathedrals with high ceilings and domes.  The temples and mosques are too ornate for me while the Buddhist temples are too minimalistic.  It seems that the churches provide an ideal compromise!  The high ceilings are constant reminders of the majesty of God.  I appreciate the fact that anyone can walk into any church at any time without having to go through any barrier or ritual and just sit there as long as one wants.

I loved all the churches that I visited all over the world -- from the Saint Peter’s Cathedral in Rome to small churches in rural parts of Mexico.  The roofs of churches in the French countryside with colorful designs aroused my artistic instincts.  My entrance into the main hall of the Saint Peter’s Cathedral was definitely one of the most awe-struck moments in my entire life! Then there was Michelangelo.  If Christianity can inspire someone to paint the ceiling of the Sistine chapel and the “Last Judgment” on its wall in the way he did, then there is probably something significant in this religion.  “Pieta” and “David” are unquestionably the two most beautiful statues in the world.  I have no doubt that Michelangelo had a divine connection!

I also find another aspect of Christianity very refreshing, at least in the USA.  When any kind of disaster strikes any part of the globe you will find the Christians ready to help with their wallets wide open, without asking any question.  You will not find the Hindus or Muslims or Jews lining up in the same way to donate whatever they can for whatever relief it might provide. 

I often thought about exploring other religions to see what they preach, especially the religions followed by hundreds of millions of people such as Christianity, Islam and Judaism.  However, I never get motivated to read the Bible or other holy books.  They all seem to be difficult to read and are advocating things that are not all that different from each other.

Several years ago, I was dating Susan (not her real name) who was Catholic and used to go to church every Sunday.  I started attending church with her for the purpose of understanding both her and Christianity.  It seemed like a standard routine every Sunday with the same group of people; it started with some coffee and donuts before the sermon, followed by the sermon from the pastor (I later learned that he was a "priest" as Catholic churches do not have a pastor!) which involved reading and explanation of certain sections of the Bible which lasted well over an hour. After that there were some presentations of people with various personal problems with advice from the pastor and collective prayer for them. The sessions ended with the distribution of very small cups of wine and the circulation of the money collection bucket. In parallel to the main session, there were some Biblical teachings to small kids in an adjoining room.

Several elements of Christianity appealed to me. I liked the concept of Jesus dying on the cross to pay for the sins of all people, and that one could seek salvation simply by accepting Jesus as one’s savior.  I liked the pastor correlating events and emotions from our daily lives to the teachings of the Bible.  I liked the idea of people grieving openly and getting solace from the collective prayers of the congregation. It seemed that the entire group of attendees formed a support group for each other, making it a cozy and comfortable gathering unlike what I have seen in more formal religious practices in other religions.

Unlike many people who view God as some sort of a Supreme Being -- far above us and looking after us in some vague macroscopic way, but oblivious to the minute details of our everyday lives -- I always felt the presence of God in little things of life.  I pray when my car does not start; I pray when I lose some important document; I pray when I do not hear from my daughter when she is supposed to call me; I pray when my roof leaks after a heavy downpour; and so on. More often than not, the prayers seem to help.  So, I believe that God is intimately associated with every moment of our lives.  The pastor at the church seemed to be saying the same thing. My father used to talk about the similarities between Christ and Krishna, referring to his guru Sri Yukteswar's book "The Holy Science".  So, I knew that he would not have been upset by my interest in Christianity. 

I wondered about the merits of being converted into Christianity!  Even though, technically I am a Hindu, having been born to Hindu parents, I never formally followed my religion.  I do not go to temples, except to see them for their historic and architectural appeal, do not practice any ritual and never read any holy book or scriptures.  It really does not make any difference in my daily life if I were to be “officially” a Christian or a Muslim or of any other religious persuasion.  The thought crossed my mind that if I were to become a Christian, it would complete my Americanization! I would be accepted with wide arms, not only by Susan but also by her family and “Christian” friends.  Perhaps I was also imagining a wedding in a church.  I like the Christian wedding ceremonies: they are simple, solemn and short.  The three-day ritual of a Hindu marriage is a drag on everyone, both physically and financially.

I thought of Bobby Jindal, the Governor of Louisiana at the time, who later became a presidential candidate. He had converted into Christianity even though both his parents (mother was a classmate of mine at LSU) as well as wife were very much Hindu Indians. I wondered about the reasons behind his decision and if they were political with the goal of widening his appeal as a candidate to a larger voting population. Nikki Haley, our former ambassador to the UN and the ex-governor of South Carolina, is also Christian. Does conversion into Christianity complete one’s Americanization and open the door for bigger and better things in life.

The Christians seem to have a zeal to convert others to Christianity.  That is how the missionaries spread the word of Christ and built missions throughout Mexico and other Latin American countries.  I worked and lived in Mexico for a year and I was impressed by the religious fervor I saw among people across the entire social spectrum.  This faith also makes the Mexican people honest, hard-working and family-oriented.  The Christian missions throughout California are a testament to the efforts and success of these missionaries in spreading the religion. 

So, it is no wonder that the pastor of Susan's church soon wanted to meet with me.  I met with him over breakfast one morning – just the two of us.  We talked about God, love, religion, sin and salvation.  He was ready to schedule a baptism ceremony for me.  It was a friendly and a very candid discussion.  At one point I said, “To me different religions are just different paths to God.  It is like going to the top of a mountain.  There are many winding ways to get there, but ultimately the destination is the same”.  I will never forget his reaction.  He looked straight at me with a grim face and said something totally unexpected: “That is NOT what Christianity says.  Jesus Christ is our ONLY savior”.  I was very surprised and shocked by his comments.   It goes without saying that his conversion efforts did not go too far after that meeting, but I thought about his comments for a long time.

I was always taught to be open-minded about other religions from my childhood.  India, being a secular country, allowed holidays for major festivities of all religions.  All the Hindu holy men have preached that God lives in every living being and it is perfectly acceptable if different people seek God and salvation in different ways. Similarly, the Jews do not consider themselves superior to the non-Jews. Buddhism is even broader in its practice in the sense that it does not demand surrender to a God or ask Him for salvation. Even though the Islamic extremists have killed thousands of people belonging to other religion in the name of Allah, Quran actually uses very generalized inclusive concepts; it effectively says that anyone, Christian or Jew, believing in God and living a righteous life can be considered to be following Islam. Did the Christians get it wrong? It is almost superficial and childish to insist that a specific Christian formality is the only way to salvation. 

A Christian friend of mine told me when he heard this story that the pastor probably meant that whatever way people followed in order to reach God is, by definition, Jesus's way. However, I was not satisfied by his interpretation.

The way I could rationalize this concept of Jesus being the only savior was by concluding that the Christians were taking the gospel too literally. It is similar to your financial consultant telling you, “Just follow exactly what I tell you to do.  I am your only savior from your financial crisis”.  There is no reason to get confused by getting into an understanding of economic principles or long-term financial strategies.  When God sent Jesus, His purpose was to provide a means of spiritual salvation to the western societies which, unlike their Asian counterparts, were immersed in considerable prosperity and materialistic pleasures.  They did not have time to read scriptures or learn theology or ponder about the meaning of life and God.  They needed to get simple instructions to follow blindly and that was probably what Jesus provided.

In any case, I got disenchanted with Christianity and remained a happy Hindu even if this perhaps meant an incomplete assimilation into the American society.

(Posted April 1, 2019)

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