Yesterday I was part of a small group of colleagues on a sightseeing trip in Goa, India. We visited the church where Francis Xavier, the founder of the Jesuits, is interred. Or, to be more accurate, displayed. His body is now partially visible in a windowed box on an elevated platform about fifteen meters beyond a railing.
It was a good moment for reflection. The Jesuit order, I knew, has been a strong force in the broader Christian community since Xavier founded it. His work in the sixteenth century helped to reform the Roman Catholic religion. And his first concern was to end the spread of the Protestant Reformation, an effort in which he was largely successful. As a soldier by training and a moderate mystic in his spirituality he offered a distinctive faith: his “soldiers of Jesus” were called upon to discipline themselves in their efforts to imitate of Jesus. The Jesuits were and still are exceptional students and activists. I’ve enjoyed meeting a few and without exception I’ve been impressed by their keen focus.
My thoughts turned to a sidebar note on Xavier in Michael Reeves’ recent book, The Good God. In his travels to Asia Xavier visited Japan (in 1549) were he met some Buddhists (the Yodo Shin-Shu sect) whose emphasis on trust reminded him of the Lutheran doctrine of free grace. While the ultimate goal of these Buddhists—personal enlightenment through a simple trust in Amida—differed from Luther’s devotion to Christ they still shared a notion of radical selflessness. Xavier, by contrast, held that self-discipline was essential to faith.
So the emphases of these religious efforts—the Jesuits, the Buddhists, and the Lutherans—were all different: one elevating the role of self-determination; another elevating the emptying of self by a trust in Amida; and another looking away from self and towards Jesus in the bond of a new relationship.
With that still in my mind our little sightseeing clan moved on to another setting. This time we visited an architecturally significant Hindu temple. As we climbed the steps to the entrance, with a still pond below us to the left and the temple towering to our right we were asked to remove our shoes and to wash our feet. We were, it seems, about to enter holy ground. My thoughts flashed back to the Old Testament where the LORD in varied theophanies became visible and called for men to take of their sandals because they were on holy ground, on ground where the LORD himself was standing (see Moses in Exodus 3 and Joshua in Joshua 5). In this case I was happy to take a look from our entryway patio, to keep my shoes on, and to head back to our van.
Later in the evening I was at dinner with my traveling companions and we had a lively conversation. One of our topics is a hot potato among Christians today—and I won’t mention what it was just to avoid making that the point—and my view was diametrically opposed to one of my friends. I pressed a face-value reading of the Bible after my friend insisted that we need to dismiss certain archaic Christian notions in light of modern realities. The conversation was lively but not angry and we all finished the day with a sense of having been stretched.
So what did I make of my day in Goa? Thinking broadly I realized just how religious we are, and that while the palette of religious colors—of life-devotion, personal piety, and spiritual duties—may be few, the possible ways to blend those colors are innumerable.
In particular, I could marvel at the vigor and piety of a Xavier while still grieving over his personal blindness to God’s free grace through a living relationship birthed by Christ’s love that he wittingly despised.
I could appreciate the Hindu devotion to external holiness—to the behavioral features that accompany the worship of a deity—but I turned away from Shiva whose shrine we viewed and instead prayed for Christ’s compassion to reach the hearts of the people around me.
And, after our dinner debate, I thought about the challenges we face as Christian who are immersed in a world ruled by the prince of the power of the air and are, perhaps more deeply influenced than we might realize by the religious impulses of the world.
Is the answer, then, to find a religious balance of some sort? No, not unless we mean the balance of Christ’s outstretched arms on the cross; and, after that, a focus on the emptied tomb of Easter. That’s where I want to live my life: in Christ’s resurrected life and in the Father’s love he reveals to us. Let’s call that a true religion.