Anantanand Rambachan, a Hindu who will lead the religion department at St. Olaf College
A college affiliated with a Christian denomination has appointed to head its religion department a practicing Hindu who believes that some forms of Christian ministry produce violence.
Anantanand Rambachan, who has taught religion and philosophy at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minn., since 1985, now will become the first non-Christian to head the religion department in the school’s 133-year history.
“It’s a great honor,” Rambachan, a leading figure in Minnesota’s Hindu community, told the Minneapolis Star-Tribune.
But in an interview with Hinduism Today, he wrote of participating in the Pontifical Council in Rome in 2006.
“Last year we met in Rome in a joint consultation with the World Council of Churches to discuss conversion. This was the first meeting of a three-year project to study the issue and to develop an acceptable code of conduct. Certain forms of Christian proselytization have given rise to tension and even violence between some religious communities,” he said. “We gathered to share our perspectives on this matter and to consider acceptable and unacceptable ways of sharing our faiths in communities.
“Our discussion was frank and at times difficult, but we agreed that while everyone has a right to invite others to an understanding of their faith, no one has the right to violate others’ rights and religious sensibilities. At the same time, all should heal themselves from the obsession of converting others,” he wrote.
His writings also have been featured on the website of the Hindu-American Foundation, which earlier launched a diatribe against a variety of Christian organizations.
“The proliferation of websites promoting religious hatred is an unfortunate consequence of the universality of access to the Internet,” said Vinay Vallabh, the lead author of the report.
Among those criticized were the Southern Baptists’ missions board, Gospel for Asia and Olive Tree Ministries, just down the road from St. Olaf, a ministry that aims at teaching Christians about their beliefs.
“We must vigorously identify, condemn and counter those who use the Internet to espouse chauvinism and bigotry over the principles of pluralism and tolerance,” Vallabh said.
Jan Markell, who has been with the Olive Tree Ministries since 1977, has written eight books and hundreds of articles about Christians and their beliefs, at first wondered why she would be listed among ministries hated by a Hindu organization.
Then she remembered a series of articles warning Christians against participating in yoga, a Hindu form of worship.
“I’m big on [opposing yoga for Christians],” she told WND. “I talk about it on the radio, and I write about it. And the irony of it all is, like Hindus, we don’t want Christians practicing yoga either.
“Hindus are saying basically, ‘Wait, this is our thing, this is not for [Christians],’” Markell told WND. “The Hindus get it more right than the Christians on this issue.”
She said her work involves teaching Christians and encouraging their discernment.
“There are [many] different issues that Christians are falling for. They have no excuse except they have no discernment,” she said. “[With Christian yoga], they are trying to sanctify divination. There’s no such thing.”
“When Christians invite [yoga] into their life, they don’t seem to know they’re inviting in Hinduism,” she said. “We alert people to those dangers.”
“Olive Tree Ministries wants you to see how you fit into His grand plan of things as the end of the age draws near,” the group says. “We won’t be sensational. We will, however, look to the Bible as our guide. We call on solid, dispensational teachers to speak into this ministry, who minister in a balanced way, just as we strive to do. We find it grievous that the attitude today is that when Jesus and the ‘end-times’ come, they will come, but in the meantime, I have to live my life in the real world. Bible prophecy is for living in the real world right now.”
Vallabh’s report, called “Hyperlink to Hinduphobia: Online Hatred, Extremism and Bigotry Against Hindus,” describes how “demonic” and “satanic” are the “terms most commonly used today to describe Hinduism by numerous anti-Hindu websites easily accessible on the Internet.”
“It is our hope that this report will encourage ISP’s to voluntarily restrict sites that wantonly promote hatred and intolerance towards Hindus and Hinduism or any other religion – a necessary step as we continue our balancing act between free speech and licentious speech that leads to violence in the electronic age,” said Vallabh.
Officials at St. Olaf, where Rambachan will assume administrative duties this fall, responded to a request for a comment with a statement from Charles Wilson, a professor of religion.
He cited a former professor, Harold Ditmanson, who endorsed the hiring of Rambachan earlier.
“He argued … St. Olaf is a church college in the Lutheran tradition, and Lutherans believe that studying religion at a college is not the work of the Church but rather the work of a liberal arts education in the religious things of the world. … Studying religion at St. Olaf, consequently, must be centrally a cognitive, not a spiritual, exercise: indeed, in the words of the St. Olaf mission statement, the academic study of religion cultivates ‘theological literacy,’” he wrote.
A spokesman for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, with which the college boasts affiliation, told WND the decision was made by the college.
“Our perspective is that that’s a decision of the college,” John Brooks, the director of the ELCA’s news service, told WND. “That’s a decision that they made. We’re not here in the role of oversight. That’s about all we can say about it.”
He said there are some local church groups that probably provide financial support to some of the individual colleges affiliated with the denomination, but the national organization doesn’t.
However, a spokesman for the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities told WND that St. Olaf, even though it describes itself as affiliated with the denomination, would not qualify for membership.
“We have this expectation that they have to hire as fulltime faculty and administrators only persons who profess faith in Christ,” Nate Mouttet, assistant vice president for marketing and communication, told WND.
“This is what we identify as one of the core membership criteria. This issue for us is one that is very central to our understanding of Christian higher education; we like to use the term Christ-centered. It’s an active choice by the institution to bring people into leadership and teaching roles that see their faith as central to their discipline,” he said.
He said his organization’s “wide tent” allows for a variety of interpretations of biblical commands.
“But with that framework these institutions have chosen to say we may not agree with every point of doctrine, but we do believe in pursuing an education process that brings Christ to the center and fosters a student’s faith in Christ,” he said.
Ramachan grew up the Hindu community of Trinidad and spent three years at a Hindu monastery in India.
“That time was very important in my life,” he told the Star-Tribune. “I was able to steep myself in the discipline of meditation and to enter into a deep sense of spirituality. There is a close relationship between those years of reading sacred texts and practicing sacred disciplines and my work now as a Hindu scholar and teacher.
“I have tried to give my students an understanding of what it means to see the world through Hindu eyes,” he said.
In the comments to Hinduism Today, he said Hinduism and Christianity “are distinctive and different in many important ways. … Both, in their different ways, affirm the oneness of God. Christianity does so through the doctrine of the Trinity, while Hinduism speaks of the One God encountered through a diversity of names and forms.”
He also said that his appointment “is not meant to indicate or signal a new attitude or direction for the college.
“At the same time, St. Olaf, like many other academic institutions, is growing and changing. … Today, courses on Buddhism, Islam and Hinduism are taught without controversy,” he said. “… Institutions should increasingly reflect the diversity of our nation and this, of course, includes religion.”
In 2002, he wrote a commentary about a Hindu teaching at a Christian school and discussed “interreligious dialogue:”
“Dialogue is difficult, risky and challenging, but it is a necessity of our times. I have sustained this interest outside of the college in many ways, but a college of the church affords me a unique daily opportunity, both in and out of the classroom, to engage in and to draw my students into the creativity of dialogue, discovering what religions share with each other and learning to respect differences,” he wrote.
In a writing for the World Council of Churches, he called biblically-based Christians na?ve.
He wrote, “It is only ignorance of other traditions or the refusal to be challenged by their claims which enables one to explain away religious pluralism by the na?ve conclusion that one’s own tradition is true to the nature of God and that all others are false.”
St. Olaf offers its 3,000 students 45 graduation majors and has an average class size of 23. Ninety-four percent of the fulltime faculty members hold a doctorate or the highest degree in their field. The school runs on a comprehensive fee of $35,600 per year for students, who come from 45 states and 18 foreign nations.
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