Richard Richard writes in his book The Universal Christ that modern Christianity is in a crisis and part of that crisis is lacking a sufficiently incarnational theology of Christ.
For too long Christians have thought of God’s incarnation as localized only to 33 years of humanity in the life of a certain Jesus of Nazareth, a Jewish man who lived 2,000 years ago in the ancient Middle East.
According to Rohr, this has led to a vast cosmos devoid of the Christ mystery for 13 billion years before Jesus was born and has made it difficult for modern Christianity to see the divinity of Christ all around us, in other people, or in the natural world.
In order to once again make Christianity a living breathing spirituality, and not just a crusty religion confined to old buildings and dry rituals for an hour every Sunday, it is imperative that we learn to live up to St. Paul’s mystical dictum that “Christ is all and in all!” (Colossians 3:11)
After all, the first chapter of the Gospel of John says that in the beginning The Word, The Logos—Christ—became Flesh itself. John does not say Christ became incarnate in the personal individual sense of Flesh but in the sense of Flesh as a universal phenomenon—Flesh itself qua Flesh.
Nevertheless, it is a basic spiritual fact of Christianity that in addition to this Universal Incarnation of the Christ Mystery in all things, Jesus of Nazareth as an individual human being was a specialized locus of Divine Incarnation insofar as his life as a phenomenon was a spiritual spectacle, filled with marvels, exemplary esoteric and ethical teachings, and ultimately culminating in the reality of His conquering Death itself.
But ever since his Resurrection and Ascension, Christianity has had a long tradition of expecting a second incarnation of Christ.
And as much as I find great wisdom and beauty in Richard Rohr’s contemplative and mystical interpretation of the Christ Mystery as a universal phenomenon, I have my suspicions that it is a little too esoteric to become the mass theological movement needed to break the spell of Christianity’s ruinous spiritual decline into sectarianism, materialistic preachings of the “prosperity gospel”, political corruptions of abuse and power, and all the terrible trappings of hierarchically organized religion.
I do not mean to paint the history of Christianity in a purely negative light. It has done much good in this world and has a beautiful spiritual tradition that should be preserved at all costs.
But any objective observer of the decline of Christianity cannot but help but notice the rise of materialism, atheism, cynicism, and nihilism, and the great “Crisis of Meaning” in the West coincides with the general decline of Christianity as a living spiritual reality.
I am of the opinion that if the Western world is going to conquer the corrupting influence of the materialistic worldview, we need a new incarnational theology that is not abstract or mystical in the sense of Richard Rohr’s Universal Christ.
What we need is a new incarnational theology for the modern age that is based on a new spiritual fact of incarnation just the same as the whole spiritual power of Christianity as an explosive new religious movement was based on the spiritual fact of divine incarnation into Jesus of Nazareth 2,000 years ago.
Sri Ramakrishna as a New Incarnation
As the title of this essay indicates, I believe that such a new incarnational fact has already occurred in the modern world. He was born in West Bengal India on February 18, 1836, and his name was Sri Ramakrishna.
As a philosophy based on recurring cycles, Hinduism has long recognized the role of divine incarnations, called Avatars, who come to Earth as humans with the purpose of revitalizing religion in periods of spiritual decline. From Buddha to Krishna to Rama to Chaitanya, this tradition is well-established. As Swami Vivekananda says,
“That the Lord incarnates again and again in human form for the protection of the Vedas or the true religion, and of Brahminhood or the ministry of that religion — is a doctrine well established in the Puranas etc.”
According to the teachings of the Ramakrishna Order, another Avatar of God came to Earth in the 19th century to revitalize the deep spiritual darkness of the modern materialistic world, not just in the West but in the East as well. His name was Sri Ramakrishna.
His disciples established the Ramakrishna movement, known across the world for its humanitarian service and philosophical teachings of Advaita Vedanta, the highest spiritual philosophy ever developed by humanity, refined and cultivated from an unbroken spiritual tradition stretching back over 3,000 years to the Upanishads.
But far from being just another sectarian sub-branch of Hinduism, the Advaita Vedanta tradition of Sri Ramakrishna is unique insofar as Ramakrishna preached the harmony of all religions based on the Vedic adage,
“The Truth is many; sages call it by many names.”
Sri Ramakrishna said,
“God can be realized through all paths. All religions are true. The important thing is to reach the roof.”
As his most influential disciple Swami Vivekananda so powerfully put it,
“So at the dawn of this momentous epoch, the message of the harmony of religions has been proclaimed. This boundless and all-embracing idea, which has been hidden in the Vedic scriptures and religion, has been rediscovered and declared to humanity with a clarion call.”
Sri Ramakrishna and Christianity
Sri Ramakrishna himself believed Jesus Christ was an avatar of God, and indeed had powerful ecstatic experiences directly realizing the divinity of Christ. In this most famous story, he recounted to his disciplines how he first encountered Christ:
“Some time in November 1874, Sri Ramakrishna was seized with an irresistible desire to learn the truth of the Christian religion. He began to listen to readings from the Bible….Sri Ramakrishna became fascinated by the life and teachings of Jesus. One day he was seated in the parlour of Jadu Mallick’s garden house at Dakshineswar, when his eyes became fixed on a painting of the Madonna and Child. Intently watching it, he became gradually overwhelmed with divine emotion. The figures in the picture took on life, and the rays of light emanating from them entered his soul….he cried out, ‘O Mother! What are You doing to me?’ And, breaking through the barriers of creed and religion, he entered a new realm of ecstasy. Christ possessed his soul. For three days he did not set foot in the Kali temple. On the fourth day, in the afternoon, as he was walking in the Panchavati, he saw coming toward him a person with beautiful large eyes, serene countenance, and fair skin. As the two faced each other, a voice rang out in the depths of Sri Ramakrishna’s soul: ‘Behold the Christ, who shed His heart’s blood for the redemption of the world, who suffered a sea of anguish for love of men. It is He, the Master Yogi, who is in eternal union with God. It is Jesus, Love Incarnate.’ The Son of Man embraced the Son of the Divine Mother and merged in him. Sri Ramakrishna realized his identity with Christ, as he had already realized his identity with Kali, Rama, Hanuman, Radha, Krishna, Brahman, and Mohammed. The Master went into samadhi and communed with the Brahman with attributes. Thus he experienced the truth that Christianity, too, was a path leading to God-Consciousness. Till the last moment of his life he believed that Christ was an Incarnation of God.”
~ Swami Nikhilananda, introduction to The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, recorded by Mahendra Nath Gupta (“M”)
How powerful this story is! What a powerful example for Christians to follow! Even if you do not believe Sri Ramakrishna Himself is an incarnation of God as his disciples do, how needed is his message about the harmony of all religions, the Truth of all religions, and the essential oneness of all reality in the nondual Absolute, which manifests as a vast multiplicity and plurality but underneath exists as a pure substratum of Existence-Consciousness-Bliss: Brahman.
Another story recounted in The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna is especially telling for it shows how Sri Ramakrishna saw that he and Christ were united in Oneness as manifestations of the same underlying nondual reality.
[M tells Ramakirshna a story about Jesus and His devotees]
Master: “Well, after seeing all this, what do you feel?”
M: “I feel that Christ, Chaitanyadeva, and yourself—all three are one and the same. It is the same Person that has become all these three.”
Master: “Yes, yes! One! One! It is indeed one. Don’t you see that it is He alone who dwells here in this way.”
As he said this, Sri Ramakrishna pointed with his finger to his own body.
~Mahendra Nath Gupta, The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, trans. Swami Nikhilananda
Indeed, this message of oneness and absolute unity in the nondual reality is the lynchpin running through the Advaita Vedanta of Ramakrishna’s spiritual philosophy
[Sri Ramakrishna asks M to recall what else in him is similar to Christ]
M: “…Further, you tell us that you and the Mother are one. Likewise, Christ said, ‘I and My father are one.” ~ Mahendra Nath Gupta, The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, translated by Swami Nikhilananda
One of the great texts of Advaita Vedanta, the Ashtavakra Gita, gives a simple statement on how to achieve liberation from suffering:
“Burn down the forest of ignorance with the fire of the conviction ‘I am the One, and Pure Consciousness’, and be free from grief and be happy.” 1.9
Christ is all and in all indeed! Imagine how invigorated Christianity would be if it had the same fire of conviction in this statement!
The Psychological Need for Incarnation as Fuel for Spiritual Fire
But human beings, as psychological creatures attached to the material world, often need concrete images to hold onto when it comes to spiritual life. Most people cannot simply meditate on the pure abstractions of nonduality and realize God.
We need icons and images. It’s why Christianity uses the symbol of Christ on the cross: because it is concrete and gives our mind something to latch onto.
But I dare say some Nazarene from the ancient Middle East who lived 2,000 years ago is not concrete enough for many modern spiritual seekers.
Unless you have a vivid imagination, it is not easy for something so remote in the past, abstracted through layers and layers of ancient scripture and organized religion to fix itself in our minds in a concrete way so as to be realized as true spiritual fact.
As arch-atheist Dan Dannett pointed out, many Christians do not actually believe in Christianity. Rather they believe it is good to believe in Christianity, and thus they become lukewarm “believers” who have intellectual thoughts about Christ but who have not realized Christ as a living spiritual reality. If they had, we would not see such atrocious ethical behavior from so many so-called Christians.
As Gandhi said, “I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.”
But suppose Christians could get around the initial strangeness of Ramakrishna being a Hindu priest in the mold of ancient Indian sages. In that case, I am firmly convinced that the sheer concreteness of Ramakrishna’s life would act as a spiritual catalyst of unimaginable power kicking off a new spiritual epoch just as Christianity did 2,000 years ago.
As a hobbyist astrologer, it strikes me as an interesting coincidence that Sri Ramakrishna, being born in February was an Aquarius (according to Western astrology), and many great minds have pondered the spiritual significance of the much-vaunted Age of Aquarius ushering in a new era of spiritual awakening in the modern age. I believe Sri Ramakrishna is exactly the Avatar this world needs to usher in the Age of Aquarius.
And Western Christians should not find it so strange to find the incarnation of God in some simple Hindu priest from India. Is it any stranger than worshipping an incarnation of God that was a simple Jewish carpenter from the ancient Middle East?
But with the hollow spirituality and empty Church pews all across the modern West, it seems to me necessary to have a concretized incarnation of God for us to latch onto just the same as the concrete incarnation of God in Jesus began a flurry of tremendous spiritual revitalization in the ancient world.
The Spiritual Concreteness of Sri Ramakrishna
Can you imagine if, rather than Jesus’ words being written down decades after his death, his disciples were writing down and preserving in minute detail with great accuracy and verification all his conversations and happenings on a daily basis? That is what we have with Sri Ramakrishna and The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna.
Can you imagine if we had honest-to-God photographs of the living Christ as he lived and breathed in the flesh? We have that with Sri Ramakrishna.
God incarnated in the modern age! What a thought.
As Swami Vivekananda said,
“But as you all cannot be inspired by an abstract ideal, you must have a personal ideal. You have got that, in the person of Shri Ramakrishna. The reason why other personages cannot be our ideal now is, that their days are gone; and in order that Vedanta may come to everyone, there must be a person who is in sympathy with the present generation. This is fulfilled in Shri Ramakrishna. So now you should place him before everyone. Whether one accepts him as a Sâdhu or an Avatâra does not matter.”
Yes, so regardless of whether one thinks Sri Ramakrishna was really an avatar or merely a great spiritual sage, it does not matter: a detailed study of his life can act as a concrete symbol of how one ought to live a perfect spiritual life in today’s age of religious pluralism.
A study of his life shows that he was the perfect embodiment of the highest spiritual ideals of Vedanta, embodying karma yoga (service), bhakti yoga (devotion), raja yoga (meditation), and jnana (Vedanta, or philosophy).
By the concrete example of his life, he showed how all spiritual paths lead to the same destination: God. Ramakrishna never once tried to convert anyone to anything. He strongly encouraged people to stick with whatever spiritual path fits their inclination. He said,
“Never get into your head that your faith alone is true and every other is false. Know for certain that God without form is real and that God with form is also real. Then hold fast to whichever faith appeals to you.”
“Many are the names of God, and infinite the forms that lead us to know Him. In whatsoever name or form you desire to call Him, in that very form and name you will see Him.”
Sri Ramakrishna as Universal Possibility Model
My goal in this essay is not to enumerate all the many reasons why I think Sri Ramakrishna is a legitimate Avatar with greater testimonial evidence than any testimonial evidence of the Christian faith. Although I believe the evidence to be quite convincing, you can simply read the primary literature on Sri Ramakrishna’s life found in The Gospel of Ramakrishna and the many other primary sources to decide for yourself.
Rather than apologetic, my aim is to get your imagination cooking on the possibility of what if it were true?
What if we really were living in the Age of a New Incarnation who lived not 2,000 years ago but a scant century and a half ago?
Would the deep internalization and assimilation of that fact ignite a spiritual fire within ourselves?
Richard Rohr said, “God loves things by becoming them. God loves things by uniting with them, not by excluding them.”
What if God so loved us that he sent his son to become human not once but many times? And what if he did so quite recently, in the modern age, into a human by the name of Sri Ramakrishna who we have mountains of detailed records of his daily conversations, profound mystical experiences, and wondrous spiritual power?
What if in the detailed historical record of his life, verified by direct testimony by a solid evidential chain in the modern age from disciplines with keen memories, we find an example of a religious life so perfect and complete in its spiritual profundity that it can serve as a template for the modern spiritual seeker from all religious traditions and backgrounds, firmed up by an analytical and technical spiritual philosophy of Advaita Vedanta systematized by rigorous philosophical dialectics stretching back 1,500 years?
What if all this spiritual power was wrapped around and condensed into a single core message of harmony among all religions and validity in all spiritual paths? In his introduction to The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, Swami Nikhilananda writes,
“[H]e was firmy convinced that all religions are true, that every doctrinal system represents a path to God. He had followed all the main paths and all had led him to the same goal. He was the first religious prophet recorded in history to preach the harmony of religions.”
If only Christian nations tasted a tiny drop of Sri Ramakrishna’s wisdom—How might the materialistic depravity of the 21st century be transformed into a torrent of spiritual realization beyond the likes of which we have ever seen!