In this text, Kristin Largen sets out to apply the task of interfaith learning and comparative theology par excellence to the soteriologies of the Christian and Hindu traditions insofar as they grow out of the infant Christ and baby Krishna respectively. That is, the guiding question of the text is, “What might be learned about who Jesus is and how he saves, not only by examining theologically the stories about his infancy and youth – both canonical and noncanonical – but also and particularly through an explicit comparison with ‘baby Krishna’?” (6). In this sense, it is a work in “Christian” comparative theology, which is to say that it is about what the Christian might learn from Krishna, and not necessarily what the Krishna devotee might learn from Christ.
The introduction and opening chapter serve the text well both in terms of staging the task ahead, and offering a definition and defense of Christian comparative theology. The explanation of comparative theology and its importance is as good as any I’ve seen. The structure of the text is intuitively arranged, first presenting the data and then comparing and analyzing it. Part one examines the baby Krishna, part two examines the infant Christ, and part three examines their respective adulthoods and enters into interreligious learning and comparative theology.
Largen’s chapter on Baby Krishna does not presume prior knowledge of Hinduism. It offers an accessible introduction to the diversity of Hinduism, its texts and worldview, and situates Krishna therein. Largen emphasizes two key stories from Krishna’s childhood which serve the later section on comparative soteriology. These stories demonstrate the universal form of Krishna and the divine attribute of lila (“play”). The concluding chapter to part one focuses on how Krishna saves, particularly through lila and relationality. As a result, several theological implications about the nature of God arise such as: divine freedom, divine movement, divine beauty, God’s love as eros, and the place of joy and physicality. Largen argues that the infant and childhood stories of Krishna are of particular soteriological importance. She writes,
Beyond Infancy to Today
The final part of the text traces the theological and soteriological claims made about the infant Krishna and infant Christ into adulthood as reported by their respective sacred texts (e.g., the Mahabharata, the Bhagavad Gita, and the New Testament). The text culminates with an impressive proposal for a Christian incarnational soteriology with far reaching implications. In many ways it challenges various tenets of classical Christian theology. In “rethinking the incarnation,” (191) Largen draws on Krishna and the infancy narratives of Jesus (both canonical and noncanonical) to put forth a Christian theology that re-envisions divine love as eros and presents a God that loves humanity in toto, is passionate, can change and suffer (similar to Abraham Joshua Heschel’s theology of divine pathos and Sallie McFague’s passionate lover God), and is playful. Furthermore, the canonical infancy narratives demonstrate the relational aspect of God’s salvific activity (i.e., human relationships matter for salvation), and the salvation of the flesh, which is often downplayed by the non-sacramental Protestant traditions (i.e., those other than Anglicanism and Lutheranism). The gospel of Thomas “suggests to Christians that salvation happens in the most ordinary moments,” (211) – in the mundane – which reminds the Christian that she need not have a dramatic mountaintop epiphany to experience the in-breaking of God’s miraculous salvific efficacy.
To be sure, there is a lot going on in this text, especially in the final two chapters. Largen makes many constructive and progressive theological claims about the nature of God and God’s action in and upon the world. Though they certainly fit appropriately within the comparative context which she places them, they demand a much more rigorous philosophical and systematic treatment within the larger scope of Christian philosophical theology. Although the author does not spill much ink on analyzing the content of God in each tradition, she does spend time examining the content of salvation for each tradition. To be clear, Largen is “not arguing that Krishna and Jesus are somehow ‘the same’” (191), but rather is promoting the claim that “doing theology interreligiously is not merely an academic luxury but a necessity in the twenty-first century world in which we live” (217).
Above all, Largen’s text offers both an introduction to, and a concrete example of, comparative theology. It will certainly inspire many Christians to continue this comparative exercise and take up the sacred Hindu and Christian texts to read further about Krishna and Jesus. The text will successfully serve upper division undergraduates, graduates studying comparative theology, and reading groups alike.
Note 1. A term Largen borrows from Alice Walker’s book In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens “used by African-American women to describe their daughters when they engaged in ‘willful behavior’” (85).