Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan was a thinker of extraordinary range — the short excerpt one of his works in the Source Book of Indian Philosophy includes quotations from the Upanishads, Shamkara, and the Buddha alongside Plato, the Bible, Plotinus, Eckhart, Calvin, William James, and many others. Christians should be grateful to him for the way his interest in Western thought broadly, and Christian theology and spirituality in particular, illuminates aspects of our tradition that we might be inclined to overlook. Nonetheless, his attempt to fold Christian salvation history into his universal mystical theology has some awkward moments.
He begins by noting, “While the fullness of spiritual being transcends our categories, we are certain that its nature is akin to the highest kind of being we are aware of in ourselves. If the real were utterly transcendent to the self of man, it would be impossible for us to apprehend. We would not be able to say even that it is ‘wholly other’” (625-6). From a Christian standpoint, so far so good (Barth notwithstanding) — if creation were so estranged from the LORD as to bear no ontological analogy to him, then his creatures could not know him as the LORD, as creator of all, and God would truly be reduced to a Deus alienus (the above few clauses paraphrasing some page of DBH’s Beauty of the Infinite, though I don’t have it to hand to quote at the moment).
Radhakrishnan goes on, insisting that the analogy between God and the rational soul means that, “We belong to the real, and the real is mirrored in us. The great Upanishadic text affirms it – Tat tavam asi (That art Thou)” (626). He compares this teaching with Genesis 1:26-28 (humanity created in the LORD’s image) and with Socrates’ exhortation in Plato’s Theatetus to become “like unto the divine” (626). Here the theologian in me begins to stir uncomfortably — is the Upanishadic statement of identity, especially as interpreted by an heir of Shankara’s monism, really identical with the Jewish and Christian doctrine of creation ad imaginem Dei? Can the former accommodate the radical distinction — the maior dissimilitudo — between Creator and creature that any biblical theology must insist on?
The wheels really come off the wagon when Radhakrishnan interprets Jesus’ claim, “I and the Father are one,” as, “not a peculiar relation between any one chosen individual and God but an ultimate one binding every self to God” (626). Indeed, “Jesus shows us by his own example that the difference between God and man is only one of degree” (627). No Christian could possibly accept either of these claims, and in fact, I doubt that Ramanuja or Sri Aurobindo could’ve accepted the latter. Radhakrishnan’s Christology, instead of recognizing Jesus as God the Son incarnate, is a kind of peculiarly Valentinian Nestorianism, in which Jesus is a paradigmatic instance of a universal human calling to shuffle off this mortal coil and discover one’s identity with God. The story of salvation is not a story of the gracious Son’s journey into the far country to rescue us, but rather a story of humanity’s disciplined ascent into heaven to find God.