So then, about eating food sacrificed to idols: We know that “An idol is nothing at all in the world” and that “There is no God but one.” For even if there are so-called gods, whether in heaven or on earth (as indeed there are many “gods” and many “lords”), yet for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom all things came and for whom we live; and there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things through whom we live. [1 Corinthians 8:4-6 (NIV)]
If the multiple gods of Hinduism could be explained in one sentence it is the belief in one supreme being, Krishna, who has appointed many demi-gods with various powers and abilities. I mention this because one of my sons is married to a lovely woman whose heritage is Indian/Hindu. While he and his wife practice neither Christianity nor Hinduism, they try to honor the traditions of both sets of their more religious parents. Saturday, we attended a puja (ritual) to bless their new home. An altar had been placed in front of the fireplace and on it were several statues of Hindu gods and a tray with items like mango leaves, ghee, coconuts, and money. Red threads were tied around wrists and red tilaks applied to the participants’ foreheads, prayers and mantras were chanted in Sanskrit, and Ganesh, Vishnu, and Lakshmi were among the several deities honored. During the puja, things like water, rose petals, milk, uncooked rice, nuts, wheat, fruits, and assorted sweets were offered to all the idols.
My husband and I (as the only two practicing Christians out of thirty in attendance) did not participate in the puja and quietly sat in the back as observers. The ceremony ended with the distribution of prasadam: the remains of the food offerings. When we were handed plates with an assortment of nuts and dried fruits, a beautiful mixture of mango and other fresh fruit, a scoop of cooked wheat, and sweet kaju pista rolls made of cashew and pistachio flour, I began to understand the controversy faced by the early church over food offered to pagan gods. Knowing this was food had been offered to several idols, “What,” I wondered, “would the Apostle Paul say?”
Idols are inanimate and powerless to change food in any way; while they can corrupt hearts, they can’t corrupt food. We weren’t in danger of corrupted hearts and the puja hadn’t tainted the food. Moreover, as ignorant of our faith as we are of theirs, my daughter-in-law’s family wouldn’t judge us as hypocrites for eating the food but they would judge Christianity harshly if we were judgmental or inconsiderate and failed to be respectful of their traditions. This was not the time to evangelize, discuss the first and second commandments, or refuse food offered to us in love. The Apostle Paul wrote of sacrificial meat, eating in pagan temples, not endangering the faith of new Christians, and the relationship between Jews and Gentiles but this seemed to be one of those situations neither clearly addressed nor expressly prohibited in Scripture. It was time to let our consciences guide us.
Christians must accept that people will have different beliefs. We don’t have to accept those beliefs but we must respect their right to have them. Don’t misunderstand; while I joined my extended Hindu family in wishing peace, prosperity, and serenity for my son’s family in their new home, as fascinating as the puja was, I found it distasteful and disturbing. Nevertheless, knowing that we were not endorsing Hinduism or idolatry, we graciously accepted our plates of food.
Were we right? I don’t know. I do know that we let love guide us as we, like many others in today’s multi-cultural world, tried to navigate through a gray area to find a way to honor both God and family.
Tolerance isn’t about not having beliefs. It’s about how your beliefs lead you to treat people who disagree with you. [Tim Keller]