This is one of those cases where google autofill can surprise you. I was googling "Michael Sudduth", the name of a well-known philosopher of religion, to find a particular paper of his, when google autofill provided me with "Michael Sudduth apostasy" and "Michael Sudduth hinduism". Intrigued, I followed these links and found out that Dr. Sudduth has converted to hinduism in late 2011 - early 2012. I know Sudduth's work quite well, especially his 2009 monograph The Reformed objection to natural theology (published by Ashgate) that aims to combine Reformed epistemology with natural theology.
According to Sudduth himself, his conversion to hinduism has two components. While teaching a world religions module, he found himself more and more interested in classical hindu texts, such as the Bhagavad Gita. This was followed by powerful religious experiences (of Krishna) and a near-fatal car accident. He explains the process in a Facebook open letter to his friends. Since this letter is widely circulated on the internet, I will post parts of it here as well, at the end of this blogpost.
What I'm interested here now is not so much Sudduth's conversion, but the reactions this got on Christian blogs. Unsurprisingly, most of these were negative, see e.g., here. Looking for causes of his conversion they appealed to the following factors
- Genetic explanations (genetic in the sense of providing a causal account of the genesis of his beliefs), that attempt to explain away his conversion (or deconversion as it's usually called): he was stressed, on medication, as a teenager he had an interest in the occult, etc. Clearly, the upshot is that he was not in a rational state of mind.
- Philosophical background. Some argued this what happens when you are insufficiently rooted in Scripture (something that those of an evangelical bent have against natural theologians), whereas others blamed his interest in Reformed epistemology
- His interest in syncretism, mysticism and other belief frameworks that are not easily reconciled with Christian exclusivism
I think religious conversion is rarely, if ever, a matter of disinterested rational thinking. There are always pragmatic and contextual factors involved. For one thing, had Sudduth not taught world religions, he would probably not have been sufficiently familiar with hindu writings to know what they are about. And his religious experiences postdate his familiarization with this. But obviously, religious conversion is also a matter of making a conscious live choice (as William James said). The fact is that people tend to underplay contextual factors for conversions they do like, and overplay them for conversions they don't like - as in this case.
I am intrigued to see whether Sudduth will start doing hindu philosophy of religion - I hope so - and whether there will be continuities between this and his earlier work in Christian philosophy of religion.
Excerpts of Sudduth's open letter, as found here:
Since summer 2011 I have received a number of emails from Christian friends who have inquired about a perceived shift in my theological beliefs. I think it’s been relatively clear in my various status updates and comments to respondents on Facebook that I have developed a very positive appraisal of eastern religion, specifically the bhakti tradition of Vaishnavism. For a number of years I have had a growing interest in and appreciation for the insights of Vedanta philosophy and the various Vaishnava traditions.
Despite my long-standing adherence to the Christian tradition, my spiritual journey has now moved me eastward and outside the framework of Christian theism. For the past few years I have been increasingly drawn to the Indian philosophy of Vedanta, specifically the bhakti tradition of Vaishnavism. By being “drawn” to Vedanta I mean both a philosophical attraction to the ideas of Vaishnava Vedanta (and GV in particular) and an experiential attraction to the person of Lord Krishna in my spiritual/devotional life. This began with my readings in the Bhagavad Gita over the past several years (including a reading of Ramanuja’s Gita Bhasya), dramatically intensified in 2011, and culminated in a powerful religious experience of Krishna in the fall of 2011. It was this personal experience of Krishna that inspired me to visit Audarya, a Gaudiya Vaishnava ashram in northern California, during Thanksgiving of last year. There I discovered what I had in a sense known for quite some time: the depth of my love for Lord Krishna as the person who now reveals God to me in a way essential to my spiritual life.
I started teaching the Bhagavad Gita in my world religions classes several years ago. It was a time of great transition in my personal life, and, as is often the case with times of transition, it was also a time of intense spiritual struggle. While I was drawing wonderful support and guidance from the Bible during this time, as I began my systematic and in-depth exploration of the Bhagavad Gita, I found myself profoundly affected by this text. Krishna’s words would stay with me, often arising spontaneously in my mind at times of crisis … I spent countless nights there reading from the Gita, with tears of joy running down my face as I read the words of Lord Krishna and felt the presence of God.