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Jesudas M Athyal

Witnessing Christ in a Pluralistic Society

Witnessing Christ in a Pluralistic Society

Wesley Ariarajah, the well known ecumenical theologian, used to say about
the Christian mandate in the pluralistic context of Asia: “The Christian task is
to witness, not to convert.’ About his experience as a missionary in the
Karnataka area in the 1930s and 40s, Metropolitan Philipose Mar
Chrysostom says: ‘In Karnataka, there were several who would join us in the
church for our worship, but we did not make a conscious effort to convert
people. In fact, I did not try to persuade anyone to convert. My primary
concern was to be with the people. I understood my work with the people as
a work of liberation. That was the time of the independence movement
when, under the leadership of Mahatma Gandhi and others, the freedom
struggle was being waged. I understood such movements as liberation
movements. I could see the liberating work of Christ in history’ (Mission in
the Market Place, p. 73).

In the highly pluralistic context of India, the search for relevant patterns of
Christian witness in most cases is also an encounter between the Christian
faith and other faiths, raising questions of gospel and culture at the
theological level. What is the meaning and scope of witness in a pluralistic
context? While we recognize that the Christian mission is to respond
creatively to the ‘Great Commission’ - to go and make disciples (St. Matthew
28: 18-20), we also recognize that the mandate is not given in a vacuum,
but in a context - a specific context. The question before us therefore is, how
do we relate the mandate (the text - Bible) to the context? We recognize
that there is a tension between the text and the context and it is in this
tension that we find the cutting edge of the gospel - the gospel of Christ that
judges, transforms and redeems - in a context.

The topic, ‘The Christian witness in Pluralistic India’ has emerged as one of
the key issues debated in ecumenical and theological circles these days. To
facilitate a meaningful discussion, we need to consider the factors that led to
a renewed interest in this topic in today’s India. There are specific historical
factors in our country, especially those that occurred during the last decade,
that compel us to initiate a process of reviewing the existing patterns of
Christian witness and also, seeking relevant patterns. During this period, the
‘context’ has changed dramatically, becoming so complex, the pace of
change so rapid that it calls for a hard look at the whole question of
Christian mission today. We will briefly identify some of these factors:
One is, the wave of communalism and religious fundamentalism
sweeping across the country (Communalism is understood in India as the
mixing of religion and politics, often for sectarian political ends).
Communalism and religious fundamentalism have always been a part of the
Indian society, but following the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992, the
fundamentalist forces shed their tactical inhibitions and assumed a centre-
stage role in the socio-political life of the nation. The momentum created by
the demolition and its aftermath has pushed the communal and
fundamentalist forces to the forefront. Today the very secular and social
fabric of the country is under threat.

What is the Christian response to this situation? There is a secular position,


represented by the liberal and left sections, to the rise of communalism and
religious fundamentalism. The secular response is to separate religion and
politics and confine religion to the private realm of the people. It is of course
neither practicable nor feasible to thus privatise religion, but what is
significant is that the secular forces have recognized the threat of the
fundamentalist forces and the need urgently to respond to them. What
however has been the church’s response?

Paradoxically speaking, the same period - the last decade - saw a vigorous
drive on the part of the Indian churches, towards ‘the evangelisation of
India’. Indigenous (Indian) missionaries, often from the churches in the
south and in North East India, targeted the huge non-Christian society of
North India. These missionaries, though often well meaning, were grossly
out of tune with the socio-cultural realities of the ‘mission fields’. Insensitive
and occasionally aggressive evangelistic campaigns characterize the recent
missionary upheavals. It is significant to note that the recent consolidation of
fundamentalist Hinduism, and its popularity in the political scene, is also
largely in north India. It is not clear whether aggressive evangelistic
campaigns by the churches contributed to a Hindu backlash: what is
important is that the missionary work of the churches seldom emerged from
a theological study of the complexities of pluralistic India.

The second issue before us is the rapid changes in our society,


especially the globalisation of the economy. The market has emerged today
as the determining factor and the role of human beings is primarily as
customers, at the mercy of the market forces. The consumerist values are
fast determining the agenda of the society.

Lastly, the awakening of the marginalized people: the Dalits, tribals,


women, fisherfolk etc., is an important factor. As a result of the social
reform movements that were a part of the political upheavals in the country
in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, there was a marked change in the
lives of the marginalized people. There was a pronounced awakening among
the oppressed sections of the society, especially in the western Indian state
of Maharashtra and the southern states, Tamil Nadu and Kerala. Exposure to
the western liberal democratic notions of freedom and liberty, the emerging
socialist dream of a radical social transformation and the modern facilities of
education (especially women’s education), better health care… all
contributed to the awakening.

The marginalized people are the subjects of history and are involved in the
struggle for survival. From the perspective of Christian mission, it is also
important that they are often the objects of evangelism and conversion. The
people who were ‘no people’, assumed a centre-stage role in the socio-
political process. They are today seeking their place under the sun.

These are some aspects of our context - the context where we seek relevant
patterns of Christian witness. The question before us is, how does the
Christian faith become meaningful to our neighbours - Hindus, Muslims,
Marxists - yes, also to our Dalit, tribal, women, fisherfolk neighbours -
inviting them to be disciples of Jesus Christ? What is the nature of this
invitation? Is it a one way process in which we have all the answers and they
have the questions? Or is it an experience of mutual invitation (conversion)
where the Christians invite others to be disciples of Christ - and in turn, the
Christians open themselves up to the possibility of God’s presence and work
among all people?

The Indian Church

When we turn to the history of Christianity, we see that religious pluralism


was the identity of the early church. The mandate of the church was that,
‘you shall be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria and to
the ends of the earth’ (Acts 1: 8). The early church understood this mandate
in relation to Greco-Roman philosophies and cultures. During the early
centuries, the church retained this organic link between the faith and the
context. When however the church moved westward, the society of western
Christianity was different and the church developed an imperial,
expansionistic and crusading ethos. This was a detour from the more
authentic tradition of Christian self- understanding. The identity of the
church as an arm of the crusading western culture has lingered on in most
parts of the world, even long after the collapse of colonialism.

In India, the course Christianity took was a little more complex. The St.
Thomas Christians who were in Kerala from the early centuries were
inherently a part of the larger social milieu here. The advent of the western
missionaries - Catholic and Protestant – however, drastically altered the
character and content of the Christian presence in Kerala. The 16th and the
17th centuries that saw the heyday of Portuguese power in India, were also
periods of great missionary activity. The inward looking samudhayam (clan-
community) consciousness of the largely upper class and upper caste Syrian
Christian community was challenged by the missionaries. According to
Mathias Mundadan, 'It is the coming of the Portuguese and the first contact
with them in the early sixteenth century which helped the ancient Christians
of India to break through their traditional pattern of life and enter into a
meaningful communication with world Christianity. The initial encounter with
western Christianity set the pace for their history in succeeding decades and
centuries' (A. M. Mundadan, History of Christianity in India (Vol. 1), Church
History Association of India, 1984, p. 1).

Conversion & Baptism

Among all the topics associated with the church in India, theologically and
sociologically the most explosive ones are conversion and baptism.
Conversion is the turning to God and baptism symbolizes a radical break
with one’s past and participation in the new humanity offered in Christ
Jesus. In India, conversion and baptism also involve a radical break with
one’s social and cultural past and identification with a new social community
as well. In the traditional, organic societies of India, conversion and baptism
raise serious questions. Is it possible to accept the lordship of Christ and
remain culturally as Hindus? Can Christ-centred fellowships within other
religions be a substitute for the organized church? Easy answers to these
questions are not possible, but it is in wrestling with these questions alone
that authentic patterns of Christian witness emerge in the Indian context.

We also need to concede that in the pluralistic context of our country, the
sacraments of the church are often exclusive in nature. The insistence on
baptism as a pre-requisite for joining the church demands from the new
believers a shift from their cultural and social communities to the rigidity of a
church structure alien to their culture and language.

In India, these questions have more than academic relevance. The presence
of Christ-centred fellowships that transcend the present communal identity
of the church is essentially part of the history of Christian witness in India.
In a survey of the Gurukul Lutheran Theological Seminary some years ago, it
came to light that about ten percent of the population in Chennai accepted
Jesus Christ as their personal saviour but had chosen to continue in their
own religious, cultural and caste communities without formally becoming a
part of the Christian community. Among them there are those who maintain
close spiritual fellowships with other Christians, and others, ‘who pursue
their devotion to Christ without such support’.

Mar Thoma Church

The search for relevant patterns of Christian witness has a special


significance for the Mar Thoma Church which has been involved in mission
and evangelistic work for almost a century. Several of the early diaspora
communities (Palghat, Ankola, Sihora etc.) were mission communities. What
should be the language, culture and ethos of the churches in the diaspora
and the mission fields? Should they be an imitation of the church in the
‘home land’ or can they take local roots? Is the ethos of the church
conducive for the evolution of local expressions of faith and witness? Will the
diaspora and missionary communities ever become the local communities? It
is in wrestling with these questions that we seek relevant patterns of
Christian witness today.

Metropolitan Philipose Mar Chrysostom’s views on permeation as a viable


mode of evangelism too are important. Permeation, he feels, is the
traditional pattern of Christian witness in the Indian church. ‘The Christian
witness of our ancestors was not preaching but permeation. They went and
lived with the people. That is the incarnation principle. The outside society
will often say about our forefathers: ‘In business, he will be honest, because
he is a Christian’. That was a form of witness. This was our missionary
pattern till recently. Today, however, the missionary work follows an
efficiency mode, where we have strategies and targets. The impression that
mission is the programme of a specific department of the church assigned
that task, is an understanding that followed this understanding of mission.
Evangelism is possible only by permeation.

The search for viable patterns of Christian witness sensitive to the cultural
and religious settings of India is not only a theological discussion of the last
generation but a pertinent question in our current context. M. M. Thomas
says: ‘The crucial question for evangelistic mission today is how in a
changed post-colonial situation, the forms of church and its evangelistic
proclamation of Christ, the call to conversion and invitation to join the
fellowship of the church, may take place within the context of the
recognition of religious and cultural plurality and common participation in
building a new just society and state’ (M. M. Thomas, Issues in the
Evangelistic Mission in the Present Indian context (Notes for a talk at UTC,
Bangalore on 19 August, 1993, p. 2).

Paradigm Shift

Let us go back to perhaps the most compelling reason for a renewed interest
in the current focus on the search for relevant patterns of Christian witness
in India - the wave of communalism and religious fundamentalism sweeping
across the country. Religion in modern India is invariably linked to
secularism. Indian secularism is a product of modern Indian history, evolved
mainly during the days of the struggle for independence and later, in nation
building. Secularism in India is defined as freedom from discrimination on
the basis of religion and also, the promotion of renascent and reform
movements in religions, especially those aimed at the liberation of the
downtrodden sections of the society. The Neo-Hindu movement of the 19th
and 20th centuries was in essence the struggle of Hinduism to build up a
religious humanism in active dialogue with the secular and socialist
movements in the country.
Several theologians and social scientists feel that one of reasons for the
resurgence of communalism and religious fundamentalism is that this
dialogue, vibrant during the last century, has become dormant in recent
years. Over the years, the renascent elements in religion were overtaken by
more aggressive and shrill voices from within. Equally important, the
secularist movement, caught up in the web of rigid academic confines and
political compulsions, turned dogmatic. The dialogue of the religious and
secular, crucial for building up a secular ethos became dormant. In the
words of M. M. Thomas, ‘It is my conviction that it is the strengthening of
the closed secularism with this total privatisation of religion and the
development of what may be called Dogmatic secularism which rejects any
relevance of religious values in the public realm, along with the slackening
and marginalizing of religious and social reform movements that have
created the spiritual vacuum which is now sought to be filled by religious
fundamentalism and communalism’ (Religion, State & Communalism: A
Post-Ayodhya Reflection, CCA, 1995, p. 14). The hope for a secular India
lays not so much in the separation of religion and society but in the positive
and healthy interaction of the renascent and liberative elements in both. In
Thomas’ own words: ‘If religion is part of the problem in India, religion must
also be part of the solution’.

Conclusion

Our societies today are experiencing changes that are unprecedented and
historic. It is therefore important that the traditional patterns of Christian
witness be drastically reviewed so that the ‘freshness of the gospel’ can be
retained at all times. The presence of small Christ-inspired groups involved
in the search for authentic patterns of Christian witness in today’s pluralistic
context assumes significance in this context. Such groups exist within the
churches as forums for reform as well as outside the church as people’s
movements involved in struggles for a radical social transformation. They
represent a spirituality that takes the world seriously. The relevance of such
groups does not imply the rejection of the traditional church structures, but
merely points towards the need for us to be open to the presence and work
of God within the church and outside for, at the cutting edge of the Christian
mission, the church meets the world.

In the final analysis, enabling various cultural expressions to be in dialogue


with each other, thus bringing these diverse expressions into mutual
accountability in Christ, becomes not only essential, but also our theological
task today. The gospel that meets people of other faiths with the message of
salvation needs also to challenge the church to transcend its narrow walls of
cultural and linguistic prejudices. This is a process of double conversion.
While bearing witness to the redemptive act of God through Christ in history,
both the evangelist and the church that sends him/her, need to be open to
the possibility of God’s presence and work among people of all religions and
ideologies (Acts: 10, 11). The tension between our vulnerability as Christians
in a pluralistic situation and our commitment to bear witness to the
redemptive act of Christ in history needs to be central to our discussions
today. The tension is between our recognition and affirmation of God’s
presence and work among people of all faiths and our own commitment to
bear witness to the lordship of the Jesus of Nazareth.

Our mission today is to discern how the gospel can be interpreted,


proclaimed and celebrated, in the context of India. K. C. Abraham sums up
the challenge before us when he says: ‘Our commitment to Christ does not
give us the right to condemn others. This land, with all its diverse faiths, is
also God’s creation’. In the multi faith context of India, we need to listen to
the people’s fears and genuine questions. Pluralism in this context needs to
be seen as God’s gift to humanity.

http://jmathyal.tripod.com/id12.html
Jesudas M Athyal

Relevant Patterns Of Christian Witness In Pluralsitic


Societies: An Indian Perspective

Relevant Patterns Of Christian Witness In Pluralsitic Societies: An


Indian Perspective

The crucial mission issue of Christian witness among people of other living
faiths is an area yet to receive sufficient attention in the non-western world
where Christianity co-exists, often as a minority community, in the midst of
a plurality of religions and ideologies. This also involves the question of
evangelism in pluralistic societies. How do Christians share their faith with
their Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist, Marxist and Gandhian neighbours, inviting
them to be disciples of the Jesus of Nazareth? What is the nature of this
invitation? Is it a one way process in which we have all the answers and they
have the questions? Or is it an experience of mutual invitation where the
Christians invite others to be disciples of Christ - and in turn, the Christians
open themselves up to the possibility of God’s presence and work among all
people? These remain the basic mission questions in pluralistic societies
today.

It is in this context that the renowned Asian theologian M. M. Thomas


initiated, in 1996 (a few months before his demise), a nationwide study
process on, ‘Relevant Patterns of Mission and Evangelism in the pluralistic
context of India’. The study aimed at a review of the patterns of Christian
mission in the country, in the context of a search for alternative patterns.
The underlying concern was that, questions of mission and evangelism need
be integrally related to the rapid changes at several levels of the Indian
State and society. What is being affirmed here is that it is by and through
relevantly relating the gospel to the context, that new patterns of Christian
witness can be sought.

The study, though initiated by the Ecumenical Charitable Trust founded by


Thomas, was a collaborative one. The National Council of Churches in India
(NCCI), the South Asia Theological Research Institute (SATHRI) and the
Christian Conference of Asia (CCA) too formally joined this venture.

The need

At the outset itself, the question, what is the relevance of such a study,
needs to be asked, especially as the crucial issue of Christian witness among
people of other faiths and ideologies has been the framework within which
Christian theology of mission has evolved during the last few decades. What
more can be added to it?
The foremost justification for this study is the conviction that the challenge
of the gospel demands that we repeatedly relate our faith to the ever
changing context around us. This needs to be an ongoing process, even
where our task seems familiar and clear. As Paulo Freire put it, ‘what seems
obvious is not always well understood’. Relating the text to the context in
the contemporary life situation therefore brings meaning to the faith
community. That is the Biblical heritage, from Amos and the Old Testament
prophets, through the centuries. This prophetic hermeneutic invites us to
take both the text and the context seriously. It summons us to bring them
closely together in creative interaction. Our texts, both the Biblical and the
cultural - historical, must be constantly put under the scrutiny of our
contexts - and our contexts too, must be defined in the light of the gospel.
This is indeed a dialectical process and we begin doing theology in the
context of what we are used to - our life situations, our texts and traditions.

While we recognize that the Christian mission is to respond creatively to the


great Commission of God - to go and make disciples -, we also recognize
that this mandate is not given in a vacuum, but in a context - a specific
context. The challenge before us therefore is, to define the relationship
between our mandate, as revealed in the text – the Word of God -, and the
context. There is a definite tension as we seek to relate the text to the
context, but it is in this very tension that we realize the cutting edge of the
gospel - the gospel of Christ that judges, transforms and redeems - in a
context.

Within this overall theological framework, the primary concern of this study
is to focus on a paradigm shift in the theology of Christian mission in India.
During the last decade or so, there has been a decisive shift in the
theological thinking on the implications of Christian witness in the country,
towards the perspective of the marginalised people. One of the key aspects
of the shift is the awakening of the people to the recognition that
theologizing in the past was not sufficiently sensitive to their perspectives.
While this study is, in several respects, within the established theological
framework, there is also a radical discontinuity with the past, a critical
corrective rooted mainly in a re-reading of history and theology from the
subaltern perspective. What emerges from this study is the affirmation that
relevant patterns of Christian witness can be sought only in the context of
an organic dialogue between traditional theologies and the emerging
perspectives, especially on the questions of mission and koinonia in
pluralistic societies like India.

The questions

This study however cannot be confined to a mechanical, periodic application


of our faith to the context. There are specific historical reasons, especially
those that occurred during the last decade, that compel us to initiate a
process of reviewing the existing patterns of mission and evangelism and
also, of seeking relevant patterns. During this period, the `context’ has
changed dramatically, becoming so complex, the pace of change so rapid
that it calls for a hard look at the whole question of Christian mission today.
We will briefly identify some of them:

1. The communal tension and religious fundamentalism that have gripped


most pluralistic societies in recent years have added a sense of urgency to
discussions on relevant patterns of Christian witness. Our societies today are
experiencing changes that are unprecedented and historic. Not only religion
- politics relations, but even inter-faith relations have been marked by
mutual hostility, suspicion and violence. In the Indian context, with the
demolition of the sacred Muslim monument Babri Masjid in 1992, the Hindu
fundamentalistic forces shed their tactical inhibitions and assumed a center
stage role in the socio-political life of the nation. The momentum created by
the demolition and its aftermath has pushed the communal and
fundamentalistic forces to the forefront. Today the very secular and social
fabric of the country is under threat. The forces of secularism and renascent
religion, vibrant at the dawn of India’s independence five decades ago, are
clearly on the retreat today. The situation is not far different in the other
Asian societies.

What is the Christian response to this situation? Paradoxically speaking, the


evangelical thrust of most churches has taken a new momentum during this
period of communal tension and religious fundamentalism. Several churches
place evangelisation, top most in their priorities. Insensitive and frequently
aggressive evangelistic campaigns characterize missionary zeal in several
places. It is significant to note that the recent consolidation of
fundamentalistic Hinduism, and its popularity in the political scene, runs
parallel to the evangelistic drive of several Indian churches. While it would
be too simplistic to state that the evangelistic zeal of the churches
contributed to a Hindu backlash, what is important to note is that the
missionary work of the churches seldom emerged from a study of the
complexities of a pluralistic society and the meaning of Christian witness in
this context.

2. The awakening of the marginalised people: the dalits, tribals, women, the
aborginals, the maories, the minjung etc., in pluralistic societies. This
awakening is a global phenomenon, especially following the liberation of the
third world, during the last half a century, from the yoke of colonialism.
Specifically in the Indian context, this awakening is of immense significance
as the dalits and tribals were, for several centuries, excluded from any
meaningful participation in the religious and social life of the country. Dalits
are the `outcasts’ in Hinduism (The word dalit comes from the Sanskrit term
dal which means the broken, oppressed and bruised). While the society
could not survive without the menial jobs performed by the dalits, they just
did not count, in the social or religious hierarchy. The tribals, on the other
hand, are the indigenous people of the land and were never a part of the
mainline social order and hence were not oppressed in the way in which the
dalits were. However, they were historically on the periphery of the society
and today, are the victims of the patterns of development that increasingly
displace them from their traditional habitat. There are other marginalised
sections too, women in all societies, fisherfolk, the urban and rural poor, the
bonded labourers etc.

As a result of the social reform movements that were a part of the political
upheavals in the country in the late nineteenth and early twentieth
centuries, there was a marked change in the lives of the marginalised
people. Exposure to the western liberal democratic notions of freedom and
liberty, the emerging socialist dream of a radical social transformation and
the modern facilities of education (especially women’s education), better
health care… all contributed to the awakening of the marginalised people.
The people who were ‘no people’, assumed a center stage role in the socio-
political process. They are today seeking their place under the sun.

The social movements which led to the awakening of the subaltern people
found its echo in the Indian church too. Even though the dalits and tribals
constitute nearly 80% of the Indian church, their perspective rarely
influenced the mainline theological thinking in the country. For long, they
have been the objects of evangelism and conversion. We will shortly discuss
this point further. In this context, this study seeks to bring centrestage the
emerging subaltern perspective of mission and theology.

3. Lastly, the rapid changes in our society, especially the globalisation of the
economy. The process of globalisation which has progressed rapidly since
the end of the cold war is perhaps the most far-reaching change since the
industrial revolution, 150 years ago. With globalisation, the market has
emerged today as the determining factor and the role of human beings is
primarily as customers, at the mercy of the market forces. The consumerist
values are fast determining the agenda of the society. The underlying
ideology of globalisation is ‘free market’ which is another more scientific
sounding term for capitalism. The free market ideology has strengthened the
hold of the big transnational corporations, particularly in the field of
telecommunication and mass media.

The question before us is, what is the meaning of Christian witness in a


context where a uni-polar socio-economic and military order is rapidly
replacing the values and traditional life style of our pluralistic societies?

These are some aspects of our context - the context where we seek relevant
patterns of mission and evangelism. Going back to the preliminary question
before this study: What exactly is the meaning of Christian witness in this
context? This then will remain the fundamental question before this study
project.
The process of the study

This is the context and relevance of this study, initiated by M. M. Thomas. A


word about MM’s initiative in this study would not be out of place here. He
sought to pattern this study on the lines of a similar study on ‘Christian
participation in Nation building’, pioneered by him in the 1950s. MM felt that
academic studies and conferences, so common today, did not adequately
reflect the collective thinking of the Indian church. What is important today,
he felt, is ‘to know the mind of the Indian church’ on relevant forms of
Christian witness. Its outcome, he felt, would be crucial for the life and
witness of the whole church. At the inaugural meeting of the study project,
he said: “Through this study, we are trying to give a mind to the Indian
church. This must be a process of collective thinking. We must try to involve
as many church-related people as possible. The church must be our primary
constituency”[1].

The ‘corporate’ nature of this study should be stressed. It was the founder’s
conviction that as many people as possible should be involved in the study.
Accordingly, as the main programme of the project, a series of study
conferences were organised in different parts the country. These conferences
brought together in each place, small groups of church leaders, theologians
and social activists, to discuss various aspects of the overall theme of the
study – Towards relevant patterns of mission and evangelism in the
pluralistic context of India. In three years and through 21 study conferences,
over five hundred people across the country responded to the invitation to
join this project. The visionary who pioneered the study has gone, but the
search for relevant patterns of Christian witness continues.

Ecumenical discussions

At the first conference of the study project[2], the historical-theological


evolution of the ecumenical thinking on mission in the modern period was
reviewed. In the post colonial period, there is available before us a rich
heritage of theological reflection on mission and evangelism. A critical
historical survey of the ecumenical discussions in the early part of the
twentieth century reveals the insights on mission in the pluralistic context of
that period. The first landmark was in the 1930s, around the time of the
meeting of the International Missionary Council (Tambaram, India, 1938).
Hendrik Kraemer’s epoch-making preparatory volume for the Conference,
The Christian Message in a Non-Christian World, sparked off a serious
discussion on various aspects of the Christian gospel and culture in relation
to other faiths and cultures. Kraemer’s world perspective undoubtedly shook
the foundations of the prevalent liberal Christian approach and marked a
paradigm shift in the theological understanding of mission. But the criticism
against Kraemer, especially at Tambaram, was that he made an almost
absolute distinction between Christianity and non-Christian religions with
regard to their relation to culture. Kraemer’s basic thesis (which was
expanded in his book, World Cultures and World Religions: The Coming
Dialogue) is that religions other than Christianity are essentially culture-
religions whereas Christianity keeps ‘a detached distance with regard to
culture as the field of human creativity’.

Chenchiah, Chakkarai and the Gurukul group questioned this from the
Indian perspective and maintained that such an interpretation is equivalent
to saying that religions other than Christianity were never open to the
challenge of truth, let alone the opportunity to respond to it. The position of
the Indian theologians was that the challenge in Asia is the proclamation of
the Christian faith in the context of other faiths in a spirit of mutual respect,
dialogue, sensitivity and openness. There is therefore the need to evolve
patterns of Christian witness sensitive to the pluralistic context. The Asian
response to Kraemer’s position, Re-thinking Christianity in India, is even
today considered an important contribution to discussions on gospel and
cultures.

In the context of these discussions, the Third Assembly of the World Council
of Churches (New Delhi, 1961) is unique in several respects. The inclusion of
the Orthodox churches clearly marked a tilt from the predominantly euro-
centric, Protestant composition of the Council. Equally important was a shift
in the attitude towards other faiths. Paul Knitter records that the Council
sought to discard ‘the previous negative, exclusivist attitude toward other
religions that, under the influence of Barth and Kraemer, had prevailed since
the Tambaram Missionary Conference’[3]. Theologians from the third world
re-interpreted the prevalent understanding of religions and urged a
dialogical approach to other religions. They were voicing the emerging
awareness of the need for a more meaningful relationship with our
neighbours. These voices were heard clearly at the New Delhi Assembly.
WCC soon initiated a series of consultations with representatives of other
religions, in a program named ‘Dialogue with men of other faiths and
ideologies’. By the early 1970s, inter-faith dialogue was formally accepted as
one of the programmes of the World Council of Churches.

Another landmark in mission discussions, more specifically in the Indian


context, was when the Christian Institute for the Study of Religion and
Society (CISRS) initiated a nation-wide study on the Christian participation
in Nation Building. Several hundred people from all over the country were
involved in this study process. The participants were led through a series of
socio-political studies in the context of the Christian vision. At the center of
all these searches, the study affirmed, stood the judging, transforming and
redeeming presence of Christ. But we also realized that the new humanity
and the new creativity offered through Christ, is realized primarily in our
struggles towards social justice and the liberation of the oppressed people.

The Roman Catholic contribution towards mission and evangelism in India in


the context of inculcation should especially be noted. From De Nobili to
Amalorpavadas, there is a rich variety of approaches and emphases. De
Nobili, a Jesuit missionary who came to India in 1609, sought to change the
general opinion prevalent then that the Christian religion was only for the
outcasts and the marginalised people. To change this opinion, he interacted
with the upper caste people and those who were in power.
D.S.Amalorpavadas, an Indian theologian of the twentieth century, stands at
the other end of the Catholic thought on mission in India. While critiquing
the present forms of Christian witness, he distinguishes between the
traditional models of evangelism and ‘indirect evangelisation’ which is more
relevant today. “In the past, evangelisation somehow came to be considered
to be verbal and vocal, limited to words and words alone. All activities were
considered either as a preparation to the announcement of the gospel or as
a means to make the first contacts, or worse still, sometimes as a bait or
device to attract people, to dispose them to listen to the preaching”[4]. In
spite of everything, and all the explanations, somehow we probably still feel
a guilty consciousness as long as we do not verbally announce the gospel, as
soon as, and as clearly as possible. This is, first of all, our centuries old, one-
sided formation which emphasises the word to the detriment of the deed,
the ministry of the word and the sacraments to the detriment of the renewal
of the temporal order, the salvation of soul detached from other aspects of
the human’s integral development and fulfillment. Amalorpavadas affirms
that the task before the church is an all embracing one and therefore, word
cannot be separated from deed. There is but a single integral reality which is
the presence of our Lord in our world and history and the task of the church
to bear witness to God’s saving action in human history.

K.C.Abraham sums up these ecumenical discussions on mission thus: ‘What


was emphasized here was that our commitment to Christ does not give us
the right to condemn others. This land, with all its diverse faiths, is also the
oikos’. In multi faith contexts, we need to listen to the people’s fears and
genuine questions. Pluralism needs to be seen as God’s gift to humanity.

Missionary impact

Linked to the ecumenical discussions on mission is a review of the modern


missionary movement which became dominant in the non western world in
the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. What was the impact of the
missionary era? Did it play a constructive or a negative role in Christian
witness in pluralistic contexts? What are their lessons? These are among the
several questions being raised today. At the outset itself, it must be clarified
that any generalization of the missionary impact would be too simplistic and
inaccurate. The contributions of the missionaries, especially in the areas of
health care, education and social upliftment have been widely acknowledged,
not only within the church, but even by the secular society and the state.
These positive contributions are acknowledged, but the focus, especially
within the ecumenical movement in recent years, is on the legacy left behind
in the erstwhile colonies by the missionaries. The legacy, it is generally
conceded, is negative - detrimental to the churches and the cultures of the
non western world coming of age.

A critical assessment of the missionary era emerged strongly in the third


world churches towards the twilight of colonialism. The feelings in the
churches were so strong that the General Secretary of the National Christian
Council of India hinted at the IMC Conference in Tambaram that it was
perhaps time for the missionaries to “go home” and leave the task to local
churches’.[5] Nacpil from the Philippines too, called on the mission societies
to leave the churches in Asia alone for some time so that they could discover
themselves and their ministry to the people and cultures of Asia.[6] The
third world thinking on the impact of the missionary era is clear: it was one
of insensitivity to and arrogance in the context; it undermined indigenous
people and their cultures; the churches that were planted by the missions
were potted plants, remote controlled from the West.

More recently, the focus of the ecumenical movement however has been on
the ‘devastating effects’ of the missionary movement on indigenous people
and their cultures. The World Council of Churches initiated, a few years ago,
a study process to review ‘how the gospel and culture discussions have been
conducted within the history of the modern ecumenical movement, in order
to uncover the different facets of the debates and the presuppositions that
have governed the discussion’[7]. This study focused on a critique of the
missionary movement, mainly from the perspective of the indigenous people
of the non-western world. Here too, the role of ‘individual missionaries’ who
worked selflessly for the upliftment of people is acknowledged. There were
also missionaries who tried to work out the meaning of the gospel in a
specific culture. These however were the exceptions. The thrust of the study
is that the missionary enterprise as a whole undermined the local cultures of
the non-western world.

It is thus obvious that there is a fair amount of consensus among church


historians and ecumenical theologians that the missionary movement in
general aided and abetted the process of cultural and political conquest of
the non-western world during the last two centuries.

Apart from this assessment however, there is a subaltern perspective on the


history of Christianity. We will shortly discuss this aspect.

Paradigm shift

The interaction of the gospel with the local context has been the theme of
Christian mission for well over three centuries. Reference has already been
made to the efforts of De Nobili to build Christianity in India along the lines
of the great religious traditions of the land. Using the idioms of Hindu culture
and religion, he laid the foundation for what eventually came to be known
as indigenous Christianity. M. M. Thomas associates himself with De
Nobili’s experiment of forming the church within the Hindu community
though he criticizes him for separating ‘sociological realities entirely from
renewal in Christ’ by not reckoning with the seriousness of caste divisions.

Unlike De Nobili, the large majority of the missionaries – Catholic and


Protestant - who were in India in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries,
realized that the Indian society is caste based and organized their work
accordingly. It needs be noted that though there was a visible Christian
presence in India from the early centuries, the dalit experience was that just
as the mainline Hindu society outcasted them, the traditional Christians –
the St. Thomas Christians of Kerala - too identified themselves as a high
caste community and ostracized the dalits. Despite several bitter
experiences in the initial stages, the dalits and tribals today affirm that the
first major breakthrough in their condition came with the missionaries and
their exposure to the gospel of Christ. The missionaries combined their
evangelistic efforts with struggles against social evils and for the
empowerment of the indigenous people. The gospel of salvation and
liberation, brought to them for the first time by the missionaries, was
perceived by the dalits and tribals as good news and they joined the Church
in large numbers during the mass movements.

The momentum that was created following the missionary period however,
waned considerably as the leadership of the church passed from the
missionaries to the ‘indigenous’ hands. At the outset itself it must be clarified
that our ecumenical and theological thinking on mission and especially on
the legacy of the missionary era, has been conditioned heavily by the class-
caste nature of the ‘indigenous’ leadership that emerged in the non western
churches towards the twilight of the colonial period. In most cases, the
transition was from the missionaries to the local elite – the socially and
economically privileged sections among the Indian Christians. In this
process, the dalits and tribals – the really indigenous yet most marginalised
sections in the society - were once again marginalised. One of the paradoxes
of history is how effectively the Indian church, built up primarily by and for
the outcasts, could so effectively be co-opted by the elite of the church.

The missionary movement, like all other periods in history, will be judged for
its contributions and shortfalls. In the specific context of India however, the
movement will be remembered as the first major attempt to break the
rigidity of the caste system and bring the gospel to the outcasts. The
question before the Indian church today is whether the momentum created
by the missionaries could be sustained. As long as caste and the ownership
of land continue as the fundamental realities of the Indian society, the
authenticity and relevance of the church’s message and mission will be
judged by its sensitivity to this situation.

One of the major theological shifts in recent years is the emergence of


subaltern theologies that affirm the centrality of sociological realities as the
context of Christian mission. The subaltern critique in India stems basically
from a recognition of caste as an important theological and sociological
category. Dalit theologians today maintain that unlike the gods of the Hindu
pantheon who rob dalits of their life and dignity in association with the
powerful, the Biblical God constantly rejects the dominant values and refutes
human images of God and ourselves.

Post colonial context

In conclusion, we will briefly go back to perhaps the most compelling reason


for this study: the wave of communalism and religious fundamentalism
sweeping across the country. Religion in modern India is invariably linked to
secularism. Secularism in India is defined as freedom from discrimination on
the basis of religion and also, the promotion of renascent and reform
movements in religions, especially those aimed at the liberation of the
downtrodden sections of the society. Indian secularism is the product of
modern Indian history, evolved mainly during the days of the struggle for
independence and later, in nation building. The neo-Hindu movement of the
19th and 20th centuries was in essence the struggle of Hinduism to build up a
religious humanism in active dialogue with the secular and socialist
movements of the country. Indian Islam was slower than Hinduism to
respond to the modern impact and reform itself from within. However, it too
soon produced movements in line with Islamic modernism. The role of the
Christian mission, especially Christian educational institutions, in facilitating
the evolution of new religious movements in India has been well
acknowledged. What is important is that all these reform movements, in the
context of the awakening of the marginalised people, contributed to the
evolution of a common platform for dialogue between renascent religions
and social reform movements, in the process building up the foundation of a
secular and democratic India.

Several theologians and social scientists feel that one of the reasons for the
rise of communalism and religious fundamentalism in recent years is that
this inter-faith dialogue has now become dormant. We had noted at the
beginning of this paper that the forces of secularism and renascent religion,
vibrant at the dawn of India’s independence five decades ago, are clearly on
the retreat today. Over the years, renascent forces in religion were
overtaken by more aggressive and shrill voices from within. Equally
important, the secularist movement, caught up in the web of rigid academic
confines and political compulsions, turned hostile to all expressions of
religiosity in public life. The dialogue of the religious and secular, crucial for
building up a secular ethos, became dormant. In the words of M. M. Thomas,
‘it is my conviction that it is the strengthening of the closed secularism with
this total privatization of religion and the development of what may be called
dogmatic secularism which rejects any relevance of religious values in the
public realm, along with the slackening and marginalising of religious and
social reform movements, that have created the spiritual vacuum which is
now sought to be filled by religious fundamentalism and communalism’.[8]
Thomas however goes on to say that the hope for a secular India lies not so
much in the separation of religion and society but in the positive and healthy
interaction of the renascent and liberative elements in both. In his own
words, ‘if religion is part of the problem in India, religion must also be part
of the solution’.

Conclusion

In our pluralistic societies, there are several current issues within the
context of which alone can we discuss relevant patterns of Christian witness.
K. C. Abraham lists them as, (1) the emergence of the struggles of the
marginalised people for identity and justice. Is there a vital link between
identity and mission? (2) The issue of globalisation. A new value system is
emerging where market is central to all human endeavours and where
human beings themselves are primarily consumers. (3). The ecological crisis
and the degradation of the environment. These bring into focus the patterns
of development available today. A new awareness – that creation is integral
to God’s mission – is needed now. (4) Lastly, the search for new patterns of
Christian witness need be put within the larger framework of a vision for the
future. A vision that embraces life in its totality and expresses the creativity
of the humankind is required today. The search for this cannot be left to the
academicians or theologians alone; it has to be a participatory process in
which the entire church and the whole inhabited world itself are involved.[9]

Asia is a land of diversities. Diversities in religion often tend to overlap with


sociological divisions. There is therefore the need to understand the
theological aspects of gospel and cultures in relation to the sociological
realities. The perspective of the indigenous people that it is the Christian
faith, brought to them by the western missionaries, that liberated them from
their traditional bondage and exclusion, is significant in this context. Such
insights also call for a re-appraisal of the role of missions and missionaries,
from the Asian perspective. As D. T. Niles puts it, ‘There is no task greater
right now than that of re-defining the missions of the churches in terms of
the mission of the church’.[10]

In the final analysis, enabling various cultural expressions to be in dialogue


with each other, thus bringing these diverse expressions into mutual
accountability in Christ, become not only essential, but our theological task
today. The gospel that meets people of other faiths with the message of
salvation needs also to challenge the church to transcend its walls of cultural
and historical prejudices. This is a process of double conversion. While
bearing witness to the redemptive act of God through Christ in history, both
the evangelist and the church too need to be open to the possibility of God’s
presence and work among people of all faiths. The tension between our
openness – our vulnerability - in a pluralistic situation and our commitment
to evangelize needs to be central to our discussions today. The tension is
between our recognition and affirmation of God’s presence and work among
people of all faiths on the one hand and our own commitment to bear
witness to the lordship of the Jesus of Nazareth on the other. The challenge
of the gospel demands us to repeatedly relate God’s mission to the context,
for, at the cutting edge of the mission, the church meets the world. The
Church is defined by the necessity of proclaiming the saving activity of God
through Christ in history. The central ecclesiological concern in pluralistic
societies like ours, is the search for contextual forms of proclamation -
evangelisation. That is also the central theme of this study.

[1] Minutes of the Preparatory meeting (Bishop’s College, Calcutta), September 26, 1995
[2] Gurukul College, Madras, 15 – 17 February, 1996
[3] Paul F. Knitter, No Other Name?, Orbis Books, Maryknoll, New York, 1985, p. 111
[4] D.S.Amalorpavadas, The Theology of Indirect Evangelisation, pp. 10 – 11
[5] Wesley S. Ariarajah, Gospel and Culture: An Ongoing Discussion within the Ecumenical
Movement, WCC Publications, Geneva, 1994, p. 19
[6] Ibid
[7] Ibid, p. viii
[8] J. John & Jesudas Athyal, Religion, State & Communalism : A Post
Ayodhya Reflection, Christian Conference of Asia, 1995, p. 14
[9] Mission – Evangelism Study Pamphlet – I (Mission Evangelism Study Project), Madras,
1996, p. 4
[10] Niles, D. T., Upon the Earth, p. 16