Chapter 12: Towards an Alternative Paradigm

The Church’s Mission and Post-Modern Humanism
by M. M. Thomas

Chapter 12: Towards an Alternative Paradigm

A talk at the Fr. Kappen Memorial Seminar on 3 January 1994 on the topic at Bangalore.



It is in the fitness of things that the various Christian and other voluntary organizations in Bangalore have jointly convened this Seminar on the 70th birthday of the late Fr. Sebastian Kappen, to reflect on the theme, An Alternative Paradigm. This theme was very much a central concern of Kappen’ s thinking and teaching over the years. The Seminar is an expression of our deep gratitude and appreciation of the life and thought of one who was friend, philosopher and guide to a lot of young people as well as social activists in their search for a holistic pattern of social renewal injustice and of cultural creativity in support of it, in our time.

I express my thanks to David Selvaraj and his colleagues for their kind invitation to me to participate in the Seminar. I consider myself, along with many others of my generation, as a “friend and intellectual companion” of Kappen. I remember the many private and public occasions in Bangalore. Trivandrum and Thiruvalla, of our relaxed conversations on the theme and its related theological issues. Many years ago, probably in the late fifties or the early sixties, I remember him taking me to a Bangalore slum to meet a group of AICUF students including a much younger Rajen Chandy, who were in the search of a new paradigm of socially relevant higher education as an alternative to the existing University structure. Kappen was with them inspiring their search. It was last October that I met him last. He came to see me in the UTCollege Annex where I was staying for a few days, some time before he was going to lecture to the theological college students on an alternative cultural paradigm and we talked about it and other matters. Many of us gathered here have similar perhaps more intimate personal remembrances. We seek today to celebrate the spiritual and intellectual inspiration Kappen gave us and others through his life and teachings, and to resolve together to continue the work of the renewal of religion, culture and society in India to which cause he was committed.

In this presentation my aim is to outline the thought of Kappen on the theme as I understand it. I have not done any systematic study of Kappen’s writings, but I have kept touch with them in a general way. So I hope I have not totally misunderstood him, but I apologize for the inadequacy of my attempt.


Kappen wrote a great deal on the development of a counter-culture as a necessary path towards the transformation of society with justice to the people. By culture I suppose he meant the structure of meaning and sacredness, of values and world-view expressed in symbols myths metaphors and artistic images and legendary stories and rituals and liturgies within which a people creates and utilizes technology to earn their living from nature and organizes their social institutions relating men and women to one another within the community and builds communication with other peoples. What lie wanted was the development of a counter-culture which would subvert the existing culture of modernization, because the latter is too lopsided to understand what he called the Total Man, that is, the pluralistic dimensions of the being and becoming of the humans. Because of this lopsidedness, it produces a one-dimensional technocratic approach which increasingly becomes depersonalizing to all humans involved, oppressive to the people at the bottom and destructive of the ecological basis of life itself on earth. Its ultimate inhuman character is symbolized by the “technology of genocide” characteristic of Fascism, communal riots and modern war. The culture and the social process it gives support, have to be totally negated. The quarterly which he edited for some years was called The Negations. The present has to be negated in the name of the future in such a way that the negation has in it the presence of the future now.

Of course the basic central elements in the making of the counter-culture and the germ of the future society are the forces released by the self-awakening and the struggle for self-identity and justice of the traditionally oppressed peoples of India. He has stated categorically, “The forces that can recreate Indian society can emerge from the repressed cultures of the lower castes, outcastes and the tribals”(Jesus and Cultural Revolution p.51). But there are traditional elements in the past history of the Indian peoples which have the potential to strengthen the counter-forces. He specially notes the great significance of three movements expressing the Indian tradition of dissent- “first voiced by the Buddha, later taken over by the social radicals of the medieval bhakti movement and finally re-echoing the messianic movements of the low-castes, outcastes and tribals in colonial and post-colonial times”. And he adds, “Any future cultural revolution will have to maintain continuity with this tradition of contestation. This forms the basis for a counter-cultural movement and a subversive creative practice” (Religion Ideology and Counter-culture p. 31).

At the same time he points out that these movements have to be saved from the forces which have smothered them. For instance, the Buddhist protest tradition, was “sucked into the whirlpool of cosmic religiosity of the Tantric-Saivite version” and needs to be liberated from that whirlpool to regain its prophetic ethical character. Perhaps the same is true for the protest character of bhakti. As for the dalit-tribal messianic movements of colonial and post-colonial times they emerged within the framework of Indian nationalism which has three strands, namely the Communitarian, the Secular and the Hegemonic. of which the Hegemonic ie. Communalism, Hindu Nationalism in particular, seeks to suppress them or coopt them and make them toothless. Communitarian and Secular ideologies of Indian nationalism provide the only framework within which religious and cultural pluralism and movements of weaker sections within the nation are permitted to contribute to radical counter-culture and social change: therefore they need strengthening so that the messianism and the project of hope inherent in the search for self-identity of India’s oppressed groups may be saved from Hegemonic communalism.

Kappen has given a good deal of thought to the contribution of the Marxist tradition and what he calls the Jesus-Tradition to the emergence of counter-culture and alternative society in India. For he was spiritually committed to the essence of both, severally and in their synthesis as sources of his prophetic faith, ultimate hope, ethical social humanism and aid in his faith’s search to understand religious cultural and social realities and the revolutionary responsibility in relation to them. But here too, Kappen maintained that they had to be redeemed from the Communist and Christian Fundamentalisms respectively, if they are to serve the project of the liberation of peoples.

Regarding the Marxist tradition, Kappen says, “it must be borne in mind that over a century has elapsed since Marx gave us the classical formulations of the Socialist idea. It therefore needs to be rethought in the contemporary world context” (Future of Socialism p.10). He acknowledges the prophetic ethical spirit and the scientific rationality which led Marx to his critique of Capitalism as “exploitive. tendencially imperialist and dehumanizing”; and adds, This criticism remains “by and large valid even today”. For, the exploitive neo-imperialist and alienating nature of capitalism is very much part of our contemporary experiences” (p.13).

It is the attitude of Marx to science and technology that needs radical correction, in the light of modern developments. Says Kappen, “Marx was a child of the Scientism of the 19th century when it was widely believed that modern science would solve all human problems and herald a new age of plenty”(p.14). This “soteriological view of science and technology” has become problematic in the light of the ecological disequilibrium it has brought about and the mechanization of life technocracy has produced. Modern science and technology have revealed their “instinctively violative nature” in that they have, by refusing to recognize the organic relation between humanity and nature, have tended to “reduce everything -beauty, art, interpersonal relations, psychism etc- to the measurable and the calculable; their end-result is a one-dimensional technocratic society from which all mystery dimension will have fled”(p.15). In such a cultural framework, technocracy without humanism takes over the State marginalizing the people and their participation; and nationalization of means of economic production instead of socializing economic power tends to achieve the opposite.

Further, universal suffrage and increasing participation of organized labour in the political process have made the modern State more than the executive of the bourgeois class, which Marx opposed. Also, many problems of human estrangement like ecological destruction, technocracy and absence of democratic checks to power have turned out to be the concern of all classes and can be tackled only through “trans-class struggle”. The emergence of such trans-class realities limits the role of proletarian struggle which now has to be subordinated to “broad-based peoples’ struggles” in the construction of an alternative to the present society (pp. 26-27).

Stalinism has deviations from original Marxism, but it cannot be said that its anti-human trends are totally discontinuous with Marxism, for the reasons stated above. But Marxism redeemed and redefined in terms of social democracy, is a very important contribution to the peoples for the transformation of culture and society.

In his approach to the Jesus-tradition and its relevance for the search for an alternative paradigm, Kappen sees Jesus of History as “the revelation par excellence of ethical prophetic religiosity”. Jesus has introduced a new humanism into the main stream of Indian history affirming equality of persons a religious value and changing the cyclic view of history inherent in Gnostic and Cosmic religiosities which were traditionally dominant bringing an Orientation to the new and the future. He says, “Cross becomes the most telling symbol of man’s refusal to be enslaved and his resolve to march forward to fuller life. The dialectic of negativity governing universal history finds its concreted concentrated expression in the personal life and death of Jesus of Nazareth” (p 56).

But Kappen sees that the picture of Jesus of the Church dogma is one which is distorted and “recast in the cosmic mould of magic myth and cyclic time” with his spirit of ethical prophecy lost (Religion Ideology and Counter-culture p.26). By the end of the third century, Jesus’ message of the Kingdom was spiritualized and Christianity was reduced to “subserve and legitimize Roman power” (p.32); and Christian Mission since then aimed merely at extending the boundary and communal power of the Church (p.130). The social message and historical and eschatological hope of the Kingdom were preserved by dissenting and/or heretical Christian communities. In fact, Kappen interprets Hindutva and its theocratic and hegemonic communalism as Semiticisation, even a sort of Christianization, of brahminic Hinduism under the impact of medieval theocratic Christianity (Understanding Communalism p.90).

The Jesus-tradition must be saved from this distorting complex and be made alive by letting it enter into dialogue, not so much with the Hindu deities in their present form or with the Brahminic Sanskritic tradition of Hinduism but with what he calls “the primordial matrix of the collective unconscious” whence they emerged. I suppose he means the religiosity of the village communities of the dalits, the tribals and other weaker sections now struggling for justice. He adds, “The waters of the unconscious need to be churned with the tree of the Cross in order to separate out the poison and distill the new age. This can be achieved only through a revolutionary praxis. Only from a total revolution will be born an ethical prophetic Hinduism and a cosmic Jesus movement” (p.28).

If the church is to take the Jesus-tradition seriously and become Jesus-communities, its mission should be to build religiously pluralistic communities for concerted action for a better world in the common hope of the Kingdom of God to come. Kappen tells the churches, “The primary mission of the ecclesial community is to create basielic (Kingdom) communities” (p.25). “Jesus’ blood must mingle with the blood of the sudras, the outcastes, the tribals and the dissenters of today” (p.27).

In this process, we shall build a composite culture “characterized by the tensional unity of the different religious-cultural traditions” within the framework of the struggle for a new society. He envisages that, eventually a time would come when every religious tradition itself would “become composite incorporating elements from other religious traditions”. This might become true of individual religious experience as well. And he adds. “I for one am weary of being called a Christian. I see myself as a disciple of Jesus who has been profoundly influenced by the teachings of the Buddha and in theology at least by the Siva-Sakti concept of the Divine going back to the pre-Aryan culture” (Understanding Communalism p.96).

Kappen has this word regarding the evolution of religions in the struggle for an alternative culture and society. According to him, Jesus stands for “the supersession of all religions including Christianity and heralds a future when human beings will worship God not in man­made temples but in spirit and truth. That future is also the future of India”. But it is far off. Meanwhile says Kappen, “what I claim is not the superiority of Christianity over the Indian religious tradition but the superiority of the religiosity of the Buddha, the radical bhaktas and Jesus over the magico-ritualistic religiosity of orthodox Hinduism and deprophetized religiosity of tradition-bound Christianity. Jesuan prophecy must appropriate Indian religiosity’s sense of oneness of the cosmic, the human and the divine while India makes her own the Galiliean dream of the Total Man”(Jesus and Cultural Revolution p.71).

I think on this day of celebrating Kappen’s thought on India’s march towards an alternative paradigm, it is appropriate that we seek to understand and appreciate his teaching. Certainly critical evaluation of it is necessary to appropriate its truths by us in our life and action in the future. But I must say that I find Kappen’s line of thinking on religion, culture and society in India most challenging. I leave it at that.