Mission and Dialogue: 50 Years After Tambaram

by S. Mark Helm

Mr. Helm is a doctoral student in the Andover Newton-  Boston College joint program in theology.

This article appeared in the Christian Century, April 6, 1988, p. 340. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


Is there a common understanding of Christian witness that unites both mission and dialogue? Do non-Christian faiths offer alternate and parallel avenues of God’s saving action? Is the notion of a unique validity of some Christian doctrine or of Christianity itself as a religion arrogant?

In December 1938 nearly 500 delegates from around the world gathered at Madras Christian College in Tambaram, South India, for the third world conference of the International Missionary Council. To attend, some delegates steamed for two months across seas that were soon to be closed by World War II. The IMC had planned to hold the meeting in China, but changed the venue to British-ruled India when Japan and China went to war, beginning the bloodshed that Europe would quickly join.

Under those heavy shadows, representatives of the Western missionary agencies and the “younger” churches met to ponder a new fact a global Christianity. The largest delegations at Tambaram, and by contemporaries’ accounts the most impressive, were those from China and India. These delegations were no longer made up of missionaries to these nations, but of Christian leaders from them. Tambaram was the first major modern ecumenical international meeting at which Christians from this larger world made up a majority of the delegates.

The lasting popular impression of the Tambaram meeting revolved around the view of one man, the Dutch missiologist Hendrik Kraemer, expressed in a book he wrote as a study document for the conference: The Christian Message in a Non-Christian World. In it, Kraemer addressed what he perceived as the danger of compromising the Christian message in relating to other traditions and ideologies, a danger he saw manifest in some then-current trends in mission thinking and practice. Despite a number of acute observations on the positive significance of other faiths, Kraemer unequivocally asserted the discontinuity of the Christian gospel with all other religions. The terms, if not the answers, that Kraemer provided for the discussion dominated thinking about Christian mission for decades to come.

Kraemer’s views were by no means uncontested at Tambaram. T. C. Chao of Beijing’s Yenchaing University argued that the acts of God in Jesus Christ -- and in the history of Israel -- could not be seen as a uniquely episodic presence of God in history. God’s presence is much more in the nature of a dwelling in God’s creation. Chao affirmed that the Chinese sages were inspired by the same God who is fully revealed in Jesus Christ. More particularly, he suggested that if Christians were to take history with full seriousness in God’s plan of salvation, they would seek to understand the role of all people’s history, including their religious history, in that plan. Other participants stressed the presence of the logos within other religious traditions, claiming that Christ was truly present there.

The disagreements at Tambaram focused to a large extent on the appropriateness of a Christian "promise and fulfillment" approach to other religions. Those who resisted Kraemer did so mostly by arguing that these religious traditions functioned analogously to the history of Israel in the Old Testament -- they provided preparation and expectations for, even prefigurations of, Christ. Kraemer insisted that the Christian gospel was not only fulfillment but denial. For Kraemer, other religions had a more radically independent existence, and he was thus profoundly uncomfortable with the notion that Christian faith stood as their ‘fulfillment." But the disputants agreed that Christ is the full and complete revelation of God, the one beside whom there is no second.

This past January, 50 years after Tambaram, in the same hall where Kraemer and others debated, Christians gathered to commemorate the 1938 meeting and to reflect anew on Christians’ relations to other faiths. In association with the celebration of Tambaram, the World Council of Churches’ subunits on World Mission and Evangelism and on Dialogue with People of Living Faiths sponsored an international seminar on mission and dialogue. It brought together some two dozen participants from Africa, Asia, the Middle East, Latin America, North America and Europe.

The questions of Tambaram 1938 have taken on new form. The fullness of the revelation of God in Christ and the unique decisiveness of that event are themselves matters of debate among Christians. The "promise and fulfillment" scheme by which many opposed Kraemer has come to be viewed by some as itself an unacceptably triumphalist approach. Conversely, the stress Kraemer put upon the unique character of each religious tradition has been adopted by many who disagree with him and who argue that these faiths offer alternate and parallel avenues of God’s saving action. The very notions and practice of Christian "mission" that were the occasion for discussion in 1938 have become suspect or have been significantly reformulated among some branches of the church.

The World Council’s Vancouver Assembly in 1983 included a significant interfaith program. Fifteen distinguished guests from various religious traditions were present, four spoke to the entire assembly, and a full "track" of dialogue events ran alongside the many others offered. However, a sentence in the report "Witness in a Divided World," referring to "God’s creative hand in the life of people of other faiths," was rejected by the delegates and eventually rephrased to refer to "a seeking for God in other faiths."

Increasingly those in the dialogue unit, and many others as well, felt that there were certain theological questions that required a more straightforward response than they had thus far received. Was there a common understanding of Christian witness that united both mission and dialogue, or was the World Council working on two unconnected agendas, each more or less indifferent to the other? These were the concerns on the agenda for the joint seminar at Tambaram, which looked back to the 1938 meeting in order to chart a new course for the future. Both mission and dialogue units wanted to move beyond stereotypes and to wrestle together with the imperatives of witnessing to Christ and being open to the faith of our neighbors.

Lesslie Newbigin, the former missionary and bishop of the Church of South India who had himself attended the ‘38 meeting, opened the discussion with a message at the commemoration service. He hailed the 1938 conference as a crucial turning point, where it was made clear that the goal of Christian mission is not to establish "outposts of Western Christianity scattered throughout the world." Tambaram marked the emergence of a "new Christendom," living in cultures different from those of the old Christendom. Despite some reservations, Newbigin affirmed the fundamental validity of Kraemer’s approach. The Christian confession regarding the incommensurability of the events of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection with other items in the syllabus of comparative religion must be maintained as part of the very breath of Christian faith. At the same time, Newbigin said, the notion of a unique validity of some Christian doctrine or of Christianity itself as a religion must be rejected as arrogant.

Several other participants were less convinced that Kraemer offered much light for the present. Most felt an imperative need for a radically different approach. Indian theologian Stanley Samartha, the first director of the subunit on dialogue, while agreeing about the need for mission and conversion, called for a much more positive theological appreciation of the role of world religions in God’s mission. Commitment to dialogue sets a proper boundary for mission, he indicated, in that we cannot desire the death of our dialogue partners.

Diana Eck of Harvard University, current moderator of the dialogue unit, reviewed her own extensive experiences in India and their positive impact on her Christian faith. But, she suggested, that faith can involve no statement about what God has not done in other religions. Christians must not confine themselves to the revelation they have received and to their own spiritual experience if they want to know how God is at work in other traditions. Instead they must ask those of other faiths what has been revealed to them, and must take the responses seriously.

Wilfred Cantwell Smith made the same point as bluntly as anyone, asserting that the failure of Christians to affirm the saving action of God not just within other religious traditions but through them is blasphemy. The slowness of Christians to come to this realization, he said, is understandable. What is inexcusable is that they often seem to be slow not because they fear that this insight is not true, but precisely because they feel that it is. To be afraid lest others be saved, he suggested, is surely not a Christian stance.

One participant remarked that in past discussions, from Tambaram on, it was often the case that mission people put the dialogue people on the defensive, accusing them of undercutting evangelism, and compromising New Testament faith. It was time, he said, for the mission people to be put on the defensive. Newbigin acknowledged that when the faith by which he lived, a faith witnessing to what God has done uniquely for the world in Jesus Christ, is called "blasphemy," he was well and truly placed on the defensive.

The exchange illustrated the difficulties even of internal Christian dialogue around these issues. Ironically, Smith and some others who pressed for a pluralistic theological approach sometimes couched their positions in what seemed a strongly exclusivist form. That is, they quite freely condemned a variety of theological approaches in Christianity and in other religions (fundamentalist and conservative ones) , designating them as blasphemy against God: here was the traditional language of light and darkness, now deployed according to different criteria. The certainty with which the faith of many neighbors (including many Christian neighbors) was thus disposed -- by some of the very people championing dialogue -- pressed the discussion beyond vague notions of "respect" for varying forms of faith toward a search for the appropriate criteria for such judgments.

Received understandings of the church’s mission were challenged repeatedly by the observation that a good deal of what Christians see as integral to God’s work with and in the world -- economic justice, peace -- is impossible without the participation of people from other faith traditions. Relationships with those of other faiths should not be items added on to the Christian agenda but ought to be at the heart of much of our mission efforts. This "practical" realization was blocked, some suggested, by a theological outlook that could not grant positive value to other religions.

But an apparently inescapable paradox in this conversation is that positive doctrinal affirmations about other religions require, in their very nature, as definitive a Christian interpretation of that religion as do negative ones. When one speaker demanded Christian recognition of the fact that God is revealed through Buddhism, another asked what kind of a ‘fact" this is supposed to be. It is certainly not one that comes from the self-definition of Buddhism, for it is a thoroughly external construction of Buddhism’s nature. If it is a fact, it is a Christian theological fact -- a definitive judgment made of one religious tradition from within another, on the basis of its own criteria: the kind of judgment that many proponents of dialogue find problematic in principle.

It is also true that a commitment to dialogue and to the view that God is not left anywhere without a witness must share a deep concern for the missionary quality of the faith that carries this commitment. To put it baldly: it will matter little for the life of the world if commitments to dialogue exist only in isolated or elite enclaves, attached to religious faiths that do not spread or reproduce themselves. If mission and dialogue are truly opposites, then the realistic long-term outlook for dialogue is dim. If interreligious dialogue and relationships are to become stronger, they will have to be integrally rooted in dynamic religions that grow -- in the simple, often-derided dimension of numbers as well as in other ways. The participants in the discussion thus found themselves again and again grappling with the same issues, whether approached from the mission side or the dialogue side.

The participants noted that in its theological understanding of other religions, Christian theology tends either to expand Christology (by means of the logos doctrine or "anonymous Christianity," for instance) or to expand pneumatology (dealing with the work of the Holy Spirit in other religions) And yet a trinitarian approach would insist that the two cannot be alternatives or competitors. Emphasis upon an "unbound" Christ already present among people of various religious faiths may sound as though it fits more congenially with traditional mission language; and emphasis upon the saving action of God’s spirit with people of other faiths may sound more congenial to those of the dialogue tradition, who are concerned that the dialogue partners be affirmed in their own right. Real though these emphases may be, from the Christian trinitarian view the reality to which they refer must be the same.

Of course, dialogue in its concrete form is an interchange among persons and not among abstract systems called "religions." But social-cultural-religious systems do interact with each other, with consequences that help shape the context and possibilities within which individuals encounter one another. In our world, a concern for the mystery and wonder of encountering the concrete faith of our neighbor must go hand in hand with a willingness to face up to the reality of conflicting religious and cultural systems.

A look back at Tambaram 1938 cannot solve the tension between mission and dialogue any more than the meeting 50 years later could clearly point the way toward its future resolution. Yet the participants in Tambaram 1988 may have played some part in broadening the discussion of that tension, and in helping the church to understand that mission and dialogue are parts of one issue, not two isolated and alternate or opposing special interests.