Pietists and Contextualists: The Indian Situation

by Max L. Stackhouse

At the time this article was written, Max L. Stackhouse taught at Andover Newton Theological School, Newton Centre, Massachusetts. He subsequently taught at Princeton Theological Seminary.

This article appeared in The Christian Century, January 20, l993, pp 56-58. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscriptions can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This text was prepared for Religion Online by John C. Purdy.


The author reports on a visit to India, in which he observed that Christianity is being contextualized in ways both unexpected and not of great interest to traditional theologians.

Contextuality issues are prominent among Indian theologians today, as I found out some months ago at an intense, weeklong seminar hosted by the United Theological College in Bangalore. Several international participants joined Indian scholars in assessing the Indian situation and comparing it with Western traditions.

In some ways the West continues to influence Indian Christianity, though it has provoked a deep anticolonialist reaction. India's language of protest, drawn largely from Marxism, is changing, however, mostly because of the failures of socialism around the world, as several speakers mentioned. This is an especially difficult development for India, since it had almost become a client state of the U.S.S.R. and a leader in the quest for a "third way." Christian as well as other intellectuals have become deeply attached to socialist views.

This attachment was evident in what one participant called the 'hijacking" of the conference by members of the Ecumenical Association of Third World Theologians (EATWOT), who tried to turn it into forum for liberation theology. That judgment may be too strong, but considerable respect was accorded Russell Chandran, previous principal of UTC and a longtime active member of the Christian Peace Conference, who delivered a vintage"radical social change" paper with characteristic vigor.

Also honored were James Cone, who offered impassioned reflections on praxis and the experience of the oppressed, and Chung Hyun Kyung, the Korean professor who had caused such a stir at the Canberra meeting of the World Council of Churches, who again called for the fusing of liberation thought with indigenous shamanism and a large dose of romantic naturalism. Tissa Balsuriya from Sri Lanka mounted an attack on the doctrine of the Trinity as an example of Western imperialistic theology. Others pointed to more "universalistic" ways of construing the Indian context and seeing it in continuity with classic Christian traditions.

Two of the most fascinating features of the conversation for me were first, the references to "Dalit Theology," and second, the participants' ambivalence toward interreligious dialogue. "Dalit" is the self-chosen name for what others call untouchables, outcasts or Harijans. Dalit theology has obviously borrowed from recent Latin American liberation and Korean minjung theologies, although there were warnings from the podium and from the floor that more nuanced modes of analysis should be cultivated.

Given the emphasis on Dalit theology, I decided to join a demonstration by the Dalit Christian Movement on Dalit Justice Sunday. None of the demonstrators were interested in liberation thought. They were basically pietists, singing hymns, traditional lyrics and Christianized bajans (Hindu devotional songs) as they demonstrated. Their conversations, speeches and tracts focused on human rights, constitutional liberties and traditional issues of development. They were most vexed by religious discrimination on the part of the state against those who, were they not Christian, would be eligible for the Indian versions of equal opportunity" and "affirmative action." They were eager to get their sons and daughters into schools and colleges and thereby into the jobs being created by "privatization," "deregulation" and 'liberalization."

Nor were they particularly interested in dialogue with the non-Christian religions, although some of the leaders expressed high regard for theologians Stanley Samartha and M. M. Thomas, both now retired, who have written carefully and spoken widely on these questions as well as on Dalit rights. Although many of the demonstrators share oppressive living conditions with Hindus and Muslims, the dramatic rise of militant Hindu movements (especially the Rama Sewak Sangh) and the Islamic counterpart (the ISS) makes interreligious dialogue difficult at the grass roots. Hindu nationalist and Islamic fundamentalist groups are refurbishing temples and mosques and developing study groups and "shock troops" (as the Indian Express calls them) that threaten non-Hindus (or, in other areas, non-Muslims) in ways not far removed from KKK tactics.

In any event the pietistic Christian Dalits that I met, both the Catholics and the evangelicals, were interested more in conversion than conversation. Although they want to preserve a "secular state" in the face of Hindu nationalism and Islamic separatism (or Sikh independence), they only halfheartedly support those parties that most energetically promote secularism.

At the UTC seminar, Dayanchand Carr, a teacher at Tamil Nadu Theological College who has investigated beatings and murders of Dalit Christians, expressed grave suspicion of those who are eager to engage in dialogue with Hindus and Muslims without studying the social implications of these faiths. His several forceful interventions suggested that the impetus to dialogue and the impetus to justice may conflict with one another in many cases. The more prophetic forms of Christianity that press toward human rights and social justice are precisely those most under attack by non-Christian militants at local levels, and many activists want to bring judgment against these religions.

Social and ethical theories that deal with such phenomena (and that go beyond the rather tired and crude tools of class and power analysis) are not easy to find in India. The modes of analysis that dominated the period of decolonization played down the importance of religion, for it seemed to be the key source of conflict. It turns out, however, that conflicts based on the mobilization of economic interests or political power are at least as divisive. Further, they not infrequently use religion as a weapon to inflame communal passions.

That fact should give us pause. The use of and appeal to religious communalism is effective (at least in the short run) precisely because increasingly more people are finding a greater sense of common purpose in traditional religions than in political parties or secular ideologies. The nonreligious or antireligious social analysis assumed by Indian "modernists" at least since Nehru failed to recognize the continuing power of ancient traditions and faiths.

Contrary to the expectations of a number of modernization theories, the traditional religions may prove more capable of capturing the people's real interests and of offering a convincing interpretation of life than the secular alternatives. Not only Hindu nationalism, Islamic fundamentalism and Buddhist militancy but other new "spiritual" movements are attracting followers. ISKCON (Krishna Consciousness), for example, is planning to build in Bangalore a massive ten-story temple with an amphitheater for 10,000, an adjoining library, lecture hall and TV production studio, all surrounded by an elaborate park.

While much is traditional and ancient in India, change is striking and dramatic. The most remarkable feature is the blossoming of a new middle class. There is a new three-story commercial building in Bangalore that houses shops selling hundreds of new household conveniences from blenders to hot water heaters to microwave ovens. It hums with the chatter of salesmen and crowds of eager young couples who have left most traces of the traditional "joint-family" behind. People are discovering new needs and wants as well as new practical skills in user-friendly technologies.

Apartment buildings, hotels, office and industrial centers and shopping centers as well as acres and acres of middle-class homes are emerging in sprawling neighborhoods. India's gross national product has grown over the past two years at the rate of about 7.5 percent, which compares favorably with the Pacific Rim countries and surpasses the West. I heard the son of an Indian scholar speak with pride of how his new firm had just beaten a Japanese subsidiary in getting a contract for export to Southeast Asia. A young man who is about to marry the daughter of a friend explained to me how advertising is beginning to penetrate the villages and spark development of a kind that surpasses a quarter century of Five Year Plans. A young Catholic soap manufacturer who had left the priesthood told of his success at making high quality products that can undersell Western imports. All are Christians who wanted to discuss how faith relates to modern life.

The book stores reveal several innovations as well. The volumes on Indian culture and identity that dominated stores in the 1970s were pushed aside in the 1980s to make room for manuals on technology and management. Both genres are still there, but they have been edged out by rows of greeting cards and stacks of books on human relationships. That there is a market for these items suggests not only increased discretionary income for at least a portion of the population, but an intense desire to establish and preserve new forms of friendship.

New developments are noticeable in other places. Restaurants and shops are flooded with middle-class young adults, who discuss traditional Indian topics -- family, politics and the state of one's intestines (a persistent problem in India for much of the population and most visitors)-as well as auto parts, marketing possibilities, supplier contracts and the new religious groups that they have joined.

Change has affected not only the upper and middle classes. Of the several slums I have visited periodically since 1973, one is gone, replaced by two-decker row houses, and another is being transformed into a lower-middle-class manufacturing neighborhood. Previously the only visible businesses were bicycle repair shops; paper, rag and tin recycling enterprises; tiny tea and cigarette stalls; and water and vegetable vendors. Now the area has electricity and standpipe plumbing; auto and scooter repair shops using power tools; small factories making cardboard and sheet-metal containers; and cheap restaurants and phone booths. The area also has four computer shops. To be sure, many places are not developing so rapidly, and areas of squalor and grinding poverty remain.

These material and social transformations that I observed-and that are almost entirely ignored by the most prominent articulators of "contextual" theologies-are matched by and perhaps partially prompted by religious transformations. At the inauguration of a new program on theology and art at Dharmaram College, a Catholic school, I learned that Catholicism is growing among some tribal peoples, and that evangelicalism and Pentecostalism are attracting low-caste Hindus, who constitute about half the Indian population. These movements use a wide variety of musical and dramatic presentations to spread their message. At Madras Christian College, students and faculty spoke of the explosion of independent Bible study and prayer groups that coexist in tension with the traditional churches. Several students spoke with great enthusiasm about these groups.

Christianity in India seems to be following the pattern found in Latin America, Korea and Taiwan: a new indigenous piety emerges, prompted in part by Western missionaries but quickly developing its own leadership and theology. This contextualization of Christianity was completely unanticipated and frequently opposed by the older churches and ecumenical leaders. These groups show little direct interest in the social questions that have concerned the contextual theologians of the last generation. Nevertheless, these groups are having a major social and economic impact in several respects. They seem to be caste-inclusive-a posture that all Christian churches officially aspire to but seldom attain. They also provide friendships for those who have left the womb of their extended family or village for education or work. This community is also a safe setting for meeting potential partners in "love marriages" (in contrast to arranged marriages)-a pattern that both gives greater freedom of choice to women and forces men to act in ways that commend them to more independent women. Further, these congregations offer informal but effective networks for those seeking jobs -- which is terribly important for the thousands of bright young people who flock to the cities. And these churches help members develop leadership skills in a nontraditional and nonhierarchical setting, teaching them how to build and maintain voluntary groups. These skills, incidentally, transfer into the business realm, especially for the hundreds who are starting the small firms that are appearing at every level of Indian society.

Of course, these benefits are byproducts, not the core purposes of these groups. Their chief focus is on helping people develop a personal and saving relationship to Jesus Christ and to live in peace with their neighbors by cultivating an obedience to universal principles of moral law. While no Christian disagrees with these efforts, some Catholic, Orthodox, liberationist and ecumenical Christians tend to reject these emphases because they fail to evoke direct social action in the more usual sense.

In any case, it is interesting that many of the contextual thinkers of the past several decades do not seem to be interested in the social impact of these developments. Some Indian contextualists probably don't acknowledge them because they have abandoned religion as a central category of social analysis, just as they have abandoned the church as a center of institutional interest. But religion does continue to chart the deep course of culture, even if not in the directions the older generation of contextualists wanted.