Chapter 10: The Power That Sustains Us

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

Chapter 10: The Power That Sustains Us

Talk to the gathering of social activists in the Annual Get-together of the Programme for Social Action at Pithora 1992. Transcribed from the tape and published in the report in edited form.


What is the power that Sustains us?

I am sure all of us have our own different answers to the question. My own feeling is that it is the fellowship of people committed to transformation of society that keeps us going. It is the team, it is the fellowship of self-commitment. I think most of us will be lost if we are alone and isolated. The sustaining power is the fellowship of other people, who are with us in this fellowship of struggle for the building of a new society.

What is it that we altogether are committed to? The Nagas by Jacobs is a recent publication from Stuttgart - a study of the Nagas by anthropologists. At the end of their thesis, there is a description of what is happening now in the Naga culture and society. They say two things. One is, that today the Nags have a vigorous sense of history, which means looking towards the future, the dynamics of the vision of the future. And secondly, they say there is the awakening of the people to their self-identity, to the search for their unique self-identity.

In fact, they speak about three levels of awakening to self-identity viz., the individual, the tribe and all-Naga nationality. These are three levels of self-awakening of the same people. The individual is brought to a sense of his/her unique identity, the consciousness of being a person. The different Naga tribes have become conscious of their separate tribal identities, their separate cultures and history. Then all Naga tribes together are saying that they are one nationality, unique in its characteristics and separate from other peoples of India. Of course this is happening within the framework of an all-India nationalism. The point is that this is not peculiar to the Nagas, but it is the characteristic of all the peoples of India today. A vigorous sense of history looking towards future and an awakening to self-identity at various levels, individual, tribe, all-tribal and all-India. Of course it is the same people who have this three or four levels of self-awakening. And among the Indian peoples, we find various other levels of self-consciousness emerging. We see the self-awakening of women to their new self-identity and to a vigorous sense of history looking towards the future. We have the caste groups, not only the castes at the lower levels but also at the higher levels of the hierarchy becoming conscious of their self-identity and looking back to their history to affirm their uniqueness as people. The fisherfolk experiences an awakening to selfhood.

Where self is involved, there personhood is involved: spirit also is involved. That is why we have to talk of it as a spiritual awakening. Spirit and self go together. Spirituality is the way we manage the self-consciousness. Of course it is also a materialistic awakening, because people, when they become awake ask for bread to live. But it is not just to satisfy their hunger that they are asking for bread, but that material thing itself is taken up as part of the awakening to the dignity of their personhood. Some people feel that if you give bread to the people they will all be satisfied. No. Because it is as part of their self-awakening to human dignity that they want to overcome hunger. Bread is sought as an integral part of justice to their human dignity. Hunger is not merely a material thing, it is a material means of expressing the self-awakening. That is why it has to be related to justice.

There is a search for overcoming poverty. But it is not just to overcome poverty, but to really overcome the destruction of selfhood, of personhood which poverty points to. Our humanity is destroyed by poverty and therefore it is for the sake of justice to our humanity that we want bread. We do not want to take the question of bread merely as a commodity. Bread is an expression of selfhood. Take the question of women, women s self-awakening. Sex can be understood as a material thing, as bodily interaction and can be utilized as a commodity for sale, as in prostitution. But the new situation is that sex, both for woman and for man, awakened to personhood, has to be part of their personhood and exercised as integral to the inter-personal relation of love. It is the commoditization of sex that feminist movement opposes most, whether in marriage or outside it. Only when woman’s personality is recognized that she feels she can have sex with personal dignity. Even in marriage, immediately as the wife feels that her person is ignored and used by the husband for sex in isolation she revolts. So sex is not merely a material nor even an organic reality. So far as human sexuality is concerned, it becomes part of human personhood and can be expressed personally only when there is love or mutual recognition of personality.

You can have a materialistic interpretation of all these things. It will only be a half-truth. You can have an organic interpretation of it all. Though it is more comprehensive it will also be only partly true. Because in hunger as well as in sex, human personhood has come into play, they have become part of the personhood. You are not prepared to separate them from the personhood to make them commodities. If you do it. self-alienation takes place. Materialist interpretation is correct at a certain level. The organic interpretation is correct at a certain level. They become reductionist if they are taken as the whole truth. If you want to see the whole truth about human sexuality and human economics, you have to take the body and its hungers as related to the self-awakening to personhood.

The same thing with respect to culture. New consciousness of tribal culture, caste culture, needs to be interpreted in terms of people’s awakening to selfhood. Therefore it has to be a spiritual interpretation, because where the self is concerned the question of meaning comes. Personhood, what does it mean? I have a self, what is it for? What is its future? The future dimension is not available to animals and plants and least of all rocks. It is possible only for humans, who are awakened to bring a self with spiritual freedom and transcendence. The question of sacredness also comes along with it. The search for a structure of meaning and sacredness is a peculiar characteristic of self-awakened human beings and peoples. And what we are looking towards is ultimately a community recognizing personhood of individuals as well as the unique self-identity of different ethnic groups, cultural groups, work groups. Justice to humanity means that the structures of society should be such as can help us to move towards communion of love between persons and peoples. But of course, that requires structures. Sex has to be structured, food has to be structured. So we are talking about structures of justice which are oriented towards love. This is our goal in economics, in politics, in social life, the transformation of structures which helps and not hinders the dignity of human persons and the community of persons injustice and love.

Love is the ultimate goal we are looking for. That is,  the recognition of persons in community. That is where human dignity is revered. It requires not merely inter-personal relations, but also structures of economics, politics, culture etc., transformed in such a way that they help and not hinder interpersonal love. A community of persons supported by structures of justice is our goal.

The second point is that this self-awakening is pluralistic. M.J. told us about diversity. The working class, ethnic groups, caste groups, women -all are awakened and a tremendous diversity is there. Because of that diversity self-awakening can create conflict. So it is the source, not only of creativity but also destructivity. An individual or a people becoming awakened to self-identity has tremendous creativity; but absolutised or frustrated, it can also destroy. So we have to work for “reconciled diversity” within the framework of universal human rights, including the rights of persons and peoples.

We are not able to find one category in which to describe these diverse awakenings. Class is one category, caste is another, and so many of the Indian Socialists have been affirming what has been called a class-caste interpretation of the awakening in India. But the complexity is increased with other categories brought in. So the interpretation has to take into account class-caste-gender and ethnic realities of society. It is very difficult to say which is basic and which is superstructure. The ultimate basis is the self awakened to self-identity and self-transcendence. It has tremendous creative and destructive potentialities built into it. That is why the poem of Tagore recited here is very important. The dance of life always goes along with the dance of death. The death forces are stronger at this higher level of awakening. We would never have had a Hitler or a Stalin in the pre-modern days. Today the dance of death is as powerful as the dance of life. But then our commitment is to life. If that is so, there must be a reconciled diversity within this context of spiritual awakening. Women interpreting everything purely in terms of women’s awakening or the poor people interpreting everything in terms of economics etc. does not help the larger interest of the whole community. The basic approach of Niyogi of the Chattisgarh Mukti Moksha was to integrate all of these. He saw these several spiritual awakenings together and sought a reconciliation within the same movement. It is very necessary. Our commitment is to life.

I must also go on to point out that the enemy of life cannot be identified outside us somewhere in the Establishment as Mi said. Which is the Establishment? As a male, with my traditional male chauvinism I am part of the Establishment. But I may be very strongly favouring the struggle against poverty. So we ourselves are part of the Establishment, though in part it is the enemy outside. So the struggle against the enemy which is the Establishment is also against ourselves.

So far as we want to keep ourselves as a team because of the pluralism and diversity tending to conflicts, some kind of mutual forgiveness is necessary. How do we keep ourselves as a community of commitment to this revolution for life.? We must be more humble and say that we need to forgive each other. If there is no forgiveness, the team will be broken. Of course forgiveness cannot be carried to the extent of saying that the enemy is not there. Forces of death are present and need to be fought. But as I said, the forces of death are mixed up with the forces of life. It is the absolutisation of one particular self-awakening that can be destructive. This is the danger of deification of reformers and revolutionary heroes. Once deified we won’t be allowed to discuss the person as a human being later. The main point to emphasize is that person’s contribution to the human awakening. But if we begin to deify later on we won’t be able to discuss his/her humanity. Then he/she becomes untouchable from the point of view of humanity. They are all brought into infallible divinity. Actually what we are talking is about a spiritual awakening and a spiritual end on this earth. So we must keep our heroes also on this earth.

If we are committed to this kind of revolution, self-commitment to transformation of life on the earth and in society, sometimes we have to be anti-religious, sometimes anti-god because religion and god sometimes really take us away into interior places or heaven away from the earth. Then we shall need transformation or renewal of religions and gods so that they talk about the earth, the self-awakening of peoples and its fulfillment. So we have to make them earth-centred. God is for man. “Sabbath is made for man”, religion is to be about the future of humans and of their earthly existence. If you take the prophets and reformers, they have been anti-religious and anti-God to make religions and gods look towards the earth.

In the Gitanjali Tagore tells the devotee in the temple: Open your eyes and see that there is no God inside the closed temple. “He is there where the tiller is tilling the hard ground and path-maker is breaking stones. Stand with Him there”. That is the denial of a certain god for the sake of a new God or for a God beyond God. That is the essence of religious reformation, which is related to this struggle. There is need for atheism, because protest atheism is a necessary part of any true search for God. Job in the Bible talks like an atheist. He asked God what He was doing when all these miseries and injustice were taking place in the world. It was a protest against God in the name of divine justice; a protest atheism in search of a God who is for us, for humanity, for social justice. Anti-religion, protest atheism, are all in terms of a positive fulfillment of the new spiritual awakening to justice.

I always considered Tagore’s poem as the beginning of all modern liberation theologies. The Latin Americans took that path later. What I am driving at is that in this fellowship of ours, we can have religious people and secular ideologists, anti-religious people and atheists, and people who are renewing religions and ideologies- all within the context of this common commitment to the transformation of society with justice to the self-awakening of people in our time. That is what makes our spirituality a secular spirituality. That does not mean that each one of us will not go aside to renew his/her religious spirituality or anti-religious ideology or atheistic or agnostic world-view. What is common to us is this commitment to the transformation of the world around us. For that we are together as one fellowship. It is very important that we keep this goal, which can be interpreted in various ways. We cannot allow reductionist interpretations to monopolize the fellowship. We shall accept the materialistic interpretation within the spiritual interpretation. We will accept the organic interpretation within the spiritual interpretation. And we cannot accept a spirituality unrelated to justice in society and love in community and to the renewal of the earth. All this because ultimately the self-awakening we witness today is the search for the dignity of personhood and for a society which recognizes persons and justice to persons in the functional orders of life like economics, family, community etc. All these orders have to be structured, but structured with the recognition that ultimately our goal is the transformation of society into a community of persons. If we emphasize Individualism alone, in reaction very soon the pendulum swings to Collectivism and then back to Individualism. That is what we have in Europe now. Both Individualism and Collectivism are devoid of spiritual depth. Community of persons is something which transcends Individualism and Collectivism. It is holistic, integral and reconciled. We should not forget this search for wholeness even when we are involved in struggle for partial particular issues of justice e.g. women issue, caste issue etc. Struggle requires this particularization. But they must be waged within the framework of the world-view which is conscious of the final wholeness and realizes it, in fragments.

The ultimate spiritual question is, is human being with his/her awakening to self-identity and personhood an accident in the evolutionary process and earth’s history or is it really the result of the working of some purposive cosmic force, God or whatever? Bertrand Russell in his “Free man’s Worship” describes his visit to the zoo. He sees the monkeys and says that they are our brothers who lost their way and we by accident came through another evolutionary path to become humans, all by chance. There is nothing in the universal framework which purposed the emergence of humans or support the human struggle for personhood and self-awakening of humanity. He says, I shall work for humanity to the last but I am quite sure that humanity is slowly but surely moving towards darkness and doom. I have built my life on “unyielding despair”.

I repeat the question: Is it by chance that human beings have come into being or is it by Purpose? The answer to it is an essential aspect of the faith in the Power that sustains the human struggle. Ultimately my answer is a matter of blind faith. Nehru once said, that he could not find any scientific reason for saying that human beings would succeed in realizing the goals of humanism. In fact history does not give any proof. In a sense any conviction at this level is andha in the sense that it transcends rationality. But it is not blind for those who see it as the sight of the self, the vision of God by the self at depth. It is the whole selfhood that sees it, not merely reason. It is the self committing itself to this faith, namely that there must be a Force that sustains this revolution for human self-fulfillment in Justice and Love. Such faith is not irrational. Though there is no rational proof that human being has come on this earth not by chance but by divine purpose, it is reasonable to suppose that human being’s search for human living in community must have the support of a Power in the universe or beyond the universe sustaining it. Certainly here, I am going beyond our common commitment as fellowship of secular social activists. We have to accept plurality in matters of faith, but we shall share with one another our religious, secularist or agnostic faiths. That is a concern for mutual openness within the fellowship.