Chapter 17: Emerging Concepts Of Mission in Asia

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

Chapter 17: Emerging Concepts Of Mission in Asia

A talk opening the discussion on the subject at the Theological College of Sri Lanka, Pitimatalawa, Sri Lanka on 9 July 1993 in connection with the 30th anniversary of the college.


I must at the outset say that I am not intimately in contact for the last so many years with all-Asian thinking on Mission. So what I say and the issues I raise in this talk, should be considered as having a more restricted horizon than all Asia.

I consider the following issues as crucial for a rethinking on them from the context of Mission in Asia at present.

1. First, the Evangelistic Mission of proclamation and conversion in the new Asian context.

The evangelistic mission of the church has traditionally emphasized proclamation of the gospel of Christ to people of other religions. The message has been that Jesus the Son of God was crucified for the sins of the humanity and that Jesus raised from the dead by God brings Divine Forgiveness and Salvation understood as access to God; as free gifts to all who repent and accept Him as Saviour and join the fellowship of the Church of Christ.

This idea of mission for conversion had been criticized from various points of view. First, that it has been related to the 18th and 19th century expansion of western power in the world accompanied by the hope that all the world would soon come under Christendom. Second, it was based on ignorance of other religions and religious cultures and an unthinking devaluation of them as satanic or idolatrous only and would soon disappear as superstitious and inhuman. Third, the appeal to conversion was confined largely to the marginalised and oppressed sections of other religions and others who saw in it a means of social uplift unconnected with spiritual goals. Fourth, that its understanding of the gospel was too individualistic and partial as it isolated the souls to be saved from the whole persons related to society and culture. These criticisms are true and many of the traditional forms of evangelistic mission will have to change if they are to be accepted. The crucial issue for the mission is whether the cutting edge of proclamation of Christ as Saviour and invitation to those who accept Him to join the Church remain valid or not in the new setting. Do we require a new form of the fellowship of the church, which is different from the religious communities as understood in Asia. For instance, just as the church takes form in different cultures, can Christ-centred fellowships around the Lord’s Table and the Word of God get formed within different religious communities, as in the case of Keshub Chunder Sen of Bengal in the 19th cent and Subba Rao of Andhra Pradesh in the 20th century.

Wesley Ariarajah takes a different line of approach. The recognition of plurality of religions, religious spiritualities and religious cultures is the context. Prof. Chung the young woman theologian from the background of Buddhist spirituality of Korea in her talk at the Canberra Assembly of the W.C.C. on “Come Holy Spirit, Renew Your Creation”, pointed to the need of Christ to be presented, interpreted and lived out in relation to indigenous spirituality. An ecumenical consultation in Switzerland (1982) suggested that perhaps we should consider religious plurality to be within God’s purpose. Wesley Ariarajah in his Mar Athanasius lecture asks what model Christian mission should adopt. The model of the people of Israel was to proclaim God’s law for all nations without converting the other people into Judaism. The model of Buddhist missions was to release the Buddhist message and teachings into the mainstream of the national and cultural life of the peoples and let them remould that life. Says Ariarajah, “We relate to the Hindu not because he or she is not in relationship with God but because we assume such a relationship. The Christian mission then could become the joyful responsibility of bearing witness to what we have come to know about God in and through the life, death and resurrection of Christ. It would be a witness to the values of the Kingdom that would lead peoples to truer life. It would still have to point to that one source of all Christian witness- Jesus Christ. But it is a witness that does not call upon our neighbours to leave their religious culture and people to become part of the church. Rather it would point to Christ as One who has underwritten the promise of God to renew all life...Such a view certainly leaves the possibility open for a person who had been witnessed to, to want to name the Name and become part of the historic community, the church, which is called to be faithful to the Gospel message among the nations. On the other hand, a person who has heard the message may not feel the vocation to become part of the church but to remain a witness within his or her own religious tradition. In still other situations there may be no response whatsoever to the message. The Christian is called not to convert but to witness. The burden of responding to the message is that of the hearers and not of those who proclaim. (Current Trends in Ecumenical Thinking, Kottayam, pp.12-13.)

2. Secondly, the Church’s prophetic mission of humanization of the mechanisms of our corporate life. It is the mission of the church to our religiously pluralistic society and the world of technological development and modernization in the name of justice to the whole human person, of social justice to the poor and the marginalised and justice to the organic natural basis of production and reproduction of life on earth. Here the mission is primarily that of the theologically informed laity supported by the fellowship of the whole church. Here I indicate three specific aspects of it.

A. The need of a New Humanism. Today secular humanism underlying the ideologies of technological development has become a kind of secularist fundamentalism which reduces human society to the mechanical-materialist dimensions, and consequently aggressively denying the organic dimension of humanity’s relation to the natural environment as well as the transcendent spiritual dimension of human selfhood. So technology has become destructive of ecology and exploitive of human persons thus mechanizing life. In one sense, today’s revival of religious fundamentalism and aggressive religious communalism as well as the call to a return to the worship of nature are inevitable reactions to such self-sufficient secularism. But in many ways, religious fundamentalism and communalism are also very inhuman and destroy the faith-dimension which humanizes. So a new holistic humanism integrating the mechanical-materialistic, the organic ecological and the spiritual personal dimensions of human being has to emerge through dialogue between religions and secular ideologies and between religions. That is the only path open for religion to assimilate secular values of material development, rational freedom and equality, and for secularism to get integrated with the organic and spiritual dimensions of the humanum. Today scientific secularism is a bit more humble than before, but religion has given up renewal, opting for aggressive revivalism. But a new wholesome anthropology is needed as the basis of a more healthy process of development and modernization. This must be the goal of inter-religious and secular-religious dialogues in our time.

B. The traditional societies of Asia have marginalised the dalits, the tribals, the fisherfolk and women and have denied them any part in the decision-making processes of society and they have reinforced it by getting religions to declare them ritually impure because they live close to organic nature and deal with its wastes. Actually these marginalised people lived by nature’s bounties- the dalits through agricultural labour on land, the tribals by the resources of the forests, the fisherfolk of the sea and other water sources and the women by the organic functions of family life. Modernity has awakened them to their rights of participation in the structures of power, but the modern technological developments and commercialism have increased the power of their traditional oppressors by alienating land, forests, water sources and femininity from them for exploiting them for purposes of profit and have destroyed their livelihood and pattern of life. Now, the new concern for ecology needs to be expressed, not in isolation but in relation to the traditional rights of these people for their livelihood and rights. Eco-justice and social justice to the people engaged in unorganized labour should go together. It will also correct the mechanical individualism of modernity by the community values of traditional societies. The social activists involved in the welfare of these people need to explore further the relation between modernity and tradition in the development of peoples.

C. In fact the modern pattern of development has left over 50 percent of the Third World peoples to live under the poverty line. By 2000 A.D. it is estimated that a billion people will suffer absolute poverty. Now that the protest of Socialism has had its set-back, the new economic liberalization accepted as norm all over the world will cut most welfare measures and-create more poverty and unemployment because it subserves everything to the goal of economic growth by which ten percent will become very rich. In this situation, the church has to exercise a “divine option for the poor” based on Luke 4 Nazareth Manifesto and Matt. 25 Parable of the Last Judgement and other liberation motives in the Bible, and engage in a prophetic mission of speaking truth to collective power of economy and State. In 1968 WCC/CCPD reversed the normal order of economic priorities from economic growth, self-reliance and social justice to the order social justice, self-reliance and economic growth. Today eco-justice must also be brought into the goals of the economy. And the church must be prepared to stand by the people when they struggle for an economy that gives priority to eco-justice and social justice rather than economic growth through trans-national high technology.