Chapter 18: Mission Of The Church In The Pluralistic Context of India

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

Chapter 18: Mission Of The Church In The Pluralistic Context of India

A talk at the Conference of Biblical scholars at Kottayam on 28th Dec. 1993.


I am grateful to the organizers of this conference for their kind invitation to me to give the opening talk at this conference of Biblical scholars on the mission of the church in India’s pluralistic context. I have been thinking, speaking and writing on this theme for many years, but I find myself a bit intimidated by the fact that I face an audience of Biblical scholars from the different theological seminaries of the country. I have ventured into writing commentaries on the biblical books in Malayalam, approaching the Bible in two senses of the word, layman: namely, inadequate scientific understanding of the text but primarily concerned with response to life-situations. In dealing with the biblically grounded missionary response to pluralism I shall take the same approach this evening.

My first point is that while plurality has existed in India for centuries, pluralism is a modern reality. Traditional India had been a land in which peoples and communal groups who followed different religions, lived according to different cultural values and social patterns and spoke different languages, coexisted. But the coexistence never demanded anything other than tangential interaction between them because there was no demand on them for unity and unification under a common scheme of technology or of values or of religion. Of course, there were rulers who provided a sort of umbrella of state protection, but their function was very minimal. Whether Rama or Ravana ruled, whatever political authority structures came into being or disappeared, they had but minimum impact on the life of the various village communities; they continued to live in some kind of internal self-sufficiency according to their different traditions, with Custom as the real King. Of course through such coexistence for long periods, there developed symbiotic interpretations of religions and cultural and social values, creating not one but several composite cultures and syncretic religious trends in different regions of the country in different periods of its history, with one or other religious value or cultural system having dominant influence. But there was no imperative demand to interact or unif~’ which is characteristic of the modern situation. Therefore in contrast with the traditional we speak of the modem as a situation of pluralism. It is a situation of dialogic existence arising from the pressures on all from a secular democratic nation-state which has been formed as the result of a common national struggle for independence and has been given the task and powers to work for national integration, national development and build a new welfare society based on liberty, equality and justice. The movement from coexistence to dialogic existence is the movement from plurality to pluralism. This movement from plurality to pluralism is not only national but also local as well as world-wide.

My second point. It is the common historical responsibility of building a genuinely human community that brings peoples of all religions and cultures within the dialogical framework of pluralism. It involves a common movement into a technological culture but it also entails correcting the inhumanities like State totalitarianism, increasing impoverishment and marginalisation of the majority of the people, destruction of the ecological basis of life and above all the general mechanization of human life already brought about by the misdirected technological advance. It also calls for a common search for an alternative paradigm of technological and social development based on a genuine ideology of humanism in the context of a proper relation between nature, human personhood and structures and values of community.

I have emphasized this historical responsibility as the framework of pluralism because it posits humanization and the questions related to the meaning of being human as the central theme of common concern in dialogue and action, for all those who are encountering the common historical responsibility. All religions including Christianity, all cultures and all secular ideologies are in informal and formal dialogues about what is the meaning of our common humanity and about the path of common action-responses to the situation from their respective understanding of the nature and destiny of the human selfhood.

It is interesting to observe that while preparing for the centenary celebrations of the 1893 World Congress of Religions of Chicago, Metropolitan Paulose Mar Gregorios said that Chicago 1993 Global Concourse of Religions must “be committed not just to dialogue with each other but to the future of humanity as a whole”. He explained it thus, “If religions cannot go into the question of the welfare of humanity, those great values to which they bear witness will not make much sense to vast millions of people of this world. On the one hand, all religions have to develop a deep spiritual commitment to the recreation of the deepest levels of meaning for human existence in a personal and communal spirituality. But equally important is the other pole, the commitment to the welfare of humanity, the commitment to justice, the commitment to peace, the commitment to an environment that promotes life rather than threaten to extinguish it, the commitment to eliminate toxic drugs and nuclear weapons” (A Source Book for the Community of Religions ed. Joel Bevers Luis, Chicago, 1993, p.16).

I submit that the Mission of the Church in the pluralistic context must be considered primarily in relation to the common human challenge which pluralism in a technically unified world brings to us all. Of course in its train the consideration of the theme of being human and common human values and goals will bring trans-historical questions of God, salvation and immortality, in a challengingly relevant way, as the transcendent dimension of being human is raised. But these transcendent issues are not the most relevant starting points for communication of any truth in modern pluralistic existence. I presume that it is this awareness that led Pannenburg and other theologians to affirm that anthropology is the primary language of modern theology. It is different from saying that theology is only anthropology as Feuerbach and following him Marxism did.

I hope you will excuse a personal recollection. I expanded this approach in my Carey lectures of 1969, Salvation and Humanization. Later when I was in Selly Oaks, I had a conversation with Prof. John Hicks of the University of Birmingham whose approach was that inter-religious relation should have God as the point of entry, as indicated in his book, God and the Universe of Faiths. I differed from him because I thought that an undefined Umbrella God was not a relevant framework for a situation where the search of all religions as well as secular ideologies was for defining and realizing true humanness in the context of a modern technological society. So I wrote a little-known book, Man and the Universe of Faiths, to develop the idea. I argued that the humanity of the Crucified Jesus as the foretaste and criterion of being truly human, would be a much better and more understandable and acceptable Christian contribution to common inter-religious-ideological search for world community because the movements of renaissance in most religions and rethinking in most secular ideologies were the results of the impact of what we know of the life and death of the historical person of Jesus or of human values from it. I still hold that no dialogue or reconsideration of the humanism in any pluralistic situation can escape Jesus Christ Crucified, though it may sidetrack religious dogmas about him.

Thirdly, what is the gospel for such a pluralistic situation as ours, where the common search is for the path of humanization? One could take several ways of expressing the core of the gospel. It is quite intriguing to note that in the Hindu thinking on the Cross in the Indian setting, it is God’s identification with human suffering rather than Paul’s emphasis on the atonement for human sin that has been crucial. For instance, for Poet Tagore, Cross is “the image of the heavenly Mercy Which makes all human suffering its own” (Universal Man 1961 p.167). I find that many commentators of Psalms of Lamentations follow Westermann in affirming that an overly Pauline-oriented theology in terms only of sin does not take seriously the implication of relating the story of the Passion of Jesus in terms of the lament of Ps. 22 and God’s concern for human suffering has a strong biblical tradition behind it (Patrick Miller Jr. Interpreting the Psalms, p. 110). This is reinforced by Jesus’ understanding of his ministry in Luke 4 and also in the identification of the Son of Man with the least ones in the Parable of the Last Judgment. It has been taken up as the foundation of the Liberation theologies in recent times. One could very well affirm that justice for the oppressed is inherent in the concept of the church as koinonia. I shall not expand on this.

What I have found most relevant is Colossians ch.3 in the light of which it is legitimate to speak of the gospel as the news of the New Man Jesus Christ (“Put on the new self, the new humanity”) ; and more especially it is valid to present the new fellowship of mutual forgiveness created by the Divine Forgiveness in Christ and expressed in the Eucharist and the social koinonia of the church as the foretaste of true human community as the essential gospel (“Forgiving one another as the Lord forgave you”). The nature of this Koinonia in Christ is that it transcends all communities defined by nature, culture and even ideology and religion and opens people for inter-personal communication with each other. It transcends them and takes incarnate form in them as well as between them transforming them from within. In this process, closed communal life based on idolatry of communal self-identity and pursuit of communal self-interest gets broken, opening it to a vision of their common humanity and their relatedness to each other in mutual forgiveness, justice and love. (“There is neither Greek nor Jew ...but Christ is all and in all”). Therefore it can become one potent source of inter-communal community in society outside the church also, a sort of secular koinonia and of the development of the ideology of a genuine secular human community at local, national and world levels in the modern pluralist context of many religions and cultures. The Christian message of Salvation in Christ in its total eschatological framework (with which Col. 3 begins) should be kept in intimate relation to the historical mission of promoting koinonia in both the churchly sacramental and pluralistically secular dimensions of community life in the modern world.

Today most will recognize that the church as the koinonia in Christ transcends different cultures and takes roots in each, redeeming and reinterpreting indigenous cultural thought-forms and life-forms and values to make them the language of communication of Christian faith and ethics. In fact one of the most serious studies undertaken by all schools of theology in the churches whether evangelical or catholic is the relation between the one gospel and many cultures. But the real question to explore today is whether we can equally speak of Christ and koinonia in Christ as transcending all religions and able to take root and form within each religion and to undertake the mission of redeeming it of its idolatries and saving its spiritual treasures and values as vehicles of the gospel and the worship of God through Jesus Christ. If this approach is valid, then we shall have to give greater emphasis in the church’s mission, to conversion of religions to Christ and to urge individuals from other religions converted to Christ to stay within their religious communities and build up Christ-centred fellowships around the Bible and the Lord’s Table within their religious ethos. It is very clear that the conversion of an individual isolated and abstracted from his/her culture or religion, can never be that of the whole person. Such a mission to whole persons, of course, requires some sort of separation of religion from faith and relativisation of Christianity as well other religions in the light of Christ. Karl Barth and Karl Rahner have done it, each in his unique way, one by emphasizing the solidarity of religions in sin with Christ abolishing all religions and the other emphasizing the solidarity of all religions in Grace, with Christ perfecting all prevenient Grace in them. C.F.Andrews’ incarnational theology of religions and P.D.Devanandan’s post-Kraemer theology of religion and Swami Abhishiktananda’s Trinitarian theology of advaitic mysticism (to mention only the names of those who are no more with us) need further exploration in the light of our need to find an Indian ecclesiology for a pluralistic society. Jurgen Moltmann has said, “There were Jewish reasons for believing in Jesus to be the Christ. There were Greek reasons for believing in Jesus as the Logos. There were German reasons for believing in Jesus as the leader of souls. In their own period those reasons were not merely cultural; they were more religious in kind. Culture and religion cannot be separated. Consequently today we shall also have to inquire into Hindu, Buddhist and Islamic reasons for faith in Jesus” (Church in the Power of the Spirit, p.162).

Along this approach may lie the solution of our finding in India, a non-communal form of the church in a situation where religious communalism has become a serious national problem; and the church organized as a minority community separate from the majority and other minority communities, each safeguarding its numerical strength and its own traditional personal law and seeking communal prestige and communal political power in the body-politic, makes conversion of groups and even individuals a problem of inter-communal relations. To me more important is the fact that so long as the church remains a religious community in competition with other religious communities, the church can never say that in Christ it sacramentally represents the destiny of all peoples in the country.

It is interesting to remember that the Constituent Assembly of India included propagation of religion as a fundamental right of the citizen in response to the Indian Christian leadership declaring that they were giving up communal representation as a minority community. They realized that the church as a self-regarding community and the church as the dynamic bearer of universal salvation would not go together. Personally I believe that in forgetting it we have not only reasserted our communal rigidities in our concept and practice of the church and have contributed to the communalisation of Indian politics and to the erosion of the true nature of the church’s mission in the pluralistic society.

I shall conclude my talk by referring to an important essay by Kuncheria Pathil on “A New Vision of the Church in a Religiously Pluralistic Society” (in Communalism in India the report of a Consultation organized by the Indian Christian Theological Association) .It starts by referring to the Vatican II definition of the church as the “sign and sacrament of the unity of all humankind” emphasizing the universalism of the church in Christ. But Pathil thinks that the wording may still appear triumphalist as affirming that the church has the full human unity which she can make effective for the rest of humanity. Pathil says, that the vision of the church as “the herald and servant of the Kingdom of God” would be a much more appealing model, since it contains a two-fold relativisation of church, one in the suffering servant relation to the world and the other in its relation to the Kingdom to come. He adds that the sign character and servant role of the church demand that in the face of the oppressive situation of the people, the church must “organize itself into peoples’ movement for liberation” cutting across the boundaries of religion, caste and culture; and here transparency of the church requires that we have to conceive of an open church with flexible structures, boundaries, rules and rituals making Christian identity vulnerable.