Chapter 19: Re-Articulation Of Christian Identity in Higher Education

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

Chapter 19: Re-Articulation Of Christian Identity in Higher Education

Paper presented to the Consultation on Higher Education at UCCollege, Aluva on 14 March 1996.


In the history of educational enterprise of the Christian Church in India, there were several articulations and re-articulations of the Christian identity in Higher Education as spiritual responses of the Christian Mission/ Church to changes in the cultural scenario of India. All these were done in the context of the political and cultural impact of the West on India and contained theological interpretations of that impact.

One thinks of three specific historical occasions when it was done. The first was the time of the pioneer educational missionaries Alexander Duff of Calcutta, John Wilson of Bombay and William Miller of Madras. Following on the British government’s decision in favour of promoting English rather than Oriental or Vernacular education in India, and to seek the help of private agencies in the task, the Missions started Christian colleges for imparting education in Western culture and modern science with the teaching of English literature at the centre of secular courses and spiritually interpreted by the teaching of Christian Scripture. Duff spoke of an intellectual and social revolutionary ferment at work among the educated sections of India through the impact of western power and culture and wanted the Missions to enter that revolution to make it serve as an instrument of the civilizing and evangelizing mission of Britain in India. Both Maculay the civil servant and Duff the Christian missionary believed that the religion of Hinduism and indigenous Indian culture would soon be displaced by the Christian religion and western civilization which were more or less identified in their minds. Miller of Madras Christian College said, “Very largely, especially when contrasted with the tendencies which prevail in Hinduism, European thought is Christian thought” and if the Christian institutions of education is able to make that explicit, “there was hope that the whole new movement might be prepared by it to recognize the supply of all its spiritual wants in Him (Christ)”. So, “the Scriptures were to be the spearhead, all other knowledge the well-fitted handle. The Scriptures were to be the healing essence, all other knowledge the congenial medium through which it is conveyed”. Much conversion to the Christian church was not expected though there were a few in Bengal. The hope was that “even when no direct conversion ensues, much of the spirit and influences of Christianity will cleave to the rightly educated youth, whatever may be their future situation in life”. In other words education in Christian colleges would be a force for transformation of society in the light of Christian values and act as a cultural preparation for claims of the gospel.

The Christian colleges therefore sought on the one hand to impart a liberal education relating knowledge of science and technology to knowledge of the humanities as a relation of knowledge as power and means and knowledge as values and ends and reinforcing it with the teaching of Scripture as a way of presenting Jesus as the source of a structure of meaning and values for life, and on the other hand emphasized the residential college community (with a non-denominational worship at its centre) as a forum where scholars could further their process of learning in community and build the nucleus of a society of persons transcending caste and creed. So the knowledge imparted was at different levels, - technical rationality, critical rationality to evaluate ends, universal human values, and the humanism of the person of Jesus - but with search for the unity of their inter-relationship realized in the renewal of personal and community life as the ultimate goal.

The second occasion of rearticulation of the Christian purpose of Missionary institutions of higher learning took place in the first few decades of this century in relation to the movements of religious renaissance and the emergence of political nationalism. By this time Hindu religion and culture instead of disintegrating as many westerners thought it would, survived the shock of western impact, and acquired new strength through the many Neo-Hindu movements of religious renaissance resulting from the impact of the values of western Christianity and secular humanism. The Indian National Congress has also been formed as the political expression of the awakening of the people under the leadership of the class with western-oriented education; and linked to the politics of nationalism was also movements of social reform of family relations and caste structures on the basis of personal liberty and social equality. Of course a revival of traditional religion and culture resisting those values and producing a militant politics of Hindu Nationalism against reform was also alive. Ranade, Tilak and Gandhi represented different trends of Nationalism. But the national awakening was a fact. C.F.Andrews and S.K.Rudra of St.Stephens College Delhi took the lead in re-articulating the Christian identify in higher education in relation to the spiritual and political awakening of the Indian people under the auspices of Hindu religious renaissance and the political ideology of Indian nationalism.

C.F.Andrews said, that the earlier approach of Duff and other educational missionaries needed radical modification. For, Duff “looked forward to the supplanting of one civilization by another, the uprooting of Indian civilization and the substitution of the English. We have learned since his day that the problem is one of assimilation, rather than of remains for our age to apply the further truth of Christian assimilation.” He added, that the Christian purpose of education in the new situation was that “the wealth of English literature, science and culture” should be “grafted on to the original stock; it is no longer taught in a kind of vacuum without reference to the background of Indian thought and experience”. Here the basic purpose of college education remains as before, namely humanization of social culture and preparation of Indian cultural soil for the reception of Jesus as the divine source of human renewal. But it is not the Western culture as such but the cultural renaissance and ideology of nationalism, produced by the penetration of the spirit and values of western civilization that humanizes society and prepares the soil for the gospel. Ranade agreed that “the Christian civilization which came to India from the West was the main instrument of renewal” of India which finds expression in the new love of municipal freedom and civil virtues, aptitude for mechanical skill and love of science and research, chivalrous respect of womanhood etc.; and it is interesting that his lecture on his new concept of “Indian Theism” (a redefinition of Visishtadvaita in the light of Protestant Christian thought) as the basis of national renewal of India was delivered in the chapel of the Wilson College Bombay. With Gandhi formulating the political ethic of satyagraha as an application of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount and Tagore interpreting the Cross as the symbol of God’s identification with suffering humanity, there was also the growing awareness that not only western humanism but also the religion of Christianity would get creativity and stability only by planting them in the Indian cultural soil and allowing it to put down roots in it. This produced a crop of literature from the Christian colleges on indigenisation of Christianity in India like Farquhar’s Crown of Hinduism and Hogg’s Karma and Redemption.

The third occasion for re-articulation of Christian identity in higher education followed the Lindsay Commission report on Christian Higher Education in India in the thirties. The Commission realized that western culture and science could not destroy the traditional idols but has also introduced into India new gods like Rationalism, Scientism, Individualism and Materialism which had no sense of the sacredness of human persons and was converting technology into a force for exploitation of the industrial workers and dehumanization of peoples’ lives in the cities of India. And Indian nationalism was producing fanatic religious communalism and fear among the outcastes of re-establishment of Brahminic domination. Communalism was stopping the movement towards social reforms aimed at justice for women and the depressed groups. Inter-communal riots were very much in the picture and threatening the unity of India based on common humanity which was fundamental to secular nationalism. In this context, humanization required critical discriminative approach to both technological culture and nationalist ideologies.

Lindsay Commission was very clear that “Western learning in itself” (Miller) or its indigenisation in nationalism in itself (Andrews), could not be the needed emphasis in Christian educational institutions. What are the Christian purposes in higher education which can be the mid-20th century equivalent of those which were effective earlier in contributing to humanization of culture and cultural preparation for the gospel of the Christ’s new humanity?

The Report refers to the book Education of India by Arthur Mayhew, the Director of Public Instruction in Bengal with approval of his personal view that the “moral progress in India depends on the general transformation of education by explicit recognition of the Spirit of Christ”. It also seems to underline Mayhew’s diagnosis that the traditional Hindu religious culture had been revived in a militant and fanatic way as religious communalism in the wake of nationalism because the Anglicized policy of higher education, while concentrating on communicating western culture and its science and humanism to the Indian students, neglected to help them exercise a scientific critical rational evaluation of their deeply rooted indigenous traditions associated with the vernacular languages. Since they were ignored, they existed as an unexamined emotional part of their domestic life and took revenge for being ignored in their being revived in the same unexamined emotional form when the people were awakened by nationalism to their self-identity which meant looking at their past history.

In the same manner, the Report diagnosed that by concentrating on training in technical rationality and skills (which is in the realm of improvement of tools) and neglecting training in critical rationality which alone could expose social purposes and spiritual presuppositions of technological culture, evaluate them and make moral choices among them, the educational system has paved the way for a dehumanizing technocratic culture and for an idolatry of Rationalism which denied the transcendent spiritual dignity of the human person.

If I remember correctly the Lindsay Commission noted the teaching of history as the point at which rational and moral evaluations of traditional and modern cultures could be made most effectively. Religious communities and their traditions have their history. Science and technology as well as the philosophy behind them have their history. Evaluations of these themselves have history.

Thus the Commission called for a Christian concern for Higher Education which helps critical rational and humanist evaluation of both the western and Indian cultures to build a new cultural concept which subordinated religious traditions, technology and politics to personal values according to the principle “Sabbath is made for man and not man for the Sabbath”, enunciated by Jesus and illustrated in the idea of Incarnation of God in Christ. Incidentally this task was conceived as more than an intellectual one confined to the class room. Class room is important. But the concept of the personal and personal values can be taught only where they can also be caught in community life where one can “speak the truth in love” and learn and assimilate it in that process. So they gave central place to residential houses as part of the life of the college. They also wanted colleges to help students to relate to the life of people in the villages of India through extensions of research and service. By the way, they also recommended cutting some denominational colleges to set up one or two first rate educational institutions of their conception managed by the Christian missions and churches in unity and the Tambaram version of the Madras Christian College was one result of it.

I have given this rather long history to show that re-articulation of Christian identity in higher education has been done before in situations which have produced our situation in due course, and though it needs doing again in the context of the present, some crucial issues which we now face have been faced and responses formulated which may be relevant to our new re-articulation also.

Our situation today is marked by several new features some of which may be mentioned as follows:

1.The fact of religious pluralism with parity and the threat to secularism which was seen earlier as an instrument for mitigating and transcending religious communalism in that situation. The idea of Secular Nationalism and Secular State were the creation of cooperation between Gandhi’s reformed religion and Nehru’s liberal humanist secularism and they succeeded to establish itself in India against the idea of Hindu and Muslim communalism. The new threats to it is from the revival of religious fundamentalism and communalism and its political expressions, especially in the Hindutva demand for a Hindu Rashtra. Closed Secularism which denies religion any place in public life has produced a religious vacuum which is being filled by the revival of communal religion. The situation calls for the search for a new more holistic humanism and a common public ethic for state and social reform developed through dialogue of religions and secular ideologies. But educational institutions especially in Kerala have taken the opposite direction and become more and more communal in their character. Christian colleges are even denominational in character. How does Christian concern for the larger pluralist national community and for a common anthropology and ethic for it, which has to be evolved through dialogue among religions and ideologies find expression in such a situation?

2. The shift in State commitment from welfare society with socialism as goal to the “ideology” of the global market means that the state withdraws from intervention in the processes of economic and social life in the name of liquidation of mass poverty and unemployment or in the name of social justice or protection of ecology. Hi-tech development under globalisation is further marginalising the poorer sections of traditional society especially the dalits, the tribals, the fisherfolk and the women by destroying their traditional living and community life by alienating them from the land, the forest and the water sources by which they made their living. It also destroys these natural bases of their traditional community of life. Along with health and social welfare, education too has become a commodity in the market with self-financed technical institutions imparting training in technical and managerial skills for employment in Trans-national economic enterprises to those who can afford it. This leads to the negation of the earlier concepts of education as laid down in the Constitution of India which put priority to “promote with special care the educational and economic interests of the weaker sections of the people” and to the development of “scientific temper, humanism and the spirit of inquiry and reform” in every citizen. How does the Christian concern for a higher education that prevents the mechanization of life and marginalisation of the weaker people and the destruction of the ecological basis of life by technocracy find expression? How do Christian colleges join the search for an alternate paradigm of human development and technology with a human face in the context of the technocratic momentum of globalisation?

3. The development of a new philosophy of science which radically questions the earlier mechanical-materialistic world-view within which classical modern science worked and also the search for a new philosophy of technological development and struggle for social justice which takes seriously the concern for ecological justice, are very much part of the contemporary situation. Capra’s books like the Tao of Physics, The Turning Point etc. are expressions of the working out of the implications of change in the philosophy of science to social thought. It is significant that they have also become part of the ecumenical Christian social thought as expressed in the World Council of Churches declaring their goals to be “a just participatory and sustainable society” or “justice peace and integrity of creation”. Any new re-articulation of Christian identity in education must assimilate these new insights.

In the period when I went to the World Student Christian Federation as a secretary, in 1947 religious scientists worked within the thesis in Martin Buber’s I and Thou that separated the scientific I-It approach to things and the knowledge of persons through dialogue and mutual love. Later the idea gained ground that we cannot “speak of nature apart from human perception in the historical development of knowledge”, that all knowledge is “a creative interaction between the known and the knower” and that therefore there is no System of scientific knowledge or of technology which does not have the subjective purposes and faith-presuppositions of humans built into it. So a fundamental part of education is to expose such hidden or explicit purposes and presuppositions and critically examine them and transform them to a conscious commitment to a world-view which sees nature, humanity and cosmos within an organic life system working within an ultimate framework of a spiritual movement of self-determining selves towards a community of justice and love. It is the self-determining part in it which also brings the dimension of the spiritual tragedy of self centredness and raises questions of spiritual salvation in that movement.

David Gosling’s A New Earth-Covenanting]or Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation (London 1992) speaks about the general consensus among the scientists who worked with the Church and Society studies to move away from the “mechanical view of life-systems” which is responsible for much that is wrong with science and technology and the way they operate. About the view which is replacing it, the alternatives were between “the organic view” which emphasizes the world as a web of inter-relationships among relational entities with different levels of self-consciousness in dynamic movement advocated by biologist Charles Birch and theologian John Cobb on the basis of Whitehead’s process philosophy and theoretical physicist John Pollkinghome’s idea of seeing the world as “something in between” mechanism and organism which gives the world a “totally non-mechanical openness” in all its natural processes, “a freedom for the whole world to be itself, a freedom for us to act within that universe of which we are part”.

I shall end this collection of fragments of my thought by speaking of what expression Christian identity must necessarily have in Higher Education in the immediate future in India in a summary form. First, a move to negate the communal-denominational approach to educational enterprise and to make intellectual dialogue among concerned teachers and post-graduate students of different religious and secular ideological faiths for exploring a new relevant common anthropology and social ethic in a pluralist India, central to the Christian college. Second, a decision that Christian educational institutions will not surrender themselves to a pure imparting of technical skills or promotion of technical rationality which concentrates on technological tools only but will in all situations be concerned also with developing critical rationality enabling the students to examine the exploitive ends and purposes hidden in all technical situations. Thirdly, Christian education must in some way express their solidarity with the victims of modern globalisation like the dalits, the tribals, the fisherfolk and women and find ways of supporting their struggle for justice and their search for a new paradigm of development which does justice to their peoplehood and to the natural sources to which they are related. Fourthly, the idea of residential houses which brings together teachers and at least post-graduate students as a community of intellectual seekers of truth or some equivalent of it should find a place in the life of a college. Education within some such framework alone can lead to a new culture of moral regeneration of our pluralistic society and provide the cultural preparation for the awareness of the challenging relevance of the gospel of New Humanity in Christ in our modern technological age. Of course the Christian college should have some place in its structure where Jesus and his human-ness can be presented in the Scriptural context with its cultural implications, to those who wish to learn about him.