Chapter 20: The Quest for a Human Community in a Religiously Pluralist World

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

Chapter 20: The Quest for a Human Community in a Religiously Pluralist World

A talk inaugurating the World Council of Churches - United Theological College Consultation on The Church's Mission and Post-Modern Humanism, held  at Bangalore on 17 October. 1995.


I am thankful for the invitation to inaugurate the Consultation on the Quest for Human Community in the context of India’s religious pluralism and its implication for Indian ecclesiology. That is, in view of the common quest of human community with peoples of other religions, how do we understand the being of the Church of Christ and the forms of the life of the congregation in the larger community? Concretely how do Christians structure the priestly and sacramental life and evangelistic mission of their separate religious congregation, within the framework of their participation in the whole nation’s search for a common basis for promoting the politics of democracy and of development with justice for the poor and liberation of the oppressed and for building a common moral social culture to undergird the sense of the larger community based on dignity for all persons and peoples?

I have two sections to this presentation. First what are the common moral and cultural bases to be built through dialogue among religions and ideologies which will make possible an effective joint struggle for human community? Second, what kind of structure of the church will facilitate such dialogue and struggle which will at the same time strengthen the central elements of the church’s being as the sacramental sign and interpreter of God’s universal gift of salvation in Christ?

First, I shall speak on the need of taking into account the religious insights about human being and society in the pluralistic religious and ideological situation today in the struggle for the search for a new paradigm of modernization correcting the lopsidedness of the present one. And then, the implication of it for our understanding of the form of the church most relevant for Christian participation in that search will be discussed.


All traditional societies have been religious societies where society and state were integrated with one or other of the religions and controlled by it. Medieval Christendom was an integration of church, community and state. So was medieval Islamic societies. The primal societies, of course, were undifferentiated spiritual unities where religion or state had not emerged as different from society. Modernization has shattered them all because they with their hierarchies and patriarchies sanctified by religion could not comprehend within them the creativities of human individuality and rationality which were emerging. So the modern period is the age of the European Enlightenment, globalised through the political and economic expansion of the West. In one sense, this age is still continuing. But the fact that technological and social revolutions which did have the potential and promise of producing a world community with richer and filler human life for all humanity, resulted in the intensification of mass poverty, social oppression, war and ecological destruction, have led many to consider self-sufficient Secular Humanism as inadequate to understand or deal with the tragic dimensions of the human selfhood and social existence. Therefore there is widespread tendency to return to religion and its sense of spiritual depth, in one form or another. Some of course are for a straight return to the traditional integration of state and society with one or other religion, to Christendom, Hindutva or any other religious fundamentalism or communalism. But religious pluralism with its constant interaction between peoples with religion as a factor in their self-identities, has become too vital a reality in contemporary societies everywhere so that this return is impossible without religious strife; and in any case the fear of such a return bringing back the old hierarchies and patriarchies and destroying the egalitarian human values of modern democratic humanism is rather strong. So one has to find a new pattern of ideologically pluralistic secular humanism and religiously pluralistic spiritual humanism entering into dialogue with each other on anthropology, the nature and meaning of being and becoming human. The goal is to create a Public Philosophy or Civil Culture, in which insights of religions, secular ideologies and social sciences are constantly brought into interaction and are tested for their relevance to humanize the contemporary forces of modernity which have run amok. It is the search for a kind of Open Secularism.

A consultation on Human Rights in the Middle East said, “The challenge and quest therefore in the Middle East is to envisage and establish models of society which are neither radically secular like in the West, nor ethno-centric like in Israel, or religions as in some Islamic countries; in other words, a society that recognizes the values of community, respects religious or ethnic differences, and does not ignore or seeks to eliminate them as was attempted by the French Revolution secularism and Marxism. And here lies the challenge- for such a society also will have to guarantee equality between communities and individuals. All this also requires encounter and dialogue with other religions in the region that aim at discovering through their respective heritages, a common ethical ground for the basis of a new society” (Human Rights: a Global Ecumenical Agenda, WCC 1993 p.44). This approach is relevant for other religiously pluralistic regions like Asia. The only country which consciously put “belief in the Transcendent” as one of the five foundations of the Constitution of the nation-state and recognized religious pluralism and brought the various religions and secular ideologies together for dialogue on the basis of legal equality was Soekarno’s Indonesia.

There are two special contributions to social thought arising from combining religious and secular ideological insights about reality.

First, a more holistic anthropological basis for society. The Newtonian scientific rational insight brought to the forefront the importance of the mechanical materialistic dimension of reality, which could be objectivised and studied, which religion often overlooked in emphasizing the purely spiritual realities. But the danger of science was to interpret the whole world including the humans as parts of a machine, thus denying the spiritual selfhood which gives dignity to human beings. The mechanical attitude to human reality was no doubt corrected by Freud, Marx and Nietzche who emphasized the inter-connection between parts of nature thus bringing out the organic character of reality. The organic interpretation was an advance on the mechanical but still lacked the awareness of the human self. Though conditioned by mechanical and organic necessities of nature, the human self transcends them to determine its purposes and control natural necessities to realize them. This constitutes the essence of human personhood. The religious insight into the spiritual self which is at once both involved in the world and transcends it, is important to provide a spiritual basis for the inalienable rights of personhood.

Secondly, it is from this recognition of transcendent human selfhood that the spiritual source of evil and the tragic dimension of existence are derived. The modern Liberal and Marxist ideologies consider self-alienation of humans as mechanical error or organic maladjustment which could be corrected by the historical process. Such secular hopes have turned to secular despair, because the hope was based on a superficially optimistic understanding of human nature. But where the spiritual self is involved evil is seen as more radical, as based on alienation from God or the ultimate ground of being. Of course, the mystic religions see it as arising from the illusion of the separate self created by the imprisonment of the soul in the material body, and the prophetic religions see the attempt of finite self to attain infinitude as its source; and their concepts of salvation correspond to these different metaphysical versus moral understandings of the problem of the self. There is need of dialogue between these religions to clarify the issue. But the point is that in either case the source of corruption of self is at depth spiritual and cannot be considered accidental and solvable by the self-redemptive forces of history.

These two, a holistic concept of the humanum and the spiritual source of human self-centredness have their implications for the search of the moral basis of the common life. Since human society is essentially persons-in-community, love is the ultimate moral basis of society. But because of the spiritual self-alienation of humans, one has to reckon with a tough human self-centredness which appears as self-righteous moralism on the one hand and crude selfishness on the other. The perfect love-ethic, while it remains the ultimate criterion of ethical judgment, is impossible to fulfill in the natural state. So a second level of morality comes into being which includes checks to self-centredness. The morality of law and the coercive institution of the State to enforce legal justice are expressions of this imperfect morality at the level of self-alienated social existence of human beings.

It may be worth noting that all religions and secular ideologies reckon with the two levels of morality- the perfectionist ethic of love and the imperfect ethic of moral and enforced civil laws. Sometimes, they are quite separated as unrelated to each other, and often the morality of law is absolutised though it is supposed to be a pointer to and shaped to an extent by the ultimate love-ethic. Of course love realized as mutual forgiveness in small spiritually reconciled groups can mitigate the legalism of the ethic of law. Nevertheless the Christian doctrine of the relation between the ethics of Law and Grace, the Hindu concept of paramarthika and vyavaharika realms, the Islamic concept of shariat law versus the transcendent law, and the equivalent ones in secular ideologies like the Marxist idea of the present morality of class-war leading to the necessary love of the class-less society of the future need to be brought into the inter-faith dialogue to build up a common democratic political ethic for maintaining order and freedom with the continued struggle for social justice, and also a common civil morality within which diverse peoples may renew their different traditions of civil codes.


What are the implications of such participation by the Church in the search of a holistic humanism and a realistic social ethics for a post-modern society for the form of the life and work of the Church itself?

In a country bedeviled by communalism, can we discover a non-communal form for the life and mission of the Church? Should the church, understood as a separate religious congregation or faith-communion, also set itself as a separate social and political community, or should it consider itself as a ferment in all social communities and the larger pluralistic secular society without itself becoming a communal body? Christians in India unlike the Muslims have learned not to be a separate political community, but be participating in different political parties. A good deal of economic life of Christians are also, thanks to secular technological organizations of production and exchange, outside the specifically Christian communal circle. How far can a similar development take place with respect to their organized social and cultural life? Such non-communal areas of life can still be influenced along Christian moral values by the ministry of the lay Christians involved in these areas of life in their everyday work in cooperation with people of other faiths. In fact the churches which keep the political, economic and social activities of their members under their control have not produced any grater moral or human quality in the social life of their membership.

On the other side, the advantages of an extension of the non-communal secular areas of common life for the self-understanding of the church and its evangelistic witness are many. Bishop Newbigin when he was in India, said some words which are quite relevant to us even today. He said that a right understanding of the Christian doctrine of Creation has a deep concern to “uphold the proper integrity of the secular order”. He continues, “The secular field of politics, economics, science and so forth belong to this created world. They are not ultimately autonomous...but they have a relative autonomy, an autonomy always threatened by demonic forces precisely because God wills to preserve here a sphere for the free decision of faith which is the only kind of victory he wills to have.... the Christian has responsibility to safeguard the real though provisional autonomy of a secular order wherein men of all religions can cooperate in freedom”. Further he points out that this autonomy of the secular is a help to build a proper understanding of the church. He says, that it is “the true antidote to the temptation of the church to absolutise itself... There you have the true God-given reminder to the church that it is still in via and cannot treat itself as the vice-regent of God on earth I do not believe that we shall go back on that insight” (A Faith for this One World, pp. 67-68.83).

Bishop Azariah of Dornakal, in theologically justifying the rejection of the reserved minority communal electorate offered by Britain to the Christian community in India, spoke of how the acceptance of it would be “a direct blow to the nature of the church of Christ” at two points -- one, it would force the church to function “like a religious sect, a community which seeks self-protection for the sake of its own loaves and fishes” which would prevent the fruitful exercise of the calling of the church to permeate the entire society across boundaries of caste, class, language and race, a calling which can be fulfilled only through its members living alongside fellow-Indians sharing in public life with a concern for Christian principles in it; and two, it would put the church’s evangelistic programme in a bad light as “a direct move to transfer so many thousands of voters from the Hindu group to the Indian Christian group” (recorded by John Webster, Dalit Christians- A History).

If we pursue these eccesiological motives, the church will not be an organized closed community marked by rigid boundaries as at present, and competing with religious communities but a congregation of believers meeting for spiritual fellowship around the Word and the Sacraments, meant to equip them for Christian living , struggles of justicefor the people and evangelistic mission in religiously pluralistic or secular social economic and political institutions. Religious conversion to Christ in this setting essentially means a change of faith which involves participation in the local worshipping congregation of Christian believers without transference of community and cultural affiliations, but with a commitment to the ethical transformation of the whole society and culture in which they participate with others of different faiths.

The inter-faith dialogues referred above as a need, should not be considered as purely formal ones among intellectuals. In fact with the Panchayat Raj coming into being all over India, these dialogues have become part of working together with people of other faiths in pluralistic local situations. It may be considered integral to dialogic existence in society. But to make the day to day dialogue meaningful, the church as congregation even in the villages will have to equip the lay members involved with relevant lay theological-anthropological insights. This should be an important part of the teaching ministry in the congregations. In fact, if Christian witness in public life is the goal, this teaching ministry is to be preferred to the clerical leaders of the church controlling the decisions and activities of their lay members by communal dictate which is usually based on communal minority self-interests and rights and not on concern for the total neighbourhood.

It is clear from what has been said above, that the anthropological and moral issues aimed at renewing society and state has to be followed as an end in themselves. But if they are dealt with at depth, the contribution of Christian insights to the discussions will be a more natural preparation for the communication of the gospel of salvation in Christ than the charitable services have been in the past, because it raises issues regarding the nature of self-alienation in human beings and the ultimate ways of reconciliation overcoming it. Therefore the evangelistic mission should not appear a kind of extra black market in the dialogic situation and it should not be forced. And one should expect different levels of positive response to the relevance of an Ethical Christology inherent in the Christian anthropology. How shall we evaluate them in the light of an evolving Indian ecclesiology? Are they less important than responses to a philosophical Christology?

And in an Indian situation where baptism is the legal mark of change of one religious community to another, each with its own civil codes recognized by the Courts, communalisation of church life is imposed by Law and perverts the meaning of baptism as sacrament of faith. We have to change that situation by working for a common civil code in India or opting for the re-codified Hindu Civil Code as Fr. Staffner and others have suggested. But while the legal situation lasts, can we develop an ecclesiology which can invite to the Lord’s Table of the church as congregation of faith, those who acknowledge Jesus Christ as decisive for their lives and are prepared to enter the worshipping congregation and not the communally organized body of Christians? The question of providing spiritual fellowship to those committed to Christ in different religious communities is a peculiarly Indian ecclesiological problem which has been with us for many decades and needs to be faced squarely, for the number involved is large and the stand of many of them based on the distinction between the spiritual fellowship of faith and the Christian communality, have theological justification.

Justice P. Chenchia in his “Religious Toleration- An Essay at Understanding”, said, that the toleration by religions of religious pluralism within the family is the key to the practice of religious freedom for conversion in India. He said, “If on the side of the missionary faiths, the pull against remaining at home ceases and if on the side of the family, a wider toleration of worship is granted, the tragedy of separation need not take place. I do not see why a convert be not allowed to go to church and yet remain in the family. This happens in China, Japan and all other countries except India. We need a little more honest solicitude for the spiritual welfare of the convert on both sides” (Religious Freedom 1956). In the multi-religious secular setting, conversions from one religious faith to another religious faith or to a secularist faith and vice versa should be expected. If the church expects the Hindu family’s toleration of any member converted to Christian faith, the church and Christian families also have to justify theologically and sociologically inter-religious marriages within their circle and deal pastorally with the persons involved.