Different Styles And Models Of Indian Christian Theologies

We have space here only to illustrate the major approaches, about which several preliminary points should be made. First, many of the influential theologians of Protestant circles in India were non-professionals with claims to first-hand religious experience, and they came up with random reflections. This could be best illustrated with the approach of Sadhu Sundar Singh (1889-1929). As a convert from the Sikh tradition through a mystical encounter with Christ, Sundar Singh joined a divinity school but soon walked out, finding it a laboratory where students analysed scripture rather than aspire to drink it as milk. As a wandering monk he preached the gospel both in India and abroad, and he impressed some well-known leaders like Tagore and Gandhi and theologians like A. J. Appasamy in India, and B. H. Streeter, F. Heiler, N. Soderblom and F. von Hugel in Europe. Many in India and in the west found in him the message of the New Testament embodied, the living Christ reflected and the missionary passion personified. Singh did not make a contribution to what is known as theology so much as to a new definition of theology. He was not against any critical approaches to the study of the Bible and theology but he insisted that they could never be a substitute for prayer and living in Christ. As Heiler has pointed out, Singh had a special mission to Christian theology and to the Christian Church of the west: 'Theological research needs to be constantly balanced by living Christian piety if it is not to degenerate into presumptuous speculation, destructive criticism, or empty dialectic. Theology without prayerful piety is like a fountain whose waters have dried up.'1

Singh's reflections on Christian themes2 like sin, salvation, Christ, church and sacraments would certainly compare with others in general. What is distinctive, however, is that the reflections are illustrated with personal experience and tolerance of different viewpoints. For example, he was thoroughly christocentric and believed salvation is through Christ alone, but he held that people of other faiths also are illumined by the Sun of Righteousness, living in Christ and breathing the Holy Spirit. What was manifested in Jesus Christ is the highest point. More uniquely, he used images, metaphors and parables of everyday life. For example, just like diving to find a pearl, one has to dive into the spiritual depths to have the inner joy; just as a mother bird allowed herself to be burned by a wildfire to save her chicks, Jesus died for us. Somewhat similar was the Anglican priest Nehemiah Goreh (1825-95), who won another famous convert from the same Brahmin community, Pandita Ramabai (see below). While calling the people of his country to a new life in Christ, who came as both grace and judgement, Goreh regarded Hindu ideas about divine miracles and incarnation as a preparation for the Christian gospel. The very titles of Goreh's books, such as A Rational Refutation of the Hindu Philosophical Systems (1862), suggest his exclusive position and apologetic approach but with authentic knowledge and experience of the Hindu tradition.3

Second, going beyond the boundaries of the above, some tried to develop a definitive approach to the Indian religious traditions and their resources. For instance, in connection with a discussion on the place of the Old Testament in comparison with the scriptures of the Indian religious traditions, A. J. Appasamy points out: 'If Jesus blames His contemporaries for not listening to the voice of Moses, with equal power and vehemence will He condemn us for not listening to Ramanuja, Manikkavacakar, Tukaram and Chaitanya, who have left behind them teaching of such undying value, pointing the way to Christ.'4 But how this was done is a different question. Some stopped with slogans and others did not move beyond a certain point. Moreover, some were captured by the spirit of nationalism while others experimented with new combinations -either with Indian thoughts and practices or with secular ideologies.

2 F. Heiler, The Gospel of Sadhu Sundar Singh (Delhi: ISPCK, 1989), p. 259.

Dayanandan Francis, The Christian Witness of Sadhu Sundar Singh — A Collection of his Writings (Madras: Christian Literature Society, 1989).

B. A. M. Paradkar, The Theology of Goreh (Madras: Christian Literature Society-CISRS, 1969). A. J. Appasamy, Christianity as Bhakti Marga (Madras: Christian Literature Society, 1930), pp. 165—6.

Third, some theologians tried to establish points of contact with Hinduism and used concepts as interpretive tools for presenting the Christian message, such as Appasamy, Chakkarai and Chenchiah, whom we will discuss later. Fourth, a few attempted to create a coalescence between Christianity and Hinduism, such as Mark Sunder Rao (d. 1980), who wrote: 'The idea of a confluence of two streams of thought and faith, sangam of West and East, in the heart of the Indian Christian had then taken firm grasp of my thought and life.'5 It should be asked whether this is the experience of a few individuals or of all Indian Christians irrespective of their particular historical and religious contexts. Certainly there are examples of such coalescence, particularly in the vernacular attempts, as we will see later. Fifth, some theologians, like M. M. Thomas and others we will encounter later, have made a dialogical response to an Indian renaissance and acknowledged Christ. Sixth, the contemporary scene has a new awakening to distinctive identities such as those of women, dalits, tribals and children. We will point out examples of these theologies, which attempt to take the contemporary situation seriously.

India today as a sub-continent with over one billion people has its unique diversity and challenges. Christians form a tiny minority in India and are placed in the midst of many religious traditions. According to the 2001 census, the percentage of Hindus is 80.5, Muslims 13.4, Christians 2.3, Sikhs 1.9, Buddhists 0.8, Jains 0.4 and others, including Parsees, 0.6. Of the Christian population, Protestants represent about half. On the whole, India illustrates a strange combination of plurality and contradictions. In the tenth largest industrial nation, with some of the wealthiest persons in the world, more than twenty-five per cent of the Indian population live below the poverty line. Known as the laboratory of interfaith dialogue, India has not been without its explosive moments. In spite of the immense diversity of traditions, both ancient and modern, with their long past of mutual interaction and influence, communal harmony is still the cry of leaders and thinkers. Social stratification based on the hierarchical caste system not only often implicitly segregates communities but also has produced the most heinous practice of untouchability. While continuing to be the largest democracy in the world, the illiterate masses of India have been subjected to political manipulation and personality cults.

In such a context with a vast land, a long history, a variety of traditions, numerous theologians and an immense wealth of literature, it is not easy

5 Quoted in C. Duraisingh, 'Indian Hyphenated Christians and Theological Reflections — A New

Expression of Identity', Religion and Society, XXVI/4 (1979), pp. 95—101 at 95.

to bring together all that has been said by Indian Christian thinkers in Protestant circles. The most difficult matter is to distinguish between serious theological reflections and expositions, devotional reflections and missionary appeals on the one hand, and socio-economic analysis on the other. What is possible is to consider only those reflections which are most original and distinctively Indian. Ours is a historical survey of phases, groups, approaches and major issues identified. We are compelled to be ruthlessly selective and tantalizingly brief.

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