Saturday, October 20, 2007

Tribute to Samartha by Konrard Raiser

Tribute to Dr. Stanley J. Samartha by Konrad Raiser -------------------------------------------------------------------------------- Shortly after his 80th birthday Stanley Samartha passed away after having struggled during the last months of his life with a very painful bone cancer. He left with us a last moving testimony of his spiritual struggle during this period of terminal illness. The small book I could not go to Church on Good Friday with meditations on the book of Job leading up to an inner reliving of the suffering and death of Jesus on the cross became his final confession of faith. He was ready to commit his spirit into God's hands or - in his own words - "to go in peace and slip back into the stream of life without a splash". For his friends, students and colleagues in India and all over the world his death is a cause of sadness and at the same time an occasion to give thanks for this life of humble humanity, of great spiritual self-discipline and of penetrating intellectual vigour and creativity. He is to be counted among the most influential theological minds of the 20th century in India and beyond in the world-wide ecumenical movement. Born in 1920 as the son of a pastor of the Basel Evangelical Mission, he grew up in the peaceful multi-religious society of Karnataka in the South of India. He received a good college education and soon became involved in the activities of the Student Christian Movement; he later traced his inner confidence that "Christian life can be lived pluralistically" to these early influences of the SCM. He continued his education at the United Theological College in Bangalore and soon discovered his intellectual interest in Christian theology and the history and philosophy of religions. After short periods in parish ministry and as a lecturer in the seminary of his own church, he was given the opportunity to pursue graduate studies at Union Theological Seminary in New York where he studied with Paul Tillich and Reinhold Niebuhr and at the Hartford Seminary Foundation from where he later received his doctoral degree. Before returning to India, he also spent a term in Basel at the invitation of the Basel Mission, attending lectures and seminars of Karl Barth and meeting Hendrik Kraemer, then director of the Ecumenical Institute at Bossey. Upon his return to India in 1952, he was immediately appointed Principal of the Basel Evangelical Mission Theological Seminary (now Karnataka Theological College) at Mangalore. He has found his vocation in the field of teaching and theological reflection which for him was a distinct form of ministry in the church. Throughout his long academic career of teaching and writing, he remained a faithful presbyter of his church, convinced that intellectual theological reflection has an indispensable role in the life of the church. Looking back on his ministry, more than forty years later he wrote: "The critical function of Christian theologians in India and elsewhere is to speak and write courageously against uncritical conformity to tradition, emphasizing that devotion to Christ and discipleship of Jesus in the face of the striking changes taking place in contemporary history demand changed attitudes on the part of Christians to their neighbours in the country and in the world. They need to raise new questions, suggest new answers and broaden the theological space for critical discussion in the freedom of the Spirit within the koinonia of the church." Stanley Samartha was an accomplished and recognized theological educator and through his writings had made a distinct contribution to reflection and research in his field of specialization, i.e. the history and philosophy of religion, when, in 1968, he accepted an invitation to join the staff of the World Council of Churches as a Associate Secretary in the Department of Studies in Mission and Evangelism. He came to the WCC at a time when - following the Uppsala assembly - the ecumenical movement experienced an extraordinary widening of its scope and broadening of its agenda. Stanley Samartha immediately recognized and accepted the intellectual challenge, and during his twelve years with the WCC became one of the most creative and penetrating minds in shaping a wider vision of ecumenism. Since 1955, the WCC had been engaged in a study process under the theme "The Word of God and the Living Faiths of Man". In spite of intensive efforts finally leading up to a meeting at Kandy in 1967 on "Christians in Dialogue with Men of other Faiths", the discussion had largely remained stuck in the categorical distinction between the Christian faith and "non-Christian religions". It was Stanley Samartha who, on the basis of a critical reassessment of the discussions so far, succeeded in shifting the framework from the Christian study of other religions to the engagement of actual dialogue with people of living faiths. At a time when inter-religious dialogue has become a priority concern on the ecumenical agenda, it is not easy to appreciate the often lonely struggle in which Stanley Samartha was engaged during those early years against strong forces of resistance, fears and suspicion. The theological concerns of his opponents clustered around the fear that engaging in dialogue with people of living faiths would lead to syncretism and undermine the Christian calling to mission and evangelism. He did not shy away from the controversies, and with quiet determination and great intellectual and spiritual integrity achieved a gradual shift and transformation of the ecumenical attitudes to people and communities of other faith traditions. The stations of his efforts can be quickly recalled. After having received the support of the Central Committee in 1969 - only one year after his arrival - for a new approach, he organized the consultation at Ajaltoun/Lebanon in 1970 which, for the first time, brought together under the auspices of the WCC a group of Christians, Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists to reflect about the experience of bilateral dialogues in different contexts and to draw out lessons for future relations between people of living faiths. The success of this meeting led the Central Committee only one year later at Addis Ababa in 1971 to approve interim guidelines for continuing work in the area of dialogue with people of living faiths and to establish a new sub-unit for this purpose, with Stanley Samartha as its director. Then follow several years of rich and creative work stimulating dialogue with Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims, Jews and primal religions in Africa, leading up to a second multilateral dialogue consultation at Colombo in April 1974 under the theme "Towards World Community". This consultation paved the way for the Nairobi assembly (1975) which - again for the first time - saw the presence of five guests from other faith communities and in a special section "Seeking Community: the Common Search of People of Various Faiths, Cultures and Ideologies" opened the issues of inter-religious dialogue for discussion among delegates of all member churches of the WCC. The debate on the floor of the assembly when the section report was presented will be remembered as one of the crucial moments in the life of the World Council. The opposition, particularly from delegates representing European churches, and the passionate defence of the report by Asian delegates made the assembly and the ecumenical community as a whole aware of the fundamental challenge to the traditional Christian self-understanding which is implied in the dialogue approach. Rather than being discouraged by this apparent setback, Stanley Samartha patiently persisted in exploring the theological issues involved, listening to questions and doubts, taking seriously the reservations expressed, but never wavering in his conviction that the churches had to move beyond their traditional exclusivist understandings of truth and of God's presence in a world of cultural and religious plurality. Thus in 1977 he succeeded in bringing together for a consultation at Chiang Mai/Thailand a representative group of theologians from the different currents and positions expressed in the debate. The meeting produced a statement on "Dialogue in Community" which in a careful and sensitive manner put together the common insights and affirmations after seven years of controversial discussion. It served as the basis for the formulation of the "guidelines" for inter-religious dialogue which were approved by the Central Committee of the WCC in January 1979 and have provided a reliable and valid foundation for the continuing work of the Council in this area. Looking back on these years of intense work and struggle, Stanley Samartha wrote: "What had been 'interim' for nearly a decade of doubt, anxiety and controversy now became an enduring, if not a permanent, concern for the ecumenical movement. Not every problem that came up at Nairobi was solved at Chiang Mai, but it was generally accepted as providing a more acceptable basis for Christians in different centres to seek new relations with their neighbours of other faiths and ideological convictions. After twelve years in Geneva with the World Council of Churches I decided, with considerable satisfaction, that the moment had now come for me to return to my own country." The substantial fruits of his own theological reflections and explorations during these twelve years were published by the WCC after his departure in the volume Courage for Dialogue. Ecumenical Issues in Inter-Religious Relationships (WCC Geneva 1981). His departure from the staff of the WCC shortly after having celebrated his 60th birthday was sincerely regretted by his colleagues. While he had kept away from the internal struggles for influence and power, his counsel and wisdom were sought and appreciated in many difficult policy debates. Explaining his decision to return to India he referred to the old tradition in Indian culture that at the age of 60 one had gained the right to withdraw from public activity and to consecrate oneself to a life of reflection and meditation. Inevitably, of course, he remained very actively involved in the ongoing discussion on questions concerning inter-religious dialogue through teaching and advising research projects of graduate students even beyond his 70th birthday. In his personal reflections he continued the explorations of a revised Christology and of the relationship of the Holy Spirit to people of other faith traditions, both issues which had been identified in ecumenical consultations as needing further reflection. Some of his writ"One Christ - Many Religions. Toward a Revised Christology (Orbis, New York 1991). A few years before his death Stanley Samartha presented us with a brief account of his life as a pastor and theologian under the title Between Two Cultures. Ecumenical Ministry in a Pluralist World (WCC Geneva 1996). In the preface to this publication he wrote: "I would like to be remembered as one who, in some small measure, helped people divided by religion to become friends through dialogue." This wish will find a grateful echo among the large company of friends and colleagues from different cultures and faith communities who have been challenged and inspired by his penetrating mind and who have been enriched by his friendship. He will continue to be remembered as someone who in his time has opened vitally important new perspectives for the ecumenical movement. Konrad Raiser _________________________________________________________________

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