Saturday, August 8, 2009

Thoughts on the centenary of United Theological College

Stray thoughts of a long-standing friend and well-wisher of UTC on its centenary

A place of sacred learning – learning designed for the making of a unique product, the pastor – the United Theological College, has in the last one hundred years of existence decisively influenced the life and thought of Churches in the Sub-Continent and Sri Lanka and neigbouring countries. Guest students and teachers from East and West have imparted to this miniscule band of scholars an academic excellence and trans-denominational comradeship without which the pursuit and practice of truth would have remained largely parochial and less than holistic.
Its achievements thus, which are many, occasion for joyful celebration. Its failures, not a few, call for a new and recognizably firm commitment to Christ, Master and Lord.

It is an occasion of release. Within the Christian world it demands a shattering of the fetters of the past, a confrontation with corruption in the historic process as a community of people, an overcoming of hubris and decay. Not mere survival, but renewal in every part.


Not mere expansion, but inner growth is what we covet for UTC today. Its origins and traffic with the West brought in many of the riches of the West. But more and more import of ideas and institutions, many of them not untouched, untainted by the cataclysmic wars and beguilements of today’s doctrine of the balance of power, is not what we would envisage for the future. In theology, as in science and technology, Western insights are an invaluable commodity. In theology, however, it is not mere information at the cognitive levels that is needed, but its incarnation in human personalities for it to pass into the Indian psyche there to generate varying models of Christian discipleship.

We in this country are not behind others in the business of killing, killing even in the name of religion. Nor does our compassion surpass that of people in the West, Christian or Pagan. It has failed to match the needs of multitudes around us, the hungry, the naked, the maimed within.
The UTC must now come out of its cave lit by light from the modern West if not air-conditioned by it, redefine its self-hood in the annoyingly distressing Indian context and re-enter the world of Karnataka, Kashmir and the rest of the Sub-Continent. Be its endowment as small as a mustard seed, the future resides in it, for it is none other than the seed of reconciliation in a land of much tearing down and breaking up, of those fallen among thieves and myriads defeated in life.
Peace-makers and the Christ-like – it does not matter if they come from the ends of the earth – constituting a community and not merely herded in lecture-rooms could conceivably attempt what this country craves for: a recognizably indigenous Christian way to live, live for another, work for the common good, worship truly.


Worship is where westernization is most evident. Order and decorum characterize it, elements corporate worship cannot do without. In essence, however, it is regimentation, rigid or relaxed as suits particular tradition. It smacks of triumphalism, a feature which is made to dominate some people’s funerals. Easter Orthodoxy differs in certain respects. Sanskritization and feeble attempts at archaisation or assimilation to certain indigenous Hindu forms do not appear to be the answer. In almost all, form tends to dominate content. We shall evolve as many forms as content and occasion dictate, and new symbols will emerge. They grow out of our religious experience.

Where a cultic life degenerated – a tendency to superficiality is nherent in the nature of the cult – and sincerity of heart was supplanted by dazzling rituals, forgiveness became cheapened and automatic, resulting in a recurring falseness the prophets, champions of righteousness and truth in ancient Israel, never failed to attack.

The intellectual fare of the class-room apart, how deep and true is one’s personal devotional life? None has a right to peep in here. The way a public worship is conducted, however, is often a mirror of one’s grasp of the fundamentals of worship and pattern and content of one’s private devotional life, its depth and genuineness. Some have not hesitated to impose their faulty, gimmicky ways upon public worship on occasions. How well do they know their Master? He spoke of true worship sweeping aside the thousand-year-old tradition of Jerusalem’s holiness, and added: "God is spirit and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth."
Sacredness resides not in a place, person or words, but in human corporateness. The words of Jesus, "Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them", have been proved true in tens of thousands of homes around the world.


As in any place of learning the brainier ones outstrip the rest. It is often assumed that these, occasional occurrences, will jump the pastoral groove and gravitate to teaching or research after more prolonged studies here or overseas. Is there the germ of an unhealthy elitism here? Were not some of the best minds in the West nurtured in pastoral tradition?
A contra-elitism has been of those less endowed and who struck a pose of radicalism. They heard of rumours of the death of God, and without waiting to ask where and when and how, lightened their luggage including the Bible in some cases, later exhorting the faithful to go beyond it.
This pseudo-theological radicalism was soon to cloak itself in pseudo-Marxist radicalism and to champion the cause of the poor by seeking solutions to India’s poverty in expensive eating houses and jaunts overseas. Judas Iscariot, a disciple who plotted against the Master, appears in the Bible as a champion of the poor, Jesus himself is just poor!
Pastoral work is all-comprehending in which intellectual and true liberationist are all at home, and there is nothing greater than it..


Here is the nub of the question. Power attracts, and ecclesiastical power attracts for the ease with which it can be seized and the immense profit for which it can be wielded.
Well-intentioned but often misguided or ill-directed inductions of large sums of money from overseas has had the effect of re-colonising the Church and debilitating it for generations to come, priests its agents.
Power is a fact of ecclesiastical life, more so today than a couple of generations ago. The UTC should be a place where its nature, necessity, conditions of legitimacy and limits are understood to help its exercise in ways that are compatible with the spirit of Christ.
Isn’t powerlessness Christ’s way? Would UTC consider exploring this avenue?


All too quickly, perilously prematurely, a UTC man/woman is thrust into a world of men and women and children where he/she, a 25-year-old, now a specialist in spiritual matters, must solve problems, fulfill needs. This is an outcome of professionalizing a kind of service which is well nigh impossible to professionalize. There is in the Indian tradition elements, the assimilation of which into the making of a priest and pastor must no longer be ignored


Ultimately, it is the constant of human life, pain, which always confronts us. Least understood and most dreaded, pain often lurks behind a beaming face refusing to reveal itself. For anyone wishing to be of help this is an impenetrable barrier, perpetually baffling, defeating.
Christianity does not offer to abolish pain. It acknowledges its pervasive presence, infinite variety and our extreme vulnerabilities. "Pain", said one who was no stranger to it, "is a central raw material for man’s entry into that dimension of love which lies beyond evolution". Christianity offers a vision of its transformation through one like ourselves, Jesus, "a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief…stricken, rejected".

Somewhere along the line we would have sensed that hurts don’t go away except through forgiveness. "I learned what forgiveness is", confesses a master of pastor’s craft many years ago, " from a woman dying of poison administered by her husband". People are our teachers, their forbearance the first input. They may annoy but they will help to learn. Where two persons in pain sit alongside each other, each is a priest to the other. And the priest and the saddest are discovered in unlikely places, the ones to whom vision of God has been vouchsafed and those who have become victors over pain.
People too must learn lest they remain rooted in their childhood beliefs and prejudices of later years. Their inherited doctrines my have worked well for previous generations but today there are exciting prospects of knowledge and enrichment. Beliefs need to be dialectically related to main quest for meaning at the heart of a human cell or in the tail of a comet. Our need is not for water to be turned into wine but for wine to be turned into water to slake the parched throats of our people.
A UTC in every home! Electronic means are at its disposal to reach people with the riches of the Christian faith, the wisdom of our ancient sages, the mirth of the medieval mystics, the zeal of the contemporary liberationist. Not for the few but for the many who hunger and thirst for righteousness.
A priest/pastor is one in quest of holiness, an unattainable goal. In its moment of clarity, the UTC will own to a certain loss of holiness over the years, a scorning of transcendence, grace being misconstrued for permissiveness. Is it too much to hope for a re-born sense of obedience to Jesus, however imperfect it might be in our understanding of Him and of the world for whose good fortune He lived and died? Wouldn’t the UTC men/women, when they come out of it, wish to be known as those "who had been with Jesus" and not non-glossy professionals?

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