Monday, December 17, 2012

The Magnificat



[Coordinator, Bangalore Initiative for Religious Dialogue (BIRD)]

There is more to Christmas than peace and goodwill. The story of the birth of Jesus Christ begins with a revelation to a peasant girl that she would be the mother of the Messiah – the Saviour of the world. She would conceive by the Holy Spirit and give birth to the Son of God. She was so overpowered by the message that she breaks into poetic utterance:

"My soul doth magnify the Lord/ And my spirit has rejoiced in God my Saviour…/He hath showed strength with his arm/He hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts/He hath put down the mighty from their seats/And exalted them of low degree/He hath filled the hungry with good things/And the rich he hath sent empty away…"

This Song of Mary is called the Magnificat. Mary sees a vision of a new order of things where the weak and the poor will throw off their shackles. It is a song of liberation for man as well as for woman.

The Song of Mary reflects the teachings of the prophets of the Old Testament in the Bible. These prophets denounced the oppressors of the people, those who would sell the needy for a pair of shoes. The prophets were constantly exhorting the people to "untie the knots of the yoke, and loose the fetters of justice, to set free those who have been crushed". And, Mary belonged to this oppressed section of the people.

It might seem strange that in this momentous hour of her life when the angel had cast her in this stupendous role, she should be preoccupied with justice for her people. But one can well imagine that, then as now, this was a burning question. The Jews were under the Roman yoke and longed for the Messiah who would liberate them. Mary’s Song is a song of deliverance not only from foreign domination but the oppressor within the gates.

She did not know then that beginning with the Magnificat the road would end at the Cross where she would stand weeping for her son would show the world an entirely new way. But now it is a cry for justice, liberation from the tyranny of the rich and the exalted. Thus, woven into message of peace and goodwill is also the lesson that these conditions can only come when there is social justice.

It is unfortunate that the Church has sidestepped this problem dispensing charity while ignoring the deeper claims of equality. The Song of Mary is a reminder that charity without justice is an insult, and peace only a graveyard where there is no equality.

Yes, the voice of Christmas cries in the wilderness. It is not a call to violent revolution – for violent revolutions always end in tyranny of one kind or another. Christmas calls for a change of heart, a turning away from oneself to one’s neighbour, and therefore to God. We like to imagine that religion is a love affair between man and God. But the face of the neighbour intrudes.

Christmas reminds us that in a creative relationship there is God, man and always his neighbour – only in such a cooperative partnership can we hope for a restructuring of the social fabric, which will be permanent. In short, Christmas comes to remind us that we are all inextricably bound together in this brief sojourn on this troubled planet – that either we are ALL saved or we are ALL damned for we are all human, all vulnerable, all in need of one another.

One of the joys of Christmas is that we take time off to bring to mind all those whom we carry in our hearts and let them know they are wanted and loved, that they mean much to us, that we wish them the fulfillment of their deepest desires!

Meaning of Christmas

Meaning of Christmas

Christmas gives us a chance to lend a helping hand to those in need. Why is it, then, that we hardly ever take it?

MOST of us who have seen the movie 36 Chowringhee Lane would remember how its director brought out the common understanding and interpretation of Christmas celebrations, as picturised in the rendering of the world's most famous carol, Joseph Mohr's 'Silent Night, Holy Night'. At the same time we are shown both the all-night festive celebrations of the sophisticated and well-to-do, and the innocent slumber of those who have no cause and no means for any celebration - the miserable and the wretched outcasts of society, sleeping on the platforms and on the footpaths, some having only the sky above and the earth below, and only rags to shield themselves from the biting cold of the December nights.

These are the two commonly accepted aspects associated with the annual remembrance of the coming of Jesus -Christ into this world, two thousand years ago, as a little babe, the child of a Blessed Virgin, in an obscure village called Bethlehem.

There is a vast mass of literature about Christmas in almost every language known to man, where the principles which constitute the ideals of Christmas are enshrined for all time. In the English language there are a number of such "Christmas Stories" - some of which have become classics of English literature.

There are a few which are known to almost all who are acquainted with the English language but a look into them, especially at this time of the year, would certainly enrich us and enable us to observe and celebrate Christmas with better understanding.

One of the best known of these classics is the century-and-a-half-old story, A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. It is said that the author himself confessed that he laughed and cried over it as he did over no other story.

The central theme of the story is that 'suffering produces a comprehension of beauty'. The story is about how the sufferings of a crippled child transforms the lives of the members of his family and even of those indirectly related to the family. The transformation is most apparent in the character of the miser, Scrooge, whose only purpose in living was the amassing of wealth. He realises that he can only find true fulfilment in assisting the crippled child find happiness in life.

How is the "cross-grained creature" converted? His conversion is brought about by a series of visions - of Christmases past, present and to come. Scrooge recapitulates his life as a school-boy, apprentice and young lover; he recollects the joy and warmth of the home of Bob Cratchit, his underpaid clerk; he is filled with apprehensions at the thought of dying heartless and 'despised. And ever present in these visions is the picture of the crippled Tiny Tim - to whom he becomes a "second father". All these transform him into a benevolent, cheerful, loving person who, in turn, becomes the beloved of all.

In the midst of temporal realities, the story points to eternal truths, that beyond the fiction of fact is truth, and that in a selfish world only selflessness - the denial of the self and acceptance of the other - brings true contentment, which is the source of all true joy and peace.

Another beautiful and appropriate story for Christmas, which continues the theme of sacrifice, is that well-known one by O. Henry, The Gift of the Magi. Containing perhaps the most famous of his surprise endings, this Yuletide narrative is about a modest husband and wife - the Dillingham Young’s couple, Delia and Jim. The story tells how this poverty-stricken pair are determined to buy each other a suitable present. They do buy the presents, but at what cost! Delia has to have her beautiful hair cut and the tresses sold to buy her beloved a watch fob. But Jim sells his watch, which had been an ancestral heirloom, to buy his wife a set of combs for her beautiful hair.

Perhaps only those who are immersed in the mysteries of their own hearts and in the sorrow and suffering of other hearts can fathom the wisdom of such an act. Have they Buffered a loss when they lose themselves in that spark of selfless, divine love in which the need of the self is subordinated to the need of the other? O. Henry writes: "But in a last word to the wise of these days let it be said of all who give gifts these two were the wisest. Of all who give-and receive gifts, such as they are the wisest. Everywhere they are the wisest. They are the magi".

Nearly fifty years after O. Henry's story had seen the light of day (1906), Menotti, the Italian-born composer and librettist, commissioned to write a short opera for a television presentation, brought out in 1951 his one-act opera, Amahl and the Night Visitors. Here again, the composer uses the age-old theme of a crippled child's suffering to bring out the message of Christmas, of how the handicapped child, hearing of the birth of Jesus and the purpose of his Incarnation, gets rid of hi? affliction and finds healing and wholeness of life. How does Amahl achieve this? He adds his crutch to the gifts of the Magi!

Probably less known is the Nobel Laureate, Pearl Buck's A Family Christmas, in which the theme of Christmas is brought out in a beautiful story, "Christmas Day in the Morning". Thirty years after his father's death. Rob remembers an incident which took place when he was just a boy of 15 - an incident which made Christmas meaningful to every member of the family. In the twilight of every morn, precisely at 4 o'clock, his Dad would wake him up from his sleep to help him in his daily chore of milking the cow. As usual on Christmas morning, too, his Dad made appearance in his bedroom, with the words, "Rob, we have to get up, son, even if it is Christmas", and moved it to get things started in the barn. But Rob made no attempt to get up and follow him. After few minutes his Dad bursts into the room, almost screaming, Rob, you son of a ..." But in the night

Rob had woken up before 20 times to make sure he was in the barn before his Dad could get there and had finished milking the cows, thus saving his Dad the labour for that day. "It’s for Christmas, Dad", he proudly says. Later his Dad tells Rob in the presence of his mother and younger ones, "The best Christmas gift I ever had, and I'll remember it every year on Christmas morning, so long as I live". Rob, too, learns a lesson that Christmas day, that he could give this gift again and again. And after all the years had rolled by, on another Christmas morning, when their children were not at home to cheer him and his wife, Rob moved towards his desk to write a love letter to his wife, "My dearest love..."

Is not this the magic of Christmas - a kind and thoughtful word - a helping hand - a little deed which shows you care, you will love - and always will?

There are also many legends, poems and carols which present the glorious theme of Christmas. The Little Stranger, an ancient legend, tells the story of a poor woodman and his family and the good fortune that comes to them as the fruit of their concern and kindness for a needy child. One Christmas eve as they sit, contented and cheerful, before their meagre meal, they hear a weak knock on the door of their poor cottage set in the deep forest. When the woodman opens it he finds a tired, shivering child, dressed in rags standing at the door step in the cold snow. Without hesitation or further thought, they bring him inside into the warmth of the indoors, dress him in warm clothes and feed him with the hot food from their own table. After supper they put him in the bed where their own son usually slept. In the_ middle of the night, the whole family awakes to the sound of heavenly music from a great angelic choir. But they cannot find the child, and when they run out in search of the little stranger, to their great astonishment, they see him standing in the snow, dressed in splendid, shining garments, and radiating in a golden glow. They recognise him as the Christ-Child and bow down in reverence before him. The little Christ breaks off a fir-branch, sticks it in the ground and tells them, "Because you have been so kind to me, this tree will always be green, and bear fruit at Christmas, and you will always have plenty to eat at that season".

The golden principle of extending help to the needy is carried forward and presented to us in the famous poem, How The Great Guest Came, by the American poet, Edwin Markham, best known for his protest against the exploitation of the poor in The Man with the Hoe. In this poem, Markham, depicts the simple story of how a cobbler entertains the Great Guest.

One night the cobbler has a dream that the Lord is coming as a guest to his shop the next day. Though the cobbler finds it difficult to believe that the Lord would grace his humble dwelling, he is jubilant that he has been chosen for this singalur distinction. He decorates the place with evergreen boughs to make ready for the Lord's arrival.

The next morning, while waiting for the Lord to arrive, a beggar without shoes comes to his door, and the cobbler's anticipation and eagerness in receiving the Great Guest does not make him neglect his duty to one in need and he gives shoes to the beggar. Later in the day, he gives bread to a poor, hungry old lady, and as the day seems well-spent, with no appearance of the Lord, he gives milk to*a starving little child. As the evening shadows lengthen and darkness creeps around him, the cobbler is greatly disappointed as he feels that all his hopes and dream have turned into disillusionment. But then in the night he hears a soft voice say, "I was the beggar with bruised feet; I was the woman you gave to eat; I was the child on the homeless street". And so, in helping those who came seeking help at his door, the cobbler realises the truth of the saying that in helping others one helps God.

A Christmas carol which brings out this principle of the need to have the largeness of heart to be sensitive to the sorrows and pain of the needy is the one which unfolds the concern of Good King Wenceslas for the poor peasant. The good king is seen pictured sitting down in his palace and looking out on the fields carpetted by deep and crisp snow and at the expanding horizon, when he sees in the bright moonlight a poor man gathering fuel. Learning from his servant that the man gathering firewood is a poor peasant staying quite a long distance away, the king asks him to bring "flesh, and wine and pine logs" so that they could take it to the poor man and see him dine. With these in their hands, the king and his servant start on their charitable journey in the bitter weather. After going a short distance the servant finds the cold unbearable and confesses his fear that his heart fails, and he can go no longer. But the king who is walking ahead of him, asks him not to lose heart but to plant his feet in the king's footsteps and the servant planting his feet in the king's footprints finds that "heat was in the very sod, which the saint had printed".

What a sublime royal gesture! What a glorious example for all to emulate!

When we look at these Christmas stories we find a remarkable unifying factor. The stories of these authors, each living in different times and in different places and under different conditions - separated by time and space - instead of being dissimilar - reveal a central theme which is extraordinarily common to all: "Love came down at Christmas". And do not these stories show how love is not abstract, but incarnates and manifests itself in consecration to God, commitment: to truth and concern for others, in and through a selflessness which accepts all suffering for its own? Does not counting the cost of sacrifice make ordinary men and women channels through whom the love of God flows out to those who are in sorrow and pain?

The central theme of Christmas is that in a world of injustices, inequalities are not weaknesses, are not merely negative, or hopeless resignation to an inevitable decree, but are the means whereby we attain dignity and grow in stature to true manhood and true womanhood.

Do we not need, then, to rediscover anew the theme of Christmas and ask ourselves whether, when we are anxious about a lot of things during Christmas, we are concerned about the right things? Do we not need to rise up and respond to the challenge of love? De we not need to look at Scrooge, of whom the author says,"... if any man knew the real way to keep Christmas, it was he", and pray in his words, "Help me to honour Christmas in my heart -help me to learn its lessons of love and kindness - help me to keep it all the year."

In the midst of our eating, drinking and revelry, do we not need to look at the other side of Christmas?

Today's Youth

Today’s youth are marrying frustrations

(New Indian Express, May 5, 2010)

By George Abraham

The conscience of Kerala was rudely shaken by a gruesome murder last week. The life of a newly wed couple ended in tragedy. The husband cut the throat of his wife in a fit of rage only six days after their marriage in a church where he was administered the solemn oath ‘to feed her even if he is hungry and clothe her even if he has nothing to wear’. They had also taken a vow, in the presence of a large gathering, including bishops and priests ‘to live together till death do them part as god had united them in holy matrimony’. The marriage was conducted in Thiruvalla and the tragedy occurred in Bangalore, where they worked; he (Bejoy Samuel) in an IT firm and she (Rajani) in another multinational company.

The reason for the murder was apparently trivial, but it is a malaise that runs deep through the entire spectrum of Kerala life. After lavish weddings where lakhs are spent or change hands in the form of dowry, especially among Christians, it takes little time for discordant notes to erupt in the couples’ lives. All the emotions they had suppressed, all the personality disorders they had developed in their growing years in a changing sociological milieu overtake them, resulting in painful consequences, including family discords, divorces, murders and suicides. Deep in their minds, it seems today’s youth are virtually marrying frustrations and tensions they have accumulated, and not real persons in flesh and blood.

It was a personality clash that led to the murder of Rajani. She was said to be drawing three times the salary of Bejoy, which annoyed him. And she did not feel the need to give him the due regard that he expected. Both belonged to well-off families and so there was no compromise, adjustment, care or love involved, the feelings essential for two individuals to live together. Bereft of tender emotions, like a successful professional, he finished her off with a knife after an argument in the flat where they had come to settle down from Kerala.

The divorce rate is growing in the state, but it is nowhere as fast as in the prosperous Syrian Christian community to which the families of the couple belong. This is admitted by the religious heads themselves, but it is doubtful whether they have attempted to look within and analyse the reasons. The spiritual heads are not setting the right examples to their followers. It is not spiritual welfare but material growth that they are working for. They build up enormous assets in the form of real estate, mansions and church buildings. Service to the poor and the suffering is only a token. And the youth find only masks of hypocrisy in religious places and they turn to other means: drugs, liquor and the forbidden fruit.

They are born into a highly competitive world where success at any cost is the motto of parents who promote selfishness, unrestricted freedom and indulgences of all kinds. Western culture and money from the Middle East too impact their lifestyles. It was only a few months ago that a Syrian Christian emigrant family in the US was wiped out by a relative over an argument about the design of the new house. The youth are driven by a thirst for success and fame without caring a bit for their cultural values and traditions. The fate of persons like Bejoy Samuel, who has landed in a Bangalore lock-up, should be a telling reminder of the dangers we are facing if we do not mend our ways.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

A.P.Durai's response to Selvanayagam's lecture

Following is Mr. A.P.Durai's response to the 11th Stanley Samartha Memorial lecture

Thank you very much for forwarding the thought provoking and well researched talk by Rev.Dr.Selvanayagam. I record below some thoughts on the subject that arose in my mind as I read the text. Please do convey the following to the distinguished speaker as feedback. I am open to correction if I have wrongly understood the subject or the speech. Theology, as far as my experience goes, is irrelevant in the larger context of humanity and the problems it faces in inter faith relations. Any contribution to the sum total of human integration and unity is to be applauded.

1. I agree with the conclusions of Selvanayagam.The topic itself is ambiguous. Commitment to what? - is the question that arises. Not being able to answer this precisely, the speaker has opted to amend it. That is agreeable to me.

2. I do not endorse all the theological affirmations and questions raised. They are irrelevant to developing an openness to other peoples' faith(s). My heart says, "Of, God, when will you liberate us from theologians and enable us to feel Your presence within me?"

3. Is it necessary to talk about trinity and other assorted doctrines while talking about inter faith dialogue? Is it necessary to insist that the Old Testament be part of the new Christianity (it was called "The Way" initially) unveiled by Jesus? It is rather strange that those who swear by their Indian-ness fail to ask this question -- why should I believe in the laws of Moses and why should I read and believe in the Old Testament which is a chronicle of a race far removed from our native country and this chronicle records genocide, territorial aggression, incest and murder? These chapters were initially adopted by the nascent church only to ensure that the Jewish followers were made comfortable in the new dispensation.

4. What is the aim of this dialogue? Is it for achieving inter faith peace and communal amity (law and order)? Is it for promoting secularism which means peaceful coexistence and mutual respect for one another's faith (political intent) ? Or is it for bringing about understanding of the commonality of teachings of other religions which would liberate men from the labels and shackles imposed upon them by religions (spiritual purpose) ?

5. Definitely, the power centres in religions would not want this to materialise and that is why, as Selvanayagam has pointed out , the dialogue is yet to begin. It has been only talked about by only a small group of clergy - most parish priests are not part of this - but the flock is kept reined in through fears and temptations and perhaps a false sense of security by being part of the fold. The mother bird does not want to push the chicks out of the nest so that they could take flight. The chicks thus remain underdeveloped for ever. BIRD must give this their serious consideration - the pun is intended!

6. It is mentioned that God is a word not understood by Jains and Buddhists, but they do talk about meditation as the means for liberation/transformation. Why not look for such common platforms instead of blocking the efforts to develop a common frequency?

7. How many of us are really geared to carry on the dialogue? How many priests and bishops or laymen have read the Upanishads and the Bhagawad Gita or studied the teachings of other masters? Or, are we still talking about dialogue from the ivory tower of moral and spiritual superiority and infallibility? My feeling is that if we approach the truth of other religions as humble pilgrims , we might find priceless gems and will be blessed with a new understanding of Jesus' spiritual /ethical/ moral teachings .

8. All said and done, dialogues can be hijacked or driven astray from the spiritual purpose by vested interests in religions- unless it is taken to the grass root level. The spiritual purpose is not only to know that all men are God's children ( no group can call itself as the Chosen One, and therefore, all of us are brothers and sisters), but to feel this unity in our hearts and to allow it to manifest in our thoughts, actions and attitudes. Are our clerics and theologians stimulating our hearts to feel this love or are they trying to divide humanity on the pretence of faith and beliefs, doctrines and dogmas, is the question to be confronted with commitment and openness.

9. Commitment should be for finding and experiencing the Ultimate in our own hearts , call it a mystery (vide Samartha) or mysticism, and this is the cause that religions must advance among "aam aadmi" and not only among the creamy layer! After all, the aim of all religions is "re ligare" , to bind or unite man with God, the Jivatma with the Paramatma. Have religions been actively pursuing this goal? I have serious doubts about this.

10. The solution which we refuse to face is openness to spirituality - wherever we might find it . Did not Jesus say that the time will come when God will be worshipped in Spirit and in Truth? A relentless search for this Truth and Spirit alone will bring humanity together - not all this disputation and arguments to secure our stated positions on theology, cosmology , doctrines and dogma. The commitment and openness are warranted at the individual level and cannot be expected to develop all at once among nominal / conservative /fundamentalist practitioners of religions so beautifully described by Selvanayagam. The leaders of religions face the stupendous task of awakening this majority that is yet uncommitted to the Spirit and Truth and still lack the required openness to realise the truth that God is one and that all men are equal members of His family.

10. I have learnt from my spiritual teacher (Master) that true faith is faith in the Ultimate and further that any faith placed on anything less than that will not help our spiritual evolution. The Ultimate is the nameless, formless and the attribute-less and it cannot brook any theological interpretation, He is what He is. But as Rev.Selvanayagam has pointed out, He (She or It) can be experienced within oneself. And one's inner experience may not agree with the other's. But it is sufficient if it ignites our hearts with love for Him and for our fellowmen and cleanses us of our self righteousness as well as guilt - the two major blocks for spirituality.

Merry Christmas and a happy New Year in anticipation,

With salutations,


Saturday, December 1, 2012

11th Stanley Samartha Memorial Lecture

BIRD organised the 11th Rev. Dr. Stanley Samartha Memorial Lecture in association with the Y's Men International on 30 Nov. 2012 at the United Theological ollege. Rev. Dr. Israel Selvanayagam, professor, department of Religions, Gurukul Theological College Chennaii, India,spoke on "Commitment and Openness in a Multi-faith Context". Following is the text of his lecture}

Commitment and Openness in a Multi-faith Context

Israel Selvanayagam

Full text of the11th Stanley Samartha Memorial Lecture

30 November 2012 at the United Theological College


A Remarkable Balance

Commitment and Openness – The Interreligious Dialogue and Theology of Religions in the Work of Stanley J. Samartha (1992), the doctoral dissertation of Eeuwout Klootwijk, a Dutch scholar, brilliantly summarises the unique combination of commitment and openness in the person and early work of Samartha (1920 – 2001). In a section on ‘Life and Work in India 1920 – 1968 the author gives an anecdote that Samartha had given in response to a request about his Christian identity even after a lifelong search.

…(when) Samartha was asked to write about his own ‘spiritual journey,’ he defined his own identity as ‘unmistakably Indian’ and ‘distinctively Christian.’ ‘I am,’ he states, ‘a Christian by faith, Hindu by culture, Indian by citizenship and ecumenical in the deepest and widest sense of the term.

Samartha was always aware that he was the descendent of converts made by Basel Mission missionaries in Karnataka. As an ordained presbyter of the Church of South India he was loyal to the united church while using the freedom given in its constitution that every member is to interpret scripture in ways appropriate to the context.

One of the greatest contributions of Samartha to the interfaith movement is his careful yet convincing definition of dialogue. For example, he writes

Dialogue is a mood, a spirit, an attitude of love and respect towards neighbours of other faiths. It regards partners as persons, not as statistics. Understood and practiced as an intentional life-style, it goes far beyond a sterile co-existence or uncritical friendliness. It does not avoid controversies; it recognizes difficulties in relationships as well. It is not a gathering of porcupines; neither is it a get-together of jellyfish. Sensitively understood, it helps people not to disfigure the image of their neighbours of other faith…In multi-religious societies dialogue cannot be just the activity of a few interested individuals. It can only be ‘dialogue in community’…communities of concerned people (must be) ready to take risk, to move beyond safe boundaries, to replace old particularities with new profiles .

Those who know him in person would realize that he maintained this position throughout his life. Religious nominalism was for him one of the greatest hindrances to dialogue. Dialogue cannot be the business of woolly liberals, uncritical pluralists and wishy-washy intellectuals.

In what is seen as Samartha’s magnum opus in which he suggests a revised Christology, he makes a distinction between ‘helicopter Christology’ and ‘bullock cart Christology’, the former coming down from above, creating noise and dust, and the latter steadily moving with wheels fixed on the ground. Such narrative, he says, aims at a ‘biblically sound, spiritually satisfying, theologically credible and pastorally helpful approach that is also open to neighbours of other faiths.’

A further anecdote comes from personal testimony. It was in the Sarva Samaya Sammelana (Interreligious gathering to mark the centenary of the first World Parliament of Religions) held in Bangalore in 1993 where Samartha was addressing one section of the gathering. A European woman introduced herself by saying that she was a sort of spirituality tourist and the last guru she had just met was in Whitefield. Samartha responded saying that religion was not like jelly-ice cream to slip through the throat smoothly. He said in his own words what his colleague Eric Lott has succinctly written: ‘religion is immensely complex and immeasurably varied.’

It is important to note that theologically Samartha could not be boxed into the unhelpful triple model of exclusivism, inclusivism and pluralism. It is true that here and there he makes statements such as ‘religions are different responses to the Mystery’; but this cannot qualify him to be a theistic pluralist. When the above models are unpacked, we find that there are various strands in each. Negligence of this fact is the reason for rushing to put someone into a box. Even Klootwijk is a typical European in this regard. Even in the early phase of his research Samartha (in his The Hindu Response to Unbound Christ,1974), clearly and courageously pointed out misunderstandings of Christ by Hindu thinkers. One can see him apologetic too at times. This approach remained with him till the end of his life.

It was on the Christmas Eve of 1995 that Samartha’s interview-article (interviewed by P.N. Benjamin) appeared in the Sunday Herald Bangalore India (p. ivf) entitled ‘The Christ We Adore.’ The unnoted background was that some Muslim friends had posted graffiti in his neighbourhood in Bangalore saying that Jesus was only a prophet. He starts with a comment on secular and technocratic society. In his words,

I also perceive a simmering discontent, a restlessness within the consciousness of some secular people. Secularism has failed to provide a credible alternative to religion. Moreover, there is much anxiety that machines might dominate human life. At such a time as this, the celebration of festivals gives people a sense of stability, the security of belonging to a community of faith. They emphasise that life is not governed by things but by values based on faith and hope. Christmas, for example, takes Christians to the roots of their faith, the child in a manger.

Further he gives an exposition of Christmas. Again in his words, ‘Let me draw attention to certain points about Christmas that demand serious attention. They help us in our devotion to Christ and our discipleship of Jesus.’ He makes three points: God’s love touching human life in a simple but deepest possible way that is beyond rituals and doctrines; God’s concern for the poor and the lowly such as Dalits and women; and Christmas as a time of renewing a community of faith. Stressing the theme of peace, he points out two kinds of peace: peace within the heart which religions such as Hinduism and Buddhism hold to be the core, and which ‘passes all understanding’ for Christians, and peace between communities, peoples and nations. He continues to repeat his favourite idea that ‘In a pluralist society like ours different religions may be regarded as different responses to the Mystery of God or Truth or the Ultimate. The question for today is not which among the many religions is true but what can each religion contribute to the quest for peace.’ A further note is that ‘Shallow friendliness for the sake of superficial peace is morally wrong…For me, the distinctiveness of the Christian faith does not begin and end with Christmas. As the child grows to maturity his peace-making ministry passes through the garden of Gethsemane to the cross. It is the combination of Bethlehem and Golgotha, the manger and the cross, that is the distinctive mark of Christian faith. Our friends of other faiths have their own distinctive mark and identity.’

Thus, we can illustrate elaborately the spirituality of commitment and openness as held and expounded by Samartha, in whose memory this lecture is given.

Three Religious Road Blocks to the Attitude and Practice of Commitment and Openness

I suggest that nominalism, conservativism and fundamentalism are the major road blocks to a creative and truthful life in a multifaith context. I will briefly explain each of these.

Those who are nominally religious may be driven by many motives. For example, they may find a kind of emotional satisfaction by being part of a religious community. Such superficial belonging gives them a fashionable identity. They do not seriously read their scriptures. They may attend worship services but their condition will be like ‘pebbles in the stream.’ And where religion is integrally related to a particular culture participation in religious celebrations will be naturally expected by other members of the community.

There is vested interest in being part of a religious institution or community. There are seats of socio-economic powers in every religious tradition. Some expose this motive in themselves when they perform a ritual without any sense of solemnity, when they contest elections using manipulative practices and swindle money belonging to a group or community. Such people bring disrepute for their community. They provide the fodder to hawkish secularists or atheists to generalize the issue and ridicule any religious adherence and commitment.

‘Politicization of religion and communalization of politics’ was the phrase used by Samartha; and such a trend continues in India. Even in earlier times, particularly at the time of independence, there were leaders who represented particular religious communities but they never bothered about worship, or practising the teachings of their traditions. In the case of powerful and charismatic personalities, the concerned religious communities seem not to be bothered about this. Such persons may talk about interfaith relationship, dialogue, unity etc but there is no indication of real commitment to the spirituality of commitment and openness.

Conservatives who are not open to change consider interfaith dialogue as an aberration and even deviation from the true way. They take great pride in following a tradition that has been handed down to them through several previous generations. We can first point out the ritual practices. Those Hindus who strictly follow the Vedic tradition of ritual sacrifice in the language of Sanskrit never think that even the smallest change can be introduced. Muslims have the same set of postures in prayer and practices of the celebration of a festival, and this is true of Sikhs also. While Buddhist philosophy affirms the perpetual change in the process of becoming, as far as the ritual practices are concerned there are hardly any changes. Christian conservatism is often tied to a particular denomination and its traditions. That there are new liturgies and new translations of the Bible, that there is encouragement to make every worship unique with the principles of both familiarity and unpredictability – all this is anathema to the diehard conservative. But it may be true to say that more people are comfortable with traditional ways than those who are open to change. The Ritual Fast Reading (RFS) practiced in most services is evidence of a lack of sensitivity and genuine solemnity.

Spiritually and theologically there are different measures of growth and maturity. In the Vedantic and Bhakti traditions there is emphasis on experiencing either oneness with the Supreme or intimacy with God. As we have noted above, Buddhism on its basic tenet of dependent origination recognises ongoing transformation in life until one can arrest the dynamic currents of this bewildering existence and attain Nirvana. Muslims strive in the way of God by remembering God and submitting to God’s will. Christians are called to be in the process of ongoing transformation until they achieve the perfection or fullness of God. Open sharing of such varied experiences in dialogue will be greatly rewarding.

Commitment and openness calls for a new pursuit of experiencing the Divine and articulating the faith. Let me explain this with reference to the Christian position, leaving the position of other religious traditions to present their case. As an outcome of long theological battles with the influence of political authorities we have inherited two creeds, the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed. They may be compared to customized capsules for easy consumption! In both creeds there is a great skip from creation to the birth of Jesus and from the birth of Jesus to his suffering. Why has the long Hebrew story of liberation, covenant, prophetic message etc been omitted? One convincing reasoning is that the early Christian leaders were anti-Semitic and they did not bother to recognize a great story, tradition and scripture related to that Jewish tradition, though all are inseparable from the Christian story. Likewise, it was as a radical Jewish prophet Jesus sought the last, the least and the lost by loving them, embracing them, liberating them and uniting them. Those who realize these facts create new creeds which often irritate the conservative folk and their hierarchy.

Let me illustrate with one more example. The so called Filioque Clause emerged from the debate on whether the Holy Spirit was proceeding from the Father, or was ‘from the Son’ (Filioque) as well. This issue was the basis of the great schism between the Western and the Eastern Churches in the 11th century. When we have come to understand the dynamic unity of the Trinitarian reality, it is natural to think how silly were those who spent their whole life in debating such doctrines without showing any interest in revisiting their history. Today, fully alert to living in a multifaith context, we need to prove that we have come of age and are able to reflect further on our faith, taking insights from the Bible.

Fundamentalists, both religious and secular, are the third force against a spirituality of commitment and openness. It is not without reason that some Christian groups stand before great ecumenical gatherings with placards with words such as ‘Dialogue is a Satanic Movement.’ Fundamentalism takes different shapes in different religious traditions and among different sects within the same tradition. Fundamentalists are absolutists, arrogant and adamant. While they criticize modern interpretations of scriptures, in reality they have their own selection. They are emotionally manipulative, using the mass media and business techniques in selling their brand of religion. Some of them encourage militancy and violence to be unleashed against whom they consider their enemies. In the Christian case they have successfully propagated a ‘dum dum spirituality’, identifying the power of the Spirit with electrical and electronic power. Safety, security, prosperity and peace of mind are their main concerns. It will be a useful study to relate these concerns to globalization. Their growth shows the absence of leaders with ‘a theological backbone.’ It is important to distinguish between this fundamentalism and the fundamentals of our faith such as loving sacrificially God and humans.

This way of describing the forces opposite to commitment and openness might appear to be simplistic and superficial. It is important to undertake empirical studies to confirm or challenge these facts. The question is, what are the marks of a commitment? Is it possible to set criteria for genuine commitment - such as a high degree of dedication, honesty, frankness and humility? Of course, we have to be careful in making judgments, but there is no life without critical evaluation and thus making some kind of judgments all the time. Founder figures of religions including Jesus were nor not exempted.

Two Ambiguous Paradigms

There are those who are not interested in interfaith dialogue for the reason that real religious life is experience and it cannot be verbally talked about. Swami Abhishiktananda’s ‘dialogue in the cave of the heart’ is based on this assumption. Following its publication over 100 years ago, William James’ Varieties of Religious Experience religious has been thoroughly studied and its findings on mystical experience have been startlingly revealing . So, mysticism is no more a ‘prohibited area.’ And it does not happen in a vacuum. Ritual, mythical, scriptural and doctrinal dimensions prepare the mystics to have extraordinary experiences. Expressing those experiences too is shaped by the above dimensions. Therefore lack of willingness to share the experience in dialogue must be due to other reasons. For example, some may fear being influenced by others; others may not have the capacity to articulate and express their religious life with confidence and courage. The Courage for Dialogue – to use Samartha’s words - comes from conviction and confidence. At the same time it is against the principle of dialogue to exploit another’s ignorance or weakness.

Relatedly, there is the great idea of mystery. We have already mentioned Samartha’s dictum that ‘Religions are different responses to Mystery, Truth or the Ultimate.’ But he was open to talk about his own commitment and about Christian uniqueness. However, he has not elaborated the relationship between the two aspects and its implication for interfaith dialogue. There are many other theologians too who come up with such position. Very few acknowledge the movement between what is unknowable and what is known, and what is unexperienceable and what can be experienced and what is inexpressible and what can be experienced. In 2010 October the visiting Archbishop Rowan Williams had an encounter with a group of leading Hindu swamijis, heads of important Maths and Ashrams in South India, at the Ecumenical Christian Centre in Whitefield, Bangalore. In the final report of the Archbishop’s whole visit to India this encounter was noted as one of the highlights. He said:

God is first and foremost the depth around all things and beyond all things into which, when I pray, I try to sink. But God is also the activity that comes to me and out of that depth, tells me I’m loved, that opens up a future for me, that offers transformations I can’t imagine; very much a mystery but also very much a presence; very much a person

I want to suggest that, understood as a means of God-given discovery, dialogue actually brings us up against a greater and fuller awareness of the sheer mystery of the God with whom we all have to do.

It instills in us a deeper gratitude that the mysterious, infinite God who surrounds and pervades everything that is has nonetheless spoken a word to us which changes us.

Before moving further, I want to make two comments. First, Archbishop Rowan, as a Christian leader, talks about God. But for Buddhists and Jains who originated in India God-talk does not make any sense. Still there are several issues that theists can take up with them in dialogue. Second, he talks about personal and individual awareness of God or relationship with God. But that is one aspect of religious life and experience. Religious people have songs to sing, stories to tell, ideas to expound, events to lament and festivals to celebrate. Therefore in interfaith dialogue the wholesomeness of religious life needs to be shared and explored.

When we affirm that religions are different responses to the Mystery (or Truth, Ultimate or Divine) as Samartha did, number of questions arise. For example, is that Mystery single or multiple or plural? What aspect or bit of the Mystery evokes response and how? How to account for contradictory responses? How to assess those who claim that they have not only responded but also found the full reality of divine and human life for which they are ready even to die? There are clear instances about the unknowability of things but they cannot dampen what has been seen and experienced. Without some clarity about the given, there cannot be an urge to know more fully. Also we have been inspired with insights into the world of the poor, victims and the marginalized that motivate us for action both individually and collectively. Victimizers may feel challenged, but for that reason they cannot be allowed to highjack the discussion into mystical depth. In my view interfaith dialogue has hardly begun. We have far too much of monologue and superficial slogans.

There is a tendency in every religious tradition that one confidently goes as far as our intelligence can grasp. Then, for what we cannot grasp we take refuge in ‘mystery’. This is true of the traditional Christian understanding of Trinity. In recent times theologians have applied new analogies from the collective experience of the community in order to understand Trinity as a divine community keeping the balance between one and three and between the calm serenity and dynamic (dancing) action within the divine. From this we can understand that what is mystery for one may not be so for the other. There is a growth and movement in under-standing and this can happen in interfaith dialogue too, if there is openness. Fear to be open because of the possibility of change seems to be a basic hurdle and the language of mystery cannot give permanent conviction.

Faith in the Midst of Faiths

Thanks to secular criticism of religion, for some time adherents of particular religion have repeatedly held that theirs is ‘not a religion but a way of life’. Those who understand religion as multi-dimensional, and having inter-dimensional dynamics, see this as too simplistic and evasive. While this has been going on, in 1970s the word ‘faith’ replaced ‘religion.’ Hence the titles such as ‘people of other faiths’, ‘faith in the midst of faiths’ and ‘faith meets faith.’ The word ‘faith’ attracts theologians while ‘religion’ continues to be popular in the academic world. If ‘faith’ is identical with ‘religion’, all the scholarly scrutiny developed over the decades is applicable to it. However, ‘faith’ is used specially in the area of interfaith dialogue and comparative theology.

Wilfred Cantwell Smith, a Canadian scholar who was the founder director of the Centre for World Religions at Harvard, has made a significant contribution to the comparative study of religion and theology of religions, particularly to an understanding of the distinction between faith and beliefs. His quest is

to understand faith as a characteristic quality or potentiality of human life: that propensity of man that across the centuries and across the world has given rise to and has been nurtured by a prodigious variety of religious forms, and yet has remained elusive and personal, prior to and beyond the forms.

This ‘faith’ is not religion or cumulative tradition and, as an evidently universal human quality, it manifests itself in diverse forms and concepts. It is manifest primarily in one’s involvement or engagement in a particular religious tradition. At the same time it is not everywhere the same, not even within a religion. Unlike belief it is varied and can grow in measurement. Yet it is elusive of modern religio-historical knowledge.

Faith is deeper, richer, more personal. It is engendered and sustained by a religious tradition, in some cases and to some degree by its doctrines; but it is a quality of the person, not of the system. It is an orientation of the personality, to oneself, to one’s neighbour, to the universe; a total response; a way of seeing whatever one sees and of handling whatever one handles; a capacity to live at a more than mundane level; to see, to feel, to act in terms of a transcendent dimension....Faith, then, is a quality of human living. At its best it has taken the form of serenity and courage and loyalty and service: a quiet confidence and joy which enable one to feel at home in the universe, and to find meaning in the world and in one’s own life, a meaning that is profound and ultimate, and is stable no matter what may happen to oneself at the level of immediate event. Men and women of this kind of faith face catastrophe and confusion, affluence and sorrow, unperturbed; face opportunity with conviction and drive; and face others with a cheerful charity.

One can observe this faith, just like love, courage and so on in every human being and in all religious communities. Its opposite is nihilism and another extreme form is ‘the mean, cramping faith of blind and fanatical particularism’.

Here we make a few comments to elucidate the meaning and implications of faith.

Firstly, Smith speaks as a Christian whose faith was ‘evoked and nurtured’ by his attachment to the Church. A Buddhist, Hindu, Jew or Muslim would speak of that fundamental quality called faith using entirely new terms and interpretations.

Secondly, the term ‘faith’ predominantly comes from the Christian tradition. Muslims and Jews also use it but with exclusive reference to their perception of and relationship with God. In the Hindu tradition ‘faith’ cannot be understood through any one view or school of darshana. In Vedic religion, for instance, the term translated as faith (sraddha) usually means the confidence of the patron of sacrifice in the efficacy of the ritual act and its power. Knowledge and devotion are the other two major ideas and experiences held, with varying connections between them, by different philosophical schools and devotional sects. For modern thinkers like Vivekananda, every human being has a soul or divine spark, for which reason it is a sin to call a human being a sinner. Buddhists would be happy with the term ‘enlightened awareness.’ Therefore, using one’s own religious category for understanding something universally human may not be appropriate.

Thirdly, even within the Christian tradition the term ‘faith’ has acquired many meanings. Jesus spoke in terms of ‘little faith’ and ‘great faith’ which he found not only in his disciples, but also in those outside his own religious fold, such as a Roman Centurion, a Canaanite woman and a Samaritan who was cured of leprosy. Once when his disciples asked him to increase their faith, Jesus spoke of a mustard-seed measure of faith which could move mountains. The obvious meaning in these references is the ability to move, to transform and transcend, which in some ways comes close to Smith’s definition. But when Paul speaks of ‘justification by faith’ he means specifically accepting that God has accepted all humans, though sinful and unacceptable, in and through Jesus Christ. Again for the writer to the Hebrews (11:1) ‘Faith gives substance to our hopes and convinces us of realities we do not see.’ As such, it is difficult to hold to only one meaning of this term. Sadly, Christians themselves are not clear about the various meanings of ‘faith’ while they continue to harp on trust, confidence and love of God.

One can raise an important question which is similar to those we raised earlier in connection with Mystery: What does evoke, guide and nurture faith? Is there one element of ignition applicable to all? The British philosopher Bertrand Russell in connection with his understanding of knowledge and good life used the phrase ‘Guided by knowledge, Inspired by love.’ There are Christians who claim that the original meaning of ‘inspired’ implied the influence of the Holy Spirit. People of other faiths and secular ideologies are capable of finding implications in the light of their own traditions. It will be a fascinating dialogue when people of different faiths within a safe and creative space share their ‘visions, traditions and interpretations.’

Journeying Together

It is left to each faith community to define and refine their spiritual journey. But where there is openness to know how other faith communities define and refine their spiritual journey there will be a new avenue open for us to redefine and further refine. Such a process calls for a new self-understanding within faith communities. It is not my responsibility to delineate the room for change in other religious traditions. I can only comment on possibilities for Christians. Christians proclaim many and varied paradigms. Cross and crown is one. Bethlehem-Golgotha-empty tomb is another. But in actual fact these were quite unpredictable. Even Jesus was not fully sure of what would happen at the end of his life journey. Again, the resurrection was not the end of this journey. Saul encountered the risen Christ as suffering in solidarity with those who were persecuted for their faith. He defined his faith as engaging in a journey of knowing Christ and having solidarity with his suffering. Further, we have visions for the future, but no blueprint depicting it. We are given hope but its realization depends on what happens in our faith journey, alone as well as with friends of other faiths.

Those who are actively involved in programmes and projects of socio-economic-political regeneration might think that the business of interfaith dialogue centred around spirituality and faith is a waste of time. I have great sympathy for this position. I myself always remember the great moment of digging and conversing with my Hindu partner on the Bhagavad Gita in a camp for making contours to bring water to a parched area, organized by the great Baba Ampte in a remote area in Maharashtra (1988). I always wish such camps were organized everywhere, not necessarily by one person or community but by others too. It should be everyone’s commitment to dialogue and together make collaborative efforts to identify life-threatening forces and life-affirming resources. But all of us know that any social transformation in India cannot happen by-passing religious identities, devotions and aspirations.

And we may encounter people with ambiguous social positions and attitudes. Should we refuse to dialogue with them? Let us recall the conversation of Samartha and Paul Knitter at the time of releasing his book One Christ-Many Religions at UTC Bangalore, 1991. While appreciating the biblical, pastoral, philosophical, ethical and missionary concerns of the book, Knitter pointed out Samartha’s dialogue mainly with high caste Hindus who perpetuated the caste system and untouchability in India. This comment was understandable as it came from someone who had shifted the focus of interfaith dialogue on to liberation praxis. Samartha was modest in his response, acknowledging the fact of brahmanic Hinduism’s contribution to the social ills like untouchability and his own change of views about it in the wake of Dalit theology. He admitted that he was not an activist, although as a theologian, scholar of religion and writer he was one with anyone who had concern for liberation in India. But he was firm on two grounds. He refused to see all Brahmins as devils and all Dalits as gods. And he refused to reject anyone from the orbit of dialogue. In his words,

To reject, or to admit anyone to dialogue, is against my life-long commitment to the dialogical principle. I am prepared to dialogue even with the devil as long as the language of discourse is Indian English!

It is remarkable that towards the later years of his life, Samartha voiced the need for the liberation of victimized communities such as poor women and Dalits.

Samartha loved the image of ‘journeying together’ though the exact nature of the destination is unpredictable. I composed a dialogue theme song in Tamil in 1978 on the same theme. Every arrival precedes a new departure and the situation of next destination is unpredictable. While concluding an editorial to an issue of a journal we published in Chennai, I have noted the following: ‘We need to talk as well as act. Choosing one against the other does not help anyone. Serious interfaith dialogue has hardly started. We have not exhausted all the good and creative talking. We have not tried all the possibilities of acting together….There is no claim in interfaith dialogue that we have answers for all the questions and perhaps we do not raise the right questions all the times. We still may have perennial questions but continue our journey with provisional answers.’ If such a position is not in tune with a committed and open faith I admit my failure of communication. I feel we have reached a stage where we have to shift the emphasis from Commitment and Openness to Commitment to Openness.