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

Bangalore



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.

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