Bold and Humble: Witnessing to Christ Today
Some Perspectives on the Tasks of Theology
Fr Dr K M George
It is more than customary to remember the Serampore Trio – Carey, Marshman and Ward – who initiated the Indian Renaissance in Bengal in the early part of the 19th century. We may better use the expression The Serampore Quartet , the group of four, rather than the Trio if we duly recognise the active collaboration of Sarah Marshman, the ‘first European woman missionary in India’.1 Sarah Marshman and the other women who soon joined her were not simply “wives of missionaries”2, but played substantial roles on their own in accomplishing the mission. Commemoration of these men and women is more than a ‘hagiographical’ remembrance. It is an act of Thanksgiving, and a future-oriented recapitulation of the legacy of those who sacrificed their lives for the welfare of all, for the future of humanity. In a liturgical sense it is Anamnesis, the Great Remembrance. It is not simply a psychological recollection of the past, but of gathering together in a holistic vision the past, present and future of our Christian witness and commitment. The whole economy of the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ and the work of the Holy Spirit who perfects the creation to its transfigured destiny form the backdrop of our commemoration of the Serampore missionaries today.
The celebrated work of the Serampore missionaries was mainly in education. Their proposal in 1818 was for a “ College for the instruction of Asiatic, Christian and other youth in Eastern literature and European science.” The founding of the Serampore college as well as allied educational, linguistic and literary activities – schools , boarding homes , education for girls, and translation of the Bible and literature.
It is almost at the same period that British missionary activities started in Kerala. All that we can say about the vision and the deep commitment of the Serampore missionaries can be said about the first generation of British missionaries in Kerala as well.
The difference is that the latter made an attempt to collaborate with the already existing ancient indigenous Malankara Church in Kerala under the banner of the “Mission of Help”. (Of course, there was no pre-missionary Christian Church in Bengal for the Serampore missionaries to work with). A major outcome of the joint efforts of the Malankara Church, the British missionaries and the Kingdom of Travancore was the “Cottayam College” or “Syrian College”, later known as the “Old Seminary”, and eventually the Orthodox theological Seminary, founded in 1815.
The ‘sweet-sour’ relationship between the ancient Eastern Church of India and the British missionaries broke apart in some 15 years after the founding of the Seminary. Its failure provides a very interesting field of critical study if approached from post-colonial, cultural, ecclesiological and theological-liturgical angles of the ancient Indian Church and not simply from the Western colonial-missionary perspective.
In any case the great initiative taken by the missionaries to uplift the inhumanly oppressed and exploited Dalit populations and to provide education to the girls and boys alike brought a certain degree of human dignity to all those who were terribly deprived of it. The movement anticipated and facilitated the great social change in post-independence India. It also opened the eyes of the highly caste-minded ancient Church in Kerala to some of the gospel values like justice and equality it had ignored , and it helped them start socially caring programmes, and public educational and medical services for the people.
More than 200 years have elapsed since the British missionaries began their work in Bengal and Kerala. The western imperial-colonial-missionary paradigm has now vanished though some of our Indian churches still seem to retain vestiges of that age. We are now encountering an India that is completely different from that of the colonial period. The difference is so radical that even calling our venerable motherland India rather than Bharath might soon be considered a heretical and politically incorrect utterance.
Let me very briefly point out a few areas which would require our attention in relation to our Christian vision, theological education and ministerial formation in India. (For brevity’s sake I am leaving out the self-evident pastoral dimensions of theological education.
I. The Enlightened horizon.
The British missionaries who came from the context of European enlightenment and imperial Christianity naturally opened a new horizon of enlightenment through educational initiatives in India. What we call ‘modern India’ is, to a large extent, the outcome of European enlightenment. We made use of modern scientific methodology and its concomitant technology for remarkable accomplishments including the recent Chandrayan mission of ISRO.
But the assumptions of that western civilizational-missionary enterprise like the claim of cultural-racial-religious superiority and the boastful European condescension to the Indians had been questioned from the very beginning by sensitive Indians like Ram Mohan Roy. A few decades ago Bishop Paulos Mar Gregorios challenged the European Enlightenment, particularly its ratio sola (reason alone) principle and its idea of secularism in two of his seminal books. He proposed for our nation-builders the paradigm of the Indian/Asian Buddhist Enlightenment that embraces both rationality and transcendence.3 (Enlightenment East and West, and A Light too Bright). This line of thought opens a new channel for us to engage in a critical dialogue with western scientific secularism as well as to face the spectre of a virulent ‘cultural nationalism’.
II The Paradox of expansion and constriction.
Contemporary Science and technology opens up amazing dimensions of our macro and micro universe. For example, the exploration, on the one hand , of space and the detection of hitherto unknown galaxies and blackholes by James Web Space Telescope (JWST), and, on the other hand, the unveiling of the “Attosecond” of time (a billionth of a billionth of one second) to study the electron dynamism in human body cells by this year’s (2023) Nobel laureates in Physics. While we open up to new dimensions of spacetime in an ever accelerating inflationary universe, we are simultaneously choked by social, cultural and geopolitical constrictions promoted by political ideologies and religious fundamentalism. Religious-communal conflicts, racial hostilities, genocides, border confrontations, and brutal wars now being staged are all contemporary examples of this constriction. Sadly it is our own human creation.
III. Story and history, myth and logos.
We have come to an era in India where the borders of story and history, myth and logos are deliberately being blurred. In our “post-truth era” , our usual notions of fact, interpretation, and wishful thinking are mixed up through deliberate political manoeuvring. We need to remind ourselves that the borders between fact and fiction have been established as the result of laborious intellectual and academic struggles over several centuries. An absolute distinction between story and history has its own problems. In several languages of the world there is only one word to represent both story and history. It engenders historiographical issues. Therefore one has to be cautious and critical. Whether we like it or not, what we call ‘modernity’ assumes these strict borders, and some of the religiously-driven modern states enter into conflict with the modern scientific notion of the distinction between fact and fiction. Therefore, we need to initiate a substantial theological debate on the connection between mythos and logos, since the Judeo- Christian understanding of God and created reality begins with the biblical myth of the creation of the universe and of rational human beings. Striking the right balance and finding the true interconnections between myth and reason (logos or ratio), between great insights enshrined in ancient stories and Ithihasas and the contemporary working out of those insights through science and technology could be an important task for theology today.
IV. From exploitation to reverence .
One of the major consequences of the Enlightenment in Europe was the shift from pagan reverence for nature to nature’s ruthless exploitation. Theologians took the lead in this shift in medieval Europe followed by pioneers of modern science like Francis Bacon and Rene Descartes. Only by desacralizing nature could they promote the empirical scientific method. Karen Armstrong, after writing on all major religions and founders of religion, produced her recent work Sacred Nature that critically reviews the various approaches to nature.4 She is particularly harsh on her own western theological and scientific tradition. Referring to the so called biblical and then scientific drive to control and subdue the earth she says: “Nature was no longer a theophany, a revelation of the divine; it was a commodity that must be exploited.”5 Now many people in the West want to re-experience nature’s enchantment after centuries of rational disenchantment with God’s natural creation. Indian intelligentsia needs to be liberated from the clutches of the anti- nature European Enlightenment. Indian theology need not look to the West for wisdom in ecological concerns, but can find an amazing wealth of resources in Dalit, Adivasi, Hindu ,Buddhist, and Jain traditions.
V The interdisciplinary vocation of theology.
Unlike in the medieval European universities where theology was the “Queen of sciences” it is either banished or relegated to an insignificant place in the academia In our secularised word. Therefore, we need to seek a proper role for theology in connecting various streams of human knowledge in a holistic manner in order to discern the meaning and direction of knowledge itself. That means we would need a breadth of vision and intelligence, and a sense of the totality of God’s creation. Since theology has a vision of the ultimate communion between God and the created reality on the basis of the incarnation of God in Jesus of Nazareth, we may envisage the convergence of various systems of knowledge working together for the good of humanity and the redemption of the world. Our secular universities desperately need this confluence and directionality of knowledge.
VI From earth-boundedness to exobiology.
Enormous amounts of money, energy and intelligence are now being devoted to the search for signs of life outside of our planet earth. Exobiology or astrobiology desperately seeks ‘life-markers’ like liquid water in its search for extra-terrestrial life. Many people critically point out that a country like India that has to address basic questions of food, shelter , education and employment for a billion people is busy preparing to send human beings to other planets.
Looking at it from another perspective, it is the indomitable will and aspiration of human beings to search beyond their immediate needs of food and shelter. Spiritually speaking it could be the expression of the innate human desire to seek the infinite and transcendent dimensions. Now it seems some theological circles follow advanced science that seeks life in other planets. So theologians are now facing again the old question: what happens to the whole doctrinal edifice of Christian theology if we happen to find intelligent life in some other parts of the universe? An interesting recent book in this connection is Andrew Davison’s Astrobiology and Christian Doctrine. The author seems to think that a new cosmological perspective at least will help us re-examine in a refreshing way our conventional theological understanding of God and creation.
VII. The humility of God
In the ancient Christian prayer books one often comes across expressions like “the humility of God” and “our humble God”. Of course, this is based on St Pauls teaching on the self-emptying (Kenosis) of God in the incarnate Christ (Phil. 2:6-9). The idea of the self-humbling of God does not seem to occur in other religious traditions. Since this is rooted in the mystery of incarnation Christian theology should admit its own weaknesses and its limitations in expounding the knowledge of the ineffable God. To discern the humility of God in our theology we need enlightened intelligence, deep compassion and great trust and faith in the power of God and the guidance of the Holy Spirit who continually perfects creation. A kenotic God opens up infinite space to accommodate the created world. A kenotic spirituality rising from such a self-emptying theology can take in the whole world with all its diversity, contradictions and incoherence, and still provide meaning and orientation.
VIII. The fearless little flock.
The Serampore missionaries had the backdrop of an emerging mighty empire and the tall claim of a ‘superior religion and race’. Do we Indian Christians in the 21st century still retain this alien imperial -missionary paradigm of a bygone age?. Of course, we don’t, I suppose. Given the current trends in India, Christians representing an already tiny minority in this country will have to consider seriously the forgotten metaphor of “the little sheepfold” that Christ once used for the community of his followers (Lk.12:32). What would be the outcome if that metaphor comes literally true in India? What would be its ecumenical significance for the unity of Indian Christians? What would be the implications for the continuing fight of Christians for equality, for human rights, for freedom to profess their faith, and serve their fellow human beings in a spirit of self-sacrifice , faith, hope and love on the model of Jesus Christ their Saviour?
We need a lot of wisdom to discern the signs of the times in the fast changing political and religious-social environment of our
country. We need a compassionate theology that vigilantly seeks to remind our rulers about meting out justice to the the poor and the disinherited, of care extended “unto this last”, of space of freedom where people can be together irrespective of their political and religious inclinations. Let us prepare ourselves to bear witness, boldly and in great humility, to the forgiving love of Christ and the wise guidance of the Holy Spirit.
The Serampore motto reminds the new graduands and all of us: Gloriam sapientes possidebunt – The wise will inherit glory. Through selfless service to our fellow humans and all the rest of creation may we all participate in the glory of the triune God, and be witnesses to the liberating, healing and reconciling power of Christ Jesus in our world.
1.Sutapa Dutta, British Women Missionaries in Bengal, 1793-1861, Anthem Press, 2017.
2.Rachel W. Laue, The Great Obligation: The Serampore Baptist Missionaries and the Rise of Social Service in Protestant Missions, Dissertation presented at San Diego State University, 2016.
- Paulos Mar Gregorios, Enlightenment East and West: Pointers in the Quest for India’s Secular Identity, (Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla/ B.R. Publishing Corporation, Delhi, 1989.
-A Light Too Bright: The Enlightenment today: An Assessment of the Values of the European Enlightenment and a Search for New Foundations for Human Civilization, State University of New York Press,1992.
4.Karen Armstrong, Sacred Nature: How Can We recover Our Bond with the Natural World, The Boodley Head , London, 2023.
5.Andrew Davison, Astrobiology and Christian Doctrine, Cambridge University, 2023.