'Jesus in Asia' explains the interpretations of Christianity in continent

Latin Catholic Archbishop of Trivananthapuram, Dr Soosa Pakiam, recently suggested that seminaries and formation houses, the training centres for clergy, put  the Constitution of India in the curricula syllabus so that the thousands who pass out to pastor the community have some knowledge of the building blocks of democracy in a complex and plural country. 

The statement stirred up a small storm in the community grappling with more immediate issues of security and its place as one of the smallest religious minorities with a population a mere 2.3 per cent of India’s billion and a quarter, and that too static over the last half a century.

I suggest he also put Rasiah S Sugirtharajah’s Jesus in Asia in the mandatory reading list. Sugirtharajah is a Sri Lankan hermeneuticist and emeritus professor at the University of Birmingham, and reading him will more than repay the investment of time in the nearly 300-page work.

The Archbishop’s statement did resonate with academics and Biblical teachers who have for decades now pointed to the abysmal levels of discourse in the hundreds of Catholic seminaries and thousands of Protestant and mainly evangelical or Pentecostal Bible schools in the country. 
Some of the courses are as brief as six months, and sometimes as long as five years. The crisis is in missiology which is either antiquated to the early years of the Raj or Bible Belt America’s inspired but flawed understanding of the  ethnic, regional, caste and class profile of the Indian people and their cultural and spiritual heritage.

It also impacts Christology, the study and interpreting the person, nature and role of Jesus Christ, the Risen Messiah.

The Bethlehem-born Jesus was an Asian in purely geographical terms, but not perhaps in geo-political reality of his time and later.

His disciples travelled through the lands bordering the Mediterranean through the first century, venturing to Asia Minor and North Africa.

But by the time the underground Christianity emerged in the 4th century as a powerful formal, state-recognised religion in the Byzantine Empire with Emperor Constantine, the son of the Greek Helena and the Roman General Flavius Contantius, it had taken on a strong European hue. 

Inevitably, the images we have of Jesus, Mary and Joseph are not of a Levant people, but of blond and brunette men and women of Italian-West European stock. 

A Black Madonna is rare, and an African Holy family fleeing into Egypt even rarer. There is a law and order situation created if Mary is shown in a sari in India, with accusations of appropriating cultural symbols.

Christianity in India, and in Asia in general, grapples not only with the many chronological layers of its expansion, but also of the extreme religious diversity of the land. 

In India, for instance, it has to find a niche with Sanatan Hinduism, the several powerful strands of Buddhism, and the two sects of Islam wrestling for space, coexistence and domination in a comparatively small land mass. 

The early church, now called the Thomas Christians, which settled in the Kerala-Tamil Nadu region, the Latin church that came with the traders and marines of Vasco da Gama from Portugal, the clerics who brought a Calvinistic and Baptist Christianity with the advent of the East India Company, and the more recent American Baptist conversions in the late 19th and 20th centuries create a complex matrix.

Suffice to point out that the continent has three different Catholic denominations swearing allegiance to the Pope in Rome. Every European and North American denomination is represented, and competing, with faith in Risen Christ and the Holy Spirit their only umbilicus.

There is also a mind-boggling variety in their understanding of Christ and his Word.

And, then, what is the understanding of Christ in the Sanatan, Buddhist and Muslim people with cultures as diverse as China-Mongolian-Tibet, Central Asian Islam and South Asian Sanatan.

Jesus in Asia, Author: R S Sugirtharajah, Publisher: Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Pages : 311, Price: Rs 699
Scholars, the religious and the cultural, as in the Sufi tradition, have interpreted or appropriated Jesus in their own mien. 

In popular and political argument, most people who oppose conversions say they are happy to accept Christ as an avatar and member of the pantheon, which will obviate conversions and end the current confrontation, and preclude the notorious anti-conversion laws in many countries.

Asia is not keen on establishing the historicity of Jesus. It is also not exactly worried about the historicity of other objects and persons of worship. Historical Jesus is a western search, Sugirtharajah points out early in the book.

He then embarks on a deep search of how Christ was interpreted in China, Japan, Sri Lanka and, of course, in India where he was lauded by no less than Vivekananda, Akbar and Mahatma Gandhi. Gandhi’s now well-known and brutally paraphrased quotation, “I like Christ, it is Christian missionaries I don’t,” defines the fraught relationship between state and the religious minority in most Asian countries.

In his key chapter “A Judean Jnana Guru”, Sugirtharajah goes through the works of his countryman Ponabalam Ramanthan (1851-1930), whose life spanned the peak and the decline of the Raj and its influence in Asia, with a fine toothcomb. 

Ramanathan is unsparingly critical of political or temporal images of Christ by Biblical apologists and others. 

“Jesus is seen not as announcing from the God of the Israelites, but propagating a Saivite, mystical and ascetic tenets with a particular  emphasis on self-realisation  and finding God within oneself.” He would resonate with many in contemporary India.

The book is a spiritual and cultural tour de force through the philosophical churnings in the continent where Buddha, Jaina, Confucius, historical figures all, held sway together with the Dvaita and Aduvaita strands of Sanatan Dharma.

Not exactly something one can grasp in a flight or car journey, it repays the investment of time of a deeper reading, sometimes going over a previous paragraph more than once. 

It may also, on first reading, aggravate the fundamentalist, but will certainly help the evangelist with new understanding and tools. 

To the Biblical scholar and the casual reader, it will help in grasping both the cultural baggage of the region and the challenges this relatively new faith faces in a spiritually educated people who are so much older. 

For some, it may even give new insights into their own faiths. That is a bonus.
Indian Catholic Union


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