Universalising Jesus Christ

Jesus in Asia, R.S. Sugirtharajah, Harvard University Press; Rs.1,652, Pages 320

Jesus in Asia is a significant contribution from an Asian perspective to Christology, the author being a professor of biblical hermeneutics at the University of Birmingham (UK). It comes as a corrective intervention in the cultural adaptation and appropriation of Jesus of Nazareth by western academic theologians. The genius of the West to freeboot on the treasures of Asia was aided and abetted by the advantages of colonialism.

This peaked with the arbitrary and ahistorical identification of Christianity with Europe, of which Albert Schweitzer’s The Quest of the Historical Jesus (1906) is a prime example. Ernest Troeltsch (The Christian Faith, 1925) writing around the same period, dogmatically held that Christianity could not be understood, except through the prism of European culture. 

Against this backdrop, Sugirtharajah’s well-researched book is a timely intervention in liberating Jesus from the narrow prison of European cultural ethnocentrism as well as cautioning us, by implication, against getting swayed by the partisan and polarising advocacies of our times.

The principal value of this book, especially in the prevailing ambience of mounting religious fanaticism and intolerance in India, is that it argues, albeit impliedly, against religious insularity and self-marginalisation. Tracing various illuminating, even at times fanciful, traditions of domesticating Jesus of history within diverse Asian contexts — principally Chinese (dating back to the seventh century) — the author makes a persuasive case for taking partisan religious advocacies and theories with a pinch of salt. This note of caution is reminiscent of Will Durant’s warning that truth remains beleaguered particularly in the spheres of religion and history, where it counts most. The flavour imparted to a scriptural or spiritual tradition in any given context reflects the angularities of the period rather than the essence of the tradition in question. 

A single instance, given right at the outset, would suffice to illustrate the point. Jerome Xavier’s book, The Mirror of Holiness (1602), written with the explicit purpose of impressing Emperor Akbar, makes him willfully compromise not only the authenticity of his portrayal of Jesus but even falsify his own identity. Jerome, a nephew of Francis Xavier of Goa, pretends to be enjoying ‘intimacy’ with Jesus that he thought would put him on a par with the early disciples. 

This was done to have the right measure of spiritual authority with Akbar. Of particular importance is for us to note that Akbar’s openness to insights from diverse spiritual traditions was the bedrock of his commitment to good governance. He not only tolerated non-Islamic traditions, but actively sought enrichment from them. Akbar’s model of good governance shines brilliantly against a background of gloom and doom stemming from the current fiction of good governance spiced with communal polarisation and intolerance. 

An issue that nearly all Asian portrayals and understandings of Jesus share in common is the tension between the unique and the universal. The uniqueness of the historical Jesus cannot be overemphasised without undermining his universality. The Gospels associate Jesus with universality, not ethnic, cultural or generic uniqueness. What is universal has to be catholic enough to be hospitable to differences and diversities, which is indeed the hallmark of the biblical Jesus. There is no doubt at all that Jesus would have wept tears of fire over the oppression and bloodshed to which his name has been arbitrarily attached in the histories, first, of Europe and, later, of the West as a whole. 

A serious issue emerges from Sugirtharajah’s presentation. To what extent are we to trust what is dished out to us in the name of God and in the garb of religious truth? How far should we go in the name of faith, especially when the advocacies on offer are in frontal violation of universal spiritual values, such as love, truth, justice and compassion? 

All great spiritual luminaries have been universal rather than parochial or intolerant in their outlook. Jesus scorned organised religion and was radical enough to proclaim that prostitutes would enter the Kingdom of God at the cost of Pharisees. He denounced and rejected violence of every type and in every context. How come, then, that Pharisees ruled the roost and the earth was soaked in blood in the name of the God of love?

The best we can do, under present circumstances, is to refuse to be confined to a single parochial or communal advocacy. For that, we should be willing to take a bit of trouble, especially in two respects. First, we must judge all religious advocacies against the fullness of their parent tradition. The Catholic or Protestant Jesus must be judged against the biblical Jesus. Hindutva must be judged against Hinduism, and so on. Secondly, we must keep the windows of our spiritual consciousness open. Meaning, as has been said, is a matter of connectivities. The more we connect with the fullness of our own tradition and the fullness of other traditions, the better insured we are against being cynically used as pawns in the games that people play. 

We are familiar with the tradition revered in Kashmir of Jesus living, post-crucifixion, in that part of India. The Rozabal Shrine in Srinagar is a major tourist attraction. There are similar legends in other countries as well. What matters in such legends is not their historical and factual accuracy, but the light of universality that humankind, despite superficial differences, intuit in manifestations of enduring relevance to our struggles to become fully and richly human.

One thing is certain: the life of a human being is too short for theology. If a Christian were to reach Jesus via the pages of theological tomes, he would die many deaths before taking a single step towards his saviour. Fortunately, theology does not meddle with ordinary life. Life is lived not even on the basis of religion, but of culture. In the march of materialistic progress, culture has overpowered religion comprehensively. Currently, the West is culturally in a post-Christian phase. It won’t be long before Asia follows suit. In India, the westernisation of Hinduism will be effected — through a master-stroke of historical irony — by the agents of hindutva, which is an Asian incarnation of European nationalism, dressed up in the costume of Hinduism. 

The questions raised by western theologians about Jesus of history are sharply relevant today in respect of Lord Ram. How are we to appropriate the historical Ram, assuming that he belongs to history and not mythology? Who has the right to improvise convenient editions of Lord Ram as an embodiment of righteousness? How far can such an agenda be pushed? And what is the role of violence and subterfuge in such a process? Jesus in Asia in that sense can be a critically relevant case study of what is currently afoot in India.

I would commend this comprehensive study not just to connoisseurs of Christology, or to Christians in general, but to all who wish to be schooled on the dynamics of appropriation and misappropriations and the motives and interests at play in all such exercises that could mislead true believers into gross desecration of the sacred. 

Valson Thampu (The Book Review, May 2018) 


Faith enrichment lessons

I am indeed their brother: loving & serving Allah’s poor, Fr. Bob McCahill, Gujarat Sahitya Prakash; Rs.150, pages 158

This is one of the most inspiring books I’ve read and it’s about a truly inspiring person: a US-born Catholic priest who has spent over 40 years tending to the indigent and sick in Bangladesh, where he continues to live, at the age of 81.

As recounted in this readable autobiography, Bob McCahill’s dreams as a child changed over the years. At one time he wanted to become a cartoonist, at another stage a pilot and still later an archaeologist. But at the age of 19, on October 31, 1956, he became divinely inspired, and at age 26 was ordained as a priest of the Maryknoll Mission Society of the Catholic Foreign Mission Society of America. After serving in the Philippines for some years, he crossed the Indian ocean to continue his ministry in Bangladesh.

 Since 1976, Fr. Bob has been writing a common letter to his friends in the US and other countries always dated October 31, the day he received divine inspiration and lifelong motivation to do what he regarded as God’s will. This book is a collection of 42 of the October 31 letters he wrote between 1976-2017. The missives poignantly describe how inspired by Jesus Christ, Fr. Bob opted to lead a life of compassion and service to the marginalised and destitute among the Muslims of Bangladesh, whom he regards as “persons of faith, worthy of Christian respect and praise”.

During his dedicated ministry of over 40 years in Bangladesh, shifting from one small town to another and venturing deep into the countryside on his bicycle, Fr. Bob has lived among the poor, embracing a life of austere simplicity. His letters detail how he is on a continuous mission to make himself useful to the people he meets, befriending them, sharing their joys and sorrows and looking to bring a smile to their faces, while helping them access public medical services, in particular.

In his correspondence Fr. Bob provides useful insights that can help us elevate our own lives more meaningfully. Merely preaching the virtues of one’s faith is one thing, but living and practising them is quite another. Moreover one can’t grow spiritually without love and empathy for the poor and distressed. His spartan lifestyle and voluntary poverty, emulating that of the people among whom he lives, is another great life lesson.

I Am Indeed is a valuable primer for the faithful of all religions to learn the basic dialogue and discourse of true religion — lessons urgently needed in this country which is experiencing sharp religious divides and polarisation fanned by hindutva and Muslim extremists. Fr. Bob’s book of letters provides wonderful examples of how religious pluralism can fuel the engines of our own inner growth. There is much to be gained through interacting and learning from people of diverse religious backgrounds. Contrary to stereotypical perceptions about Christian missionaries, Fr. Bob doesn’t seek to convert people among whom he lives, to Christianity. He is content to re-live the life and testament of Jesus among the poor and the sick, including those outside his flock, while at the same time learning to appreciate the goodness in other faiths. 

This book — outpourings from the heart of an individual of extraordinary compassion and faith — is a treasure, disseminating valuable lessons in practical living for individuals as well as communities. In particular, Muslims and Christians, who have to learn to live together harmoniously, for their own good and for the good of the rest of God’s creations.

Roshan Shah