Book Review: Pathetic plight of Christian scholars from Asia – N.S. Rajaram

Dr. N.S. RajaramTheology is the distinctive contribution and concern of the Abrahamic religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. In Christianity it has been taken to such stratospheric heights that for an outsider at least it is hard to see what it is that keeps it afloat. In the currently fashionable interfaith dialogues, Christian scholars often begin by telling Hindus that theology is to Christianity what Vedanta is to Hinduism. Nothing could be further from the truth though gullible Hindu intellectuals are easily flattered by the comparison.” — Dr. N.S. Rajaram

Prof. R.S. SugirtharajahR.S. Sugirtharajah is a Sri Lankan Christian scholar who until recently was professor of Biblical Hermeneutics at the University of Birmingham in England. This probably makes him a hermeneutician—something like a beautician perhaps or better still a politician. For those unused to hair-splitting exercises of Biblical hermeneutics, exegeses and exegetes, it is easier to think of him as a theologian engaged in analysing interpretations of the Bible with reference to history and philosophy.

Theology is the distinctive contribution and concern of the Abrahamic religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. In Christianity it has been taken to such stratospheric heights that for an outsider at least it is hard to see what it is that keeps it afloat. In the currently fashionable interfaith dialogues, Christian scholars often begin by telling Hindus that theology is to Christianity what Vedanta is to Hinduism. Nothing could be further from the truth though gullible Hindu intellectuals are easily flattered by the comparison.

Vedanta is an open-ended exploration of the meaning of the universe and our existence that acknowledges only the universal truth contained in the Vedas. Theology on the other hand is a closed system which is bounded by the text of the Bible and the dogmas of Christianity. All the resources of logic and sophistry are used to justify Christianity as the only truth. One challenges theology at one’s peril as Galileo and Giordano Bruno found out. The freedom of Vedanta often brings it close to metaphysics which explains why great physicists like Opperheimer, Heisenberg, Schroedinger, David Bohm and others were drawn to it. Theology may be hermeneutics, but it certainly has no metaphysics.

The Bible and AsiaThis background is necessary to understand what the author is trying to achieve in his sad little book. As he correctly points out Christianity is Asiatic in origin, more specifically West Asian, but “its influence in Europe and the Americas has received far more attention than its complex career in the East.” Even in India it has a longer history than in Europe beginning in the fourth century or later with the arrival of the merchant Thomas of Cana— not the mythical St. Thomas who supposedly came to Kerala in 58 AD when neither Christianity nor the Christian Bible existed. Fortunately the author is a serious scholar and does not peddle this nonsense.

Add to this the fact, which the author does not stress, the decline of Christianity in the West amounting almost to a collapse in Europe, forcing the churches to recruit Asians to fill its emptying seminaries, churches and hospitals. These could not exist without massive infusion from countries like India and the Philippines. For all practical purposes Christianity today is a third world religion. The Catholic Church at least has recognized this in electing the Argentine Jorge Mario Bergoglio as the latest Pope.

For all this Christian institutions have failed to treat Asian theologians as equals. They may be useful and even indispensable but as the author points out they are repeatedly told “only the West matters,” meaning they should toe the line set by their Western masters. By ‘Western’ they don’t mean African-American, Hispanic or anyone else but white European and American. This is racism in all but name though they dare not display such attitudes towards outsiders—to individuals and groups outside Christianity. In interfaith dialogues they make a great show of the ‘equality’ of the churches.

Dancing Jesus in the New Indian Community Bible.This is a carry-over from colonial days during which Asian and African converts and missionaries wholeheartedly cooperated with the ruling Christian powers. They are being repaid for this loyalty with contempt and ingratitude. As the author observes, in pre-colonial days the Bible was receptive to Asian sources like the Upanishads and the Lao Tzu, but European colonization of Asia and Africa changed all that:

“With the emergence of modern colonialism the Bible was introduced as an artifact of modernity in the form of the King James Bible, the ‘national Bible’ of the English people. In this incarnation, the Bible became a very European book, lost all its oriental traits, and became less Asiatic. … The imported ‘white man’s book’ was seen as a strange instrument, an entrapment to lure them away from their own traditions.” As a result, an Asian reading of the Bible is always a contrived one and not as natural as a Hindu reading of the Bhagavad Gita or a Buddhist reading of the Dhammapada.”

As a result, all that Asian servants of Christianity have earned for their decades of loyalty is life in a limbo with no independent identity except as courtiers and camp followers in an essentially colonial, even racist institution in the post-colonial world. It is to these lost souls that Bible and Asia is addressed. And this is what makes it particularly sad reading.

The author’s advice to his fellow Asian theologians is to reclaim Christianity for Asians by going back to its Hindu and Buddhist sources. Curiously he makes no mention of Gnostic sources that had at least as great an influence on the growth of Christianity as Hindu and Buddhist thought. Perhaps as an Asiatic the author finds Gnosticism to be alien while finding Hindu and Buddhist thought more congenial. Perhaps he believes other Asian Christians will share the same feeling.

Prof. Michael WitzelHow sound is his advice to claim Christianity as their own by invoking their ancestral Asian sources? Here is a pointer. For at least a century, Western Indologists have been telling Indians, Hindus in particular how to read and interpret their history and tradition by creating interpretations based on the Aryan invasion bringing Vedic ideas from Europe. When Hindu scholars contested this by pointing out contradictions from the Sarasvati River to the Harappan archaeology, Western scholars fought a fierce academic and propaganda battle until they could no longer sustain them against mounting evidence.

Will such people yield control of their Bible to Asians? Based on personal experience with scholars like Michael Witzel of Harvard it is a pipe dream. When logic and evidence failed they resorted to personal attacks. Theologians will be no better, perhaps worse.

Here is a more practical option. Instead of using Hindu and Buddhist scripture to gain control of Biblical theology, make the Gita, the Upanishads and the Dhammapada your own. There will be no opposition for they belong to everyone. Who in this day and age needs theology and dogma anyway? Why be satisfied as someone else’s courtiers and camp followers when you have the matchless philosophic treasures of your own—which you gave up in return for small gains and false promises? Why beg when you can be the owners of the richest philosophical treasures the world has ever known?

» Dr. N.S. Rajaram is a scientist, historian and contributing editor to  Folks Magazine.

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