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Strengthening Bonds for Inter- religious and Inter-cultural Relations

Generally speaking 19th century was puritanical; 20th century was liberal, and 21st century is predicted to be a conservative one. We live in a pluralistic society. In India we have plurality of religions, of cultures, of languages and so on. Plurality has its own beauty as different flowers in a garden. It is God’s creation and we all are called to maintain that plurality which is a gift from God. ‘God never makes carbon copies but he makes originals’ (Lesslie Newbigin). Plurality and diversity are God’s design. It is not the will of God to replace the other with another. Everything has its own place and importance and value. Conflict arises when one tries to replace the other’. Such situations tend to widen the gap between different communities and seek to affirm its identity and difference. “Intolerance” to diversity is the mark of the day. The present ruling dispensation in India is inclined to prescribe one religion and one culture for all people in India.

It wants to dictate the religious ethos of nation. A. P. Nirmal argued that pluralism is not just an affirmation that things are plural. It is as well an affirmation that things are so rightly; it is an approval that they should continue to be so. Pluralism is not only a fact of life, but also a value to be cherished. This comes as a critique of all expressions of Mono – monism, monoculture, monarchy, etc. Political authoritarianism and monarchical form of governments are justified by the preference for mono. One God, one Church or one Pope – all these are rooted in the mono culture. Globalization has created mono cultures that exclude all diversity and forges a monolithic system of thought and social structure” (K. C. Abraham, ‘Asian Public Theology, Its Social Location’, quoted A. P. Nirmal, page 25). Mission of the Church in India should have a pluralistic frame work and language.

There can be no peace in the world without peace between religions. Therefore “while rooted in one’s own faith tradition, one needs to dialogue with the theologies arising out of other faith traditions and move towards a consensus regarding human, social and spiritual values, which the believers of various religions living together can defend and promote in view of building a community of freedom and equality, fellowship and justice” (Felix Wilfred). We are children of one God who always promotes and practices justice, peace, truth and love.

Religious Pluralism

Fundamentalism is on the rise in all religions. Religion is playing a pivotal role in the socio-political realm in our society – proving the prediction made by Harvey Cox, a Harvard University Theology Professor, some fifty years ago in his famous book, Secular City, that traditional religion was collapsing and that, within decades, most of humanity would be either atheistic or agnostic as societies would become democratized, pluralized and modernized. This has not happened or is likely to happen. Rather, we experience religious resurgence everywhere in various forms. Even in China, the communist leadership gave space to religions to grow during the last two decades. Religion is becoming a major ideological, social and political force in many parts of the world, especially in India, in recent times. Religious fundamentalists are taking the lead in arousing religious sentiments of the people to come to political power in the country. In India, in Pakistan and in Myanmar the religious fundamentalists came to power by manipulating the religious sentiments of the people to get support. This resulted in animosity and hatred between among religions. Mutual trust among the followers of different religions has become a casualty. It hinders communal harmony and social amity in traditional societies.

The principle of religious pluralism as such is a new development, especially in Christian theology. Plurality of religions has a place and role in the plan of God. “Ekam sat viprah bahuda vadanti” (Truth is one, the wise speak of it variously), says Rig Veda, the most revered ancient scripture of Hindu Dharma. “Like the bees gathering honey from different flowers, the wise accept the essence of different scriptures and seek only the good in all religions” (Srimad Bhagavatam). “God has sent His messages of truth, to every people, every generation, and every nation in the world without any exception” (Holy Quran). “Every prophet and every saint has a way, that leads to God. All the ways are really one” (Saint Jalaluddin Rumi). There are many ways of worshiping God, as there are particles of sand (Sufi Saint Baba Farid).

It is well known that Christianity in the past had a very negative attitude to other religions. Today it seems that a new stage has emerged in the encounter between Christianity and other religions. Plurality of religions is accepted today not only as an irreversible historical fact, but also as a theological principle. Our theology begins from the Triune God – God the Father, God the Son, and God the Hoy Spirit. God is “one-in-three” and “the three are one” (Basil of Caesarea, Cappocian Father). God is divided without division. Basil offers the definition as substance and hypostasis. There is one substance (homoousios) but three hypostasis. Water is H2O. The substance of ice and vapor is also H2O. In essence the three are one – two parts of hydrogen and one part of oxygen. There is a mutual flow within the Trinity - perichoresis. The love (agape) and fellowship (Koinonia) within the Trinity make the perichoresis possible. God’s oneness is not a mathematical oneness. God is one but more than one. The Trinitarian understanding of God forces us to believe the plurality within the Godhead. It does not mean more than one God, but one in many and many in one. Since God is the creator of all things, this plurality is reflected everywhere. Joseph Pathrapankal, a Roman Catholic theologian, says “Different religions have their origins not only in the different historical and cultural contexts and in the variety of human responses, but in the very inexhaustible mystery of God who cannot be contained in any one religion”. At this present stage, people in general accept other religions as “religion” and as “way of salvation” to their adherents. Many think that God is actively and effectively present among all people, their cultures and religions and save them through them.

Religious pluralism was not an issue in the West a few decades ago. Now they face an influx of immigrants from their countries. The new migrants bring with them their own religious traditions and organize themselves as religious communities as a separate entity. Religious resurgence among these migrant-communities in the West gives rise to the new situations of religious pluralism.

Raimundo Panicker says “We feel, more acutely today than at other times, that we do not know each other, that we still mistrust one another, that we are at loggerheads in many fundamental insights of immediate importance for the praxis of our lives”. If this trend continues, a most pertinent question asked now is, “is religion a menace to peace and security or can it be a tool for the well being of humanity in a troubled world?” Panicker continues to say “Religions can no longer live in isolation, let alone in animosity and war.” The socio-political and economic situation in the world today compels us to radical changes in our perceptions of humanity and the place of humanity in the cosmos. The “human cosmic trust”, the expression he coined, is an essential fact in nurturing tolerance and harmony in any pluralistic context. This human trust can only lead us to the horizons of wider ecumenism, the unity of all people, irrespective of caste, colour, creed or gender and harmony of creation (Mathews George, Religious Pluralism, p. 397ff.) Hans Kung a prominent Roman Catholic theologian says, “No Peace among the Nations without Peace among the Religions. No peace among religions without dialogue between religions. No dialogue between religions without investigation of the foundation of the religion.” Mutual trust and respect are needed to strengthen religious tolerance.

In the present world there is a pressing need to develop an appropriate attitude to religious pluralism more than ever before. The pluralist paradigm is seen as an approach that maintains all religions are equally salvific path to the one God. Jacques Dupuis, a Belgian Jesuit theologian who taught theology in India for several years, tried to analyze the relationship between Christianity and other religions. He believes that any theology of religious pluralism must begin with dialogue between religions. In his book “Towards a Christian Theology of Pluralism,” he notes that the Old Testament recognizes holiness outside of Israel. Abel, Enoch, Noah, Job, Melchizedek and so on, are not Jewish saints, they are saints from outside the Jewish faith. The covenant with Adam and Noah are universal covenants for all humanity. “Before God manifested himself to Abraham and Moses he had done so to the nations.” Both the wisdom and spirit of God are universally present in human history.M

Theology of the Logos

The above positive understanding of other religions has a strong basis in the ‘theology of the logos’ of Johannine writings of the Bible and the ancient patristic writings. The divine Logos, the creative Word of God was present and active from the very beginning in the whole creation. Logos is a Greek concept, described by ancient philosophers such as Aristotle, Plato, Philo and others. Everything was created in and through the Logos. Logos has been at work in the heart of all human persons and in all cultures and religions. This implicit and unknown presence of the Word (Logos) has been made explicit and full in the incarnation of the Word in Jesus Christ. It is the Christ experience, which helps the church to discern the Word of God (Logos) in other religions. The Second Vatican Council says, “Seeds of the word lie hidden in the cultural and religious traditions of the people and they are treasures which a bountiful God has distributed among the nations of the earth.” Whatever truth and grace are to be found among the nations is a sort of secret presence of God. For it is doubtless to say that the spirit of God was already at work in the world before Jesus Christ was glorified. The work of Christ and the work of the spirit of God already present in the world, in all people cannot be separated; rather they should be related and complemented. Therefore, the scriptures of all religions should be considered our common heritage to humanity for their salvation and wholeness. The early Church Fathers Justin, Iraeneus and Clement, developed a Logos theology which understood the Logos as a universal principle of revelation and salvation available to the people of other faiths. Joseph Pathrapankal, a prominent Roman Catholic theologian in India who engages in self examination on the approach of Churches, says; “If you look at the early history of the Church we could see that the broad outlook of some of the Church Fathers about Christianity was gradually lost insights in following centuries. … the magnificent teachings of the early church fathers lost its relevance due to political reasons in subsequent years. When Christianity became the official religion of the West through the conversion of Constantine, the broad outlook taught by Church fathers was lost. The result was that Christianity developed as a religion to dominate other religions and became intolerant. The belief that outside the church there is no salvation – Extra Ecclesiam Nulla Salus - became the dominant ideology and a motto of the missionaries and their churches. Probably this was the reason that prevented Christianity from accepting religious pluralism in the earlier cultural and religious context. This attitude propagated a theology of superiority and domination along with a negative attitude towards other religions.

We cannot say that all missionaries were promoting exclusive theology. C.F. Andrews, a British missionary, and many others believed and practised an inter-religious approach. He entered into a deep dialogical spiritual relationship with Rabindranath Tagore and worked closely with Mahatma Gandhi. The Scottish missionary John Farquhar argued that Hinduism is to be understood as being included within the Christian plan of salvation. Western thinkers such as Ernst Troeltseh, a German liberal protestant, and William Hawkins, an American philosopher, also had expressed their views that Christianity could not claim special status among the world religions but should be seen as just one among many equally salvific paths to divine reality. Certain Indian Christians who belong to the conservative pietistic traditions of early Indian Christianity were also progressive in their thinking in dealing with other religions. Renowned Indian Ecumenical thinker M.A. Thomas, who became a Mar Thoma priest in the 1950’s and the founder of the Ecumenical Christian Centre in Whitefield, was in the forefront of the inter-religious student movement in 1930’s. He considered that people should have the freedom to follow any religion and worship in any manner they chose. He says every religion should share its unique qualities with others. Then, unknowingly as it were, we would become richer in our understanding of God. This is a mission to be undertaken with the greatest amity and humility …. No particular religion is custodian of all the truth. The arrogant attitude that ‘I alone know the full truth’, others know only half truths should be abandoned altogether. Terms such as “uniqueness”, “superiority” “final revelation of truth” are being slowly abandoned. M.M. Thomas, former Moderator of the WCC Central Committee held the view that “if faith in Christ transcends Christian religion and traditional Christological creeds, an inescapable implication is that it is possible to hold that faith within the framework of other religions”. Stanley Samartha who was Director of the Inter-religious unit of the World Council of Churches says, “The assertion such as “uniqueness” ‘superiority’ etc. are made in a self-righteous way, that will contradict India’s ethos and tear at the fabric of inter-religious relationships so carefully woven during centuries”.

The Second Vatican Council (1962-65) says that salvation is also available to those who strive to do the will of God, as it is known to them through the dictates of conscience” (L.G. no.16). St. Paul in his epistle to Romans (2:14-15) says “when people of other faiths, who do not possess the law, do instinctively what the law requires, these, though not having the law, are a law to themselves. They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, to which their own conscience also bears witness; and their conflicting thoughts will accuse or perhaps excuse them, …” The II Vatican Council acknowledges that all religions reflect a ray of that truth which enlightens all, and exhorts the members of the Church, to acknowledge, preserve and promote the spiritual and moral goods” in other religions (N.A. no.2). The Church acknowledges and respects the rich diversity of religions”. The Catholic Church rejects nothing which is true and holy in these religions. The Church looks with sincere respect upon those ways of conduct and life, those rules and teachings which, though differing in many particulars from what she holds and set forth, nevertheless often reflect a ray of that truth which enlightens all human responses”(N.A, 2). Therefore the Church invites all churches and Christians to enter into a dialogue and positive relationship with all religions. The call to preserve and promote the spirit-given values of truth and goodness in other religions is a major shift made by the Vatican II. The Council invites all Christians to live “in esteem and love for believers of other religions, share in their cultural and social life by various exchanges and enterprises of human living and get to familiarity with their national and religious traditions (Decree on the Churches Missionary activity, no.11).

On the salvific role of other religions the Catholic Bishop of Asia made the following declaration “We accept them as significant and positive elements in the economy of God’s design of salvation… Over many countries they have been the treasury of the religious experience of our ancestors from which our contemporaries do not cease to draw light and strength . . . And how can we not acknowledge that God has drawn our people to Himself through them?”

The entire humankind has the same origin and same destiny namely the one and the same God. In 1992 Pope John Paul II, addressing to the representatives of religions says, “The origin of the one human family is found in God. We can call God by many names, without ever completely exhausting his reality which is beyond us.” In order to lead humankind to its final destiny, God has been revealing Himself in history to all people in different ways. All human beings are incorporated into the one saving plan of God, for it is the one spirit who is at work in human persons, in all cultures and religions (Ref: Bible, N.T. Heb.1:1).

All authentic religions are the different responses to the perennial questions of humanity. What is man? Where do I come? What is the meaning and purpose of our life? Where am I going? What is goodness and what is sin? Where lies the path to true happiness? What is the truth about death, judgement, and retribution beyond grave? Humans look in various religions for answers to those profound mysteries of the human condition, which deeply stir the human heart.

Church and the Reign (kingdom) of God

Jesus announced the arrival of the Reign (kingdom) of God. This is God’s gift to humankind. The good news is that God has entered into human history to save the whole humankind. It is a new order, a new relationship of God and humanity, a new situation in the world when God’s rule will be finally established. When the whole humanity will be drawn together into one family in a life of harmony, love and fellowship, where everybody will live fully for God and fully for others. Jesus himself symbolized the coming of the kingdom of God. It is justice, peace and joy. A new life and life-style did manifest in the person of Jesus, a life characterized by supreme love to the extent of sacrificing himself on the cross for the entire humanity. But in Jesus and in the community of Jesus’ the kingdom of God was only inaugurated; it was an anticipation and foretaste of the kingdom. The Reign of God will be fully realized only at the end of life. The end of salvation history is the kingdom of God and not the Church. The kingdom of God and the historical church are therefore not identical. The Church is meant to be only a humble instrument and agent of the kingdom. It must also be noted that the church may not be the only and exclusive agent of the kingdom of God. The other religions movements, ideologies, and cultures also may play a role in this ongoing process of the kingdom. There is no baptism in the kingdom of God, however conversion is there. It is conversion to God and to other people. Conversation is not from one religion to another religion. It is a conversion to the Kingdom of God. It is a movement from injustice to justice and peace. It is neither proselytization nor widening the boundaries of the Church. It is witnessing to the Reign of God, and inviting nations to enter into the Reign of God with faith and repentance. Mission of God is to bring about the reign of God that comprises all people, irrespective of caste, colour, sex, creed or religion, and nature as well. Church is called out by God from the world and for the world. It is committed to proclaim the goodness of the Reign of God. It is a commitment to work for justice and peace and for human dignity of all people. The church can be understood only as a sign, symbol, sacrament, instrument (means of Grace of God) and servant of the kingdom of God. This theological shift in the perspective of the Kingdom has tremendous consequences for a new understanding of other religions.

In the Cornelius story Acts 10: 34-36 Peter perceived that God knows no partiality. But in every nation anyone who fears him and practices righteousness is acceptable to him. The word which God sent to the children of Israel is the good news that God shows no partiality, that that acceptance by God and entrance into Kingdom are not dependent on race or nationality but on the practice of justice as the proclamation of Jesus has set forth. The word which God address to Israel through the ministry of Jesus is the good news of peace brought about by Jesus Christ. Peace is synonymous with salvation (Luke 7:29; 214).Peace between Jews and Gentiles is the horizontal implementation of the vertical dimension of the saving Word sent by God to Israel, proclaimed and established by Jesus Christ, God’s eschatological agent. By establishing peace between Jew and Gentile Jesus is acclaimed and confessed as Lord of all, Jews and Gentiles (Gerhard A. Krodel, ACTS page 196).

Scriptures of all religions as our Common Heritage

As we have seen above we are living in a country where religious pluralism is a reality. We believe all religious scriptures are our common heritage, and the light that shines in all scriptures have come from the same God. St. John in his Gospel rightly puts it, “the light that shines in all people comes into the world and shines on all human-kind. “He was in the world and the world knew him not”. St. John is talking about the role of the living World before incarnation Since these scriptures are our common heritage each person may be encouraged to study their own scriptures, along with other scriptures, as far as possible , these studies should be done together. Hindus, Muslims and Christians, Buddhists must study Gita, Quran, Bible and other scriptures together (Mahatma Gandhi). This will enrich all and enhance our unity and foster social amity. Jesus told Nathaniel, “Here is a real Israelites, there is nothing false in him” (John 1:47). Nathaniel asked him,” how do you know me”. Jesus answered “I saw you were under the fig tree before Philip called you. This is an important conversation of Jesus with Nathaniel which gives theological insights in the pluralistic context. Nathaniel was a Jew. He was studying the Torah (the Laws, the first five books of the Old Testament of the Bible) under the fig tree. Jesus argument was that “if you had studied the Torah and had really believed Moses you would have believed me, because he wrote about me (John 5:46). Jesus told Nathaniel “you will see greater things than these … you will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the son of man (Jn. 1:52). The descriptive metaphor recalls the dream experience of Jacob (Gen.28:12 ff) but looks forward to the unveiling of the intimacy of the Father-Son relationship. In him (Jesus) the heavenly and earthly realms come in touch with one another, and he is the conduit through which the divine reality is expressed in this world (Robert Kysar, John.P 41). Angels ascending and descending may be an allusion to the cross. On the cross Jesus is finally glorified by the Father. In the penultimate level Nathaniel’s earlier faith as Jesus is Son of God and King of Israel based on the wondrous knowledge of Jesus finds its maturity in the discovery of Jesus in the cross in the ultimate level.

If you are a real Jew like Nathaniel you will believe in Jesus; if a person is a real Hindu or a real Muslim or a real Christian he/she will definitely confront Jesus and never be a fundamentalist rather they will be humble, tolerant, and respectful to other religious teachings and traditions, and will come to know the marvelous works of God in Christ for humankind. Such people will be revealed the secrets of Godhead and will come to new experiences of Reality.


India is a secular state. The constitution says it is a democratic, socialist, secular, republic, assuring its citizens of justice, equality and liberty, and endeavors to promote fraternity among them. The words "socialist" and "secular" were added to the preamble in 1976 by the 42nd constitutional amendment. As a secular state it is a national community of plural communities. India’s freedom movement was a secular national movement that fought against alien rule as well as the forces of communal nationalism. The freedom struggle was for a strong and united India within the variety of community identities (D. John Romus)

The Republic of India did not declare any religion as a state religion; rather it declares itself as a secular republic which is essential for co-existence of religions. The Indian version of ‘secular’ means the state shall give equal respect to all religions and keep equal distance from all religions that is the state shall not discriminate its citizens, based on religion. The state shall not interfere in the internal affairs of religions unless they cause law and order problems or violate constitutional principles.

Indian Secularism is different from Western Secularism. “The dominant self-understanding of Western Secularism is that it is a universal doctrine requiring a strict separation of state from religion for the sake of individualistically conceived ethical values” (D. John Romus). Indian Secularism is committed to religious liberty and diversity, equality of free citizenship and the welfare state. It is governed by fundamental human values that protect common good of all citizens. “Responsible citizenship is a virtue and participation in political life is a moral obligation in the sense that it is a voluntary and generous engagement of outset in the society. Responsible citizenship requires that all citizens participate in the public life, each according to positions and role, in promoting the common good: (Dr. John Romus).

Justice, love and peace belong to God, and these concepts are secular also. Therefore, evolving a secular theology for all people is the need of the day. Since all people, irrespective of caste, colour, creed or sex are created in the image of God, the dignity and worth of each person is highly valued and all life is considered sacred and, therefore, be respected. Like God, the human person has intellect, free will and the power of self-determination. Each person is related to the other; therefore, each person is social and political by nature. These natures demand that humans need to live in various structures and associations such as the family and the community to achieve human fulfillment and happiness.

The objective of secular theology is welfare of all people and building peace in the society based on justice that offers constructive and creative criticism to improve the quality of all people of our nation and the world as well. Casteism, fundamentalism and communalism whether Christian, Hindu or Muslim are forces of death that annihilates peace and communal harmony. Building a secular community in a pluralistic society on the basis of secular theology invoking participation from all people and ideologies is the task before us, hence we participate in the nation building also.

Very Rev. Dr. Cherian Thomas
Director, ECC
January 24, 2016