Thursday, January 28, 2010

Acknowledged Christ, Unacknowledged Disciples

I had always wanted to read this book and this evening as I met a friend at his house and shared a bit about my trip to UTC, Bangalore, haunted by spectres of Bangalore theologians, I asked him if he had a copy of M. M. Thomas's The Acknowledged Christ of the Indian Renaissance. He immediately pulled out a copy. I was pleasantly surprised to see the original 1970 edition published by The Christian Literature Society, Madras. I expected some kind of photocopy, originals of such books being rather rare, more so in my city, which is very far from Bangalore, in terms of distance as well as in nurturing theological reflection (I, in fact, remember once glancing through a photocopy of this title long time back).

The blurb of the book reads as follows:
A good deal has been written in recent years on the 'hidden' or 'unknown' Christ of traditional Hinduism. Mr. M.M. Thomas deals here with 'acknowledged' Christ of renascent Hinduism which was integral to the total Indian awakening. He surveys how some of the great spiritual leaders of the Indian renascence—leaders like Raja Rammohan Roy, Swami Vivekananda and Mahatma Gandhi—sought to understand the meaning of Christ and Christianity for the new India that was emerging. And he studies, as part of his theological evaluation, the salient features of the dialogue that went on between these men and some of the Christian spokesmen in India.
In the preface, Thomas lays out his thoughts behind writing this book:
..I am deeply concerned with men's reflections on the truth of Jesus Christ in the context of their grappling with the meaning of life in concrete situations of history ... The theological fragments of this book relate to one historical situation, namely the awakening of Indian nationalism in the nineteenth and the early part of the twentieth century.
What I have done in this study is to survey how some of the foremost spiritual leaders of the Indian renaissance, especially of Neo-Hinduism, sought to understand the meaning of Jesus Christ and Christianity for religion and society in renascent India...As part of the survey, I have also tried to study how the Indian Church, in the thought of some of its theologically-minded representatives, has attempted to enter into dialogue with the ideas of these leaders and to formulate its own faith in Christ and the meaning of Indian nationalism.
This must be the most important book to be rediscovered by both Hindus and Christians of India, and of Karnatka in particular, a state that has witnessed some of the ugliest expressions of communal and cultural bigotry. I wish more people read and discussed this book and its author.
It's going to be a slow read. I am a slow reader. And given the battered condition the book is in (it's a 40-year-old paperback) it needs to be carefully handled. It needs to be carefully handled because it belongs to a friend and in a strange way the book belongs to the history of my city. It originally was part of Mr J. S. Dethe's library. On the full-title page there is rubber-stamp mark, upside down, that gives the particulars of its first owner, his name, designation, address and a three-digit phone number. Mr Dethe was one of the senior architects in the team that planned and developed the city of Chandigarh. I am intrigued to know that an architect was interested in matters theological. One wishes one could meet and talk to late Mr Dethe about his ideas about developing structures for human habitation and also his notions about developing a framework for biblical theology in India. Mr Dethe was also a member of a small group that got the church built in Sector 18. It would have been interesting to know what he felt about this book and how much did Thomas, who himself wasn't a trained theologian, influenced his efforts in community building. That church today is called Christ Church and is part of the Church of North India's (CNI) Diocese of Chandigarh. I have been told that Pratap SinghKairon, the then chief minister of Punjab, wanted only one church, one temple, one gurudwara and possibly one mosque in the newly built capital city of Chandigarh. For that reason Dethe and others had aimed to build this one church as an interdenominational/non-denominational church, where Christians from all doctrinal backgrounds may come and worship. Ravi Kalia, the author of Chandigarh: The Making of an Indian City, mentions the fact that Maxwell Fry had a 'Quaker background' and Le Corbusier had a 'Calvinistic upbringing' and these affected the work of these two architects of Chandigarh। In this context too, it would too be interesting to know Dethe's church background.
(I am grateful to the publishers of The Herald of India for accommodating this write-up on their news portal. The editor's little note adds a great value to it. I am humbled)


Shaheen Chander said...

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this one!!

jesse said...

A very interesting article.
Kairon's idea to have just one place of worship for each religion was great. Something interesting might have come out of the gathering of Catholics, Protestants and others; if only infighting on "which denomination is better" had not occurred. And yes, I too wish that more people knew about the 'unacknowledged' disciples. If if they're acknowledged now, will people happily accept the fact or chose to shove it under the carpet? Who can say when these days Santa is bigger than Christ even on Christmas day.

Charles said...

Hey Ashish,

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this article. I too wanted to read this book during the years of my theological education. In fact, if I remember it correctly I have read some portions of it.

The dearth of theological reflection in Chandigarh and other cities of India is saddening. Many times, I too feel the same about Ahmedabad.

About the unacknowledged disciples, it is true that Christian contribution to this nation has been largely ignored. No wonder, a cobler missionary, who mastered so many native languages and contributed much to movement against 'sati-pratha' is hidden in the shadow of Raja Rammohan Roy in our history books. That is why some of Indian theologians and non-theologians began writing on Christian contribution to nation-building. These disciples of our Lord are truly the 'salt of the earth.' They have lost their existence, but have changed the taste of the water. Reading books like this one will help us to gain some extra-ordinary insights into the contribution of Christ and his disciples in shaping this country.

Sushant said...

Thanks for the article, Ashish.

From what I know, much of the effort into building the Christ Church at
Chandigarh was by Christians holding secular jobs as the city was just
coming into being. There were a sizable number of Christians who were in the
ICS at that time. I think times were different then, when Christians could
work openly, without being apologetic, to construct the church.

Financial contributions came in from the Presbyterians, Anglicans,
Methodists and other denominations as well as from many churches. Even
organizations like the Leprosy Mission sent contributions from sales
conducted of goods produced by its patients Individuals too contributed.

A wonderful testament of unity to bring about this church.