Theology in India

Jesudas Athyal

This article provides an overview of the structure and content of the various theological streams that have shaped Indian Christianity over two millennia. The theology of the ancient St. Thomas Christians, widely considered the earliest Christian group in India, though embedded in the liturgy and articulated by the worshipping community, was borrowed from abroad and was alien to the Indian context. This article also discusses the path of accommodation of Robert de Nobili that took a different course to the St. Thomas Christians and interacted with the local culture, but there too, there was little critique of culture.

It was during the last 100–150 years that a concerted effort at theologizing developed in Indian Christianity. This article considers the Reformed theology represented by the Protestant missionaries as it heralded the genesis of a truly indigenous Indian Christian theology. The attempts of the renascent Hindu thinkers to define Christ from within Hinduism is explored, as well as that of the Madras Rethinking Group as it symbolized the Indian church’s creative potential for indigenous theological expression.

An explosion of theological creativity in the twentieth century, characterized by diverse streams of indigenous Christian faith and practice, affirmed a national theology that has come of age. This article provides an overview of the Second Vatican Council as it set forth a new theological direction in India. Further, theologizing was radically challenged and redefined by interpretations from the perspective of the marginalized and oppressed people in the form of Dalit theology, Tribal theology, and Womanist theology. In addition, this article acknowledges the Pentecostal theology that located spirituality and theology in conversation with each other, in the process representing the decentralization and de-mystification of traditional forms of theology. In conclusion, this article will outline the challenges of religious nationalism, conflict, and violence that are throwing up new theological questions before the Indian church today.

1 Theology in India

1.1 Introduction

While there is a strong tradition that the Christian faith was brought to India by the apostle Thomas, or St Thomas, in the first century CE, there is little evidence of any systematic theological reflection or articulation during the early centuries. The spirituality of the St. Thomas Christians, who were also known as Syrian Christians because of their Syrian liturgical and hierarchical connections, was characterized by community living and corporate worship. Their theology was embedded in the liturgy and expressed in the celebration of the Holy Eucharist. More coherent forms of Indian Christian theology emerged with the arrival of the European missionaries – Catholic and Protestant. While the European missionaries introduced to Indian Christianity systematic forms of theology, the foreignness of both the Syrian and European forms of Christianity in India reflected heavily on the content and focus of their theologies. A genuinely indigenous theology did not develop in India until around the twentieth century, when contextual theological expressions such as Dalit theology and Tribal theology emerged. With the realization that the social realities of a location play an important role in the development of forms of theology, this article will discuss the development of Indian Christian theology through some of these key stages of Indian Christianity

2 The process of inculturation

2.1 St. Thomas Christianity: the encounter of apostolic heritage with local culture

Inculturation is often referred to in Indian Christian theology as the process by which the Christian faith becomes a part of a culture. Theologically, inculturation ‘denotes that the grounding of Christian faith in a culture is the model of the Word becoming flesh in Jesus Christ in space and time, in the historical reality of the Jewish culture’ (Michael 2012: 326). There is, however, no uniform way to understand how inculturation took form in Indian Christianity. While some understood inculturation as the adaptation of certain Hindu cultural and religious practices, others interpreted the Christian faith in the context of Hindu philosophy and theology. A key part of this debate was discussion of the Christian Ashram movement, which emerged from the rich Hindu tradition of spiritual hermitages and monasteries where people withdraw from the busyness of life to lead a life of contemplation, prayer, and service. Inculturation, at these various levels, was the grounding of the Christian faith in a cultural context.

The roots of inculturation in Indian Christianity can, perhaps, be traced to the St. Thomas tradition which is considered the oldest form of Christianity in India. There is little documentary evidence of the origin of St. Thomas Christianity, though there are strong oral traditions on the cultural practices, folklore, and the church architecture (in how they bore resemblance to Hindu temples) of that period. While historical records on the Christian presence and theology in India in the early centuries is lacking, what is available are strong traditions passed down through generations and centuries. In a society where Christianity was a minority religion lacking a coherent theological direction, the St. Thomas Christians adopted patterns of Christian witness that were non-threatening to their Hindu neighbours. As Philipose Mar Chrysostom put it, the mode of Christian witness of the early Christians was not preaching but permeation. They ‘went and lived with the people. That is the incarnation principle. The outside society would often say about our forefathers: “In business, he will be honest, because he is a Christian.” That was a form of witness’ (Athyal and Thatamanil 2002: 80).

As a distinct and yet non-threatening religious community, the St. Thomas Christians in the early centuries were an integral part of the local society. They ‘enjoyed a high degree of civil autonomy, and were regarded as the second highest caste’ (England 2002: 61). However, the uncritical association of the St. Thomas Christians with the oppressive and exploitative caste structure of India was a hindrance to them in developing a meaningful interaction with the Dalits and the other marginalized people. There was, consequently, no viable form of missionary activity during this period. While the St. Thomas Christian community confined itself to the southwest part of India, large scale missionary activity in the rest of the country was the result of the work of the Western missionaries, both Catholic and Protestant.

2.2 A thousand years of silence?

Very little information is available on the history of Indian Christianity in the first few centuries of the Common Era. Historical sources are intermittent and inconclusive, hence tradition must be relied on significantly to give clues about the past. There are accounts of a few instances of Christians who reached India from the Middle East, after St Thomas’ arrival. Tradition has it that in 345 CE ‘a Syrian Christian merchant called Thomas of Cana brought a group of Syrian settlers’ to Kerala (Boyd 1991: 7). Nestorian missionaries and traders also came to India, probably from the end of the fourth century. However, there are scant records on the theological trends among the Indian Christians during that period. Acts of Thomas, an apocryphal book of the early third century, contains several stories of conversion and baptism but the authenticity of this account is questionable. While theology in the Eastern tradition is embedded in the liturgy, the liturgical traditions varied with successive episcopal oversights. The missionary activity of the Nestorian Church in the fifth century was an important milestone in this context. As the Chaldean Church was Nestorian, it retained connection with the Nestorian Patriarch of Babylon. The St. Thomas Church of India that accepted the Nestorian bishops for centuries welcomed the Jacobite Monophysite bishops too when they came. Through these successive waves of episcopal visits and oversight, the Indian Christians retained their Orthodox faith. ‘The great Christological controversies of the fourth and fifth centuries did not concern them’ (Mar Thoma 2011: 15). As A. M. Varki put it,

Historians have tried to make out that the Orthodox Syrian Church in South India was at one time Nestorian and later Monophysite. The truth seems to be simply that these Christians, few in numbers, living among large non-Christian populations and without opportunities of frequent contacts with Christian communities outside, welcomed with open arms whoever came from Asia Minor or Palestine or Persia without stopping to enquire into his precise doctrinal and ecclesiastical affiliations, and so quite probably the Church at one time accepted Nestorian bishops and at another time Monophysite bishops without however accepting the doctrines which those bishops held. In one sense, therefore, the contentions of the historians may be true. In another and a truer sense the Church has always kept its faith orthodox and its succession Apostolic. (Varki 1938: 223)

In the history of Christianity in Kerala, the period from the fourth to the sixteenth centuries is known as the Persian or Babylonian period, that is the period the Indian Church was connected with the Persian Church. To remind the Kerala Christians of the twelve centuries of Babylonian connection, there is still a Nestorian Church which is known as the Church of the East. However, in due course, the Nestorian faith was rejected by the overwhelming majority of the Indian Christians.

2.3 Theology of accommodation

Born in Rome in 1577, Robert de Nobili joined the Society of Jesus in 1597 and came to India as a missionary in 1605. The following year he reached Madurai in South India and joined Gonçalo Fernandez, a Portuguese missionary who had been working there for several years. However, De Nobili felt that the missionary work done by Fernandez had not been very successful, therefore he pursued a path that was radically different from that of his predecessors. As Daughrity and Athyal assert,

De Nobili inferred that his senior colleague’s failure to attract converts was because his work was concentrated among the outcaste people there. Accordingly, he crafted out a methodology rooted in the principle of accommodation – adopting the local customs to present the gospel. (Daughrity and Athyal 2016: 263, original emphasis)

De Nobili believed the right strategy for mission work was to start at the top of the caste ladder, with the Brahmins. In order to attract the upper caste people to his message, he adopted the attire of Brahmins and wore the sacred thread across his chest. He also adopted the life of a Hindu sanyasi (monk) and started wearing saffron robes, but without compromising his religious beliefs and values.

To better communicate the gospel, De Nobili learned the Tamil language and, to read the Hindu scriptures in their original language, he learned Sanskrit. His studies convinced him that ‘unless the Christian gospel is presented in the local idioms, it will not be intelligible to the Indians’ (Daughrity and Athyal 2016: 264). He made a lasting contribution to Indian cultures and languages as he wrote prose and poetic works in Tamil, Telugu, and Sanskrit. ‘De Nobili has been acclaimed as the first Oriental scholar and the father of Tamil prose’ (England et al. 2002: 207).

De Nobili’s unorthodox ways of communicating the gospel met with a hostile reaction from his fellow missionaries and the ecclesiastical authorities. He ‘has been a controversial figure in the history of the church, and extreme views were expressed for and against his person and his approach to mission, mostly based on the correspondence he and his fellow Jesuits had with Rome’ (Amaladass 2012a: 497). As De Nobili uncritically adopted several Hindu cultural practices, his style was often attacked as syncretic. Critics in subsequent centuries felt he was too harsh in judging the various elements of the Hindu religion and that he had little interest in pointing out the common ground between Christianity and Hinduism (Amaladass 2012a: 497). The Catholic Church did almost an about turn in later centuries and rejected syncretic and apologetic practices for preaching the gospel. Following the Second Vatican Council, interreligious dialogue was adopted by the church as a way to build better understanding and harmony between the various religions.

De Nobili was a keen observer of Hinduism and a seminal scholar on the distinction between religion and culture. Equally important, he believed in the role of reason in polemic discourse across the cultural and religious divide (Amaladass 2012a: 497–498). De Nobili’s unorthodox approach to evangelization was indigenous; his pattern of Christian witness was essentially Indian and rooted in the local context. However, while he believed that the acceptance of the Christian faith by the dominant Brahmin caste would eventually lead to the evangelization of the whole society, he did not seem to have realized that most castes in India function as enclosed compartments without appreciably influencing the social and cultural practices of each other.

De Nobili lived at a time when the caste polarization of the Indian society was deep rooted and any resistance to the unjust system was virtually absent. In the twentieth century, Dalit theology emerged as a strong counter voice to the pattern of evangelization practiced by De Nobili.

The severest criticism of De Nobili’s approach in recent years has come from Dalit theologians, who argue that appealing to the goodwill of the Brahmins to evangelize India amounted to endorsing the caste structure that pushed the Dalits – the outcastes – to be the lowest rung of society. (Daughrity and Athyal 2016: 265)

In the long run, De Nobili’s strategy of evangelizing the Brahmins in order to influence the whole of society simply did not work. In the following centuries, it was not the Brahmins but a large number of the Dalits and members of indigenous tribes who accepted the Christian faith, leading to a situation where the Dalits constitute the majority of the Indian church. With the benefit of hindsight, therefore, it can be argued that De Nobili’s strategy was a failure. However, he remained a trend setter who was the first missionary to take seriously the process of indigenization. De Nobili’s

achievement – and it was a great achievement – is to be seen in his understanding and adaptation of Hindu customs and ceremonies, in his pioneering study of Sanskrit and Tamil and in his initiation of the essential task of evolving a Christian theological vocabulary for Indian languages. For this contribution Indian Christian theology will always be indebted to him. (Boyd 1991: 14)

2.4 How is the one gospel related to the many cultures of India?

Theological insights developed in India in relation to the cultures and religions of the land. Rather than trying to find ‘gospel criteria’ to judge others, the proper focus of discussions, it was felt, should be the emergence of theological traditions out of an encounter with religions and cultures.

There are identifiable signs of the gospel wherever the fullness of life is granted to all people, especially the poor and marginalized, and wherever love, freedom and justice are experienced in the light of the cross and resurrection […] If we take seriously the theological assumption of the gospel transforming cultures from within, and if the gospel cannot be considered independent from its various cultural expressions, how can we single out universally applicable gospel criteria? (Ariarajah 1994: 38–39)

Paul’s Areopagus speech (Acts 17:16–31) is often hailed as a model for Christian mission in pluralistic contexts such as India. Instead of forcing his beliefs on others, Paul related the gospel to the religiosity of the listeners. Similar to Paul’s context, the question that faced the missionaries in India was, how does/should Christianity influence the religiosities of the land? Further, how should Christians from different ethnic and cultural background relate to one another, and should Christianity be a homogenizing force in our world (Williams 2014: 353)?

While the missionaries grappled with the questions related to the communication of the gospel in India, the person of Jesus was a strong component in the thinking of several reformed Hindus. Some Hindus kept themselves in spiritual fellowship with other Christians without joining the church by baptism. O. Kandasamy Chetty was one such figure and he stated:

There is nothing essentially sinful in Hindu society any more than there is anything essentially pure in the Christian society – for that is what the church amounts to – so that one should hasten from the one to the other [...] So long as the believer’s testimony for Christ is open and as long as his attitude towards Hindu society in general is critical, and towards social and religious practices inconsistent with the spirit of Christ is protestant and practically protestant, I would allow him to struggle his way to the light with failure here and failure there, but with progress and success on the whole. (Chetty quoted in Baago 1969: 207–214)

A. N. Sattampillai, another neo-Hindu thinker, rejected Western missionary domination and founded the Hindu-Christian Church of Lord Jesus at Prakasapuram in 1857. He not only rejected Western hegemony, but also interpreted the Christian faith and scriptures in an Indian context, thus representing a rudimental form of indigenization (Hedlund 2000). There were others who accepted Jesus Christ as decisive in their lives but opted to stay away from the rituals and practices of the organized church. Manilal C. Parekh ‘did not consider Hinduism and Christianity as opposed to each other, but as integrated in Jesus Christ’ (England et al. 2002: 226). Parekh too tried to form a Hindu Church of Christ which would be a fellowship of the followers of Jesus who remained within Hinduism (Daughrity and Athyal 2016: 302). Subba Rao was such a seeker who ‘became widely known as a Hindu follower of Christ who was opposed to religion and religious ritual and particularly to Christianity and Baptism’ (Richard 2012: 666). M. M. Thomas, in his study of the Christian understanding of the Hindu renaissance, affirmed that ‘in the history of modern neo-Hindu movements, the person of Jesus was a strong component’ (Daughrity and Athyal 2016: 301).

2.5 The dilemma of inculturation

As noted earlier, while there is little documentary evidence of the early few centuries of Christianity in India, traditions that have been passed down the centuries from generation to generation indicate a community that retained the essence of the Christian faith and yet lived in harmony with their Hindu neighbours, providing one of the earliest examples of religious harmony in India. The cultural practices of the Christians during this period were integrally linked to the customs of the wider society. Permeation was understood as the preference for both the lived experience over verbal proclamation and for upholding ‘Christian values’ over proselytization in a largely Hindu society where interreligious conversion was an alien practice. De Nobili’s theology of accommodation that followed the St. Thomas tradition set in motion a pattern of indigenization that would define Indian Christian theology in the following centuries. The period of Hindu renaissance and the quest for a ‘Hindu Church of Christ’ that sought to interpret the person and work of Christ in Hindu idioms expanded the frontiers of the Indian church far beyond the institutional church.

Yet the inability of the mainstream Indian Christian theological thinking to convincingly address the caste and patriarchal realities that defined Indian society lingered on through these different phases. It was the arrival of the European missionaries with their message of the universality of the Christian gospel that challenged the early Christians to reach out beyond their privileged social background to the marginalized and downtrodden people. Without any exaggeration it may be stated that the missionary era was a turning point in the theological direction of the Indian Christians.

2.6 The biblical basis of the incarnation principle

The biblical basis of inculturation can be traced to the incarnation principle. Two dimensions of incarnation are important: firstly, inculturation involves becoming the compassionate self of God in Christ. As opposed to the practice of certain rituals, religious observances, or recital of creedal statements, God inculturated themself in incarnation by responding to the pain of contemporary humans. There are a number of instances in the gospels when human pain moved Jesus: ‘When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them and healed the sick’ (Matt 14:14); when Jesus saw Lazarus’ friends weeping, he wept alongside them (John 11:33–35). It is the compassion of Jesus that is the foundation of the inculturation of the Indian church. Secondly, inculturation involves God confronting human communities about their ways of organizing social life that inflicts pain on humans. There are abundant illustrations for this too in the gospel narratives. Jesus challenged the injustice of a social and religious system that left the man with a withered hand to suffer in the guise of upholding the law (Matt 12:9–14). In the case of the woman caught in adultery too, Jesus ignored her accusers and freed the woman (John 8:2–10).

The Dalit Christians, in their quest for liberation and fullness of life, drew heavily from the depth of the biblical resources. In their reading of the Bible, the Dalits identified their pathos with the Cross of Christ. Affirming the centrality of the Bible in the lives of the Dalits, V. Devasahayam stated:

In most Dalit homes in the villages, the only valuable thing they have is the Bible, which they cherish and value greatly. They are familiar with the narrative sections of the Bible. It has been our experience, that given this devotion to the Bible, theologising through Bible studies will facilitate understanding and acceptance of even new ideas […] The Bible, as the point which provides the Christian identity and continuity with our Christian tradition, needs to be brought back to the centre stage of theological reflection. (Devasahayam 1997: 4)

3 Theological encounter with modern India

3.1 Encounter with renascent Hinduism

Christian theology developed in India from an active interaction between the gospel and the religious philosophies of the country. India’s independence from British rule and the departure of the Western missionaries coincided with the quest of Indian theologians to shed the tag of foreignness and search for an Indian face of Christ. ‘The profound recognition that the Christ reality was greater than formal Christianity and that Christ was present but unacknowledged in the religions and cultures of Asia had already surfaced’ (Abraham 2012: 42). Since Hinduism is the dominant religion in India, the primary focus of the Christian thinkers in interreligious relations was Hinduism.

Hindu leaders who were exposed to liberal democratic values and Christian principles provided the leadership for a renascent movement aimed at the reform of several ancient practices and customs in their religion. Several Christian scholars, seeking a dialogical relationship with Hinduism, sought to reinterpret their Christian theology in relation to renascent Hinduism. A series of study materials were published by Indian theologians during this post-independence period. Raymond Panikkar’s The Unknown Christ of Hinduism (1965) was a profoundly original approach to an analysis of the relationship between Hinduism and Christianity. The book argued that Christ is present within Hinduism, and consequently, Hinduism has been the means of salvation for Hindus who faithfully follow their faith, because of the hidden presence of Christ within it. Panikkar’s book, considered a classic, set the pace for a series of other books that explored Hinduism from various angles. M. M. Thomas’ The Acknowledged Christ of the Indian Renaissance was a dialogical response to Panikkar. The focus of Thomas was not so much on traditional Hinduism as on a survey of how some of the spiritual leaders of the Indian renaissance understood the role and relevance of Christ and Christianity for India. S. J. Samartha’s The Hindu Response to the Unbound Christ (1974), on the other hand, surveyed the various Hindu responses to the ‘unbound Christ’ and argued that Hindu scholars have shown a great concern for disentangling Christ from the church and the Christian religion, because the Lord is not bound by any setting of particularity.

These and the other thinkers shaped the course of Hindu-Christian dialogue in India. The Centre for the Study of Hinduism, the forerunner of the Christian Institute for the Study of Religion and Society in Bangalore, initiated a series of study programmes on renascent Hinduism and dialogue. The Hindus who maintained a spiritual fellowship with other Christians without formally joining the church by baptism were believed to herald a new era of unstructured Christian fellowships. The Indian theologians took these concerns to the global level where, following the Second Vatican Council and the various meetings of the World Council of Churches, dialogue with people of other faiths and ideologies gathered momentum.

3.2 Christian participation in nation building

Modern Indian Christian theology grew with an India that was emerging from the colonial era as an independent, democratic, secular state. One of the earliest Indian Christian forums for public theology was the Young Liberals Club in Bangalore in 1913, ‘a group which met regularly to discuss issues related to the growing nationalist movement and what it meant for the church in India’ (Sebastian 2012: 145). The Club led to the formation of the Madras Rethinking Group, the members of which represented the Indian Christian nationalist voice during the third International Missionary Conference in Tambaram in 1938. In response to Mahatma Gandhi’s call to Indians for swadeshi (self-sufficiency), the All India Conference of Indian Christians, founded in 1914, passed a ‘resolution urging that the swadeshi spirit dominate all aspects of Indian Christian life, that Christians wear clothes of Indian manufacturer’ (Webster 1989: 83). S. K. George saw in the willingness of the satyagrahis (participants in the nonviolent resistance or civil disobedience to the colonial rule) ‘to suffer at the hands of the government for the sake of the poor of India something profoundly Christian’ (Webster 1989: 83). The Christian magazine The Guardian and the weekly The Christian Patriot too provided the framework for an indigenous Christian response to the quest for nationalism in the country (England et al. 2002: 375).

The National Council of Churches in India ‘came out unequivocally in support of the Congress [i.e. the Indian National Congress Party] and its demand for Indian Independence’ (Baago 1969: 61). This historical sketch demonstrates that, in post-independence era India, there was an integral link between Christian witness and public life. The Indian Christians recognized that the church and colonialism do not necessarily go hand in hand, and that to a large extent, an integral part of nationalist Christianity was an affirmation of the aspirations of the indigenous people for self-rule. Additionally, nationalist Christians clearly rejected Western domination not only at the political level but also in the church. With regard to the Christian presence in public life, M. M. Thomas argued that the gospel offered the dynamics for Christian engagement in politics. He understood the Christian participation in politics at five levels:

  1. Christ is present and active in the world of history.
  2. Christians have been called by God to fulfil a mission in the world and obedience to this call means full participation in the life of the world.
  3. Biblical understanding of God’s action in history belies the thesis that Christians should have nothing to do with politics.
  4. The New Testament does not give political answers to present problems but it does require the child of God to grapple with the neighbour’s problems which include the political.
  5. There are many Christians and churches who like to engage themselves in prophetic criticism. But only participants earn the right to be prophets. ‘The call by God to speak the word of judgement comes only to those who have affirmed their solidarity with the people under God and stood where they stood’. (Thomas 1976: 21)

During the last few decades, questions of Christian participation in politics have changed drastically. ‘The new situation demands paradigms that would express the holistic concern of Christians’ (Koshy 1993: 65). Much of the public discourse in India has been reduced to a vote bank approach with political parties trying to respond to the special and often narrow interests of particular religious or caste groups.

3.3 The Second Vatican Council: the indigenization of Christianity in India

The Second Vatican Council that marked a watershed moment in the mission and theology of the Roman Catholic Church worldwide had a mixed impact in India. While the liturgy and worship until the Council were conducted primarily in the Latin language, there was a deliberate attempt in the post-Council period to increasingly use the Indian languages for liturgical purposes. Following the Council there was also an increased theological openness to involve the laity in the various programmes of the church. However, as Jonathan Tan noted, the Eurocentric worldview of the church lingered on even after the Council and there was a marked reluctance to critique colonialism and its impact in the majority world.

Clearly, a major shortcoming of Vatican II was its failure to discuss or critique the problems of colonialism and the popular association of the missionaries with colonial empire building in any of its sixteen documents […] This is all the more surprising considering that the process of decolonization and former colonies seeking independence from their colonial overlords had grown over the 1950s to reach a high point by the time Vatican II met from 1962 to 1965. (Tan 2021: 9–10)

The Eurocentric approach of Vatican II prevented it from developing a greater appreciation of multireligious and pluralistic contexts such as India.

In retrospect, it is clear that Vatican II adopted a very cautious and wary approach to the issue of religious diversity and pluralism […] as can be seen in its opening statement, which emphasizes the christocentric dimensions of salvation and the necessity of the proclamation of the gospel. (Tan 2021: 48)

Clearly, at several levels, the official positions of the church on doctrinal matters remained largely unchanged from the First to the Second Vatican Council. However, while the official position remained cautious to the potential of religious diversity, the regional institutions of the church that became increasingly vocal in the post-Council period adopted a more open approach to pluralism. The Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences, the regional institution of the Catholic Church in Asia, adopted ‘a distinctively Asian approach that is sensitive to and responds to such diversity and pluralism beyond what the council fathers originally envisaged at Vatican II’ (Tan 2021: 50). It may thus be argued that the Second Vatican Council set in motion a process of decentralization and reform, the impact of which went far beyond what the exponents of the Council envisaged.

The Council documents were received with enthusiasm in India and the renewal of the churches was in full swing. It assumed different forms and each decade witnessed a different phase of its renewal. At the beginning, it was all evangelization, followed by inculturation and liturgy, and then by liberation theology, but each time, texts from the council documents were quoted. (Amaladass 2012b: 722)

3.4 Ashrams as a model of inculturation

In the Indian tradition, Ashrams are places to which people withdraw for meditation and contemplation. The Ashrams have a significant place in the Hindu traditions as seers often resided there with their disciples to whom they imparted their knowledge. In the twentieth century, Indian Christians who were disillusioned by the Western models of institutional and denominational Christianity were attracted towards the Ashram model. Christian Ashrams that sprung up in different parts of India in the twentieth century were characterized by renunciation, simplicity, and asceticism, thus posing a viable Indian indigenous alternative to the established church. In the Christian Ashrams there was a deliberate attempt to blend the Christian monastery movement with the Hindu tradition of renunciation and ascetic life. Bede Griffiths, one of the pioneers of the Christian Ashram movement, ‘challenged the primacy given by the modern society to science and rationality and affirmed the need to seek commonality between those and develop a transcendental dimension’ (Daughrity and Athyal 2016: 278). In the Ashrams the members spent time in meditation, service, and austerity. ‘Christian ashrams tried to communicate about Christ to others through their principles of following a simple lifestyle, the common purse, dignity of manual labour, and community life, by engaging in programmes aimed at transforming society’ (Tharien 2012: 41).

While some Christian Ashrams offered a contemplative atmosphere, others focused on social action and medical work. ‘However, all genuine ashrams take an integrative approach to life which has variously found expression in meditation and worship, inter-faith encounter and dialogue […] and contextual theologising’ (England et al. 2002: 372). Ashrams, like the other monastic communities, played an important role in the formation of the spirituality and liturgy of the church. As Christian communities living in Hindu cultural settings the Ashrams have also been locations where interfaith dialogue emerged. According to A. C. Oommen, the Ashrams ‘challenged Hindu intellectuals, that Christian faith is now alive to Indian thoughts and traditions and that it can prove to be the crown of Hinduism’ (Tharien 2012: 41). The Ashrams also provided an opportunity for the Indian church to imbibe the richness of Indian culture and tradition. Equally important, by placing before the church the model of detachment, simplicity, and spirituality, the Ashrams challenged the Indian church to stay away from institutionalization, materialism, and stagnation.

4 Ecumenical theology

4.1 Ecumenical social thought

The situation of systemic poverty, inequality, and injustice in Indian society prompted a Christian response, at several levels, that went beyond the traditional acts of charity and affirmed the building up of a just and sustainable social order and the struggles needed for these. As Subir Biswas put it,

Some people in India would be quite happy to see the church just keeping to itself, maintaining the beautiful grounds in the midst of violence and tension. Yet we ourselves who are within this feel we can’t do it. We have to expose ourselves, to put our property and our church in jeopardy. It is a way of asking repeatedly, what does the incarnation mean in our lives? (Biswas quoted in John 2012)

The affirmation of Biswas was reinforced by a significant stream of Christian social thought. For Indian theologians, the situation of the marginalized people was the focus for theologizing. Christian mission was not merely what was traditionally called evangelism. Neither was mission dialogue with people of other religions in the hope that they would accept the Christian faith. ‘Mission is making solidarity with poor people in their fight for justice. To proclaim Jesus Christ without bearing witness to the justice he brings is to distort the emancipatory power of the gospel’ (Abraham 1996). Christopher Duraisingh went a step further and theologized from the perspective of the marginalized people. Commitment, for him, was to discern ever anew the liberative and ‘multicolored’ wisdom of God in all her rich diversity through imaginative dialogue with diverse cultural expressions of Christian and other religious traditions (Duraisingh 1998).

Indian Christian theologians recognized the significance of social action groups and peoples’ movements in Christian social thought and called such groups and movements as expressions of ‘secular koinonia’. For M. M. Thomas, the message of salvation in Christ was best communicated within the framework of a dialogue between the koinonia (fellowship) in Christ (the church) and a dialogue with the adherents of other faiths, both religious and secular.

‘[T]he church, in patterning itself to enter into such a dialogue with others and participate with others in diaconal witness in culture and society, will also produce the best framework to evolve an indigenous and contextual theology and structure for its own life and mission in pluralistic India. (M. M. Thomas 1995a: 13)

Within such a framework, social action groups emerged working across the country among the urban and rural poor, displaced people, fisherfolk, and agricultural labourers. These resistance groups repeatedly challenged both the church and the state to keep in focus the situation of the marginalized people.

4.2 A Christian theology of pluralism

In much of India, different cultures and religions existed side by side without any genuine interaction between them. Consequently Indian theologians argued that the pluralistic context of India need not necessarily lead to a pluralistic consciousness. ‘If the ultimate questions they ask and the answers stay at different planes, the result would be parallel monologues, not dialogue’ (Athyal 2016a: 20). Pluralistic consciousness is the result of a scientific temper and technological advancement that shaped modern secular history. The Christian presence in India, though minuscule in terms of numbers, was a moral force that facilitated the emergence of a pluralistic consciousness in the wider society. ‘In India, it was the moral pressure exerted by the Christian participation in nation-building that played a role in fostering dialogue among religions and ideologies that led to the quest for a common community’ (Athyal 2016a: 20). The Christian initiative in facilitating a dialogue between the various religions and communities in the country paved the way for humanization and transformation in a social context that was polarized on caste lines.

At the time of independence, the new republic of India chose the path of secularism as the path forward in a multireligious land. M. M. Thomas, however, questioned the validity of ‘a secularist model of development which had largely been assumed within ecumenical circles’ (Laing 2012: 214). As the forces of religious nationalism and communalism were gathering strength in India, Thomas spoke of the need to distinguish between ‘closed secularism’ and ‘open secularism’. Indian secularism, according to him, was the product of the struggle for independence and, later, nation-building, which were both rooted in the Indian renaissance of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, when thinkers and social reformers sought to build an egalitarian society founded on the values of modern education and a scientific temper. The neo-Hindu movement of religious and social reform was a key component of this process. Accordingly, Indian secularism had the twin objectives of freedom for religion and freedom from religious discrimination. However, the forces of religious nationalism and sectarianism, which were also present throughout the history of independent India, gathered strength in the last decades of the twentieth century culminating in the demolition of Babri Masjid, the four-centuries-old Islamic structure, at the hands of the Hindu fanatics. Indian theologians and social thinkers believed the indifference of the leftwing political forces, such as the communists and the socialists, for religious reform was a key factor in the rise of religious nationalism. As Thomas described the situation so succinctly:

It is my conviction that it is the strengthening of the closed secularism with this total privatization of religion and the development of what may be called Dogmatic Secularism, which rejects any relevance of religious values in the public realm, along with the slacking and marginalising of religious and social reform movements that have created the spiritual vacuum which is now sought to be filled by religious fundamentalism and communalism. (M. M. Thomas 1995b: 14)

While Christianity, during its early centuries, understood itself as resistant and counter to the imperialist powers, during much of the history since then the Christian church has largely understood itself in conversation with the ‘empire’, the political and temporal power structures. In a certain sense, the church itself may be understood as the empire. Damayanthi Niles, on the other hand, offers ruminations on Christian doctrine so that it can be a dialogical partner with other faiths:

It tries to think about Christian doctrine a manner that sees openness to other faiths as inherent to Christian faith being true to itself. That means that Christian doctrine also takes itself seriously and figures out what values it has to share in the conversation. (Niles 2020: 85)

In contexts such as India, interreligious dialogue has often been defined by the socially and economically privileged Hindus and Christians, while the Dalit and Tribal voices were stifled. Poverty is a major social reality in the subcontinent, and liberation is an inherent part of a theology of pluralism in India. The priorities in pluralist India have often been defined in relation to its social context.

The problem with a single arching narrative that attempts to override plurality is that it silences the competing narratives around it. The narratives that are silenced are often those that belong to the weakest who do not have the power to assert their narratives over and against the narrative of the powerful. (Niles 2020: xii)

4.3 The integrity of creation

The roots of ecotheology in India may be traced back to the realization by the church that creation is not merely the setting for human beings but should include the totality of life. It is also an affirmation that we must live gently and in harmony with our fellow creatures and nature itself. There is also an urgency to the situation. The realization that never before in human history has the Earth been as close to destruction as it is now has accelerated the urgency for the church to focus on a theology that takes ecology seriously (see Ecological Ethics). A faith response to the environmental crisis is a task the church has affirmed it can no longer avoid or postpone.

To achieve this, it will be necessary for Christians to overcome the abiding ambiguity about the world which has tempted them to distinguish too sharply between nature and grace, secular and scared, creation and ‘new creation’, and to entertain doctrines of salvation which in effect bypass this world. (Hall 1991: 249)

During the last few decades, the churches in India have initiated programmes to theologically equip their congregations to a just and sustainable approach to nature. The Church of South India’s programme on ‘Earth Bible Sermons’ seek to read the Bible from the perspective of the Earth. These sermons are the ‘biblical responses if Jesus would have had to face the present ecological issues. It is a listening and responding to Bible texts from the standpoint of Earth’ (Punnackad 2015: 3). In a context of rampant technocratic manipulation and other enormous threats to the future of the planet, creation is beginning to be treated as an appendix to the gospel story.

4.4 Christian unity

The Church of South India (CSI) which in 1947 brought together Anglican, Methodist, Reformed, and Congregational streams to form one united church, was a major milestone in Christian unity and ecumenical relations. Departing from the traditional Eurocentric faith and order discussions that were considered mandatory for church union, the unity that was achieved in India was based on a recognition of the need for the small Indian Christian community to stand united for Christian witness and social action in a society that was heavily populated by people of different faiths and ideologies. ‘In its formation, the Church of South India sought to break through Western patterns of denominationalism, seeing itself not as just one more church body, but as a means toward bringing together other churches’ (Oommen 2005).

The founding of the CSI had a cascading effect in India and around the world galvanizing discussions for church union. Endorsing the negotiations for union that led to the formation of the CSI, the Mar Thoma Church issued a call to the churches in India to unite and affirmed its own commitment to take the union to the next level. Parts of the statement issued by the Episcopal Synod of the Mar Thoma Church are worth repeating:

We watched with interest and sympathy the Church union negotiations in South India, and we welcome the bold venture [...] While we greatly value our autonomy and traditional forms of worship, we feel that the time has come for us to make a move towards the realization of a Church of Christ in India. Autonomy, Biblical faith, Eastern forms of worship, and evangelistic vision are our cherished ideals. We feel that our Church must be willing to declare its readiness to become part of the Church of Christ in India. (Mar Thoma 2011: 73–74)

Several churches in North India came together in 1970 to form the Church of North India (CNI). The three churches – CSI, CNI, and Mar Thoma – have entered into full communion with each other. Over the following decades however, a recognition dawned on the Indian churches that the organic union of the churches to form one united church was not the only course for Christian unity. In his analysis of the various factors that distinguish churches that have achieved organic or structural unity and churches that are in full communion with each other, Michael Kinnamon noted there is no typical united church. While the churches that have achieved organic unity are able to reach common decisions on faith and order matters, the churches that are in full communion with each other (also called conciliar unity), retain their separate identities while there is broad agreement among them on faith and order matters (Kinnamon 1991: 1033). In recognition of this reality, in India the three churches – CSI, CNI and Mar Thoma – have entered into conciliar unity which is known as the Communion of Churches in India (CCI). The Communion of Churches was constituted as the visible organ for common expression of the life and witness of the three founding churches which affirm they belong to the one Church of Jesus Christ in India, even though they remain independent churches, each having its own traditions and organizational structures.

5 Theology from the margins

The roots of Indian Christian theology were laid by the presence of Eastern Christianity in the southwest of the country from the early centuries of the Common Era, while a more cohesive and systematic articulation happened during the European colonial era. However, both of these theological streams were borrowed heavily from abroad. As noted earlier, from the nineteenth century onwards theological reflections that were rooted in the Indian soil began to be articulated and this phase dominated the Indian Christian theological scene well into the 1960s and even the 1970s. While this stream was Indian, it was steeped in the elite, upper-caste, and upper-class traditions. It was only from the 1980s that Indian theology from the perspective of the marginalized and subaltern people, such as the Dalits, Tribals, and women, began to assert itself. This section will briefly discuss that phase.

5.1 Dalit theology: marginalized people theologize

Dalit theology is rooted in the pain and pathos of the oppressed and marginalized people. Oppression and marginalization in India are linked primarily to the caste hierarchy that divides people on the basis of their birth and social background. Since the caste system is a self-contained and immutable social order ordained by religious traditions, Dalit theologians have rediscovered from the Holy Scriptures the resources to analyse and counter it. We

need to make it known that in the Indian context, caste system is Satan and the original sin that stands in contradiction to the kingdom Jesus proclaimed and the cross needs to be reinterpreted as the revelation of counter-consciousness to the oppressive caste consciousness. (Devasahayam 1994: 55)

In order to enable Dalit sensibility to enter into dialogue with the biblical word/text, the Dalits made the scripture central to their lives.

However, the challenges of the twenty-first century necessitated the identification of relevant patterns for theologizing from the perspective of the marginalized people. Treating Dalits, Tribals, women, and others as a collective and unitary category was found to be untenable. According to Y. T. Vinayaraj, in ‘the changed theoretical-theological-epistemological context, “solidarity” means a re-imagination of ourselves; not merely a sense of “standing along with” or “speaking for” or “representing somebody”’ (Chacko 2011: 90). The journey towards relevant patterns of Christian witness is a different one that looks anew at the believers’ faith, tradition, theology, and ontology. Dalit theology is ‘a counter-theological discourse, an alternative to the dominant ways of theological reflection that is often grounded in western denominational/confessional ecclesial settings’ (Manchala 2011: 41). The methodological mould of Dalit theology is the twentieth-century Western ecclesial reality and this is being made relevant to the changed realities of the twenty-first century. True, the impact of Dalit theology during the last few decades in reformulating Christian theology in India has been significant, and there is the recognition that the challenges of today require a radically new methodological framework.

In his critique of Dalit theology, Paulson Pulikottil convincingly argues that if Dalit theology is to have real traction in India it needs to go beyond advocating structural changes; it needs a theology that seeks the transformation of Christians, individually and corporately, by the power of the Spirit in and through the church. He affirms the need for Dalit theology to be relevant and responsive in public theology amidst the chaotic realities of life today (Pulikottil 2022). It is by taking seriously the rapid changes around us that Dalit theology is becoming relevant to take up the theoretical and theological challenges around us.

5.2 Tribal theology: an Indigenous perspective

The Tribal (Indigenous) people constitute around eight percent of the Indian population and in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries they responded to the Christian faith in large numbers. They stayed in the periphery of the church in the early days, but gradually began playing a more prominent role. Tribal theologian Nirmal Minz argued that the Christian missions facilitated ‘a shift in the centre of their (indigenous people’s) life from the ageless rhythm of nature to the dynamism of salvation history in Christ’. However, he cautioned that ‘the crisis it brought had both possibilities of cultural disintegration and potentialities of cultural growth and reintegration’ (Minz quoted in Thomas 1990: 226).

A large number of people in Northeast India, belonging predominantly to various tribes, became Christians in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century CE. For the Tribal people in Northeast India, the Christian faith made life meaningful to themselves and to each other. While it was the Western missionaries who brought the gospel to them, they believe authentic spirituality should be indigenous and rooted in their own soil. For them,

relevant theology is not a critical reading of the texts of those famous European theologians like John Locke, Albreht Ritschl, Martin Luther, John Calvin, Thomas Aquinas, Karl Barth, Jürgen Moltmann, etc. and reproducing what they had said about Jesus Christ in their own historical contexts. But the present need is for a more critical reading of the Bible and interpreting its message in the light of the reality of our times. This will enable us to relate the Bible to our life and culture because without doing this, we will not be able to understand the Bible meaningfully. There is no greater theological task than this. (Shimray 2020: 11)

The Tribal people, interpreting the history of Christian mission and colonialism and their impact on the indigenous people, have developed a theological framework distinct from the dominant patterns. While the Tribals who in large numbers responded to the Christian faith were initially sidelined in the Indian church, they have begun to play a centre stage role in the early decades of the twenty-first century. As Nirmal Minz put it, the tribal Christian communities need the experience of the Pentecost so that they will be bold enough to bear witness to Jesus Christ among Adivasis and Dalits and even before the dominant society and fulfil the mission and evangelism in this region (Minz 2001: 54).

5.3 Womanist theology: women in God’s image

The majority of Indian women live a life of total powerlessness, caught in the grip of poverty and deprivation, and denied basic social, political, religious, and economic rights. Indian Christian women share this marginalization as the Indian church has traditionally been a patriarchal institution. However, in the 1970s and 1980s the realization that fellowship in Christ should be a just and equal community of men and women led to the emergence of a feminist theological movement that has developed as one of the hallmarks of Indian Christian theology. The pain and pathos women experience are loci for women theologians. According to Monica Melanchthon, for theology to be relevant it must address the questions people ask in the midst of their dilemmas. ‘It must also speak in relation to the answers and insights being offered by diverse religions, philosophies and ideologies, both in their classical form and in the new forms created by the impact on them of western thought, secularism and science’ (England et al. 2002: 354).

Indian feminist theology seeks to bring about a paradigm shift by redefining religious and social relationships. The purpose of feminist theology was not merely to attain justice and equal rights for women in religious and social institutions, but the total transformation of the church and social structures. ‘It aims at the liberation of all women and all people and thus is not a movement for individual equality, but for the creation of a society that no longer construes differences in terms of superiority and subordination’ (England et al. 2002: 354). It was not women versus men but women as well as men defining Christian humanity. It was the affirmation that the inclusiveness of women is not an accident; it stemmed from the deep well springs of the Christian faith. Support, understanding, and hope sustain the Indian Christian women in their search for justice and equality. Theirs was an insistence on the full humanity of women before God.

While the Dalit, Tribal and feminist theologies during the last few decades have represented a paradigm shift in theologizing in India, today we are at crossroads. This process involves theologically grappling with the challenges religious and social traditions have thrown at oppressed communities everywhere. The devastating effects of modernization have left crucial questions for the oppressed and marginalized communities the world over. In India the forces of sectarianism and religious fundamentalism are making deep inroads into the Dalit and the other subaltern movements as well. In the light of all these developments, today we are experiencing a radical review of our paradigms of theologizing.

5.4 Pentecostalism: theology of the spirit

As a Christian movement that is increasingly gaining momentum in India, Pentecostalism should be addressed in any discourse on Indian Christian theology. And yet, Pentecostalism, by its very nature, defies any classical theological definition. The phenomenal rise of Pentecostalism and neo-Pentecostalism in the form of charismatic groups and house churches across India was often understood by theologians as a response to a ‘crisis’ in the spirituality of the traditional mainline churches. ‘This crisis has variously been described as emerging from a stagnation in pastoral care, over-ritualism in worship service, and the inability to offer spiritual and emotional support to the young and the old’ (Daughrity and Athyal 2016). The Pentecostal churches were, consequently, viewed as holding a viable and holistic alternative to the ritualism and institutionalization in the traditional churches. Over a period, it has, however, been demonstrated that the classical Pentecostal churches can too become institutionalized. And consequently, theologians have pointed towards the need for both the mainline and the Pentecostal churches to represent a ‘prophetic spirituality’ and to stand in opposition to the dominant, elite spirituality.

I recommend prophetic spirituality as a paradigm for the spirituality of the community. The ultimate value of this spirituality is freedom realized in people’s concrete struggles against forces of bondage against […] their own rulers (elite domination), against golden calves (false security, consumerism etc.). (Abraham 2003: 112)

The hallmark for both the Pentecostal and the other churches to be relevant today is to demonstrate a certain commitment to stand for justice and a deep social concern.

Like in most other Indian churches, in Pentecostalism the Dalits constitute a sizable section of the membership.

The emergence of Pentecostalism in India in the beginning of the twentieth century, with its simple message of universal salvation devoid of any elaborate liturgical or hierarchical framework, appealed greatly to the lower sections of the society – in particular the Dalits. (Daughrity and Athyal 2016: 289)

In recent years, however, there has been a shift in the social appeal of Indian Pentecostalism. Unlike the last century, Pentecostalism ‘is now making inroads among the middle class notwithstanding the fact that its base is still among the poor, the down trodden, the lower middle caste people’ (Thomas 2014: 307). Thomas further analysed the theological basis of such a shift and the ongoing appeal of Pentecostalism to the lowly of the land:

In such situations the down trodden people develop their moral and spiritual life potential to survive, resist, and build new alternatives like forming their own spirituality which answers their life questions and empower them to be dignified human beings. The Pentecostal movement of our time should be seen against this kind of background of people’s quest for empowerment. (Thomas 2014: 306)

Because there was a strong Dalit component in Indian Pentecostalism, the movement could pose an effective challenge to the upper-caste hegemony of the traditional Indian churches and the wider social structures, especially in the early days. The Pentecostal leaders affirm that the churches that are ‘birthed by Holy Spirit do not have any caste, colour or language barriers. The Church started on the day of Pentecost was united’ (Komanapalli 2012: 152). With their own life stories, the Pentecostals prove that it is possible for a Christian to rise above the considerations of caste.

The Pentecost experience of the apostolic church (Acts 2) is central to the Pentecostal movement in India too. At Pentecost the church was empowered to communicate the gospel in the mother tongues of people. The Indian church acted in the spirit of Pentecost when it explored what cultural resources existed in a community to communicate the compassion of God. The church also acted in the spirit of Pentecost when it explored what cultural resources existed in a community to confront the pain-inflicting dimensions of its social existence. For the Pentecostal movement in India, evangelization and social action are two closely linked and overlapping aspects of Christian witness.

6 The public mission of the church

Christians in India today take their responsibility and participation in public life with utmost importance. There is an integral link between public life and public theology. As a small minority, located amid other religions and cultures, the challenge before the Christians in India is to develop a theology that reflects both the plurality of religious traditions and a faith response to the dominant social and political movements. Indian Christian theologians have reflected deeply on Christian participation in public life. This section will briefly review some of those discussions.

6.1 Theology of state

Human existence is by nature political. Similarly, the God of the Bible is political, being a key player in the affairs of the world and, in particular, in the struggles of the people for justice. ‘God’s self-identification with those who suffer poses a permanent threat to all attempts to link God with the forces of wealth and power’ (Runyon 1991: 1004). This affirmation was at the root of liberation theology in Latin America, Dalit theology in India, and other similar subaltern theologies. There are at least two different theological approaches to understand the relation between state and faith. One is that the rulers of the state are ordained by God and consequently, they should command the unquestioning obedience of the people. The second position is that the state, by its very nature, tends to become corrupt and drift away from the divine purpose which is to be of service to its subjects. These conflicting positions are justified by biblical passages such as Romans 13 and Revelation 13, but in order to work in the present day they need to be re-read in the light of the nuanced characteristics of the modern state.

The verse ‘every person must submit to the supreme authorities’ is a favourite of dictators. But scriptural record is equally clear (Rev 13) that civil authority can be a source of blasphemy against God […] At that point, it is not the State but the resistance to the State which is legitimate. (Koshy 1993: 67)

The tensions between these divergent approaches have coloured the Indian theological approach to the state. During the two most tumultuous periods in modern India – the independence struggle and the National Emergency (1975–1977) – conflicting positions were visible in the Indian Christian theological thinking. There was a majority position that believed it was wrong for the Christians to fight against the rulers – British or Indian – because the rulers are ordained by God. However, there was a minority position that believed the church should play a prophetic role by standing with the oppressed and the marginalized (Thomas 1979).

6.2 Conversion and community

The topic of religious conversions in India has assumed significance during the last few years with several states adopting legislation aimed at severely restricting conversion. Article 25 of the Indian Constitution states: ‘all persons are equally entitled to freedom of conscience and the right freely to profess, practice, and propagate religion’ (see Inherent in this clause is the right of a person to convert from one religion to another. However, religious conversion has become one of the most contentious topics in the public life of India during the last several decades. Among all the topics associated with Christian mission in India too, theologically and sociologically the most explosive ones are conversion and baptism as the visible expression of conversion.

Several theologians, while agreeing that the right to conversion is fundamental to the Christian faith and even a fundamental right according to the law of the land, argue that in a pluralistic and communally supercharged atmosphere like India, questions of religious conversion need to be approached with sensitivity and without jeopardizing interreligious harmony. Voicing this position, Hans Ucko affirmed that everyone should have the right to change their religion, but that Christians should not be involved in making others change their religion. According to him, conversion ‘has become a threat and tension for religious diversity and harmony’ (Ucko 2006: 4).

In India, as well as in several Asian and African countries, insensitive evangelization carried out by conservative Christian groups has vitiated public life. Several theologians argue that such aggressive campaigns need to be condemned and countered. However, what scholars like Ucko overlook is the futility of linking such evangelization to conversion. According to the official census of India, the Christian population has steadily been declining. Between 1981 and 2011 the number of Christians declined from 2.43% to 2.30% of the total population. The social scientists who study demographic trends agree this is a phenomenon that will continue in the future.

There is also a subaltern dimension to the discourse on conversion. According to the Dalit theologian Devasahayam, discussions on conversion often take place from the perspective of the elite or the so-called upper castes who are opposed to conversion, rather than from the standpoint of the marginalized people. ‘We need to have a new perspective, and a new viewpoint which should be the perspective of the oppressed Dalits and the backward class’ (Devasahayam 1995: 110).

For the subaltern people of India, conversion is not merely a matter of faith or political choice; it involves a transformation in their social lives as well. And consequently, religious conversion is not merely a ‘Christian problem’; it is a dilemma several marginalized and minority groups experience in a pluralistic society like India. The debate on conversion can be decommunalized by the Christians entering into a dialogical relationship with the people of other faiths and secular ideologies.

In the highly pluralistic context of India, evangelization and interfaith conversion, in most cases, was also an encounter between the Christian faith and other faiths, raising questions of gospel and culture at the theological level. What is the meaning and scope of Christian witness in a pluralistic context? While the Christian mission is to respond creatively to the ‘Great Commission’ – to go and make disciples (Matt 28:18–20) – that mandate was not given in a vacuum but in a context. The question for evangelistic work in India is, how do we relate the mandate (Bible) to the context? There is a tension between the text and the context and it is in this tension that we find the cutting edge of the gospel – the gospel of Christ that judges, transforms, and redeems.

6.3 Theology in religious nationalism

While the overwhelming majority of Indians are Hindus, when India gained independence from the British rule in 1947 the country was constituted as a secular republic.

Indian secularism stands for a Nationalism which is Secular as opposed to Hindu, Islamic or Christian. It recognises that the peoples of India follow a plurality of religions, live in different cultural and social patterns and that they should have the freedom to tread their diverse paths. (Thomas 1992: 212)

The concept of India as a secular state may be summed up in these provisions enshrined in the Constitution of India: (1) The fundamental right of all citizens to ‘profess, practice, and propagate religion’; (2) the right of every religious group to establish and maintain institutions for religious and charitable purposes; and, (3) the freedom of all Indians from discrimination. This legal framework is the sacred covenant between all – majority and minority – religious and cultural groups in the country.

The basic structure of Indian nationhood stands threatened today. The threat to the secular fabric of the country with a concomitant demand for religious nationalism is not new. It was there throughout the history of the nation, from the struggle for independence onwards. However, the demolition of Babri Masjid – the four-hundred-year-old Muslim structure – by Hindu activists in 1992 was a defining moment in the history of modern India. That incident marked the bold rejection of secularism as a constitutional right and the assertion of majoritarianism over the minority groups who would forever be at the mercy of the dominant section. In the following decades, religiously inspired nationalist movements gained considerable prominence in the country.

Theologically, the church is not a minority community. The church is the sacrament of the union between God and human beings and the sign of the goal of humankind and therefore it represents all people in their search for their humanity in freedom and justice. Based on such an understanding, public theologians in India maintained the church should not be obsessed with its minority or majority status as long as it is being the conscience of the society. The mission of the Indian church was understood as not so much preserving its institutional and communal interests as it was to look out for the common good and play a prophetic role.

The roots of a theology of the state can be traced back to the prophetic tradition where God sided with the poor, the marginalized, the alienated, and the orphaned. The books of Samuel in the Old Testament affirmed neither the state nor the rulers can demand ultimate loyalty from its subjects for the simple reason that the state is only God’s servant, commissioned by God to do justice to the humanity of the poor and to ensure equitable development of society. In a theological sense, political power should be subject to the laws of justice which transcends the state because any existing state, while it serves justice, also tends to be transformed as tools of injustice (Thomas 2006). Throughout history, there are instances of the state turning tyrannical and corrupt. In the twentieth century, in Germany, while the official church provided the spiritual legitimacy for the rise of Hitler and fascism, the Confessing Church rejected the false doctrine that the church could claim for itself the tasks of the state. In India during the emergency regime (1975–1977), several mainline churches pledged their allegiance to the tyrannical rulers while a small group of Christian leaders kept alive the prophetic tradition of speaking truth to power. As dissenting and minority voices get stifled in a climate of religious nationalism, the Indian church is eagerly anticipating the freedom to express moral criticism of the state and its structures.


Copyright Jesudas Athyal (CC BY-NC)


  • Further reading

    • Aruthuckal, Varughese John, Atola Longkumer, and Nigel Ajay Kumar. 2017. Religious Freedom and Conversion in India. Bengaluru: SAIACS Press.
    • Bergunder, Michael. 2008. The South Indian Pentecostal Movement in the Twentieth Century. Grand Rapids, MI/Cambridge: Eerdmans Publishing Company.
    • Cronin, Vicent. 1959. A Pearl to India: The Life of Roberto de Nobili. New York: E. P. Dutton.
    • Frykenberg, Robert Eric. 2008. History of Christianity in India: From Beginnings to the Present. New York: Oxford University Press.
    • Jathanna, O. V. 1986. ‘Indian Christian Theology: Methodological Reflections’, Bangalore Theological Forum 18, no. 2–3: 59–74.
    • Jathanna, O. V. 1999. ‘“Religious Pluralism”: A Theological Critique’, Bangalore Theological Forum XXXI, no. 2: 1–19.
    • Kim, Sebastian C. H. 2003. In Search of Identity: Debates on Religious Conversion in India. New Delhi: Oxford University Press.
    • Mathew, K. S., Joseph Chacko Chennattuserry CMI, and Antony Bungalowparambil CMI (eds). 2020. St. Thomas and India: Recent Research. Minneapolis: Fortress Press.
    • Nalunnakkal, George Mathew. 1999. Green Liberation: Towards an Integral Ecotheology. Delhi: ISPCK.
    • Patrick, Gnana. 2020. Public Theology: Indian Concerns, Perspectives, and Themes. Minneapolis: Fortress Press.
    • Samartha, S. J. 2015. One Christ – Many Religions: Toward a Revised Christology. Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock.
    • Sugirtharajah, R. S. 2019. The Brahmin and His Bible: Rammohum Roy’s Precepts of Jesus 200 Years On. New Delhi: Bloomsbury.
    • Thomas, M. M. 1969. Acknowledged Christ of the Indian Renaissance. London: SCM Press.
  • Works cited

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    • Abraham, K. C. 2003. ‘The Crisis of Pastoral Ministry and the Search for Holistic Spirituality’, in The Community We Seek: Perspectives on Mission. Edited by Jesudas M. Athyal. Tiruvalla: Christava Sahitya Samithy.
    • Abraham, K. C. 2012. ‘Asian Theologies’, in The Oxford Encyclopedia of South Asian Christianity. Edited by Roger E. Hedlund, Jesudas M. Athyal, and Joshua Kalapati. New Delhi: Oxford University Press.
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