As many of you already know, I am currently in the midst of pursuing a Master of Arts in Christian Thought.1 As such, I recently came across the work of Stanley J. Samartha, an Indian theologian who provided a couple of chapters in John Hick and Paul Knitter’s book, The Myth of Christian Uniqueness – Towards a Pluralistic Theology of Religions.2 What Samartha wrote struck me as deeply profound and thought-provoking, and I figured I’d share it with you all.
Nowhere else than in India, perhaps, is the importance of the aesthetic more manifest, for here we find that the distinctiveness of Jesus Christ is expressed through art by persons who do not necessarily belong to the visible Christian community. India might well be the only place where persons of other faiths, without crossing over the visible boundaries that separate them from Christians, have related themselves to Jesus Christ through art, thus breaking down the walls of exclusiveness. These artists, standing outside the confines of institutional Christianity, make evident that it is not the dogmas and doctrines about Christ or the institutions of the church that have touched the heart and mind of India, but the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth, his death and resurrection, the illumination he has brought into the Mystery of God, and the transforming power he has introduced into human life, as he invites all persons to move from self-centeredness to God-centeredness. He is indeed jivanmukta, one who is truly liberated in life, and therefore able to liberate others.
Visitors to India are often struck by the responses that followers of other faiths have made to Jesus Christ through the religious dimensions of artliterature, poetry, and drama in the different languages of India (including English), as well as painting, movies, and television. Jesus Christ seems to move beyond the structures of the church, with its dogmas and doctrines about his person, in order to establish new relationships with adherents of other faiths. There seems to be an “unbaptized koinonia” outside the gates, which the church is most reluctant to recognize or even talk about. One must indeed be careful not to exaggerate such phenomena. But neither should their importance be minimized nor their theological significance for developing new relationships with neighbors of other faiths be rejected rudely and hastily.
Over the centuries there have been many examples of this influence of Christ beyond the confines of the church. Among the more recent ones is Manjeshwar Govinda Pai, a noted Hindu poet who won the national award for literature some years ago. His well-known and lengthy poem Golgotha is marked by literary beauty, depth of religious perception, and a sensitive understanding of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. Muliya Keshavayya, a Hindu lawyer, wrote a drama on the life of Christ with the title Maha Chetana (“Great Energy”), bringing out the compassion of Christ toward the poor and the power of his cross and resurrection. Gopal Singh, a well-known Sikh scholar and diplomat, wrote a poem entitled The Man Who Never Died. The poet has the risen Christ speak these lines:
But, he said unto those that believe
that nothing dies in the realm of God-
neither seed, nor drop, nor dust, nor man.
Only the past dies or the present,
but the future lives for ever.
And I am the future of man.
To me, being and non-being were always one,
I always was and never was!
Many Hindu and Muslim artists have been inspired by themes in the life of Jesus Christ, particularly his sufferings, death, and resurrection. According to Jyoti Sahi, a noted Christian artist, Indian Christian art was initiated not by Christian, but by Hindu artists. For example, there is the well-known painting of the Last Supper by Jamini Roy of Calcutta. More recently, well-known Hindu and Muslim artists like Hebbar, Panikker, Hussain, Khanna and others have painted many themes from the life of Christ. All this might well be regarded as signs of the increasing traffic across the borders, helping to develop new relationships between persons of different religious communities and bringing out new meanings in christology.
Well, there you have it. I know, right? It’s pretty crazy/weird/cool/interesting. But you don’t get all this profundity for free. Now you have to tell me your thoughts. And, since I’m such a nice guy, I’ve provided some questions just to help you get your thoughts flowing:
1: So theology, philosophy, church history, biblical studies, apologetics... fun stuff like that.
2: John Hick and Paul Knitter, eds., The Myth of Christian Uniqueness – Towards a Pluralistic Theology of Religions (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 1987), ch 6-9.