world council of churches

Some Glimpses into the Theology of Dr Stanley Samartha
S. Wesley Ariarajah

Dr. Stanley Samartha was my professor of Hinduism and Indian Philosophy when I was a student at the United Theological College, Bangalore, India. His faculty house was about two hundred meters from the classroom where we met every week. He would arrive in class at exactly the same time each week and I had always thought that he took exactly the same number of steps each time to make the transition from his living room to the classroom! Once in the classroom he would take the chalk and write on the blackboard, neatly, the six or the eight points that would constitute the lecture of the day, with several of the points broken down into sub-points. The lecture, given with utmost clarity, would follow exactly the course set out on the blackboard, with precisely the same length of time at the end of each class for questions and discussion.

There was something ‘proper’, ‘correct’, ‘predictable’, ‘neat’ and ‘reliable’ ingrained in him that infused his character, the way he walked, talked, wrote and lived. And one of his minor irritations in life about all the rest of the world (and about us students) was that it did not have those same qualities at least in some small measure!

Always smartly dressed, on time, and well prepared, on each occasion Samartha took stock of his immediate surroundings, carefully weighed the situation, and made conscious choice of the words and sentiments that would be appropriate to be expressed in that context. Analysing with me a difficult debate over dialogue, he would use such phrases like "It was not the time to say it," "That would never have been understood," "That should be taken up in the next encounter" or "I would like to have said it, but I decided that I should reserve it for the right occasion!" In fact, I have never known anyone who paid so much attention to what he hears, says and conveys to others in the course of human interaction.

He extended this requirement of being ‘correct’ also to his writings. Each of his articles, office memos and letters were never written but, as it were, designed and constructed with utmost care. Before the arrival of computers and word processing his immediate colleague in the office, Luzia Wehrle, typed, retyped, and typed yet again his articles and memos so that they finally said exactly what he intended to say. He greatly valued her understanding and support of this rigorous discipline and maintained the close friendship with her until his passing away. He weighed each word and phrase in his articles to see if it conveyed the right thoughts. He would pace up and down the office room until he got that one appropriate word or phrase that he had been looking for in the 4th line of page 10 in an 18 page article! He searched for the correct adjectives, laboured over the right metaphors to use, and paid great attention to how what is being said, even to a Christian audience, would be read by a person of another faith tradition.

Every meeting he organised was thoroughly prepared with no loose ends. He would preface his intervention in a debate with words like, "I would like to make two observations, make one comment, and ask two questions," indicating the way in which he had carefully listened to the speaker and has organised his own response to it. He was always courteous and well measured and precise in expressing his disagreements. Yet, if the person concerned did not respond with the same courtesy, he would also be sharp and forthright in his response, and would later regret that he had to choose to do so!

In his dialogue work he was adventurous, still cautious; provocative, still pastoral; intellectual, still down to earth; courageous, still measured. This combination of qualities helped him to take the Sub-Unit on dialogue through the stormy weather of the 70s and 80s. The people who strongly disagreed with him still had to respect him. They simply did not know what to do with this "English gentleman" with an unmistakable Indian heart and spirit!

Samartha and I knew each other over many years and I developed much admiration for his scholarship, for the pioneering work he did in the field of interfaith dialogue and the capacity he had to elicit respect and admiration from persons of other faith traditions. He earned their trust and confidence that opened the possibility for the dialogue adventure within the programs of the WCC.

He was my teacher, colleague, friend and one of my "gurus" over decades, and yet he always remained an enigma. Samartha’s innate quality of being ‘correct’ and ‘measured’ also extended to his relationships. He was warm, and still never too close; friendly and yet distant. One needed to know him well and learn the art of piercing through that veil of ‘properness’ to get to know him intimately. He was too shy to celebrate relationships openly and treasured friendships in the cave of his heart.

In the history of the Ecumenical Movement Samartha would be remembered as the pioneer in the field of Interfaith Dialogue and the founding Director of the Sub-Unit on Dialogue. He began a ministry, deeply controversial at that time, which has become the cutting edge issue of our day. He served the cause of this ministry well by taking the time, having the patience, and expending the energy necessary to build it on firm foundations. So "when the rains came down and the floods rose the house never fell because it was built on the rock."

I visited him at his home in Bangalore only some months before his passing away, along with my colleagues Hans Ucko and T. K. Thomas (another colleague and friend of dialogue, whose passing away we mourn). By then he was too weak to get up from his chair to greet us. But his interest in dialogue and the ministry of the WCC remained unabated; so was his hope that the dialogue work that was begun in the 70s would continue to inspire the churches in their relationship to neighbours of other religious traditions.

It gives me pleasure to write this article on some glimpses into his theology. Much of the material here is based on an earlier article I had written for a volume to honour him on his 60th birthday.

The Dialogical Imperative

"Religious pluralism today is not just an academic issue to be discussed but a fact of experience to be acknowledged. Traditionally religions have been moats of separation rather than bridges of understanding between people. Recognising this, how can men and women, committed to different faiths, live together in multi-religious societies? In a world that is becoming a smaller and smaller neighbourhood, what are the alternatives between shallow friendliness and intolerant fanaticism? What is the Christian obligation in the quest for human community in pluralist situation?" 1

The above questions raised by Dr. Stanley Samartha in the book titled "No Man is Alien" gives a useful point of entry into his own world of thought. He raised these questions not from abstract speculation, but from his own life and experience as presbyter of the Church of South India. In his own words, "perhaps no other country in the world has been as multi-religious in character over a longer period of time than India."2 The Church in India, therefore, is called to witness in the context of a rich diversity of languages, cultural patterns and religious persuasions.

As Professor of Religions and Principal of theological institutions in India, he had participated in the hopes and fears, promises and frustrations of training ministers for this challenging task. As the architect and director of the World Council of Churches' Sub-Unit on Dialogue with People of Living Faiths and Ideologies, he had, for more than a decade, pioneered the search for community with neighbours of other religious traditions, both at local and international levels. As one who had no illusions about the task of finding "alternatives between shallow friendliness and intolerant fanaticism" and as one who understood not only the joys and hopes but also the problems and frustrations of "building community in pluralist situations", Samartha showed in his writings a sensitive awareness of the many facets that belong to this crucial "quest" of our time.

This article is not intended to be a critical evaluation of his theology. A number of doctoral dissertations have already been written on his thought and contribution to the ecumenical movement. He has himself written an autobiographical volume, Between Two Cultures, which traces the influences on his life, the developments of his thought and the issues and concerns that he had worked on within the ecumenical movement. Some of the information he gives in this volume on his early life is reproduced in this issue of Current Dialogue. A collection of his articles on dialogue has been published as a volume entitled, Courage for Dialogue. This commemorative issue also carries a bibliography of his significant written contributions.

The subjects that he dealt with were by nature controversial and were meant to be explorations at the frontiers of theology, sometimes reaching out into territories unfamiliar to some of his readers. Knowing the possible pitfalls and the sensitive nature of subjects, such as the centrality of Christ, the nature of mission, the meaning of Truth etc. to the ecumenical movement, Samartha dealt with the subjects with sensitivity and care. It is difficult to bring into a short article the many facets of his theology. This article, therefore, only seeks to provide some glimpses into his theology.

Much of Samartha's writings came out of the experience of actual dialogue with people of other religious traditions. It is difficult to separate his writings from these experiences. "It should be kept in mind", he reminds us, "that neither 'religious pluralism' nor 'human community' can be discussed as concepts that can be detached from the throbbings of surrounding life and held up for intellectual examination as hardened crystals under the microscope. They are part of the texture of human life, touching the conscience and emotions of people deeply."3 Behind these words stand a kind of discernment, openness and humility needed in those who want to understand other religious traditions, and more specifically, to enter into dialogue with people of other faith convictions. In a real sense, therefore, it is difficult to separate the person from his thoughts, the writings from his experience, and his theology from the ministry performed in and for the dialogue concern of the WCC.

End of Religion?

Much of Samartha's dialogue ministry was carried out at a time when the usefulness or religious phenomenon as a whole was under serious questioning. Many who were interested in community doubted that the arena of religion had anything to contribute to it. Religions, if anything, have only helped to separate people and make difficult the process of building community. More importantly, it was widely being held that the forces of secularisation have rendered religions meaningless to the present generation. Samartha asked whether this was in fact true.

He recognised the ambiguous role religions have played in history: "Historically it is true that the gap between profession and practice in any religion has been almost unbridgeable and that religious fanaticism has caused untold harm to responsible human community." Giving examples from history, both past and present, and noting how the "accompanying political, social and economic factors have aggravated the situation", he concluded that in spite of the peace potential of religions, organised and institutionalised religions have not been able to prevent conflicts or to control religious passions once they have been aroused.4

He took the impact of secularism seriously. He also recognised that in many countries, particularly of the ‘Third World’, social and economic questions take priority over the religious: "Too often it is a question of priorities; when time is short and so much remains to be done... the resources of a nation and the energies of men and women should be used as quickly and as effectively as possible to save society from poverty, ignorance and disease, and to provide opportunities for a life of freedom, fullness and joy. When there is work to be done in the home, the factory and the field, when there are revolutions to be fought in the streets, and laws to be passed in the legislatures, there is little time to get excited about the temperature of hell or the furniture of heaven."5

Without ignoring the importance of the "influence of secularisation in different parts of the world or the freedom it brings in liberating the human spirit from the thraldom of backward looking religious systems," Samartha rightly claimed that the "prophets of secularisation have overstated their case" 6 "There seems to be a quickening of religious impulse everywhere after years of secular emphasis. Perhaps it is too much to describe the present decade as a 'post secular' age, but there is far more than passing interest in 'living faiths' today. There are signs of renewal both within Hinduism and Christianity to indicate that their inner cores are very much alive and that their hold on the minds and hearts of people is not less strong today than before."7

Disagreeing strongly with those who hastily concluded that the forces of secularism have "swept away religions from the arena of life", Samartha argued convincingly that, on the contrary, "the secular struggle against a false religiosity may itself be a symptom of looking for a more authentic spirituality than traditional religions, including Christianity, have been able to offer." 8 As one who had observed life both in the East and West with pastoral concern, he concluded that "the human predicament of alienation, anxiety and sin, and the human need for peace, forgiveness and grace will still be there even in a society where social and economic evils are largely removed".9

He also saw the alternative offered between the religious quest and struggles for social justice as a false one. There is an inalienable relationship between religions understood as quests for truth and the search for a truly human and just society: "The choice is not between the quest for truth and the struggle for justice", he insisted. "The basic question is, how our understanding of and obedience to Truth critically illumines and directs our struggle for justice in order that human beings might become free... Ignorance (avidya) is bondage, sin is slavery. Both the Hindu and the Christian heritages strongly emphasise the liberating power of Truth in human life and history. Therefore joining hands in the quest for Truth has consequences for the continuing struggle for justice as well."10

The question is even deeper, he felt. For, the distinction made between the sacred and the secular, a distinction decried even in the West now, is a totally false one when applied to Eastern faiths. The Sanskrit word dharma, coming from the root dhr, to support or to sustain, refers to life in its fullness and totality. "It is both a view and a way of life," and "indicates a religiosity which, without any difficulty or tension, includes the secular." "Even for one who rejects traditional dogmas and ritual it should not be difficult to be within the dharma."11

This is why Samartha was impatient with some of the theological positions within Western theology that describe other religious traditions as "human attempts" and as "religious phenomena being swept away by the flood of secularisation." Such hasty conclusions about other faith traditions made him wonder whether "the Church in the West has in fact seriously encountered the Hindu and the Buddhist dharmas or Islam and other faiths... For, this is not just a matter of scientific knowledge, but of sensitive understanding of what they mean in the actual life of the people."12

The positive effects of secularisation, the promise it holds for new perspectives of faith and the consequent need for a dialogical life are summarised in these words:

"We do not justify religions in their traditional immobility nor minimise the positive influence of secularisation. Surely, petrified traditions, outmoded dogmas, meaningless ritual and cumbersome ecclesiastical machinery do not constitute the essence of any living religion. The dangers of a false religiosity looking backward and defending itself against new expressions of authentic freedom are ever present both in the East and in the West. If secularisation or any other movement should sweep away irrelevant structures from contemporary life, the road to human community would surely be less cluttered by the debris of fallen idols than it is today. One should, therefore, seek those perspectives of faith that will enable men everywhere to become more sensitive to the emergence of the new, more reverence before the mysterious, and more humility in the presence of the incomprehensible. Sharing with each other the insights gained through different responses to the mystery of human existence should be a natural activity of people seeking true community in multi-religious societies."13

A Lonely Road?

It has already been hinted that this search for new perspectives of faith in an increasingly secularised world, the quest for Truth, and the pilgrimage of faith is not a lonely road. There are others who join us in the journey. But they speak of the same quest in language that is sometimes unfamiliar to us. How do we relate to them? The question naturally leads us to the meaning and practice of dialogue, the subject on which Samartha has written much. Reading through the material, one finds that the dialogue question has been treated from many angles and that Samartha has made much contribution to clarify and deepen the dialogue debate of the past decade.

He has helped us to understand the meaning and purpose of dialogue and has warned us of the dangers and pitfalls of inauthentic dialogue. The main hindrances to dialogue have been laid bare. The problem one faces when one attempts to relate to others with one’s outmoded doctrinal standpoints have been made clear. New questions have been posed. The need to rethink some of the traditional formulations of faith has been established. But above all, the actual dialogues at international levels have helped, in some measure, to break down the barriers that have stood between peoples, in some places for centuries. What has taken place at international level has opened the way for new and fresh ways of relating to each other at local levels. The visible presence and participation, for example, of persons of other religious traditions at the 5th Assembly of the World Council of Churches at Nairobi has been a crucial moment in the history of the Church, a sign of the turn of the tide in the self-understanding of Christians in relation to those of other religious traditions. The dialogue concern has also had the effect, to a large extent, of persuading the Council and the Churches to approach many other issues of theology and Church life in an inclusive and dialogical way.

It would be pointless to talk about Samartha's "theology of dialogue" without recognising these actual results of the dialogue concern in the life of the Church. In this sense the practice of dialogue is a significant ministry.

Even a cursory reader of ecumenical literature would have come across one or other of Samartha’s articles on dialogue. 1 would, therefore, like to make better use of the space allocated to me by pinpointing ten aspects of the nature and practice of dialogue, gathered from Samartha's writings in a number of places, and proceed to give more attention to some of the theological issues raised by him.

1. There can be no dialogue between religions; dialogue can take place only between people of living faiths. While concepts and ideas are important, the first step in real dialogue is to realise that religion is much more than its creeds formulated in particular categories.14

2. Dialogue is much more than a "talking" activity; it involves larger relationships of living together and working together. Informed understanding, critical appreciation, and balanced judgement these cannot arise except where people meet in trust, openness and commitment.15

3. Interreligious dialogue should not lead to syncretism, a kind of "fruit salad of religions". Syncretism is an uncritical mixture of different religions. It leads to spiritual poverty, theological confusion and ethical impotence. It would be foolish to eliminate fundamental differences between religions in the interest of shallow friendliness. 16

4. Interreligious dialogue should not be used by any of the participants as a subtle "tool for mission", that is, to promote the interests of one particular faith community to the detriment of others.17

5. In many situations of dialogue there is an authentic and inescapable commitment to share and to witness. However, it should not amount to a unilateral self-projection, but lead to open hospitality whereby each may share in what is most precious to the other.18

6. Dialogue has as its basis the commitment of all partners to their respective faiths and their openness to the insights of the others. The integrity of particular religions must be recognised.19

7. Dialogue does not lead to a superficial consensus, or a dilution of convictions, or false harmony. It must lead to the enrichment of all in the discovery of new dimensions of Truth.20

8. Dialogue should not be limited to academic discussions of conceptual ideas. The other aspects of religion the meaning of ritual, the significance of symbols and experiences of devotion, and the ongoing dialogue in day-to-day life should not be ignored.21

9. Even though dialogue sometimes begins with specially delegated people, it should spread into wider circles involving larger number of peoples and communities and help to shed their fear and distrust of each other in order to build up mutual trust and confidence.22

10. Dialogue should lead to the discovery of deeper dimensions of one's own faith, and to the re-examining and furthering of one's own understanding of one's faith and practice.23

It is difficult to deal with Samartha's writings on dialogue, because what are actually important are not the principles of dialogue but its actual dynamics. Here we deal with persons, relationships and interactions that cannot be reduced to pen and paper.

This section is best concluded with Samartha's own description of the interaction of persons of four different faiths as they met in dialogue at Ajaltoun, Lebanon:

"It was not a group session of jelly fishes where the line of demarcation is so blurred that it is difficult to see where one ends and the other begins. Nor was it a battle between porcupines rushing out of their caves to push some quills into the bodies of the opponents, with painful consequence to all concerned. It was a meeting of people who were deeply committed to their respective faiths but who were also ready to enter into dialogue with others. For dialogue is more than just an encounter of commitments. Commitment involves both an assent and a question within oneself. The area between 'l' and 'Thou', between 'we' and 'they', is an area of personal relationships between people, sharing the burden and joy of existence, where genuine dialogue demands humility and love. Dialogue, therefore, is both an expression of faith and a sign of hope."24

New Wine and Old Wineskins?

Faithful dialogue, it has been recognised, not only deepens one's own faith, but asks questions about it. Our understanding of God, of salvation, our concepts of the Church, mission, etc. come under pressure as we engage in deeper dialogue. Questions are asked about our formulations and practices, presuppositions and concepts. We are back with the parable of "new wine and old wineskins!" Dialogue involves risks, and even death! Anyone who calls the Church into dialogue, however, cannot shrink from his or her own responsibility to participate in that experience of death, the struggle to restate the faith in the light of the new obedience.

In this second part we will deal with Samartha’s own effort to be obedient to this task. He does not consider it as his task, but the task of the Church. It is the Church, the community of faith that should rethink its theology in the light of what God is revealing to it through the pressures of living together with people of other faiths.

Samartha, however, asks very important and carefully thought out questions to enable this process. He himself grapples with a number of issues, which are fundamental to this concern. Some of these are tentative and exploratory in nature by design. It is of course impossible to deal with all the questions, certainly not in the length they deserve. Some examples are given here to indicate the directions of his theological concern.

End of Mission?

It is of interest that the first problem that a theology of dialogue runs into, both at local and international levels, is with those who are concerned with "mission". There is no need here to rehearse the grave misunderstanding of dialogue as the "end of mission" in the controversies at the Nairobi assembly of the WCC and elsewhere. Knowing the concern to be crucial, Samartha spared no effort to define as clearly as one was able to, the relationship between dialogue and mission, as he understood it. In so doing, he has been forthright in his criticism of "mission" as conceived in some sections of Christianity that undermines the dignity of the people of other religious traditions. Writing on the debate on the "Freedom of Religion Bill" in India, he said:

"The abuse of mission and the doubtful methods used to 'gain converts' have been criticised so much recently that one need not refer to them again here. Perhaps much more serious is the attitude implied by some of the words used to describe evangelistic work. It contradicts a dialogue relationship and should be given up. Terms such as 'evangelistic campaign', 'missionary strategy', 'campus crusade', 'occupying non Christian areas', a 'blitzkrieg' of missionaries, 'sending reinforcements' and the like sound more appropriate to military enterprises than to Christian witness to God's redeeming love in Jesus Christ. The statistical approach implied in the words 'the unreached two billions' is derogatory to our neighbours of other faiths. Unreached by whom?"25

While severely critical and openly opposed to the old theology of mission as "very largely shaped in the colonial era, with its Europe dominated history, Church centred theology, and unexamined assumptions of Western superiority in race, culture and religion", he was sensitively aware of the problems of those who "see a real danger, to mission as witness" in the dialogue approach. He took much pain to deal with respect and appreciation the objections raised by those concerned with genuine witness.

In the first instance, however, he dismissed the impression in the minds of some people that the increasing co-operation that takes place between the peoples of various religions, their common struggle for the purpose of justice, peace, human rights, etc. constitutes the practice of mission. He overruled such simplistic ideas and put the dilemma of the Church's concern for witness in these words:

"The Church must humbly acknowledge the dilemma it faces when proclaiming to the whole world the Gospel of Jesus Christ 'to the end that all men may believe in Him and be saved'. This dilemma becomes particularly obvious in the light of the claims made by other religions in their traditional and renascent forms. Necessity is laid upon the Church to proclaim the Gospel at all times, in season and out of season; but within the Church there is confusion and disarray as to what, in essence, constitutes the Gospel and how it should be communicated. The Church professes to enter into dialogue with men of other faiths, but all too often stands talking to itself on the threshold of their homes, lacking the desire or the courage to enter in, even when graciously invited. It professes to have the answer to man's quest for salvation, but in its frequent failure to understand what questions are being asked, it tends to give the right answer to the wrong questions. It rightly points to salvation, but cannot establish the need for and the credibility of the Saviour. It claims to have a universal message, but hesitates to shed its inhibiting particularity. It seeks to share the message with others in all humility, but pride is not altogether absent from the corridors of its power."26

Samartha put his finger on the dilemma that the Church faces in the midst of religious pluralism. On the one hand, to give up mission would be "to spill out the oil from the lamp of Christianity; sharing the Good News of God in Jesus Christ has been the justification of the Church's existence in the world. On the other, a unilateral proclamation of a "uniquely saving truth", far from making a contribution towards true community, is more likely to be misunderstood as the arrogance born out of an apparent claim to monopolistic possession of truth. Admitting that to avoid the dilemma would be irresponsible, he asked "Is it possible to go beyond it?"27

In other words, Samartha saw no possibility of reconstructing or renovating the old concept of mission by "pouring theological cement into ecclesiastical fissures of the old building." Even though co-operation, common life, working together with others for human upliftment, etc. are legitimate to Christianity, he claimed that the question of mission, however, was a "much deeper and more disturbing question." 28

There needs to be a serious rethinking of the theology and practice of mission in the total context of human history. The theology of mission should take seriously "the persistent fact of religious pluralism" and the "need to be sensitive to the integrity of other faiths." Crucial to the new concept is the question, "Is the Christian 'mission' the only mission of God in all the world at all times?"29

Samartha refused to believe that the Church's mission is God's only mission. He felt that the missionary theology has had the effect of limiting the activity of God. "One cannot limit the extent or the mode of God's redeeming work, because it is as universal as His love which embraces all humankind at all times." Thus, we need also to recognise His saving work in "areas outside the hedges of the Church." 30

He is quick to point out that this does not mean that all that happens within and outside the Church constituted the saving activity of God. The persistence of sin and the constant failure of human nature to relate to Truth are recognised. We need, he said, to work out criteria by which we would be able to discern the saving mission of God both within and outside the Church.

There is often resistance and unwillingness to even discuss calmly the possibility of salvation outside the Church. Such fears, Samartha said come from the feeling that this might undercut the motive of mission and, in part, from the suspicion that it might lead to a loss of Christian identity and distinctiveness. Taking examples from the Old and New Testament, Samartha showed that such a new concept of mission was not really new: "When our Lord did not hesitate to acknowledge faith outside Israel, why should his followers be so markedly cautious about it? At a time when the quest for salivation has become universal, and when the people the world over are engaged in the common task of rebuilding society and strengthening its foundations, the Church must be willing to recognise and welcome God's work of salvation in areas unfamiliar to her."31

Thus, on the question of mission, he called us to return to the primary sources of our faith and to rediscover an inclusive understanding of mission, in which God's eternal purposes unfold in manifold ways and are accomplished in ways not fully familiar to us. The existing religious plurality provides an opportunity for new united witness to the whole of humanity, The time has certainly come, he said, "to search for a new style of ecumenism encompassing the whole humanity but which recognises within itself the creative potentialities of pluralism."32

The Lord and the Lords

The above understanding of mission raises many questions, the most fundamental being the question of the Lordship of Christ. Samartha argued that a new understanding of the Lordship of Christ was urgent. He said that the sensitive question of the place of Christ in the midst of plurality should be regarded both as "a theological responsibility and a pastoral concern." He put the question in this way: "Does mission mean the conquest of other Lords? Does universality mean simply the extension of Christian particularity? What happens if our neighbours of other faiths also have similar notions of universality, that is, of extending their particularities?" 33 He felt that the whole question of Christ's Lordship needs re-examination. Even though the concept is central to the New Testament, it does not mean that it was faithfully developed in Western theology.

Examining the New Testament evidence, he emphasised that the confession of Lordship of Christ is primarily the result of the experience of resurrection. It is an affirmation that through his death and resurrection Christ has been elevated above all the powers of evil. He pointed out that the confession: "Christ is Lord" reaches its high watermark in the well known Philippians passage where, significantly, his Lordship is combined with his self-emptying. "It is extraordinary", Samartha said, "that when the Church was weak and powerless, Christians could sing such hymns of victory and praise to God through Jesus Christ, without any sense of Christian triumphalism. It is equally extraordinary that the connection between suffering and victory, between emptying and exhaltation, between the servanthood and Kingship of Christ should be missed in the triumphalistic advance of Christianity as a religion and the establishment of the Church as an institution."34

There are three elements to the Lordship of Christ as seen in the New Testament. Firstly, it is connected with the resurrection faith. Secondly, his exaltation as Lord is related to his humility, self-emptying and servanthood. Thirdly, there is a constant coupling of the Fatherhood of God with the Lordship of Christ. Samartha pointed out that in history this self-giving conquest of death has been turned into a command to "conquer other religions."35

Similarly, the profound understanding of the way in which Christ exercises his Lordship has been missing in subsequent theological developments. Christ himself has spoken about this: "Whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be the first among you must be slave of all" (Mk. 10: 43-44). The tendency to regard the Lordship as a reward for Christ's willingness to suffer, Samartha argued, was a questionable one. "He did not surely suffer and serve in order that he may be exhalted. On the contrary, he exercises his functions as Lord not through conquering people or ruling over them, but through self surrender and service and through accepting the burdens of others on himself."36

There is also definite New Testament witness to the relationship of God in Christ, which is often ignored. "The Church in history has tended to glorify, exalt and deify Jesus Christ. The intensity of this glorification in doctrine, art, stained glass windows, hymns and attitudes to other religions has depended as much on Christian piety as on the degree of temporal power exercised by the Church in history. In doing so, Christians have sometimes succumbed to the dangers of 'a personality cult', where the underlying fact that 'God is all in all’ has been almost lost sight of. 37 The New Testament witness, in Samartha’s view, is not that Jesus rose from the dead, but that God raised him from the dead. The Epistles repeatedly emphasise the priority of God's authority in exalting Jesus Christ: "When all things are subjected then the Son himself will also be subjected to him who put all things under him, that God may be everything to everyone" (1 Cor. 15:28).

Samartha was quick to point out that he had called our attention to the above "not in anyway to ignore the divinity of Jesus Christ or to ignore his central importance to faith and practice, but to avoid that kind of 'Christomonism' which is incompatible both with the evidence of the New Testament and the tradition of the Church, and which sometimes leads Christians to regard Jesus as a kind of cult figure over against other religious figures". The above attitude, he said, tends to regard Jesus Christ as "the Christian's God" and makes it impossible to have a meaningful dialogue with neighbours of other faiths. The divine-human encounter in Jesus Christ should not be distorted into an encounter between Christianity and other religious traditions.38 Thus while he saw no problem in asserting the Lordship of Christ as a joyful witness to the power of the cross and resurrection, he bewailed how the distortion of the concept has done untold harm to the relationship of Christians to neighbours of other religious traditions.

Similar problems remain in the Church's understanding of the particularity and universality of Jesus Christ. The relationship between the universal, creative and redemptive activity of God toward all human kind, and the specific experience of God in the history of Israel and in the person and work of Jesus Christ is a difficult one to define. Samartha admitted that discussions here could only be of a tentative nature. Christians need to struggle together with this question more often not only in social but also in spiritual life, having in mind the claims of the other religious traditions. He also argued that the relation between the particularity of the Lordship of Christ and other particularities should be considered "not in terms of rejection but in terms of relationship".

He saw two possibilities. One is to understand universality as the extension of one particularity. To Christians this would mean the conquest of other lords by Jesus Christ, which means the extension of the Church and the extinction of other communities. Does mission means the extension of Christianity and the extinction of other religions? Similarly, other faiths, which seek universality by asserting their particularity, would wish the extinction of all others to give way to their universality. This position, Samartha said, is "neither desirable nor possible".

The other alternative is to recognise all particularities as equally valid and to demand that no particularity should claim universality. This is a popular attitude, but Samartha saw in this a real danger of "either a sterile coexistence or an unseemly competition".

Therefore he called for a fresh approach. One possibility would be to recognise God alone as the absolute and to consider all religions to be relative. This means that religious particularities are not denied, but the fact that, as historical phenomena, all religions are ambiguous is recognised. Such relativisation of religions, he was convinced, would liberate the respective adherents from "a self-imposed obligation to defend their particular community of faith over against the others in order to be free to point to the ultimacy of God who holds all things and all people in His embrace."39

Samartha dealt at some length with unwarranted fears about relativism. He clearly showed that relativism could be a positive and wholesome position, which can be held in the context of commitment to the universal validity of one's faith. Here the Lordship of Christ will cease to be a dogma, a verbal proclamation or «a theological hammer to beat down other faiths." Rather, the Lordship of Christ will have to be lived out and seen in actual concrete situations of life by those to whom this Lordship has become a primary and existential faith. He developed these ideas fully in his major contribution to the Christological debate, One Christ - Many Religions: Towards a Revised Christology (Orbis, 1991).

Truth and the Freedom of the Spirit

The discussion on the part of Christians on the significance of Jesus Christ eventually leads to the questions of Truth. In a chapter entitled "Ganga and Galilee: Two Responses to Truth" in the volume Diversities of Religious Experience, Samartha dealt in some detail with the question of Religious Truth. The basic question raised is whether any religion can claim to possess absolute Truth.40 He argued that within Hinduism a theistic as well as a non-theistic approach to Truth has been recognised. Both personal and suprapersonal approaches are held as legitimate attempts to relate to Truth. "Since Truth is One and God is Truth there cannot be a Hindu Truth and a Christian Truth." Therefore, he asked, can one extend the Hindu attitude to Truth to include the Christian response as well?

This is not to minimise the importance of Truth as perceived within each tradition, but to emphasise the need to recognise the possibility of perception of Truth in different ways, Samartha recognises here the common misgiving among Christians that to acknowledge Truth elsewhere or to relativise the faith is to move away from definite commitment to a position such as "all religions lead to the same goal". He very clearly denied that this was his intention:

"A relativism which makes no room for commitment undermines the very basis of authentic religious life. It leads to theological confusion and spiritual poverty. It even makes dialogue unnecessary. If all religions are equally true what is the necessity of dialogue? While absolute claims cannot be made for relative apprehensions of truth, particular religious responses can be true only in so far as they reflect or partake in something of the truth and lead people towards it. What is important here is not whether one or the other is false, but the distinctiveness of each of the responses."41

He was keen to establish the possibility of a relativism, which does not necessarily undercut commitment. If this is possible within Hinduism, he does not see why this should not be applied to Christianity as well. He claimed that the recognition of human finitude should lead us to acknowledge the inescapable relativity of all human consciousness. "Divine truth is always received in earthen vessels. How can it be otherwise? No one who is part of a particular community of faith shaped by certain linguistic social and historical factors, can escape this cultural relativity."42

What does this mean? Samartha claimed that "a particular religion can claim to be decisive for some people or some people can claim that a particular religion is decisive for them, but no religion is justified in claiming that it is decisive for all."43 it also means, therefore, that in dialogue with others "opportunities for participation in truth are enhanced, openings to further dimensions of truth are increased, and the obligation to be committed and loyal to what has been received becomes more compelling."

Thus, he claims, that deeper reflection on the nature of Truth, and the human limitations of apprehending it, would lead both to a deeper commitment to Truth as one had apprehended it and to an openness 'to grow together in truth'.

Ultimately this also has to do, he said, with our understanding of the work of the Holy Spirit. A closed, rigid and narrow understanding of Truth also limits our understanding of the Holy Spirit. It is unfortunate that some schools of theology "limit the work of the Spirit to a narrow segment of time, to an isolated bit of geographical location and to the history of a particular people." Samartha saw this as a denial of the freedom of Spirit: "The Spirit of God cannot be regarded as the monopolistic possession of the Judeo-Christian tradition imprisoned within the steel and concrete structure of Western dogma and a permanent Atlantic Charter."44

He argued that the Church's teaching on the Holy Spirit itself necessitates a wider view of truth. For example, it has often been granted in the West that the Spirit does work in the world through political and secular forces. It is surprising, he observed that there is "more willingness to recognise the work of the Spirit in the secularised world than in the world of millions of people who follow 'religions' other than the Christian."45

There need to be many new questions, which will have to be discussed in fresh ways. For example, how do we understand the work of the Holy Spirit in the Church and the activity of God's Spirit among people of different religious traditions and ideological persuasions?

Such considerations eventually lead us to ask more fundamental questions about our understanding of God Himself. It is obvious, therefore, that what we need to do is not reconstruction of theology here and there, but a whole new way of understanding the theological task. Contemporary theology needs to speak in inclusive ways so that it recovers the true meaning of the oikoumene and makes sense of the calling of the Church to live in the midst of pluralism. He summed up this call in these words:

"What we need today is a theology that is not less but more true to God by being generous and open, a theology not less but more loving toward the neighbour by being friendly and willing to listen, a theology that does not separate us from our fellow human beings but supports us in our common struggles and hopes. As we live together with our neighbours, what we need today is a theology that refuses to be impregnable, but which, in the spirit of Christ, is both ready and willing to be vulnerable."46

Concluding remarks

As one reads Samartha's theological writings, one is struck by its complete lack of triumphalism. He did not claim to give an "alternative" or a "new" theology. Neither did he suggest that the Church's theological traditions should be abandoned. Rather, his theological work was inseparably combined with a persistent pastoral concern.

He certainly rejected what he considered in theology to be contrary to the love of God shown in Christ Jesus. He was forthright in his criticism of certain types of theology and some of the methods in the practice of mission that undermine the dignity of the people of other faiths. He was bold in his call for new and inclusive ways of doing theology.

He did this, however, as a person within, and nourished by, the life of the Church, and as one who understood the significance of the world-wide life of the Church, and as one who acknowledged the world-wide Koinonia in Christ. He stood committed to Christ and to the basic witness of scripture and tradition to the Christ event.

His theological method primarily seems to be in raising questions that by their very nature cease to be merely questions, but point towards creative theological rethinking, so urgently needed to live in a pluralistic world. One of Samartha's friends commented recently that people are not always aware of the fact that a "silent theological revolution" has been taking place as a result of the introduction of dialogue into the theological traditions of the church.

Samartha did not try to overthrow theology, but sought to turn it inside out so that hitherto unacknowledged riches of God's dealings with the whole of human community become part of Christian heritage and theology. His style of doing theology, in the spirit of what he claims it should be, is truly dialogical. He seeks to make theology "ecumenical" in the full sense of the word. He saw his own work as a contribution to an ongoing and difficult task in which the Church must continue to struggle for many years to come.

One feels that one is too close to the events to make a full assessment of the long-term impact which, the dialogue concern of the WCC, under the leadership of Samartha, has made to the ecumenical movement and to Christian theology. One cannot help feeling, however, that at some future date persons who keep track of the history of the Church and the development of Christian theology would see the work of the dialogue sub-unit and its theology as an important landmark in turning the tide of theology towards a more inclusive and truly ecumenical course. When such assessment is made, the contribution that Stanley Samartha has made will certainly be seen as phenomenal in its impact and influence on the ecumenical movement.

S. Wesley Ariarajah

End Notes:

1. S. J. Samartha, «Religious Pluralism and the Quest for Human Community" in: No Man is Alien. Essays on the Unity of Mankind, J. Robert Nelson (Ed.), E. J. BrilI, Leiden, 1971, p. 129.
2. S. J. Samartha, "The Kingdom of God in a Religiously Plural Word", The Ecumenical Review, Vol. 32, No. 2, April 1980.
3. No Man is Alien, op. cit., p. 129.
4. Ibid. p. 131.
5. "The Quest for Salvation and the Dialogue between Religions" in: International Review of Mission, October 1968, p. 425.
6. No Man is Alien, op. cit., p. 132.
7. S. J. Samartha, «Gang and Galilee Two Responses to Truth" in: Diversities of Religious Experience, John Hick and Hasan Askari (Ed.), Avebury Publishing Company, London, 1981.
8. "The Kingdom of God in a Religiously Plural World", op. cit., p. l5.
9. Ibid.
10. "Diversities of Religious Experience", op. cit., p. 14.
11. No Man is Alien, op. cit., p, 13 3.
12. Ibid.
13. Ibid. p. 137.
14. A useful summary of Samartha's understanding of the purpose of dialogue is seen in "The Progress and Promise of Interfaith Dialogue", Journal of Ecumenical Studies, Vol. 9, No: 3, 1972.
l5. S. J. Samartha, "Dialogue as a Continuing Christian Concern" in: Christianity and Other Religions, Edited by John Hick and Brian Hebblothwaite. London: Collins, 1979, p. 164ff.
16. Introductory article in Towards World Community, the Colombo Papers, S. J. Samartha (Ed.), Geneva: WCC, 1975.
17. S. J. Samartha, "More Than an Encounter of Commitments", in Living Faiths and the Ecumenical Movement, Geneva: W.C.C., 1971, p. 103 f.
18. See S. J. Samartha, "Guidelines on Dialogue", Ecumenical Review, Vol. 31, No. 2, April 1979.
19. Ibid.
20. Samartha has himself made a detailed study of some aspects of Hinduism in order to enter into deeper dialogue with Hindus for mutual enrichment. See, for example, "The Significance of the Historical in Contemporary Hinduism", Indian Journal of Theology, Vol. XVI, Nos. 1 & 2, January-June 1967.
21. Cf. S. J. Samartha, "Ecumenical Issues in Community Relations", Lecture delivered at the Centre for Indian and Inter-religious Studies, Rome, 1978, (Typed script), p. 7.
22. S. J. Samartha, "Can Mount Sinai and River Ganga Meet", Tantur Year Book, 1975- 76, p. 117 ff.
23. A deep study of the understanding of Christ within Hinduism and an examination of possible elements of a contemporary Indian Christology are discussed in detail in Samartha's book, The Hindu Response to the Unbound Christ, Bangalore: C.I.S.R.S., 1974.
24. Dialogue between Men of Living Faiths, Ajaltoun Volume, Introduction by S. J. Samartha, p. 9.
25. S. J. Samartha, "Partners in Community: Some Reflections on Hindu-Christian Relations Today» in: Occasional Bulletin, Vol. 4, No: 2, April 1980, p. 80.
26. "Quest for Salvation and Dialogue between Religions", op. cit., p. 429.
27. No Man is Alien, op. cit., p. 143.
28. Ibid.
29. No Man is Alien, op. cit., p. 144.
30. "The Quest for Salvation and Dialogue between Religions", op. cit., p. 432.
31. Ibid.
32. No Man is Alien, op. cit., p. 147.
33. "The Lordship of Christ and Religious Pluralism", typed script, p.1.
34. Ibid. p, 5.
35. Ibid., p. 7.
36. Ibid. p. 5.
37. Ibid.
38. Ibid. p. 9.
39. Ibid. p.11
40. Edited by John Hick
41. "Ganga and Galilee: Two Responses to Truth", op. cit., p. 14.
42. Ibid. p. 13.
43. Ibid
44. "The Holy Spirit and People of Various Faiths, Cultures, and Ideologies" in: The Holy Spirit, Dow Kirkpatrick (Ed.), Tidings, Tennessee, USA, 1974, p. 20.
45. Ibid. p. 22.
46. Ibid. p. 38.

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