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Locking horns over 'The Asian Jesus'

Why was a respected Indian theologian called to the Vatican?

  • Fr Myron Pereira, Mumbai
  • India
  • May 21, 2014
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Father Michael Amaladoss, one of the most respected theologians in India, is said by some to be under suspicion from the Vatican’s watchdog on doctrinal orthodoxy, the Congregation for Doctrine of the Faith (CDF).  He was summoned to Rome for a series of “conversations" with the CDF, although reports differ over how cordial these conversations were.

The scrutiny of Amaladoss stems from a book he wrote, The Asian Jesus, which grapples with an issue that has bedeviled Christians in Asia for centuries: how to present Jesus Christ as a genuine fellow Asian to the millions of our countrymen, who often see him as a white European import.

This is not just a matter of visual iconography, but of theology as well: What has Jesus Christ to say to the world religions of India? This is what Amaladoss tries to answer.

The Asian Jesus explores diverse images of Jesus from the Asian context, for after all, 'Jesus was born, lived, preached, and died in Asia'. The images Amaladoss selects include Jesus as the Sage, Guru, Satyagrahi (seeker of truth), Aavatar (incarnation), and the Dancer. Amaladoss explores how these images of Jesus are relevant to Asian Christians.

He is not the first to make the attempt. Other Christian theologians, like V. Chakkarai, in Jesus the Avatar (1932), and Thomas Thangaraj in The Crucified Guru (1994), have also experimented with understanding the mission of Christ across cultures.

There are many aspects to the question. For one thing, as many Asian leaders have said, Jesus, as he appears and speaks in the Gospel, is not so much the problem as the Church, and the peculiar form of Roman Catholicism which it gave birth to. For many of our contemporaries, ‘mission’ is seen as an expansionist program with Western overtones and political ramifications. It is bitterly resented because of these colonialist connotations. So proclaiming Christ is seen as an attempt to convert others.

While drawing on images from the Asian context, including the Hindu tradition and Buddhism, Amaladoss does not offer a comparative theological study. Rather, he explains how the various images of Jesus are perceived. This is reflected in both the images selected for the book and the subsequent reflections offered within each chapter. Certainly the images presented in the book provide an insightful and thought-provoking glimpse into the diverse perceptions of Jesus in Asia, opening up new and dynamic questions for theological discourse. Indeed, these images cannot be excluded when entering into Christological and theological reflection in Asia.

However, one may also ask which 'Asia' and which 'India' Amaladoss refers to, for India (and Asia, too) is a wide and diverse cultural space, and The Asian Jesus does not touch on every symbol there is. The emergence of Dalit voices in the Indian context, for example, offer distinctive images relevant to this discourse, which are out of the scope of this study. So are Adivasi (tribal) concepts of religious leaders and holy men.

The whole issue needs to be seen in the context of the Church’s attitude to the world’s great religions. This is an area that has changed considerably over the last 50 years, and some remarks on where Catholics stand today would not be out of place.

To start with, it would be true to say that no educated Christian today holds the medieval view that the non-Christian religions are evil, and the Church alone offers salvation.

Fifty years ago, the Vatican Council taught that Jesus Christ is indeed the savior of all, and the fulfillment of all the religions of the world. The mission of the Church is to take what is holy and true in other religions, and show its fulfillment in Christ. The Council’s view is that all religions should gradually recognize the unique place of Christ within their own faiths. This view is Christ-centric, and not Church-centric.

Post-conciliar theology, however, holds greater respect for the autonomy of each religion, and in view of the steady numerical growth of so many of them, tends to accept religious pluralism as part of the divine dispensation. This pluralistic view accepts that God has revealed himself to others, and that Jesus’ salvation is meant for all and decisive. However whereas Jesus is the indispensable and normative way to God for Catholic Christians, it is less so for others. This view is God-centric rather than Christ-centric.

In this context, the Church evangelizes (or proclaims the Gospel) when it urges people to accept their God-given humanity, and to treat others justly and lovingly as their brothers and sisters – the values of the ‘Kingdom’, in other words. “The Church evangelizes by promoting the human,” as Paul VI said in Evangelii Nuntiandi.

Many theologians in Asia have a greater acceptance for religious pluralism, living as they do in a multi-religious society in which Christianity is usually a feeble minority. In this, they are different from their European or American colleagues, for whom the conciliar position is the final word.

As one can see, theological opinion is not an abstraction, but very much a matter of socio-religious environment.

Would this be the reason for the difficulties which the Roman office of the CDF has with the likes of Dupuis, Balasuriya and Amaladoss? It would seem so, and only the future will reveal just how successful these “conversations” have been.

Jesuit Fr Myron Pereira is media consultant based in Mumbai.

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