Philosophical Challenges Facing the Indian Christian Today
Daniel Ajoy Varghese is a commerce graduate from Mumbai University. He was working in Mumbai for a period of five-and-half years as the Executive-Planning in a reputed pharmaceutical company when, in May 1995, he resigned his job and took up the pastoral responsibility of a church in Nashik belonging to The Evangelical Alliance Ministries. He joined the ministry team of RZIM Life Focus Society in April 2000. He serves as Director Training. He is a person who combines Bible teaching with a strong emphasis on Christian apologetics. He is stationed in Chennai with his wife Sunita who is a counseling psychologist. They have a friendly pet dog named Sophia.View all articles by Ajoy Varghese
As the millennium dawns, thinkers of every shade and colour are furiously involved in the postmortem of the past and a prognosis for the future. The 20th century began with the end of Nietzsche who went looking for God but could not find him and appears to end with Jacques Derrida and his gospel of deconstruction. The Indian contribution to the philosophical pool is epitomized by the charismatic Vivekananda on one hand who took Vedantic thinking to the West and the unconventional but hugely popular Rajneesh who holds his own (though dead) on the other side of the spectrum. We are living in times when the philosophical line between the East and the West is blurred if not wiped out. The all encompassing influence of the New-Age movement bears cogent testimony to this fact.
Today, we are told that our country has “finally woken up.” Suddenly, she has donned a militant religious garb that sits rather uncomfortably on her. As things stand, ‘modern’ India risks losing her unique heritage in the face of the relentless march of globalization. She appears to stand befuddled reminded of her glorious past of rich spirituality while seduced today by naked pragmatic considerations of a purely materialistic hedonism. Our land has become the breeding ground that delivers mass Miss Universes and Miss Worlds almost on demand. And to think that beauty pageants were widely shunned as alien to our culture. Simultaneously there is an increasing trivialisation of human life and ethics in the subworlds of arts, politics, education and religion. The Bollywood star who defends his conduct by asserting that he is an actor and not a promoter of moral values is adding his bit to the existing confusion. Sincere attempts at coherent answers are often dismissed as impossible and hence irrelevant. Is it possible for the Indian Christian who has often been unfairly caricatured to communicate meaningfully in these times? I believe it is. Let me point out at least three fundamental levels of reality where I think our people’s consciousness still yearns for answers that ‘hold water’ philosophically.
First, there is the undeniable existence of the personal. While Sankara’s Advaitic understanding excluded the personal in the ultimate reality (presupposing consequent limitation of the infinite), his devoted followers like Vivekananda and Tagore could not but include it in their writings. In fact, Tagore who has been accused of being influenced by Christianity wrote, “man can take interest in the absolute only when it is humanised. (*1) He was of the opinion that only a personal infinite could meet the inner personal needs of man. The continuing debate over Sankara’s use of the word ananda (bliss) in his description of Brahman is in my opinion a reflection of a search beyond the ‘nirguna’ Impersonal.
There were others like Ramanuja who while Vedantic in their moorings held steadfastly to the reality of personality. He challenged the concept of Maya and relied on bhakti (only possible if personality has a real existence) for salvation. The man on the street betrays this inner thirst when he continues to find ‘fulfillment’ in personal gods and goddesses while paying lip service to monism. Buddhism, sometimes described as an ‘atheistic religion’ due to the absence of the veneration of any personal divine - centre has not escaped this existential need. Gautama Buddha is for all practical purposes the ‘god’ of the Buddhists. Bahasaheb Ambedkar who redefined Buddhism to tailor it to meet social realities is slowly assuming a ‘god-like’ status. A striking feature of Mahayana Buddhism is its doctrine of the Boddhisatva who postpones his goal of becoming a Buddha in order to ‘save’ as many as possible. A personal Saviour?! How he uses his desire to transport others to a desire-less state of enlightenment is difficult if not impossible to understand. The existential cry, for the personal is palpable and ubiquitous.
As we live in community, (which we as a people have always cherished), we are also led to ponder about our own personality and our resultant relationships. The ontological basis for both can only be found in what Tagore describes as ‘Infinite Personality’ or what the Christian means when he says ‘God is love.’ It would only be appropriate to stop here and remind ourselves that the best apologetic for the personal (both divine and human) is people in harmonius relationships (I John 4:12).
Then, there is evil. Whether it is young college girls becoming victims of eve teasing in Chennai or the massacres in Bihar, the sheer regularity and extent of it forces us to sit up and take notice. And this despite the fact that we are desensitized channel surfers able to switch between suffering and sex, superstition and intellectual stimulation at the press of a button. The controversial movie ‘Bombay’ was a grim reminder of our inner demons as it brought back memories of the ghastly communal riots in Mumbai. India Today later reported that some children who had seen their parents being slaughtered had lost their powers of speech and were still in a state of shock. Frequent assurances of a utopian future for humankind by governments, philosophers and writers stand exposed as evil still holds centre-stage. Marxism today stands under the same indictment that Marx once conferred on religion: a pie in the sky! If we prefer to forget the two world wars, the daily newspaper has a staple diet of more horrific details to offer. Jesus’ statement that ‘no one is good but God alone’ seems particularly appropriate as the human potential for evil was being consistently actualized in what Nictzsehe had predicted would be the bloodiest century in history.
In our country we live with revived memories of brutalisation by our erstwhile rulers and increasing corruption and exploitation by our present ones. To offer explanations of evil as ultimately illusory provides a deficient basis to respond meaningfully to it. To my mind it is the philosophical equivalent of willingly being in a daze on drugs. It gives rise to a people with selfish and escapist lifestyles who continue to give a token nod to humanitarianism. I saw this illustrated to a certain extent once while travelling by bus. A just-released movie was being shown as usual. One scene depicted a violent sword-fight at a religious site in the presence of some monks who were meditating. As the blood continued to be spilt, the monks kept their eyes closed, apparently oblivious to their surroundings but powerfully illustrative of the logical consequences of their philosophy.
It is only when we recognize evil for what it is, (the absence of good) and recognize the ultimate nature of the good that we begin to find a sufficient rationale for all good actions, whether through the rare ‘angels of mercy’ or the benevolent philanthropists or the innumerable Good Samaritans that we meet in the course of our daily lives. If all our energetic measures against the various forms of evil are only for a time before evil is ‘realized’ to be essentially the same as good, we are back to where we started. Would it have made any ultimate difference if we had not started at all? The belief in the real existence of good and evil provides us with the philosophical basis to remove the fangs of the serpent coiled tightly around our necks. The Christian is thus on sure foundation as he can freely and actively work towards the arrest of decay and disintegration of the land that he lives in. Despite the dirt that is being flung at us in recent times, Christians should remember to be consistent to continue to go about doing good as our Master did.
Finally, it appears that the greatest challenge we now face is the preservation of what is called ‘truth’ in our private and public discussions. Today, truth has been reduced to a cultural expression and worthy of understanding and appreciation but not of critical examination. As a result, we are bereaved in our times by what Malcolm Muggeridge has called the death of truth. (*2). Whether it is the upper-class socialite or the uncouth rickshaw-driver, we seem to be in total agreement with the likes of Al ghazali who said, “I arrived at truth, not by systematic reasoning and accumulation of proofs but by a flash or light which God sent to my soul.” The unabashed subjectivism incapable of verifiability is characteristic of most postmodern truth claims. Last week, a fellow traveller remarked, ‘Belief and experience are both personal matters. They cannot be reproduced in someone else.’ It did not occur to him that the criteria for truth or falsehood apply to all beliefs (whether personal or universal) but not to personal experiences.
It has become synonymous with intellectual sophistication to declare all views to be equally true. A couple of years ago, my wife and I spent more than three hours with a Bahai convert discussing this subject. After presenting to her, the various claims of ‘revealed truth’ about the nature of God, we asked her if all the claims were equally true (though they were clearly contradictory to each other). To our utter surprise, she said, “Yes”. I countered, “If the various revelations are from the one source and they contradict, what does it reveal to us about the nature of that source? And, how am I to trust any revelation, past, present or future from a source that appears to be contradictory in its very being?”. After a long period of resisting the inevitable, she finally agreed that all revelations may not be equally true.
A self-contradictory process of reasoning selectively used only for truth-claims about God is rampant in our country. Postmodernism finds itself in very familiar territory as it makes inroads among our people. As Dr. Ravi Zacharias notes wistfully, “In the modern (scientific) pursuit, even though there was an inhospitable climate towards spiritual truth, debate was nevertheless possible because information was subject to deduction and induction. In the present (postmodern) mentality, the purpose of the debate and dialogue is not for truth, but for feeling and as passion has taken over, facts have no legitimacy.” (*2)
Philosophically, unless truth is exclusive, there is no room for any meaningful statement because it would include the opposite of that statement. If truth were all-inclusive, then it would include error or the absence of truth as well. Imagine the logical consequences of living out such a belief! Without the reinstatement of the truth-category as exclusive, our sincere discussions remain a string of contentless words because the statement then affirms nothing while claiming to include everything. In this ambience, is it surprising that politicians of our country can issue a statement today and its denial tomorrow without any qualms of conscience! It fits in very well in our truth emasculated times. Meaningful communication becomes the first and worst casualty. If this is our much-hyped starting point, then to continue any further is to betray our philosophical insanity! On the other hand, if exclusive truth does exist then the possibility of knowing and pursuing it also exists. Satyameva Jayate’ (truth alone triumphs), our national motto remains achievable only if truth exists apart from error. Without error to triumph against, this motto will go the way of many national slogans!
Almost three years ago, I was discussing with a friend about the claims of Jesus. After two hours of talking back and forth he reminded me that we must continue our search for the truth. I replied, “while we must search for the truth, the consoling thought is that somewhere out there the Truth is searching for us.” The details of this ‘strange search’ are available only in a theistic framework. It is only as we are eagerly pursuing a policy of engagement with our friends, our neighbours and our society at large that the above issues will surface in our day-to-day interactions. Across the length and breadth of human history the carpenter from Nazareth alone lends himself as the verifiable end of our search for the truth. His birth, life, miracles, death and resurrection render him unique with no parallel whatsoever. Moreover, His claim to be the Truth rescues it from the merely propositional and anchors it in the personal. Truth thus becomes capable of personal apprehension and has the capacity to fill what Blaise Pascal called, “the vacuum” in our lives. This vacuum is being publicly acknowledged by people from every cross section of society in our country. As part of the ongoing national “Soul-search”, Christians are uniquely positioned to contribute meaningfully at the level of dialogue, debate and deeds. What an opportunity to be ‘the salt of the earth’! To follow in the footsteps of that one-time-incorrigible skeptic (doubter of truth-claims) Thomas who brought his personal message of truth and love to our people who have historically sought for truth beyond the material.