Report From India: The Inculturation Crisis

While the American church ponders economic in- equities and nuclear conflagration, Catholics in the Third World haggle over a different agenda. The issue being debated by the hierarchy and laity in much of Africa and Asia is “inculturation” — the question of how to fuse Roman Catholicism with predominantly pagan cultures eager to forget their colonial past. India is the locus of the in­culturation controversy, as I witnessed during a recent visit to the country in which I was reared.

Since the establishment of the Catholic hierarchy of In­dia by the papal bull Humane Salutis in 1886, the Indian church has endured as a kind of hybrid, borrowing Por­tuguese and English elements and fusing them with local culture. My own name may serve as a synecdoche: the first part is Indian, and in fact means “Sun God” in its Sanskrit derivation; the last name is Portuguese, derived from an ancestor who probably adopted the Christian name of the missionary who baptized him.

Indian Catholics comprise 1.5 percent of the nation’s 700 million population. They value their identity both as In­dians and as Catholics. Since India’s independence from British rule in 1947, Catholics have functioned as an enter­prising minority, mainly concerned with the uplift of their community and the retention of their tradition, far removed from the racial and religious politics which has dominated the country for the last four decades.

But in recent years, due to significant political and theological developments, the Indian church — most con­spicuously its hierarchy and theologians — has been suffer­ing an identity crisis. There is a feeling that Christianity has reached a “nodal point,” a point of saturation, and nothing short of a radical overhaul will save it.

“The situation in India can be rightly styled as revolu­tionary, if not explosive,” says Father D. S. Amalorpavdass, head of the Religion Department at Mysore Universi­ty and one of the country’s most influential theologians. For the past 15 years, with the blessing of the Indian Catholic bishops, Fr. Amalorpavda has trained priests and laity to seek what he calls an “authentic Indian spirituality.”

Theologians such as Ainalorpavdass, Raymond Panikkar and Paul Puthanangady have convinced most of the Indian hierarchy that Christianity in India has inherited an undesirable Western aroma from foreign missionaries and colonialists. “The Church in India must realize her genuine identity,” insisted a 1974 resolution of Indian bishops to the World Synod in Rome.

What does the inculturation effort — the effort to discover a unique Indian Christianity — mean? Partly it in­volves a drive to purge the Mass of such Occidental elements lighting candles, using chalice and paten, pray­ing in Greco-Roman terms, and celebrating the feasts of European saints. More significantly, though, it involves a transformation of Catholic theology to provide greater spiritual accommodation for indigenous Indian religions and to dispel the notion that Christianity is the only true faith.

Declared the Nagpur conference on Evangelization and Dialogue, “God is not confined to the Judeo-Christian tradi­tion.” Comments Fr. Amalorpavdass, “Not only are non- Christians saved, but they are saved in their own religions.” Raymond Pannikar believes that missionary work should not aim at conversion but seek to “incarnate Christ in other religions.”

In its moderate version, the inculturation movement takes the form of “interfaith dialogue” among various religious groups. Even some conservative Christians have expressed support, as long as the mission is to identify truths that non-Christian religions hold in common with Christian­ity — a mission encouraged by Vatican II’s “Declaration on Non-Christian Religions.”

But in more extreme versions inculturation has come to mean denying the exclusivity of Christianity, equating Christ with Hindu and Muslim deities, asserting that all religions have equal validity, and in some cases even aban­doning Christian theology to discover higher forms of spirituality in other religions. One prominent Indian priest, Bede Griffiths, for example, has largely given up reading the Bible and meditates on the Ramayana and the Bhagavad Gita, two sacred Hindu texts, for divine inspiration. He argues that “The Krishna [Hindu deity] story is a genuine revelation of God’s grace and love.”

Recently I paid a visit to the locus of the inculturation effort in India, the National Biblical Catechetical and Liturgical Center (NBCLC), where I was told I could observe “the future of Christianity in Asia. ” The NBCLC was founded in 1966 by the Indian Catholic bishops and has their sanction. It is currently experimenting with new ideas in theology and new forms of worship for Indian Catholicism.

First I watched an “Indian Mass” conducted by Fr. Amalorpavdass, former director of the NBCLC. It began with sitar music, bhajans, cries of “Om” (The Hindu incan­tation for Lord Krishna) and “Shantih.” The priest was at­tired in colorful robes and towels — a sartorial college ap­parently representing various tribal forms of dress. There were continual abstract invocations to “The Being” and “The Mighty One,” whose identity was never specified. At least Christ’s name was mentioned a few times, otherwise it would be difficult to guess that this was a Catholic service.

Coming out of the “temple,” as the sisters at the NBCLC insist on calling it, I saw that even Christ’s identity has been transformed. I was shown statues of Christ in various “asanas” (yogic postures); the inscriptions were all references to Hindu theological concepts such as “karma” (one’s duty to God in this incarnation), and there was a painting of Lord Buddha meditating under the bodhi tree where he is said to have had his epiphanies.

It should not be hard to see what is going on. In fact, this is not a new story at all for the church, but an intriguing twist on a very old one.

Since its beginning, the church has faced the problem of integrating Catholic beliefs and the Catholic way of life into alien cultures with alien religions, without compromis­ing Catholic orthodoxy. This extremely difficult task was accomplished rudely, but successfully, by Christians in Europe, who “baptized” Greco-Roman rituals. The sun, for instance, was transmuted from the Greek god Apollo in­to a metonymy for God the Father, “light of the world.” In the Middle Ages, Aquinas’s theological accomplishment was to Christianize the pagan philosophy of Aristotle without diluting the truths of the church. Missionaries since the 16th century, especially the Portuguese, were especially adept at blending the Catholic faith into Asian cultures so that the indigenous people could worship in their own way.

But now the native cultures have begun to assert themselves. There is less a religious resurgence against Christianity than a nationalistic one. Large and small states in Asia and Africa are beginning to feel the patriotic throb, the exhilaration of being free of their colonial supervisors and in full control of their futures. To such people anything that is foreign is to be rebuked and repudiated. Naturally Roman Catholicism is open to attack in this situation. Ironically, the campaign against foreign theologies is waged by people who covet foreign radios, cars and appliances and whose children cannot wait to emigrate to Europe and America.

India is not a nation known for its ethnic cordiality. Religious and racial strife has dominated its politics since 1947, the year of its independence from the British. Mostly the Hindus are fighting the Muslims and the Sikhs, but every now and then — weary from taking on such fierce and fanatical adversaries — Hindu jingoists attack Catholic localities. Such incidents have occurred with alarming fre­quency in recent years, and give impetus to the inculturation movement.

Last year, for example, in the northern province of Arunachal Pradesh, 15 Catholics were attacked without provocation and killed by local police for praying publicly during the cultural festival of Bagavati Amman. When 1,000 Catholic villagers demonstrated to protest the killings, their homes were looted by members of a radical Hindu group called the RSS. Shortly thereafter a law was passed permit­ting only indigenous religions (Catholicism not included) to be practiced in the state.

Catholic communities in the North Indian states of Assam and Meghalaya, as well as Catholic groups in Bom­bay and surrounding areas, have been attacked. Several churches have been looted, tabernacles desecrated, sacred statues defiled, and homes and property razed and burned. Both Indira Gandhi and her successor Rajiv Gandhi have deplored the attacks, but local politicians often condone them and the RSS is very powerful, so the Prime. Minister may not be willing to expend the necessary political capital to compel restraint.

The attacks have only served to heighten the awareness of Catholics in India that they are different. With this dif­ference comes vulnerability. Christians are outnumbered in all areas of the country, and thus are unable to defend themselves. The sense of religious isolation, highlighted by the recent harassment and violence, is an important force behind the drive to purge Indian Catholicism of its Western baggage. Many theologians and priests do not want Catholicism to be susceptible any longer to the accusation of being a foreign religion, with an allegiance to Rome and ties to the erstwhile colonialists, the British, French, and Por­tuguese.

What is wrong, with efforts to Indianize Catholicism in response to these legitimate fears? It seems proper that Christianity in India should have a cultural identity distinct from Christianity in the West, that Indian Catholics should be Indian in their ways as well as Catholic, that forms of worship should be devised that are consonant with Indian traditions and do not merely mimic Western customs — con­juring up, in the process, memories of subjugation and discrimination under two-and-a-half centuries of colo­nialism.

To this end, Rome has approved 12 steps to inculturate the Indian Mass. For example, the Indian “namaste” or folded hands is permitted instead of genuflection, the “arti” or lamp is used instead of candles, and the host is con­secrated on a “thali” or Indian platter. None of these changes alters the essential message or basic form of the Mass.

But many Indian priests and theologians are un­satisfied. They want not only cultural but also spiritual assimilation. This has serious theological consequences. Bede Griffiths has gone so far as to assert that “there is no essential difference between Hinduism and Christianity.” There are Indian priests who admit that they prefer a Hindu temple to a Catholic church for prayer and inspiration. Fr. Amalorpavdass wants the Upanishads and other Hindu sacred texts, for divine inspiration. He argues, “The Krishna [Hindu deity] story is a genuine revelation of God’s grace and love.”

Sacred texts read during the Mass, instead of the Scriptures — even though Rome in 1975 explicitly forbade the inclusion of non-Christian texts in the Liturgy of the Word.

Moreover, the inculturation movement seems to have entirely lost its sense of mission. Father Paul Puthanangady, chairman of the Indian Theological Association, had the following comments to make in a recent interview with me:

Question: Do you believe that all religions lead equally to God?

Puthanangady: All religions have the intention of leading all men to God.

Question: Everyone knows that. Do they succeed?

Puthanangady: That depends on each person and each religion. Not all who say they follow Christianity will reach God.

Question: But that is because they are not following Christianity. My question is whether  a Hindu who is follow­ing the tenets of Hinduism will go to heaven.

Puthanangady: Of course. Scripture tells you that if any man follows his conscience he goes to heaven. Millions of Hindus have died until this moment. Do you think all have gone to hell?

Question: If all religions are automatic conduits to heaven, what is the purpose of missionary work? Why should Catholics try to convert anyone?

No answer. Advocates of inculturation no longer seem to believe that Catholicism has anything distinctive to offer. Fr. Amalorpavdass says that conversion may be a form of “spiritual selfishness.” Fr. Aloysius Pieris of Sri Lanka condemns efforts to baptize local religious customs as “theological vandalism . . . Christian triumphalism which seeks to turn everything it touches to its own advantage, with no reverence for the wholeness of another’s religious experience.” The phrase used most often in this context is “spiritual colonialism.”

Of late, though, resistance has been building among the laity to the effort of the theologians and many clergy to In­dianize the Catholic faith. The reason is simple: most people were raised to worship in a particular way, and now it is be­ing radically altered. They were brought up to revere and adore the Christ who said “I am the way, the truth and the life,” and now they are being told that this is an exag­gerated claim. Their customs contained Western elements from the outset, which made Roman Catholic forms of wor­ship natural — not alien — to their lives; now their liturgy is being Indianized in a way that does not at all reflect their customs and habits. “Christianity is being tailored for the Hindus, who don’t want to practice it, instead of for the Catholics, who do,” comments George Menezes, an Indian Catholic journalist.

Bishops in Kerala and Goa, two strongholds of Indian Catholicism, complained to me that Indianization efforts are confusing people in their parishes who are perfectly comfort­able worshiping with the universal church. Archbishop Paul Goncalves of Goa and Daman says Goans favor “traditional forms of worship.” Archbishop Joseph Kelanthara of Verapoly, Kerala, argues that “Christianity here is 2,000 years old. It has already assimilated with Indian ways and retained its absolute truths. There is no question of having to Indianize it.”

Many Indian Catholics view the work of the NBCLC and similar groups as not Indianization but Hinduization. Recently the All-India Laity Congress was formed in New Delhi to oppose forms of inculturation, which it claims undermines the authentic Catholic faith. It is a small group, and efforts to discredit it are already under way. But on its side is the apostolic exhortation Evangelii Nuntiandi, which says, “Neither respect and esteem for these (non-Christian) religions nor the complexity of the questions raised is an in­vitation to the Church to withhold from these non-Christians the proclamation of Jesus Christ.”

  • Dinesh D'Souza

    Dinesh D'Souza is an American conservative political commentator, author, and former college president.

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