Beyond the experience of duality

The Universal Truth


This article was first published in The Tablet 1 February 1975


Until recently the Church in India has not been conspicuous for originality or creativity. It was content to receive the religion which was brought to it from abroad by foreign missionaries without any significant change. It accepted the liturgy, whether in Syriac or in Latin which had grown up in Europe or the Middle East, without change. It followed the stem of scholastic philosophy and theology, which derived from the Middle Ages in Europe, without reference to any system of Indian philosophy, and it adopted the spirituality and devotions of the post reformation Church in Europe while ignoring the whole rich tradition of spirituality in India. In other words, an Indian Christian had to forget that he was an Indian, and adopt the language, the thought and the customs of Europe. Naturally, the architecture of the churches, the statues and holy pictures, the vestments and church furnishings were all faithful reproductions of European models. But today a remarkable change is taking place. The Indian Christian is beginning to discover his Indian inheritance, and the outlines of an authentic Indian Christianity in liturgy, theology and spirituality are beginning to emerge.

For many years now an Indian liturgy has been coming into being, which has been approved both by the Catholic Bishops Conference of India and by the Holy See. In this liturgy it is customary for the priest to sit cross-legged on the floor, the traditional posture for prayer in India, and to wear a shawl instead of the usual Roman vestments. Both priest and people remove their shoes before entering the church, as is customary in all sacred placed in India. During the offertory flowers are offered, and often fruits and other things, as a sign of the offering of the creation to God. Lights and incense are waved over the gifts in the gesture of arati, which is traditional in India as a way of consecrating anything to God. Following the introduction of the vernacular, Indian music has been introduced accompanied by drums and cymbals, and oil lamps are used instead of candles. With these changes in the external forms of the liturgy there have also come more profound developments of the actual structure of the Mass. An Indian Anaphora has been published and a new form for the Mass in India, which attempts to create an Indian liturgy in accordance with the traditional ways both of thought and of expression in India.

All this development has not taken place without considerable opposition from the more conservative. But controversy has arisen especially over the question of the introduction of readings from the Hindu scriptures into the liturgy, which has become customary in many places. This raises the whole question of the relation between Hinduism and Christianity, which underlies also these other changes. Since Indian culture is predominantly Hindu, to introduce Indian customs and expressions normally means to introduce Hindu customs and expressions. The problem of the liturgy therefore becomes a problem of theology. How do we understand the relation of Hinduism and other religions to the Church? On what grounds can we introduce Hindu ways of thought and expression and readings from the Hindu scriptures into our liturgy? It was to answer this question that a conference was called last month in Bangalore of scholars and theologians from all over India to study the question of revelation and inspiration in non-biblical scriptures. It was prepared by research papers on every aspect of the question from the point of view of the Bible and the liturgy, of theology and philosophy and of the traditions of the non-biblical religions themselves, especially Hinduism and Islam.

The findings of the conference are of profound interest and are of vital importance. I believe, not only to the Church in India but to the whole Church today. The Church today is being brought into contact with other religions, with their scriptures and traditions, in a way which has never taken place before. Here in India, living constantly among people of so many different religious backgrounds, Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist, Jain, Parsee, Sikh, and others, with their ancient traditions and their deep religious commitment we are being constantly challenged to relate ourselves to them and to ask what is their place in the universal plan of God. It has been said that the Church has passed through four phases in her understanding of other religions. The first, which prevailed both among Catholics and Protestants until fairly recently, and was largely based on ignorance, was that Christianity alone is true and all other religions are false. As knowledge of the very evident virtues of other religions grew, this view was replaced by that which proclaimed that other religions belong to the sphere of natural religions, and Christianity alone is a revealed and supernatural religions. As a more intimate knowledge of these religions grew, and the profound wisdom and holiness revealed in them became manifest, and especially as the universality of the grace of Christ became better realised, the view developed, which is still perhaps largely prevalent today, that revelation is to be found outside Christianity, and that other religions, on the analogy of the Old Testament, could be seen as ‘preparations’ for the coming of Christ in whom the fulfilment of all religion is to be found.

In this view the Church is not a closed society in which the knowledge of revelation is complete, and nothing has to be added, but an open society in dialogue with other religions and with the rest of the world, ever seeking a better understanding of the truth which has been communicated to her and ever seeking to express it in more adequate terms. Evangelisation in this perspective can only be seen in terms of dialogue. The Church is in possession of a unique revelation of the mystery of existence, which she has received from Jesus Christ, and she wishes to share the knowledge and the love, which has been revealed to her, with other people. But she has to recognise that the same mystery is also present in other people under other ‘signs’ and she has always to be ready to receive no less than to give. For a Christian, of course, the criterion for this judgement of other religions will be the revelation which he has received through Christ and the Church, but he has to be continually open to the movement of the Spirit in other religions, to be able to listen to the Word of God in the scriptures of other religions and to respond to the presence of the Spirit in their religious rites and their holy men. It is this vision of the Church as an open society in dialogue with all the religions of the world, and beyond the religions with all men who are seeking God, or truth or justice or whatever may be the terms in which the divine mystery manifests itself to them, which is giving new life to the Church in India and awakening a new understanding of what she is called to become.

In the light of this vision of the Church it can easily be understood that the conference in Bangalore unanimously decided that the Church not only could but should use the sacred scriptures of other religions in her liturgy. We cannot understand the mystery of Christ, which is God’s universal plan of salvation, adequately, unless we see how the other religions of the world are included in this plan. The mystery of salvation cannot be confined to the Judaeo-Christian tradition alone. It is present everywhere among all peoples and in every religion and embraces the whole course of human history. If the Eucharist, in which this mystery of salvation is celebrated, is to have its full meaning, it must be seen to embrace the whole of this divine plan and not only that aspect which is contained in the biblical revelation. To discern the relation of these other scriptures and other rites to the mystery of Christ, which is celebrated in the Eucharist, is the function of the Holy Spirit in the Church. Thus, the Church will be seen to be always an open community, always living in dialogue not only in her theology but also in her prayer, with other religions, and with the rest of the world. Every Eucharist should be a celebration of the mystery of Christ, in which new dimensions of the mystery are being continually revealed, until the Church grows to the full realisation of the mystery, in which God’s plan for the salvation of man is finally revealed.

One of the most interesting developments in the conference in Bangalore was that this view also came to be challenged and another view, which has been called the ‘sacramental’ view of religion, was suggested.  According to this view there is one, infinite and eternal Mystery in which the ultimate meaning and purpose of human life is to be found. This mystery is in itself beyond conception and cannot properly be expressed, but it manifests itself under ‘signs’, that is words and actions, which both reveal and communicate its saving power. In this sense Jesus Christ is the ‘sacrament’ of God, the visible and historical sign of God’s saving purpose for mankind, and the Church is the ‘sacrament’ of Christ, the visible, historic institution, in which the mystery of salvation is revealed and communicated. But the same mysery of salvation is also present in other religions under other signs. Each religion from the most primitive to the most advanced has its own unique insight into the one mystery of salvation, and we have to learn to respect and understand these different manifestations of the one saving mystery of God. There is, for instance, an experience of God recorded in the Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita for which there is no real parallel either in the Old or the New Testament or in Christian mysticism. In the same way, there is an experience of the divine mystery, though not under the name of ‘God’, in Buddhism, which gives a unique insight into the same mystery in quite other terms, akin to, though distinct from, the ‘apophatic’ or negative theology of the Greek fathers. The task of the Christian theologian is to relate these different expressions of the mystery of salvation to one another and to the revelation of that mystery in Christ and the Church.

In considering this question we must bear in mind that the revelation of the divine mystery which we have received in Christ was given in terms of a Semitic language and culture. Jesus himself could only think and speak in terms of the biblical tradition in which he had been brought up. The biblical revelation therefore necessarily suffers from the limitations of the language in which it was expressed. The Church, therefore, to whom this revelation has been entrusted, has to be continually seeking new terms in which to express different aspects of the mystery, which in itself remains beyond all expression. It was for this reason that the Church needed Greek philosophy and Roman law on order to organise her life. In the same way today the Church needs the insights, which the different religions of the world can give into the divine mystery, in order that this mystery may be ever more fully and more adequately expressed. The unfolding of the mystery will not be complete until every people has contributed its own insight into the mystery and even then we shall have to wait for the Parousia before the final revelation can take place.