Light of truth

Valson Thampu

Among the ‘students’ of Socrates were Critias and Alcibiades. Though they frequented Socrates, apparently to learn from him, they turned out to be disreputable characters. (By the way, Socrates used to say, “I cannot teach anyone, I can only make them think.) This intrigued Athenians. Socrates’ enemies used to cite this instance to allege that Socrates was an evil influence on the youth, which was one of the two charges levelled against him in the trial which resulted in his condemnation and death by Hemlock.

What was the truth? After leaving Socrates, Critias left Athens and lived in Thessaly, where he fell into the company of libertines and wasted his life. Alcibiades succumbed to wine and women, surrounded himself with flatterers, and lived a dissolute life. Both brought infamy to their famous teacher, Socrates, much the same way Nero did to Seneca and, to a lesser extent, Alexander did to Aristotle.

This situation can be argued in two contrary ways. If Socrates was, indeed, a great teacher, his influence on Critias and Alcibiades should have endured lifelong. Second, human beings are continually vulnerable to the company they keep. Moral lessons and insights learned at one point may well be overridden by subsequent immoral influences. If Socrates’ noble fellowship had the power to kindle noble sentiments in his students, the fellowship, later, with immoral persons had the power to deform them morally.

Recall the parable of the lost son in the Gospel of Luke. He was in excellent fellowship at home as he himself recalls later, when in a state of deprivation. In the far country, he is in a different sort of fellowship, which makes him ‘waste his substance’. Should this discredit his father?

This illumines the importance of ‘fellowship’. Christianity is a congregational faith; a faith in which fellowship is a basic need. I believe Jesus instituted the church in acknowledgment of this. If so, one inference is immediate and inescapable. It is the duty of a congregation to be such a ‘fellowship’ that it exercises an influence comparable, say, to what Socrates had on his disciples. Both Plato and Xenophon testify that proximity to Socrates inspired virtue in people. We believe that we have in Jesus Christ one greater than Socrates. As Paul says, to be in Christ Jesus is to be ‘a new creation’.

The church is assumed to be the ‘body’ of Jesus Christ. The function of the body is to ‘incarnate’-or, to express experientially-the true quality of the spirit; the spirit of Jesus in this case. The body is the medium of the soul. Or, the body is to the soul what a piano is to music notes. A perfect blend between the two is the purpose of ‘tuning’.

A congregation is, therefore, a body of people in whom the spirit of Jesus so dwells that it is a ‘fellowship’ serving as a nursery for nurturing the spiritual potential of every member. No assemblage of people incapable of exerting such a spiritually benign influence qualifies to be a true church.

Jesus puts it bluntly, yet compassionately: ‘Five husbands you have had; but the present one is not a husband.’ Well, the tragic question looms large, “Who is a husband, and who is not?” Does the church nurture potential ‘husbands’? Does a man become a ‘husband’ simply by getting married in a church? Doesn’t the church have a duty that extends back in time, to nurture in this man the capacity for companionship, without which no man can be a husband?

This should make us sit up and think. The Kerala Christian community is in a ‘Samaritan fix’, so to speak. Marriages are breaking down. Worse, couples are living in smouldering misery, hurting each other like pieces of flint continually chafing against each other. This is well-known. Strangely, it is assumed that a crash course in ‘pre-marital counseling’ can heal this malady. I wonder if any empirical study has been undertaken till date to assess if this hypothesis is valid. Of course, something is better than nothing. But it is also true that the treatment should correspond to the disease.

Unmindful of what was happening in the lives of the people -as it is played out beside Jacob’s well- the ritualistic life of the Gerizim temple went on. Every care was taken to ensure that no lapse or lacuna happened in observing routine rituals. Ironically, even as the ‘life out there’ was degraded, the ritualistic life of the temple was more fastidiously emphasized; indifferent to the need to enhance the ‘fellowship-quotient’ of the congregation. Admittedly, worship does play a role in this, but it needs to be complemented with whatever it takes to enhance the quality of fellowship obtained.

Jesus highlighted it beside Jacob’s well. He addressed the degrading alienation, the terrible aloneness and the vulnerability that went with it, of the woman. The water she came to draw was a signpost to her thirst. If man does not live by bread alone, it is certain that every human has a thirst that no water can quench: the thirst for companionship. Can such companionship to be found in a community deprived of true worship? Jesus made this point too obvious to be missed. Yet, surprisingly, it has been missed.

It is high time that a ‘fellowship-audit’ of our congregational life is undertaken. Almost every congregation I know is infected with internal hostility. Congregations are polarized, usually into pro-vicar and anti-vicar factions. The congregational air is dense with alienation. You can pluck it from the air. The ‘fellowship-quotient’ of our congregations, across denominations, is worrisomely poor.

The social consequences -in Amos’ words, ‘the famine in the land’ (Amos 8:11)- of this congregational bankruptcy are manifesting day by the day. As a result, quality of life is sinking for tens and thousands of couples. The pastoral responsibility that Jesus entrusted to Peter is, “Tend my flock”. Do we do a good job of ‘taking care’ of the flock? This question can no longer be dodged. Desperation is mounting besides the contemporary versions of ‘Jacob’s well.’ Five husbands… The sixth is not even good enough to be labeled ‘husband’. What will the present-day counterpart of the Samaritan woman do? As the bank clerk says in T.S. Eliot’s Waste Land, “I shall walk the street, with my hair down so!”

Or, will she encounter Jesus by accident, before it gets too late? Before the cuckoo flies over the nest?

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