P.T. Mathew SJ
You have written a book on theological anthropology; why are you interested in anthropology?
It is true that I have just published a book titled “Human persons in the World” which is an exploration in theological anthropology. As a student of theology I am deeply concerned about the human person, for, as Karl Rahner would put it, all theology is ultimately anthropology, an attempt to understand ourselves in relation to God. My background in the social sciences has helped me to keep this concern alive, and my engagement in the social ministry made me suspect all theology that is unrelated to human persons and their daily struggles. Anthropology, as study of human persons and their cultures, has entered into theological discourse only recently, and I see that as a very positive turn. That the Word became Flesh is at the heart of Christian faith. We are still searching to understand the deeper meaning of this assertion. The book is meant to be a modest contribution in that search.
Why is the human person the central question? Today the phenomenon of religious fundamentalism is widespread, and human persons are defined on the basis of land, tribe, caste etc. How would you define human identity?
Even a cursory look at what is happening around us would show that human persons are losing value in a world that is becoming increasingly self-indulgent and violent. Aggressive nationalism and militant religiosity contribute to a culture of intolerance and hatred. The exodus of refugees, often from pogrom or ethnic cleansing, having nowhere to go reflects a confused sense of human identity at large. When human groups get their identities confused, and miss a clear vision of what constitutes the essence of humanness, narrow notions of land or possession or caste or ethnicity become determining factors. The artificially made territorial boundaries of modern nation-states turn out to be the most significant. Modern progress with all its achievements seems to push human evolution in the reverse gear.
Naturally the question arises as to how we should define human persons. In fact, the humans’ quest to understand and define themselves has been present all through human history. Philosophies and ideologies and religious traditions have made significant contributions to it. Religious traditions, despite all their drawbacks, have provided us with excellent visions of human persons. The Christian tradition, for example, emphasizes the value of human person as ‘image of God,’ and hence worthy of dignity and respect (Genesis 1:26-27). From this basic insight flow all other articulations of the human. Christian interventions in human situations amplify this fact clearly.
Human life is a journey; is it a journey towards a home that is in the past or an exodus to the future? Homer’s Odysseus and Moses are two types; how do you read the world with these two approaches?
Human life is often likened to a journey, and the metaphor is surely enlightening. Whether it is directed to a past or a future is the critical question. Homer’s Odysseus and the biblical figure of Moses are two obvious paradigms. Homer’s Odysseus depicts the epic journey of Odysseus back home after the Trojan war. A journey back home into the past is evident in Kerala’s Onam myth too with the nostalgic memories of a virtuous past. Moses, on the other hand, leads the enslaved people of Israel to a promised land as narrated in the Bible (Exodus 3 ff). In a sense, both these orientations are present in the Bible. The first chapters of the book of Genesis paints the picture of paradise that the first humans lost (Genesis 3:23-24). The same Bible speaks of a ‘new heaven and new earth’ towards which we are journeying (Rev 21). The overall thrust of a Christian theological worldview is not ruminating over a lost paradise but of marching to a paradise in the making. Jesus articulated it richly in his vision of God’s Kingdom or God’s Reign.
Every worldview or ideology is a critical assessment of the present human condition, and would imply an ideal toward which human life is journeying. This is the essence of human hope and vitality. Every person and every culture live it, whether they are conscious of it or not. Many people look back on life and stay content with one’s past achievements, or tending their past wounds. Some others, in fact the majority, dream of a glorious future and struggle to reach there. It is this latter outlook that makes human life amazing and human progress exciting.
Can Christianity be conceived as a winged humanism, for you travel to God by journeying to other human persons? Is the face of the other epiphany for you?
I think the questions contain the answers too in a nutshell. Let me explain. Christianity affirms a humanism that places the human person at the centre. At the same time, we can say it is ‘winged’ in two directions: towards other human persons, and towards God. A human person is never understood as an individual in isolation. Human existence is social existence, as Vatican II clearly affirms (Gaudium et Spes no.12). So human journey is not only a journey together with others, but also a journey towards other human persons. The other ‘wing’ allows the human person to transcend self on his/her God-ward journey. Looking at it differently, Christians cannot conceive of a God-ward journey ignoring other human persons. Its foundation rests with the twin commandments of Jesus, viz. love of God and love of neighbour (Mt 22:35-40). This unity of both gives a special flavour to the Christian vision of the human person. Christian humanism resists all individualism and goes further. One finds God in one’s neighbour, and so the face of your brother or sister is divine for you, it is epiphany for you. Not only that; one is asked to become a neighbour to the human person who is in need, who is suffering (Luke 10:36-37). This is the secret behind the power of Christian service to fellow humans wherever need arises. Unfortunately, some people interpret these acts of service only through the prism of ‘religious proselytization.’
The last judgment is made on the basis of Justice (Mt 25)which is a central value in the Old Testament. Is justice hospitality to the other? What do the stories of Abraham’s hospitality and the absence of it in Sodom tell you as an Indian?
The scene of the Last Judgment in Matthew 25 is a good summary of what Christian life is all about. The central theme here is concern for your brother or sister who is hungry or thirsty or naked or a stranger, and a person will be judged against this measure. Is it a matter of justice? Or hospitality? Perhaps all these. The biblical story of Abraham’s exemplary hospitality to three strangers who passed by his tent at Mamre (Genesis 18) will easily resonate with the Indian mindset. How to treat strangers and aliens among you is a major theme that is repeatedly dealt with in the Old Testament. The three visitors received an equally warm welcome in the house of Lot at Sodom. But the men of the city rush to them at night with wickedness and malice (Genesis 19). The divine disapproval of their designs leads to the total destruction of Sodom, we are told.
But it is not a story of Sodom alone. There is a Sodom present in every human context waiting for a chance to erupt. The Indian peninsula is not free from this syndrome at all. The frequently heard labels of ‘sons of the soil’ and ‘illegal migrants’ stand out in sharp contrast. When every stranger or alien is looked upon as a terrorist and an antinational, and is forced to run for his life, a Sodom is reborn. A spirit of suspicion and hatred displaces the spirit of hospitality and concern for the stranger and the alien. The Bible is unambiguous in its concern for the stranger: “You shall not oppress a stranger; you know the heart of a stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 23:9). Today’s context is in urgent need of a clearer vision and articulation of what constitutes the human. The Christian theological vision certainly has a role in enlightening and enriching today’s human context.