Mission Should be Not Ecclesia-Centric but Theo-Centric

Light of truth

Dr Selva Rathinam, SJ

President, Jnana-Deepa Vidyapeeth, Pune

There is an increasing tendency of oscillating to Sola Fide in charismatic movement. How do you understand it? Does it signal a turning more to some sort of fundamentalism?
First of all, we have to make a distinction between faith and theology. Theology is faith seeking understanding, not faith itself. Faith is our relationship with God. In the emergence of charismatic prayers, there seems to be a kind of fundamentalist understanding of faith. Of course, when I reflect about the charismatic movement in India, I get a mixed feeling. It is both positive and negative. In the positive aspect, for example, it has made people reflect about God and it has brought them closer to the scripture. It prepared the people to pray. They have become aware of the personal relationship with the person of Jesus Christ. People became aware of the presence of the Holy Spirit in the life of a person and the Church. Formerly, the lay people were simply called to pray, to pay and to obey. But the charismatic movement brought a change and they themselves articulate their faith. The charismatic movement has carried with it love for the bible. We need to go back to the bible. In a negative way, I would not say it is sola scriptura. The negative aspect of it is at the fundamentalist level. Fundamentalism comes in with regard to the inerrancy of the bible. Once the people start reading the bible and interpret in a literal way, then they fail to go deeper into the faith aspect. The charismatic movement has fetched interest in scripture, and we need to build on that interest. Therefore, we need to be with the people to help them go behind the text and to stay with the text. We can encourage the people to a deeper level of faith. Otherwise, it will remain only as infantile faith.

There is an accusation that many of the charismatic centres, knowingly and unknowingly, indirectly or indirectly, are giving a gospel of health and wealth. Is that true?
That is true, because it has become a personal devotion to God; they remain only at that level of personal wealth, health and miracles. They give so much importance to miracles. That is one of the negative aspects of the charismatic movement. Religion should help us to go beyond ourselves. In fact, whatever makes us selfish is wrong and whatever makes us go beyond the self, we should encourage. If the Charismatic movement helps the people to be confined to themselves, then we need to challenge ourselves.

One criticism of Charismatic and Pentecostal movements are that underneath these there is Calvinistic predestination theory. The predestined are unknown. Predestined for salvation is some way indicated by health and wealth. Have you ever thought of that?
I did not reflect much upon that. Of course, we, Catholics, do not accept the Calvinistic theory, which teaches that people are predestined for good or for bad. But I don’t think that the Charismatic Movement is guiding the people into this aspect of Calvinism. Of course, everyone wants to be happy and God also wants us to be happy. It is not that God wants me only to be happy. I have to give the expression of experience of God in my acts of mercy, both spiritual and material.

Through the Charismatics the bible has been recovered. But there is also the danger that Charismatic centres edit the bible; edit out the prophetic dimensions and lay stress on the historical as well as the wisdom part?
Exactly! So, that is why when we are preparing the students for priesthood or the religious life, we give much importance to religious formation, not to be fundamentalist Christians, but to be open to others.

Because of Hindu fundamentalism and Islamic fundamentalism, the missionary thrust in India has got dampened. Is there a rethink now on mission activity? How do you see Christian mission activity today?
The understanding of mission is very much related to the understanding of the traditional interpretation of the biblical passages: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Mt.28:19). But today that is interpreted in a deeper level; go therefore baptize ‘in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit’ and teaching them to obey what I have taught you. There are four words in this mission commandment. There is only one command in mission narrative, that is the word matheteuste, which means make disciples. This making disciples was understood in the past as going from one place to the other, and then baptizing; pouring water and then polemically undercutting the religious belief of others and saying only this is what Jesus taught. These are not the mission command. What does it mean to make disciples of all nations? We need to go back to other passages like the sermon on the mount Mt 5:13-16, like you are the light of the world, you are the salt of the earth and let your light shine before others. Tony de Mello says, for example why does the bird sing? The bird sings not because there is an audience. The bird sings because there is a song within, there is joy. So, once we experience this God of the bible, then we will give expression to that. My mission today is giving witness to what I have experienced. The God of the Bible is the God of the poor, the God who stands for the oppressed, marginalized, who are at the underside of history. Once we experience this God, we give expression to that experience of God through our value system, the Kingdom values – kindness, joy, sympathy, understanding, tolerance, forgiveness, unity and justice. I, as the member of a community, am not merely an individual. It is the community witness to the values of the gospel that we understand as mission today.

The ultimate criterion of following Christ is justice. In Mathew 25, and in Luke’s Good Samaritan, ultimately it is concern for the other, nothing else. There is not even religiosity; the Samaritan may not to be a believer. He doesn’t even think of God; he only helps the man. Do you think Christianity is winged humanism?
Definitely! Because in Christianity there is only one commandment: ‘love your neighbour.’ In the Old Testament, the great commandment Maha Vakya is Dt. 6:5 “love your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all you might.” There is another insignificant commandment in Levi 19:18, ‘love your neighbour.’ the creativity and originality of Jesus Christ is, He combined these two. He combined the commandments of love your God and love your neighbour. Exegetically, today it is interpreted as love your God with all your heart. The important word is ‘Kai.’ it is a conjunction in Greek. This Kai in Greek is not only one plus one, but it is also explanatory, not like table and chair. But it is explanatory; love your God Kai love your neighbour.

Augustine has said, who do you love when you say you love God, you simply love man?
Exactly! You rightly know Mt 25, ‘whatever you have done to the least of my brethren, you have done unto me’ and also ‘when you bring the offering, leave it when you remember that you have something against your neighbour, go and make reconciliation and then, you come and offer the sacrifice.’

Levinas as well as Derrida say that ultimately spirituality is ethics interpreted as hospitality?
In Jesus’ commandment of love, the very word love itself means a lot. Though there are several words for love in Greek, like eros, which is physical love, philia is friendship and Koinonia is fellowship. But when Jesus described love as Agape, it means firstly it is an expression of the experience of God who is love. Because we read in 1 John 4:7 ‘Beloved, love one another, for God is love.’ Therefore, one experiences God who is love through persons, places, situations and circumstances. Once I experience it, I give expression to that, that is what love is. This love is not reaction. This love is what I have, I give it to you. When there is rice in the pot, we can distribute. I have experienced this God who is love and I give this to others. Only in Agape I share in love with the poor, the marginalized, the sick and the widows. Why? I do not expect anything from them. I am loveable therefore I love you. This is what Agape is. Secondly, this Agape does not have much to do with the feelings; it has much to do with the will, the determination of will to do good. I may not like you, yet, I will not do harm to you. I use the determination of my will, because, I have experienced God’s forgiveness and love. Using the determination of will, I do good to you. So, everything is condensed to going out of me and reaching out to the poor and the marginalized, unlovable and untouchable. This is where Christianity makes a difference.

The British poet Philip Larkin has written a poem titled ‘Church Going.’ Church is going away from the people; Church disappears from us. That is happening in the West, a sort of winter is taking place now and convents as well as monasteries are getting closed. Do you think that will happen in India too in the future? Do you see the same winter of apathy to the Church happening here?
That will take place here too if we become irrelevant to the people. In that sense secularism is a blessing. Secularism is reminding us what we have forgotten. In both the Old Testament and the New Testament, the biblical view of religion is very secular. The Word has become flesh. Religions turned the attention to the other world. Secularism came to remind us of that. If our religion gradually alienates itself from the people and the reality, turning our attention only to the other world, then, there is a danger of us becoming irrelevant. That way, religion will lose its relevance even in personal lives too.

I am referring to Heidegger welcoming de-Christianisation, what does it mean?
The mission should be not ecclesia centric, increasing number to the Church. It is not even Christ centred, but it is theo centred. For example, in Mt 5:13-16 ‘let your light shine before others so that seeing your light, others will give glory to God. That is theo-centric, that is the Kingdom values. Therefore, it is not becoming more and more of enveloping oneself, but reaching out to the others. There is an interesting incident in the life of Tagore. There was a very famous doctor called Malik. He came to Tagore and showed him a piece of paper, where it was written ‘know thy self.’ Then Malik told Tagore, this is the great Greek wisdom ‘know thy self.’ Can India give greater wisdom than this to the world? And Tagore thought for a moment, took a pen, struck off ‘know thy self’ and wrote underneath ‘forget thy self.’ This is the greater wisdom India can give to the world. We need to know ourselves. Otherwise people will take advantage over us. But, after knowing oneself what? We need to forget ourselves and reach out to others. This is same in Matthew 25, ‘Lord when did we see you hungry, when did we see you thirsty?’ That means they have done good, but they have even forgotten that. If that is what the goal of the Church is, de-Christianizing is needed. It is there in Buddhism, when you see Buddha on the road, kill him said Buddha. We need to forget ourselves in reaching out to the others. Then, our religion will become relevant, and naturally won’t need to close down the convents. In fact, that is what Pope Francis said: have one aim, that is to grow in holiness, and all are called to holiness according to Lumen Gentium, chapter 8. We need to be models of holiness. We need to look with gratitude to the past; God has done definitely wonders through the religions. We should not deny that fact and for that, we need to live the present with passion. The problem is that we lose many without this passionate commitment to the present. We need to look into the future with hope, because God has been guiding us. Through our living out our religious life, we can attract people, and then we can become relevant in today’s world.

We are at a critical period in the Church. There are too many scandals erupting. What will be your response to the scandals that erupt in the Church?
We have become aware of the scandals within the Church in India now. We thought it was there only somewhere in the west. But now it is on our door steps. Therefore, we are shocked, sad and it creates pain within each one, and then it raises lots of questions. I feel that there are various ways to face it. In the Sermon on the Mount, we see three kinds of penance, that is a praying, fasting and alms giving. We need to pray for our people. Our life is not merely a natural one, but it is super natural and so we need divine help. Therefore, we need to pray for the victims and the leaders. We need to fast for self-purification and also we need to do alms giving to the victims.

Earlier we thought, the legal structure within the Church will take care of such scandals, but the recent happenings within India has proved that the Church is helpless. Even the CBCI has said, we have no jurisdiction over individual bishops. What was the way out? They went to the legal courts. Therefore, today we cannot keep away Church related issues from the Civil Law.

Do you think that Church structures are failing?
Definitely. It has failed. It has been acknowledged by the Church leaders, because publicly they have made statements that they have no Jurisdiction over individual bishops. There is no secret about it, and therefore we are constrained to approach Civil Law. In a conflict situation, we need to come together to discern and to discuss. Today people are becoming more and more isolated. There is no dialogue. We need to create an inner community dialogue too.

Do you foresee moral leadership becoming absent?
Yeah, that is creating a serious problem. The covering up of or transferring of problems from one place to the other is not a solution. This is also related to the Church laws. It is a frightening thing for example when the priest makes some mistake and the bishop has no right to take action on him. He can only transfer that person from one place to the other. In religious life, for example, when a nun has committed a mistake, the religious law allows the superior to remove her. But the same thing does not happen in the hierarchy of priestly life.

In the bible, somebody makes a mistake and it is confessed. Then, it is finished. But, it should not be a confessing Church. Don’t you think the Church has to become a multi-lingual and a dialogical Church?
In the Church there is no inner community dialogue. Vatican II brought a very welcoming change from pyramidal structure to the circular structure. In the pyramidal structure power comes from above, that is God, Jesus Christ, apostles. Thus there is bishops, priests, the religious and lay people. But Vatican II spoke about a circular structure, where the power is with the community. The Holy Spirit is speaking through every one. Each person has a different function. Jesus was washing the feet of the disciple, then, Peter had a problem. ‘Oh Lord you should not wash my feet because you are the master and I am the subject, a disciple.’ If Judas had washed the feet of each other, he would have had no problem. What was the message which Jesus gave there? ‘Yes, I am your master and you are my disciple, it does not mean that I am superior, you are inferior. We are playing different functions and different roles. Therefore, the Pope, the bishop and the lay persons are equal within this community. Even the Pope is considered to be the servant of servants.

Is it an accepted reality that everybody can see each other, wash each other?
Yeah, exactly. That is what should emerge. Each one plays a different role. It does not mean one is superior and the other is inferior. The problems of the scandals seem to be a problem of misusing power, and that’s what Pope also said about clericalization. Money also is a power, and therefore, we need to be accountable. We need to consider ourselves first of all as one community, then we will be accountable to each other. That openness should emerge while we deal with the scandals. But, in this sense, even here, we should not be shaken in our faith. Faith is our personal relationship with the person of Jesus.

Anyone can fail?
Yeah, exactly. When the community gets disturbed this way through scandals, we should make a clear distinction between our faith and the exercise of that faith. In the exercise of the faith, we have failed. We need to bring about a change to that. The credibility of the leadership is shaken. It does not affect my personal faith, because, in my faith, I put my hands into the hands of Jesus Christ even in the darkness of unbelief.


3 thoughts on “Mission Should be Not Ecclesia-Centric but Theo-Centric”

  1. Alok Nag IMS says:

    Enriching messages.

  2. Alok Nag IMS says:

    Enriching messages. Articles are good.

  3. Jowelson csc says:

    Excellent article with a powerful message. Big thanks to Dr.Selva Rathinam, SJ my Prof. in JDV, Pune.

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