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Theologian finds gospel in life of the people


Western Christians are often unaware of the intensely creative theology being done in the East. If we are to be a world church, we must be in deeper and more sustained conversation with one another.

There are few better places to begin that conversation than with the work of Indian Jesuit Fr. Samuel Rayan. A radical humanist, Rayan is convinced that the human person in community is the object of God’s special love. However, as fellow Jesuit Kurien Kunnumpuram says, Rayan does not subscribe to a narrow humanism that makes the human person the center of the universe and defines his relationship to other created realities in terms of domination, possession, use and enjoyment. Instead, Rayan pleads for care of the earth, concern for life and commitment to people.

Rayan’s theologizing is deeply rooted in his life, his land and his commitment to Jesus. Born in and brought up in a village in Kerala, he devoted many years to the study of Malayalam literature. He mastered Sanskrit and is well read in Indian religions and philosophy.

Rayan’s two main concerns have been the interpretation of the Christian faith in the multireligious context of India, and the development of a theology for the creation of a just and more humane society in our land. Kunnumpuram says of him that Rayan is not the first thinker to do theology in an Indian way. Others before him sought to relate the Christian faith and the gospel way of life to the religious and cultural context of India. What Rayan sought to do was to interpret the Christian faith in the light of both the religious and secular realities of the land.

Gustavo Gutierrez, the father of liberation theology, recently contributed to a book brought out in Rayan’s honor called Bread and Breath. Gutierrez says that Rayan sees justice as a theme not alien to the God of contemplative life. Rayan, with a thorough biblical understanding, Gutierrez says, affirms: “People are sacred. Men and women are made in the image of God. Men and women, not simply individuals, but as a community, are the only image and symbol capable of pointing to the Mystery of the Divine, with any relevance and meaningfulness.”

Consequently, it is in respecting, loving, serving, cultivating, liberating and waiting upon the mystery of this image that we come to discover and experience the divine with an ever-deepening creative sense of the Real. Men and women in community are the only place of life-giving encounter and communion with God. Thus the promotion of justice is rooted in our communion with God.

Seeing theology as a reminder of the great demands of the Kingdom, Rayan implies that an insertion into the concrete and daily life of the people, especially of the most marginalized and oppressed members of the social body, is central to the Christian faith. As Rayan puts it poetically: “Rice is for sharing, bread must be broken and given. Every bowl, every belly shall have its fill, to leave a single bowl unfilled is to rob history of its meaning; to grab many a bowl for myself is to empty history of God.”

For Rayan, therefore, true spirituality is not to be found in a devaluation of the historical life and material existence. He believes that the “tendency to angelism is foreign to the gospel of Jesus.” Rather, he says the gospel is to be found where the people’s life in its wholeness is taken into account.

Rayan’s way of doing theology enables him to enter into a fruitful dialogue with the cultural and religious traditions of his people. As Gutierrez says, when Rayan mentions three types of experience of the ultimate -- the cosmic, the gnostic and the holistic -- deep intuitions of the Indian tradition are here alive. The unity of the human and cosmic reality, the unity of the Supreme Reality (Brahman) and the human subject (Atman) and the unity among persons (life of the Buddha), are all interwoven. Guterriez, interpreting Rayan, says that Rayan asks himself with a great sensitivity: “Does not the Hindu or Buddhist tradition have its own specific role to play, just as the Christian has its own, in the common task of building the future?”

For Rayan, the criterion that enables us to answer the question is articulated quite clearly, God’s liberating action in history. In the Christian tradition, the key symbol for this is the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.

Rayan’s God is a God of life and hope. He draws on the richness of India’s great religious traditions and finds therein a deep respect for the human person and humanity, which is the core of his theology. His humanism can thus be called an Indian humanism. This humanism has at its heart a concern for social justice and the uplift of the poor and marginalized, without which religion in India would be mere empty rhetoric.

It is an approach to theology that First World Christians would do well to ponder.

Janina Gomes is communications manager at the Indo-Italian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Mumbai, India. She contributes regularly to the “Speaking Tree” column of the Times of India, a column reserved for philosophy and religion, and to the “Keeping Faith” column of the Indian Express.

National Catholic Reporter, May 12, 2000