A talk to the Melbourne group of SOFiA in Australia,
17 September, 2015, by William Firth-Smith.
MA MTheol MBBS DO GradDipTheol FRANZCO FRCOphth Société Française d’Optalmologie
17 September 2015
I wish to thank you for your invitation to address you this evening.
My background has been as a surgeon became involved on a regular basis in Global
Medicine — predominantly in South Asia at Raxaul on the Nepal border in the state of
Bihar. This enculturation engendered an interest in India, Hinduism, Liberation
Theology and interest in Indian Christianities (plural). Involvement with Karen refugees
on the Thai/Burma border has been studied together with involvement with various
The Scope of this subject:
This is a complex area of study and I will attempt to summarise major arguments and
attempt to avoid unnecessary complexities and ambiguities.
Apart from the Philippines and Korea Christianity is by far a minority religion in Asia.
In the Philippines there are 86.8 million Christians (93% of the population).
China is on track to become the most Christian Asian country (>11% of the population).
Nepal was previously closed to all Christian missionaries but has become the fastest
increase in Christian adherents, which now represents >11% of the population.
India has a population of 1.28 billion of which a recent census revealed three percent
were Christian —in reality this figure is more likely to be in the order of 6.15 percent due
to the presence of crypto-Christians and ‘dual-belongers’. This would indicate that there
are at very least 38 million Christians in India alone (or perhaps twice this figure).
Numerically Australian Christians are dwarfed in comparison!
Korea was the first country in Asia to sow the seeds of an Asian theology of Liberation.
From the inception Korea has been politicized faith and this has played a significant role
in the national liberation struggle — unlike other Asian countries (like India) where it
was the non-Christian religions that provoked nationalist sentiments against Western
In the Minjung Theology of Korea the Asian Christ appears with a “han-ridden body”.
Han is a mixture of many things: a sense of resignation to inevitable oppression, indignation
at the oppressors’ inhumanity, and anger at oneself at being caught-up in the situation of
hopelessness. The Minjung’s unconcealed aspiration is for freedom.
Theology of the Pain of God
Christian theology after Hiroshima and the humiliation of Japanese defeat led Kazoh
Kitamori and others to reinterpret Christianity in a similar way that Jürgen Moltmann did
in post-war Germany. This is the ‘theology of the Cross’ in which pain is the essence of
God. Christ is a part of our suffering because He suffers with us.
As Ashok Mehta wrote in 1974: ‘It is the claim of the Christians even to this day they
feel the agony of Christ on the cross whenever humanity suffers, it has to be proved in
action not merely by words.’
Asian Perception of Christians
(1) Seen as some kind of religion of foreigners — Christ the ‘king’, an invader or like
some Julius Caesar. This was sensed as a threat to traditional faith and the
nations social fabric. In response the old faith was reaffirmed and defended in
(2) Some welcomed Christ as in the Sermon on the Mount. The “Golden Rule” exists in
all world religions. This was the ethical Christ in contradistinction to
metaphysical dogmas and mystical obfuscations.
(3) Some recognized Christ as being authentically Asian and felt close to him, being
felt to be different to European Christ of missionaries with their warring
(4) Christ as THE incarnation was generally unacceptable to Hindus, however
devotees of Vishnu welcomed Christ as AN incarnation. Western Christianity
found this incarnational aspect unacceptable.
(5) Some worshipped Christ as Saviour, Son of God and God-Man this being
understood differently from traditional Western Christianity. Christ was seen as
the centre of a new dispensation — a universal church harmonizing regions of
(6) Those who looked upon Christ as liberator from social and religious oppression.
Caution for the Missionary
The Christian who wishes to dialogue with other faiths must resolutely put away every
thought of intellectual, religious or cultural superiority regarding dialogue as one-way
traffic whereby the communication of ‘truth’ could only flow in the one direction. Such a
relic of the old Western superiority complex makes dialogue impossible both in terms of
equality and of mutual understanding.
The Christian must put away firmly the idea that it is his business to ‘bring Christ’ to the
non-Christian. It is part of Christian belief that God has reconciled the whole world to
himself in Christ, and that since the resurrection Christ is everywhere present in the
world that he has redeemed. The non- Christian is part of this redeemed world.
Therefore Christ is already present in the other whom we meet. The Christian comes not
to bring Christ but to find Him.
The Christian must approach the interlocutor in the hope that he will gain more than he
has to give. He should go in the expectation that the other has more of God than he
alone possesses, and in the end his encounter and awareness of God is amplified and
There ought not be a question of conversion from one faith to another. Each person
must be encouraged to go forward to the highest level of attainment possible on the path
in which he has already embarked. Conversion is undesirable in terms of social and
emotional disruption and this is likely to be harmful rather than helpful in the
development of a true spiritual life.
What is a Christian?
It can be a grave assumption to declare that an individual is non-Christian. How can one
ever know? The basic credo could perhaps equate to the first Century expression of Kristos
Kurios (Christ is Lord) — in this light all else pails into insignificance —including
(1) Christians do not have a monopoly of goodness, either on the so-called natural
or supernatural level. History in general reveals that ‘evil’ is present everywhere
however goodness also flourishes throughout the world.
(2) Christians do not have a monopoly on truth. The Christian Church claims to be
the custodian of divine revelation however this does not mean that the Christian
missionary has exhausted God’s disclosure of himself to mankind. There is no
proof to this claim of exclusiveness.
(3) The Christian has no monopoly of salvation, which is offered to every person
who entering this world (Titus 2:11) — Apokatastasis. Therefore it seems
improper trying to justify Christian missionary activity as merely ‘saving souls’.
In India many people adapt by becoming ‘crypto-Christians’ — whereby baptism is
avoided or postponed. The reason for this is the serious ostracism and loss of patrimony
within the family group as a result of an individual becoming baptised. There also arises a
situation of ‘dual belonging’ often where children are nurtured in an atmosphere where
one parent is perhaps Hindu and the other Christian (i.e. Raimundo Panikkar).
A Different Asian World-View — Weltanschauung
The Yin/Yang thinking is inclusive and dialectical embracing the possibility of ‘either/or’
thinking. It can underpin many unresolved issues that have plagued Western Christian
thought; such as the nature of transcendence and immanence, the idea of God as
personal, Jesus as human and divine, and the person as being body and spirit.
Asian Christians, with deep affinity with land and place, spoke not of a ‘systematic’ or
‘dogmatic’ theology but rather a more an apposite ‘Water Buffalo Theology’ of Kosuke
Koyama or Choan-Seng Song’s ‘Third Eye Theology’. Song reflects on the pain-love of God
in view of human suffering and the threat of evil forces. He takes the reality of suffering
seriously so that meaning can be found and hope can be articulated enabling involvement
with struggle. Traditionally Buddhism may seek ways out of suffering by reaching nirvana.
For Song storytelling is important — in the same manner as the Hindu epic Mahabharata
(which includes the Bhagavad Gita) the length of which is more than twice that of the
Just as important is the concept of God and ‘time’— Is God ‘in time’ or ‘outside time’?
The strictly ‘linear’ (time lines) characteristic of Western historiography contrasts with a
‘circular’ ideology manifest in Asian cultures. The cycles of nature seem self evident —
not only manifest in the cycles of birth aging and death, the seasons and crops, the
planets, our bodily functions but also the rise and fall of the fortunes of people.
TS Eliot wrote in Burnt Norton:
Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future.
Time future is contained in time past…
There appears to be some affinity between an Asian belief system and contemporary
Process Theology — through time we all change as does humanity, the universe, the
planet and even the presence/awareness and the essence of God. Everything is in a
process of evolution.
‘I am making all things new’ (Rev 32:5).
Hermann Hesse wrote in Siddhartha:
He saw the water [in the river] continually flowed and flowed and
yet it was always there;
it was always the same and yet every moment it was new.
Christianity is Asian, not European
Asian Christian writings and art has been found dated from as early as the second
Century and these are extensive in the South, West and East Asia. These findings have
been long neglected. In south India extensive research by Indian scholars have found
remains of early churches dating to the fourth Century. Artefacts include inscriptions and
crosses, copper plates, ancient songs and annals, liturgies, hymns, letters and
commentaries, architectural and art, and many oral traditions. The languages used are
Syriac and later Malayalam. In Central Asia the ancient trade routes between Persia and
China have yielded much information and emphasize Christian beliefs of incarnation
and resurrection together with a disdain for idolatry. A Nestorian stele (discovered in
1623 at Sian Fu, China) written in Persian with two thousand Chinese characters and
seventy words in Syriac outlined the biblical teaching of creation, the fall and the birth of
The main inscription has been translated as:
The hungry came and were fed.
The cold came and they were clothed
The sick were healed and raised up,
The dead were buried and laid to rest.
Nestorius (381CE-451CE) Syrian monk was Bishop of Constantinople who at the
Council of Ephesus was terrorized by a mob and in absentia was expelled by his political
opponent Cyril of Alexandria. Until the late nineteenth Century opinion favoured Cyril
in this dispute although it was later proved that Nestorius had been orthodox in his
views. Nevertheless he ‘lacked the numbers’. The dispute, that I will not explain here,
revolved around an imponderable question whether Jesus’s birth (by a ‘human’)
questioned the divinity of the Virgin Mary (Theotokos). Following the Council of Ephesus
the Christian church not only moved West (as we know) but also spread East to
Mesopotamia, Armenia, Persia, Ethiopia, Syria, Iraq, China and India. Subsequently there
has long been a tradition of Nestorian churches and state servants in Iran, Mongolia,
Egypt and India.
Alexander the Great (356BCE-323BCE) reached Bactria on the border of
Afghanistan/Tajikistan where a Greek colony was established and has survived. Bactria
was an extensive and extremely wealthy Zoroastrian community of Northern Persia.
Christianity has a two thousand year history in India. Christianity was brought to India in
the person of the Apostle Thomas — according to a widely accepted tradition among
Subsequent South Asian Christian History
The Christians who trace their origins to Saint Thomas call themselves Thomas
Christians. They were in contact with East-Syrian Christians in the fourth or fifth
Centuries and from that time adopted the East-Syrian liturgy. They were described as:
‘Hindu in culture, Christian in religion and Oriental in worship’. Many of their
ceremonies derived from local praxis. They lived impeccable incarnational lives that
would be a model and inspiration for us today.
The Portuguese were given papal patronage over all conquests until 1493 when rivalry
between Spain and Portugal arose. Various popes arbitrarily drew lines on maps of the
Atlantic Ocean allotting territories to Spain or Portugal. Considerable hegemony arose in
1830 when Portugal severed diplomatic relationships with the Vatican. India was under
the ambit of the Portuguese but by the mid-seventeenth Century the Portuguese empire
in the East was in fatal decline and this necessitated papal establishment of Vicars
The ‘Latin Rite Christians’ at the Synod of Diamper condemned the Thomas Christians
in 1599 after which time the ‘Latin rite’ was imposed. This led to fragmentation of the
Thomas Christians, over the next four centuries into a dozen churches of East-Syrian
origin — one of these became allied to Rome and another to Anglicanism (Malankara
Mar Thoma Syrian Church of Malabar).
Up until now many thousands of missionaries — not only from all over the world but
predominantly Indians — have influenced Christianity in India.
Roberto De Nobili (1577-1656)
This remarkable Jesuit went to Madurai in 1606. De Nobili believed that there was no
necessity to cease being Indian when becoming a Christian. He lived as a samnyasi
learning Sanskrit, Tamil and Telegu languages. He studied the Vedas, Upanisads and the
philosophy of the various schools of Hinduism. He encouraged Christians to remain
culturally Indian i.e. to wear the sacred thread and to keep the tuft of hair (śikhā). De
Nobili accepted the caste system that he correctly considered as deeply cultural. His
unorthodox methods led to the Malabar Rites Controversy. Gregory XV surprisingly gave
his support for De Nobili’s methods. Acclaimed as the first Oriental scholar and father
of Tamil prose De Nobili wrote more than fifty works mostly in Tamil but also Sanskrit
and Telegu. He firmly believed that much contained in the Vedas was compatible with
Sadhu Sundar Singh (1889-1929)
Probably the most famous Indian Christian. He converted to Christianity from Sikhism
in 1904. Eric Sharp asserts that ‘no Indian Christian has exerted an influence even
remotely comparable to Sundar Singh’. He experienced many visions in addition to
overseeing miracles and healing that were apparently commonplace. He was firmly
rooted in his culture and his writings drew on commonplace Indian life experience. He
envisioned the Logos everywhere — even in non-Christian cultures and scriptures.
Indians do need the water of life but not in the European cup.
Community-centred worship, rather than confessional or hierarchical, is common in
India— in a similar manner to that of the early church. There are said to be thousands of
‘new churches’ that have spontaneously arisen under the Holy Spirit. Charismatic
worship is very common and is expanding quickly.
In India there are similarities to ‘base communities’ (CEB’s) whereby faith and praxis are
intimately and necessarily linked — a pattern that was documented in Brazil in the early
1960’s. CEB’s are small neighbourhood or village groups of lay people who study the
Bible and exchange their experiences. They function as parallel churches that are
independent of hierarchy whilst serving to empower the poor the victimised.
The conversion rate to Christianity among the ‘lower-castes’ is commoner — although
Ambedkar encouraged lower-caste Hindus to adopt Buddhism.
Brahmabandhab Upadhyay (1861-1907)
This polymath — a Hindu/Catholic ‘dual-belonger’ lived at a Kairos in history. He was
certainly a Hindu patriot who died during his trial for sedition being ‘too Indian’ for the
English — and especially the Catholic Church — to tolerate and was also ‘too English’
for many caste Hindus to accept. He fell between two stools! Undoubtedly the dramatic
increase in Christian adherence in India can be attributed to Upadhyay.
Upadhyay became a member of Ramakrishna’s ashram and later became a samnyasi.
Ramakrishna accepted Christianity together with all other religions. It was during his
ashram experience that he befriended Vivekananda. His other great mentor was Keshub
Chunder Sen — Robin Boyd states that Upadhyay became his ‘true spiritual legacy’.
One of the many major contributions Upadhyay made was in establishing Christian
ashrams being organized in the strict code of Ramakrishna. He was fifty years ahead of
others in this regard. Monchanin came to India, in 1939, as a result of Upadhyay’s
writings when he established his ashram. Many others have followed his example, namely
Henri Le Saux (Abhishiktananda) and Bede Griffiths. Ashrams are now considered to be
of integral Christian significance —there being more than fifty Christian ashrams in India
There should not be the least trace of Europeanism in the mode of life of the
Hindu/Catholic monk. The itinerants should be well versed in the philosophy of
Vedanta as well as the philosophy of Aquinas.
Adaptation, in the ashram context, must involve more than just mere societal
trappings— i.e. the adoption of certain Indian customs such as sitting on the floor or in
constructing churches in an Indian style.
An Indian Church may adopt these changes but still remain ‘foreign’. Indigenization does
not mean simply introducing certain Sanskrit terms in Bible translations or sermons —
indigenization means to cross the borderline.
It means leaving, if not bodily at least spiritually, Western Christianity and the
Westernized Christian Church in India, and moving into another religion, another
culture, taking only Christ with oneself. Indigenization is planting the gospel inside
another culture, another philosophy and another religion.
I hope that I have shown to you a little part of the amazing diversity of Indian and Asian
You will see I hope that Christianity is of Asia and the world — not just a captive of our
Because of the gross numerical disparity of Christians between the Northern and
Southern hemispheres there is talk (perhaps tongue in cheek) of “reverse” missions
whereby the West may become re-evangelized as suggested by Nigerian Professor Lamin
Sannah of Yale University
Indian academic theologians that I have met have been of the very finest calibre.
I grew-up in Malaya being exposed to multi-cultural and multi-religious influences.
It was serendipity that facilitated my first trip to India and Nepal as an ophthalmic
surgeon — following this there was no looking back.
Meeting Bede Griffiths in Australia prior to his death in 1993. — that charismatic
English Benedictine Monk who had his ashram in South India — inspired me to know
I feel my own understanding of Christianity has become considerably deepened not only
by studying Hinduism and Indian Christianities but through a meaningful contact with
South Asian people
As I have already said my thesis concentrated on the writings and the tragic life of my
luminary Brahmabandhab Upadhyay.
Regrettably time has restricted me to these few sketchy thoughts that I leave with you —
there are so many more insights that I would have wished to have included.
Again, may I thank you for your attention