The Conversion Agenda

"Freedom to convert" is counterproductive as a generalized doctrine. It fails to come to terms with the complex interrelationships between self and society that make the concept of individual choice meaningful. Hence, religious conversion undermines, and in extremes would dissolve, that individual autonomy and human freedom.

Sunday, January 02, 2005

Christ in Asia

Indian Express

The successful culmination of the visit of Pope John Paul II to New Delhi is a tribute to India's secular traditions and its great sense of hospitality. But those who expected him to unfold a new doctrine that takes into account the religious and cultural diversities that the Asian continent represents seem to have been disappointed. There has been no further progress from the Catholic Church's position as enunciated in the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council held in the sixties. The `post-synodal apostolic exhortation Ecclesia in Asia' that the Pontiff gave on Saturday pays glowing tributes to the pluralistic religious traditions of Asia, where most of the world's major religions were born. "The church has the deepest respect for these traditions and seeks to engage in sincere dialogue with their followers."

But the dialogue is necessary not because there is need for religious co-existence but because "the religious values they teach await their fulfillment in Jesus Christ." In other words, dialogue is with a view to furthering the great mission their Lord had entrusted them with –i.e., to go, preach and baptise. Conversion thus remains the cardinal objective of the church and it sees in Asia great opportunities because "it is home to nearly two-thirds of the world's population, with China and India accounting for almost half the total population of the globe."

Like the Kapucheans who tried in vain to penetrate the Forbidden City 300 years ago on the mistaken assumption that a group of faithfuls lived there, Christian missionary ventures in Asia have by and large been unsuccessful.

The pontifical document does not explain why Christianity did not appeal to a vast majority of the Asians despite the fact that St. Thomas reached the Malabar coast in AD 52 and the first Christian church was built in China in the beginning of the seventh century. By the end of the first millennium the church in China was in a state of decline and by the end of the 14th century there was a drastic diminution of the church in Asia, tiny Kerala being the sole exception. It fails to explain why this happened except to state that Christianity could not adapt itself to local cultures. But it overlooks a far weightier reason for Christianity not taking roots in Asia. The continent is a home of great civilizations.

For the Hindus of India whose Vedas contain answers to many of the mysteries of human existence, the simplicity of the Christian doctrine can evoke only a passing interest.

And for the Chinese, proud of their ancient civilization, the instant salvation that Christianity offers is too pedestrian a concept to fire his religious imagination.

Thus when Ecclesia in Asia hopes that "just as in the first millennium the Cross was planted on the soil of Europe, and in the second on that of the Americas and Africa, we can pray that in the Third Christian Millennium a great harvest of faith will be reaped in this vast and vital continent," it does not take into account the challenges the rich religious traditions of Asia pose to the Christian mission. For the Church's new millennial venture in Asia, it lays great store by inculturation. But the failure of the celebrated Madurai mission of Robert Nobili, which was the first major attempt at inculturation, is hardly inspiring for the church, which will have to find ways to reconvert Europe, which is fast moving out of its orbit. Maybe it is time for an Ecclesia in Europe.


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