Veteran missionary Stanley Jones’ integral question and Mahathma Gandhi’s insightful response are both unique and universal (refer to my last post, part I). Here is Gandhi’s last point: “Study the non-Christian religions more sympathetically to find the good that is within them in order to have a more sympathetic approach to the people”. It sounds like a typical oxymoron, simple yet uneasy to explain. Many have tried theologically. At the risk of sounding trivial, I will attempt with two trifling examples – drums and paintball.
Did you ever see a drum in a church twenty years ago? It was considered a pagan instrument although it was an integral part of all classical and non-classical music for millenia all over the world. Drums were used for worship and social gatherings. Yet, I recall a church in Calcutta, when the pastor’s son wanted to play drums, the church almost split. The outcome, many young children learned neither drum because it was pagan nor organ because there was none in the Community. Fast forward to 2013, can you now find a church without a set of drums? The stone the builders rejected became the chief cornerstone of all worship services. Had we only studied sympathetically.
Now to the Paint Ball Bash. Being a senior with limited knowledge on this event, I sought the leader of a church youth group to educate me. Basically it is a group activity sport, he said. The facility provides a cover-all from knee up, a helmet for neck and head, paint guns and a bunch of paint balls. The game is to move skilfully from one end to the other without getting drenched by the opposing team with their bazookas. The purpose, he emphasized, was to loosen up, have fun and to get to know each other. What a great idea! Will this bash spill over to the seniors group?
This reminded me of an Indian festival called Holi, originated around 400 AD. Annually, coinciding with the start of Spring, Hindu families took dry powder in bright colors and, in fun and frolic, threw at any and every one they meet, from head to toe, no protective clothing. In praise of Holi they have no age limit, open to all from grandparents to grandchildren and all inbetween. They start it on the streets as soon as they get out of their homes and begin dusting, blowing or splashing on any, colour, caste, or creed, like one big family. It was also a time to repair ruptured friendships or soured relationships. Were they centuries ahead?
The objective of both the modern paintball bash and the ancient Holi, is the same – to relax, have fun and create or restore friendship. Alas, had we sympathetically learned and told the neighbours “what a great idea, not only to have fun and repair relations between one another but also between God and man and grab the opportunity to explain the good news that Jesus brought”. Sympathetic learning is not ecumenical compromising. It is communicating the gospel with understanding, “if necessary use words” as St.Francis taught.
Returning to Gandhi’s answer, there are legitimate questions, like why must we spend our time, energy, and finance studying other religions? Christian mission is not only important but also expedient, isn’t it? Did not Jesus warn “work for the night is coming”? Nevertheless, the lingering question still is, must we sacrifice the important for the urgent? If the mission is that important, shouldn’t one make time preparing for the noble task? Did not Jesus himself think it so important that he prepared thirty years, the so-called silent years for three year’s mission?
Jesus defined his mission. He came to seek and to save that is lost. No one disputes there will always be some who disagree with anything or everything. Few disprove the historic Jesus’ words, works, cross, death and resurrection. Jesus put his manifesto in his Sermon on the Mount. Does anyone contradict that? So, like the Ethiopian Finance Minister to the queen’s question to Philip, “what doth hinder”?
One large contributing factor, which I hesitate to admit, may be my lack of unsympathetic understanding. There is a tendency to cover it up with pseudo-orthodoxy. If nothing else, learning sympathetically cautions us from the proverbial saying “beware the man with one book” (homo unius libri). Am I still harbouring a bit of Jonah’s spirit? St. Paul wrote: “to the weak became I as weak, that I might gain the weak: I am made all things to all men, that I might by all means save some”.
While typing this post I am whistling the old Spiritual “it’s me O Lord standing in the need of prayer”.
God bless, Danny Paul