Godfrey Kesari, The Atonement Creating Unions: An Exploration in Inter-Religious Theology.
This publication is a breath of fresh air for missiologists interested in Indian Christian theology, mission practitioners among Hindus, and scholars of Hindu-Christian dialogue. Kesari, a Church of England Anglican priest formed in the Church of South India, moves away from the dominant though important subject of Dalit theology to revisit the topic of interreligious theology with Hindus. Based on personal experience in India and the UK, as well as his PhD dissertation at the University of Birmingham, Kesari's monograph grapples with the concept of liberation as salvation within Hindu theology, then creatively interacts with the Christian doctrine of atonement.
Between introduction and conclusion, four chapters form the core of the book. Chapter two introduces Ramanuja, the popular 11th-century guru who framed the Visistadvaitic (qualified non-dualism) Hindu conception of liberation as salvation. Chapter three is a brief analysis of popular atonement theories developed by Western and Indian thinkers in a Hindu--Christian context. Chapter four constructs a Hindu--Christian atonement model, which Kesari believes will bring what he calls atonement creating unions. Chapter five evaluates the potentialities and problems of the reconstructed atonement theory.
The introduction, which is chapter 1, is premised on the writings of three modern Hindu philosophers--Mahatma Gandhi, Swami Vivekananda, and Raja Rammohun Roy. For Kesari, their understanding of the Christian theology of atonement as a response to alienation is problematic. Rather, he argues that the New Testament presents five purposes of Atonement--a response to the wrath of God, reconciliation, redemption, propitiation/expiation, and atoning sacrifice.
The second chapter explores Ramanuja's Hindu theology of salvation, that is, liberation from the cycle of birth and rebirth, otherwise known as Samsara. After looking at the concept of God (Brahman) and Soul (Atman), Kesari concentrates on the ontological position of a soul liberated by the four-fold unions--God-Human, Human-Human, Human-Nature, One-Oneself. This creative construct though fresh ideas, overlooks other important themes that could have provided a firmer basis for his argument about atonement creating unions within Indian Christian theological understanding. Two themes that could bring some kind of cohesion in his interreligious theology with the Visistadvaitins are overlooked, namely, the concept of Ishwara, or immanent God, who as an avatar (God descended/incarnation) finds a place among humanity to help them attain liberation. Second, although the emphasis on devotion (Bhakti) and surrender for liberation/salvation within Ramanuja's theology is well argued, the emphasis is given to Gnana marga (way of knowledge) through "intuitive and practical knowledge."
The third chapter, rich in historical-systematic theology, is a collection and analysis of various models and theories on atonement from Western and Indian Christian theologians. These include moral influence, penal substitution, satisfaction/juridical, the sacrificial theory and few others. Though he gives some weight to the penal substitutionary model and the representation model (p. 71), he makes the case that all the models address a certain historical period and/or often represent a particular geographical context. Thus, they fail to create an interreligious theology of four-fold unions as understood by the followers of Ramanuja's Vedanta in the Visistadvaitic tradition (p. 117).
With this finding, the fourth chapter constructs a Christian atonement model of four-fold unions aligning with the thought of the Visistadvaitic Hindu concept of salvation and liberation. Though it is a bold attempt to bring the ideas together, as a reader from an Indian background I found the argument less than persuasive, largely due to the hurried attempt to make parallels. An interreligious theology with Visistadvaita's notion of surrender and grace, that is, complete surrender to God (like a kitten being carried by its mother) and part human effort (like a baby monkey latching on to her mother) would have provided some depth to the argument. Moreover, for Visistadvaitins, Narayana (Iswhara) will liberate the Bhakta (devotee) from Samsara. This Bhakti Marga (way of devotion) for liberation/salvation over Gnana and Karma (deed) is strangely overlooked by Kesari, despite this being very common within popular Hinduism, such as Vaishnavism, Saivism, and Sakthism.
The fifth chapter is a forthright presentation of the reconstructed theology of atonement, including its potential and problems. Kesari concludes by explaining the nature and use of atonement creating unions in a contemporary pluralistic world.
Overall, Kesari offers a fresh synthesis to the theme of interreligious theology for Indian Christianity. Using the saving concept of Brahman in the Visistadvaita tradition with the Christian doctrine of atonement, he challenges those of us familiar with Hindu philosophy to make a serious effort to develop a comparative doctrinal perspective. This study can guide similar efforts with other Bhakti movements in India, a much-needed theological pursuit.
In my recently completed PhD research in World Christianity from the University of Edinburgh, I have found two scholars who don't see much future for interreligious theology in its traditional understanding. According to Indo-Trinidadian American scholar Anantanand Rambachan, the future of interreligious theological dialogue is not very bright because there seems to be an anti-intellectual trend among various religious traditions. For him, the future ot Hindu--Christian dialogue needs to find fresh avenues, such as concerns of justice. Religion ought to help overcome systems of oppression and domination. Another scholar, Muthuraj Swamy, a Cambridge-based Indian theologian, argues that existing interreligious dialogue practices are limited by remaining in the hands of a few elite scholars.
Yet, as Kesari demonstrates, there is room for creative dialogical engagements with the Hindus/ Visistadvaitins. In an environment where Hindu fundamentalism and virulent nationalism are on the rise, the quest for an atonement model that offers creative possibilities toward a meaningful human existence can only be fruitful. Kesari's book is the right step in that direction.
Oxford Centre for Religion and Public Life, United Kingdom
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|Publication:||International Review of Mission|
|Date:||Nov 1, 2019|
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