Eastern Twists, Western Turns: Theological Education in India

An Indian learner, like me, has a set of challenges when it comes to theological education. These challenges, however, are not specific to India, but nowhere are they so pronounced and defined. One cannot dispute the utility of academics as well as the power of revelatory or experiential wisdom. But addressing this problem in India would lead to towards resolution of many other knotty issues than it would in any other part of the globe. This will form a base from which we can view the unique advantage and challenge of theological education in India.

The major hurdle that I had to face regarding theological equipment in India was not in the content or quality, but in the method and approach—a method that would be more intimate in knowing the truth, without losing the sensibility of general academic consensus; the education that forms the foundations on which reality is built; that skeletal structure with which to interpret reality: that tool which allows us to sense environment and happenings in the right perspective.

Theology (theos—God; logy—study), hailed as the queen of disciplines, is indeed a discipline which should be vied for and sought by every Christian. Theology has to find its prominence in the search of truth as it knits all other disciplines to coherence and, if rightly pursued, stiches a worldview that brings unity in diversity; order in chaos; information in data.

In India, of course this pursuit has to contend with conflicting ideas of truths given this land’s philosophical and religious history.

As I said, my journey had much to do with approach and methodology than content and quality. Maybe my Indian genome is to be faulted. For, in my part of the world, at least to the naked eye, primitive forms of religious education were more akin to the methodology of Christian teaching traced back to our Master Teacher Himself, and thereon, proceeding through to the apostolic and patriarchal age. Rewinding the clock further down Jewish history, the rabbinic schools accommodate the idea of a guru–shishya model, that was personalized, more hands-on and very close to the Indian system of religious education. My general scepticism towards a Westernized style of education lends a lot of background to this investigation. But care is taken to bridge the East and the West without losing out on the objective.

Diving into the Western approach first, the mostly esoteric nature of the scriptures provides us with a challenge, for it inherently opposes the mass production and regulatory model of Western education. The regimented classroom culture and the exhaustive reference and cross-reference hoopla, seem to snuff out the original spark out of that which one sought to draw closer to God through theology.

Theology has to find its prominence in the search of truth as it knits all other disciplines to coherence and, if rightly pursued, stiches a worldview that brings unity in diversity; order in chaos; information in data

It may not be wrong to say that every theological student who has approached the truth through the Western method of inculcation has found himself in this rut, at one point of time or the other. Gone out of the window are the true zeal and vigour to proclaim the simple gospel and replaced within is a kind of inhibition, which has started to cautiously measure and, at times, hinder the pace of words that jars the receptive ability of the listener. The old-school charm of personal findings, revelations and the sense of adventure in growing in the knowledge of God seem to be quashed by this giant that seems too rigid for any natural process of error and correction. Everything seems store-bought than locally produced.

Now would be a better time to delve on 1 John 1:1–4, where the reception and transmission of the Knowledge of God is more personal, intimate, sensual, experiential, revelatory and genuine. Failure of most seminaries in sticking to the original vision of Matthew 28:19–20 in producing effective disciples, who are first witnesses of the act (recipient), and evolving into witnesses to the world (transmitter), is fast increasing.

The prevalent idea that theological seminaries exist to award degrees to validate one’s stake in ministry is too well known to be classified as a baseless whisper. The greatest challenge in India is to beat that attitude in a cultural milieu where this guru–shishya model is more evolved and referenced. The very idea of gaining knowledge to claim supremacy over an ignorant tribe is not a new concept in this land of mystic knowledge and ashram communes. For how many have gained qualifications to lord over than serve? An honest estimate is needed.

Indian seminaries have a unique challenge that only a well-informed seminarian can recognize and counter. Here Christian leaders don’t need to fall back on an alien concept but a concept that’s close to home and easily relatable to early Christian model of education.

Now coming to Eastern routes, primitive forms of religious education in India were more natural, esoteric and mostly ascetic. Here philosophy and spirituality cannot be separated as it is in the case of Western philosophy. I hope a student of Eastern philosophy and religion will issue a seal of approval for this statement.

The concept of religion in this part of the world started with the rather simple-minded fertility worship of a river civilization (Indus Valley), which evolved into the now more developed and still-evolving schools of thought. Be it the invasion of the Vedas and the Upanishads, the Puranas with the Gita, the derivative schools of interpretation, or the New Age cults—they were successful in spawning esoteric gurus, mostly ascetic and charismatic in nature, who had command and control over the lives of their followers. Their strength lay in their personal enlightenment and effective communication of the same. Their success also lay in student-centric mentoring than just a regular dose of knowledge accumulation. Theirs is and was a product that can easily be lapped up by the commoners and hailed by the upper echelon, for it allows freedom to interpret and evolve. This is not to glorify Eastern methods and to demean Western trends, but to evaluate and expound the dangers and advantages within both the systems.

There has always been a space for Christian mysticism, though noble and relatable to the approach and method of Jesus Christ and His apostles, there has to be a pause button to analyse whether it falls in the category of cultic following and subjective indoctrination. People forget the time and space of Jesus’ ministry and that of the Apostles, where the disciples had direct access to the Word in the flesh. The proclamation and teaching of the Apostles, though seemingly subjective and authoritative to the 21st-century mind, had a massive rallying point in their proximity and exposure to the truth-in-the-flesh. What they had experienced is canonical and has to be objectively studied and applied as handed over. For that we need the objective learning that Western approach proffers.

Many who try to replicate this Eastern method of inculcation without understanding this principle or have tried to contextualize have failed with time, many a time lapsing into an identity crisis on what they represent or where they draw a line. The idea of communes (ashrams), may prove counter-productive with time, as the power of objectivity can be lost in a closed and controlled atmosphere. The students become followers of an interpretation than the reality. The objectivity of Western philosophy is much needed to cure this malignant condition. There is a need that I saw in recognizing and recording this background literature, as many seminaries that are revelation based or local church-grown run this risk of indoctrination, than the earnest seeking of truth in all its objectivity.

Pioneers like Bartholomew Ziegenbalg or William Carey felt a real need for objective learning among what they termed ‘Asiatic heathens’. Their success rested in understanding the worldview behind education than education itself, and providing a solution that was relevant to their times. But in times such as these there is a need for Indian seminaries to tread both the methods and approach with caution—taking the best of both the worlds and leaving the rest.

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