Believing Without Belonging?
Religious Beliefs and Social Belonging of Hindu Devotees of Christ
- ISBN: 9781532697227
- Published By: Wipf and Stock
- Published: November 2020
In Believing Without Belonging? Religious Beliefs and Social Belonging of Hindu Devotees of Christ, Vinod John expounds on the historical conversation concerning the identity of the Hindu-devotes of Christ. Using empirical data and applying the analytical framework of “World Christianity,” which is concerned with (as John understands it) “the local and the trans-local epistemology and hermeneutics emerging from the gospel’s encounter with a given culture” (11), the book argues that the Hindu devotees of Jesus Christ in Varanasi, who confess faith in Christ but otherwise remain in their sociocultural communities, "are negotiating a distinctive way of belonging to Christ and the church" (12, emphasis added). This way of belonging goes beyond the borders of the institutional church, but is in line with their Hindu cultural context.
As the city of Varanasi is situated in North India, John begins the discussion in chapter 2 by narrating the “sociocultural and religious milieu of North India” (17) and traces the historical arrival of Christianity since the Mughal period through the Roman Catholic and British missionary endeavors. Although this chapter briefly discusses the Dalit responses to Christ in North India, John focuses on the caste Hindus' response to Christ. Consequently, prominent Indian thinkers like Raja Rama Mohan Roy, Keshub Chunder Sen, Brahmabandhab Upadhyay, Narayan Vaman Tilak, Sandhu Sundar Singh, Manilal C. Parekh, and Rajendra Chandra Das are discussed as they wrestled with the "dilemma of believing in Christ and belonging to the institutional church" in the Indian caste context (43).
In chapter 3, the discussion narrows to the city of Varanasi. John highlights the sacredness of the city for Hindus and its vibrant Bhakti tradition, but since the book is centered on the Hindu devotees of Christ, the discussion quickly shifts to the historical Christian mission efforts in the city of Varanasi. Subsequently, in chapter 4, John presents empirical data for three categories of Hindu devotees of Christ from Varanasi (those who attended the Matri Dham Asharam, autonomous fellowship groups, and independent devotees) and identifies their core beliefs and practices. While the devotees came to the belief in "Jesus Christ as Lord and God" (116), the process of such recognition came as they wrestled through the uniqueness of Jesus Christ among the Hindu beliefs, amid dire life situations, and through the lens of the local bhakti tradition (126). The following discussion in the chapter is dedicated to explaining the bhakti-driven Christian belief system of the devotees, and John concludes by emphasizing the devotees' departure from the beliefs and practices of the institutional church—seeing baptism as a "nonissue" for being in fellowship with other devotees (135), retaining their Hindu identity, following the indigenous rituals of life and death, and understanding eternal life beyond the logic of "heaven or hell" (144).
In chapter 5, John narrows the discussion to the issue of baptism in India as "a notable majority (74.3 percent) of the devotees of Christ in Varanasi remain unbaptized" (147). John argues that, while most of the devotees see the symbolic spiritual significance of baptism, the sociocultural perception of baptism as a rite to join the institutional church (that leads to the severance of their social ties) makes the devotees reconsider the doctrinal significance of baptism. Therefore, John proposes a model to "rethink the practice of baptism through Indian cultural expressions" (156). For John, as baptism lacks any meaning outside of the church context, possibly concepts like jal-sanskara (water ritual) or guru-diksha (initiation rite), which incorporates the Indian cultural idiom, can be taken as a substitute for baptism (158).
In chapter 6, John addresses the subject of identity as John’s emphirical research indicates the devotes’ preferrence to self-introduce as "I am a Hindu, or we are Hindus" (167). Considering Indians’ historical anti-colonial sentiments and the examples of how the early church dealt with socio-ethnic identity, John argues that it is critical for the Hindu devotees of Christ to retain their Hindu label as it pertains to “an ethnic and sociocultural description” (172). More notably, as the North Indian context continues to perceive Christianity in light of the "past colonial memories of subjugation" (173), there is an urgency to supplementing Christian labels that perpetuate the colonial past.
Finally, in chapter 7, against the backdrop of the unique identity formation of the Hindu devotees of Christ, John attempts to respond to a critical question: "Is it a viable theological stipulation that the Hindu devotees of Christ may continue to live in their community of birth and not belong to the visible Christian church in India?" (180). As a response, John engages with the works of Kaj Baago, M. M. Thomas, Lesslie Newbigin, Herbert E. Hoefer, Timothy Tennant, H. L. Richard, and Dasan Jeyaraj to highlight the embedded eccesial emphasis in these discourses, admonish the present institutional church, and re-imagine a more contextual ecclesiology reflective of the ethnoreligious Indian context. Therefore, John argues for a new paradigm of envisioning ecclesiology to be contextual and pluriform (192- 197) so that the Hindu devotees of Christ may continue to remain as a different part of the church that exists alongside the visible institutional church.
As a whole, Believing Without Belonging? is a well-researched, insightful work that demonstrates the complexities of Hindu responses to Christ. Although the empirical data gathered from the Hindu devotees of Christ in Varanasi using participant observation, interviews, and focus groups help portray the nature of local Christianity, the strength of this book lies in its argument for a re-imagined ecclesiology that is broader than the institutional church. The book also generates a critical question: How could an ecclesiology of the Hindu devotees of Christ, who continue to remain in the existing caste system as cultural Hindus, provide a prophetic witness against the systemic evils of caste? Although John briefly addresses this concern, the question of how the Hindu devotees of Christ (who come from upper-caste groups) relate to the lower-caste Christians in grassroots remains underresearched, with crucial implications for shaping public theology in the Indian landscape. However, this limitation should not deter anyone from the book's vital contribution to the ongoing discourse on the Krista Bhaktas movement. This book provides scholarly, and empirically up-to-date research on the Krista Bhaktas in India, whose multiple belongings are captured well and successfully to communicate their distinctive nature. At a time when Hindu nationalism is on the rise, presenting such a robust Christian research from Varanasi, the sacred city in Hinduism, is commendable and speaks volumes to the unique multi-religious ethos of the Indian culture.
Allan Varghese Meloottu is a PhD student at Asbury Theological Seminary.Allan Varghese MeloottuDate Of Review:April 22, 2022