interreligious, or Christian dialogues with other faiths sound simple enough in
the context of India. Yet, as the popularity of this reawakened concept sweeps
through the ranks of church and mission in the twenty-first century, are we
really clear on the theological and missiological basics involved? In the
multifaith context of India, how can Evangelical Christians effectively engage
in interfaith dialogue with people of other faiths? Reflecting on the
contemporary scenario, Atul Aghamkar stresses the
importance of informal interfaith dialogue in the midst of significant emerging
challenges in India such as the rise of Hindu fundamentalism, Christian
attitudes towards Hinduism, and the misconceptions about Christianity in India.
His suggestion for informal and non-confrontational dialogue in the context of
India flows from his early years of missionary experience and engagement. While
appreciating and supporting the reflections and proposals of Aghamkar, I would
like to underline and to continue reflecting on three of the points that he has
made in his presentation. I write as an Indian Evangelical but intend this
response for all Christians.
the important points missing in the presentation of Aghamkar is the need for
dialogue between Christians and Hindutva groups. In the past two decades or so,
fundamentalism is on the rise and religious groups are in conflict in India.
Since 1947, Hindu- Muslim riots have become part and parcel of Indian history.
Similarly, Hindu-Christian conflict is an ongoing problem that has resulted in
deadly violence in various Indian states. Hindu fundamentalism (Hindutva)
greatly opposes religious conversion, provoking self-defensive and also
offensive reactions towards Islam and Christianity. The problem of conversion
is a crucial issue and it has become the subject of passionate debate in
contemporary India. On the one hand, Hindus and Hindu fundamentalists plead for
a ban on conversion because it disturbs the social peace and threatens the
Indian identity. On the other hand, Christians argue that conversion is a
fundamental human right that should be protected in Indian democracy. In this
context, interfaith dialogue between religious communities (Hindus and
Christians) at various levels becomes urgent and crucial. Informal and
non-confrontational dialogical process with the hardcore Hindus and
fundamentalists should not be a program-driven event but spontaneous—part and
parcel of day-to-day life that comes out of Christian living and practice.
second significant challenge in promoting interreligious dialogue that Aghamkar
identifies are the misconceptions (perhaps true to some extent) about
Christianity in India. Unfortunately, Christianity in India is still considered
foreign. Christianity is seen as an imposition from the West and still
controlled by Western ideology, theology, money, and power. Even though
Christianity has been in India since the first century, it is not accepted as
indigenous, as Indian theologian Paul Bhakiaraj remarks in Atlas
of Global Christianity (2009) that Christians
are still seen as “those with questionable patriotism, if any, and whose
allegiance seems to be directed to the West rather than their motherland.”1
Hindu scholars Rajiv Malhotra and Neelakandan, in a recent work,
Breaking India (2011),
accuse Western Christianity as “anti-India players” for creating faultlines
between people groups (Aryans, Dravidians, and Dalits) in the name of human
rights and other empowerment projects with the help of Indian agents, namely
Christian missions and their leaders.2 I would add that the
program-oriented attempts of Evangelical Christians to promote interreligious
dialogue in the Indian context is also perceived to be a Western agenda.
dialogue requires self-evaluation. Evangelical Christians are not ignorant of
the fact that we are still not really an Indian local church and we need to
free ourselves from Western cultural captivity. There has been a lot of talk
about contextualization, but real efforts and initiatives toward making
Christianity more Indian have failed; perhaps even Evangelical Christianity
does not see it as a need except for some exterior décor. Christians in India
socially try to live like Indians, but as soon as we cross the threshold of the
church building, our language, attitude, gestures, and symbols take on Western
accents. According to one estimate, there are about 82,950 long-term
missionaries from India in more than 200 agencies, nearly all serving
cross-culturally in India,3 but most, if not all, of these
significant indigenous missionaries depend economically on foreign resources.
Administratively, indigenous mission agencies are controlled by and connected
to Western centers of power. Most of our evangelical training institutions in
India are identified as
purveyors of Western modernity. Given this enduring
Western influence, there are significant challenges for dialogue. Freeing the
India Christianity from Western cultural and economic captivity is the need of
this hour. This attempt would enable the Evangelical Christians to engage in
dialogue with the Hindu community in India easily and meaningfully.
negative attitudes towards other religions and particularly Hinduism stand as
obstacles to interfaith dialogue in India. Interfaith dialogue is talking with
other religious groups about their beliefs so that one can understand the other
better and learn from each other.4 However, it is not only talking,
but also listening to Hindu adherents. Evangelical Christians and Christian
missions are eager to preach and teach but show no signs of listening to people
of other faiths. Christianity in India will need to heed the words of Hindus
and listen to their beliefs, customs, and religious experiences. In my
judgment, listening before preaching to Hindus is the first act of sound
interfaith dialogue. It must therefore be incorporated into theological and
missiological basics of interfaith dialogue. Listening to Hindus will enhance
the possibility of reflection on the effectiveness of both formal and informal
interfaith dialogue. A stricter obstacle is that some of the evangelistic
methods and the literature put out by Christian ministries may make others
suspect that our commitment to interfaith dialogue is not wholehearted and that
we seek to instrumentalize the dialogue for conversion. The key purpose of
evangelical interfaith dialogue is not conversion but mutual knowledge, growth,
and the clearing away of prejudices and those ideas that are false or only
partly true and in need of correction. Also, one should not assume that the
Hindus are not tolerant towards Christianity. This will help us to avoid a
stereotypically judgmental attitude.
story in coming to write this response is a result of my ongoing journey as a
fellow pilgrim with other Christians and missionaries in India. I was born in a
small town in Orissa, India. For a significant portion of my childhood, we
lived in a remote village in Orissa among Hindus. I have worked as a
cross-cultural missionary, Bible teacher, and pioneer worker in different
states of India. In many ways, Evangelical Christianity defines my identity and
drives my motivation. I grow weary of seeing how Evangelical Christianity in
India has failed to understand the importance of interfaith dialogue. My own
public evangelical style of preaching during my work in India sometimes was
harshly critical—often quite ignorantly—concerning Hindu religious practices.
Both Indian missionaries and Christians must listen to their Hindu neighbors.
But as someone who loves the body of Christ, I long to see more of what God is able
to do in India. The proximity of cultures in our time
makes interfaith dialogue both possible and necessary.
types of dialogue have taken place in the Indian context in the past. Whenever
one religion was in contact with another, debates, arguments, and conversations
took place. My point here is that interfaith dialogue (both formal and
informal) should take place with Hindu fundamentalists as well as ordinary
Hindu adherents. In this context, I doubt that the Evangelical community can
take hold of the interfaith dialogue initiative if it avoids engaging with
Hindu fundamentalists. Missiological approaches to the interfaith dialogue are
not present. I am not aware of any Evangelical Christian institution that has
engaged in dialogue with Hindu fundamentalist groups in India. For instance,
Atal Bihari Vajpayee, then Prime Minister of India, called for a “national
debate on conversion” in 1999.5 No evangelical group or any other
Christian denomination in India responded to the call for debate and initiated
dialogue. In this case, interfaith dialogue failed to take root in the Indian
soil. If we had engaged in dialogue on the conversion issue, it would have
prepared ways for open interactions and mutual understanding.
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1Paul Joshua Bhakiaraj, “Christianity in
South Central Asia, 1910–2010,” in Atlas of Global
Christianity, 1910–2010, ed. Todd M. Johnson and Kenneth R. Ross
(Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2009), 143.
2See particularly chapters 11, 15, 18 in
Rajiv Mahotra Aravindan Neelakandan, Breaking
India: Western Interventions and Dravidian and Dalit Faultlines (New
Delhi: Amaryllis, 2011).
3Jason Mandryk, Operation
World: The Definitive Prayers Guide to Every Nation (Colorado
Springs/Secunderabad: WEC/Biblica, 2010), 407–8. Also see a recent article on
the growth of Christianity in India: Tim Stafford, “India’s Grassroots
Revival,” Christianity Today 55,
no. 7, July 2011, 28–33; http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2011/july/indiagrassroots.html.
4For complete discussion, see Charles W.
Forman, “Christian Dialogues with Other Faiths,” in Toward
the 21st Century in Christian Missions, ed. James
M. Philips and Robert T. Coote (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993), 338.
5For a masterful survey on conversion
debate, see Sebastian Kim, In Search of Identity:
Debates on Religious Conversion in India (New
Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2003).
Abhijit Nayak is a PhD student in the School of Intercultural Studies at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California.