Pluralism and Ethics of S.J. Samartha


Religious Pluralism is a common phenomenon in the East and West. Religiously and culturally the world has been plural. People live with their particular cultures, religions and values. The diverse groups have their distinct beliefs, traditions and world views. All the religions including Christianity exist together in India with their identity. Love, unity, brotherhood and harmony are very important in the context of religious pluralism. These ethical aspects are very significance in relation with the religious pluralistic context. Therefore, Stanly J. Samartha relates the Theology and Ethics in a relativistic approach. The author deals with the pluralistic context of India and pluralistic understanding and ethics of S.J. Samartha.

The 20th century witnesses several responses to the traditional and Biblical understanding of the person of Christ in the perspective of religious pluralism. It was Stanly J. Samartha who brought Christological discussions from pluralistic perspective in India. In the words of S.J. Samartha, Religious Pluralism is a part of the large plurality of races, people and cultures, of social structures, economic system and political patterns of languages and systems, all of which are part of the total human heritage. The contemporary understanding of Religious Pluralism prompted this well known Indian Christian theologians to search for a fresh alternatives Christology not bound by the traditional understanding of the uniqueness of Jesus Christ, to promote inter-religious harmony and peaceful co-existence of different religious communities in India. In short Samartha proposes an alternative interpretation of Christology saying Christ as one of many lords and saviors; critique of the traditional Christology. 

Stanley Joseph Samartha (1920-2001)

Dr. S.J. Samartha was from the Church of South India in the state of Karnataka. He was at one time professor of history and philosophy of religions in the United Theological College, Bangalore. Then Principal of Serampore College and Director of the programme on Dialogue with the people of Living Faith and Ideologies, in WCC. Till 1975 he worked as the director of DFI (Dialogue with Men of other Faiths and Ideologies) at Geneva and after his retirement he came to teach at Karnataka Theological College, Mangalore. He was one of the contemporaries of M.M. Thomas, Russell Chandran, R. Panikkar and a senior theologian in India. “The Hindu Response to the Unbound Christ” in one of the greatest thoughts of his works, and all his focus was on inter-religious dialogue his main contribution in the realm of Christology. He goes beyond the steps of both Panikkar;s understanding of “Christ is already present there in pure Hinduism but not yet known to Hindus”; and of M.M. Thomas’s “Christ is still unknown in pure Hinduism, he is already acknowledged in the modern Indian renaissance.” Samartha said in “The Hindu Response to the Unbound Christ”- that “Hindus have recognized Christ in their own traditions and even have responded to him at several levels”. He gives a summary of what an authentic Indian Christology should be and he takes an advaitic interpretation of Christ. In his book he relates to gives guidelines to what kind of Christology the Indian Church must evolve. His primary purpose in studying Christ is to make his claims and offers relevant to the national need and struggles of India, and not a spiritualized version of these needs and struggles. 

Theology of Samartha

Revised Christology is the theology of Samartha, i.e. Theo-Centric Christology. He was developing Christology from below, which he calls “Bullock-cart Christology”. The foundations of S.J.S’s Christology can be seen in his understanding and interpretation of religious pluralism. He rejects exclusivism and inclusivism naming these as “patronizing cousins” that perpetuate theological violence against other faiths. It is to affirm plurality is one way of fighting against such violence. N this point Samartha calls for a radical change in the Christian stance towards other religions, which he considers as an existential demand and a theological necessity. His theology of religions aims at breaking down the walls of separation between different religions. In the pluralism of Samartha, no religion or philosophy holds a privileged status to make exclusive and normative claims on behalf of any one particular religion or ideology. Pluralism provides resources for the survival of people and nations to fight against forces that openly or obscurely seek impose uniformity on a pluralist world. It will resist the imposition of any “one and only” religion/ideology on all people. To develop his theology of religions he depends on Sankara’s “advaita”, and considers the “Brahma-Atman” doctrine of Upanishads for the understanding of pluralism. In this he recognizes a power that can hold together in harmony the diversities in language races, religions and ideologies without conflict. Samartha affirms that in the Indian mind exclusive claims of any kind have no place because of the vision of ‘advaita’.

Samartha’s Understanding of God: His understanding of God is central to his understanding of religious pluralism (inter-faith dialogue) and the emerging Christology. Following the path of Hick, Samarth prefers the term “Mystery”, to refer to God because he consider the terms such as “God” and “Brahman” as having cultural connotation. Therefore, he finds the term “Mystery” as more acceptable in a global pluralistic context.  According to Samartha, the criteria derived from one religion/response cannot be made the norm to judge the responses of other religious traditions. In the light of this understanding the Christian claims of the unique revelation of God in Jesus Christ, i.e. His incarnation, resurrection etc. stands as an obstacle for inter-religious harmony in a pluralistic society. Therefore, a revision of traditional Christology is indispensable in a pluralistic context. 

Theo-Centric/ Mystery Centered Christology: Samartha’s understanding of God leads him to consider Theo-centric/mystery centered Christology as theologically credible. According to him such a Christology gives more theological space for Christians to live together with neighbors of other faiths. The ontological priority of God is taken for granted by Jesus himself and his hearers in the New Testament. He argues that if Jesus points to God and is himself theo-centric, then the only way to be Christ-centered is to be God centered. But in a religiously plural world to be Christ-centered is not only way to be God-centered. In his revised Christology Samartha portrays Jesus as a liberator of humanity. According to him the revised Christology is an attempt to recover the historical Jesus and rescue him from the bondage of “spiritual slogans and intellectual abstractions of the church.”

Samartha claims that the revised Christology is a Christology from below over against a Christology from above. It lays (below) emphasis only on humanity of Jesus and rejects the two-natures of Jesus with God is not taught in the New Testament. He cites Pauline writings such as: 2COr. 5:19; 1Cor. 6:4; 15:28; Eph. 1:10 etc. to show the inferior status of Jesus before God and the father. He believes the teaching of “Pre-existence” is a wrong notion of the Christian community. He completely rejects the doctrine of incarnation. Jesus, according to him, was merely a man appointed by God and anointed by the spirit for a specific vocation. He then moves on to equate Jesus with Buddha, Rama, Krishna, Ambedkar, and Gandhi ji. Samartha explains the meaning of ‘kenosis’ as self-renunciation of Jesus through which he revealed God’s love to all humanity. It is such a self-renunciation that brings Jesus in relation to other liberators such as Ambedkar and Gandhiji. Therefore, the true meaning of Kenosis is not that he was first divine and then became human, in short the revised Christology is intended to facilitate Samartha’s pluralistic programme and place Jesus conveniently into it without posing and change to other religions.

Samartha’s Contribution to Inter-Faith Dialogue

Dialogue: For Samartha, “Dialogue is a living relationship with people of other faiths and so sharing in the life of the community.” A Christian’s dialogue with another implies neither a denial of uniqueness of Christ nor any loss of his own commitment to Christ, rather a genuinely Christian approach to others must be human, personal, relevant and humble. It is searching for community along with our neighbors in love or with love. He used the word witnessing; rather then or with like, ‘campaign’ or ‘crusade’. Jesus Christ always points to God and so he was Theo-centric says Samartha. He also believes that spirit is working in other religious traditions.

Theological Issues in Inter-faith Dialogue: According to Samartha, there are five issues which need special emphasis in the context of dialogue: 

  • The authority of scripture raises a number of questions in a multi-scriptural context. People of different faith hence their own scripture as their authority.
  • The meaning of salvation history in relation to the history of other people has captured the attention of many engaged in dialogue.
  • Christology, inherited by us from a previous era, needs a through reconsideration in multi-faith context.
  • The Church needs to be redefined in a dialogue context.
  • Both the formulation of the context and method of mission need to be radically changed.

The very spirit of Christ and Inter-religious situation are opposed to aggressive complaining. Our mission is to beat faith in the situation which dialogue with people of other faith provides us. In the process of developing new relationship with other faith, may the partners ask on what basis we are committed Christians? Then we can share our experience of revelation and salvation revealed through Jesus Christ in his life and work, crucifixion and resurrection.

It is true that Christians have a message to all people and nation. But we must admit that neighbors of other faiths also have a story/message to tell us.

Theology and Ethics in the Context of Pluralism 

Our context is pluralistic. There are different kinds of pluralism; economic, social, political, cultural and religious pluralism. In Religious Pluralism life various religiosities, ethics, patterns of worship and life are these. And have different kinds of teachings. The ethical reflection is made difficult in the context of pluralism, because of diversity. There is diversity in Indian personal laws. Christian personal law is different from Hindus. Therefore, in such a context, needed an inclusive approach rather than exclusive. S.J. Samartha relates his theology in an ethical perspective. Through his revised Christology and understanding of God, he is looking for the religious harmony in a pluralistic context. Therefore, he is strongly arguing for the need of Inter-faith dialogue. We must relate ourselves to others and integrate things from others. Ethics should have an universal appeal, and should consider the global realities.

James Gustafson concentrating on Theo-centric ethics and theology, says, “Christ is the ideal for Christians.” It contrasting the idea of Samartha, he said Christ is not the ideal for Christians. Samartha’s norms became inclusivistic: Love and humanness are his norm and there are the ethical norms.

Pluralism has several values in the contemporary world. First, it provides spiritual and cultural resources for the survival of different people in their search for freedom, self-respect and human dignity. Second, Rajni Kothari (Noble Prize Winner) points out, a plurality of religions, cultures, ethnic groups and languages can be a guarantee against racism because it will resist the imposition of any “one and only” religion or ideology on all people. Third, pluralism introduces an element of choice by providing alternatives visions of reality and ways of life.

Samartha’s ethical concern of mission is that in a religiously plural world the mission of the church is not to make other people Christian but to invite people to enter the kingdom of God. A Christology that reveals the meaning of God, same time, retains the mystery of God provides the basis and power for Christians in their life of worship, service and witness in religiously plural world.   

Evaluation and Conclusion

In above the brief discussion on Samartha’s pluralism and ethics in a pluralistic context based on revised Christology. Samartha’s favorite term to describe God is “Mystery”. This concept borrowed from different sources namely pluralists from the West (John Hick and Paul F. Knitter) and “advaita” philosophy of sankara. He speaks of the ultimate reality (Brahman) in two levels, “Nirguna Brahman” and “Saguna Brahman”. Samartha depends on both these sources to support his pluralism through projecting a God whom he describes as “Mystery” who is beyond human apprehension- the center of all religions. Samartha’s shift from Christo-centrism to Theo-centrism is based on his understanding of God who is beyond any human knowledge. His theology also isolates the nature of God from human knowledge. Samartha has borrowed his understanding of God as an unknowable entity from ‘advaita’ and modern pluralism. These two represent particular, culturally conditioned religious perspectives.

Samartha proposes a revision of the historic Christology to install Jesus of Nazareth also into his pluralistic framework without any hindrance to other faiths. Therefore, he said Theo-centric Christology provides more theological space for Christians to live together with neighbor of other faith. He was failed to establish a firm foundation for his understanding of God. Also he failed in articulating a theology that gives some insights into the nature or attributes of God before attempting to make a revised Christology. It reveals idea of an unknowable God he describes as “Mystery”.

In relation with Theology and Ethics Samartha uses the ethical model of “relativism”. He relates Christianity with other religion values. For that he focusing on, harmony, justice, peace, human rights, gender justice and have etc. ethics is to be relational and should be related to the context. God related himself to history and humanity as a responsible being. Through incarnation of Jesus also relating to the world. Relational ethics is related to the people, community and context. Man is related to god, a kind of dialogical relationship. Life is dialogical and relational, so also ethics should be concerned of the dialogue and relationality.

Samartha, S.J. “Mission in a Religiously Plural World.” International Review of Mission LXXVIII/307. July, 1988.

Samartha, S.J. Our Christ-Many Religions: Towards a Revised Christology. Bangalore: South Asia Theological Research Institute, 1992. 

Samartha, S.J. The Search for New Hermeneutics in Asian Christian Theology. Madras: CLS, 1987.

Stephen, M. A Christian Theology in the Indian Context. Delhi: ISPCK, 2005.

Stephen, M. Introducing Christian Ethics. Delhi: ISPCK, 2009.

Sumithra, Sunand. Introducing Theology From an Indian Perspective. Bangalore: Theological Book Trust, 1990.

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