Christian Integrity in a Multicultural World


Vinoth Ramachandra

InterVarsity Press, 1999, 191 pp.   ISBN 0-8308-1558-9

Ramachandra is the regional secretary for the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students of South Asia, living in Sri Lanka.  He is the author of two previous books.  This book stems from a series of London Lectures in Contemporary Christianity.  It is “heavier” than most books I read.  Ramachandra is an intellectual and it has been a bit more difficult to pull out “sound bites” that represent the depth of the work. 


Ramachandra “explores the complex nature of conflict among the major world religions of Islam, Hinduism and Christianity, and also between them and the rising tide of secularism.” (from the back cover)


“The encounter between cultures can be exhilarating, but it can also be fraught with tension.” (9)  “Religion, long banished to the margins of political discussion, has now seized the centre stage.” (11)


This book is meant to respond to such challenging issues as:

“Does tolerance require the abandonment of belief in universal truths?

What is the distinctiveness of the Christian message in a world of many faiths?

And what can Christians in the West learn from Non-Western Christians....? (11)


Chapter I – Global Islamic resurgence.

“As the dominance of the West declines, other ancient civilizations assert their global influence.”  “...religion is a central characteristic of all civilizations.” (11)


Huntington (The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order) “identifies six major contemporary civilizations that have increasing political influence in this new ‘multipolar’ world order: Western..., Sinic, Japanese, Hindu, Islamic, and Orthodox.” (13-14)


“Cultural communities are replacing Cold War blocs, and the fault lines between civilizations are becoming central lines of conflict in global politics.” (quoting Huntington)  Conflicts are likely to occur in ‘cleft countries’ – states which contain people from two or more different civilizations.  “Both China and Islam represent what he calls ‘challenger civilizations’ to the West.” “The dangerous clashes of the future, he maintains, are likely to arise from the interaction of Western arrogance, Islamic intolerance, and Sinic assertiveness.” (14)


“Whether in Iran or Algeria, Pakistan or Sri Lanka, the rise of religious nationalisms has been directed less against direct foreign domination than against the post-colonial state that has failed to resolve the problems of the society it rules.”  [This] “is the context in which Islamist movements have emerged.” (17)  Islamist movements have arisen more in response to internal problems than from Qu’ranic texts.  (18)


“The myth of the ‘Islamic threat’ fails to distinguish between the militant stridency of the few and the legitimate aspirations of the many.”  (19) [But perhaps the author underestimated the disruptive capability and resolve of the few! dlm]


Many in both the West and the Muslim world have drawn broad generalizations and “engaged in a process of ‘mutual satanization.’” (19)


“...for all their assertiveness the Muslim communities in Western Europe feel themselves to be under threat: it is the fear of loss of social control that animates the activities of their leaders,...the loss of belief and of submission emerging from within.” (21)  “The Muslims of Western Europe, who appear a homogeneous culture to the outside world, are also fragmented into various religious sects in addition to ethnic, linguistic and political groupings....” (22)


Orientalism – the creation (or exaggeration) by some Western scholars of ‘the difference between the familiar (Europe, the West, “us”) and the strange (the Orient, the East, “them”)’ and justifying the denigration or suppression of the latter by the former.” (24)


“If ‘fundamentalism’ is taken to mean a sola Scriptura position when it comes to political and legal arrangements, Islamists and regimes committed to programmes of ‘Islamization’ are far from fundamentalists.” The author shows that many of their demands or requirements, such as the blasphemy law, are influenced by recent movements rather than coming directly from the Qur’an. (29)


“Seventy per cent of the world’s Muslims live in about fifty countries, where Muslims are the majority and the law of the stat is based either on shari’a alone, or on a combination of shari’a and Western law of some kind.  Almost all these states have been systematic violators of human rights, even by their own limited definitions.” (30)


“A major issue facing Islamic movements is their ability, if in power, to tolerate religious diversity and political dissent.”  “Surely one of the most significant tests of human rights is the freedom of religious conversion.  Conversion to Christianity (or to any other religion) is generally regarded as a betrayal of family and community, and as apostasy which deserves the severest punishment.” (31)


“The Middle East is a region where political statements are couched in religious or quasi-religious language, much stronger than that used by Washington.  Baghdad and Tehran both want to control the Gulf region and so does the USA.  All three have enough economic, political and strategic reasons without needing a religious one.  Nevertheless, none of these states would openly admit to this.  Significantly, both Saddam Hussein and George Bush formulated their battle for supremacy in the Gulf in religious terms: jihad versus moral crusade.” (39)


“We should try to avoid using religious categories such as ‘Muslim,’ ‘Christian,’ ‘Buddhist’ or ‘Hindu’ to describe an ethnic or cultural group.”  “None of the major world faiths can be encapsulated within any particular culture.”  “Invoking sweeping generalizations about religion or culture can often be not only inaccurate, but also dangerously misleading.” (41)


Ramachandra points out that much of the research of ancient Muslim writings has been done by Christian missionaries and scholars.  If Islamic apologists simply assume they already know what Jesus taught and did (without seriously investigating), then there is little room for listening, humility and respect – all the qualities necessary for genuine dialogue in a pluralist world.  “This is all the more tragic given the copious references to Jesus in the Qur’an itself.  There are references to Jesus in fifteen different surahs of the Qur’an, and he is mentioned ninety-seven times in ninety-three verses, as compared with Muhammad who is mentioned only twenty-five times.” (45)


Chap 2.  Hinduism and the search for identity

“Hindu nationalism is as modern as Nehru’s secular idea of India.  Its ideological roots are usually traced to the 1920s....” (49)  “...the political assertion of ‘Hinduness,’ carries its own mythic historiography.”  “The pre-Muslim period of Indian history is represented as a golden age of progress, of high cultural, intellectual and economic achievement.” (50)


“Hindu nationalists mimicked the symbols of British power....” (51)


“Nehru’s secular idea of India prevailed for at least thirty years after Independence.” (52)


“The Hinduvta argument, which rapidly gathered momentum from the mid-1980s, was simple: secularism has led to a civilizational crisis in India....  Hindutva alone can provide the possibility of the nation’s survival.  Secularism, so runs the charge, ‘is draining away the nation’s élan vital of Hindu spirit.’  Secularists are ‘Trojan horses’ who ‘weaken Hindu strength from within.’  These ‘traitors’ have to be attacked to defend the Hindu nation.” (53)


A particular reading of the Ramayana was serialized into a mega-TV production and shown all over.  “It is the culmination of what one writer has called the ‘adoption of militant devotionalism by a middle-class laity’ – one generated by modern media rather than by traditional instruction in beliefs and practices.  What this represents, then, is an organized, systematic effort to erase the diversity and conflict within Indian tradition.” (54)


“This project of reconstructing Hinduism...tends to define ‘Hinduness’ geographically and genealogically, rather than through a shared creed or texts.”  “Its major feat has been to bring a large number of competitive ascetic orders and religious leaders (gurus) under the banner of Hindu nationalism.” (55)


“Muslims constitute about 12% of the Indian population, and for the most part form a poor, despised, and politically insignificant, religious minority.  The VHP, however, required a worthy adversary to justify its strategy of confrontation....” (55)


“Religious nationalisms represent the creation of a homogeneous religion which is projected as the revival of an ancient tradition, adapted to the needs of the modern age.” (56)


“Hindu India was first defined not by the religious traditions of the subcontinent, but by modern state institutions.”  “’Hindu’ became an official term for counting people, and this gave the statistical impression that India was a majority Hindu country.”  (56)


“One striking feature of Hindusim is that practice takes precedence over belief.  What a Hindu does is more important than what a Hindu believes.  Hinduism is not creedal.”  “A Hindu ‘may be a theist, pantheist, atheist, communist and believe whatever he lies, but what makes him into a Hindu are the ritual practices he performs and the rules to which he adheres, in short, what he does.’ (65, quoting Frits Stall)


“Although ‘untouchability’ is now legally prohibited in India, Untouchable groups constitute about a fifth of Indian’s population.”  “Such a caste society has proved remarkably resilient, but its ongoing stability requires the suppression by violence of all dissent from below.” (68)


Many modern Hindus, especially the Western-educated, see their religion as the ‘eternal religion,’ the umbrella under which all religions can find shade.  (73)


[But] Hinduism ‘insists on our working steadily upwards and improving our knowledge of God.  The worshippers of the Absolute are the highest in rank, second to them are the worshippers of the personal God, then come the worshippers of the incarnations like Rama, Krishna, Buddha, below them are thwoe who worship ancestors, deities and sages, and lowest of all are the worshippers of the petty spirits.’ (quoting Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, former Professor Eastern Religions at Oxford University)  (74)


“This is simply religious imperialism masquerading as tolerance.  Pluralism is ultimately undermined, because the ‘Other’ is never taken seriously as a challenge to the entire framework of discourse.”  “Thus the boundary-markers are already pre-defined.”  “...all who participate in dialogue must give up the convictions of their own faiths and embrace this particular worldview as the condition for dialogue.” (74-75)


“The impact of Christians on Indian society, whether indigenous disciples of Jesus or missionaries from Western lands, cannot be assessed by numbers alone.  The radical and unprecedented social and religious changes witnessed in nineteenth-century India were quite out of proportion to the number of converts made or churches established.”  “Christian missions in India are routinely dismissed in contemporary Indian scholarship as simply an adjunct to colonialism.  But, in fact, they were the soil from which both modern Hindu reform movements and Indian nationalism sprang.  Most of the Indian intellectual and political leadership of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century emerged from Christian schools and colleges.” (78)


“Christians in India have long been in the forefront of movements for the emancipation of women....  Some of the finest medical hospitals and training schools in India owe their existence to Christian missions.”  “For many years the entire nursing profession was filled with Anglo-Indians and Indian Christians, as other communities regarded nursing as menial work fit only for uneducated girls and widows.  It has been estimated that, as late as the beginning of the Second World War, 90% of all the nurses in the country, male and female, were Christians, and that about 80% of these had been trained in mission hospitals.” (79) [For more on this see The Legacy of William Carey, Mangalwadi]


“The gospel acted as a catalyst in mobilizing Hindus, especially those educated in Christian schools, to spearhead such changes within Hindu society.” (79)


“With Hindu militancy on the rise and the lower castes increasingly trying to assert their rights, Christian congregations and missionaries are caught in a political maelstrom.  ‘For priests and nuns striving to bring about change in the lives of India’s poor,’ says Delhi’s (Roman Catholic) Auxiliary Bishop Vincent Concessao, ‘the journey ahead may involve more than the usual quota of sacrifices.’” (81)


A secular nationalism is no less religious than a Hindu or Buddhist one.  “Many Indian intellectuals see Hindu nationalism, not as a return to an ancient ‘tradition,’ but a reconfiguration of Hinduism as a modern political religion, bringing the complex religious and cultural groups under a common system.  However, Hindu identity is multiple, by definition.” (82)


“From being a society where the state played a marginal role, India has today become ‘the most intensely political society in the world.’ Indians have ‘poured their faith into politics....’” (83, quoting Sunil Khilnani)


Chapter 3.  The Jesus enigma

“Fundamental to every Israelite’s identity was the sense of belonging to a ‘called out’ people, called by the living God to be a priestly nation that would mediate the purposes of God to the rest of creation (cf. Exod. 19:4-6 Deut. 7:6; 4:6-8, 32ff.; Josh. 4:24).” (94)


“This interplay between the universal and the unique runs right through the biblical narrative.  ..Yahweh is not Israel’s private possession but the sovereign God of the whole earth.  He is actively involved in the histories of nations other than Israel....” (95)  “While Yahweh works in all nations, in no nation other than Israel did he act for the sake of all nations.” (96)


“Jesus saw that Israel had failed in its calling to be God’s agent of healing for the nations.  The temple had become an object of national idolatry and religious power-mania.” (104)


“What, then, are we to make of Jesus Christ? The one thing we cannot say is that he was merely a wise religious teacher, for we have already seen that it is impossible to separate the content of his moral instruction from the self-conscious authority that is presupposed by that instruction – an authority that surpasses that of any Jewish prophet or ancient sage.  If what he believed about himself was not true, then he can hardly be a moral exemplar for the rest of us.” (109)


“Why is the charge of megalomania so difficult to stick on Jesus?  Simply because the lifestyle of Jesus and the values he embodied strike even the most hardened sceptic as eminently sane, indeed deeply attractive.”  “No contemporary of Jesus, or any serious thinker since, has accused Jesus of being insincere or hypocritical in his relationships with either friend or enemy.” (110)


“There are those who say that to stress the uniqueness of Jesus generates division in societies where there are multiple worldviews.   This is perfectly true, but it seems to be based on the assumption that social conflict must be avoided at all cost, an assumption that is itself part of a particular worldview that Jesus and his early disciples call into question.”   “The ‘good news’ of the death and resurrection of Jesus brings with it an entirely new worldview.” (115)


Chapter 4.  Conversion and cultures

“Can we live in a pluralistic environment and continue to make universal truth-claims, while still respecting the diversity of human cultures and religious beliefs?”  (119)


“To tolerate a belief or practice surely implies that (a) we recognize that belief or practice to be genuinely different from our own, (b) we disagree with the belief (or disapprove of the practice), and (c) we do not coerce or absorb the other into ourselves, but give social and legal space for the other to flourish.” (121)


Plausibility and truth misconception:  “How can you be right if so many others think differently?”  This confuses the degree of social support with indicators of truth or falsity.  (124-25)


Rationality and truth misconception  “Are you saying that all other religious beliefs are irrational?”  Do not confuse rationality with truth.  Rationality is how the belief is justified, the reasons in support of it.  A belief may be rational without being true.  (125)


Religious language and truth misconception  “Aren’t we all saying the same thing but in different language?”  This question does not respect the integrity of the different faith-traditions but dilute them to the lowest common denominator.  It also rules out from the beginning “any possibility that the ultimate Reality may be a personal God who seeks to make himself known.”  “It savages pluralism in the name of defending it.”  It “turns into a reductionist onslaught on the factual affirmations of those traditions....” (127)


“The project of modernity is based on a universal vision.  History is seen as the unfolding story of a universal immanent process....  Postmodernism denies that history is in any sense story-shaped.  (It) rejects the universal in the name of the local.  [For more on this see Bible and Mission by Richard Bauckham.]


In the biblical scheme of things, the universal is always mediated through the particular.  “This resonates with our experience of all artistic, literary and scientific achievement.  It simply does not follow, as writers such as [the American theologian, John] Driver seem to assume, that just because all our thoughts, including our thoughts about God, are historically shaped, none of our thoughts can be true for all time and all peoples.” “Universalism and historicism are thus not as polarized as is often assumed.” (129)


“It is not Christian men who shape the world with their ideas, but it is Christ who shapes men in conformity with himself.” (140, quoting Bonhoeffer)


Chapter 5.  Secularism and civility

Secularization now means “a process whereby ‘religious’ beliefs cease to be widely accepted and ‘religious institutions’ cease to have social, economic or political influence.  This process is assumed to be irreversible.”  However this assumption is false.  Where ‘secularism’ seems to be most deeply entrenched, leading thinkers have started talking again about transcendence, Spirit, etc.  (141)


In 1996, 68% of the people of Britain called themselves Christian and only 4.4% claimed to be committed atheists.  (141-2)


“In the modern liberal state, there arose a strict division between the ‘secular’ and ‘religious’ realms, whose boundaries blended neatly with that between the ‘public’ and the ‘private.’  “Religious beliefs and practices are to be treated as we do art and music, that is as expressions of the Beautiful.”  “The public square is ruled by the rationality of science – cool, neutral and universal.”  (144)


T. N. Madan believes that “secularism in South Asia as a generally shared credo of life is impossible...because the great majority of the people of South Asia understand themselves to be followers of some religious faith.”  He says, “Secularism is the dream of a minority which wants to shape the majority in its own image, which wants to impose its will upon history...” (144)


“The more radical Reformers and the later English Puritans insisted on a strict institutional separation of church and state, but that separation was not intended to mean that Christian faith was no longer to be applied to the life of society.  The institutional separation of powers must be maintained precisely in order that the church may not be corrupted and distracted from is vocation by the exercise of coercive power, and so that the state may be held accountable to divine judgment and prevented from encroachment upon other social institutions.” (145)


‘Secularism’ may be interpreted to mean, “the attempt on the part of the state to deal impartially with all religious communities that constitute the polis.  This is an issue that is particularly important in pluralist societies such as in South Asia....” (147)


Some say, “Religious faiths are inevitably confrontational and prone to violent conflict, ...and the only way we can ensure a peaceful social order is to keep them out of the public square.”  (149) However, “Far from ending violent strife, the modern nation-state and its ideology of secular nationalism has been the biggest single cause of warfare over the past two hundred years.”  “The cruelties perpetrated by religious conflicts in Western history pale into relative insignificance when compared with the global suffering unleashed by liberal Western nation-states in the twentieth-century alone.” (151-52)


“Deep in every human heart lies a propensity for worship.  And if men and women do not worship their Creator, they end up worshipping the creature, in the form of an idea, an artifact, an institution, a feeling, or an individual.”  “The displacement of the biblical God from the realm of truth ‘merely unleashes the horsemen of the Apocalypse, leaves our propensity for idolatry unchecked and unconstrained, with devastating consequences.’” (154)


“The doctrine of ‘human rights’ emerges from a particular theological narrative, rooted in the biblical notion of humanity made in the image of God....” (156)


“There is, finally, no intelligible secular version of the idea of human rights, ... the conviction that human beings are sacred is inescapably religious.” (156 citing American law professor Michael Perry)


“Tocqueville perceived that democracy, revolution and republicanism in America could not be understood simply as secular movements.  It was not democracy that paved the way for the freedom of worship, but freedom of worship that made democracy possible.” (157)


“Liberty regards religion as its companion in all its battles and its triumphs, as the cradle of its infancy and the divine source of its claims.  It considers religion as the safeguard of morality, and morality as the best security of law and the surest pledge of the duration of freedom.” (157, quoting Tocqueville)


“Thus, the moral cohesion of a political community cannot rest on the force of law alone, and the heatlh of any community will finally depend on the moral character of its individual citizens.  Democracy does not arise in a vacuum.  It requires disciplined citizens if it is to thrive; citizens nurtured in a culture that prizes not only the love of freedom but voluntary self-restraint.”  (158)


“I begin to see that our generation ... owed a great deal to our fathers’ religion.  And the young ... who are brought up without it will never get much out of life.  They’re trivial: like dogs in their lusts.”  (158, quoting John Maynard Keynes)


“The goal of political secularism would then be a state which dealt even-handedly with the different religious confessions, to prevent a state which backed one confession rather than another, but not to make religious commitments irrelevant to public life and policy.” (159)


“In such a scenario, the state would refuse to identify itself with any particular religious identity, and not permit any religious group to manipulate the state apparatus for its own chauvinistic ends.  But, unlike in most Western secular democracies, the state would also actively encourage public dialogue and debate among the various faith-traditions, and also seek their views on matters of state policy.  If open intellectual persuasion is not fostered as a positive virtue in society, then coercion and manipulation results.” (161)


“The alleged neutrality of the ‘secular state’ raises the question: neutral with regard to what?  A state that is ‘neutral’ with regard to traditional religious loyalties may be ruthlessly active in promoting its own version of religion.” (163)



“The Christian encounter with other faiths, ‘religious’ or ‘secular,’ brings both enrichment and conflict.” (167)


“Persecution of Christians is more commonplace today than it has ever been since the first few centuries of the Christian era.” (167)


“Christians today are, in many countries, identified with a history which, at several points, has served to obscure the gospel from the gaze of the non-Christian: a history that includes bloody crusades and inquisitions, social intolerance and intellectual bigotry, the selective use of biblical texts to justify slavery, sexism, colonial expansionism and a host of other evils.”  “Hindu, Buddhist and Muslim thinkers, many of them emerging only relatively recently from a world of Western colonialism, have seized upon the anti-Christian polemic of some Western writers in order to make their own faiths attractive to (post)modern men and women.”  (167-68)


“We have also seen that there is another story about the Christian mission that needs to be told.  Perhaps the greatest betrayal of the gospel by the Western church would be the forgetting of that story in an over-reaction of post-colonial guilt.  Positive aspects of that story have been brought to light at various points in this book, and a few examples here by way of recollection would suffice:

·        the contribution of Persian Christians to the birth of Islamic as well as European civilization;

·        the renewal of indigenous cultures all over the world by the courageous act of Bible translation;

·        the defense of native peoples against colonial exploiters by Christian missionaries;

·        the emancipation of women, slaves and children by Christians in every continent;

·        the pioneering of modern health-care systems and the impact on social reform by Christians in many non-Christian societies, far out of proportion of their numerical size;

·        the study and dissemination of the religious texts of non-Christian peoples by Christian missionary-scholars; and

·        perhaps more than anything else, the selfless devotion of men and women, often to the point of martyrdom or serious debilitation through illness, to people of another faith and culture.  [bullet points mine, dlm]

This is a unique story that needs to be recounted with humility and courage in a world that is losing touch with history.” (168)


“The resurgence of religious faiths in the Indian subcontinent owes much to the example and impact of Christian missions....  Much of what is invoked by religious nationalists as ‘ancient tradition’ is, on closer inspection, seen to be of fairly recent origin.” (169)


“Unless the quest for justice among the nations is guided by passion for the glory of God, and is rooted in what God has done for the world in Jesus Christ, it quickly becomes another form of domination.  God’s gracious, reconciling love in Jesus Christ towards us human beings is the ground and pattern for our response to injustice and conflict.” (171)


“The church, as the body of the risen Christ, is the agenda for the world.  It is the eschatological community, modeling a different understanding of humanness, embodying both the indictment of the world and its eternal hope.  It is here that the redemption of our humanity is taking place.” (171)