The Asian Jesus
Michael Amaladoss, Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 2006; 180 pp, including Endnotes, Bibliography, and Indexes.
Michael Amaladoss, S.J., a native of South India, is a professor of theology at Vidyajyoti College in Delhi and director of the Institute for Dialogue with Cultures and Religions in Chennai. Among his books and articles is Life in Freedom: Liberation Theologies From Asia (Orbis). With a special interest in intercultural and interreligious dialogue and spirituality, Amaladoss has been a consultant to the Pontifical Councils for Culture and Other Religions and to the World Council of Churches. He also has served as the president of the International Association for Mission Studies. He is the author of 20 books and more than 300 articles in various languages.
Occasionally one picks up a book that proves to be an unexpected breath of fresh air. For this reviewer The Asian Jesus turned out to be such a book. It is written, I believe with two audiences in mind—the Asian religious (though not necessarily just Christians) and Western Christians. For the former he supplies a great deal of material, including a few entire chapters, about perspectives on Christianity that are not unique to Asian Christianity. For the latter, however, the preponderance of material is quite unique to Asians, this in large part because of the cultural and religious milieu in which the Christian faith has developed, often without the overwhelming influence of Western missionaries. (Though Amaladoss nowhere makes this assertion, his description of the Asian cultural and religious influences on biblical interpretation certainly strongly imply that this is the case.)
The Asian perspective that Amaladoss unfolds is formulated in terms of a number of images of Jesus that Asians incorporate into their understanding of the Gospel accounts of his life and ministry. These include the images of the Way (Tao), Guru, Moral Teacher (advaita), avatar, satyagrahi, and bodhisattva. (There are others that Amaladoss discusses at some length—for example, sage, servant, dancer, pilgrim--but these are more conventional portrayals common to both Eastern and Western traditions.)
The Tao: The term Tao is used in both the Taoist and Confucian traditions in China and means simply, “the way.” In India, one would use the term marga, and Buddha spoke of the eightfold path. “It is in this context that we must understand the way proposed by Jesus. He does not indulge in any metaphysical speculations… The framework of Jesus is a human community fragmented by egotism and pride embodied in structures of religious, social, and political power. People are called to turn away from this self-centered arrogance. This is achieved through the selfless love of others, shown in humble service and sharing… The way of Jesus therefore operates at the level of human and social relationships… It resonates with the nishkama karma of the Indian tradition and the wu wei of the Chinese tradition. But it is set in a framework of cosmic-human-divine community building.” (pp. 58-59)
Amaladoss cites the observation of Indian writer George Soares-Prabhu: “The vision of Jesus indicates not the goal but the way. It does not present us with a static pre-fabricated model to be imitated, but invites us to continual refashioning of societal structures in an attempt to realize as completely as possible in our times the values of the Kingdom.” Amaladoss continues, “The Kingdom of God that Jesus announced and began to establish is not an institutional, politco-military structure. It is a community of people who are ready to love and forgive, share, and serve.” (p. 59)
Amaladoss goes on to describe the way of Jesus as a way of love and service, a way of non-violent struggle, a transcendent way, and an inclusive way. “The way of Jesus is the way of creation. It is the way that humans and the world live. It is the life. It is God’s gift to creation and humanity. We can understand why some Chinese theologians call Jesus the Tao. But the Tao of Jesus has a Confucian resonance because it concerns community building.” (p. 65)
Guru: In Indian practice, a guru is a person who has traveled a particular spiritual path and is thus qualified to lead others on that path. “In the Advaitic (non-dual) tradition, in which true spiritual experience consists in realizing one’s oneness with the Brahman or the Absolute, gurus are seen as divine, because they have experienced advaitic oneness with the divine. In the Bhakti traditions…in which the final experience is one of encountering Siva, the Absolute, in love… the guru [is understood to be] a divine-human person… Many Indian disciples of Jesus, whether Hindu or Christian, have considered him as their guru. Christians stress the uniqueness of Jesus by calling him sadguru (true guru).” (pp. 69-70) Jesus is thought to be “the guru of a cosmic movement that he initiates himself and perpetuates by choosing disciples and sending them to continue his mission.” (p. 76) He is seen to be exemplary of what other gurus should be like.
Advaita: As a moral teacher, advaita (Indian non-duality) presupposes a strong monotheism, a view that militates against acceptance of Jesus as God. Asians who maintain this view may think of the unity of will between Jesus and God rather than the identity of being. “Jesus was an exemplary human being who taught us how to live by word and example. He shows us the way to self-discovery and moral behavior.” (p. 22)
Avatar: Avatar is the word used in Indian languages to refer to the incarnation of the Word in Jesus. “God is believed to self-manifest in some earthly form to encounter the devotees and grant them liberation.” (p. 105) Amaladoss cited Hindu Swami Vivekananda: “Jesus had our nature; he became the Christ; so can we and so must we. Christ and Buddha were the names of a state to be attained. Jesus and Gautama were the persons to manifest it.” Vivekananda goes on to note that one need not become a Christian to be a follower of Jesus. “He (Christ) had no other occupation in life; no other thought except that one, that he was a Spirit. He was a disembodied, unfettered, unbound spirit. And not only so, but he, with his marvelous vision, had found that every man and woman, whether Jew or Greek, whether rich or poor, whether saint or sinner, was the embodiment of the same undying Spirit as himself. Therefore the one work his whole life showed, was calling upon them to realize their own spiritual nature… You are all sons of God, Immortal spirit. ‘Know,’ he declared, ‘the kingdom of heaven is within you. I and my Father are one.’” (p. 23)
Avatar can be variously realized at different places at different times. The Hindu “devotees of Siva [the Absolute] think that God cannot become human. But they still believe that Siva can manifest himself in various ways in the lives of his devotees.” (p. 105) Because of this cultural/religious context, “Indians looking on Jesus will spontaneously consider him [Jesus] an avatar. It is an Indian religio-cultural entry point to explore our experience of Jesus as a human-divine person (p.106).
Amaladoss suggests, “…the term avatar, meaning ‘manifestation,’ helps us look at the plurality of manifestations of the Word, of the Spirit, and of God positively and openly and profit from all of them” (p. 107). He believes that Jesus’ disciples experienced him first of all as a human being. But as avatar it was eventually recognized that Jesus had a deeper dimension as a unique manifestation of the Father, but a manifestation that was still subject to the limitations of it human nature.
Satyagrahi: Satya means “truth”. Graha means “clinging.” The combination, satyagrahi, coined by Mahatma Gandhi, is someone who clings to the truth, namely, to God. “Gandhi saw his own life as a quest for truth. He knew that truth is absolute. One does not possess truth; rather, one is possessed by it” (p. 86). Gandhi held that “we cannot reach truth through untrue means” nor “peace through violence.” As applied to Jesus, “the image satyagrahi points to the idea that Jesus, though he was a revolutionary, was a nonviolent one” (p. 87).
“What distinguished Jesus from the Zealots [of his day] were two things. The Zealot effort focused on liberating Palestine from the colonialism of the Romans… On the contrary, Jesus does not seem to focus much on the Roman presence in Palestine. He takes it for granted… The second difference between him and the Zealots is the means used to promote revolution. Jesus is firmly committed to the means of love and nonviolence.” Jesus believes the ends and the means must be the same. “We cannot promote love through hatred, nor peace through violence” (p. 95).
“God, the Father of Jesus, is not a vengeful God who demands expiation for sins. Jesus presented God as a loving and forgiving parent. The suffering imposed on Jesus comes not from God but from Jewish leaders who seek to defend their own self-interest by doing away with Jesus.” But “The murder of Jesus… does not put an end to the movement that he has launched. As a of fact, it acquires new vigor” (p. 97).
Amaladoss continues with an extended analysis of the role of suffering in Jesus’ life and, by extension, in the lives of his followers. He asserts, “Suffering for its own sake is not a Christian ideal. Suffering has meaning as an element of protest or as a manifestation of self-giving. Without such meaning, suffering is not a virtue. It has no transformative value” (p. 104).
He concludes his discussion of satyagraha: “The image of Jesus as satyagrahi places the idea of salvation on a personal, human-divine level. It is not something automatic effected by the cross and the sacrifice of Jesus. It is a divine-human interaction marked by freedom on both sides… Jesus calls us to be satyagrahi in our turn.
Bodhisattva: Buddhists in Asia consider Jesus a bodhisattva. In Buddhist tradition the bodhisattva is the model of the compassionate person. In this sense Jesus is seen to be very much like Buddha. “Having achieved personal liberation, the bodhisattva delays the personal enjoyment of it in order to help everyone become liberated” (p. 135).As a bodhisattva, Jesus is compassionate like no other. His compassion operates around God’s gift of abundant life, which he not only promises but shares with others. (p. 136). “The measure of the abundance of God’s gift of life is not our merits but God’s generosity. The crucial element in the process of salvation is our openness to accept it as a gift of God, since God’s gift is always there. Being sure of God’s unbounded love, we are ready to abandon ourselves to God. God then saves us.” Thus, in a major departure from the understandings of Western Christianity, “Jesus saves us precisely by enabling us to respond to God in humility and faith, in egolessness and surrender, and thus receive God’s gift of life. He enables us by being in solidarity with us” (p. 143). “He saves us by freeing us, by forgiving us, by loving us, and by empowering or enabling us.” (p. 144)
This reviewer is struck by how much resonance there is between many of the beliefs of Asian Christians and the so-called “heretical” teachings of a certain 3rd and 4th century priest in Alexandria, Egypt. His name was Arius. His teachings were affirmed by most of the Christian bishops in the Eastern half of the Mediterranean world of his day but were opposed by most of the bishops from the West, thus creating something of an East-West divide in the Christian Church. Could it be that the present Asian-West theological divide has its roots in that early division? Interesting.
Jim Foster, reviewer