Good news for all?

9_Santhosh-Kumar-photoIn November last year, during the annual Preaching and Ministry Conference held at the Centre for Theology and Ministry, Rev Dr Santhosh Kumar (pictured) delivered the JD Northey Lecture.

The lecture is named after Rev James Douglas Northey, principal of the Theological College of the Congregational Church between 1940 and 1960. A fund was established by the Congregational Union of Victoria in his memory to provide for the visit of an overseas theologian to contribute to the life of the Congregational (now Uniting) Church in Victoria.

Dr Kumar was the recipient of this scholarship during 2013 and spent his time in Melbourne working on questions related to Christian worship. Professor of Music and Liturgy in the Department of Christian Ministry at the United Theological College in Bangalore, India, Dr Kumar specialises in the use of traditional Indian music in Christian worship.

Founded in 1910, the UTC is a dynamic cooperation between numerous Indian churches preparing students for service within the college’s member churches. Dr Kumar completed his Doctor of Theology in Melbourne between 2003 and 2006 studying under Rev Dr Robert Gribben of the Uniting Church Theological College and Fr Christopher Willcock SJ of the Jesuit Theological College.

The subject of Dr Kumar’s lecture was ‘Preaching the Good News in a world of many faiths’. He brought to the subject the lived reality of ministry in India, where numerous ancient faiths have cohabited for centuries.

In a world where religious extremism and exclusive religious claims are rife, his words of encouragement, insight and caution were very instructive.

At the heart of his argument was the question: “Is it possible to faithfully preach the Good News, rooted in the Scripture in a religiously pluralistic context, without condemning other faiths as false and morbid?”

The fundamental obligation on the preacher is one of integrity as they stand between Christ, the Word, and the assembled people. The task of the preacher is to ensure that “the message that is brought out from the text, and delivered through the preaching, is honestly committed to the Good News embedded in the text.”

Without a doubt, this is not always the case and so Dr Kumar began by exploring the question “What is the Good News?’

While on the surface this may appear to be a straightforward question, what is offered as the good news is often, patently, not so. At the heart of the tension which the preacher faces as she or he seeks to speak with integrity in a multi-faith society are a few ‘exclusive’ statements within the Christian scriptures.

Dr Kumar reminded his hearers that the heart of the Christian Gospel is the announcement of the nearness of God’s reign.

Drawing extensively on the writings of Indian scholars, listeners were challenged to “acknowledge that the outcome of exclusive claims of religions has so far not been salvation but hatred, divisions, wars and suffering”. Dr Kumar’s conclusion was that “when the specific goal of the Church stands in tension with the universal goal of reign of God, the Church must not hide itself behind the walls of the scripture but has to show the courage to face the situation by challenging the scripture and taking the spirit of it as Christ himself did.”

One of the challenges to our identity as church in the west, as we contract and can feel like we are facing extinction, is the question: how can we be in the wake of our apparent, former success?

The western church of the past was one where there was “usually no society outside of the Church.” For the church of India this has never been the case and so Dr Kimar was able to offer insights which may yet enable the western church to find new ways of being within a multi-faith society.

For the western church it was not so much the doctrine of the Church which gave the ideological framework for mission, rather it was the subjugating spirit of colonialism. “This abuse of mission, and the doubtful methods used to ‘gain converts’, contradicts a relationship of mutuality and respect and should be given up.”

Dr Kumar concluded, reminding his hearers that “matters such as salvation, eternal life, reign of God, are experiential things and are not information provided to us to make judgments on others.”

Living with this knowledge should assist us to speak with humility in our world of many faiths.

Andrew Boyle is the continuing education supply officer at CTM. The full text of the lecture can be found at:
http://ctm.uca.edu.au/theologicalcollege/category/jd-northey-lectures/

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