Secular Theology of Religions

By YT VinayarajonFeb. 27, 2023in Perspectives

Paradigms and Perspectives of CISRS on Religion

Understanding people’s religion is not just an intellectual exercise. It is a matter of living with people and sharing their deepest feelings. This is where many Christian theologians and many political leaders have fallen short. 

–Gabriele Dietrich

Being a research scholar of the Christian Institute for the Study of Religion and Society (CISRS) in-between February 1972 to October 1974, Gabriele Dietrich, in her study project on Religion and Development explains the rationale of the study of people’s religion as the prime focus of CISRS in its pilgrimage towards humanisation. For Gabriele, the inter-faith engagement of Christian communities in India is to be praxiological and liberative in content and practice. The progressive generation of Gabriele Dietrich had exposed the liberative role of religion in society which in turn became the epistemological axis of CISRS’ approaches and understanding of religion in this country since the 1970s. However, during the formative period of CISRS in India, it was more concerned about the dialogical relationship with Renascent Hinduism as part of its goal to participate in the process of nation-building in India in the 1950s and 60s. Taking initiative to address and attend to the progressive changes in Indian religious systems especially in Hinduism seriously and re-drafting the Christian mission in this country by de-linking it from the Barthian-Kraemerian-Niebuhrian (Western) missionary strategy, CISRS had developed a secular theology of religions in the post-independent India. It also envisaged a radical shift in the post-Emergency period when the crises of modern development policies and practices became a serious concern. To encounter the emerging fundamentalist and fascist tendencies in connection with the onslaught of the neo-liberal economy and culture in the late 1980s, CISRS re-imagined religion as the source of secular humanism and thereby invited all religions and political ideologies to join hands for the establishment of a democratic-secular society in India. Traversing these paradigm shifts, this essay tries to highlight CISRS’ understandings of religion in various historical contexts of this country and explores the possibility of re-formulating a secular theology of religion in the contemporary context of violence, violation, and virulence in the name of religion.     

Religion, Nation, and Ideologies

Religion in society has always been the prime focus of CISRS since its beginning in 1957. It is well-evident in its name and the title of its journal—Religion and Society. CISRS’ engagement with religion begins with the idea of nation-building in post-independent India. The whole task before CISRS in post-independent India was to equip Christian communities to show allegiance to the nationalist movement and to participate in the process of making India a modern nation-state. Both P.D Devanandan (1957-62) and M.M. Thomas (1962-76)—the first two directors of CISRS, desired to see the creative role of (Renascent) Hinduism in the building up of the nation-state and thereby envisage an indigenous Christianity in dialogue with the neighboring faiths in India.  Devanandan expresses this intention very clearly: 

…That phase of nationalist struggle is over…. We are now free to determine our own political and local destiny. In varying measures, we have succeeded in establishing stable forms of a national government. Today our main concern is to work for and achieve a real sense of national solidarity, an integrated community of people bound together by lasting ties of kinship a closely welded group of men and women that work for common ends and mutual good. Contemporary history has given ample evidence made that the wholeness of national being is still in the making…All this has special relevance to the Indian situation. Hinduism itself is coming to realize in a new way that religion is closely related to life.

P.D. Devanandan, as a faithful student of religion, was very keen to attend the changes happening within Hinduism in connection with the Renascent Movement initiated by Raja Ram Mohan Roy in the 19th century and the subsequent formation of various religious reform movements such as Brahmo Samaj, Arya Samaj, Prathana Samaj, Ramakrishna Mission, Theosophical Society, Divine Life Mission, Servants of India Society, All India Hindu Mahasabha, Rashtriya Swayam Sevak Sangh, etc. He identified this Renascent Movement within Hinduism as ‘Neo-Hinduism’ by which Hinduism is trying to re-draft it in accordance with modern liberal values and cultural transitions. Nationalism as a modern artifact had demanded transitions and transformations in terms of people’s understanding of persons, communities, and states. He explains the demand for secular nationalism as it refurbishes Hinduism in the modern context:

Neo-Hinduism is in many respects Hinduism with a difference. There are deep undercurrents at work that presage revolutionary changes in the entire texture of the Hindu faith. 

According to Devanandan, a nation and a tradition, which is exposed to modern, secular, and democratic values, need the support of religions to maintain those values in social life. Here Devanandan reiterates the role of religions in maintaining the progressive socio-cultural values of a nation and in turn, the need for the transformation of religions to maintain a progressive view of the change in social history. Being the protagonist of inter-faith dialogue, Devanandan believed that the Christian-Hindu dialogue will help Hinduism to be updated since Christianity is more acquainted with modern liberal values. 

Devanandan affirms that the Christian witness and participation in the process of nation-building in the context of the emergence of renascent movements is to be founded on the strategy of inter-faith dialogue and praxis for the process of building a common national community. Taking the cue from Mahatma Gandhi and S. Radhakrishnan, Devanandan was also trying to formulate a philosophy/theology of religion which could play its creative role in the process of building up a modern nation–state. Taking a radical turn from the missionary strategy of evangelization in India and challenging the Barthian and Kraemerian method of transforming cultures for Christ or the ultimate revelation of God in Christ, P.D. Devanandan, on the other hand, developed a method of respect and engagement with the other religions and cultures in India to formulate national humanism. This was a radical shift from the approach of his theological predecessors in India such as Brahmabandhav Upadhyaya, Nehemiah Goreh, Swami Abhishiktananda, and Sister Sara Grant who fell back on the Christian theological prolegomena for inter-faith dialogue. 

Rejecting the exclusive claim of Christianity on the redemption of the whole world in Christ, Devanandan envisaged redemption in Christ as wholistic as it is extended to the whole creation which includes persons, communities, religions, and nations. In short, Devanandan redrafted religion as a cultural and historical artifact that demands progressive changes in social life. Alluding to this social-secular meaning of Hindu-Christian dialogue, M. M. Thomas continued the legacy of P.D. Devanandan which culminated in his book The Acknowledged Christ of Indian Renaissance (1969).

Following Devanandan, M.M. Thomas was more concerned about the Christo-centric interfaith dialogue which envisions a common humanity that stands for nation-building. He sought to understand the meaning of Christ and Christianity for religion and society in renascent India. In his book, Acknowledged Christ of Indian Renaissance (1969), Thomas engages with the renascent Hindu leaders like Raja Ram Mohan Roy, Keshub Chandra Sen, P.C. Mozoomdar, Swami Vivekanada, and S. Radhakrishnan to envisage a significant Christology and theology in tune with Indian quest for nationalism. Thomas acknowledged the inherent spirit of humanization in renascent Hinduism in terms of its openness to the influence of Western education, liberal values, and Christianity. He identified the task of Christian communities in India as the effort to acknowledge this ‘hidden Christ’ in renascent Hinduism. Alluding to Devanandan, Thomas also expressed the need for Christ in the Indian renaissance as the inner spirit of renewal and New Creation.  Thomas envisioned a living theology of the church in India as it is born out of the encounter between Christ and Indian culture and thus, he emphasized the imperative of inter-faith dialogue for a meaningful Christian witness in India, especially in the context of nation-building.    

All the more, we see a shift in the understanding of religion during the period of Thomas in CISRS (1962-76). It was a turn towards the secular meaning of Christ/ Christianity/ religion. Instead of the mystic/ bhakti content of religion, Thomas was more concerned about the religious role in social action which was well-expressed in his books Salvation as Humanisation; Some Critical Issues of the Theology of Mission in Contemporary India (1971) and The Secular Ideologies of India and the Secular Meaning of Christ (1976). Connecting Christian mission with the notions of Indian renaissance and Indian secularism, Thomas redefined the secular meaning of the content of divine salvation in Christ as humanisation which is the locus of inter-faith (inter-ideology) dialogues in India. Thomas makes this clear:

It is my conviction that the relations between salvation and humanisation, i.e., between the intimate destiny of man and his historical destiny, which we saw as foundational in Christian thinking, is also the fundamental issue debated within all the religions, and I would add, secular movements of India. Only the language of discourse varies from one movement to another. My thesis, therefore, is that it is the theme of humanisation which provides the most relevant point of entry for any Christian dialogue with these movements…at spiritual and theological depth.   

According to Thomas, participating in the struggles for humanisation is the basis of the praxis of inter-religious dialogue. Here Thomas envisions a paradigm shift in the CISRS’ understanding of religion—a shift towards social justice and humanism—a shift towards dialogue with secular ideologies and socio-political movements for justice. He considered the building up of a secular Koinonia for justice as the role of religion in society. Wesley Ariarajah contends that it was M.M. Thomas who pushed further the boundaries of CISRS’ concept of religion from the inter-faith dialogue to the socio-political realities of this country.     

Religion, Culture, and Power      

M.M. Thomas’ emphasis on humanisation initiated a new turn in CISRS’ approach to religion. From the 1970s onwards, CISRS has taken its interest in analyzing the socio-economic and cultural aspects of religion. At this point, religion was considered not as an innocent primordial system that elevates humans to bliss and blessings; rather, was a socio-political and cultural construct that formulates local social living of the ordinary people. This is well-narrated in the report of the biennial conference of CISRS held in 1972:

The emphasis should be shifted to practical common concerns reflecting actual living situations of the masses, in the context of humanisation…such dialogues must center around the phenomena of ritual, worship, rites de passage, festivals, etc.

…this means bringing together people of different religious traditions and communities so as to examine together customs, traditional attitudes, beliefs and expectations involved in the struggle for development.  

Abraham Ayrookuzhiel, who joined CISRS in 1973 as a research scholar carried on this socio-cultural approach of religion influenced by the works of Emile Durkheim and Max Weber. Ayrookuzhiel wanted to “bring in ‘live philosophy’ of the masses caught in cross currents of the past systems of culture and values as well as the new social and political forces in the society that condition their thoughts and actions.” According to Ayrookuzhiel, religion as an ideological and symbolic system often legitimizes power relations and thus caters to guard the interest of the dominant class and caste. This concern prompted Ayrookuzhiel to engage with the subaltern religious movements including the Dalit religion which he called ‘popular religion’ or ‘the religion of the oppressed.’

Ayrookuzhiel’s studies on popular religions especially the Dalit religion offered sharp criticisms against Brahminic-Hinduism which legitimize the power relations of the society and the socio-economic and cultural marginalization of Dalits in India. He was convinced that salvation is connected with the economic and political liberation of the people and thus religion has to be a source of socio-political and cultural transformation. Ayrookuzhiel, in contradiction with the previous nationalist approaches of his predecessors, offered sharp criticism against Brahminic Hinduism from the vantage point of the religion of the oppressed. He says:  

A religious tradition that is generally referred to as “Hinduism” cannot be considered the religious heritage of the Dalits for the simple reason that the Dalits suffer the stigma of untouchability in that tradition. The Vedas, the Puranas, the Dharma Sastras, and the ritual tradition of the Brahminic priestly class with their idea of purity and pollution assign the Dalits a low status and they are excluded from the Brahminic religious world.    

Keeping the project for cultural transformation and humanisation in focus and because of the subsequent change in the approach of CISRS on religion, Ayrookuzhiel reiterates the imperative to engage with the anti-Brahminic religious movements in India in order to have a meaningful secular democratic religion and society in India: 

The kind of renaissance of Brahmanical Hinduism which was occasioned when the whole country was struggling for national liberation and representative government, does not set a permanent pattern for all time to come. As at present the struggle for humanisation centers around the Dalits, the Tribals and women and a new Renaissance has to come about as a result of the challenges of these sections to some of Hinduism’s old beliefs, practices, rituals, priesthood and control of religious institutions by caste Hindus….therefore from the point of view of humanisation, the task of the study of religion is to understand the religio-cultural prospects and problems that these oppressed sections face in their struggle for humanisation.  

Saral Chatterji who led CISRS in the post-emergency period invoked religions to formulate their theologies to stand in solidarity with the marginalized and oppressed in order to ensure a democratic-secular-socialist civil society in India.   He explains the rationale of having a Theology of People in the discourses of CISRS:

We want Indian theology to be a service to people in our common search for fuller humanity in an open fraternal fellowship. Indian theology seeks to support and illumine the people’s struggle for human wholeness in freedom and dignity. Its endeavor is to make a meaningful contribution to the march of our people toward human completion in an equal society.

CISRS’ research scholars like Ayrookuzhiel, Saral Chatterji, Bastiaan Wielenga and Gabriele Dietrich were convinced about the formation of the religious beliefs and rituals within the framework of the people’s social living and social power. Thus, they wanted to focus on the religion of the oppressed through which the marginalized try to re-imagine and reconstitute their social position and social agency. In this period, CISRS initiated various research projects on subaltern religious movements in India and thereby offered a new meaning to the so-called inter-faith and inter-ideology dialogue approach. This was a paradigm shift in the CISRS’ approach to religion taking a turn from its Barthian-Kraemerian-Niebuhrian Christo-centrism to the sociology of religion as it is formed out of the socio-political imaginations of the oppressed people like Dalits and Tribals. At this point, CISRS was convinced of the liberative role of religion in assisting the struggles of the people against injustice and oppression.         

Religion, Secularism, and Democracy

By defining religion as a socio-political and cultural artifact, CISRS embarked on a ‘third point’ in between the ‘closed secularism’ and religious fundamentalism in the late 80s and thereby signified religion for an authentic secular democratic social existence in the post-Emergency period. Even though we see glimpses of religious fundamentalism and communalism in the colonial period, it has become a severe political problem in the 1990s in connection with the onslaught of a neo-liberal economy and cultural nationalism. The demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992 exposed this politicization of Hindu religiosity and cultural nationalism. Brahminic-Hindu aversion to the emergence of subaltern politics in India in this period (for e.g., Mandal Commission Report) can not be neglected here. CISRS offered a strong critique of the Hindutva ideology of the Sangh Parivar that destroys the secular-democratic fabric of our country and sought a theology of secularism that equips religions to stand for justice and equality. 

As a response to the emerging issue of Hindu nationalism, Ram Puniyani wrote in CISRS’ Journal Religion and Society

The rise of Hindu nationalist politics has deeply affected our democratic ethos. Religious minorities (Muslims and Christians) have been directly targeted as freedom of religion has been threatened. At the same time the Dalits, Adivasis, and women are facing a direct challenge to their right to equality. The Indian freedom struggle and the Indian constitution give us rights related to democratic freedom and rights to equality in matters of citizenship. The Hindu nationalist politics, Hindutva, RSS combine’s agenda is contrary to what Indian nationalism stands for. Hinduism’s identity is being dragged into the arena of politics and an emotive atmosphere is being intensified around issues related to the Ram temple, beef, love jihad, and Ghar Wapasi. Lately, politics of statues is dominating the scene. The names of places having Muslim heritage are being trampled to project a monolithic culture. All this when unemployment is rising, farmer suicides are going up and income disparities are on the rise. Need to come back to the ethos and values of the freedom movement, need to strengthen the plural ethos to save our democracy.    

At this time CISRS initiated discussions on religious pluralism and interfaith engagements for enriching constitutional democracy in favor of the marginalized and excluded. Invoking Christian faith communities in India to stand for its commitment to a secular democratic witness in this country, Vincent Rajkumar writes:  

Whether a country is Buddhist, Christian, and Hindu, or Islamic is not a relevant question as there are more urgent and pertinent socio-economic questions that need to be addressed and tackled with all the resources available to establish secular humanism. Further, in the face of threats to life, our very survival demands a transcending of social, ethnic, and indeed religious boundaries. Those of different faiths are summoned to live and work together for a more human community. The faith communities in this context have no way of escaping the responsibility in the search for a human community in the age of pluralism. Faith communities must find a new spirituality in these human struggles to seek justice by uniting all religions and ideologies to focus on social needs, and to create a strong foundation for secular humanism.   

One of the significant contributions of CISRS through its literature towards inter-faith hermeneutics in this period was Dr. Sam P. Mathew’s Method and Message of Gautama Buddha and Jesus Christ: Explorations in Cross-Scripture Hermeneutics. Alluding to the inter-faith hermeneutical paradigms of George Soares-Prabhu and Aloysius Pieris, Dr. Mathew offered a method of cross-scripture hermeneutics between Buddhism and Christianity. He argues that the purpose of cross-scripture hermeneutics is nothing but liberation and justice. It follows a method of mutual respect and honor and mutual enrichment for envisaging communal harmony, peace, and justice in social life. Dr. Mathew explains the rationale of this radical hermeneutics that brings various religious traditions in the process of humanisation and liberation:

The multi-religious, multi-cultural, and multi-lingual context of India has an unlimited horizon of scriptural treasures to make heuristic explorations in cross-scripture hermeneutics, with a view to discover common grounds for making life meaningful and abundant. Unlike most traditional and modern methods employed for Biblical interpretation, cross-scripture hermeneutics does justice to the past and present contexts of the text, the liberative intent of the text, emphasizing the transformation of the hermeneut and fulfills the desire for liberation in the reader/listener, in accordance with the message and mission mandate of Jesus Christ.    

Secular Theology of Religion: Prospects and Challenges  

From the very beginning of CISRS’ understanding of religion starting from P.D. Devanandan and M.M. Thomas, there was a consciousness of the historical content of religious faith. Religion was defined in terms of its historical contribution to envisaging a “New Creation” (P.D. Devanandan). Religion’s historical embodiment, in fact, signifies a radical turn from Mircea Eliade’s definition of religion as sui generis–an irreducible system distinguished from all other aspects of human life. For Eliade, religious symbols and actions are meaningful because they correspond to an absolute referent, the sacred. This absolute referent—sacred establishes the ‘givenness’ of the religious belief and at the same time legitimizes its dichotomy with the profane and mundane. In this definition, religion is located in between the sacred-profane dichotomy and thus establishes religion as a deep longing for the sacred in the world of profane. Unlike Eliade, P.D. Devanandan and M.M. Thomas defined religion as a historic entity that finds meaning itself in the emerging socio-cultural political contexts. Since history is the process of transformation, religion can also be a tool of humanisation. Devanandan had a deep belief in modernity as it promotes new persons, communities, and states. According to him, the renascent Hinduism as a form of renewed modern religion can be a dialogic partner for Christianity in its pilgrimage for transformation. In this sense, Devanandan even tries to redefine the Hindu concept of religion on the basis of the Christian understanding of the New Creation. 

Inter-faith dialogue that Devanandan foresaw was totally different from the apologetic strategy of the Western missionaries. Apart from their integration approach, Devanandan demanded the differential cultural identity of Hinduism in which we see the inner spirit of renewal, reformation, and humanisation. Acknowledging this ‘Christic spirit’ of transformation and humanisation, M.M. Thomas expounded on the secular meaning of Christ/ religion as it engages with the other faiths and ideologies in the era of progress and development. Interconnecting faith with ideology, Thomas offered a political ontology of religion as it overcomes the dichotomy between sacred and profane. This interlinking terrain is neither mystic nor spiritual; rather, it is highly political, historical, and material. Religion is envisaged here as the ethico-political practice of justice which ensures a secular koinonia in this world. Here, salvation is defined in terms of ensuring justice in this world of dehumanisation. Thomas explains it:

The real issues any theology of mission has to grapple with are about the nature and meaning of the Person of Christ and in relation to it the nature and meaning of koinonia which is the New Humanity in Christ. New Testament scholars of competence have pointed out that koinonia in the New Testament does not refer primarily to the Church or the quality of life within the Church, but that it is the manifestation of the new reality of the Kingdom at work in the world of men in world history. If all this is true, then the religious fellowship within the church and the human fellowship in secular society are both within the reality of Christ and the history of salvation in the world.           

Thomas was quite convinced about the imperative of the secularization of the Christian faith as it enhances the struggles for New Humanity exemplified in the person and work of Jesus Christ. Just like nationalism for P.D. Devanandan, secularism for M.M. Thomas is a creative platform for the Christian mission. Thomas’ understanding of religion as secular rejects the apologetic and the ‘other-worldly’ notions of traditional Christianity and at the same time reaffirms its interlinking with the world and its inner desire for humanisation. For Thomas, secularism is a moral value that equips religions to be open to the possibilities of the world. CISRS followed this secular theology of religion in the later period of time, especially during the time of the unilateral development proposed by the state in the Emergency period that excluded the marginalized people from its frame of reference. Saral Chatterji and Gabriele Dietrich affirmed it as an ideological framework to organize movements of marginalized people in India. To encounter the emerging tendencies of religious fundamentalism and communalism in the later periods, CISRS persuaded the secular meaning of Christ/Christianity to stand in solidarity with the people’s movements in India and to safeguard the secular democratic fabric of our country.   

The major tenet of this secular theology of religion is the challenge to deconstruct all religions that seek validity and significance in public life. Unlike the so-called Christian theology of inter-faith dialogue that provides Christianity an infallible position (sui-generis) and encourages it to engage with other religions (faiths) in an apologetic framework, the secular theology of religion demands all religions including Christianity to re-draft themselves in accordance with the logic of humanisation. When humanisation becomes the referral point for the inter-faith dialogue, the major task is the de-legitimization of the established religious doctrines, scriptures, liturgies, and practices that substantiate the logic of discrimination, marginalization, patriarchy, hierarchy, and caste. The task of the inter-faith engagement in this secular theological framework is nothing but the humanisation and the democratization of religions themselves; rather than religious declarations and the meta-narratives on the salvation of the whole world. 

M.M. Thomas expounded on Christianity’s de-legitimization of power, identity, heritage, and privilege through his theology of the crucified Christ—the “risking Christ for Christ’s sake.” For him, it is the cruciform theology of religion that provokes the church to have a kenotic identity and thereby stands in solidarity with the excluded and the marginalized. Dr. Thomas identifies the crucified Christ as the sign and sacrament of de-legitimized Christianity/ Church/ state. Religion/ Christianity in this sense is a self-sacrificing community within and out to witness the crucified Christ in this world of power and privilege. Thomas envisaged the church as a secular koinonia where people of various religions and ideologies come together and work for ‘democracy to come.’ Here, Thomas’ theology of religion finds a link with the Ambedkarite vision of religion as the dhamma—the ethico-political practice of justice and the vision of Sri Narayana Guru who defined religion as the practices of anukambha (karuna). The secular theology of religion demands a radical secular spirituality that overcomes the dichotomy between theism and atheism, spirituality and materiality, faith and ideology, God and the world, and sacred and profane. As Sathianathan Clarke rightly points out, it is a clarion call for all (muscular) religions to take a turn from the ‘economy of salvation’ to the ‘economy of life.’        


Following the liberative understanding of the social construction of religion in society, CISRS has been promoting secular engagements of religions for enriching social justice and democratic civil life. From the functional use of religion to its transformative use of empowerment, CISRS has ever revealed its strong commitment to secular humanism and secular fellowship. However, CISRS has to refurbish the process of re-constituting religion/ Christianity in the contemporary context of neo-capitalism. Neo-capitalism assumes the status of a transcendent reality that disregards the material vulnerabilities of the weak and the vulnerable including the tortured earth. For that matter, CISRS has to destabilize the transcendental-dogmatic foundation of Christianity that collaborates with the neo-liberal economy of life. Interfaith or trans-faith engagements, in this scenario, cannot but discard the hierarchical/ patriarchal/casteist content of the (muscular) religions and thereby remake them into the counter-spiritualities of the weak and the dispossessed. The inter-faith dialogues/engagements that never de-legitimize the settled doctrines, liturgies, and practices of the (muscular) religions/ Christianity and foster a radical secular theology of religion to find a common platform for social emancipation is useless. The challenge before CISRS is to envisage, enliven, and embody this radical approach of religion that ultimately sharpens peoples’ movements for social justice and equality in this country.            

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