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An Identity Crisis – The Church From The East

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My wife and I visited a local clinic the other day. The nurse was interested to know about us, probably noticing our skin color (we are brown-skinned as are most of us from India) and our names (which are distinctly Christian sounding). “Where are you from?” she asked. “From South India” I told her. “Hmm, the blessed missionaries,” she uttered under her breath, smiling knowingly. I knew what she was thinking and did not blame her. She, like many people in the West knew of Christianity in India as either the work of Roman Catholic or Anglican missionaries from the West. I wanted to tell her that assumption was wrong. I wanted to tell her about the church in India that is as old as any in Christendom, but I just sighed.

I once had a boss who told me, “Your name just cannot be Mathew Samuel. It’s got to have some middle name that I cannot pronounce.” He was referring to the names of Christians from India he had met who perhaps had their family names as their middle names. I told him my name was common in South India where I was born. I wanted to tell him about the Church of St. Thomas in India, but I just smiled.

The sad truth is that this identity crisis for the Christian church from the East is not just from outside. Ask a Malankara Orthodox Christian (Malankara refers to the place where St. Thomas, one of the 12 disciples, is believed to have landed in India from the sea) if he is Catholic or Protestant and you are likely to get answers like “I think Catholic because we are not liberals” or “I think Protestant because we do not have a pope.”

Over the centuries, Indian Christians were nurtured spiritually by traditions and clergy from various regions, including Persia and Syria. That the Malankara Church (or Indian Orthodox Church as it is now known) has a lineage starting from a time when the Roman Catholic Church was called the Church of Rome is news to most Christians.

While the Armenian and Russian churches were persecuted by their local rulers, Indian Church leaders were honored by Hindu kings. The Indian Church assimilated aspects of Hindu culture, such as the tying of a knot during the marriage ceremony, while maintaining an Oriental Orthodox Christian faith, similar to the Armenian, Coptic, Ethiopian and Syrian churches. This unique blend of cross-bearing “Hindus” did not go unnoticed by the Western imperialists who followed Vasco da Gama in 1498 to the rich land of India, who saw them as “pagans” and vowed to bring them to the faith.

Thus began a sad part of Indian Orthodox Church history, which included links with the Catholic Church, links with Protestant missionaries and help from the Syrian Church. Sadly each encounter, with friend and foe, took its toll and there were breakaway groups that wounded the church. It found its footing around the turn of the 20th century with a realization of its roots dating to the beginning of Christianity and the establishment of a Catholicate, or headquarters, in Kerala, South India, in 1912.

Christianity in India today includes Roman Catholics, Protestants, and two factions claiming to be Orthodox Christians. (I belong to one of those.) Add to this the flow of missionaries and evangelists from the West who see India as a fertile land for implantation of their own versions of the Gospel. This tumultuous history of the original Indian Church has taken away its focus from the true priorities, which is to be the Church of India and of the East, to show the love of Christ to India. A bitter quarrel over control of church property lingers between the two factions.

Now in its second and third generations as an immigrant community in the United States, the Indian Orthodox Church faces the challenges of language barriers, cultural differences and the eternal balancing act to preserve its traditions while ensuring a meaningful Christian life to its children in American society. The church is tackling these new issues. But the original identity crisis remains and only awareness and education can help stem the rot, and enable the church to flourish in this country.

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Who is God? Who Is Man?

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The world around us is in a constant state of turmoil and unrest. Every day we are bombarded with graphic details of some gruesome crimes and atrocities committed around us and around the world. Thousands of innocent people are killed every year in the name of ethnic cleansing and terrorist attacks. What is happening to us? What is happening to this world? Is there a light at the end of this dark tunnel? These burning questions make me look back at the scriptures and early fathers to find a reasonable answer. One of the rational explanations that jump to my mind is that people have lost touch with reality and with God. The concept of religion and faith has undergone a drastic transformation and this in turn has negatively impacted man’s thought patterns and his attitude towards his fellow human beings.

Two Questions always come to our mind. Who is God? Who is man?

It is therefore vital to go back to our basic concept of the relation ship between God and man. In this context two important questions come to my mind. “Who is God?”, “Who Is man?” Right from the Creation man is bonded to his creator. It is similar to the bond a mother has for her baby. It is steadfast and everlasting. The role of religion in perpetuating this relationship is paramount.

Through religion man is searching for God, and through the Gospel, God is searching for man. Now let us take a minute to ponder over my basic question. “Who is man?” This will take us back to the Creation. There are two levels of creations. The first level of creation is called “noetic,” “Spiritual” or intellectual level, and the second level is called the material or bodily level. On the first level God formed the angels, who have no material body, on the second level; he formed physical universe, the galaxies, stars and planets, with various types of minerals, vegetations and animal life. What level does Mankind belong? Mankind alone exists on both levels at the same time. Through his spirit, or spiritual intellect man has connections with angels through his body. And with his soul he moves, feels, thinks, eats and drinks.