Yesterday, March 13, 2008, at 4:00pm, the chair of the SAIACS Doctoral Committee, Dr. Hrangkhuma, declared that my proposal was good, and that I was on the right track. With that we concluded an almost two-hour doctoral dissertation proposal defence.

Most of the comments raised by the committee were methodological; and in all, it was even a helpful experience for me (better than what I feared).

While I hope to report about the specific comments raised (in this post itself probably); for now it is enough to say that I have cleared my proposal and the title of dissertation temporarily stands as:


(post updated on 25 April, 2008)


The title of my proposed research is: What is religion?: A multi-paradigmatic evaluation of Chenchiah’s theology of religion with implications for a theology of religions in India

Usually, theologians of religions tend to ignore questions about the nature of religion and instead deal directly with Christian interactions with the popularly understood phenomenon and doctrines of religions. In the context of the prevalent confusion about ‘what religion is’ in academia today, my research asserts that theologians need also to discuss what religion, a field designated as the theology of religion.

To begin to ask “what religion is”, I look at the theology of religion of Pandipeddi Chenchiah, an Indian lay thinker in the early 20th century. Part of the Rethinking Movement in India, Chenchiah tackled many issues from a uniquely Indian perspective in his articles in newspapers, some of it dealing with the nature of religion.

It is difficult, however, to formulate a critical appraisal of Chenchiah’s theology of religion, without assessing it from other paradigms of ‘what religion is’. As a result, I examine Chenchiah’s theology of religion from three paradigms of religion. I look at Balagangadhara’s definition of religion; who believes that religion is not a cultural universal. Then, I look at biblical and theological paradigms, looking particularly at James 1:26-27 and Karl Barth respectively.

Through these paradigms I will be able to assess whether (or how much of) what Chenchiah says about religion is theologically and philosophically valid, as well as formulate a theology of religion that is in line with theological and contextual norms.

I would also show how such a theology of religion would/could impact a theology of religions in India today.


(the italics are the comments/questions from the Committee. My own non-italicised comments are a summary of what I said or intended to say in the defence)

1. Does Chenchiah have a theology of religion? Also, if yes, where will you place him? Is he an exclusivist, inclusivist, universalist?

I have defined theology of religion as a theological perspective of (or definition of) religion. And yes, Chenchiah has that. The question whether Chenchiah is an inclusivist, universalist etc, (even if we were to accept these categories) concerns his theology of religions, the theological interaction between religions, which is not the central focus of this paper.

2. You said you are evaluating Chenchiah’s theology of religion from the biblical paradigm, and that’s ok. But Karl Barth’s theology was a product of his context. How do you link these two people? especially since Chenchiah (et al) don’t want to interpret christianity from western eyes. Therefore, I am not comfortable with using Barth and Balagandhara

Barth and Chenchiah were contemporaries, and there is some commonality between Chenchiah’s theology of religion and Barth’s theology of religion. Balagangadhara on the other hand is a contemporary scholar who helps brings the discussion about religion to the contemporary scene.

3. How is Chenchiah different from Kim and Amos Yong?

Kim (as I have shown in my paper) does not adequately develop a theology of religion, but rather depends on the theory/ies of religion from secular (non-Christian) scholars. Yong understands the need for a theology of religion, and yet he too does not develop a theology of religion; but uses it as a presupposition.

4. I have a problem with new proposals; where is your category with “new” coming from? Are you constructing a new tradition?

My ‘new’ proposal is not new, but rather I am using Dupuis (and Karkainnen) category differentiation between theology of religion and theology of religions. My contribution is that I’m doing something (attempting a theology of religion) that scholars usually do not do.

5. How do you differentiate between religion and faith?

Usually (traditonally) religion is considered as a larger category than faith; ie, religion has faith, and not vice versa. However, my concern will be to define what is religion, and to see also whether it is synonymous to or different to ‘faith’

6. As an evangelical theologian, what is your support base; starting point? Most of the theologies of religions stem from certain perspectives, as an evangelical theologian; what is your starting point? It does not come out strongly. Your assumptions should be stated somewhere.

My assumptions are that theology of religion/s are different (as I state in my reference to definition of Dupuis). Also I tend to lean toward the view that the Bible does not the concept of religion as we understand it.

7. What is the role of revelation in the creation of religion? You need to deal with that.

I doubt whether revelation created religion; as if religion is something separate in culture. Similarly, to say that revelation created religion, presupposes a nature of religion that I am calling into question.

8. Some scholars define religions are “ultimate concern”; it is the most basic thing. I would like to see (you) deal with that.

To say that religion is “ultimate concern” is yet another theory of religion; we need to know whether that is right or wrong, and my work intends to ask and answer that question. (though it is evident that I would need a survey, in my introduction, of the dominant theories of religion prevalent in theology)

9. In view of the nature of religion (material and spiritual), maybe you will not be able to fully define religion.

I think we need to be able to answer the question “what is religion?”; even if we define it as “mystery” and show what we mean by that mystery; still, an assertion needs to be made. My own view is that the concept of religion is not mysterious, but simply unclear. To talk in terms of religious experience is simply a short hand for scholars/people to put everything felt and not seen into that bracket.

10. Also, which religion is being used to the define religion?

According to Balagangadhara, religion does exist, but only in the Semitic religions (and perhaps those that follow those patterns). My own assertion would therefore be that I use the Christian understanding of religion as the starting point; though not necessarily the traditional understanding. Still, this would be my “theology” of religion.

11. Chenchiah comes from Brahmanic background (religio-cultural) and Balagangadhara from a socio-historical. Perhaps it would be better to see the philosophy of religion, particularly the work of Swami Vivekananda.

Vivekananda was not a philosopher of religion; but rather he preferred a philosophical approach to Hinduism (preferring advaita). In terms of his view of religion, he was influenced by evolutionary history of religions (as mentioned in the paper); and thus forms of the context of the discussion, rather than an adequate dialogue partner for Chenchiah.

In view of the call to include a “philosophy of religion” I choose to say that I attempt a “theology of religion” because my understanding/interaction of religion comes from the faith-perspective and not the objective scientific starting point.

12. Also, what about the Dalit criticism of Brahmanic philosophy what is the theology of religion from dalit perspective?

Dalit criticism is a helpful case to show the actual problem of religion in India; which is to say that a person like Chenchiah or Vivekananda or even Gandhi, who all adopt one view of hinduism, miss an entire gamut of experiences of the people… ie. Dalits. Thus, the actual complexity of Hinduism is brought to the fore… and actually helps support the view of Balagangadhara who says that the Christian theory of religion cannot grasp the reality of Hinduism in its terminology and conceptions.

13. I disagree with the view that Chenchiah’s theology of religion is the foundation for his christology (as suggested in page 5). I think his christology is the foundation for his theology of religion.

It was wrong of me to suggest that Chenchiah’s theology of religion is a foundation for his christology; and yet I do assert that it is difficult to identify which came first. Chenchiah’ was deeply christocentric and yet from the perspective of his post-Hindu framework. I would therefore argue that chenchiah’s theology of religion is related to his Christology; and the one helps understand the other.

14. Also, what is the warrant for using the Book of James? Is it the same as Chenchiah’s understanding of religion?

I will not be using only James to build a theory of religion; nor does James establish what is religion. However, James 1:26-27 is the clearest example in the Bible (in its english version) for the answer to the question, “what is religion?” and helps as a starting point. I will be doing a word-study of various words referring to religion/religious, in the context of Greco-Roman literature/understanding, to supplement my biblical paradigm of religion.

15. There is a huge chunk of material about Gods/experiences, tirades, cultic practices, in the OT. Why only NT?

The word “religion” is used to translate certain ideas in the NT, but not in the OT. So my focus will be to those references alone. However, I don’t think my conclusions will contradict the OT.

16. Are you trying to “infer a concept of religion” from biblical texts?

I guess so; but more also to see how Chenchiah fits.

17. Also, not clear what is the “in India” component especially expressed through your title. How is your work for India?

It is true that I have not adequately shown this is my paper, but Balagangadhara’s paradigm of religion is in the context of India and will help me show how all this relates specifically to India.