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A Theological AnswerIt was an exciting day, when I received free copies of my printed dissertation: What is religion? It looked so much better than my thick-bound printout in the library archives. It made sense that I should publish. And certainly, this should not be the end. And now that my PhD dissertation is published (by Wipf & Stock and SAIACS Press) I have decided to pen my thoughts… about the publishing process. Hope that any doctoral student reading this will find it helpful. What I learned was quite surprising; publishing is not something to be feared, even though it does require some “more” hard work (so don’t get tired of your completed unpublished PhD dissertation just yet!).

Step #1. Say yes to publishing

This is something I had to learn, and I want to thank one of my mentors, Dr. Cor Bennema, for pushing me to publish. The end of doctoral research did not stop at “writing”, or even defending the work, but in publishing it, he would say. He urged me again and again to look for publishers, present my proposal and hope for the best. Personally, I felt “publishing” a dissertation was more like a vanity project, but his constant emphasis made me feel as if my work was incomplete until I could gain a larger readership.

Step #2. Look out for publishers as soon as your doctoral defense is over.
Do not delay the process. If you’re from a context like mine, where once we finished doctoral studies our sending institutions overload us with work!!!, then you won’t have much time to pursue publishers. So start early. Again, because of Cor’s “nagging”, I began the process of submitting my work for approval even before I had my bound copy. Now, though the entire process took over a year, I don’t regret it. (In fact, I’m really glad I started early).

Step#3: Look out for “good” publishers.

My own process of publishing was to work with the people instrumental in my dissertation. So, in India, my obvious choice was to print my dissertation through SAIACS Press (Bangalore), because I studied here, and also was going to work here. For my western printing, I looked to McGill University’s Press, because I studied at McGill for a while, and felt my work resonated with the concerns of the Religious Studies department. I looked at their author guidelines and submitted all the details I could about my work. Interestedly, they wrote back within a few weeks, but sadly they said “no” to printing my dissertation because they felt my work was “too theological” (while McGill tends to be more “religious studies” focussed), but they politely (very nicely in fact) suggested I look for a Press that prints Theological material.

My next step was to look around and a colleague was printing through Wipf & Stock (US). I looked by Wipf & Stock’s author guidelines and sent them another detailed mail about my work (which included sending them a sample chapter). Surprisingly for me, they accepted the work for published and asked me to begin the process of getting the document ready for printing.

I was delighted and told Cor about it.  He however said that I could have tried for a more “prestigious” Press. Personally I was too grateful/thankful that Wipf & Stock agreed, and I didn’t regret anything. Though if anyone (reading this post) is looking for advice, Cor would suggest that you look for the more established presses and then work downwards.

This could help with greater visibility and recognition. Personally, I liked working with Wipf & Stock, especially since they were mainly theology focussed (like my work), plus they had a good relationship with SAIACS Press and were more than willing to allow SAIACS to have the India South Asian rights. This, I felt, was quite generous of them, and feel that because they were a smaller press probably they were more flexible. I also found Wipf & Stock people very approachable and cordial. So all that worked out well for me.

Step #4: Your contract

Another thing to look out while choosing the publisher is to read the contract carefully, and see if you agree with the stipulations. Personally, and I suspect for most doctoral publishers, we’re so relieved that someone is publishing our work that we don’t care that we’re getting stiffed! J I think that Wipf & Stock offered an ok deal… but here again I appreciated my mentor’s advice.

Wipf & Stock, like many publishers nowadays, expects the author to bear some of the cost of publishing the book. So, I had to pay some money (I forgot how much) to help cover the cost of the book. Since I was in no way to afford paying for my own book, my mentor suggested that I offer to do the layout of the book in lieu of the payment, so that would help mitigate the cost. Wipf & Stock agreed, and so I didn’t have to pay anything.

Step #5: Edit / format your work properly.

This is something I regret. I was so “burned out” after working on my dissertation, that I paid very little attention to editing it. Sure I made several changes in the text, and the more I looked at it, the more I felt like editing it, but probably that’s why I just wanted to stay away. Instead, I hired a copy-editor to read and format the work for my publisher’s requirements. I hardly paid attention to detail, grudgingly clarified when my copy editor asked questions, and basically was relieved to get it out of my hands.

It was only when I had to make the index (and yes, I feel every dissertation needs and index), that I was horrified to find so many errors. I was relieved that I was reading the work myself, finally, but I wished I had more time to edit. I should have joined the initial editing process.

Step #6: Make an index.

Yes, I said it earlier, but I say it again. An index is a lot of work, and no matter what the technology, one cannot escape some level of manual labour. It took me several days of working full time to complete the index. But it was worth it simply because I caught so many errors while looking at the text carefully. Also, the work really looks more profession and is certainly more useful with an index. So don’t shirk on the responsibility: make the index.

Interestingly, my Wipf & Stock editors did not insist that I make the index and felt I didn’t really need it. But for the reasons I said above, I was really glad that I did make it. And now the book looks really good with the index backing-it-up.

Step #7:  Follow up

Here I recommend that we keep following up (gently) with the publishers, asking if there is any clarification needed etc. I didn’t do much follow-up and months went by. Until when I started writing back, the publishers told me that they had let the project slide a bit and promised to speed things up. So a gentle reminder to the publishers may help keep things moving.

Step #8: Marketing / Get contacts

It’s now a known fact that authors need to participate as much as possible in the marketing of their book. As the printing of the book drew nearer, the marketing team talked to me about contacts for recommendations of the book, and also contacts for which libraries, faculties, we should send the book too. Sadly, being in India, I had very few international contacts. And here, I feel, that it would really help if we keep an eye out on which libraries, which teachers/professors, we could send recommendations of the book to. I helped a bit, but this can be done so much better.

Step #9: Free copies / buying more

It’s really great to get your free copies… and I got four. It was really exciting. However, four copies were just not enough. My problem was that paying in dollars was never really possible for me, so I couldn’t order copies. I did hope that the South Asian edition would come soon, so I could have more “affordable” copies. But getting a South Asian edition of my book was tougher than I had anticipated, but that’s another story. (Featured in part 2 of this post)

Step #10: Set up a blog, or something like that, to help publicize your book

While my blog wasn’t really that successful (meaning there were hardly any visitors and google only showed it in the 2nd/3rd page), still it helped to have a place where I could direct friends and interested people to where they could find more information about the book. I intended the blog to be a place to talk about discounts, reviews (so far there have been none). It helped to use Facebook to direct “friends” to the blog. Whether it succeeds or not, I still think it’s a good idea to have something like this. So do it, if you can.

In this US, the Wipf & Stock site has the book listed here: https://wipfandstock.com/store/What_Is_Religion_A_Theological_Answer

penThere is a saying in Hindi, “Jab upar walah deta hai toh chapad phad ke deta hai” (roughly translated as, when God gives, he gives BIG! in both a blessed AND over-powering sense) And so in that context I really feel I have a little more than I can handle on my plate.

For those who have been following this space know that I am rushing against time to finish my chapter two (I submitted my chapter one to my supervisor yesterday, yeah!). Yet I have also to present a paper for a conference at McGill this weekend. It is a Graduate Student Conference, bringing many of the Canadian (and US?) university Graduate students together to present on a pre-determined theme. Details: http://rsgs.mcgill.ca/gradconference/about_2009.htm#schedule

The problem is that while what I am presenting is roughly within my research area… it is ONLY roughly within my research area. Which means I have to do some extra reading to come to speed with the topic. I still feel that I can finish the paper in a few days, because I have already done a lot of related research, but it sure feels like a pain to do somtehing “extra” when I am struggling to do my basic dissertation work.

But, the fact that my paper was selected among many applicants, and I am now one of 40! graduate students presenting… yes this conference is big… I know this can also be both a privilege and a learning experience (to be critiqued by fellow graduate students and also professors in the field of religious studies).

My paper is on the meaning of ritual, which I adapted from my dissertation study which is on the meaning of religion. And I am currently getting my grips on the research done on ‘ritual’. Not an easy task.

Nevertheless, the paper beckons and I feel I may have bitten more than I can chew (in terms of time). My only defense (for taking this on) is that I presented my proposal many months ago… not knowing what my personal academic situation would be like. Now I’m inundated in every sense. And my name, along with my article title and abstract, is already on the program. Perhaps there is a spiritual irony here somewhere.

So now I am forced to rely more on God’s grace. And hope to do a good paper. And then make up for lost time to work extra hard to complete my chapter two.

One positive thing I can take from this (at the moment, apart from the obvious “this exposure will be good for you” retort) is that I am already getting some more good ideas for my chapter two (as if I didn’t have enough already!).

Well… anyway… back to work, back to work.

The past few days (since my last post) have been busy, though not much significant to report.

Mainly I presented my first paper to my “Problems in Philosophy of Religion” class taught by Professor McLelland.  While the paper was harder to write than I initially thought; I was ultimately happy with the work and I think it was well-accepted.

Tyndale SeminarySoon after, I had the chance to visit Toronto for a day, and I spent the day at Tyndale Seminary. I met Dr. Leggett as well as Dr. Beverly (both of whom have in some ways been associated with SAIACS). I also attended their chapel, which is held at about 11:30am; and for the first time in a long time, I participated in ‘contemporary’ praise and worship. The ‘sermon’ was ‘preached’ by Douglas Faulkner, a physically challenged poet, who appealed (literally appealed) the student body to care for the physically disabled in their congregations, to encourage them, to make them feel useful; for when they do, they will indeed see that the physically challenged can and will be used significantly by God.

I even attended a part of the Christian Ethics class (taught by Dr. Beverly) and quite enjoyed it. They were discussing ‘weird churches’ and ‘euthanasia’ both current issues faces the members of the class. It was especially touching to hear stories of students who had seen their family members suffer and pass away in hospitals and having to deal with issues of ‘euthanasia’ face-up. I also roamed around Tyndale a bit, and the book store was quite impressive, though expensive. They had a very good selection of books; not just text books. I didn’t have much time to see the library though (had to catch my bus back), but will probably get the opportunity at a later date.

Then, both my McGill classes have ended. The “Theories of Religions” class (taught by Dr. Kanaris) was quite interesting especially since it was an undergraduate class. I found the quality of discussions and class presentations of quite a high standard; and was amazed at the high level of exposure the students have to important theories. Samples of the final exam questions are:

Deconstruction is a peculiar form of diagnostic analysis. According to Jacques Derrida, deconstruction is simultaneously critical and constructive. Discuss in what ways this is the case with respect to notions explicitly relevant to religious studies (e.g. faith, messianicity, chora, and justice).

and if that wasn’t enough, then the next question….

Postcolonial theories of society are replete with references to religion. Neither is concerned with advocating religious beliefs as is done in phenomenology or systematic theology. To identify their general manner of inquiry and relevance for religious studies, compare and contrast the positions of Michel Foucault and Edward Said.

And another question that ‘must’ be answered which is interestingly also pertinent to my dissertation work:

A key figure who has sparked debate about religious studies in the university is Russell T. McCutcheon. In Manufacturing Religion (1997) McCutcheon takes on the institution of religious studies (qua classical phenomenology) as a self-validating discipline that constitutes its object of study (‘religion’) in a form that is ahistorical, apolitical, fetishized, and sacrosanct. As a result scholars of religion guard their field with a veneer of objectivity that is implicitly, complicity (in his view), theological. Interestingly, theologians and religionists have taken McCutcheon’s critique as an opportunity to rethink not only religious studies as a viable academic pursuit but theology as well. The arguments of Sheila Greeva Davaney, Linell E. Cady and Paula M. Cooey complement one another and build a mounting case. Weave their points together into a uniform argument for academic theology and religious studies as academic. In outlining your essay be clear about the positions being argued, pro and con; identify what allows these scholars to offer what at first seems counter-intuitive given McCutcheon’s views. You migh also state your opinion after organizing the material as described.

So, to remind you, this is UNDERGRADUATE, ie. Bachelor’s level. And I must admit that some Masters students in India would struggle to answer these questions, let alone understand the question. The reason I put the questions up however, is to point positively to the current research being exposed to the students at such an early stage. Meaning, they are doing Derrida, Foucault, Said, even McCutcheon. Most of these people are exposed in Indian seminaries/universities, only at a much later stage in their learning (too late, in my opinion).

Anyway, apart from all this, I also attended another Doktorklub, this time on “Barth’s view of Time and Eternity.” I found again that most specialist papers are received with ‘blank stares’ from the audience except by the faculty present or one/two daring students. Either Doktorklubs should present papers that are pertinent to the entire audience, or the students/audience should dare to dig deeper into the presenter’s thoughts to find the exercise useful. Most importantly, I think SAIACS has got it right by giving the papers in advance, because it at least provides the opportunity to grapple with the issues presented.

So that’s that. As you can see I’ve been busy. Now with the term end approaching, most of my work will shift to the libraries and my research. My next term engagements include attending a class in Concordia University, and hopefully more time in Toronto, hopefully in Toronto University.

gavelOn November 6-7, McGill hosted the “What is Religion?” symposium in honour of former Dean, Prof. B. Barry Levy. The inspiration of the symposium came from a legal case known in Canada as “Syndicat Northcrest vs. Amselem.” The case, was about a religious dispute in Montreal between a Jewish tenant who wanted to build a succah for a religious ceremony and the building owners didn’t allow him because their contract denied building anything additional to the current structure. The details of the case is found in the Wikipedia article found here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Syndicat_Northcrest_v._Amselem. The following post is my notes and reactions from that event, which, in short was extremely stimulating (the best lectures I’ve attended at McGill so far).

The following is also a long post, so if you want to read further click on the continuing “read the rest of this entry” link.

Read the rest of this entry »

classroom

I’ve been attending an undergraduate class at McGill… just to give me some exposure of the workings of undergrad classes (for comparison sake, to India) and also to gain some “fill in the blank” knowledge for my field.

However, Just yesterday, the discussion in class was about Cantwell Smith, and the comments by students in the class (including by the teacher), seemed to miss the later movement of Cantwell Smith’s academic journey. I felt Smith was being misunderstood and so I spoke up, giving my perspective of what I thought Smith was moving towards… which I felt would help us understand him better if we viewed his overall programme.

I was cut short by the teacher… and then, the teacher said that while he appreciated that I knew Cantwell Smith… I was, simply put, wrong (he didn’t say it like that, but that’s basically what he meant).

I couldn’t help but feel hurt/upset… especially since I still felt I was right. (and of course, what would all these younglings in the class think of me!!!)

After class I met the teacher (who has been amazingly nice to allow me to attend in the first place). And he said he agreed with me… !!! just disagreed with my emphasis on one point (which I actually didn’t make).

Hmm. I then realised that perhaps I did in fact mis-speak… and it was not the appropriate space to talk about the details of Cantwell Smith… as if it was an open discussion about Smith… in an under-grad class that is still simply looking at the basics. So, in effect, while my position was not really wrong (in my opinion)… it was wrong to speak out in a way that was inappropriate to the context of the class.

What’s interesting in all this is that similar classroom dynamics play out in Indian universities/colleges as well!

Details: Interfaith Conference on “Scriptural Authority and Status in World Religions”, Thursday, October 16, 2008, at Brks Chapel, McGill University. The conference is co-sponsored by McGill Faculty of Religious Studies and Canadian Sikh Council, to celebrate the 300 year anniversary of the Guru Granth Sahib.

This was my first “seminar” at McGill. Basically, it was a whole day devoted to lectures by significant (and maybe less significant?) Religious Studies faculty of two main universities in Montreal (McGill and Concordia), with some time to ask questions, and a really good lunch! :) The lectures were structured with each “religion” spokesperson being allotted about 30 minutes to talk about the topic (and it was mainly a talk/lecture and not really a paper), and then the floor was open for questions/clarification. There were about 30-40 people in the audience, the majority being Sikh scholars and laypeople, partly because they must have advertised heavily about this event to their community.

While such a conference was promising, it was sad that most of the speakers avoided the central topic and spent most of their time informing their audience (who I would have expected to be learned), ABOUT the scriptures of the various religions, rather than actually dealing with the specific issue of their “authority”.

Thus for instance, the first speaker, Mathieu Boisvert (Université du Québec à Montréal), who ominously started the first presentation with the words “I forgot my notes”, informed the audience about the in-text narratives about the formation of the Buddhist texts for about 20 minutes to then quickly rush to make his point that the Buddhist scripture has authority because the community gives it authority. Furthermore, “I don’t think it is important whether Buddha actually said [what is recorded in the text]. What is important… is that a group of people kept those texts alive… through many generations.” In this statement Boisvert was able to discredit issues of history (asserting that it was his scholarly opinion) while making an obvious point.

The second lecture was by T. S. Rukhmani (Concordia University), who took by Hinduism. She had a long paper that was speedily read,  which once again spent most effort in informing the audience about the various types of literature. Even while her survey was extensive, with notes about their role in Hindu community, her main assertion was the primacy of the Vedas. From this I surmise that the traditional understanding of the “authority” of Vedas continues to permeate some forms of Hinduism.  Rukhmani’s talk took an interesting turn during the question/answer session when she was asked about historicity the Birthplace of Ram (Ayodhya) in light of the Babri Masjid issue. She promptly said that she refused to answer the question because it dealt with politics and she was presenting a scholarly paper. She however added, “When religion is used for a political end it definitely gets distorted” and furthermore, “it is wrong to use the text for your ends”. Both these final statements were unexamined/unexplained, and in the light of the central issue of the Conference, it was a sad omission. I would think that this conference would have been best served by answering precisely these questions; in view for instance of what makes even her assertion about the “right” use of Hindu scripture valid?

Then, disappointingly, though not unexpectantly (considering the first statment by Boisvert), the Islam scholar (Patrice Brodeur, never even showed up). And so, we listened to an ad-hoc lecture by Sheila McDonough (Concordia) who talked about Wifred Cantwell Smith and his views about Islam. Hmm. Enough said.

After an excellent Lunch, in McGill’s New Residence, literally a Hotel which they bought for student residences!!!, we returned for our next set of lectures.

Ellen Aitken (McGill University) talked about Christianity. I would think that at least the Christian discussion would yeild more to-the-topic discussion since the issue is very much central (at least historically) to Christian doctrine. And it was, with Aitken dealing with various subheadings from the nature of the scripture to the authority of the scripture and the use of the scripture… all within the context of a diverse Christian community. The central point was that while scripture has been seen to have authority in Christianity, because of the diversity of Christianity, it is difficult to find commonality on what that exactly means. Now this was an interesting point, even though Aiken had to rush to make it because she ran out of time. But after all this, in the discussion session, she asserted that the Jesus Seminar is doing good work and that most of what Jesus said in the Gospels is not really historical. In a sense, there was a clear imposition of authority by the “scholar” over the text, that was not critically examined by Aitken; which once again made me wonder whether we were dealing honestly about the issue of “scriptural authority” in this conference.

In direct contrast to the Christian lecture, that more than anything suggested a lack of reliability, came the presented of the Sikh scriptures by B. S. Bhogal (Hofstra University, New York). Bhogal is an extremely eloquent Sikh professor, and while he too did not sufficiently deal with issues of the “authority” of the Guru Granth Sahib, he talked extremely positively about the Sikh religion and scriptures… it was almost a promotion of the Sikh faith.

Ironically, this was the session that some graduate/undergraduate students attended. In fact, they attended the closing part of the Christianity lecture that ended with the tone of inadequacy and they got to hear Bhogal’s faith-in-scripture tone that especially asserted a message about plurality of truths and cooperation of religions… certainly got the students nodding their heads (and certainly got me thinking about how poor Christianity probably seems to the western intellectuals).

The final session was Bery Levy, on Judaism (McGill). He asserted that the Jewish way of looking at their ancient scriptures can be a paradigm for how other religions look at their scriptures (whether they accept the way or not, at least as a dialogue paradigm). His main assertion however was that there are intellectuals who look at the scripture critically and there are non-intellectuals (devotionalists?) who look at the text uncritically… to suggest differing attitudes towards scripture… once again displaying the need for a more extensive study on the issue of authority OF scripture.

Anyway, Arvind Sharma (McGill) summed up the conference with some questions, one of them was when we look at scripture are we looking for certainty or are we looking for truth? It’s hard to see what this had to do with the topic, and yet, summed up the conference in its diversity quite well.

My own further comments

Don’t get me wrong, I really enjoyed attending the seminar. I even found it stimulating at times. I guess I just have to learn to handle (and get used to) the frustration about seminars/conferences not really sticking to the original mandate.

One of the things I learned from all this was the heavy reliance on the functional/phenomenological way of looking at religion in the current field of study. Which is to say, the focus is more on the phenomenon of religion, the visibles of religion (like scripture being USED as scripture) rather than the theology (the ideology/the faith as true) part of the religion. This visible-only evaluation of religions allows scholars to remain agnostic or unbelievers about the ontological assertions and allow them to view only the ‘reactions’. And it does raise an important question for my own work… is this the ONLY way of legitimately looking at religion, especially the ‘religion’ you do not believe in? Or is a theological orientation valid/needed/recommended?

Anyway, I’m sure I’ll be thinking about this more in the future. especially since I have a load of other seminar/conferences coming up.

This is more of a personal testimonial written for the benefit of a few friends who know that I have been against “foreign” education for a while. However, now that I am going for a study trip as a doctoral exchange student to Canada (for 9 months), I feel the need to explain how I got to the position of not only accepting a “foreign” component for my doctoral research, but actually looking forward it.

In 2003, the then-principal of SAIACS invited me to join SAIACS for the doctoral programme as faculty in training. In SAIACS the policy was usually that a talented “MA” student was invited for doctoral education, with the hope that after completing their MA they could finish their doctoral work within 4 years. The catch was that they had to go abroad, to the UK, to do it… since Indian MA’s could not go on to do doctoral work in Seminaries/Bible Colleges without an MTh. I joined SAIACS on the condition that I would not go abroad for this programme, and expressed my desire to do my preparation in India itself. The then-principal at that time said that he would still urge a foreign exposure for a few months, and I said, “we can talk about that later.”

Not all my reasons for not going abroad were noble, but the better part of my rationale included the frustration with Indians who went off abroad and never came back, and even with Indian Christians who went abroad and returned with concepts/research that was totally irrelevant to the Indian context (I knew both types).  Notice that both were inspired by negative realities, even if the positive “Indian Christians must be educated in India to be most effective for India” was in the back of my mind.

Since I was doing my programme in India, I had to do the MTh programme (I joined the Theology department), which took 2 years. Then I had to take a break (like an internship) for one year, and then I had to do my Pre-Doctoral programme for another year to then start my dissertation work (four years, only to get started!) (Naturally my family and friends were surprised that I hadn’t even started my doctoral studies, when they thought I was going to SAIACS to get a PhD.)

Through my MTh programme I was struck by how little I knew, and how much I needed to grow. I was constantly faced by faculty who reminded me that if we don’t try to push the bar, we will be stagnant and limited. One famous line to me was, “you can only grow as tall as the trees around you.” Thankfully, while I was immensely challenged by doing my MTh in SAIACS, I also realised that SAIACS (India) had very tall trees (ie. there was enough to stimulate deep and significant thinking). I must say for the record that the SAIACS MTh (in Theology) is quite rigorous and of a very high standard. Yet, to reach a personal high-standard one needs to personally push the bar and try harder. I found myself having to resist (and sometimes being forced to resist) the temptation of choosing easier topics to instead choose difficult research assignments so that I would get greater exposure.  In effect I found the SAIACS and UTC libraries more than sufficient to meet the high-standards required for an excellent academic pursuit in the MTh level.

However, once I finished my MTh programme and started research towards my doctoral studies, I was struck by how much harder the doctoral programme was from the MTh, and more so how much stronger our doctoral programmes need to be to inspire our students. I say this simply because in SAIACS I was the only Theology doctoral student, while I realised that even though getting a PhD is a lonely affair, a good foreign university would have at least 5-10 students in my specific department (depending on where I go). There would also be systems in place, such as regular seminars and publications, geared to sharpen one-another (again, within the department). Most of all, I realised that there would be many many more books, with global exposure, on things related to my subject area. I realised that while there was a lot of rich potential in Indian Christian colleges, even SAIACS, I felt a deep need for greater support and specialised peer, teacher and resource help.

If I was to evaluate, I think India (especially if we choose a relevant topic) can offer at least 70% of research material and methodology help. But what about the other 30%. I began to see that at least some exposure abroad was not only helpful, but currently essential for students wanting to do a high-quality (international standards) dissertation.

It eventually came to pass that my disseration supervisor and the SAIACS administration decided to to send me abroad, to Canada, for one-academic year, to not only gain research help, but also gain exposure of the foriegn universities. The goal was to not only improve the quality of my disseration but become more effective to help improve doctoral systems here in India. That just confirmed my feelings (desires) and my vision (of wanting Indian Christian studies to improve).

So why Canada?

The answer to “why Canada?” is simple. My disseration supervisor is Canadian and has contacts with McGill university in Montreal, where I will be studying (though I’ll be going through The Presbyterian College). Also, since my topic is on the “Theology of Religion”, I would find a lot of material on the “religion” side of things in McGills strong “Religions” department. I may not get that much help from McGill for my theological component, considering McGill is a secular university, but I’m hoping to make a few quick trips to some Toronto and Ottawa seminaries for that (if funding comes through, that is).

There may even be a possibility of going to to UK for short-term research project as well, but that’s another story… and another time (perhaps).

Conclusion…

I am still doing my PhD from SAIACS. I will get no academic credits in McGill and all my research work is to be submitted to SAIACS. This is exactly what I wanted, to do my PhD in India. However, I also gain valuable exposure in a premiere university and at least another perspective to things.

I still believe that Indian Christians are best equipped if they study in India.

However, I have gained a deeper appreciation of doctoral studies by recognising firstly that it is a global affair, and secondly, that the systems in India (not just SAIACS), are still in their infancy and are not yet read to provide 100% help to doctoral students in Theology.

As Indian students therefore we gain with some foreign exposure, as long as we DO COME BACK, and as long as we can stay focussed on exactly what we’re doing, and why.

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:

WHAT IS RELIGION?: A MULTI-PARADIGMATIC EVALUATION OF CHENCHIAH’S ‘THEOLOGY OF RELIGION’ WITH IMPLICATIONS FOR A ‘THEOLOGY OF RELIGIONS’ IN INDIA

(post updated on 25 April, 2008)

RESEARCH ABSTRACT

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.

SOME COMMENTS FROM MY PROPOSAL DEFENCE

(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.

The dichotomy between the academia and the “real” world is fake, because there’s no such thing as a ‘real’ world if it does not also include the spaces of learning that really exist.Yet somehow a dichotomy exists in people’s minds, so that when a student is finishing her/his studies, it is usually (wrongly) said that she/he is looking forward to getting back to the ‘real’ world. I mean, is the academic world not real? Does it have different rules for gravity; social relations than anything else on the planet? Surely schools/colleges/institutions/small clusters, are as much part of the real world as slums/dhabas/government buildings/taj mahal etc.

Nevertheless, what is usually MEANT when this dichotomy is called upon is that the academic world deals with theoretical issues, while the real world is more practical. This too is a false dichotomy, because theory needs to be applied to the discipline of studies/reflection (is thinking not practical?) and in the non-academic world surely people their work has some theoretical basis and discussion. Do we non-academicians not have a lot to say about how the government should run, cricket should be managed, city to become more organised. The fact here too remains that even theory and practice are merged in ‘reality’; but separated in people’s mindset.

Still, there is something to be said about a division. In that, the academic (real) world operates with a set of rules and dispositions that are very different from say a church, or even a workplace. What can be said, and is intuitively meant, is that when academicians meet other spaces (like Church, workplace, fun-place etc), there is an interaction possible that can strengthen both the academician as well as the other space (whatever it be).

It is really irritating when academicians believe that lay people need a simplification of the message, when in fact they need a straightforward clear message. Usually scholars patronise the audience, but actually the audience is just as smart as scholars, just they don’t have the exposure or the language to discourse with scholars. Thankfully the students did not display a patronising attitude towards the audience. The fact that they were scared must have helped!!!

And this was the intention when Dr. David Housholder, who taught Christian Education to the theology class at SAIACS, helped organise a Christian Education seminar where the Theology students would be resource persons for “lay” (church going) practitioners on February 23, 2008, at Indra Nagar Methodist Church, Bangalore (India).

The whole day seminar was organised mainly to raise important theological issues that need to be considered for further strengthening our already-existent christian education programmes. And each of the theology students presented a paper for about 15 minutes, brought together by Dr. David Housholder and Mrs. Leela Mannaseh (From Bible Society, India).

As I sat in the seminar, I couldn’t help but look to see how the theology students, all of whom I have been involved with for about two years, interacted in this new setting. My concern was more to see how/whether students from the academic space could adapt to different, especially urban church contexts.

I was encouraged as well as reminded of the difficulty of the task.

The student presentations were generally good. They all made an excellent summary of theological points that related to Christian Education. A total of seven paper presentations was a little too much, but all credit to the students for trying to keep things straightforward without harking for too much simplicity. It is really irritating when academicians believe that lay people need a simplification of the message, when in fact they need a straightforward clear message. Usually scholars patronise the audience, but actually the audience is just as smart as scholars, just they don’t have the exposure or the language to discourse with scholars. Thankfully the students did not display a patronising attitude towards the audience. The fact that they were scared must have helped!!!

The weaknesses that was straight-away evident though, was the format of the Christian Education seminar. With too much emphasis given for paper presentations, there was no avenue to actually dialogue with the Church audience/practitioners. In effect, while the students gained some valuable experience in presenting papers in a strange (different) audience, there was no actual (genuine) feedback possible because there was little/no time for interaction.

Sadly, such a format would only lead to the continuation of belief that scholars/specialists have a top-down (teaching) approach while the Church audience are only sheep/flock to be talked to… who will learn anything that we give them. This is not true. And yet, there are so few spaces where specialists (like theologians) can actually sit with (secular) professionals and lay practitioners as equals in common dialogue.

SAIACS students at the Christian Education Seminar at Indra Nagar Methodist Church, Bangalore

SAIACS students at the Christian Education Seminar at Indra Nagar Methodist Church

Nevertheless, if the format of the seminar was a weakness, still there was a lot of positive to be gained. Firstly, exposure is not a bad thing. And I think the students gave the audience something new to think about. Secondly, even the reverse exposure was helpful… in that the scholars in making, the theology students, were challenged to rethink their own communication styles to see how to more clearly present their own work. It was good to see them struggle to be clear; but I think they would all know that they will be clearer the next time they get an opportunity to present to such an audience.

So, in effect, the interaction between these two spaces was a good start towards something… and perhaps a part of a journey that people are already on. We want to learn, we need to teach simply. And it seems likely that as practising thinkers and thinkers who practice we will always have the opportunity to communicate more clearly, and listen more attentively.

This is a brief response to the Joint Statement of Seminar on the “Use and Abuse of the Bible” held at ECC, Whitfield (near Bangalore), India, from December 5-8, 2007. The statement is found on the previous post (click here to read it)

Briefly, I want to start by saying that while I do not have much experience in attending conferences, out of the four conferences I have attended in the past two months (heavens!!!), this was the best in terms of possibilities of involving the participants. Each day ended with a small group discussion on some of the days proceedings. The small groups had then to make a statement of the discussion that would be shared with the whole group. While there is room for improvement–for instance, the joint statements tended to be non-controversial (regardless of personal convictions), and so there was no discussion about the statements, only a gentle acquiescence–still, it was great that it practically (realistically) encouraged participation.

On to the comments.

My main grouse with the final statement is that it could be drafted before the seminar was conducted. It has hardly anything that was not written or known before. In fact, much of the phraseology is quite similar to the hermeneutics papers that I have read during class and even written. This is not to say that the conclusions are simplistic; they are profound in implications. But still, the fact that there is nothing new, suggests that many people attending the conference came with predispositions that were confirmed (not challenged) during the conference.

The other main grouse with the unclear distinction between biblical text and the Word of God; a statement that is not different from what many scholars have propounded, including Karl Barth who famously made this distinction. It is not clear, in the statement, whether we are believing theologians like Karl Barth and thus restating their point, or actually saying something unique about God and His Word.

Personally, I accept the view that the biblical text is different from the Word of God, especially if we accept that Jesus Christ is the Word of God; the biblical text in effect is a witness to the Word of God, and thus is derivatively the “word of God” (notice the small case). Now this is simply accepting Karl Barth’s view, and I admit to the influence.

What the scholars in the ECC Seminar however were saying (from my understanding) was that “within” the biblical text, in a mysterious way, lies the “Word of God”, a unique, pure, truth, that is like a wheat covered by a contextual-cultural chaff (and thus oppressive conditioned words and forms). Basically, I have a feeling that many of the people in the room wanted to hold on to faith in the “true” Bible, a hidden subtext or even a resonating truth which is contained in the text, but is not clearly seen (and therefore not clearly known in the Church) because it it is trapped in a cultural and contextual prison. We admit that the biblical text is not only a God-inspired response and witness to the Word of God, but is inadvertently also a political, historical, ideological, social and even gender-biased collection of texts. As a result, we recognize that the Bible has been used to oppress subalterns such as women, Dalits, tribals and other socially ostracized communities.”

Therefore, a few scholars at that table may argue that the Bible as we have it today is corrupted. And more importantly, we must make an effort to recover the truth behind the corruption. “We seek to recover the Word of God from the biblical text.” This is quite akin to the hermeneutics of suspicion project evidenced especially in Liberation, Black, Feminist, Queer (et al) Theologies; especially the conservative kind that do not want to throw the proverbial baby with the bath water.

The problem with this belief is that it assumes that the Word of God can be known outside the cultural embellishments, or at least believes that our own cultural constructs of the “pure” Bible are better than our predecessors, especially the biblical writers/editors. It is not hard to see the irony behind such assertions; especially since our own constructs tend to be “oppressive” and “narrow”, the very thing that we accuse the biblical writers of being. It also fails to recognise recent studies in literary and narrative criticism that assert that the meaning of the text lies exactly in the WAY the text is constructed, ESPECIALLY in its cultural/literary context.

Nevertheless, instead of giving the author or text to determine the meaning of the text, the proposal seems to suggest that the “true” meaning of scripture lies in the reconstruction of the text, especially through the eyes of a hermeneutical key which they “believe” is normative for all readings (thus limiting a free-for-all reader response reading). We look to liberate the Bible from these oppressive tendencies. We do not reject the text but employ liberative re-readings of the text to encourage the emancipation and empowerment of the oppressed.”

Yet what does “liberation” even mean? And the answer, is again a disappointingly mysterious Christic-sensitivity. Most importantly, however, we recognize the need for ‘Christic sensitivity’ in our readings of the text especially as guides to our liberative and contextual readings.” By this thing called Christic-sensitivity some of the scholars from the seminar seem to believe that our “liberative motif” will have a direction that is both correct and helpful.

The problem with a Christic-sensitivity is that there is little understanding of what is actually means, and particularly which Christic-sensitivity are we talking about (especially in view of the fact that different traditions have differing versions of who Christ is). In effect, it is not a far-cry to think that the Christic-sensitivity being promoted is actually a Christ of justice. And yet, that Christ of justice is used to guide our liberative motif. Certainly a cyclical and unhelpful defense.

Finally, the proposal that we make a “lay peoples” commentary is commendable; especially in the context of William Barclay’s own work (since the Seminar was held in his honour). “We feel the need to integrate the findings of the Conference with Christian institutions and lay people in a language that is clear and meaningful. In this regard, we look forward to the development of a ‘People’s Bible Commentary’ in the near future.” And yet, I wonder what that commentary would look like. What re-reading would we be offering? What would be the guiding principle among various denominations? Would we all agree about what makes something liberative and what does not? How would this mysterious “Christic-sensitivity” be manifest?

In actual fact, the entire project would hang on the modern-day authors’ contextual conditioning. Our own assertions would be coloured by our own cultural leanings; and would they be oppressive to others, for instance to lay people who subscribe to fundamentalist liberative readings?

Anyway, all these comments are not to be negative about the conference. The conference was extremely stimulating and even helpful in many ways. In fact, I believe that the conference was a step forward in that the final statement reflected the hermeneutical struggles that the Church, even the Indian church, faces. Even though many of the concerns and solutions have already been referenced in western literature, at least we can see that we are not that isolated in our questions and in our answers from the rest of the world.

More importantly, the conference also got us talking about hermeneutics as an important thing for lay people to understand; no one can escape its implications. Whether we accept or reject the implications of the “statement,” at least we can all agree that hermeneutics of the biblical text is prevalent at a sub-conscious level; and need to think more deeply, consciously, and all of us together, on how the way we read the affects (and should affect) our understanding of what God is REALLY telling the world.

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