Spring 2002
Volume 6 Number 3
 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Kashmir: Religion and Nationhood | Valuable Contributions: Indian Professor Spends Year at PTS  | Returning to India’s Religious Mix  | New Ph.D. Student Arrives from Bangalore


Valuable Contributions: Indian Professor Spends Year at PTS 

by Erika Marksbury


“I am a convert,” says P. Daniel Jeyaraj, who is from India and is this year’s PTS John A. Mackay Professor of World Christianity, as he looks straight ahead, his eyes carrying the weight of what he’s about to say. “When I became a Christian in 1980, my friends accused me of joining the most exploitative institution in the world—the church. They also said the church, as a ‘foreign institution,’ has always caused the cultural and social dislocation of its adherents in India.” 

P. Daniel Jeyaraj

   P. Daniel Jeyaraj

His friends were not the only ones who disapproved. “Some of my family,” he continues, “still will not talk to me. They say being a Christian is infamous because they believe Christianity is a begging religion.” Stretching his palm out in front of him, slightly cupped, to illustrate, he quotes what he has often heard from one of his uncles: “In Christianity, you are always expecting somebody to give something to you; so, you can never turn your hand to give.”

Finding these reactions to Christianity strange, Jeyaraj decided to examine cross-cultural encounters between Indians and missionaries. His research began with an inquiry into an early translation of the Bible into Tamil, his mother tongue and the language in which he first read Scripture. This led him to research the first Protestant mission to India in 1706, and he has for the past 11 years been studying the original documents of the Royal Danish-Halle Mission (i.e. the Tranquebar Mission, named for the small southern Indian village Tarangambadi, where the German missionaries worked). Jeyaraj learned that when these Western missionaries arrived in India, they found a civilized culture and sought to understand the people’s belief systems and customs. They then translated the Bible into the language of the common people (not of the elite), and in 1712 acquired a printing press to print tracts and hymnals. Their aim, he says, was to disseminate the good news of Jesus Christ in a relevant way: “Many responded to the good news that God loves them regardless of their social or religious standing and invites them to follow him; it affirms their human dignity.”

Contradicting his family’s fear that Christianity is a begging religion, Jeyaraj is now a teacher who stretches out his hands to give. He believes that “shared knowledge never decreases,” and has come to share his Eastern perspective with this part of the Western world. 

Princeton annually invites a distinguished international scholar to occupy the chair in world Christianity, which was established in 1986 through gifts of alumni/ae to honor the Seminary’s third president, John A. Mackay, who himself was a missionary and theologian in Central and South America. These scholars expose students to a variety of theological voices from beyond North America and Europe. When offered the Mackay professorship for this academic year, Jeyaraj held the Aaron Chair for the History of Christianity at Gurukul Lutheran Theological College and Research Institute in Madras. 

This academic year at PTS, he has taught “A Survey of the History of Missions,” “The Influence of the Royal Danish-Halle Mission on India and Europe,” “Ecumenical Issues from an Indian Perspective,” and “A Survey of Indian Christian Theology.” Jeyaraj’s goal for these classes, however, is to do more than just provide information.“My research and teaching experience in Western countries,” he says (his doctorates—one in historical theology, another in ecumenics and religions—come from Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg in Germany), “includes encountering many Christians who feel very guilty about missions. They usually associate Christian mission with colonialism, exploitation of the natural and human resources of a country, and destruction of a people’s social identities. But I try to help especially my students in the U.S. to understand that Christian faith leads to the transformation and ennoblement of human life. Mission is not necessarily an imposition, not an act of violence, not a reason for pride—but rather a humble invitation to come to Jesus Christ and to reorient life according to the principles of his teaching.” 

While he acknowledges that mission has caused conflicts and been the source of suffering for many, and while he believes that this fact must be regretfully remembered, Jeyaraj fights the idea that all Christian mission is oppression. Instead, he shares with his students that “the good news of Christ, among other things, means liberation from social and economic oppression.” He also tells them “what the liberated people have to say about their experience of following Christian faith.” Jeyaraj knows such people personally; his mother, a coolie (“daily-wage worker”) in India, who encouraged him to become a teacher, is one of those for whom “Christian faith brought deliverance.” 


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