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SummerFall 1999
Volume 4 Number 2

Close Encounters
of an
Indian Kind

by Barbara A. Chaapel

"One of the major reasons I came to Princeton Seminary was that it provided the ideal context in which to pursue the two tasks that have been central to my academic life," says Charles A. Ryerson, PTS’s recently retired Timby Professor of the History of Religions. "One was to be a reputable historian of religions. The other was to draw on my extensive and direct experience of India to aid in the Christian task of creating a "theology of encounter" with non-Christian religions.

Ryerson’s own theology of encounter began when he graduated from Oberlin College in 1955 and traveled to India as a teaching-study fellow at the American College in Madurai, South India. There for three years he taught English, fulfilling a passion to discover India born when he was a five-year-old growing up on a poultry farm near Newport, Rhode Island.ryerson1.jpg (20182 bytes)

That immersion into Indian culture and the Christian church in India as it encountered both Hinduism and Buddhism irrevocably changed Ryerson’s life and gave him a second home in the world.

He returned to India after earning his M.Div. from Union Seminary in 1961, and again in 1967 with the Overseas Department of the Episcopal Church. From 1970 to 1972, he was associate lecturer at the Tamil Nadu Theological Seminary in Madurai while completing research for his doctoral dissertation at Columbia University.

Looking back, Ryerson feels fortunate to have attended the founding meeting of the Christian Institute for the Study of Religion and Society (CISRS) in Madras in 1956. The dream of the late M.M.Thomas, it is recognized as the foremost Christian think tank in the Third World.

One of the few Westerners related to CISRS as a research associate, Ryerson developed a "dialogue" project there that issued in his book Encounter in South India. "I wasn’t even a committed Christian when I went to India," he says. "Not that I was non-Christian. I just wasn’t committed. India gave me my faith."

Before India, attending seminary, let alone teaching in one, "wasn’t even on my radar screen," he laughs. India propelled him to Union, where he studied ethics with Reinhold Niebuhr. That education, punctuated by trips to Madurai to learn the tamil language, involvement in the student protests in America’s Civil Rights and Vietnam era, and work as a Peace Corps instructor began to shape what Ryerson calls his "presence theology.’ He describes it as evolving a new way to think about mission — to be present in a society, to just be there, not to do anything.

And so a young Christian man studying the 2500-year-old tamil language among students 80% of whom were Hindu or Muslim learned that respect for the other is central to meaningful dialogue between religious traditions. This truth he took to teaching positions at Hunter College and Wichita State University, and finally, in 1979, to Princeton Seminary.

"I came to Princeton for the chance to overtly combine my theological interest with my interest in history of religions," Ryerson explains. "The incongruity of such a choice must have been God’s plan! I grew up in a town with the oldest Jewish synagogue in America, I claim Hindus and Muslims as intimate friends, yet I consider myself very Christocentric.

"I am an incarnationalist. Christ is present, risen, and working in the world. The Christian task is to try to discern in humility and faith what Christ is doing in a given context. If a Hindu converts, it is the Holy Spirit, it is not me or the church. I know God through Christ, but I think others can know God in other ways. I couldn’t be a Christian if I didn’t think Christ was somehow involved in Hinduism."

Most of all, Ryerson has loved his students. He taught only elective courses, and students wise enough to choose them had an enticing list: Buddhism, Hinduism, Encounter of Christian Faith with Other Faiths, Eastern Paths and Christian Explorations, God and Politics, and World Religions through World Literature, among others.

He also pioneered the Cross-Cultural Mission course, in which students spent a summer in India. (The course later expanded to include groups going to Indonesia, the Middle East, and Central America.)

"My students arrived in Bombay and didn’t see a Westerner for three or four weeks,’ Ryerson says. "They studied how faith must adapt and be adapted to, and they participated in church life. My goal for them was that they gain respect for other religions. The basic theological question we asked was the relation of faith to culture."

His teaching has been for Ryerson a work of love. "My students have been an enormous comfort to me,’ he says, a bit wistful to say farewell to his career. His hope for PTS? To realize that we do not live in a secular world, but a pluralistic one, a world full of religion.

"The search for transcendence is very much alive in the world," he says. "The secular is not evil; we do not need to circle the wagons to keep the world out. I have never been afraid of the world. I love the world."

And where in that world will Ryerson go next? "I’ll catch my breath a bit," he says, smiling, "and certainly return for some time to India. I can’t conceive of not going. I’ve been fortunate to have two lives at once."

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