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Blog // Thoughts
June 4, 2007

One Year On: What India Taught Me

It is now a year since we left India and arrived here in Hong Kong. Over the last week I’ve been thinking about this anniversary and, in particular, what the years in Delhi taught me. So it was interesting to hear Andrew Marr interviewing former BBC India Correspondent Mark Tully on the new book, India’s […]

It is now a year since we left India and arrived here in Hong Kong. Over the last week I’ve been thinking about this anniversary and, in particular, what the years in Delhi taught me.

So it was interesting to hear Andrew Marr interviewing former BBC India Correspondent Mark Tully on the new book, India’s Unending Journey. The book, in part, reflects upon the effect India has wrought on Tully’s world-view, which Marr summarised as “be less certain.”

“Be less certain, about almost everything; be less certain about your particular brand of religion; be less certain about free-market economics as an answer to everything; be less certain even about what has happened to sexuality in the western world.”

Tully saw that as a fair summary and in reply said,

“I believe very strongly that a healthy society is a society where there is a tension between change and tradition. And where tradition is given a voice.

And I think what we have lost in the west, is a value for tradition.”

To me modern India is an embodiment of just such a tension. Perhaps not the calm, Ghandi-ji style conversation westerners might imagine, but more of a rumbustious, anarchic argument; a tense tension.

L often summarises India by saying “it mostly works,” which at first may seem like damming the country with faint praise. But actually, it’s a much more appreciative statement – despite all the odds, all the limitations, all the challenges, it mostly works. It works because of enormous energy, creativity and non-conformity.

I recall hearing someone describe India as the greatest democracy in the world, because you can do whatever you like. Political distinctions aside, what does challenge an outsider at times is the sheer diversity of ways people can opt to live their lives, tackle their tasks and do their work. Sometimes it breeds enormous inefficiencies, bureaucracies and even petty crimes. But it also presents something of a vision of human freedom.

Or to put it anotherway, it is a lesson in grace.

Christians like to think they have a monopoly on the concept of grace – that all other religions are far more rigid and rule bound when it comes to human activity and redemption. But I was reminded over the weekend, talking with a friend from Delhi who was traveling through HK, that for so many believers in the west, frameworks of law and social normalcy form a tacit back-drop to their theological outlook.

It’s easy to think your religion is not about rule and law and conformity when you have all those things in place and just take them for granted. But when order and structure can’t be assumed, then grace becomes a real challenge.

It’s at the intersection of grace and providence, where living in India challenged my theology the most. Not towards universalism, but towards a more circumspect and less triumphalist outlook. I’m less certain of what Christianity should look like for others, less certain of how I would write my own theology and most of all, less certain of the ability of the church universal to embody the grace that it so often speaks of.

But, it is far from being all negative, because I believe as Christians we have a rich, cosmopolitan and diverse tradition to mine. I went to India interested in globalisation and in Delhi I was forced to embrace it’s sweaty, dusty reality. Such a focus keeps me attuned to the radical, wild, crazy anarchy that is human creativity (especially when fuelled by necessity). I believe we all have something to learn from looking deep into this river of humanity.

It is the extent to which we really cannot control the world, we cannot control people, we are not God. In this disorientation we can encounter how contingent and arbitrary our social norms really are, how improvisational humans (and maybe God) can be. Perhaps we can be confident without certainty?

I think we can, but only when we have something to lean on in these changing (and interesting) times. That’s where tradition comes back into focus and maybe that’s where the role of church will be in the future, especially for those of us in the creative class. Maybe the church for the contingent, mobile, creative, future-oriented believer really does need to be a library of historical theology, a cathedral of traditional faith, a sancturary of well-walked paths?

[tags] Theological Method [/tags]

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