Central Kerala is the one place in India that there has been a lasting mass movement to Christianity among a high caste group. The Syrian Orthodox Church and its evangelical offspring, the Mar Thoma Church, trace their origins to the apostle Thomas. The group came under the influence of the Eastern Orthodox Church and from the 6th century on they were officially part of it. This church’s theology, organization, and liturgy are immensely different from that of Western Christendom.
The ethos of the Eastern church focuses on the visualization of the faith. Their liturgy is a dramatic ritual enacted by priests before the congregation, and their theology is conveyed to the masses through icons and ancient paintings. The goal is to incorporate the congregant into the drama of salvation through spiritual experience. It is evocative theology. This ethos is much more akin to the Hindu mentality than that of the cognitive theologizing of the Western church traditions.
We find this visualization utilized also in the Orthodox tradition of meditation on icons. A painting becomes an icon when it has proven to be spiritually inspirational and effective over the centuries. These ancient paintings were the “Bible” of the illiterate masses, conveying the central truths of the gospel. They were – and are – the method of transformative contemplation in monasteries. Once again, such devotional visualization is customary in Hindu tradition.
In Eastern Orthodox theology, the salvific event is not primarily the crucifixion. It is the Incarnation and the Resurrection. God become man in Christ and became the Second Adam, incorporating all humanity in Himself and in His righteous life. (Rom 5:12-21) In His resurrection, He conquers death and takes all humanity with Him, setting the captives free (Eph 4:8, Heb 2:14-15, Col 2:15, Rev. 12:10), as portrayed in the paintings/icons below. Try meditating on them and let them speak this good news to you. The Latin inscription: “Christ has conquered death by His strong power and destroyed hell.”
The proclamation of salvation is not focused on the crucifixion as the gruesome penalty for sin demanded by the Father. We know the sensitive Hindu is offended by such violence and retribution. He thoughtfully questions to whom this ransom is paid and why. The proclamation of God as love is compromised and confused.
In contrast, in the Eastern Orthodox approach, we present Jesus’ life as a victorious drama over sin, death, and Satan.
Here are some other observations about the Eastern Orthodox approach:
- It is much more akin to the Hindu mentality and religious traditions.
- It is rooted in the cultures of the East.
- It connects with the one-third of Christendom in the Eastern Orthodox churches.
- It draws from a tradition that has the clearest historical links to the apostolic church.
- It carries forward the earliest tradition of the faith in India.
- Its use of visualization calls us to transformative spiritual experience.
- It has been the historically most successful presentation of Christ among high caste Hindus.
In our outreach, we may do well to proclaim the faith through visual, evocative means, focusing on Jesus’ victorious resurrection.