Robert de Nobili’s Approach


from Neil

I’d like to continue thinking about how the relationship of Christianity with other religions can actually become a source for mutual enrichment, instead of the violence that sadly seems to mark our times. In response to my last post, Steve Bogner mentioned the seventeenth century Jesuit missionaries, Matteo Ricci and Robert de Nobili, and “how they adapted and immersed themselves in their local cultures (China & India), finding certain truths there and gaining credibility.” Steve writes, “From what I read, both they and their targeted converts were beneficiaries of those efforts.” Let’s take a few minutes, then, to look at Robert de Nobili, perhaps the lesser known of the pair. I’ll be indebted to the work of Nobili’s fellow Jesuit, Francis X. Clooney, throughout.

De Nobili, originally Italian, lived in Madurai, India from 1606 to, roughly, 1656. Recognizing that the existing Catholic mission there had proven ineffective in evangelizing Hindus because it forced any would-be converts to adopt an alien culture, de Nobili presented himself as a traditional Indian guru, followed Brahmin rules, and thoroughly familiarized himself with Hindu literature and the Sanskrit language. De Nobili justified his “inculturation” by drawing parallels between Indian and classical cultural practices that were, in his opinion, naturally good and retainable, even if they had become associated with pagan accretions. If the ancient Romans did not change the way they dressed after conversion in the third and fourth centuries, surely the Brahmin thread did not have to be forbidden now. De Nobili also pointed to the Incarnation – Jesus Christ came to directly show human beings how to live, which involved speaking according to a local pattern of words and images. The contemporary missionary should be able to imitate Christ by also fully entering into a local context. Finally, De Nobili was sure that reason and its structures did not change from culture to culture, so the translation of Christian doctrine into Tamil concepts had to be possible.

The question for us is whether De Nobili merely presented (perhaps even disguised) the same Christianity in a more convenient form for his Asian listeners, or whether his own understanding of the Christian faith actually developed because of his adoption of Indian practices. Francis Clooney asks, “Is it likely that someone could live for fifty years in a Hindu environment, eat and live and dress like a Hindu, learn Hindu scriptures and philosophy, internalize Hindu dialectics sufficiently so as to argue adeptly with Hindus – without interiorizing and ‘owning’ some of that religion and religious truth?” Can we say that a real “mutual enrichment” took place during De Nobili’s years in South India?

Clooney says yes. While de Nobili consistently criticized such Hindu doctrines as reincarnation and dismissed goddess worship as fruitless idolatry, his depiction of Christ as the divine guru come down to earth “potentially sheds new light on the meaning of the Incarnation itself.” For his Indian readers, de Nobili described the human condition as marred by the sickness of desire. “It is therefore necessary that humans renounce desire completely in order that there be no cause for sin; or at least that they moderate it so as to not leave the path of what is right.” We must either surrender desire, or, more modestly, live with desire bound by dharma, but human beings are too blind to see this. So, “The creator thus decided, ‘It is necessary to show this path,’ and so took on a human nature and walked the earth for a short time doing deeds of dharma as one with a holy vow (vrata) to do without the pleasures of women, etc., as one totally poor, as one rejecting worldly pride …” The life of Jesus is itself his teaching – “To show that he loathed the pride of this world he has to walk the earth as a poor man among the poor, without the pride of contact with kings, etc …”

And, now, Christian disciples must follow Jesus in teaching dharma so that our fellow human beings can escape desire and “reach the shore” (de Nobili’s term for salvation): “When the divine guru, our creator, left this world and, returned to heaven (moksa), he taught his disciples (sisya) to go forth into the world to make known to all the good news of his Veda.” It seems likely that de Nobili turned to the vocabulary of Saivism, oriented to the worship of the indwelling Siva concealed in the guise of a guru, to make sense of the Incarnation. Clooney says, “De Nobili has in effect made the riches of the Saiva Siddhanta part of the theological heritage of the church.”

And what are these riches? I think that it is often hard for us to consider Jesus’ life as theologically meaningful. Some theologies focus almost solely on the atonement and leave us with a messianic earthly ministry that has very little salvific value indeed. Other theologies, to be sure, take Jesus’ ministry more seriously, but they tend to presuppose the Western concept of “teacher” and contract the point of that ministry to a series of messages or duties, reducing the Gospel to a select matter of performance. But a guru is not just a teacher. If we contemplate Christ as the divine guru who reveals the hidden God to us through relationships that bring “a new perspective on a newly illumined world,” we might be able to better recover the image of Christ the teacher and the spirituality of the imitation of Christ. After all, the riches of the Saiva Siddhanta are ours.

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in Minnesota, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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