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Seeking Christ as ‘Rabbi’, ‘Guru’ or ‘Shifu’

The Crucified Guru: An Experiment in Cross-Cultural Christology
Author: M. Thomas Thangaraj

A LEADING American theologian, Gordon D. Kaufman of Harvard University, in his foreword, commended his student, M. Thomas Thangaraj, for his doctoral dissertation, which is now published as an important work of an Asian theologian.

The Apostle Paul took the concepts and symbols of the pagan Graeco-Roman world to construct the Christian message, which is intelligible and meaningful to the Gentiles. Asians need to be freed from the Westernised versions of Christian faith which they received from the missionaries and construct a vision of Christ which is relevant and helpful to them.

Kaufman asserts that “each cultural and religious tradition” in its own distinctive way “may have something uniquely significant to contribute to the understanding of the Christian faith”.

Thangaraj has investigated how the concept of “guru” (religious teacher) in India can help to understand the significance of Christ, especially in an Indian setting today. He was on the faculty of Tamilnadu Theological Seminary in Madurai and currently the Associate Professor of World Christianity in the Candler School of Theology at Emory University, a prominent United Methodist seminary, in the United States.

His ancestors embraced Christianity almost 200 years ago. In tracing the history of the Christian movement in India he found that the title of “guru” had already been in use all along. It was used in the hymns that were sung, the arts that were expressed, the ideas that were discussed and the writings that were published in Indian Christian circles.

In employing the concept of guru to capture the significance of Christ he is not restricted by it but seeks to go beyond what is traditionally meant. Guru is understood in relation to disciple. It is a close relationship between student and teacher. It involves a task or a commission in which the disciple is sent out to fulfil. The important difference from the traditional Indian understanding is that it is not a one-to-one relationship but the relationship of Jesus with a community of disciples.

The message of Christ itself is different from what is traditionally associated with gurus, which is concerned primarily with God, soul and bondage. Jesus taught these too but went beyond to articulate its distinctive Christian character. Jesus proclaimed the reign of God or Kingdom of God, which has not only an individual but also a public dimension. This new order is defined by “justice to all and peace or reconciliation with one another” as contained in Jesus’ manifesto when He first preached in Nazareth.

Jesus is the Crucified Guru who embodied self-sacrifice on the Cross. But it was not the end as the events of Resurrection, Ascension and Pentecost followed. It is more significant to talk about these later events in the form of what happened to the disciples. The guru was present to the disciples not in a physical form but as a risen guru, the “spiritual” guru. The guru went beyond the local scene to the universal and became the guru for all ages and all people.

Thangaraj attempts to respond to the question posed by Jesus “Who do people say that I am?” This question comes to him as “Who do you people in India say that I am?” This is the question that each one of us in our own peculiar historical and cultural tradition has to respond. In replying traditionally that “You are the Christ,” we must unpack the significance of Jesus not as a formula that we recite but His relevance and meaning for us where we live.

To Thangaraj, Jesus is the Crucified Guru. The significance of Jesus is in a commitment as an individual and to a community of believers or disciples. We have to develop a personal and a communal relationship with Christ as the “organising centre for one’s vision of God, world and human existence”. Christ provides us with the understanding of God and how God acts in the world and in our lives.

The decisive significance of Christ is “in terms of its implications for ordering and orienting one’s life, both as an individual and within the community”.

Finally, Thangaraj provides this tentative definition of Christology: “Christology is the critical and constructive task of imaging the significance of Christ, that is, the events surrounding and including Jesus of Nazareth, for providing a normative vision of God, world and human existence, and a transformative orientation for human living.”
It must be said that we cannot live entirely out of other people’s history and tradition. We can learn from one another. But we have been born into a particular historical and cultural stream and chose to remain in it. God is the Creator of all. In different times and places people seek faith in God from their particular social location. Even in the New Testament period Jesus was imaged as a Rabbi and a Teacher who gathered a community to inaugurate the reign of God.

Thangaraj, coming out of India, has imaged Christ as the Crucified “guru”. Maybe within the Chinese tradition we can image Christ as the “shifu” or Master Teacher. More dedicated and creative Chinese disciples may want to look in this direction and discover the art of Christian living. The same goes for Singaporeans who live in a multi-cultural society to have a more adequate and relevant image of Christ in our time.

The Rev Dr Yap Kim Hao, a member of the Methodist Message Editorial Board, was the first Asian Bishop of The Methodist Church in Malaysia and Singapore.