The Theological Bases of

Mar Gregorios Humanism and Socialism


P. Govindappilla

Dr. Paulos Mar Gregorios, the eminent Orthodox Theologian hailing from Kerela earned world-wide reputation by his versatile scholarship, deep piety and innovative ideas on society and theology. He was holding the prestigious office of the Metropolitan of Delhi, when he passed away at the age of 74 in 1996. He was at home with many languages of the East and West including his mother tongue Malayalam, Sanskrit, Hindi, Amharic, Syriac, English, Latin, French and German. He was well-versed in the philosophies of both the East and West. Beginning his career as a minor official in the Post and Telegraph department, where he was also engaged in Trade Union activities, he moved on to be a teacher, an educationist and a priest. Before taking up higher responsibilities in the hierarchy he spent a few years as the head of the educational establishment in Ethiopia after which he went to Yale, Princeton and Oxford to do research in theology and won a Doctorate with distinction.

Coming back to India, he took up teaching in the Orthodox Theological Seminary in Kottayam and many other responsibilities associated with his chosen vocation. He was associated with and held high positions in the World Council of Churches and various international and national bodies like the Student Christian Movement. He was a very sought-after lecturer and visiting professor in many universities both in India and abroad. He visited many countries in all the continents as an honored guest and esteemed speaker and scholar.

Though Dr. Paulos Mar Gregorios was a devout Christian priest and theologian, he was a welcome guest, speaker and counselor not only in other religious groups and gatherings, abut also in various secular forums and organizations. He was a persuasive speaker with an admirable knack of presenting even the most abstruse concepts in simple and clear diction a faculty so very evident in his various books and essays as well. Though Dr. Gregorios was primarily a Christian theologian, his theology was not a narrow discipline confined to the scriptures and tradition. Of course, as a Christian, he bestowed on the Bible texts a position of primacy in authority and wisdom. He certainly considered them as divine revelations. But Mar Gregorios steered clear of the other traditions and texts. So when he drives home his points of view we find him quoting profusely from Upanishads and the Gita of Hindus, Tao traditions of the Chinese, Zen revelations of the Japanese, Buddhist and Jain texts in Pali, and the Koran of Islam. This multiplicity of his sources does not mean that he was a sort of eclectic with no firm grounding of his own. He relentlessly developed his original concepts and theories, with a wealth of evidence and materials from not only religious texts but also from secular history and philosophy and politics ( See his The Human Presence, An Orthodox View of Nature, Madras, 1980). Mar Gregorios’ Science for Sane Societies ( New York, 1987) bears witness to his thorough acquaintance with the latest developments in natural sciences and technology, and also his insight into the intricacies of the history and philosophy of science.

Mar Gregorios was far from being an enemy of reason and science. He also respected secular enterprise and knowledge. He even concedes the superiority of secular knowledge in many fields. He says:

This writer has no illusions about the comparative merits of present day religious thought and secular thought. The defiantly superior quality of secular thought, both liberal Western and Marxist Western, may lead some people to abandon their religious loyalties.

Paulos Mar Gregorios doesn’t approve of such abandonment because o his own deep conviction that “the redemption renewal of science/ technology, political economy and philosophical reflection need not and, may say it, cannot take place without the participation of religious commu-nities” ( Ibid). A Marxist like the present writer may not entirely agree with the terminology used and emphasis made by Mar Gregorios but there are some underlined considerations in his assertions with which a Marxist may find himself on the same wavelength. A positivist and value-free science or system of knowledge is anathema to Marxists as it is to Mar Gregorios. All knowledge and even reason are to be informed and inter-related with ethics and human or societal concern.This concern is common to both Marxist and Mar Gregorios and this concern is discernable to anyone who can penetrate the façade of his theological terminology. The facet becomes thinner in the concluding paragraph of Sane Societies:

I would also plead that secular thinkers show some patience with us. We promise to learn, but give as a chance by exposing your ways of seeing and thinking to us in such a global concourse. Let us together be committed to the care for created order, so imperiled by the presence of evil in science-technology, in political economy and in value-reflection. Let us commit ourselves to banish militarism and the arms race, the nuclear stock piles and our huge national armies. Let us commit ourselves not to use science-technology or political economy for oppression, domination and exploitation. Let us commit ourselves on behalf of humanity to turn the course of its development from evil to good, from destruction to construction, from ugliness to beauty, from falsehood to truth and from bondage to freedom, from gloom to hope, from boredom to joy. Let us do it together.”

The present writer, a Marxist and a materialist, endorses in toto this stirring call of this great Indian theologian. And I’m sure, I’m in the company of tens of thousands of secular and socialist activists.

Another important factor in the theological and philosophical thought Paulos Mar Gregorios is its distinct eastern flavor. Though India has more than half a century ago broken the political shackles of Western colonial dominance, the cultural and philosophical dominance of the West still weighs heavily on our national psyche and discourse. Our writers and media no qualms in peddling second hand wares, churned out in the antiquated mills of European thought. European thought and science which played a positive role in the world in early Renaissance years did not take long to become a cancerous Eurocentric growth in the world polity, and insidious instrument of imperialism and influential tool for distortion of truth and knowledge. Even theology is not free from this contagion. Though a umber of enlightened thinkers and writers in the West itself are tuning away from this canker, it is a pity that, except for a few distinguished minds, the general run of our writers and rulers still labor under the thralldom of Eurocentrism.

It is a matter of great significance that, in spite of his deep involvement with and marvelous grasp of European taught and science, Dr Paulos Mar Gregorios was among the very few distinguished modern philosophers in India, who were not tainted by Euro centrism. His theology is distinctively Eastern, as was Jesus Christ himself. Even in science and its application, in medicine and other branches of practice Mar Gregorios resisted the snares of Euro-centrism. He says:

My detailed interest in Western systems of healing is at least 30 years old. I’m convinced that the present hegemony of Western medicine is not in the best interest of humanity. It seems incapable of meeting the needs of six thousand million people’’ (Healing: A Holistic Approach, Kottayam, 1995).

Mar Gregorios sharply criticises the short-sighted Euro centric policies of free India’s governments to the detriment of indigenous and time-tested systems. But he does not condemn outright the entire Western system. He says:

A disproportionately large amount of public funds is now devoted to Western medical education and Western-style medical institutions. While the Western system has much to its credit, recent developments have made it unaffordable for most people, unacceptable in tem s of the damage it does, and undesirable in terms of it over mechanization, and over technologisation of both diagnosis and therapy.” (Ibid).

This holistic approach that Mar Gregorios recommends to the art and science of healing is also applicable to the whole wide- ranging corpus of his thought, life and action. His humanism, socialism and science are not apart from his theology and priesthood-all are closely interwoven into a beautiful single fabric of great and full-blown personality, full of compassion and concern of humans, which cut across the boundaries of humans and non-human beings and spread out to all animate and inanimate beings; an attitude and philosophy which could be innate, perhaps, only in an Indian Christian from India, though there may be exceptional cases like that of Saint Francis of Assisi.

Now we will examine how these peculiar features of Mar Gregorios world outlook reflected in, or according to his detractors refracted his theology. As we stated earlier, the most distinctive feature of his theology was its Eastern flavour with deeply ingrained humanism. His humanism was not very dissimilar to the ancient Greek concept. But there too his roots lay deep in the Eastern tradition including the peculiarly strong traditions of St Thomas Christians of Kerela, of whom Mar Gregorios was a distinguished representative. Christianity came to Kerela long before Emperor Constantine adopted it as the state religion of the Roman Empire by his edict just before his death in 337 AD. Tradition has it that St Thomas, a disciple of Jesus Christ himself, visited Kerela and converted a few Malayalies in the first century after Christ. Modern historians may not accept this tradition in toto. Whatever that be, there is an unanimity in asserting that large sections of Malayalis adopted Christianity long before Constantine’s conversion. Joseph Pulikunnel, an authority on the history and culture of Kerela’s Christian community says;

Nazranis in India, otherwise known as St Thomas Christians, have a unique history among the Christian Churches all over the world. This Church was founded by Thomas the Apostle in the early second half of the first century. This is the only Church planted by Apostle outside the confines of the Roman Empire. Another historical feature of this Church is that this Church was neither persecuted by the kings nor patronized by them. The church grew within the cultural milieu of India adopting its social and cultural moorings and at the same time accepting and worshipping Jesus Christ as their Lord and Saviour.

India is a land of plurality in religion. Indian kings never interfered in the internal affairs of their subjects. Kerela had vast trade connection with the ancient maritime nations like Phoenicia and Rome. The contemporary travelers have recorded the existence of a flourishing Christian community in Kerela. Kerela had given asylum to other Christians during religious persecution. It is believed that there were even Jewish colonies in India before Christ.”(Identity of Nazrani Church of Kerela by Joseph Pulikunnel, Edamattom, Kerela, 1997).

Unlike the European church which grew up along with a strict feudal hiearchal order which was reflected in Church organizations, St Thomas Christians were a free and equal community. They were guided by their own indigenous laws which they call “St Thomas Laws, or in Malalayam “Thommayude Margam”. Mar Joseph Powathil, the Catholic Archbishop of Changanasserry says:

The sum total of their particular theological heritage was expressed by the phrase “ Law of Thomas which implied there Christian heritage, specifically expressed in the lifestyle of their church Thommayude Margam was a dynamic expression of a living theology. The theology e have now is merely a borrowed Western theology, not drawn from our liturgical and spiritual patrimony. A going back to the real sources is maligned as sectarian “ and avoided…They had an ecclesiology of their own in which the theology of the local church was a living reality. The parish assembly gathered under the leadership of the local clergy was an ecclesiological reality as the best expression of the church, the people of God. It was not an administrative body. The Dravidian village assembly called ‘manram’ seems to have influenced the formation of the local assembly called Palliyogam. It is the expression of the Communion of a sharing community’ (Ibid).

It has to be borne in mind that Christianity of the Catholic variety entered Kerela after 1498, when the Portuguese navigator Vasco Da Gama reached Calicut via the Cape of Good Hope and began the Western conquest of India. As a part of their colonizing project, the Portuguese tried to control and reshape Kerela’s ancient church into European mounds. The high watermark of this enterprise was “ The Synod of Diamper” in 1599.

Through Acts and Decrees of this Synod, the Portuguese sought to distort the traditions of St Thomas Christians and erase all that was indigenous, and libertarian and fraternal in the Kerela church. The history Churches after 1599 was a continuous struggle to shake off the shackles sought to be imposed by this Synod and its victory and failures. The result was the division and fragmentation of the once unified St Thomas community in Kerela. The Catholic sector is still closer to the European tradition. Mar Powathil is the Arch Bishop of Syro-Malabar Catholic Church. If even the Catholic Church in Kerela is so devoted to keeping its indigenous traditions, we can imagine the loyalties and convictions of the churches with lesser European impact. Dr. Paulos Mar Gregorios of the oldest of these traditions in which passion for equality and brotherhood coupled with pride in indigenous origins.

The second source of his inspiration is what has come to be known as the Cappadocia Church which flourished in West Asia in the fourth century A.D. Though it was an eastern province of the Roman Empire it retained considerable political and religious autonomy. Three great names are associated with the Cappadocian tradition. St. Basil, St. Gregory Nazianzen and St. Gregory of Nyssa. St. Basil and St. Gregory of Nyssa were brothers. St. Basil and St. Gregory Nazianzen were close friends and collaborators. St. Basil, the eldest of all the three was the most versatile and inimitable in organizational talent and learning. Gregory Nazianzen was an outstanding Greek scholar and a silver-tongued orator. The youngest of them all, Gregory of Nyssa (335-394 A.D.) was among them the most philosophical in temperament and achievements. His prolific writings bear witness to his wide-ranging interests and encyclopedic knowledge. He was very liberal and tolerant in his attitude to other faiths and traditions. All these seem very similar to the interests and accomplishments of our own Mar Gregorious . Some of the philosophical and scientific writings of Gregory seem to be surprisingly modern after more than 17 centuries. His insights into the working of the mind and body along with the evolutionary process of human kind were very much in advance of the knowledge of the fourth century A.D. Though it was an eastern province of the Roman Empire, it retained considerable political and religious autonomy. Three great names are associated with the Cappadocian tradition. St Basil, St. Gregory Naziazen, and St Gregory of Nyssa. St. Basil and St Gregory of Nyssa were brothers. St Basil and St Gregory Nazianzen were close friends and collaborators. St Basil, the eldest of all the three was the most versatile and inimitable in organizational talent and learning. Gregory Nanzianzen was an outstanding Greek scholar and a silver tongued orator. The youngest of them all, Gregory of Nyassa (335-394 A.D) was among the most philosophical in temperament and achievements. His prolific writings bear witness to his wide-ranging interests and encyclopedic knowledge. He knew many languages and was up-to-date in knowledge of Science, Philosophy and Theology. He was very liberal and tolerant in his attitudes to other faiths and traditions. All these seem very similar to the interests and accomplishments of our own Mar Gregorios. Some of the philosophical and scientific writings of Gregory seem to be surprisingly modern after more than 17 centuries. His insights into the working of the mind and body along with the evolutionary process of human kind were very much in advance of the knowledge of the fourth century A.D.

Gregory’s writings on the relation between man’s hands and brain anticipate some of the seminal ideas expressed by Frederick Engels’findings on the relation between hand and head in the evolution of ape to man. Let us quote from the book on “The writings of the Early Church Fathers by Thomas P. Taaffe (New York 1996).

Human Hands: Gregory does not think that it is necessary for him to catalogue all the ways in which man’s hands are of service to him. He does offer some interesting reflections on the special place of human hands in the service of reason. The hands are of particular service to reason, for they translate the symbols of rational speech into written symbols. There is another way in which they serve reason. Without hands, Gregory claims, man’s dace would have been considerably altered. It would have been elongated so that the nose could serve in the search for food. The lips and tongue would have similarly different. In other words, without hands, a man would have to gather his food primarily through the shape and character and nose, lips, teeth and tongue. Such an altered shape would have made the mouth a poor instrument of articulate speech. Thus, says Gregory, our hands have given our mouth the leisure which it needed to serve the reason in speech.

However original and innovative the writer may be, he does not spring up from a vacuum. Every great and epoch-making writer has a bedrock of traditions from which he rises and to new heights and uncharted skies. Therefore, while we explore and identify the sources of Mar Gregorios inspiration and origin, we do not classify him as a paraphraser of some existing or ancient traditions. Drawing deep on some eternal foundations of human wisdom and values, Dr Paulos Mar Gregorios, like other epoch making innovators in thought and action, takes up challenges of his contemporary world and builds up perspectives to overcome the hurdles and march ahead. From the foregoing it should be clear that his concern for the divine is an aspect of his concern for life on earth. The kingdom of God preached by Christ was not a hypothetical prospect beyond death. When he said that the Kingdom on earth was imminent and even around the corner he did not mean that it was an ethereal prospect beyond the reach of mundane reality. Mar Gregorios speaks of humane, world and God:

Man is a mediator. He is poised between the two realities—God and the world. He shares in both, he is united to both. He cannot live apart from either. That is the meaning of the incarnation of Jesus Christ. The only humanity that can survive is the new humanity, the humanity that has now been inseparably, indivisibly united with God in Jesus Christ. And because of its locus in the one divine human nature of Christ, the new humanity is a mediating humanity—a humanity that reconciles and united God and the world. It is an incarnate humanity—a humanity that is an inseparable part of the whole creation and inseparably united to the creator.

This, then, is the meaning of the human presence in the cosmos. To be with the one who unites. To be in Christ, uniting the divine, and the human, and the creator and the creation, the transcendent and the eminent, the spiritual and the scientific-technological. To enter the mystery of “ Christ in us , Yes, in us Christians but also in us human beings, in us, as an integral part of the whole creation” (The Human Presence-An orthodox view of nature by Paulos Mar Gregorios, Chennai 1980).

If anyone decides that he can read only one book by Mar Gregorios which may give him a sum total of his views on himself, God and society, we may recommend him no other book better than The Human Presence, which is almost a manifesto of Mar Gregorious, clear in exposition, comprehensive in scope, and brief in span. This along with Science for Sane Societies, from which we have quoted constitute a new world outlook of the late 20th century for the creation of a freer, nobler and happier society. The path which he has evolved to march towards that ideal is paved with thorns and pits, but it is a sure path which would prove valid even beyond this century now drawing to a close.

The following is the quintessence of Dr Paulos Mar Gregorios vision and mission:

We know that our civilization needs reconstitution, but civilization are not made out of whole clothes by planners and engineers. We have to make gigantic effort to move from where we are towards where we ought to be going. But it has become difficult to be sure in which direction to move, because the vision is not clear, the fog is dense, and something has gone wrong with our eyesight as well.

“What follows is little more than an attempt to rub the eyes; it wont restore the eyesight or dispel the fog. Spiritual eyesight can be restored only with the return of moral health, and clearing the fog, requires spiritual penetration. But it is important that people begin talking about how the eyesight has been lost and what caused the fog.

The book is a plea-a plea for a community effort. The future does not promise charismatic individual leaders who will take us to our destination. It is more reasonable for more charismatic communities that pioneer and piolet in the interest of humanity as a whole. The church of Jesus Christ is a community set within the human community. We need now charismatic communities cutting across the borders of church and world, across the confines of each separate religions or secular ideology” (Ibid).

(Courtsey: Paulos Mar Gregorios Award Souvenir, 1999, Sophia Society, New Delhi)

P. Govindappilla: Marxist Philosopher