Tuesday, January 10, 2012


Paper presented at the seminar on Edinburgh 1910 and Beyond at ECC Whitefield, Bangalore on 28 November 2009 and published in “Theology for Our Times” in Oct. 2010.

Re-defining Oikoumene: A Subaltern Perspective

We are at the threshold of the centenary celebrations of Edinburgh Missionary Conference held in 1910. Edinburgh conference was held in the context of fulfilling the quest for Christian unity and the world wide evangelism. The major task of the conference was to create internal alliances and co-operation among various missionary agencies. There was a genuine quest for Christian oneness in the name of our Lord and savior Jesus Christ who is being sent as the light to the nations. So, the mission to the ‘non- Christian’/ ‘non- European’ world was the major agenda of the Edinburgh conference. Of course, it was one of the foundation stones from which the global ecumenical movement has been built. As an international missionary conference, Edinburgh conference was first of its kind and it marked the history of ecumenical engagement in the arena of world Christian mission.

However, the concepts of unity and the notion of universalism used to fulfill these ecumenical aspirations in the beginning of 20th century were rooted in the modern enlightenment epistemological foundations which unfortunately paved the ways to colonialism and globalization in the latter part of world history. Thus the time has come to re-visit the epistemological foundations[1] of the modern universal ‘western mission’. It was a ‘mission’ to search for ‘the missiological other’. Today the ‘missiological other’ has become capable enough to speak for themselves and to deconstruct[2] the way they are treated in the meta narratives[3] of the modern mission historiography. Along with this, a re-visitation of the missiological strategies of the modern ecumenical movement becomes an imperative. To put it unambiguously, the concept of ‘Oikoumene’ itself is to be re-defined from the perspective of the ‘missiological other’ in the changed epistemological and theological context.

The word ‘subaltern’ generally refers to the marginalized/ subordinated/ subjugated/silenced/ forgotten people of histories.[4] It includes the histories of the people of Dalits/ Tribals/ Adivasis/the minorities/women and the other rejected peoples of Indian social history. Of course, the ecumenical movements have had a long history of missiological engagement with the subaltern realities in India. But it is the time to review its missiology, ecclesiology and theology from the perspective of the ‘missiological other’.

I. Defining Oikoumene: Epistemological Pathways…

The word ecumenism is derived from the Greek word oikoumene, which means the whole inhabited earth. In the beginning of the 20th century, when the church union movement was becoming prominent, this word had become the sign of the unity of whole Christendom. Oikoumene is the key word in the history of the global ecumenical movement till this day. This word comprises the whole content, challenge and hope of the ecumenical task that is Christian unity. At various stages of the evolution of the ecumenical movement, the vision of oikoumene was enlarged from the unity of Christian churches to the unity of whole humanity and finally to the unity and integrity of the whole of God’s creation.

There is a historical progression and shift in the understanding of the concept- oikoumene within the history of the ecumenical movement.[5] This shift was not a natural process rather it was necessitated due to the epistemological shifts in the understanding of social relations, institutions and theological engagements. In fact, the history of the ecumenical movement itself is the history of the process of defining the category oikoumene.

1.      First phase

In the Roman times, the word oikoumene was used as a synonym of the Roman Empire. It divided the whole world as the civilized and uncivilized world. The whole ‘mission’ of the Roman Empire was to extend its imperial power through the programme of Pax Romana. This was also a call for unity cutting through diversities.[6] The modern missionary movement also bears the scars of modern western colonialism. Colonial modernity that epistemologically founded on the European enlightenment and Euro centrism, defined the modern Christian mission as the ‘White Man’s burden to reach the un-reached/ un-civilized/ un-developed/ un-evangelized of the ‘other’ parts of the world.[7]

Theologically speaking the early modern ecumenical theology was Christo- centric in content and ecclesia-centric in mission and that is evident in the discussions of Edinburgh (1910), Jerusalem (1928) and Thamparam (1938) conferences. It was the universal Christ in whom the all other cultures are expected to interact and transform. Carrying gospel to the non-Christian/ non-European world’ was its agenda. It was a Christianization programme through which it affirmed the universality of Christ and Gospel. Here oikoumene was defined in the sense of the unity of the world wide Christian church. This missiology was ecclesiastically centered and expected the growth of the Christian church universally.[8] By the tangential connection with the enlightenment programme, however, its strategy became anthropocentric and in nutshell androcentric in content. Missiologically speaking it was a period of searching for the ‘missiological other’.

2.      Second phase

The post-world war situation was conducive to the formation of freedom movements and the formation of nation states all over the world. Ecumenical formations like World Council of Churches (WCC) and other global/ national/ local ecumenical establishments initiated the discussion on the Christian role in the formation of a responsible society (Whitby-1947 and New Delhi-1961). The Vatican-II had played an important role in the shift in the understanding of ecumenism. The emergence of liberation theology and its focus on the preferential option for the poor shifted its emphasis to the struggles of the marginalized and oppressed. It was in the context of the emergence of new world economic order based on the internationalization of capital and labour that it began to exercise its economical domination on the so-called ‘third world countries’. In this crucial phase, the Ecumenical Movement re-defined its faith and theology in solidarity with the struggles of the marginalized and enlarged its geography and ethnography to the Asian-African-Pacific- Latin American cultures and people.

Uppsala (1968) initiated the discussion on new humanism and new creation through which the ecumenical movement showed its theological allegiance towards anti-poverty, anti-racist, anti-hegemonic development mission strategies. By creating discourses on Kingdom of God in this phase, the ecumenical movement dwelt upon the issues of ‘just, participatory and sustainable society’ (Nairobi-1975, Melbourn-1980, San Antonio-89) and expressed its commitment to the transformation of society and state. It was a methodological shift from the church centered theology to the kingdom centered theology.

3.      Third phase

It was the new social movements in late 60’s and 70’s like Black movement / ecological-green movements/ feminist movements/ anti-war initiatives and Asian- African subaltern movements/ de-colonizing movements that challenged the Eurocentric missiology and theology of the ecumenical movement to shifts its foci to the people centered theological engagements.[9] The slogan- ‘theology by the people’ challenged the concept of the universal theology and initiated the theological pluralism i.e. the contextual theologies. The emergence and growth of Black/ Feminist/Dalit/ Tribal/Minjung and other Asian-African-Pacific contextual theologies envisaged a new era in the history of the ecumenical theological engagements.

Theologically, it was a shift from an anthropocentric vision to the life-centered vision[10] (Canberra-1991) and thus the ecumenical movement re-defined the meaning of oikoumene in the wider sense of solidarity and unity. We call it as the wider ecumenism. Since then the ecumenism has been defined in the wider sense of relationships that encompasses the integrity of whole creation. In a way, it was an initiative to re-define the meaning of oikoumene relevantly, by rejecting the foundationalist epistemology of the modern ecumenical missiology and theology.[11] It was an effort to go beyond the humanistic, existentialist, essentialist and liberationist foundations of modern epistemology and acknowledge the political and epistemological difference of the various life worlds. Of course, oikoumene in the latter part of the world church history has become a counter imagination of unity in the context of fragmentation, marginalization and globalization.

Need for the shift…

In fact, the third phase marked the epoch of the postcolonial/ postmodern/ post-enlightenment in the process of re-defining the meaning of oikoumene in the history of the ecumenical movement. By rejecting the unitary notions of modernity, like scientism, liberal humanism and Marxism, this new epistemological shift gives special attention to the so-called ‘other’/ ‘marginal’/ ‘local’/ ‘little’/ ‘mission field’ histories or narratives of life worlds. This epistemic shift is marked by the emergence of micro-politics of the repressed groups. Steven Seidman sketches out the political content of this epistemic shift:

Today scientific knowledge and Western reason bears the scars of its many wars. Its dreams are shattered and its confidence irrevocably shaken. In past generations, science and western reason triumphed grandly by means of a relentless assault on its competitors: religion, myth, narrative, moral philosophy, folk knowledges. Today, it is as if those repressed rivals have turned to take their revenge.[12]

In the new epistemic shift, these ‘repressed rivals’ are engaged in the process of re-locating their subjectivity and social space by deconstructing the notion of the other/ marginal/ variation/ low subjectivity, ascribed to them in the colonial meta narratives of social/ ecclesiastical historiography. Indian subaltern movements, thus, Dalit/ tribal/ feminist theological engagements are to be re-looked in its epistemological differences and not to be located as an appendix or as the hyphenated theologies of the colonial Mission Theology.  

II. Edinburgh 1910 and Beyond: Re-defining oikoumene in the changed socio-theoretical and theological framework by which the subaltern movements find hope in their journey towards counter humanism.

Here we discuss some challenges and perspectives that aroused from the mission discourses of Edinburgh 1910. It is intended to re-define oikoumene and its mission foci on the basis of the new socio-theoretical-epistemological and theological framework.

1. Re-visiting the ‘Missiological other’: Deconstructing the missiological and ecclesiological metanarratives to give way for the ‘local’/ ‘little’ narratives of the ‘missionized’ people.  

Modern Christian mission was the mission to ‘the lost sheep’. Sociologically speaking, the mission envisaged by colonial modernity was empowerment programmes in order to ‘lift up’ the ‘weak’ and the ‘vulnerable’ to the modern/civilized/ developed civil life. Thus we had the ‘missions’ to Africans/ Afro-Americans/ Asians etc. Of course this has impacted changes in the life worlds of the missionized people, but on the other hand, it neglected their social agency for engaging to re-draw their own subjectivity, social space and social status. It was an empowerment programme. Empowerment is always a programme from outside while the internal discourses, habitus, practices and episteme remain intact. 

The whole historical meta narratives of the modern missionaries and mission agencies were reports of their sacrificial work among the ‘uncivilized people’. It is interesting to read some of these reports and see how these mission fields are being represented in the mission narratives by the European missionaries. The time has come to re-read these colonial ‘missiological meta narratives’ and create new ‘little’/ ‘local’ conversion stories of the so-called ‘missiological other’. The challenge here is to admit the active agency of a people and accept the epistemological/ politics of difference of their life worlds. It is the quest to be re-read/ re-present them as a ‘self’ and not as an ‘other’ or ‘binary opposite’. 

Thus the meaning of oikoumene is to be re-defined so that the ‘colonial other’/ ‘the missiological other’ could be re-visited and re-located in the history of Christian missions and in the discourses of ecumenical movement. It is a call to re-write/ re-read/ re-present the mission histories and church histories in the subaltern perspectives. Today the ‘missiological other’ has become capable enough to de-construct their subjectivity and social agency. Thus mission in the modern sense has become impossible. In the postmodern sense mission is everywhere and not to be focused in a particular region or culture or people. It can be ‘from everywhere to every where’. There is a hermeneutical imperative to attend the plural-local life affirming engagements or resistances of the subalterns in order to acknowledge and recognize the political/ epistemological differences of the plural life worlds. Thus the mission as it is envisaged in the project of modernity has become impossible today due to the death of the ‘missiological other’.

2. Recognizing Differences: Re-drawing the unity- diversity dialectics and affirming the dignity of the difference in the ecumenical missiological / theological engagement 

As we have discussed, ecumenism that is defined in the modern epistemological framework fulfils the theological quest for the unitary notions of human kind on earth. But in this postmodern/ postcolonial epistemological context, it is not the unity but the question of difference that disturbs us seriously. Recognizing differences as a key social structuring principle disturbs foundational notions of the subject, knowledge, history, theology and politics that give coherence to much current social/ theological thinking. The unitary assumptions of the modern Ecumenical Movement finds trouble when it attends the different cultures as ‘marginal’ or ‘inferior’ or ‘low’ that has to be empowered  and accommodated. Ecumenism needs to be redefined from the theoretical framework of ‘the politics of differences’ so that the so-called ‘marginals’ can be attended differently and specifically.

The politics of difference admits the dignity of the difference. It is a postmodern phenomenon where ‘the repressed other’ is returned with full dignity. Every thing that had been relegated to ‘margins’ as ‘deviations’ by the totalizing comprehensions and thoughts is now in a path of return. The subjectivity and the social space of the ‘missionized people’ in the mission fields are being constructed in the given missiological discourses and that is to be revisited in order to re-construct them. The mission in the postmodern sense is an invitation to a kind of hospitality where both the ‘host’ and the ‘stranger’ deconstructs each other and finds a renewed status mutually by celebrating their rights to be different.[13] It is an invitation to enter in to a renewed understanding of relationship. It is the responsibility for the other, being for the other.[14] It is an invitation to engage with new imaginations, new relationships, new practices and new dialogues of fraternity. The unity that neglects the dignity of the difference is hegemonic. It is in the differences that we find our potentialities and strength. All the subaltern movements are to be located in their own specificities and particularities. Dalit itself is a plural category where we particularly attend the issues of Dalit women and children. 

Thus treating Dalits or Tribals or Women as a collective/ essentialist/ unitary category and creating solidarity programmes while keeping the paternalist consciousness, seems untenable today. In the changed theoretical-theological-epistemological context, ‘solidarity’ means a re-imagination of ourselves; not mere a sense of ‘standing along with’ or ‘speaking for’ or ‘representing somebody’. It is not just the burden of constituting some slogans for the transformation of the ‘other’, while keeping ourselves intact. It is a new journey of re-looking our own faith, tradition, theology and ontology. Thus doing theology means reconstituting our own ontology and theology. Christian faith is a total commitment to the ongoing journey of finding ‘our-selves’ dialogically and transforming our life-world theologically. While defining theological discourse as a dialogical engagement, Gadamer contends: “It means that one’s own horizon ends up being largely rejected by the critical capacity to see oneself from an enlarged perspective that includes the view point of the Other”.[15] Thus, in the postmodern context theological locatedness is very important. Who is speaking for whom gets importance here. This is the hermeneutical importance of the particular theologies like Dalit / tribal/ feminist theologies in the changed epistemological context. The ecumenical theology is exhorted not to represent subaltern theological engagements rather re-read and re-constitute itself in the light of these plural innovations.
3. Re-locating Subaltern Resistances as the critical engagements for a dialogical social democratic civil society and not as social violations or dividend activities of fragmentation in this post-globalized context   

In this post-globalized era, the word Empire cannot be reduced to the uniform mode of capitalist world economy. There are multiple political/ cultural hegemonic centers and thus today the Marxian basis of centre-periphery notion has become meaningless in the world system analysis. Thus ecumenical theology in the 21st century must go beyond the theological framework of liberation theology. The resistance against the Empire cannot be monolithic and unilateral. And there is no single absolute ‘imperial other’ as such. There should be plural resistances and micro social engagements beginning from kitchens that extend to streets and working spaces. Both, homogenization and heterogenization, resistance and marginalization, globalism and territorialism are the different sides of globalization. The unilateral resistance against Americanization sometimes tends to forget the process of Indianization (Brahmanization). This is the pitfall of post-colonialism.

Of late, the subaltern movements have turned to micro-politics in order to uphold their social agency and social position in the democratic social situation. They do not believe in a uniform civilization or class struggle any more. They tend to re-locate themselves as self reflexive social agents by engaging creatively in the local situations. By intervening creatively in the immediate social relations they are confident enough to envisage a social democratic civil society not as the ‘victims’ or ‘terrorists’ or ‘rebels’. While referring to the recent Dalit land struggles in Kerala, Sunny Kapikadu, a Dalit activist and scholar says, “These are not just struggles for some raw materials of livelihood, rather they are the new searches for new social capitals which in turn make us active social agents of a democratic civil society in this post globalized context”. There is a need to uphold the political difference of the contemporary subaltern resistances and to reject the already cooked solutions for the transformation of the ‘marginalized’.

4. Retrieval to community: Re-defining ecumenical theological engagement as committed to the building up of pluriform- dialogical-local kingdom communities that carry the eschatological vision of Oikoumene

Community is not a new topic in the theological discourses of the ecumenical movement. It was there since 1960’s where we had the discussion of new humanism and new creation. The discussion on koinonia (Canberra 1991 & Santiago 1993) extended its meaning to a wider understanding of relationships. We have even discussed oikoumene as the “one house hold of life”.[16] However, we haven’t yet attended this issue epistemologically.

By giving minimum space for interaction and pluriformity, community in the modern epistemology envisages pseudo-uniformity while locating the social partner as ‘the constitutive other’.[17] This has been analyzed by Kevin Vanhoozer as the major methodological failure of the modern theology of dialogue.[18] In contrast to this, in postmodern epistemology, community invites its social partners to re-constitute their subjectivity constructions (the self and the other) dialogically by initiating new practices of mutuality and become self-reflexive social agents of a democratic society. [19]By re-imagining the ‘other’, both the Other and the self comes to deconstruction and reconstitution. This is the social-theoretical-theological basis of the concept of perichorative[20] trinity. 

The history of each community is a collection of stories of re-imagination of subjectivity and social positions by resisting the disintegrating/ hegemonic power discourses. Just and dialogical interactions of these plural local engagements enrich the wider democratic relationships in a civil society. The challenge before the subaltern movements is to promote and enable their liberative traditions to re-locate them to be the imagined counter communities of anti-hegemonic discourses, which make them self-reflexive social agents not as mere victims in the contemporary democratic situation. It is here they need to find plural communities of faith and solidarity at large.

The idea of the local church emerged in the biblical consciousness that we need a counter community of just practices in order to reproduce/ re-form divine subjectivities of the kingdom of God. Re-reading/ interpreting the text and functioning of the liberative ritual re-memories are discursive engagements to keep alive the counter imperial logic in all life situations. Thus in the hegemonic context of globalization the little counter traditions/ practices are important in order to create a wider network against the forces of Empire. It is the pitfall where the modern missiology and theology failed. By neglecting the plural local traditions, it neglected the potentiality of various little traditions of resistance and hope. A community without traditions of (ritual re-) memories and liturgical practices cannot exist in this age of wild amnesia-a programme of the Market. Church as it embodies the counter traditions of resistance and the memories of hope becomes the wide possibility of coming together for the transformation of all. It is here the ecumenical theology must find importance in the plural local traditions where the local communal theological engagements become the signs of the eschatological vision of oikoumene. By promoting the plural theologies of communal counter practices and engagements and envisaging of a collective pilgrimage of hope, ecumenical movement fulfills its call and commitment to participate in the process of missio dei. 

The subaltern communities are today in the struggle of re-locating their social agency and space. They are in the theological engagement of re-presenting themselves as active social agents of democratic society. By re-drawing their subjectivity constructions and re-presentations of their social spaces as the ‘missiological other’, they are engaged in the process of reconstituting new communal practices of liberation and solidarity. The quest for oikoumene is not to have a universal vision of mega-pseudo- unity of all ‘the variations’ rather celebrating the dignity of the political/ epistemological differences of the ‘other’/ ‘local’/ ‘little’ life worlds. The history of the mission of the ecumenical movement is to be assessed and analyzed in terms of its local/ particular engagements of transformation by envisaging rainbow communities of counter practices and interventions including the subaltern engagements. 

[1] Epistemological discussions help us to problematize the authority and the content of our knowledge. According to Gavin Hyman, modernity was a quest for universally valid epistemological foundationalism and it was characterized by a drive for certitude, universality and mastery. On the other hand postmodernism provides the way for epistemological and anthropological pluralism. Gavin Hyman, The Predicament of Postmodern Theology (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001),p.11
[2] Deconstruction is a postmodern method by which it brings out the politics behind the construction of meaning.
[3]  Meta narratives are the overarching philosophies.
[4] According to the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci, the term subaltern designates non elite or subordinated social groups.
[5] Konrad Raiser, Ecumenism in Transition (Geneva: WCC, 1991)
[6] K. M. George, “ values for New Ecumenism in Asia” in Living in Oikoumene edited by Hope s. Antone (Hong Kong: CCA, 2003), 78-87
[7] Kevin J. Vanhoozer (ed.), Postmodern Theology (Cambridge: Cambridge  University Press, 2003), 22
[8] Konrad Raiser, Dictionary of the Ecumenical Movement, edited by Nicholas Lossky et all.,  (Geneva: WCC, 2002), 1119
[9] T. V. Philip, Ecumenism In Asia (Thiruvalla: ISPCK& CSS, 1994), 39
[10] Konrad Raiser, To be the Church (Geneva: WCC, 1997), 39-40 
[11] Ibid. 41
[12] Steven Seidman, Contested Knowledge, Social Theory in the Postmodern Era (UK: Blackwell, 1994), 327
[13] Jacques Derrida, Hospitality in Derrida-Habermas Reader, edited by Lasse Thomassen (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2006), 208-209
[14] Immanuel Levinas, Ethics and infinity. Conversations with Phlippe Nemo, trans. Richard A Cohen (Pittsburg: Duquesne University Press, 1985), 52
[15] Hans-George Gadamer, Truth and Method (New York: Crossroad, 1991), 297
[16] Konrad Raiser, To be the Church (Geneva: WCC, 1997), 74 
[17]The community in modern epistemological understanding is a social order in which relationships are connected externally and determined by contracts rather than custom or tradition.
[18] Kevin J. Vanhoozer (ed.), Postmodern Theology (Cambridge: Cambridge  University Press, 2003), 19
[19] Stanley J. Grenz, John R. Franke,  Beyond Foundationalism, Shaping Theology in a Postmodern Context, (Louisville; Westminster John Knox Press, 2001), 209.