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Prepared By- Sunil Kumar Arora

Date- August 17, 2010


Samartha’s Views on Conversion and Baptism
Introduction
Issues like conversion from one religion to another and baptism are nothing new in the long history of India.
Questions and doubts on these issues have been raised from the very advent of Christianity in India. There
have been many people who have raised their voice against these issues within and outside the Christian
community, because of its negative social and communal consequences in India. Stanley J. Samartha is one
among many Indian Christian theologians who have condemned the exclusive claims of Christianity. He has
much to speak about these issues. So in this paper we will make an attempt to deal with his perspective on
conversion and baptism.

A Brief Silhouette of Samartha’s Life


Stanley Jedidiah Samatha was born on 7 October 1920 in Karkal, a South Kanara District of Karnataka. His
family belonged to Basel Mission. He was raised in a deep Christian Spirit. He began his theological studies
from United Theological College (UTC), Bangalore and later earned his Ph.D. from USA in 1958. Later he
joined UTC as Professor of History and the Philosophy of Religions. He worked closely with CISRS and was
the Principal of Serampore College, Calcutta, before he was appointed as the first Director of the sub-unit on
Dialogue with World Council of Churches in its head-office at Geneva.1 He published number of books and
articles in many Indian and International journals. In 1981 he returned to India and wrote extensively on
Inter-religious Dialogue and was very much involved in this.
For Samartha conversion and baptism are the two aspects of the same coin. In his views, in the
traditional understanding of mission, which is formulated by westerners without any sensitivity to Indian
religions and cultures, conversion and baptism are worked out to expand the territory of the church. He says
that there are many Christians who are not baptized and at the same time there are baptized people who are
not Christians in the true sense.2 So he is of the opinion that if anyone wants to follow Christ and receive
Christ‟s salvation, he doesn‟t have to be a baptized member of an institutionalized Church, because the
revelation and salvation of God is found in other religions of the world too and all the religions are valid but
at the same time there is no universality in any one particular religion. 3 So for him in the traditional
understanding of the mission, conversion means leaving the previously held religion and baptism means
becoming the member of an institutionalized church and he condemns both of these.
Since Samartha‟s understanding of both conversion and baptism is inter-connected in this paper we
understand them as leaving the old religion and becoming the member of the church. As we discuss
Samartha‟s understanding of both these aspects, the word conversion will mean both leaving the old religion
and becoming the member of an institutionalized Church.

Samartha’s Concept of Mission


Before we dig into Samartha‟s concepts of conversion and baptism, it is necessary that we have a clear view
of Samartha‟s perspective of mission, because his concepts of conversion and baptism are derived from his
perspective of mission. Samartha holds to pluralist view of religions and in his view mission is not the
extension of Christianity and the extermination of other religions.4 Samartha says that “mission is God's
continuing activity through the Spirit to mend the brokenness of creation, to overcome the fragmentation of
humanity, and to heal the rift between humanity, nature and God.”5

1
Kirsteen Kim, Mission in the Spirit: The Holy Spirit in Indian Christian Theologies (New Delhi: ISPCK, 2003), 16.
2
Kim, Mission in the Spirit, 65-66.
3
Stanley J. Samartha, “The Lordship of Jesus Christ and Religious Pluralism,” in Christ’s Lordship and Religious Pluralism,
edited by Gerald H. Anderson and Thomas E. Stransky, C.S.P. (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1981), 25.
4
Eeuwout Klootwijk, Commitment and Openness: The Interreligious Dialogue and Theology of religions in the Work of Stanley J.
Samartha (Zoetermeer: Uitgeverij Boekeocentrum B.V., 1992), 308.
5
S. J. Samartha, One Christ - Many Religions: Towards a Revised Christology (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1995), 149.
His understanding of mission is also closely tied to his understanding of the Holy Spirit. In explaining
his understanding of Mission, Samartha said, “God‟s mission cannot be limited by temporal factors, and
while the mysterious action of the Holy Spirit cannot be bound by visible communal walls.”6 Samartha calls
for substituting the word “mission” with “witness”. He believes that using this word would help Christians to
proclaim the Lordship of Jesus Christ in their ministry and at the same time help them to convey the message
of hope to people who struggle with diverse issues and situations.7 On this issue he emphasized that in a
world which is religiously plural the mission of the Church is not to convert people to Christianity but to call
them to enter the Kingdom of God.8

Samartha’s Concept of Conversion (and Baptism)


1- Conversion is a vertical movement towards God, from unbelief to belief in God:
Samartha says that conversion is a vertical movement towards God, a true regeneration of life, but at present
it has become a parallel movement of groups of people from one community or religion to another.9 He is of
the opinion that one can turn to God while being a part of the same religion and community where one was
born, because conversion is recognizing the need of God not a different set of beliefs and rituals and all the
religions are same and point to ultimate salvation. According to him, Christ‟s call for conversion was
signified in turning towards God, not towards Christianity or any set beliefs of a structural religion. 10
2- Conversion, in its true sense, is a genuine renewal of life:
Samartha believes that when someone recognizes the need of the Ultimate Reality in one‟s life and accepts
that Mystery, he experiences the true rejuvenation of life within himself. While condemning the imperialistic
nature of Christian mission and suggesting the new pattern for it, he argues that the true Christian mission is
to offer people with God's gift of a renewed life in Jesus Christ. The outcome of this new life is a sense of
renewal, freedom, self-respect and human dignity, and also the inner peace, assurance and joy.11
3- Conversion should not lead to a change of religion:
He argues that conversion should not be understood as involving a change of religious affiliation or
community.12 He further says that “the conquest of sin and death by Jesus should not be subtly transformed
as a call for Christians to conquer other religions.”13 He condemns the people who make the exclusive claims
of having the monopoly of truth in their religion, and argues that “the exclusiveness of possession tends to
petrify revelation and to monopolize truth.”14 In September 1999 there was a meeting held at United
Theological College on the theme of “Religious Conversions in the Pluralistic Context of India” where it was
felt that conversion should not be understood as involving a change of religion. S. J. Samartha, in the keynote
address, condemned those Christians who make exclusive claims. He suggested that in the pluralistic context
of India, one has to acknowledge the plurality of religions and Christians should co-operate with people of
other communities of faith for common purposes in society. 15
On other occasion faced with the question of conversion, he affirmed that the real conversion is not
from one religion to another but from unbelief to God and that “mission” is not the Church‟s work but

6
S. J. Samartha, Courage for Dialogue: Ecumenical Issues in Interreligious Relationships (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1982),
163.
7
Samartha, “The Lordship of Jesus Christ and Religious Pluralism,” 34.
8
P.N. Benjamin, “What‟s Genuine Conversion?”
http://www.christianaggression.org/item_display.php?type=ARTICLES&id=1097604623 (6-7-2010)
9
Samartha, One Christ — Many Religions: Toward a Revised Christology, 148-149.
10
P.N. Benjamin, “What‟s Genuine Conversion?”
11
S. J. Samartha, “Indian Realities and the Wholeness of Christ” Missiology: An International Review, Vol. X, No. 3, July, 1982,
309.
12
Is Samartha‟s Concept Relevant to the Christian Mission in North America?3-4
http://www.oxford-institute.org/docs/2002papers/2002 (8-7-2010)
13
Stanley J. Samartha, “The Lordship of Jesus Christ and Religious Pluralism,” 25.
14
Stanley J. Samartha, “The Lordship of Jesus Christ and Religious Pluralism,” 27.
15
Sebastian Kim, “The Debate on Conversion Initiated by the Sangh Parivar, 1998-1999”
http://www.ocms.ac.uk/docs/Sebastian%20Kim%20lecture20040921.pdf (6-7-2010)
God‟s.16 In his perspective, since the revelation of God is present in all religions, to be in Christ is not the
only way to be in God in a religious plural world.17 He further says that “a religion that defines itself to be
true by excluding others is outmoded…. No particular response to or formulation of Truth can claim to be
unique, final or absolute.”18
4- Conversion as change of religion leads to religious and social disharmony:
Samartha argues that conversion as a change from one religion to another leads to communal and social
disharmony. He says that “it seriously disturbs the political life of the country by influencing the voting
pattern of people. Why should then Christians be surprised when the very word mission and conversion
provoke so much anxiety, suspicion and fear?” 19 According to him it creates disturbance and unrest in the
course of a smooth running of a society and religion. Quoting Samartha, Eeuwout Klootwijk says that
conversion cuts oneself from the heritage of family, society and relationships. It results in discontinuity of
age-old relationships.20 Samartha argues that at present almost all the other major religions too have their
mission, and if they all start converting the people from other religions, the situation will be very pathetic. 21
5- The mission of the Church is not to make other people Christian but to invite them to enter the
Kingdom of God:
For Samartha kingdom of God is the core message of Jesus‟ life and ministry. He spoke about kingdom from
his first public address onwards. He argues that Jesus‟ mission was to usher in the kingdom of God and call
people to enter into it. From synoptics he cites that Jesus never asked anyone to work for kingdom, but He
asked them to pray for its coming.22 For him there are no set boundaries for the kingdom of God, no rules
and rituals and it is not confined to and exclusively for Christianity. By saying that he seems to mean that
God can establish His kingdom with or without Jesus. He further says that the people of other faiths should
not be considered as recruits to the kingdom of God but as equal citizens and partners with Christ, seeking
together the fullness of Christ in his continuing work of reconciliation and renewal. 23 He even goes further
and says that “Christians in mission need not believe that they always have to give. They also are in need of
receiving from their neighbors fresh insights on the profound issues of life and destiny.” 24 So he says that
mission of the church is to point towards the kingdom of God and in doing so there are many things that
church has to learn from other religions and she should always be ready to learn those.
6- Conversion of religion is not necessary to enter into a permanent relationship with God-
Samartha clarified that wherever the people are transformed by Christ and demonstrate the love and self-
sacrifice in doing good to others, there the reign of God is present and those people are in perfect relationship
with God. He explains that there is no need for those people to be converted to Christianity and be baptized,
because by their character the reign of God is present and they are the people of God.25 Regarding baptism,
in an article entitled “The Holy Spirit and People of Other Faiths,” Samartha points out that “the possibility
of the Spirit being present and active among those who are not baptized, and in communities outside the
visible boundaries of the institutional church, should be left open rather than closed.”26 So for him to be in
relationship with God in His Spirit, conversion from one religion to another and baptism are not necessary.
7- Conversion of religion should not be the goal of Evangelism-
Samartha criticizes the traditional understanding of evangelism which aims at converting the people of other
religions to Christianity. In religiously pluralist country like India he saw the need for a new understanding

16
P.N. Benjamin, “What‟s Genuine Conversion?”
17
Kirsteen Kim, Mission in the Spirit 66.
18
Samartha, One Christ — Many Religions, 104.
19
Samartha, One Christ — Many Religions, 149.
20
Eeuwout Klootwijk, Commitment and Openness, 308.
21
Samartha, One Christ — Many Religions, 150.
22
Samartha, One Christ — Many Religions, 134.
23
S.J. Samartha, The Hindu Response to the Unbound Christ (Madras: CLS, 1974), 15.
24
Samartha, “Indian Realities and the Wholeness of Christ,” 309.
25
P.N. Benjamin, “What‟s Genuine Conversion?”
26
Stanley J. Samartha, “The Holy Spirit and the People of Other Faiths,” in To the Wind of God’s Spirit: Reflections on the
Canberra Theme, edited by Emilo Castro, (Geneva: WCC Publication, 1990), 56.
of evangelism. For him evangelism is “retelling of the story of Jesus of Nazareth, sharing with people the
good tidings about him with joy and humility.” 27 He advocates that the church needs to reformulate its
message which should be relevant to Indian context and soil. Emphasizing this aspect, he further says that “if
the message of the gospel has to become challengingly relevant to human needs today both the credibility of
the Savior and the meaning of the salvation he offers have to be stated afresh”28 In his opinion the meaning
of the salvation and the one who offers the salvation has to be restated, in other words it should address the
present needs of the people.

Evaluation and Conclusion


As we have discussed above Samartha is a pluralist, who holds the view that all the religions are equally
valid to offer salvation. Many a times I have found him contradicting himself on various issues, and I have
observed a prevailing discontinuity in his perspectives. At one time he says that “the heart of Christian
mission does not lie in enabling downtrodden people to gain material satisfaction or social status, but to offer
people God's gift of new life in Jesus Christ,”29 and “Christian mission is a Christ-centered activity in which
the wholeness of Christ provides the basis for the church's witness and service in the world.” 30 But later he
seems to be giving less importance to Christ and more to the Ultimate Reality or the Mystery. He delineated
himself from „Christocentric theology‟ to „Theocentric theology‟. 31 Secondly, Samartha talks about justice,
liberation and other social phenomenon and at the same time condemns the change of religion. In doing so he
neglects those dalits and tribals who have no status in their own religion, how will they receive justice and
liberation by being in the religion that oppresses them?
For Samartha the concept of infallibility of the Scripture has no value because he believe that there is
no one absolute way to describe the Mystry. Samartha is against the colonial reading of the Scripture and in
order to refute that he questions even the deity and divinity of Jesus Christ and the Truth of the Bible. He
does not value the uniqueness of God‟s work in history. 32 He proposes to give up the word “mission” and
change it to “witness” which specifically excludes the “advocacy of the Lordship of Jesus Christ,” 33 which is
against the Bible and its teachings.
Samartha is dead-against the conversion of individuals from one religion to another. According to
him, there is no need of crossing the boundary of religion and culture in order to experience the salvation of
Christ. Instead he advocates the process of dialogue. In his view dialogue will help to bring harmony and
peace among religions and also enable people to address human needs. Such dialogue should be carried out
without any fear of converting one another to each other‟s faith. Since his goal seems to be more of a society
of peace and justice and harmony, he is more concerned with avoiding religious conflicts than in preserving
the truth of the Gospel, he is least bothered about the biblical text and pays more attention towards the
surrounding scenario.34

27
S. J. Samartha, Courage for Witness, Sermon preached on Aug. 4, 1985, at the United Theological College. Bangalore, India.
http://www.oxford-institute.org/docs/2002papers/2002-5Devadhar.pdf
28
Samartha, The Hindu Response to the Unbound Christ, 5.
29
S. J. Samartha, “Indian Realities and the Wholeness of Christ,” 309.
30
S. J. Samartha, “Indian Realities and the Wholeness of Christ,” 311.
31
Is Samartha‟s Concept Relevant to the Christian Mission in North America? 4.
32
http://www.directionjournal.org/article/?1172 (8-7-2010)
33
Samartha, “The Lordship of Jesus Christ and Religious Pluralism,” 30.
34
Vinoth Ramchandra, The Recovery of Mission (New Delhi: ISPCK, 1996), 26.
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http://www.directionjournal.org/article/?1172 (8-7-2010)

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