Colombo, Religion and faith

Responding to a reader who critiqued ‘Where every prospect pleases, man alone is vile’

I appreciate Anoja Fernando’s response (The Island, Tuesday 7th May) to my article (‘Where every prospect pleases, man alone is vile’, published on Groundviews) and her reference to those of DLO Mendis and E de S Wijeyaratna. Was the Bishop’s reference to Buddhist and Hindus (and Muslims?) in Sri Lanka, or to non Christian every where? Does it cover Atheists and Agnostics of European origin? What is meant by the word Heathen?

I am reminded of the time 29 years ago when I was “shopping” for a church to attend in or close to Harvard Square. After over a month of church hopping, I stumbled on to the church closest to my residence – Christ Church, Cambridge. I had kept it to the end because I was put off by its upper class, elitist image. That church has a long history   going into the British Imperial period. It had been used to station British troops during the American War of Independence, and had bullet holes, carefully preserved, dating back to that war.

Happily for me that church was going through a radical phase under the leadership of the new Vicar, Rev.Murray. The church notice board was opened to militant activists of diverse identity and persuasions, viz, Blacks, Feminists, Gays, Lesbians, Anti-Apartheid, etc. Bishop Tutu(now Arch Bishop) was then persona non grata in most of the US churches, Universities and other major institutions, but had been  invited to speak from the pulpit at Christ Church by Rev. Murray. Bishop Tutu used that pulpit to attack the South African state (then under  Apartheid) and the US state and many US institutions (including Harvard and some other Ivy League Universities) that had chosen to invest in South Africa. Rev. Murray was also able to keep the church doors open  day and night so that homeless who slept on the streets could move into the church and sleep on the comfortable pews in reasonable warmth. In doing so he informed the congregation that some of the homeless would urinate or otherwise soil the expensive pew cushions, which should then be frequently washed. Many did not like all these but put up with  these practices for the duration of Murray’s term of office  .

A Christ Church practice that I particularly liked was Sermon discussions. Every Sunday, immediately after the morning service, the day’s Sermon was discussed over tea and cookies, and everyone was free to participate and to support or criticize. On one Sunday the Sermon was delivered by the Assistant Vicar, and she referred to converting the Heathen.  During the Sermon discussion I said that I did not understand the word Heathen, and referred to Bishop Heber’s hymn and the questions that I raised in the opening paragraph above. Rev.Murray immediately intervened to support me and told his Assistant that the word Heathen had imperialistic and racist connotations, and he therefore never used it. There was consensus  on this point with even the Assistant Vicar agreeing.

I don’t think we should be happy  about Java replacing Ceylon in that Hymn. Are some “natives” more or less civilized than others? I am a Christian but acknowledge that many became (Rice) Christians for material reasons (job for themselves, good schools for their children, social status etc). In a later period some Christians became (Donoughmore) Buddhists for political reasons. Originally, all our ancestors may have been animist. There would have been many conversions of many kinds in every family tree in every country. Such conversions have been going on all through history and it is impossible for us to analyze which of these conversions were genuine and which were not. Missionary activity is legitimate and has been the means by   which entire societies were converted  e.g the conversion by Asoka of Devanampiya Tissa led to most Sri Lankans becoming Buddhists(whether or not they understood Buddhism) . The conversion of Emperor Constantine led to most people in his Empire becoming Christians (whether or not they understood Christianity).Many (not all) of our ancestors would have converted for opportunist reasons. These cannot be now reversed. What we need to do is to seek to prevent illegitimate conversions in the present and in the future.

I know that many feel compelled to become Christians to gain entry to or to further their educational advancement in Christian institutions: others don robes of Buddhist Clergy with similar objectives ( e.g. to enter Pirivenas). Some of these accept their new tenets in  due course and feel no need to revert. But many do revert after achieving their educational objectives. In respect of both process (opportunist conversions and subsequent reversion), I find it difficult to condemn those who feel compelled by circumstances to comply. The blame lies with those who offer such illegitimate inducements. But I also agree with Anoja that those who refused to convert under pressure or for material gain, whether under imperial rule or thereafter are heroic and not vile.