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Identity in Conflict - a Review

The well-reputed Indian Catholic magazine VJTR made this review of "Identity in Conflict", the Festschrift celebrating the 70th birthday of Prof. Johannes Aagaard.

Identity in Conflict. Classical Christian Faith and Religio Occulta, Essays in Honour of Prof. Johannes Aagaard. Edited by Moti Lal Pandit, Helle Meldgaard and Mike Garde. New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal, 1998, pp xviii-235. Rs 525 ISBN 81-215-0844-4


In 1988 Prajna Publications published in Delhi a Festschrift under the title of Dialogue in Action to celebrate the 60fh anniversary of the same Danish theologian and missiologist who is also honoured with this Festschrift published on his 70th birthday. Prof. Aagaard continues his active and fruitful academic career that has taken him to many countries of the world including India, where he has lectured in Pune and Madurai.

There is a certain unity of focus in the 14 theological articles of this Festschrift. The central theme would seem to be indicated by the subtitle, and has been the field of pastoral, historical and theological interest of Prof. Aagaard: The Occult trend in religions, including Christianity, and their impact on the main- line tradition. This leads to a subsidiary theme in the book, indicated by the main title, i.e., the identity of Christianity in respect to other religions and to new "churches" and local movements or cults: can anything that calls itself Christian be accepted as such, or are there criteria of discernment?

This question, a valid one, may often be answered perhaps too much in terms of exclusion, contrast and differentiation. The Incarnation principle recalled in one of the last essays should be kept in mind. The two themes mentioned above come obviously under the general concern of mission which is another underlying interest of the volume.

In the school of Aagaard there is a certain stress on the Occult, the perverse, the demoniac influences in religion and even a certain sectomania, to use a term recently coined in Russia, a desire to bring to light, to name and oppose the dehumanising trends specially in some of the recent sects and cults.

Aagaard is not against dialogue. He rather promotes it, but it must be a dialogue in confrontation, characterised by plainspeak and based on truth, not the soft political one that bypasses the basic issues, specially regarding the dehumanising effects of religious trends or practices. The point is well taken, but one should not forget that in dialogue we confront also the untruth in ourselves, in the light of the truth in others.

Not surprisingly the first part of the book has three articles on demons in the Bible, Satan in the NT, and a particularly good one by Johannes Nissen on "Mission in Christ's Way: The Temptation in the Desert and Christian Mission" where this observation is made: A comparison between the third temptation in Mt 4 and the great commission in Mt 28 raises the question: What is the difference between Jesus' rejection of all the kingdoms in their glory' (4: 10) and his acceptance of all authority in heaven and earth (28: 19)? The Satanic temptation is to use power which is imposed on people. This is manipulation or propaganda. Authentic mission works in a different way. Since it is based on the power of love it accepts the freedom of the recipient. Instead, he or she is reduced to a mere object of the message (p. 46). The temptation in dialogue will be to see the others as manipulative, and never oneself.

The second part deals with the Asian scene. I think that the Introduction of the book exaggerates when it sees Advaita as an Occult religion. The longest article in the book is by Moti Lal Pandit who devotes 45 pages to an exposition of "The Divine Couple Siva and Sakti" on the basis of the Kashmiri philosophy, a well-documented expository article, if somewhat repetitious. Another Indian author, Bal Krishna Shukla, deals with the philosophy of Goraknath in North India and the role of the body in Hatha Yoga tradition with the usual esoteric physiology of the tradition. Another Asian, Thomas Yu, explains how the Yigwan Dao has become a successful Buddhist revivalist movement in Taiwan which has effectively stopped the missionary Clan of the 50s and 60s.

Part III deals with Western Occult movements: the Bogomils in medieval Bulgaria, the more recent Mormons in America and Europe (a pseudo-Christian sect) and Scientology, a clearly manipulative and dehumanising cult.

The last part comes back to the question of Christian mission, with a special study of the Nestorian Church and the highly successful Syrian mission in the first millennium (a study that should particularly interest theologians in India), another on the ecclesiology prevalent in Lutheran Denmark, and another on the incarnational principle in mission, specially mission in conflict. The last entry is a very informative exposé of the problems in the Russia of the 90s, when an excessive freedom given to all sects to come into the country proved destructive of society and had to be controlled by a legal and political battle that ended in a new legislation passed last year by the Duma. The main cults involved here were ISKCON, Scientology, the Unification Church (Moon), the Jehovah Witnesses, Aum Shrinrikyo... This is an enlightening story, but as told by one party personally involved in the conflict

Though expensive, this Festschrift has its value as it offers glimpses of theological concern of a section of the Danish Church. We wish Prof Aagaard many more years of fruitful work in the area of missiology and 'Dialogue in Confrontation' that has the potentiality to lead all the participants to a higher perception of the Truth.

G. Gispert-Sauch, S.J.