Obituary – Samuel Rayan S.J. (1920–2019)

in Mission Studies

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Samuel Rayan stands out as a tall theological figure on the landscape of post-independent India. We need a yardstick to gauge the significance of this theologian, different from the standard way of counting publications. He, of course, did publish significant volumes of materials. But his heart was with the spoken word. He believed in the importance of the spoken word and could move to reflection and action the innumerable people with whom he interacted, and who belonged to different walks of life and religious and ideological backgrounds.

Rayan was a theologian of the grassroots and a trailblazer. His theology was nurtured by the encounter with the suffering and anguish of the poor, those pushed to the periphery in an unjust world and society, and struggling to survive. He connected his theological reflection to the stirrings of liberation generated and carried forward by social movements and independent civil society initiatives. What came out was a genuine Indian theology of liberation with Indian roots, history and resources, and not any copying of liberation theology from elsewhere.

The years he spent with the student movement and organization known as All India Catholic University Federation (AICUF) was a period of gestation for the emergence of a creative, inspiring, and at the same time powerful and prophetic, theological formulation and language tinged in poetics at which he was very adept. During his many decades at the Jesuit theological college Vidyajyoti in Delhi, he distinguished himself as an extraordinary teacher capturing the minds and hearts of the students and instilling in them a new way of theologizing. Here was a theologian who could inspire generations of students with his passion for justice and dream of an egalitarian society mirroring the kingdom of God.

Writing in a journal dedicated to the study of missions, I would like to highlight how the multifaceted theologian Rayan showed deep interest in rethinking the concept of mission especially in relation to liberation. This was evident in his long years of support and accompaniment of the missionary congregation of Maryknoll Sisters in the USA. According to Rayan’s festschrift, Bread and Breath (T.K. John, ed.; Anand: Gujarat Sahitya Prakash, 1991), the then president of this community, Sr. Barbara Hendricks referred to one of Rayan’s writings as “a contemporary gem of missiological reflection … significant for me and for many U.S.A. missionaries and Church personnel….” (p. 7).

Samuel Rayan was an ecumenical theologian as well, and indeed in the fullest sense. He not only served as a member of the Faith and Order Commission of the World Council of Churches, but translated his ecumenical spirit in his daily life with his openness to truth, goodness and beauty from whichever corner they came. He also served as the dean of an ecumenical theological center in Bangalore. His theology cast a spell among the different Christian denominations; no wonder he was all over the country at important ecumenical programs and sessions.

Even before India saw any articulation of feminist theology, Rayan anticipated it by his contributions to the cause of women and by entering into deep theological reflections on their situation of discrimination and oppression due to patriarchy, as well as on their dignity and agency. For example, in an article of 1986 entitled “In Christ: The Power of Women,” he pulls together threads from Indian and biblical traditions for shaping a context-sensitive feminist theology for today.

In today’s world of globalization, the expression “Third World” may appear dated. But it was once a symbol of a different way of thinking and seeing through critical eyes the condition of our profoundly divided world. Applied to theology, it came to mark a theology which distanced itself from the conventional understanding and approach to it in the West. Rayan was one of the founding members and stalwarts of the Ecumenical Association of Third Word Theologians (EATWOT). The various meetings of this body in different parts of the world offered the opportunity for Rayan’s thinking to acquire international significance.

In the early 1970s, a new impetus came in the Roman Catholic Church with the publication of the theological journal Jeevadhara, followed by the founding of the Indian Theological Association (ITA). Rayan served as an editor for a number of years of this monthly journal which brought refreshing theological reflections matching the vibrancy of the post-conciliar period in the Roman Catholic Church in India. His involvement in this and other initiatives also led him to develop an ecclesiology critical of the institutional church and its exercise of power, and dream of a church that would be truly a Jesus-movement for today.

Though Rayan was not someone who went into any textual study of the scriptures and traditions of various religious traditions, these he saw as engaged in a common task of transforming the world, and paving the way for promoting justice and peace. He acknowledged Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim and other religious traditions as playing a role in the creation of a common future for humanity. In this sense, his theological enterprise could be characterized as inter-religious and humanist.

The theology of Rayan deserves to be studied much more in depth at the national and international levels in its methodology and contemporary relevance. One reason this has not been done could be that his writings are scattered in many reviews, journals, book-chapters, conference-proceedings, and so on. However, it is gratifying to note that recently a doctoral dissertation on his thought was submitted at the theological faculty of Louvain and is now published under the title: Christian Faith: A Liberation Praxis: Theology of Samuel Rayan (Nicholas Tharsiuse; Delhi: ISPCK, 2015). Thanks to the efforts of one of his friends and colleagues, Kurien Kummumpuram, we now have most of Rayan’s collected writings ordered thematically (Mumbai: St Paul’s, 2011–2013; Delhi: ISPCK, 2013). A national conference was conducted in Kozhikode, India in 2013, at the initiative of his former students with a view to studying his thought, and the proceedings of this conference are now available as a printed volume (The Vision of a New Church and a New Society, edited by Kurien Kunnumpuram; Delhi: World Imprints, 2016).

To conclude, the theology of Samuel Rayan was characterized by a radicality scarcely imaginable among armchair theologians playing with concepts. This radicality had two sources – his faith in the continuing self-revelation of God in history, especially among the poor, the discriminated-against and the marginalized, and the message of the Scriptures which he interpreted in most refreshing ways all through his life as a theologian. His theological legacy waits to be explored further.

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