M. Thomas Thangaraj, a professor emeritus of Emory University, taught Dr. Brad Kelle World Christianity in the mid ‘90s. Kelle is PLNU’s director of the masters of art program for religion and a professor of Old Testament. Now, Thangaraj will reunite with his student October 13-15 for this year’s Wiley Lectures, thanks to Kelle’s invitation. Kelle called Thangaraj the “face of global Christianity that we don’t often see” because he, as a Christian, grew up in India surrounded by Hindu villages.
“He grew up in a world of inter-religious dialogue,” Kelle said.
This is the only academic lecture series sponsored by PLNU. It dates back to 1951 at Pasadena College.
To preface these events, The Point took the time to get to know Thangaraj and pick his mind about his lecture topic and the state of Christianity in the world.
The Point: How did you get invited to speak in the Wiley Lectures?
M. Thomas Thangaraj: Dr. Brad Kelle, a former student of mine at Emory University, was kind enough to think of me and invited me to give the Wiley lectures this year.
What are you going to be addressing at the lectures?
MTT: I am addressing the issue of crossing boundaries – cultural, musical, and religious – which most of us experience in today’s world due to the expansion of travel possibilities and the explosion of information technology. I would like to invite people to explore such crossing of boundaries as occasions of spiritual practice.
What is the weekly theme of these lectures? Why was it chosen?
MTT: The theme is: Crossing Boundaries: A Spiritual Practice. I am currently working on a popular (not purely academic) book in which I engage the readers to look at their experiences of crossing boundaries as spiritual practice. I bring in autobiographical notes to illustrate such crossings and explore those from a theological/spiritual perspective. The best way to improve my writing is to share the ideas with as many people as possible to sharpen my ideas. The Wiley lectures will provide one such occasion for me.
What do you hope listeners will understand by the end of the week?
MTT: I am hoping that my listeners will come to realize how the Spirit is at work in their lives when they cross boundaries and how they can turn those opportunities for enriching their lives and expanding their horizons.
You’re constantly traveling between Boston and India. What is that like and what is the purpose of your travels?
MTT: As I intended to retire from Emory University and return to India, it was the Candler School of Theology at Emory that offered me the possibility to teach one semester a year and spend the rest of the time in India. From 2004 to 2008, I taught every spring semester at Emory and fully retired in 2008. Then came invitations from Oklahoma City University (2009 and 2010) and Boston University School of Theology (2011 through 2014). It is quite a challenge to live in two continents. Yet it offers me repeated experiences of boundary-crossings.
You have extensive study invested in World Christianity and have classes addressing Christ and Theology from a global context. What is the most important thing to know about these topics?
MTT: My mission has been to enable people to understand and experience World Christianity in a new way. I help them to see Christianity as the world-wide Christian community that stands with open arms to welcome anyone from any part of the world to its fellowship, and kneels with bended knee to take its humble yet rightful place among the religions of the world.
You have gone around the world to speak and discuss world religion. Would you be able to explain some of that experience and what you’ve found working with different people around the world?
MTT: My travels around the world have taught me that the richness of humanity resides in its plurality, diversity and differences. The religious differences among us are to be celebrated and it is those differences that enable us to express our authentic selves while opening the doors to building communities of
conversation and goodwill.
With all the religiously-driven conflicts in the world right now, what do you think people often mistake or what is the correct way to address these conflicts from the U.S.?
MTT: While religions may be implicated in the conflicts in the world right now, it is religions that have the resources and remedies for transforming conflicts into reconciling possibilities. This means that religions should not shy away from their responsibility to offer leadership in situations of conflict and peace education during other times.
Where does the U.S. fall when it comes to global Christianity? What kind of influence, if any, does the U.S.’s idea of religion and specifically, Christianity, have on other cultures?
MTT: Since the U. S. is the most powerful nation in the world, it has the awesome responsibility of using that power for justice and peace. That means it should not rush to Easter bypassing Good Friday and Holy Saturday. It should follow the path of suffering with and for others that leads us to the sunrise of peaceful tomorrow.
What do you think is the greatest obstacle Christianity faces right now (especially since you are addressing boundaries in your discussions)?
MTT: There are at least two obstacles Christianity faces today. First obstacle is viewing Christian faith merely as a ticket to material prosperity. It turns Christian faith into the good news of the rich and ceases to be the good news for the poor. The second is to reduce Christian faith to sheer membership drive. This removes Christianity from its primary task to serve those who are not within its boundaries. As Archbishop William Temple once said: The Church is only club that exists for its non-members!
What do you think is the greatest accomplishment of Christianity in society now?
MTT: History proves that the greatest accomplishment of Christianity is that the good news of Jesus the Christ, wherever it is lived out, can and does bring both personal and societal transformation.
These events are free, open to the public and in Crill Performance Hall, where students can come and go as they please.
The Center for Justice and Reconciliation’s Brewed Awakening will feature Thangaraj and COO of SAP North America, Richard Knowles. Monday in Fermanian, students can hear about business, international development and justice and reconciliation in one conversation.