We live today in challenging times: complexities and contradictions abound everywhere and with them come a whole range of responses and reactions, of apathy and engagement. At the receiving end of brutal, insensitive systems and policies, which are also anti-people and dehumanising, are the poor and the marginalised, the excluded and the exploited and other vulnerable sections of society. There are painstaking efforts to legitimize all this in favour of the rich, powerful, crony capitalists, politicians and other vested interests.
Felix Wilfred in his new magnum opus For a Socially Engaged Faith provides compelling arguments as to why and how a socially engaged faith can not only address the grim realities but also be a beacon of hope for millions throughout the world, particularly in South Asia and specifically India. Given the wealth of his experience and expertise as a theologian, Wilfred who is the Founder-Director of the Asian Centre for Cross-Cultural Studies (ACCS), Chennai, is able to shake the reader of the book out of one’s comfort zone. He brings to the fore a spiritual depth, an intellectual rigor, an analysis of what is happening in society today and above all, in his challenges he provides directions for the way ahead.
In the ‘Preface’ he states, “the present work represents the culmination of reflections, shared experiences, and conversations held on various occasions and with diverse audiences in response to distinct requirements.” So each of the fourteen chapters are, in some ways, ‘stand-alone’; however, Wilfred goes on to say, “nevertheless, there exists a unifying theme that connects them all. This common thread revolves around the pivotal notion that faith must yield tangible outcomes through the transformation of the world and society, accompanied by an ongoing process of conversion and personal maturation.”
The ‘Introduction’ to the book is a comprehensive twenty-nine pages. Wilfred provides the reader powerful arguments for the relevance of the book. He goes through the developing crisis, the challenging times, the changing landscape and the shifts in understanding social engagement. This part also highlights the significance of Catholic Social Teaching, certain pitfalls within the Church, the waning of social consciousness. There are, however, signs of hope and his book is intended to provide that. Finally, Wilfred provides the structure of the book with its major themes... Towards the end, he states, “The reader will note that the spirit and concern of public theology is present throughout the book” and finally, “it calls for innovative social involvement from Christian believers and emphasises the importance of envisioning alternatives to the prevailing paradigms in each of these fields.”
The book is unique on several counts. It looks into the current realities of South Asia and particularly countries like India. For example, the situation of the Dalits and other sub-altern groups. It demands a systemic and meaningful analysis of the social realities. As Church, Wilfred is convinced, one should not be immune, and one cannot be isolated from these realities. The tendency, however, is to be ensconced in one’s comfort zone.
One must have honesty and humility to respond to the realities, by demonstrating the courage to read, understand and respond to the signs of the times. All over South Asia, and in several other parts of the world, we have growing authoritarianism and the emergence of totalitarian states. People are polarised in the name of religion, caste, ethnicity, nationality. Divisiveness, discrimination and demonization of the ‘other’ (especially minorities) is mainstreamed. Hate and violence rule the roost. Human rights violations abound as never before; there is a threat to multi-culturalism and religious pluralism.
The Church needs to reinvent itself by listening to the cries of those who suffer in society, by accompanying them, and by visibly and vocally articulating their legitimate rights. This is in essence the role and responsibility of a Synodal Church. Wilfred, in his Chapter on ‘Crossing a Millennial Threshold: Church in India on the Synodal Path’ says: “We hope that the synodal path initiated by Pope Francis will open the eyes of the Indian Church leaders to give flesh and blood to the synodal vision of the Church. This is an important stepping-stone towards overcoming the deep crisis the Church is going through due to clericalism. It is increasingly demanded by the abuse of power. This should go beyond treating the symptoms and identify deeper structural causes that inhibit the emergence of a genuinely synodal Church.”
The book is clearly about how Christian faith engagement requires a radical reimagining of traditional theological concepts on mission, ministry, salvation, Church-community, authority, and sacraments. Wilfred’s work emphatically and unequivocally underlines the significance of embodying one’s faith through a commitment to society; it represents an attempt to approach theology from a unique perspective.
An explanation to the Cover Design of the book states, “Mere knowledge of society and societal dynamics is inadequate. Faith comes in to provide the enlightenment to see our experiences -- individual and social –differently, and in a new light, this new light of seeing the social realities through engagement is represented by the eye. The ‘Third Eye’ is also a metaphor of compassion as in the Buddhist tradition. The idea is expressed in Tamil classics as ‘Kadaikan’ meaning compassionate eye.” A more elaborate title of the book is ‘Socially Engaged Faith as the Third Eye of Enlightenment and Compassion’.
Felix Wilfred through this timely tome and with his profound and incisive theological insights has done singular service to the Church in South Asia. His book is a ‘must-read’ for the hierarchy, for all major Superiors, for priests and religious and for everyone in formation (the laity will also find it very useful). Whether those who are in authority in the Church will have the courage to read the book and then the honesty to move towards the implementation of the direction shown, is of course anyone’s guess! For a socially engaged faith, we must get up from our sleep and get out of our comfort zones now!
(Fr Cedric Prakash SJ is a human rights, reconciliation and peace activist/writer. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org)