Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Mar Thoma (Thinking about Entropy)

John 20:26-29 [RSV]
Eight days later, his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. The doors were shut, but Jesus came and stood among them, and said, "Peace be with you." Then he said to Thomas, "Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side; do not be faithless, but believing." Thomas answered him, "My Lord and my God!" Jesus said to him, "Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe."

During the Mass remembering Doubting Thomas this past Sunday, I received an exceptional gift: the gift of clarity. In part this was due to a well-spoken homily by Fr. Chris Heath, one of the excellent priests of our parish. But that homily brought me to see that many of the themes that I had been pondering this Lent (and to some extent, my whole life) were recapitulated in the person of St. Thomas. I hope to express how my own little epiphany, pale shadow that it was of St. Thomas's own, still something of the same quality.

Fr. Chris's homily contrasted the moment that caused St. Thomas to receive his dubious nickname, Doubting Thomas, with the remainder of his life as the Apostle to India, where he is called Mar Thoma. While St. Thomas was the last one to accept the Resurrection, not believing until he had seen it, the people he converted to the Christian faith were probably those least likely to have near experience of Jesus. It is even said that he converted Hindu Brahmins to his faith. Kerala, where St. Thomas was supposed to have arrived in India around A.D. 52, was something like Alexandria in Egypt, viz., a port city that included multiple cultural and religious tradition. To this day, the people from this region are called Nasrani (Nazarenes), because of the identification of the ethnic group native to Kerala with Christianity having a distinctive Syriac-Hebrew emphasis. While there were some Jewish settlers, both previously resident and recently arriving in response to persecution, the culture of the region was no doubt remote from Jerusalem, and St. Thomas's evangelical success could not have come easily. But as Fr. Chris suggested, perhaps it was because St. Thomas knew the struggles with doubt so intimately that he was so successful at convincing those who had not seen to believe.

This struck me personally because I had a realization of how much of my life had followed the path of Thomas in some way, apart from the rather obvious biographical connection of having been baptized Catholic (chosen as a disciple) and then becoming a doubter before returning to the faith. St. Thomas could practically epitomize Western empiricism in the passage from the Gospel of John quoted above, so I can hardly claim to be different in having embraced the attitude "show me, and then I will believe." But what suddenly became overwhelmingly apparent to me in a way I had never seen before was the connection between St. Thomas and India, which brings together several disparate areas of my own life.

My experience of Christianity has probably been similar to many people's experience, and it goes something like "NOW it all makes sense!" I don't mean that in an exhaustive sense, as if everything gets explained. On the contrary, it is more like the idea of having finally stumbled upon the key that unlocks the possibility of explaining everything, where you had previously been facing a locked door. But as the mysteries continue to unfold, there are always new and surprising levels of awareness, and this blog is intended in large part to share those realizations as they come to me. One could liken this picture of Mar Thoma to a kind of meta-realization in that regard, bringing together several themes that had emerged previously.

The first theme is that I have always been drawn to various aspects of Indian religion on a personal level throughout my life. I have mentioned before that my childhood religious upbringing (to the extent I had one) centered around the comparative mythological studies of Joseph Campbell, particularly reflected by George Lucas in Star Wars, and Hindu mythology was a significant part of that theme. Even in Catholic life, I have significantly benefited from the teaching of Thomas Merton, and I am particularly fascinated by the brief period before his untimely death when he had a closer contact with Buddhism than he ever had ever been before. On the more mundane level, my best friend in Orange County (whose birthday we are celebrating tonight) is Buddhist, and we have had many discussions about the common elements between Catholicism and Buddhism. In some way or another, I have always been interested in the Eastern religions that originated in India.

Turning to a theme more directly pertinent to my current state, I have never felt more "at home" in any liturgy than I have in the Syro-Malabar rite of Holy Qurbana, which I attended several times when I lived near the Syro-Malabar mission in Garland, TX. I credit that feeling as having no small significance in light of the fact that I was culturally quite uncomfortable, not because the people there weren't some of the most friendly and gracious people you could meet, but because I and whomever I managed to drag with me to "Indian Mass" were the only white people there. When I say "the only white people there," I mean that literally. They had Sunday school classes for the kids upstairs, and one time I was there, a girl who was about four or five excitedly exclaimed "Look, mommy, white people!" Those kids were learning Malayalam so that they could understand parts of the liturgy, including the Gospel reading; lacking that training myself, I had to look it up when I got home. Afterwards, I had to stammer some sort of response to "Please have some coffee and donuts, and why exactly are you here?" I couldn't really explain, because I didn't really know. I'd been to other rites before and since ... Byzantine, Tridentine, Maronite ... and the culture shock is common to all of them to some degree, but I never felt drawn to them in the same way. Now, I wonder whether it wasn't the fact that it was a land converted by Mar Thoma, a whole culture that never saw but believed, that I instinctively recognized.

Lastly, the connection with India touches on the physical/metaphysical theme that has been running through this series of posts. Put quite simply, I think pagan Vedic philosophy has a better handle on the concepts of destruction at the heart of this series (and to some extent, modern science) than pagan Greek philosophy does. Compared to Kali, the Manichee principle of matter and the Gnostic archons look pretty pathetic. Here's an interesting aside: when Latin America was attempting to express its religious independence from Spain and Portugal, various groups adopted the story of St. Thomas in India as their own, going so far as to cite him as the origin of the god Quetzalcoatl. It is surely an interesting cultural phenomenon that the legend of St. Thomas adapted so well to the inheritors of the Aztec culture, another culture that confronted destruction in a far more graphic way than Western culture. It is another example of the unlikely reception by a culture that had not seen Christ of the witness of St. Thomas. It seems that these cultures who have seen the dark side of life more immediately find something that resonates in the disciple who doubted but then gave the most remarkable witness.

I believe my perspective here has also been influenced by my professor E. C. George Sudarshan (articles available at this website), who taught me quantum mechanics in graduate school. Professor Sudarshan is from Kerala, India, the same place Mar Thoma arrived in the first century. He studied physics at the (Anglican) Church Missionary Society College in Kottayam, Kerala, which now has a center named after him. He also has the rather dubious distinction of having had the Nobel Prize in Physics twice given to other people for his work, first in 1979 and more recently in 2005. (The latter case was egregious, because the prize winner Roy Glauber had actually accused Sudarshan of committing an error and only after Sudarshan corrected him did he accept and disseminate what is now known as the "Sudarshan-Glauber representation" or more briefly "the Sudarshan diagonal representation." Personally, I think the paucity of Indian Nobel laureates in physics might well have something to do with the reluctance of Westerners to admit that Indian culture might originate scientific ideas outside the ambit of Western culture.)

I respect Prof. Sudarshan because he seems to have found the golden mean in recognizing the importance of philosophy for science without falling into the trap of making science into philosophy. As far as I know, he is not a Christian, but he is well versed in Vedic philosophy and knows something of Christianity as well (one might note his description of natural law here: "The 'word becomes flesh': sabda entails dravya."). Several of his Seven Science Quests involve fundamental questions in our knowledge of the world, and I have already recommended his book (with Tony Rothman) titled Doubt and Certainty, which explores these themes in some detail. Even in the secular understanding of physics and metaphysics, the ideas were from the same cultural milieu where Mar Thoma's Gospel was received.

I find it comforting that all of these themes of science, of philosophy, and of religion can be brought together in the Christian witness of Mar Thoma. I find it comforting because the Church in India has always given me a sense of hope. The St. Thomas Christians were treated badly by missionaries of both religious and political stripes. But somehow, Malabar and Malankara Christianity has survived intact, and that survival is testimony that Christianity has lasted and can last with an authentic character, one that can be reconciled with the Holy See and the later ecumenical councils even when culturally and historically remote from both. Like the Maronites (another Syrian Christian rite), they witness to the fact that separation is not insurmountable, that there is no historic Christian witness opposed to unity. And from the text of John's Gospel, itself a message passionately devoted to the theme of Christian unity, the words of St. Thomas echo through the legacy of his own life. They reverberate with this theme: the hope of uniting all things in Christ.


Anonymous said...

I quite enjoyed this piece, Johnathan.

When I read this sentence:

I respect Prof. Sudarshan because he seems to have found the golden mean in recognizing the importance of philosophy for science without falling into the trap of making science into philosophy.

It got me thinking of an essay I read by Father Stanley Jaki which he entitled "The Limits of a limitless Science." Are you familiar with it?


Anonymous said...


What references do you have concerning Mar Thoma? I have always been interested in Thomas' mission into India.


CrimsonCatholic said...

I've heard of the essay, but I've not read it. One more for the list. :)

Pretty much everything I know of it comes from the material I've read from the Syro-Malabar and Syro-Malankara Catholic churches (webiste, flyers, articles, and such), but there is also a lovely hymn by St. Ephraim the Syrian in which the devil bemoans his defeat at the hands of St. Thomas:
"Where now, is there a place for me to flee to from the righteous?
I stirred up Death to slay the Apostles,
that I might be safe from their blows.
By their deaths now more exceedingly am I cruelly beaten.
The Apostle whom I slew in India is before me in Edessa:
he is here wholly and also there.
I went there, there was he:
here and there I have found him and been grieved."

St. Ephraim is responsible for preserving much of what we know of Mar Thoma's apostolate.

Anonymous said...


Thanks! And God continue to bless you for your work and ministry here!

Anonymous said...

Crimson: I thought you would like to know that Zippy had posted a response at Sacramentum Vitae in case you were interested in giving a reply.

I know you were barred from posting any further at Zippy's blog, but since Sacramentum Vitae is neutral territory; it may be the best place for the 2 of you to discuss the matter evenly.

God Bless,

CrimsonCatholic said...

There's a post at M.Z. Forrest's revived blog where my comments in response to Zippy might prove helpful.

Anonymous said...

The Hindoos have a highly advanced culture with much to offer but much of it is certainly demonic in nature.
St. Francis Xavier definitely stated that.
Some of the Holy Qurbana's have had to much Latin and Western modern (and bad) Indian modern music in the liturgy rather than "Syrian" Liturgical music.

The goddess Kalli seems more like a demon although perhaps you are right about the destruction element.

Arturo at the Sarabite/Reditus likes Indian Ragas and the dances to lord Shiva.

There was an Indian traditionalist (maybe sede vacante) priest whose father was an Indian (Hindu) art professor but I can't remember his name.

Anonymous said...