Wednesday, December 3, 2014

The Apostle From India

Wisdom of the Sadhu: Teachings of Sundar Singh, Kim Comer, compiler

Born into a wealthy Sikh family and drawn to religious studies from an early age, Sundar Singh angrily rejected Western Christian missions into colonial India. He insulted missionaries, burned Bibles, and made his objections known. But as Hindu and Sikh beliefs left him feeling bereft, he contemplated suicide. Then a road-to-Damascus moment altered his path forevermore. Before his death in 1929, Sundar Singh became India’s most renowned Christ follower, and remains a national icon today.

Compiler Kim Comer selects representative samples from Sundar’s writings, numerous speeches, and moments recorded by his many followers. Like Rabbi Hillel or Saint Francis, Sundar Singh attracted enthusiastic followers and initiated a school of thought that survived his mortal life. He accomplished this, not by trumpeting himself, but by righteous teachings, unclouded thought, and (too rare among Christian leaders anymore) matching his actions to his words. Before long, his reputation transcended borders, religions, and cultures.

European Christian brethren trained Sundar for their idea of Christian missions. but despite his eager Gospel studies, he couldn’t embrace Christianity’s accrued cultural baggage. I can sympathize. Intensely attuned to his people, Sundar wanted only to become a Sadhu, an itinerant Indian holy man. Leaving the European school, he undertook a lifetime of humble wandering, Socratic questioning, and mindful prayer. He never sought renown, only clarity, but perhaps that’s why spreading renown soon found him.

Comer assembles Sundar’s words along a straightforward path intended to draw new readers into the Sadhu’s thinking. In Part One, “Scenes,” Comer pairs Sundar’s parables with autobiographical sketches, allowing the parables to illuminate important spiritual principles from the factual report. Part Two, “Conversations,” pairs these parables with what Westerners might call sermons, brief discursions on important transcendent concepts. Because Sundar uses Hindu terms like “karma” and “dhyanam,” jaded Western audiences can read with unhindered minds.

Sundar Singh, the Sadhu
By parables, I mean exactly what you think. Like Christ or Buddha, Sundar uses brief, allegorical stories to convey ideas too vast to speak as mere dictionary definitions. Narratives of a bereaved bridegroom or a fledgeling hawk touch first the heart, moving afterward to the head, where simply telling us something would prematurely strangle it in analysis. Sundar’s homiletic approach encourages audiences to apprehend his truth quickly, seeking factual confirmation and theological scrutiny only afterward.

Had Sundar not embraced Christ, he could’ve inherited vast fortunes—then as now, India’s Sikhs are generally wealthier than average. But like St. Jerome or John the Baptizer, Sundar abandoned easy urban comfort, preferring the company of society’s dispossessed. If anyone donated money, he shared generously with all around. He slept in borrowed beds and ate donated food. And though his teachings eventually brought lucrative European and American tours, he owned little besides his clothing.

Despite comparisons to Francis or Jerome, Sundar has transformative potential for Western Christianity because he abjures comfortable cultural touchpoints. The liturgical language Westerners often find boring, and must consciously strive to keep vital and new, doesn’t enter Sundar’s storytelling. His references come from Indian peasant life, Hindu practice, and the poor among whom Sundar lived. He strips away Christians’ learned pretenses, permitting us no cozy hiding hole. That which we consider dull, Sundar renders alien.

Stephen Mansfield writes that many spiritual hucksters have sold Westerners a sanitized Hinduism to solve Christianity’s recent failures. Hinduism provides the spiritual counter-narrative spiritual seekers want, and Christianity hasn’t much provided. But in doing so, these purveyors have scrubbed anything Westerners might find offensive, offering a spiritual elixir that makes people feel good without challenging them to do good. This creates an environment of spiritual self-sanctification, where we can believe everything while striving after nothing.

Not so with Sundar Singh. He’s bracing, difficult, even slightly dangerous. Like Christ or the Hebrew prophets, Sundar’s message reminds us that we, as we exist, have accomplished tragically little. Salvation isn’t a matter of belief, but new life. As a resolute non-Westerner, Sundar’s messages, pierce the protective cultural barriers Christians build themselves, demanding we separate what’s truly Gospel from mere cultural baggage. That isn’t easy. But stagnating Western Christianity definitely needs an outsider’s rebuke.

Like Dietrich Bonhoeffer or John Calvin, Sundar Singh doesn’t write (and Kim Comer doesn’t compile) to convert unbelievers. Sundar rather calls believers to live actively what they speak verbally, and offers wanderers a spiritual home. Therefore this book appeals primarily to current Christians and the spiritually homeless. It illuminates Christ-like thought by erasing false cultural camouflage. Seeing faith through Sundar’s eyes, it appears as dangerous today as that upstart Christ must’ve seemed two millennia ago.

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