Reflections on the LTSP 2011 Fall Forum
by Clair Anderson
What does Henry Melchior Muhlenberg have in common with Bartholomaeus Ziegenbalg? At the November 7 Fall Forum at The Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia (LTSP), an animated, engaging LTSP professor, the Rev. Dr. J. Jayakiran Sebastian, acknowledged that both men were sent out as missionaries by the University of Halle, Germany, to spread Lutheran pietism beyond Europe.
In 1706, Ziegenbalg brought the message of salvation through Jesus Christ to South India as the first Protestant missionary, sponsored by the Royal House of Denmark. Realizing the importance of understanding the Indian people before converting them, he engaged them in disputations and published his findings in the book Detailed Description of South Indian Society, showing their need for the Gospel. The book had an impact upon Europe and may have inspired Muhlenberg to seek a missionary appointment to South India. However, Halle responded to the need for pastoral leadership among the infant congregations along the eastern seaboard of America by sending Muhlenberg there. His ministry is described in his Journals and in his Notebook of a Colonial Clergyman. Ziegenbalg imported a printing press so he could have the Bible printed in the Tamal language, as well as a Tamal grammar and dictionary.
Dr. Sebastian began his afternoon presentation with a touching personal story about the impact of missionaries on his own life. The tragic death of his Hindu grandfather led his grandmother to seek refuge in a Christian mission in India, where Dr. Sebastian's father was raised. As a teenager, his father cranked a missionary's Victrola and listened to J.S. Bach records. When asked what name he would take, his father requested "Sebastian."
Moving from mission past to mission now, Dr. Sebastian raised the question, “What is the paradigm or motivation for missiology today?” The last 50-60 years have been dominated by Missio Dei, or the mission of God. A theological critique of this paradigm is needed and begins with the question who is responsible for mission? He advocates a new Missio Humanitas, or mission to God, which takes seriously the human condition as well as human responsibility for mission in a pluralistic, post-colonial world. What does the Bible mean for people in our society now? Mission to God forces us to contemplate who God really is and who we are in relation to neighbors we have, not those we might choose. What are the consequences of our choices and actions? How does mission relate to the victims of globalism, those who have suffered and continue to suffer?
When asked what mission to God would look like, Dr. Sebastian drew upon a Buddhist image of the person who reaches bliss, but waits to cross over so he or she can help others to cross. Jesus accompanies us on the pilgrim journey as our guide, but instead of going on ahead of us, stands along side and encourages us to pass on. We too serve as guides pointing to God. There was a good question and answer exchange at each session.
Dr. Sebastian's spirited, personal, relational style was well-received by those present who greatly appreciated being opened to an unknown area in a stimulating, thought-provoking manner. Dr. Sebastian was born in Bangalore, India, and educated there and in Germany. He served several congregations in India and taught at an Indian seminary for 10 years before joining the faculty at LTSP in 2008 as H. George Anderson Professor of Mission and Cultures, and Director of the Multicultural Mission Resource Center.
The Rev. Dr. Clair Anderson is a retired ELCA pastor and LTSP alumnus, living in Hanover, PA. He tells his connection to the Muhlenberg Legacy on the Muhlenberg 300 website at Ltsp.edu/MuhlenbergStories.