OIKOUMENE: STARTING POINT OF HISTORIOGRAPHY

Vanlalpeka

(Sir Peka teaches History of Christianity in AICS. He has won many regional and national prizes in Article/Essay Writing Competitions. We thank him for presenting Oikoumene from historical perspective.)

 

History, as a subject, is very often oversimplified as mere memorization of past documents, past dynasties, past events, past years, so on and so forth. Such assumption makes history a dull, monotonous and repetitive subject. However, E.R. Carr, who revolutionised the subject, denied the traditional inclination and proposed a worldview. He remarked history as a continuous interaction between the past and the present. Peter N. Sterns also clarifies history as a subject designed for understanding oneself and one’s identity. In addition to such approaches, most of the post colonial or post modern historiographies proposed a living and interactive approach.

Revisiting Ecclesial/Indian Historiography

            The past do not come to us in a unitary truth, but multiple “truths” are always embedded within different layers of historical document. Historians do not speak with one single voice. As perspectives changes, historians tells stories of the same past, employ the same evidence in different ways, they automatically changed the outlook of different documents that in turn enriches our understanding of the past.

            A brief retrospection on different historiographies could be enumerated as follows:

         1. Theoretical Framework: Scholars and theoreticians construct a historical framework to asses certain historical events by a process of selection. Any historical evidence would be inserted or fit into such established rigid framework. (A framework prepared by the academicians), if such evidences do not get along with such frameworks like definitions, explanations or concepts, the evidence would be either distorted or erased from history.

         2. Periodization Process: Periodization involves generalization on the basis of a specific period of time. The ancient India is classified a period of the Hindus, the medieval period as the era of the Muslim and the modern period as the reign of the English. The Hindutva historiography narrated the ancient period as a period of prosperity, glory and tranquillity; the medieval period as a period of chaos, tyranny, destruction and agony and the ancient period as a period of oppression and domination. In reality, history is always marked with a mixture of peace and war, peace and prosperity, good and bad.   

         3. Institution Centricism: History as a discipline always employs the worldviews of the ruler to assess the historical development or historiography. It is often synonymised as histories of different dynasties – the Mauryan, the Gupta, the Cholas, the Pandhyas, or the Mughals, etc which is only a fraction of the whole total dynasties. The issue of king and advisors, royal sceptre and royal coffer, relics and Mausoleum of kings and princess, etc are the focal point of almost all historical enquiries while denying the life and experiences of the commoners.

         4. Domain of Academia: Most of the upcoming writings are done within the domain of academia, if not it would fail to penetrate the life of the masses. There is a very small link between the scholars and the general masses. If the process of writing history is to liberate the people it has to reach them, their intellect and their minds, if it fails to reach them it will never transform their conditions.

5. History of Doctrine: Christian history was traditionally written as a history of doctrine. They worked in a historical milieu separated from the life and experiences of the laity and the subaltern section of the society. They only represented the spirituality of the intellectuals, the thinkers, the elite groups away from the common experiences. Christian faith, as experienced by the common man and women was enormously diverse and different.

A general overview on the ecclesial/Indian historiography highlighted multiple drawbacks and hitches. The factors responsible for such high handedness were often different “catalyst” like the master narratives, triumphalistic approach, centre periphery worldview, whiteman’s burden, etc. The ongoing highhandedness could be remedied by employing oikomune as the starting point of history enquiry.

Defining Oikoumene.

The word “oikoumene” simply implies inhabited universe in the Greco-Roman world. The term gained prominent in the post – Constantine period. A council of ecclesial leaders that consisted of representatives of bishops or other laities from selected ecclesial jurisdictions are generally called the “ecumenical council”. The term gives top priority to common interests, commonality and common cause.

An attempt to employ oikoumene in historiography would means reconstructing history by the conviction that the full amount is more important than the different single components. Or the peripheries and the epicentres are equally important. The interest of all members of the society is more important than the few rich/poerful/elite/well to do. So, defining the term “oikoumene” in the context of historical research would involve considering the cause and sentiments of the “underdogs”, the subaltern sections of the society. It also required seeing things from the peripheries not just simply from the epicentres not just simply from the platform. It would also involve seeking the commonality between different parties in different historical contexts.

Western Ecclesial Structure

The Church History Association of India (CHAI) critically observed in 1975 that the Indian church history is documented as the expansion of the western church – western spirituality, western structure, western theology and western rituals, etc. But, the apostolate of St Thomas or St Bartholomew affirmed the presence of Christianity since the 1st Century AD. The expansion and growth of Christianity is also a process not simply transplantation of the western church. Christianity, in fact, in India have been moulded and enriched by the surrounding culture of plurality and diversity. The Indian history should consider a wider worldview to come up with an impartial historiography. 

Socio Political Milieu

Suppose the so called “Great Commission” was never given, or the disciples were never asked to bear witness to Judea, Samaria or to the ends of the earth, Christianity still then has to somehow exhibit a missionary way of life. It was the socio political context that compelled them to live like a wandering community. Christianity was an outlawed religion and Christians had to flee to the near and far empires so as to take shelter. Also, the Christian community belonged to the subaltern sections of the society and in turn they always look forward for a numerical growth and security.

The Imperial policy and tolerance were also moderated by different socio-political milieu. For instance, Christians were tolerated, in fact being welcomed in Persia when the Roman Empire declared them as their enemy. Persia was being the main enemy of the Roman Empire even during their prime glory. But, after the 313 incident, Christianity faced severe persecutions when Christianity was understood as religion of the Roman Empire. In the same way, the motivating factors during the missionary movement of the modern period were polished with colonial interests. One also observed that any king who had interest in trade and commerce with people of other faith would prove to be more tolerant and receptive with such faith. 

Legends and Historical facts

John C.B. Webster articulated the mission historiography by comparing mission with a play with India as the platform. All the actors and actresses were the foreign western missionaries, while the Indian Christians were just the silent and distant spectators. The process of writing history also entails myth or legend making with a western mission historiography revolving around one particular European master. With such master as the key player in mission, all other mission work was just simply a dull historical activity.

Recapitulating Mizo Ecclesial Historiography

The western missionaries into Mizoram may be broadly divided as the English and the non English race – Irish, Welsh and Scott. It is often observed that the non English groups were more sensitive with regards to human rights and dignity, while encountering caste system in India and bawih in Mizoram. They were themselves minority and could sympathize with such people. The English were less sensitive with the issue of human rights and dignity since they themselves were the masters in their homeland.

The western missionaries also employed the “centre periphery” worldview. The different major revivals that enveloped Mizoram in different stages were arranged as 1905, 1906, 1919-1921, 1935. Vanlalchhuanawma opposed the different stipulated time by stating that revival is an ongoing phenomenon that is shifting from one village to another. The stipulated years were simply the years in which the revival movement reached Mission Veng church, the church of the European missionaries. In the same way, the role and contributions of the local Christians were shadowed and eclipsed by their European counterparts. Revival was documented as an upheaval that stirred the whole of the state but in reality it moved only the areas easily accessible for the first converts, the so called Lakher and Pawih area never experienced such upheavals. 

The understanding of “good and evil” was also introduced into historiography of the Mizo. The English army during the world wars was understood as the Divine army under the direct command of God himself. The Germans, on the other hand, were synonymised with the armies of destruction and Devil that in turn blurred the historical scholarship as historiography was blurred with emotions, feelings and parochial judgements. 

History as a subject could be a source of confidence of the people while it could also be a source of humiliation. Recollecting the faithfulness of YHWH for people of the Israelites was a perennial source of strength and inspiration. Recollecting a comprehensive history would help to develop a comprehensive historiography for an inclusive worldview today. Therefore, retrospection of historical documents on common ground, commonality and common interest would strive to realise an oikoumenical community. 

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(Shekina Annual Magazine, 2013-2014 ‘Oikoumene’)

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