05 June 2014

Deborah Haight and The Christ of the Indian Road

Deborah Haight, second from right. (At right in picture is Duncan Wood.) I think the year is 1976.
Location: Alma College, St. Thomas, Ontario.
I've just finished re-reading a book that I first picked up during my college years in Canada, The Christ of the Indian Road, by E. Stanley Jones, first published in 1925. Re-reading this book wasn't just interesting on its own merits; it brought back wonderful memories of long discussions about this book with the Friend who introduced me to it: Deborah Haight.

I've mentioned Deborah more than once over the ten years of this blog. One of the founding members of Ottawa Meeting, Deborah was an important influence on several young adults who found their way to that meeting during my time there, the mid-1970's. The introduction to the 2008 edition of her Gardner Lecture, Meeting, tells us this about Deborah:
Deborah Haight was born in 1911 into a Quaker family in the Conservative tradition in Norwich, Ontario, near the Norwich Friends meetinghouse. Her youth was nurtured by the Friends' community that she defined as "Meeting," and by her monthly meeting and yearly meeting in which she played active roles from an early age. She trained as a teacher and taught in several communities, including the National School for the Blind in Brantford, while at the same time studying for her BA in biology at Queen’s University, which she earned in 1935. In 1947 she moved to Ottawa and became a bio-scientist in the Department of National Health and Welfare. She was one of the founding members of Ottawa Friends Meeting, which became a monthly meeting in 1958. Following her retirement, she moved to Woodstock and later to Norwich to continue an active and productive life—travelling, learning, mentoring, and worshiping among Friends. Deborah passed away peacefully in 2004 at the age of 92 in the home where she was born. Her Memorial Minute is recorded in the Reports for CYM 2004.
A couple of years before I arrived in Canada, Deborah had begun her retirement from government service by making an interesting decision. As she told me later, she was wondering whether she needed to buy a car. At the time, she lived on Queen Elizabeth Parkway in Ottawa, not far from our Quaker meetinghouse and conveniently located for public transportation, and she decided that, rather than buying a car, she would take that money and spend it on a round-the-world trip, visiting Friends at every point along the way. She also spent a term (or perhaps a "Theological Reflection Year") at Earlham School of Religion in Richmond, Indiana.

Some of my fondest memories of Deborah involved talking with her about books. Three of the books we enjoyed discussing were Gregory Dix's The Shape of the Liturgy, Agnes Sanford's The Healing Light, and the book I just revisited, The Christ of the Indian Road.

At the time I was a new Christian and was concerned to understand how Christian faith and experience could be distinguished from the secular, imperial uses for which it had been exploited for centuries. To my delight, Jones was asking this same question eloquently fifty years (now nearly 90 years!!) earlier. Maybe you can imagine how helpful I found passages like these--and how depressing, in a way, it is that his comments are still relevant today:
... Have we not often in the past led India and the non-Christian world to think that our type of civilization in the West is the issue? Before the Great War [that started 100 years ago this summer] was not Western greatness often preached as a reason for the East becoming Christian? This was a false trail and led us into many embarrassments, calling for endless apologies and explanations.

[Jones adds several examples from history, among them...] The Saxons, a warring tribe of Europe, were practically compelled by Charlemagne to become Christians. They consented on one condition. That condition would only be known at the time of their baptism. When these warriors were put under the water as a symbol that their old life was dead, they went under--all except their right arms. They held them out, lifted above their heads. These were their fighting arms. They were never Christianized! Is it to be wondered at that war continues in the West in spirit of Christianity. It came in with it.

Another. The Mayflower that carried the Pilgrim Fathers to religious liberty in America went on her next trip for a load of slaves. The good ship "Jesus" was in the slave trade for our fathers. Is it to be wondered at that race and color prejudice still exists in the West in spite of Christianity? It came in with it.

***

We have been called international meddlers, creed mongers to the East, feverish ecclesiastics compassing land and sea to gain another proselyte. From the other side comes the criticism that we satisfy a racial superiority complex when we go on helpful service to other nations; that we are the kindly side of imperialism--we go ahead and touch the situation in terms of schools and hospitals and human helpfulness, then imperialism comes along and gathers up the situation in the name of empire; or that capitalism takes over and exploits the situation as intrepid missionaries open it up. Again it is said that it is a bit of spiritual impertinence to come to a nation that can produce a Gandhi or a Tagore. Finally we are told that the whole missionary movement is a mistake, since as non-Christian investigators tell us, the last command of Jesus to go into the world and preach the gospel is an interpolation, hence the whole is founded upon a mistaken idea.

These are serious criticisms and must be met fairly and squarely. If this whole question of missions is to hold the affections of the church in the future, we must be sure that we are about a business that commends itself to the mind as well, for what does not hold the mind will soon not hold the heart. Besides, let it be noted that if Christianity isn't worth exporting, it isn't worth keeping. If we cannot share it, we cannot keep it.

***

In conversation with him one day I said, "Mahatma Gandhi, I am very anxious to see Christianity naturalized in India, so that it shall be no longer a foreign thing identified with a foreign people and a foreign government, but a part of the national life of India and contributing its power to India's uplift and redemption. What would you suggest that we do to make that possible?" He very gravely and thoughtfully replied: "I would suggest, first, that all of you Christians, missionaries and all, must begin to live more like Jesus Christ. ... Second," he said, "I would suggest that you must practice your religion without adulterating or toning it down." This is just as remarkable as the first. The greatest living non-Christian asks us not to adulterate it or tone it down, not to meet them with an emasculated gospel, but to take it in its rugged simplicity and high demand. But what are we doing? As someone has suggested, we are inoculating the world with a mild form of Christianity, so that it is now practically immune against the real thing. Vast areas of the Christian world are inoculated with a mild form of Christianity, and the real thing seems strange and impossible. As one puts it, "Our churches are made up of people who would be equally shocked to see Christianity doubted or put into practice." I am not anxious to see India take a mild form--I want her to take the real thing. "Third, I would suggest that you must put your emphasis upon love, for love is the center and soul of Christianity." he did not mean love as a sentiment, but love as a working force, the one real power in a moral universe, and he wanted it applied between individuals and groups and races and nations, the one cement and salvation of the world. ... "Fourth, I would suggest that you study the non-Christian religions and culture more sympathetically in order to find the good that is in them, so that you might have a more sympathetic approach to the people."

***

The only way to kill Christianity is to take it out of life and protect it.

***

This God-consciousness should be full and overflowing. A Hindu lawyer recognized this and said to me one day, "What you Christians and the church need to-day is a new Pentecost." I knew what he meant--we need Christianity as a well of water within us spring up into everlasting life. Principal Jacks pleads that we get back "the lost radiance of the Christian religion." Queer to hear a Hindu and a Unitarian both pleading for a new fullness of life akin to Pentecost! Even so, Pentecost is normal Christianity. But the church is largely subnormal and anaemic. Because a few have gone up into fever and have done queer things in the name of this great Sanifying and Sanctifying of the human spirit by the inflooding of the Spirit of the Living Christ, there is no reason why all the rest of us should be frightened away into an anaemic Christianity. This Christ of the Indian Road is saying, "Receive ye the Holy Ghost," as well as "Thy sins are forgiven thee."


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