His family were pretty miffed. He was an aristocratic Italian and the nephew of a cardinal. Now, not only had he joined the Jesuits, he had decided to move to South India!
It wasn’t the only big change that Roberto de Nobili (1577-1656) would make. When he arrived in Madurai in 1606, he began to enmesh himself deeply in Indian society. Eventually, he forgot how to speak Italian, requiring an interpreter to write to his own family!
Roberto de Nobili was inspired by the missionary methodology of accommodatio developed by Matteo Ricci and Alessandro Valignano. This accommodation meant stripping away his European background to take on an Indian form — not just a translation of language but a translation of his whole person, a reiteration of the incarnation.
De Nobili set out to reach the highest caste, the Brahmin, who had never entertained Christianity because of its foreign, outcast associations. To make the gospel compelling for them, de Nobili resolved to make any change that wasn’t contrary to the gospel. He therefore transformed himself into a sannyasi, an honoured Brahmin teacher. He immersed himself in the ascetic sannyasi lifestyle; among other observances, his daily food was a single bowl of rice. This became de Nobili’s total practice until his death nearly 50 years later.
As a sannyasi, de Nobili sought to locate Jesus in India by establishing Jesus in Indian theological terms, inspired by Paul’s proclamation of the Unknown God to the Athenians (Acts 17). De Nobili mastered the vernacular Tamil, as well as the scholarly language of Sanskrit, which enabled him to interact with the Vedas and the Vedanta theologians. He presented Christianity as sathya vedam, the true religion, and he presented himself as the bearer of the lost spiritual law. He argued that Jesus is the divine guru — a striking theological turn in which de Nobili took sides in an Indian theological debate between followers of Siva and followers of Vishnu.
Along the way, de Nobili made the first gospel breakthrough amongst the Brahmin. By 1611, there were 108 Brahmin converts to Christianity. Over the years, about 30 Jesuit colleagues joined him at various times and adopted his approach. When de Nobili died in 1656, there were between three and four thousand converts connected with the Madurai mission, and this bloomed to a high of 150000 around 1700.
This is where things get interesting, though. The Christian community began to decline. By 1750, the total converts had dropped to 100000, and in 1815, JA Dubois reported that Christianity was on its way out, once more reviled, just as when de Nobili first arrived. Christianity in South India had almost come and gone in just 150 years.
Why this drastic turnaround, especially in light of significant earlier growth? De Nobili certainly faced opposition, both from India and Europe. Although Pope Gregory XV endorsed de Nobili in 1623, later papal edicts curtailed both the Jesuits in general and the Madurai mission in particular. Christianity in South India was also affected by bigger forces — escalating colonial tensions heightened Indian hostility towards everything European. Yet even amidst these factors, de Nobili’s successes had somehow failed to take root.
For all de Nobili’s remarkable personal efforts to translate Christ into India, he did not promote a truly Indian Christianity. Firstly, he and his colleagues apparently never translated the Bible. This may not be all that surprising, given that personal Bible reading had not really been a feature of Roman Catholic Christianity. Secondly, de Nobili seems to have done little to promote local leadership. Indian Christians were certainly involved in the ministry, but they remained dependent on a European source for their faith. At one point, for example, one region of the mission featured 10 chapels and 5500 believers, yet was overseen by just a single priest — a European.
In these ways, de Nobili and his colleagues remained ensconced as the analysts and dispensers of Christianity. He had not prepared the way for Indian Christians to take up the creative initiative of building an Indian Christianity. As with many other missionary efforts, these new churches were left stranded, dependent on Europe yet disconnected from their own culture.
Is accommodation possible?
Roberto de Nobili wasn’t a failure but a man doing his best for God in the best way he knew. Recent missiologists have been intrigued by his efforts — was he perhaps an early example of inculturation? He certainly provides us with a fascinating example of how we might bring Christ to others, as well as demonstrating the limits of the missionary enterprise.
Firstly, complete accommodation is impossible. As Francis Clooney has explored, de Nobili always remained a man of his time and a European: he believed accommodation to be possible precisely because of his early-modern European sense of universal reason. We can’t shed culture — it’s the sea we swim in. A change of clothes and a new language can only get us so far.
Secondly, accommodation cannot remain individual. It must always involve the second step of passing the baton to others. A missionary needs to do himself out of a job so that he can relinquish oversight. Jesus did not just enter human culture but gathered apostles with whom to build the culture of the Kingdom — a culture which would then be Hellenised, Africanised, Europeanised…
In the end, accommodation must mean that the new, translated Christianity is finally out of our hands. We may bring the message, but we do not control its translation. “Paul planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God has been making it grow.” The work of translation must ultimately be the work of the Spirit of Christ, the one who weaves his way through all culture. Our task is to get on board with that. There must be great humility in that, but it is also a great comfort.
Arthur Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.