Dr. Michael Amaladoss, S.J.
Theology can be briefly described as a living faith experience seeking for transformation of life and the world through understanding. Its starting point is the life of faith that is inevitably related to a personal and socio-cultural context. The confrontation of the faith with the realities of life leads to questions of meaning. We go back to the sources of faith in Scripture and tradition looking for that meaning. This correlation between the sources of faith and the living, experiential context leads to reflection. Reflection leads to clarification and discernment which urges us to action or life-experience. This is known as the pastoral-theological cycle. All theological reflection is therefore not only local and contextual, but also living.
Theology is also contextual in a second way. The people experiencing and reflecting will normally do so in the context of their culture and in the language that they use to communicate. Language is the basis of culture. It also shapes a particular way of looking at and speaking about reality and life. An Asian theology therefore should reflect on Christian life in the Asian context. The reflection should further follow an Asian way of thinking and speaking, preferably in an Asian language. This means that we have to move away from an imported and imposed theological system in a foreign language reflecting on experience and answering questions that are not ours. Let me also note that I am making general remarks about Asia which is a vast continent with a variety of cultures, languages and religions. But the FABC has made us realize a certain commonness that underlies Asian realities, approaches and ways of thinking. I do believe that there is an overarching Asian identity.
I must warn you also that I am not going to say something terribly new. Not only in the documents of the FABC and its many affiliate groups like the Office of Theological Concerns (OTC), the Bishops Institutes for Religious Affairs (BIRA) and theological congresses, but also in the conferences of local groups like the Indian Theology Association and CATS and in the vast writings of individual Asian theologians over the years, there are many new, but perhaps scattered theological ideas, often expressed with reticence because of the circumstances. We need to bring them together, deepen them further and make them the common possession of the churches in Asia in such a way that they affect the lives of the people.
An Asian Way of Thinking
The first challenge before Asian theology is the adoption of an Asian way of thinking. The European way of thinking starts with universal concepts abstracted from reality. These are strung together rationally though logic and objectified as more real than the real and beyond space and time, since abstract. The European way of thinking, mentored by Greek philosophy, is also dichotomous distinguishing between God and creation, the divine and the human, the spirit and the body, the human and the cosmic. It leads to ethereal systems that have to be applied to the realities of life, as it were from the outside. This would be called practical or pastoral theology. The Asian way of thinking is holistic and integrated experiencing reality as one and inter-dependent. It sees reality as ‘both-and’ rather than as ‘either-or’. It uses symbols that seek to seize reality imaginatively in its lived complexity. Unlike abstract universal and univocal concepts, symbols are earthy, plural, metaphorical and polyvalent. A narrative method is more suitable to speak about life than a logical network of concepts. The story also stays close to life in its complexity. It is praxis-oriented than merely theoretical. After all the Bible is a great historical narrative with many stories that call for a decision. Because symbols and stories are plural they are also dialogical and convergent. Kosuke Koyama and C.S. Song have followed this narrative method, resurrecting traditional stories or referring to current ones. A recent seminar in Chiangmai, Thailand, saw evangelization as the retelling the story of Jesus. Retelling the story of Jesus may lead to narrate the way that God (Jesus) is present and active in our lives today. Everyone, not only scholars, can tell stories. It is a democratic process. The Asian theology of the future will be a narrative theology, close to life in the world and contextual, not an abstract universal system. It will not be narrowly rational, but holistic, including the emotional, the imaginative and the experiential.
This is a paradigm shift in methodology that largely remains to be met, though we have had pioneers. One of the reasons for this is that much of our theology is still reactive to the West, answering their questions, explaining and justifying, rather than freely going forward. For example, one of the Indian theologians who dared to suggest many years ago that questions like the ‘uniqueness of Christ as Saviour’ were Western and not ours was taken to task.
From Dialogue to Collaboration
There is a second major paradigm shift in the way that we see God’s presence and action in the world, moving from a unilateral to a multi-lateral perspective. The history of salvation used to be seen as unilateral moving from creation to the covenant with Abraham and Moses and the new covenant in Jesus Christ. The other religions were seen as pre-biblical, meant to find the fulfilment in Christ. This is obviously a projection of the Old Testament – New Testament paradigm on other religions. Today, however, we acknowledge the presence and action of the Word and the Spirit of God in other cultures and religions. God continues to speak to all peoples in their history. In this context, whatever special place we may give to God’s self-revelation in the incarnate Jesus, God is reaching out to people in many ways. In the multi-religious context of our lives, if we have to correlate our lives with the Word of God, this correlation will have to be multi-lateral. It has to be in constant dialogue with the other believers and their Scriptures as interpreted by them. Theology will have to be dialogical. We are not living in isolated ghettoes.
This means that much of what we thought of as topics for theological reflection in the past has to be reshaped. Faith and revelation are not limited to Christians only. God is the Father and saviour of all. The comic Christ reaches out to every one – the Word enlightening every one. (cf. Jn 1:9) The Spirit blows where it wills. (Jn 3:8) The Church is only the symbol and servant or sacrament of the Kingdom of God. Feeding the hungry and clothing the naked may be more important that the faithful ritual worship of God. (cf. Mt 25:31-46) The Sabbath is for the humans, not the humans for the Sabbath. The goal and means of our mission has to be rethought. FABC I, for instance, suggested that the goal of mission was the construction of the local church through the three-fold dialogue of the gospel with the many poor, the rich cultures and the living religions of Asia. The goal will now be the Kingdom and dialogue will become collaboration with people who live those cultures and religions. It will mean living and acting together to promote the values of the Kingdom as John Paul suggested in his encyclical, The Mission of the Redeemer. While we tell them the story of Jesus we have also to listen to their stories. We have not yet explored the impact of this paradigm shift fully, though there are some efforts. The theology of the FABC is focused on mission. The goal of mission is now broadened to include God’s own mission that covers the whole of history and seeks to bring all things together till “God is all in all”. (1 Cor 15:28) The way of this mission is collaboration rather than merely dialogue.
Once these two paradigm shifts are firmly in place we can explore other questions that arise for the Christians in Asia. The first issue I would like to take up is the theology of the local church with the corresponding reality of the universal church as a communion of local church.
The Local Church
If the local church has to authentically dialogue with the local reality of the world – the poor, the cultures and the religions – it needs to be autonomous. The universal church may have a theological priority. But there is no universal church as such outside of the local churches. It is a communion of local churches. But in practice there is a tension between the church as the People of God and the hierarchy, between the sensus fidelium and the Magisterium, between the college of Bishops and its head or centre the Pope. This tension is now solved in favour of the second element in each pair. The Pope has a dominating, not merely a coordinating role, as head of the college of Bishops. He has an office, the Holy See, which acts as the representative of the universal church and controls the local churches as its branches administratively and ideologically, and even financially in poorer parts of the world. How can the local churches discover their autonomy? In the context of ecumenism, John Paul II did say in Ut Unum Sint that the way in which the Papal primacy is exercised needs to be studied. Can it be coordination rather than domination, primacy of honour rather than of jurisdiction? This needs to be studied, not only by our Separated Brothers, but also by ourselves.
As a matter of fact, we have to study the role of authority in the church: domination or facilitating service. We do not want to escape Papal centralization to get into clutches of Episcopal and Presbyteral centralization. The church is not a majoritarian democracy. But it can be a consensual democracy. The Laity, especially women, can rediscover their legitimate role in the church community.
It is said that people with power will never part with it willingly. The Holy See seeks to keep tight control over the administration and the liturgy of the sacraments. We have a certain freedom with regard to life, prayer and reflection. The question is whether we are ready to take it. We do not expect the normal Bishop, appointed by the Holy See, to assert his legitimate autonomy. But the people can take more free and creative initiatives. Maybe they need to get organized. The prevalent quest for democracy all over the world in the realm of politics is bound to come to the church sometime, unless people find it easier to walk out of it. After all we are the church, not only those in authority. For many people popular devotions seems to be an easy way out.
The authority in the church need have nothing to say in the way we collaborate with others in secular, civic and political life. We should zealously preserve the separation between the church and the state. It is unfortunate that in the largely poor Asian countries the Bishops take the leadership of the Christian community also in the secular sphere. It is for the people to claim their proper role in civic and political life.
A Public Theology
The people also could take the leadership in developing a public theology. The Document on the Church in the Modern World opened up to the world. The Christians have to collaborate with all people of good will in the establishment of a just society in which the ideals of the Kingdom like freedom, fellowship and justice will be realized. In a multi-religious secular society the Christians must root these values in their own religious convictions and dialogue with people of other religions and ideologies to evolve a public overlapping consensus that can guide their common action. They should defend and promote, not only individual human rights, but also the rights of various groups in society and socio-economic rights. The religions should have the freedom to operate in civil society without getting mixed up in politics. The church has a tradition of identifying itself with the kingdom on the one hand and of trying to dominate the political sphere in the name of divine authority. It will have to learn to function in a democratic way in the multi-religious societies of Asia.
A Theology of the World
Two of the challenges that theology faces today are the problem of secularization and ecological destruction. An Asian theology of the world can offer a different perspective in these areas. Secularization is the growing dichotomy and distance between the sacred and the secular. This is facilitated by the autonomous growth of science and technology, on the one hand, and the creationist gap between the Creator and the creature. In a mechanistic theory of creation, an autonomously functioning machine does not depend on its maker to explain its functioning. The Asian religious traditions keep a link between God and the world through the common theme of life and continuing inter-dependence. This view is not pantheistic, as it is often alleged, but adual or advaitic. What is wrong is not the world, but our attachment to it. Our salvation/liberation can be achieved only by our life in the world. The development of the world is an integral dimension of the development of the humans. So it has to be positively valued and promoted.
A positive view of the world – creation – also opposes its exploitation to satisfy selfish consumer needs. The goal of ecology is not only to improve the quality of life. We have to respect the world and live in harmony with it. Creation is for the whole community of the humans, present and future. It has to be used in a spirit of justice and equality. Living in harmony with creation the humans also live a holistic life in their bodies. Asian methods of sadhana like the yoga celebrate human life in the body. The body is our mediation to creation and to other humans. The Buddha recommended the middle path between consumerism and deprivation.
The dichotomy between the sacred and the secular withdraws the humans from the world and directs them vertically to the Absolute. Life centres round sacraments and rituals, not other humans and the world in which we all live. Jesus’ new commandment was not a repeat of the old commandment to love God above all things. It was rather to love one another as he loved us. It is in the other that we love God as John explains in his letters. Jesus’ criterion of judgement is not how many rituals we have celebrated, but whether we fed the hungry and clothed the naked humans. All this should lead us to find God in the world. We have to secularize the sacred. Our concern should be life in the world, not the rituals and their ministers. The rituals should be symbolic celebrations of life. Without life they would have no meaning. Life without sacraments can still be meaningful. Sacraments without life will be empty. I am reminded of the Mahayana Buddhist aphorism: Nirvana is Samsara. It is not self-evident, but an object of realization.
From this point of view we may have to revisit our theologies of liberation. Often inspired by Marxist theory they focus on economics and politics and speak a language of revolution, even justifying violence. Life is more than economics and politics. It also includes persons, society, culture and religion. An integral analysis of society must take into account all these elements. Our goal is to establish a free and just community of equals. Our option for the poor may lead us to dialogue with the non-poor who are often the real change makers. Non-violent dialogue may be a more effective change maker than revolutionary rhetoric. Liberation theologies, operating in a conflictual mode, have no place for forgiveness, reconciliation and community building. They tend to narrow their context to their experience of oppression. The Buddhist notion of inter-being and compassion may help us to develop a more Asian perspective on liberation.
A Theology of the Spirit of God
A theology of the world can lead us to a theology of the Spirit of God who pervades the universe from beginning through time. She encourages and empowers. The presence and activity of the Spirit is always and everywhere. She blows where she wills. We can recognize her presence from the gifts that Paul lists for us: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.” (Gal 5:22-23) The Spirit is the principle of freedom and creativity (Rom 8:12-17), diversity and unity (1 Cor 12). In the Latin church there has always been a subtle effort to subordinate the Spirit to Jesus Christ and even to the Church, in the name of Christ. Charisms, of course, have to be discerned. But discernment need not involve subordination to authority, interpreted not merely as service and coordination, but as domination. The Eastern churches respect much more the autonomy of the Spirit, balancing hierarchical ministry with ‘economy’.
Collaborating with people of other religions and all people of good will our criterion of discernment should be the fruits and inspirations of the Spirit than the historical manifestation of God in Jesus Christ, continued in the church. The church may claim a special light, but no monopoly. While the Word focuses rather on the intellect, the Spirit touches more the emotions, the energy field and the body. The Spirit also communicates her charisms to everyone, people and ministers, men and women, even children. The Spirit is the strong bond of unity-in-diversity. She prays in us and co-ordinates everything in our favour. (cf. Rom 8:26-30) She animates creation itself to join us in its quest for freedom. (cf. Rom 8:21)
Asian traditions of sadhana have experienced and experimented upon the field of cosmic and human energies. Like all things human and cosmic it can be used or abused. The Spirit can use these energies to heal and to empower and to build cosmic community. The Asian traditions, with their experience of pranah (breath) and Tao, can better explore the presence and action of the Spirit in the cosmos and in the humans. This gives her also an ecological dimension.
A Theology of Jesus Christ
The Western churches seem to be obsessed with the question of Jesus Christ as the only Saviour. That is what justifies their ‘aggressive’ mission. The Asians are content to share with Asia the story of Jesus. The encounter between Jesus and the Asians will lead to consequences that we cannot foresee and plan. Gandhi claimed to be a disciple of Christ. There are today thousands of Christubhaktas (devotees of Christ) in India who have not abandoned their Hinduism.
The Western Churches have narrowly focused on the historical Christ. The Eastern traditions, following Paul and John, have felt more comfortable with a cosmic Christ of whom the historical Jesus is the real-symbol. In modern times, Teilhard de Chardin has evoked the cosmic Christ. Asian reflection also has focused on the cosmic Christ. In Panikkar’s pithy phrase: “Jesus is the Christ, but Christ is more than Jesus”. The story of Jesus points to a mystery that transcends history and the cosmos. We need not abandon the story of Jesus. But we need not claim any exclusivity for this historical manifestation. The Word that became flesh in Jesus was there from the beginning and has been enlivening everything and enlightening every human person. Its manifestations are infinite. Of course, they cannot contradict each other. But they need not say the same thing. The fullness of Christ is in the future and will integrate all this rich diversity. (cf. Col 1:15-20) The Word’s incarnate manifestation in Jesus has a special role in the historical process. But it cannot be declared a priori, but discovered in and through dialogue with the other manifestation of the Word. This gives an important role to the Asian churches because all the world religions have had their origin in Asia. We have therefore a privileged task that we cannot renounce, because God has called us to it. We should feel free and responsible in assuming it, without yielding to obstacles and threats from whichever side.
A Theology of God
The vision of God is the Western tradition is basically that of the Creator who is King. But the personal Gods of the Asian religions have led them to intuit an impersonal Absolute. The Indian tradition, for instance, speaks of the Suguna and Nirguna Brahman – the Absolute with and without qualities. There are apophatic and mystical traditions, like that of Meister Ekhart, in the west. But they are marginal. God is the master and the judge and the ecclesial hierarchy is God’s visible representative.
The Asian tradition can orient us towards a new way of experiencing God beyond all name and form. The Absolute is not a ‘S/He’, nor even a ‘Thou’, but a deeper ‘I’. It will be more Taoist and Upanishadic than Confucian. The Buddha will neither deny nor affirm it. It is more important and even easier to experience IT than to talk about IT. Following the Buddha, it is better not to talk too much about God. Our God-experience is through the Word and the Spirit. It is better to witness to the mystery and live it than talk about it. May I refer you back to my earlier statement about secularizing the Sacred. Eventually we have to seek, find and experience God in the world and in others.
A Theology of the Human
The humans in Asia are in continuity with the divine on the one hand and with the body and creation on the other. Dichotomizing them as spirit in bodies, Western, and even some Asian, traditions, have chosen to ill treat the bodies and creation. I think that we have to recover the balance.
We also have to recover the balance between the male and the female and live them as functional differentiations based on the body structure and role in the birth and nurture of the young. The male and the female are also differentiations within each person. The need therefore is to integrate the male and the female, both in individuals and in society, avoiding every sort of discrimination, exploitation and hierarchy. I need not elaborate this.
Asians believe, not only in individual political rights, but also on socio-economic and collective rights. Rights are also complemented by duties, especially to others. This is particularly strong in the Confucian tradition.
The humans are collaborators with God in leading the cosmos to its fulfilment. They are not just passive recipients of divine favours, but active co-workers in shaping the world of the future, led and guided by the Word and the Spirit of God. But the egoism and desires of the humans do create problems. They can take the development of the person and the world in wrong directions. They can even destroy the earth. The Asian traditions, at least Hinduism and Buddhism, take for granted the reality of karma. Human actions have their consequences, even after their death. We believe in a forgiving God. God’s (and human) forgiveness may erase our guilt. But forgiveness does not automatically undo the consequences of our actions. The humans ruin the lives of other humans, even killing them off. They are destroying the earth. Even if forgiveness excludes revenge, should we do something to restore wounded humanity and the world? At a spiritual level we put a quick end to the problem by evoking the reparation by Christ through his suffering, death and resurrection. While this is true, would this be a hasty and one sided solution? Should we invoke a collective responsibility in space and time? Should we leave this to God’s mystery? We have not thought much about it.
A Theology of Harmony
The Western tradition talks about unity, interpreting it further as uniformity and hierarchical order. The Asian traditions are very sensitive to pluralism. Harmony is its preferred mode. A univocal logic can see pluralism only as relativism. Asians would see it as richness. Asian methods of concentration lead to personal integration and harmony. Social involvement will lead to communal and cosmic harmony. The Indian tradition will speak of advaitic or adual oneness. The Buddha preaches inter-being or mutual inter-dependence. The visions may be different. But the reality is the same. But it is not a given, but has to be achieved. For us Christians, the process is animated by the Word and Spirit. Paul and John give us glimpses of this harmony. (cf. Eph 1:3-10; Col 1:15-20; I Cor 15:28; Gal 3:28; Jn 17:21-22.) The Eucharist is the symbolic celebration of such harmony. The food and drink integrate the body and creation. The sharing of food brings together the humans. When the community shares the food in memory of Christ, he becomes bodily present in the food and drink, making the community his body. In this manner the harmony becomes divine-human-cosmic. It is lived and celebrated.
While we cannot ignore the centripetal forces in the church, I think that it is time to stop justifying our right to do Asian theology and instead to go ahead and do it. The challenges are great but interesting. Theology has so far been the preserve of male clerics. In the West today the people are increasingly entering the field. In Asia too more people and especially women will need to start theologizing. They will have to move out of the church and enter the secular fora. This may be the final challenge that I would like to place before you. In areas where the church is a small minority this may not be easy, but may be all the more urgent for that very reason. It may have been accidental that the first assembly of the FABC focused on mission since it gathered together just before the Synod on Evangelization. The goal of mission was the building up the local church through a three-fold dialogue with the poor, the cultures and the religions. But the FABC itself has moved beyond the church to the Kingdom. A further change that I would suggest is to move from the sacred to the secular and from dialogue to collaboration.
<Asian Theology for the Future>, Seoul : WTI 2012