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On the Future of Asian Theologizing Towards Asian Public Theology



Felix Wilfred

Asian theological reflection has been quite original and even radical. It has contributed to enliven the life of the Christian community and also make it open to the realities of the Asian societies, their cultures and religious traditions. There has been as well quite significant impact of Asian theological reflection at global level. Some of the open positions regarding the role of other religions, for example, to be found in the Roman documents owe in no little measure to the persistent reflections of Asian theology and reflected also in the various documents of FABC. The force of Asian theology and its innovative character came in the open at the Asian Synod in the many interventions of the bishops. They reflected a theology rooted in the experience of the Asian continent in dialogue with religions, cultures and the poor of Asia – the triple dialogue announced by FABC.


Part I: Brief Assessment of Asian Theological Developments


Reading into the various theological efforts in Asia in the past decades and going through the documents of FABC and CCA, I find certain convergence of concerns and shared perceptions. Asian theologizing has certain quality which may not be always explicitly articulated but could be found underlying. This quality of Asian theologizing I wish to present briefly, instead of going into the issues that are content of


Sense of Divine Mystery


One of the important things Asian theologies imply is the sense of the inexhaustible mystery of God. This has been conveyed differently whether Asia deals with Christology, mission or theology of religions. This sense of the divine mystery inspires Asian theologies not to follow paths of exclusion but of integration and inclusion. This sense of mystery is also behind the spirit of pluralism that characterizes Asian theologies. This pluralism is not simply a reaction to dogmatism, but something born of the realization that the mystery of God is endless and innumerable are the ways in which it comes to expression. Asian theologies celebrate this pluralism and have tried to understand Jesus Christ and Christian faith from this perspective.

The Turn to the Subject in Mission

Asian approach to mission is inspired by the sense of mystery, as well as the importance of the subject in mission. The people, their aspirations, their perceptions are important. Mission is not simply a teleologically oriented project. The people are not object of mission, but subjects. It is they who in freedom appropriate faith. Hence it is important to enter into the world and know the story of their experience with faith and understand the expressions they give to it at various levels. Moreover the realization of the presence of God in peoples, cultures, religious traditions, etc. have contributed to view mission in a unique manner by the Asians. It became very evident during the preparation as well as in the various interventions during the Asian synod.

Integral Understanding of Salvation and Liberation

Asian theological efforts show more and more an integral understanding of salvation. It means the well being of the whole person without any dichotomy of body and soul, and the welfare of all without distinction of caste, class, religious belonging. Moving towards salvation implies progressive liberation from all that maims, corrodes or negates life in any form. It is a freedom from that binds the self as much as the society and the world. Integral salvation and liberation implies that there are no two histories – one history of salvation and the other of the world moving on parallel lines. There is but on single history which all the peoples share across borders and boundaries, testifying to the universality of God’s grace and dealings.

Realization of Diversity and Pluralism

Asian theology is infused with the positive affirmation of diversity and spirit of pluralism, not only as a fact but a value to be fostered. Few continents have such diversity as Asia in its composition of peoples, cultures, traditions and the variety of gifts of nature. The traditional recognition of pluralism and value of a life of harmony resist trends of uniformity and homogenization. There is no attempt to streamline all this diversity into one common point of unity. There is a mystical feeling that all the differences and plurality we experience meet somewhere and are somehow interconnected, though we are not able to identify the bonds that bind them together. Asian theologies have cultivated this spirit of diversity and pluralism. It is this deep millennial culture that also inspire Asian theology of religions with due recognition of the infinite faces of the divine manifesting in them.

Pluralism derives also from the fact that human beings are subjects and their perception of reality and their judgments are shaped by their differing world-views experiences, diverse contexts, history etc. This realization has led Asian theologies to view the diversity of perspectives not as a hindrance but as a great enrichment to the life of faith.


Partnership in Salvation and Liberation

If all the people in their diversity of cultures, traditions and religious paths participate in the single salvation, they become partners in salvation and liberation. People of different religious traditions converge to experience and bear witness to the grace of God, and God’s salvation. They engage themselves in bringing about ever greater freedom to the human family and for the protection and flourishing of nature and all of God’s creation. Religious traditions are not opposed to each other but are partners in the project of God’s salvation and liberation. This is also true of the many secular movements at work among Asian peoples.

Practicing of a Different Theological Methodology

Theology is not simply a learning of faith-propositions or interpretations of the same. Conscious of this fact, Asian theology follows a method of dialogue and mutuality. Its methodology is not aimed at simply communicating the truths of faith but dialoguing with the larger world. Asian theological orientation is not marked by any sense of closure and easily attained certainties, but rather is imbued with the spirit of a movement. The images of journey, pilgrimage could be more aptly characterize Asian theologizing than images of frames and architectures. In fact, Asian theologizing has broken the conventional frames and architectures as it moves into new avenues of reflection and travels on untrodden paths.

Such being the nature and orientation of Asian theology, it has called for also a significant transformation in theological methodology. This methodology can be characterized as dialogical and open-ended, experiential and transformation-oriented. The integral character of Asian theologizing has come out also in the fact that it does not rely simply on reason. Reason is not the only or the sole instrument but it involves other faculties and dimensions of human life. The sources of this Asian theologizing includes the religious traditions of the neighebours of other faiths, the riches of cultures and traditions as well as the new forces at work in the life of the Asian peoples. These realities of the context, as rightly pointed out by the document of the Office of Theological Concerns (OTC) of FABC, form part of the resources of theology along with Scripture and tradition. [i] Asian theologians have been using these resources in their theological endeavours and this has made a difference and has given a distinctive character to their theologizing. OTC sums up the Asian methodology when it states:

The Asian way of doing theology is historically tooted and concrete, a method in which we learn to face conflicts and brokenness, a method we value as one of liberative integration, inter-relatedness and wholeness, a method that emphasizes symbolic approaches and expressions, and is marked by a preference for those at the periphery and “outside the Gate” (Heb. 13:3). [ii]


Part II: Moving in a New Direction


Developing an Asian Public Theology

In spite of the innovative character of Asian theology, it is a fact that the reflections have remained internal to the Church and its pastoral needs.  In the context of multireligious and multicultural societies with fast transformation in societies, economies, cultural life, theology needs to interrogate itself regarding its responsibilities to the larger world. Traditional theology tends to cut everything – the world, society and culture –  to its size, reminding us of the Procrustean bed! Asian theological reflection needs to be open-ended and should begin from the world. It will endeavour to respond with others to the question and issues thrown up from the life-situation of the people and societies. Such a theology can be characterized as public theology which needs to be promoted more and more.

To understand more closely what is meant by public theology, it is better to see what it is not and how it distinguishes itself from other related forms of theologies. Firs of all, we need to draw a distinction  between theology for public life and public theology. The first one speaks about faith-motives for involving oneself as a believer in the affairs of the world – politics, economy, culture, violence, war and peace etc. An example of this is Gaudium et Spes of Vatican II.  Another variant of this is political theology.

Public theology is related to but different from liberation theology. This latter theology broke the privatization of religion and made its way forcefully into the public. However, the motivation for praxis of liberation came from Christian roots, and the methodology and tools of analysis were by and large Marxian in character. Public theology incorporates the concerns of liberation theology but its approach is much wider and its premises lie in the kind of relationship of religion to common good. Today, the pursuit of common good calls for the praxis of liberation.

Public theology is also different from a theology relating to public life pursued by Protestant neo-orthodoxy, as for example by John Milbank and Max Stackhaus. Here we have a theology of Barthian inspiration, rather than a contextual theology  adapting to the culture and society. This theology relates with the public life so as to make it conform to transcendental values, to the Kingdom of God, to God, who is “totally the other” and who challenges and judges the world.

Public theology refers to a theology that focuses on questions and issues that are public in nature and touches everyone across borders. In the process it frees itself from doctrinal moorings that have no or little bearing on the shared life and history with others in a society or polity.   Since this needs to be done differently depending on the concrete situation, public theology cannot but be contextual. Public theology culls out from tradition and sacred sources those elements and insights that could contribute in every context to the wellbeing of the people and of nature. This is a theology which has a language that is inherently dialogical and is ready to cooperate with all forces contributing to common good.

Public theology is an invitation at the same time to reconsider the relationship of religion to the public realm; it is as well an invitation to rethink the dominant conceptions of secularism. Public theology implies two general considerations which are interrelated and yet are distinct: On the one hand it implies state-religion relationship. It also implies the relationship of religion to civil society. Religion in relation to public sphere involves both these aspects.

The construction of public theology – whether in the East or West – depends on how these questions are addressed. We shall begin from the case of the West.

In the last couple of decades there has taken place a shift in the perception of the relationship between religion and public life. With the fall of the thesis of secularization and the progressive abandonment of the thesis of religion as private, there have come about new equations between religion and the public life. I need not elaborate how the explanation of secularization got discredited following closer scrutiny of the religious phenomena.

What I intend to do is to examine two most significant voices in the West whose position on the relationship of religion to public life has become the core issue in public theology and at the same time most vigorously discussed and debated.

Juergen Habermas:  We could identity three phases in his thinking in relation to religion. a) Suppression of religion through communicative reason b) co-existence of religion and reason c) cooperation of both for upholding the gains of modernity. The new turn to the third phase can be discerned in his works since 2001: The Future of Human Nature, On Faith and Knowledge, Between Naturalism and Religion. In the third phase of his thinking, Habermas shows  his  openness  to the contribution of religion to the public sphere, challenging the claims of a narrow secularity. He notes:

[S]ecularized citizens may neither fundamentally deny that religious convictions may be true nor reject the right of their devout fellow citizens to couch their contributions to public discussions in religious language.[iii]

By way of example, I may adduce here how Habermas shows the importance of Christian doctrine of creation for the strengthening of human dignity and rights. He also sees its importance in addressing biomedical technological issues such  as the genetic enhancement. Theological beliefs could throw light on this intricate question and contribute to the present and future wellbeing of humanity.

John Rawls: He speaks of “comprehensive doctrines” and “overlapping consensus”. By comprehensive doctrines he means a system of thought or explanation that claims to give a full-range and comprehensive explanation of the world, nature, society, etc. their origin, value, their future, etc. In simple terms, comprehensive doctrine means a theory of everything. Religions are habituated to present such a theory of everything – about God, humans, the world and so on.

To be able to understand Rawl’s political theory  and his conception of the role of religion in relation to public life, we need to grasp how he transforms Kant’s ideal of moral autonomy (Critique of Practical Reason), in an inter-subjective manner. Here is a question of abiding by those laws and arrangements that find acceptance among all concerned in a polity on the basis of their public use of reason. Moral autonomy is not simply to be free from coercion; it has a necessary reference to the other and to the public. This moral autonomy is linked to political autonomy. A religious group is politically autonomous not simply when it is free from any coercion, but when it is able to abide by what the common good requires and what finds acceptance among all concerned in a particular society. In this sense, religious freedom today needs to be defined not in isolation from the other, but in relation to the other and to what concerns the general good of all concerned.


Religion and Public Reason


In the context of the discussion on public theology, one of the questions that has of importance is the relationship of religion to public reason.  Here is an issue which allows a wide interpretation but also raises many intricate questions. Contribution to public reason means that religious traditions take a distance from their internal convictions and belief-systems and have before them the general interest of the people. It would involve a kind of translation into secular language those beliefs which have public significance. The beliefs and convictions held by religious groups require to be supported by public reason, if they are to have any role in public life. We could, for example, take the creation narrative to support the equality of woman which is a secular issue in the polity; or the same creation story to support the cause of human rights because according to Christian belief human beings are endowed with dignity since they have been created in the image of God. The question then is, should religions be denuded of their beliefs to reach a ground of neutrality where they could enter into conversation with other similar religious groups. Don’t we loose, in this way, the richness the religious beliefs and myths contain. Why not the religions carry these with them and enter into conversation with others, and thus through a mutuality that touches deeper chords reach consensus and understanding? This is a point which many Western theologians (Linda Hoggen,  Nigel Biggar and others)  contend when responding to the position of Rawls and Habermas in relation to public reason or overlapping consensus. Linda Hogan notes, for example: “[A] fundamental flaw in the idea of public reason lies in the manner in which it requires the speaker and listener  to believe both the self and the other to be, or to act as though he or she is rootless”.[iv]

The Normative and the Factual

The positions of Rawls and Habermas are at the level of the normative, and are abstracted from concrete context. They follow a procedural reasoning in determining the relationship of religion and public sphere. But the factual reality does not correspond to this theorizing. As a matter of fact, in many European countries, there is the so-called established religions. The clearest example is that of U.K. There the bishops form part of the House of Lords.  Similarly in the Scandinavian countries Lutheranism is the established religion. In these cases as well as in Germany, Belgium and Holland what we find is a kind of accommodation of the religious and a continuing role in the public sphere. It is expressed in different forms, such as  state-funding for  educational institutions managed by Catholics, Protestants, Calvinists, etc. Collection of tax for the Church by the state.

 Situation in Asia

We do not want to begin the discussion from a normative and procedural plane, but rather start from the empirical situation of differences in the relationship of religion to public life, as it obtains in Asia. Looking at the empirical reality, we could identify three basic types.

  1. Religion Controlled by Centralizing Authority

This is the model we could identity in the so-called “socialist countries” (China, Vietnam, Myanmar etc.). While religions are allowed freedom of worship and for carrying out certain limited activities, they are strictly controlled, so that they do not become any threat to the centralized authority. Such a situation allows  little room for religions to play any effective role for common good and welfare of the whole society,  going beyond one’s own religious confines.

In the case of China, we need to refer to the cultural revolution of Mao Zedong. One of the ideological components of this revolution is the belief that religions are counter-revolutionary forces. Along with the bourgeoisie, religions also need to be suppressed for the growth of the country. The ideology of Cultural Revolution viewed religion as an enemy to be fought against. The reforms of 1978 in that country allowed, indeed, some space for the existence of religions, but under the watchful eyes of the state authorities. The vicissitudes in the relationship of the Chinese state with Vatican illustrates the various shifts in the position of the state.

Zhibin Xie who has researched on the public role of religion in China enumerates three important reasons for greater role of religion in public life.[v] First of all, there is the traditional religious character of Chinese societies which is seen today also in the revival of religion in that country. Secondly, religious groups show increasing interest in participation in public life, which also involves dissent and protest. Thirdly, according to Zhibin Xie, with greater democratization in Chinese political life there will be room for the voices of different religious groups to be heard. The view of this author may sound optimistic. What is important to note is that even in a centralized Asian country like China, the prospects of religion playing public role has become increasingly greater. This calls for a theology of public life attuned to this new situation. 

  1. Established Religion – State controlled by one religion and its authoritarian representative/ state favouring one particular religion.

We have in Asia also situations in which religions openly determine politics and public life. There are many variants to this model. We have a very heavy determination of politics and public life by Islam in Pakistan, Indonesia, Malaysia, Bangladesh etc.,  and somewhat tenuous intervention of Buddhism in politics and public life in Thailand, Sri Lanka etc. Sri Lanka has not made Buddhism the state religion, but the constitution gives it “foremost place”. In some of these countries with established religion, like in Pakistan, certain public offices cannot be held by any person other than a Muslim.

  1. All religions held in equal distance by the state – Principled Distance

In this model, the secular is understood as non-privileging of any one religion by the state. Religions are allowed the freedom of worship and the freedom to propagate and be engaged in social and developmental activities, without prejudice to public order, morality and hygiene. We have such a model for example in India. This modal allows in theory the possibility of religions coming together and jointly contributing to the promotion of common good. But in reality this does not seem to happen.  For, religions and religious bodies are often in conflict with each other to secure greater power and privileges for their own groups. Therefore, there is endless discussion and debate on secularism.

Asian Debate on Religion in Public Life


           Unlike in the West, there has been relatively little debate in Asia on religion in relation to public life in its various aspects and dimensions. The discussion has been almost exclusively focused on religious freedom and the understanding of secularism. This is clearly the case of India. Some intellectuals like Ashis Nandy, T.N. Madan debate this often in a polemical manner against the Western concept of the secular while they assert that in India religion has an important role to play. But then, there are but few constructive theories and suggestions as how and in what manner religion could play a role in public life in a multi-religious society. The discourse in this matter needs to be initiated and advanced. Let me put forward a few thoughts and views in this regard by way of a foreword to Asian public theology.

  1. The Understanding of Public – Cultural Determination

When we speak of public theology in Asia, we need to be also conscious of the  way “public” is understood and defined. This has important consequence for the role of religion in general, and Christianity in particular, vis-à-vis the Asian societies. Here is something which distinguishes Asian approach to public and public theology. Hence, not only is the history of relationship of religion to state is different from the West, but different also is the way public comes across to peoples of the Asian continent. The cultural determination explodes the conventional demarcation between the public and the private. Without going into the details of the cultural determination, we may say that religion in Asia is both public and private. In a certain sense it is private; in another sense it is public. It is the intermingling and criss-crossing of the two that is something uniquely Asian.

  1. Difference in the Understanding and Approach to Religion

As I noted, public theology presupposes the current debate on the role of religion in the public sphere. The discussions in the West on this question may trigger our reflections but may not be able to come to terms with the Asian situation. One important reason for this is the fact that the concept of religion in the Asian traditions has been quite different from the dominant conception of it in the West. To cite an example, religion is not viewed in Asia as a set of beliefs or doctrines, but as a way of life – a path, a journey. Religion is embedded in the culture and daily life of the people as the folk traditions of Asia manifests.   This makes it already extremely difficult to create any “wall of separation” between religion and public life. But the point is that often the Constitutions of states do not reflect this Asian reality of religion, but seem to be attuned to the Western understanding of religion.

Moreover the relationship of religion to state and public life has had a different trajectory in the West which may not be replicated in Asia. To put it briefly this trajectory has three phases: the distinction between Church and state; separation of the two; and finally marginalization of Church and religion from public life as of no consequence.

Public theology will go deeper into the relationship of religion and public life in Asia, and its contextually different histories. This history is by a large is one of accommodation of religion in public life as the development of Indian secularism shows.

  1. Political Justice

It means the participation of various segments of the society with their different conceptions of good life in the construction of the common good. Since religions in a very significant way determine the outlook on life and values, it is important that religious groups also play a role in contributing to the common good which means that they go beyond the interests of the respective groups. This way of considering breaks the framework of minority and majority. This turns the important issue of participation of all segments of the society into an issue of power-conflict.


A second related question concerns specifically Christianity and its participation along with other religious groups for the public good. The difficulty with Christianity is that it is viewed as a religion “foreign” to Asian societies. So, the question is,  should a foreign religion like Christianity be considered on par with other religious traditions and therefore having a share with others in deliberating on public good. This is especially the case where there is established religion. Christianity is not viewed as a partner in the deliberation for common good. The problem then is how Christians and Christian communities bring to bear upon the public the values and ideals which they think are important and necessary for the general welfare of the people. The same attitude and practice of exclusion exists in practice also for Christianity in India in spite of a secular Constitution and the absence of any established religion.

The principles of democratic governance which recognize equal rights to individuals and groups would go against any such exclusion. Here historical memory overtakes political justice of equal participation. The alleged connivance of Christianity with the colonial rule makes many citizens skeptical about the participation of Christians contributing to the welfare of the nation. There is an undercurrent that a religious group cannot participate in the common good unless it subscribes to the nationalist expectations. This is how a Chinese writer expresses himself on this point:

Chinese Christianity should participate in the cultural enterprise of Chinese nationalism in order to achieve a ‘common outlook’ by abandoning its insistence on being seen as ‘different’.[vi]

But in fact, “foreignness” and being “different” alone does not seem to be sufficient reason for the exclusion of Christianity from being part of a national dialogue on common good. For, the same societies have had no difficulty to accept Western science and technology as contributing to the welfare of the nation. And in the case of China, it is not only science and technology; its ideology of Marxism was a Western import, but then it has been deployed to construct the political framework, ironically, when socialist systems have been abandoned in the West – in its place of origin.

  1. Public Accountability of Religions

Public theology calls for an internal critique within Christianity. It raises a crucial question:  What is being discussed as theology in the Churches, what extent is it  relevant to the public?  Public theology makes theology answerable to the people, and in this way justifies its interpretation of God’s Word for today. When there are conflicts between religions, it is a clear sign that their theologies have failed in their mission. However much they may explain and interpret the truths of religion, when theology does not bear upon public life it is a failed theology. Such a theology is not only irrelevant, but could be most dangerous. Views maintained at theological level have serious social and political consequences.

For any religion to have significance beyond the pale of its believers, it needs to demonstrate what contribution it could make to the wellbeing of all. This cannot limit itself in the expounding of doctrines and beliefs which have universal scope, but needs to be  brought in relationship to concrete situations to which it can contribute.

  1. Public Theology and the Strengthening of Democratic Process

Democracy as a value and as a mode of governance is indispensable for sustaining a society in equity with full recognition of every segment and group in the polity. It is the antidote to exclusion which is the root cause of injustice.  The understanding of collective life and community presupposed in democracy (understood as a process and culture) as well as the dignity of human person and human rights it implies, reflect Christian faith as found in the belief in creation and the understanding of human being and human community. Such being the case, public theology could contribute significantly to strengthen the democratic process. This contribution will be at the same time one towards social justice.


  1. Widening the Scope of Religious Freedom

This is a presupposition for a meaningful public theology in Asia. Religious freedom has many dimensions. Unfortunately, it is  often reduced only to the relationship of a particular religious group to the state. Certainly this is still a major issue in several parts of Asia. Religious freedom is not to be viewed simply as freedom from coercion from the state for a particular religious group for activities in conformity with its beliefs and convictions. This  freedom needs to contribute to the public good through forging relationship with other groups – both religious and secular – for the attainment of common good. There are various kinds of restraint on religious freedom as for example in India. I it is to be exercised without any prejudice to public order, morality and hygiene. But we need to spell out the positive contribution the freedom of a religious group needs to make. The freedom of one religious group needs to be related to other religious groups and all of them together point to the attainment of common good. Here is then the horizontal strengthening of religious freedom as freedom for something which goes beyond the interests of a particular group.

The wider understanding of religious freedom challenges the control of religion by the state as well as the established religion or the idea of official religion which can be discriminative and curtailing the freedom of other groups, and hence stunting the potential they have for contributing to common good. Public theology in Asia will address the issue of religious freedom as a necessary condition to bring out the contribution of religious groups for common good.




To speak of public theology is to speak of the future of theologizing in Asia in  multicultural and multireligious societies. In these societies there is need to foster communion and build inclusive communities.  Theology will help in this project by taking up for its praxis and reflection issues of common interest that affect everyone. This will help theology  to be truly catholic in its original sense of comprising all, and it will not have the mark of being a sectarian enterprise limited to the faith-life of the Christian community.

Public theology is a challenge to traditional theological pursuit, which had mostly the Christians and Christian community as its focus. Beyond the Christian community, in the open, it was only concerned to prove its scientific character. By claiming to be a science,  it was thought to have come to the public realm in the comity of other sciences. Today, when the understanding and approach to science in general has undergone a sea change and when it operates with new epistemological premises, it would be futile to believe that the public character of theology is acquired by proving it to be a science in the traditional understanding.

Today, theology acquires public character because it relates to the reality of public life with peoples across religious borders and boundaries participating. It starts with these experiences which go beyond the Christian communities, and it asks what contribution it could make to sustain and enhance the quality of public life. This way of pursuing theology could have great repercussion in rethinking its methods and sources.

Public theology will be pursued differently in Asia and in the West which have differing histories of relationship of religion to society and to the public realm. However, dialogue and conversation among public theologies of Asia and the  West could be enlightening and mutually beneficial. But we need  to be also aware of the fact that there is a certain asymmetry here. Whereas in the West, public theology has been object of reflection since the last few decades, it is only just now that Asian public theology is beginning to emerge. Asian public theology could be stimulated by the Western discussion, and could go deeper into a reflection on the role of religion in general and theology in the multi-religious and pluri-cultural societies of Asia.

[i] Cf. The Office of Theological Concern has brought out a very commendable document on Asian Christian Theological Methodology. Cf. Vimal Tirimanna (ed.), Sprouts of Theology from the Asian Soil, Claretian Publications, Bangalore, 2007.

[ii] Op.cit. p. 343.

[iii] As quoted in Maureen Junker-Kenny, Habermas and Theology, T&T Clark, London, 2011,  p. 137.

[iv] Nigel Biggar – Linda Hogan (eds), Religious Voices in Public Places, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2009,  p. 223.

[v] Zhibin Xie, Religious Diversity and Public Religion in China, Ashgate Publishing Company, Burlington, 2006,  introduction , p. 2.

[vi] Chin Ken Pa, “What is Sino-Christian Theology?”, in Concilium 2008/2, p. 91.

<Asian Theology for the Future>, Seoul : WTI 2012