The Birth of a Pan-Asian Theology: Under the sign of harmony

Benoit Vermander, SJ

 Benoit Vermander, SJ / Church Thought / 15 September 2017

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Christian Churches around the world have been taking notice of the fact that the 21st century is truly the “Asian Century”; at the same time, they are also progressively recognizing the vitality and inventiveness of Asian Christian communities. In their turn, Asian theologians have been trying to articulate the nature of the experiential endeavor lived by their people in a “theology of harmony” that has been unfolding its principles and tenets over the last three to four decades. Catholic theologians, networking through the gatherings organized by the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences (FABC), have played a fundamental role in bringing this endeavor to fruition. This article seeks to describe the context, style and topics specific to such a theology while accounting for its diversity and foreshadowing the influence it may progressively exercise on ecclesial, theological and spiritual development within Asia and beyond.

Asian theology in context: navigating an ocean of contrasts

To understand the attempts at building a theology of harmony the observer needs to keep in mind the historical, cultural and social situation of Christianity in Asia. Such a situation could be described as an ocean of contrasts – varying and sometimes diverging contexts being nevertheless gathered into the unifying flux of the Asian space and ethos.

From the perspective of religious cultures, Asia draws its resources from a variety of sources: Chinese culture, embodying notably Taoist, Confucian and Greater Vehicle Buddhist traditions; Hinduism, Lesser Vehicle Buddhism and other religious expressions originating in the Indian subcontinent; Islam, with Indonesia being the most populous Muslim country in the world; indigenous beliefs and practices present all over the region, often associating with other faith expressions; and Christianity, as first molded in the West. It should be noted, however, that Christian presence in South and East Asia started well before the 16th century. The Syrian Church, with the help of Persian merchants, established churches in Ceylon, Burma and the Malay peninsula, among other places, from the 6th century on.

When it comes to Northeast Asia, Christianity as shaped by European tradition encountered the civilizations of Japan, China and Korea mainly from the 1550s onward. However, the avowed use of local resources and insights for doing theology is more recent. As an example, the Jesuit faculty of theology in Shanghai, which was first transferred to the Philippines in 1952, kept Latin as the only teaching language until 1964, later shifting to English. As far as Catholics were concerned, it is only with the foundation of the Fu Jen Faculty of Theology in Taipei that teaching and research were conducted in Chinese, starting in 1968. From that time on, the shift has been swift and complete. Similar remarks could be made for Japan and Korea.

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