Christian Theology: Towards an Asian Reconstruction
by C.S. Song
Choan-Seng Song (C.S. Song), Ph.D., is Professor of Theology and Asian Cultures at the Pacific School of Theology and on the Doctoral Faculty of the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California. He is also Regional Professor of Theology at the South East Asia Graduate School of Theology in Singapore and external examiner for the Chinese University of Hong Kong. For ten years he was Professor of Systematic Theology and Principal of Tainan Theological College in Taiwan. He current serves as President of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches. This paper was presented at the Conference on World Mission and the Role of Korean Churches, held during November 1995 in Seoul, Korea.
The twenty first century! It sounds more and more real each passing day. It comes ever closer each passing month. It is almost within our reach. The countdown has already begun. The soothsayers are gazing into their crystal balls for signs of the imminent future. The self-styled doomsday prophets are issuing warnings about the end of the world. Even some Christian churches have jumped on the bandwagon of the new century as if it has the magic power to bring about "Christianizing the world in this generation," to use the celebrated motto of John R. Motto, one of the tireless pioneers of modern ecumenism. For those suddenly awakened to the imminence of the end of the twentieth century, this is an "eschatological" time.
But most likely the year 2000 will come and go, Gone will be the fever and fervor of Christian mission that has taken hold of some of us. Forgotten will be those soothsayings and doomsday predictions. The world will resume its long trek toward the twenty send century. As to us human beings, though we will go on making scientific and technological progress by leaps and bounds, we are not going to become any wiser in matters of faith and morals. What, then, about the Christian church, particularly the Christian churches in Asia? Are we going to be prepared as we find ourselves at the threshold of the century fast approaching us with its opportunities and dangers?
"Eschatological" interest in the year 2000 apart, this, for Christianity, and particularly for Christianity, is a time of soberness and excitement: soberness because it must be realized, belatedly, that the religious map of the world has to be redrawn, and excitement because the new religious map contains real surprises and new possibilities. For the Christian church this is a season of distress and adjustment: distress because the ambition of "Christianizing" the world is not fulfilled, and adjustment because its centuries-old life-view and world-view have become obsolete and new ones have to constructed. As to Christians in Asia, this is an age of expanding our ecumenical horizon that to us God's ways with the nations and peoples with which we have not seriously reckoned in our faith and theology before. It has become increasingly evident to thinking Christians that the future of christianity cannot be separated from the future of other religions, that the well-being of the Christian church is closely bound with the well-being of the larger community around it, and that Christians and their neighbors are fellow pilgrims on earth in search of the meaning of life the and the fulfillment of it.
A time such as ours calls for a self-understanding of the church different from the past. Is this not what the Reformation in the sixteenth century compelled the church to do ? A season such as this challenges us Christian in Asia to reexamine the faith we have inherited from our forebears. Is this not what the Reformers in the sixteenth century set out to do? And the era in which we find ourselves demands Christian theologians to be engaged in reshaping and reconstructing Christian theology open to what God is doing in the world, not of yesterday, but of today. Is this not the way reformed theologians should go about their theological task?
Some Christian theologians in Asia, particularly some of us from the reformed tradition, have taken upon ourselves the arduous task of doing Christian theology in this vast part of the world historically and culturally shaped by religions other than Christianity. We find ourselves questioning the ways in which traditional theology has gone about its business for centuries. We have no alternative but to listen to the voices from the world we share with our fellow Asians.
Some of us have discovered that critical interactions between the message of our Bible and the world of our Asia can deepen our experience of God's saving activity in the human community as well as in the Christian community.
These "theological" experiences of ours are bound to bring about some fundamental changes in the way we do Christian theology, understand the nature and task of the Christian church, and paractice our Christian faith in Asia. We have embarked on a theological journey that, though still not clearly charted, promises surprises and fresh insights. What follows is an effort to show how the course of Christian theology is taking shape in Asia.
According to the Bible?
It is no secret, I must point out at the outset, that most of us Christians in Asia "have different dreams with our fellow Asians in the same bed" (thun chhuan yi meng), to paraphrase a Chinese expression, when it comes to the matters of faith and religion. It is our belief, for example, that out God is different from their God. But if it is the same God? It is our conviction that the truth of God is revealed to us only . But if it is also revealed to others? We do not compromise on the faith that salvation is for those who believe as we do. But suppose there is also salvation for those who do not believe as we do? Suppose if what we believe as salvation is mistakenly conceived, or at least not what Jesus intended?
This last question is the most critical of all questions for us Christians. It hits the nail on the head, so to speak, We in the name of God; but is it the God of Jesus? We invoke the name of God; but is it the name of God of Jesus? We pray to our God, but is it to the God of Jesus that we pray? We pronounce blessing on those who believe as we do and judgment on those who do not by the authority of God; but is that divine authority the authority by which Jesus spoke and taught: We believe that God is always on our side and not on the side of other; but is it not possible that God of Jesus may sometimes be on the side of other rather than on our side?
Most of us Christians do not always think in this way, nor do we raise such question often. Here is a typical case from India:
Once a Gandhian leader came to Kohima and we had fellowship with him As I was sitting by him, he started conversing with me about religious matters :"There are some extreme Christians who say that human being can be saved through Christianity only and thee is no other way. What your view?" "It is what I believe," I replied. "There are millions and millions of people in other major religions of the world. What will be their fate?", he hastily asked. "According to the Bible those who do not believe in Christ will Perish," I replied. He angrily departed. My conviction is that whether we like it or not we cannot compromise the truth.
The story reminds me of a meeting I had with the faculty of the Buddhist Institute in Ho Chi minh city, Vietnam, in November, 1992. We talked about many thing, from the role Buddhism played during the Vietnam War to the translation of Buddhist texts from Pali and Sanskrit into Vietnamese to social and Political changes in Vietnam. Inevitably we touched on the relationship between Christianity and Buddhism. Quietly and without showing emotion, the head of the Institute, a venerable monk of more than eighty year old, asked: "Why are Christians so aggressive in their effort to convent Buddhists to Christian faith?" He was in fact marking a remark rather than asking a question. How could respond to him? Quietly but with pain in my heart I replied and said: "Some Christians are aggressive, but not all Christians are."
The Gandhian leader, in the story quoted above, must have thought that the Christians who received him were friendly sort. After all, they offered him a fellowship. They struck him to be open-minded and kind-hearted Christians. still he did not let down his guard. He struck up a conversation with the Christian who later told the story, and said to the latter: "There are some extreme Christians who say human being can be saved through Christ only and there is no other way." He must have said it cautiously. The tone of his voice seemed tentative. He was not seeking a confrontation, a debate, a controversy. Like that venerable monk in Ho Chi Minh City, he was just making an observation. He qualified his remark by saying "some extreme Christians." There are "extreme" believes in each and every religion, believers who refuse to see any good in what other people believe. This Gandhian leader would perhaps be the first to admit that there are "extreme Hindus." There are of course "extreme Muslims." That is why the feud and conflict between Hindus and Muslims in that sub-continent of Asia have often been bloody. But not all Hindus are extreme, just some of them. Nor are all Muslims extreme, also just some of them. It must be the same with Christianity. "There are some extreme Christians," he said, "who say that human being can be saved through Christ only and there is no other way."
Some Christians do believe that, most of us in fact. This often is the cause of Christian intolerance towards people of other faiths and religions. "What is your view?" The Gandhian leader was curious to know where his Christian conversation partner stood with regard to this matter. Perhaps he was looking for an explanation from the latter, an illumination even. Surely there is a lot to explain. For many Christians this is the heart of their faith. They owe an explanation to others whose "salvation" they hold in their hands. But the Christian in this conversation did not seem to see it that way. "this is what I believe," he declared. He seized the occasion to state his conviction, to reaffirm his faith, to "evangelize" the Gandhian leader. The conversation took a different turn. His "missionary" conscience was aroused. He forgot he was one of the hosts at the welcoming party for the Gandhian leader. It did not seem matter to him even if the party had to end in hostility. This is what happened.
The reply of the Christian did not seem to surprise the Gandhian leader. He must have heard it said more than once. This is how most Christians talked to the men and women outside the church. But is such view tenable? Is such conviction realistic? Is such faith reasonable? The Gandhian leader wanted to know. "There are millions and millions of people, "he said.,"in other major religions of the world." he could have been more precise by citing some statistics. According to one statistic taken in 1982, "there are 1.4 billion Christians, 724 million Muslims, 583 Hindus, 278 million Buddhists." If Confucianists, Shintoists, and those who practice ancestor rites, primal religions, and shamanism are counted, then more than two-thirds of the world's population are not Christian. What is going to be their fate?, asked the Gandhian leader.
This is not an insignificant question. It is a kind of question that can be described with Chinese phrase, yu chung sin ch'ang, meaning "one's words are serious and one's heart is heavy." It may be you fate to suffer in this life, but you long for a change of fate in the life to come. this is the most elementary desire of most Asians, Buddhists or confucianists, Hindus or Muslims, even Christians. If there is salvation only for those who believe in Christ, as "extreme Christians" affirm, and salvation for them means eternal life in God, then what will be the fate of the great majority of the people of Asia, or more than two-thirds of the human race? The Gandhian leader wanted to know. This is not just a matter of curiosity. Nor is the question raised to rebut the Christian. It is a reasonable question. He must have been genuinely concerned, if not alarmed.
His concern should be addressed. His anxiety must be assuaged. Is it not only right that his question be discussed charitably and with sensitivity? But the Christian in the conversation seemed only interested in getting to the point. "According to the Bible," he declared, "those who do not believe in Christ will perish." This is an ultimatum, a declaration of fait accompli, a pronouncement of a verdict. The case is closed. The decision is final. No further discussion is needed. No appeal to a higher authority is permitted. There the matter stands, not only on earth but in heaven. The Gandhian leader must have first been shocked, then furious. He "angrily departed." Who would not in that situation? At least he did the right thing to avoid further confrontation.
"According to the Bible," says Christian. But which part of the Bible? Whose interpretation of that part of the Bible? Is it "quoted out of context"(tuan chang chu yi in Chinese) or not? The fact of the matter is that the Bible is almost always quoted and interpreted out of context by those who insist that there is no salvation outside Christ, meaning outside Christianity. Christians who make such an assertion do not stop to think whether there are other passages in the same Bible that speak quite differently. "According to the Bible" is too general a phrase to have any meaning. It is very irresponsible too. How can on be so general and irresponsible when it has to do with serious matters such as salvation and eternal life? Who is this God of theirs who would condemn "those who do not believe in Christ" - billions and billions of them if those before the time of Jesus were also counted - to perish for ever? Is that God the God of Jesus? Or are we here dealing with a God who has little to do with the God of Jesus?
But the Christian in the story asked none of such questions. Seeing the Gandhian leader leave in anger, he was neither embarrassed nor grieved. He did not show any sense of remorse. On the contrary, he was convinced that he did the right thing. "My conviction," he said is that whether we like it or not we cannot compromise the truth." Yes, one should not compromise the truth. But whose truth? God's own truth? The truth Jesus proclaimed? Or the truth of a particular Christian church? The truth of a particular Christian denomination? The truth held by a particular group of Christians? That Christian's own understanding of the truth?
What we see in this Christian is "one who speaks and acts with confidence with the knowledge that one is in the right"(li ch'i chuang), again to use a Chinese expression. But who told him he was in the right? A particular tradition of Christianity told him so. A particular church to which he belongs taught him so. If that tradition, that church, were not entirely in the right? If Jesus himself would find it offensive? If God could not agree with it?
A Good Tone for Christians?
Such rigid faith and uncompromising attitude apart, it is clear to more and more Christians and theologians both in the East and in the West that Buddhists, Taoists, or Muslims are here to stay for a long time, to practice their faiths not only in the lands of their birth but also in the Western society in which they have come to live in pursuit of political freedom and personal fortune. Just as Christians they are very much members of the human community in the universe created, according to Christian faith, by the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Jesus Christ. Some Christians and theologians, open to the world of cultural and religious pluralism, fascinated by it and eager to experiment alternative ways of practicing their faith, are willing to go a second mile, a third mile, even any number of miles, with their new found friends and neighbors of other faiths. The world of gods many and lords many, instead of offending their Christian sensibility and repelling their Christian orthodoxy, invites them to experiment with different forms of worship and meditation
Here is a typical example of a Jesuit priest who directed a meditation center at the Roman Catholic Mercy Center in Burlingame near San Francisco in the United States. He tells us that his "main area of study has been Mahayana Buddhism, especially Zen." He has "also seriously investigated Vajrayana Buddhism and classical Taoism (Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu)." This multi-religious experience and background of his informs and shapes what he tries to do at his center. In his own words:
Beginning with the external and bodily, the main place of most of our meditation here at Mercy Center is the Rose Room(so called because the unfolding rose is the symbol of enlightenment in the West just as the lotus is in the East). On the walls are Japanese shikihi (fine paper squares) with Zen sayings in the Sino-Japanese ideographs, two Taoist paintings and a picture of the Miroku Bosatsu (Maitreya Bodhisattva)from Koryuji, Kyoto, These are well received by people and set a good tone to the room. However, th main shrine or centerpiece has, of course, the cross as central, It is hoped that before too long this cross will give way to a statue of Christ seated in meditation, a statue which will include clear influence from Buddhist statuary in its simplicity and feeling.
In this Christian meditation center Buddhist images and symbols provide a setting, an atmosphere. They are said to create "a good tone" for Christians who come to worship and meditate.
The cross, the main Christian symbol, is central, we are told What we are not told is how those Christians who come to the Center meditate on the cross surrounded by Buddhist images and symbols. How do the cross and the lotus, the principal religious symbols of Christianity and Buddhism, interact with each other in the theology of the Mercy Meditation Center? Do they inform each other? But what do they inform each other? Do they enrich each other? But how do they enrich one the other? Or are they critical of each other? What, is it, then, the cross is critical of the lotus, and the lotus of the cross? Do they find something lacking each in the other? What is it that each may find lacking in the other? The cross and the lotus, each represents a vast world of religious culture and a deep universe of spiritual quest for the meaning and purpose of life. A long history is behind each of them. How many hopes are raised and frustrated in its name! And how much blood is shed and lives perished all for the sake of it! For the religious mind capable of going deeply into something beyond the sense perception, these symbols - the cross and the lotus - must be telling painful stories as well edifying ones, crying out in despair as well as in hope. Does not this mean that no religious image and symbol is to be just decorative, although all religions, including Christianity, tend to reduce it to being nothing more than a decoration?
We must ask further. In the religious consciousness of the people at worship and meditation, how is the cross perceived in the midst of Buddhist images and symbols? Does the cross appear less startling and painful because of "the unfolding rose" which "is the symbol of enlightenment in the West just as the lotus is in the East"? But if this true, does not the cross become less than the cross, less than what it was to Jesus who died a painful death on it? There is in the Meditation Center also "a picture of the Miroku Bosatsu (Maitreya Bodhisattva)." How do worshipers understand the evident contrast between the Maitreya Bodhisattva with his all peaceful and compassionate complexion and the haggard Jesus of the crucifix with his contorted body undergoing death spasms? Are they not failing in both directions - failing to come to grips with the pain as well as the compassion the Bodhisattva has towards all sentient beings in the world of suffering on the one hand and, on the other, failing to perceive God's saving love contained in the suffering of Jesus dying on the cross?
In this what appears to be a well-meaning and even innocent effort towards the meeting of the East in the West at this Christian center of meditation, no fundamental theological questions such as these seem to be raised. People at the Center do want to be inclusive rather than exclusive - a fashionable trend at a time such as ours when religious pluralism has suddenly burst upon us. But if this is all that images and symbols of other religions do for Christians, it is a misuse, even abuse, of them. Uprooted from their Buddhist settings and transported to an "exotic" Christian setting, they cease to be what they must be - expressions of struggles of the human spirit for liberation in different social and historical situations. And in this particular case, they are removed from the Asian humanity that has suffered centuries of sufferings and hardships from nature and at human hands. They become disconnected with the women, men and children of Asia today who continue to seek the meaning and purpose of life in poverty or in affluence. Those religious images and symbols have become dissociated from the spiritual journey of the people of Asia, the journey that make them what they are. They are no longer part of the culture they have helped to create and shape.
"I have no image of Christ in my heart"
Religious faith must be a matter of commitment to the divine on the one hand and, on the other, a matter of human creativity inspired by that commitment. Each and every religious image and symbol comes into being out of the commitment and creativity of the believer and the believing community. No genuine religious image and symbol is conceived as a mere decoration and designed as an ornament. It is not a means that provides "a good tone" for liturgical and meditative purposes. But within Christianity this is what has been done to the cross, that supreme symbol of Jesus' suffering and death. The shining cross on the rooftop of a church building or the glittering cross on the wall of the chancel of a church takes the sting out of the cross and renders it innocuous. It may be the cross of the Christian church, but surely it is but the cross of Jesus. It cannot address the deeply troubled souls and hearts of people in fear and confusion.
Some Christian artists in Asia seems to know better. They are attracted by the awesome power of images and symbol that abound in religions of Asia. They know that "Asia remains the heart of the world's great religions. Hinduism, Islam, Buddhism, Shintoism and numerous smaller religions had their beginning on Asian soil and still exert a powerful influence on society To be Christian artist in such a setting means coming to terms with the art forms and images of other religions. Artists in Asia struggle with questions which are not even contemplated by Western artist." They set out to explore forms and images of other religions, seeking to express the message of the Christian gospel in ways very different from what is expected of them as Christian artists. In Asian Christian artists these two universes of religious forms and images have come to play one with the other.
Forms and images. Bust what about meanings these forms and images of other religions stand for, not just apparent meanings but meanings deeply embedded in the long traditions of those religions and hidden in the hearts of the believers? Looking at art works of Asian Christian artists, I sometimes wonder whether some of them have reproduced outward forms and images of other religions at the expense of the inner meanings symbolized by these forms and images. It is relatively easy to replace the forms and images of traditional Christian art with those of Asian religions. But my impression is that it is a lot more difficult to create out of the encounter of different universes of religious meanings something that is indisputably Asian and yet distinctly Christian. Is this not what those artists who strive to be creative and original have to take into serous account? Asian Christian art has just arrived at the threshold of creative and original Christian artistic expressions. They have much homework to do - seeking to penetrate that holy of holies of the human spiritual universe shaping believers' life history and culture, the universe not visible to the naked eye and not perceptible to the mind not able to penetrate the complexity of the heart and spirit.
External forms of a religious devotion may be adapted, but the internal meanings of that devotion may elude the grasp of an artist. This happens to some Asian Christian artists eager to build a bridge between the world of Christianity and the world of other religions. But there are artists outside the Christian church who seem to be aware of this by instinct and experience. Here is a story told by a Dutch missionary about his encounter with a Japanese master woodcarver during his early years in Japan:
In the east of Japan's northern island of Hokkaido between high mountains and immense primeval forests, lies the Lake Akan. Many fine Ainus and Japanese woodcarvers live and work in the small village of Akan bordering the lake. A few of us missionaries went there in the summer of 1969, hoping to do some evangelism among the woodcarvers and their families. But they were obviously too busy for us so we decided to volunteer ourselves as helpers in their shops. I swept floors, carried boxes to the post office, and so forth in the shop of a Japanese woodcarver, a master craftsman, Mr Tadao Nishiyama. I was impressed by his work and after some time asked him to carve me a head of Christ. He answered, Yes, I will, but asked me a month later, Do you have a picture of him? Finally, after another month or two he handed me a chisel and said, You carve the head of Christ; I have no image of him in my heart.
A strange, and yet a revealing, story! It has a lot to tell us, not only Christian artists but Christian theologians, intent on crossing the boundaries separating Christianity and other religions.
Why was Mr. Tadao Nishiyama not able to carve the head of Christ, a master craftsman that he was? He was not a Christian, but why did he agree to do it in the first place? He must have thought it was na easy thing to do - carving out a head of Jesus on a piece of wood. But it did not take him long to realize that he was engaged in a religious project. In the month that followed, his mind must have been very much preoccupied with it. He must have even made a few attempts at it, but was not able to come up with a head of Christ. What was the problem?
Why did it turn out to be so difficult? He must have at least a vague idea of what Jesus looked like to Christians in Japan?
If his problem had to do with his idea of Jesus being unreliable, he could ask a picture of Jesus from the missionary who had requested him to do a head of Christ. This is what he did. With the picture of Jesus given to him, he thought he could go ahead with his work. But another month had gone, and he was still without a head of Christ. All that time he must have stared at the picture, studied it from various angles, developed ways to execute his project. Finally, he must have mobilized all his artistic sensibility and creative imagination to produce a head of Christ. But still he came back to the missionary empty-handed, saying: "I have no image of Christ in my heart."
He said it all in one short sentence. "I have no image of Christ in my heart." This was not an excuse. Nor was it an explanation. It was a confession. Being a master craftsman devoted to his art, he must have known art is not just a matter of form, but a matter of the spirit, not solely a projection of what is in his brain but an embodiment of what is in his heart. For him it was not a problem of forming an image of Christ in his head and transcribing it onto a piece of wood. But since he was not a Christian, he could not image Christ in his heart, however hard he might have tried. Even the picture of Jesus was of little help to him. He was too good an artist to reproduce something that came from another religious world. It would be sacrilegious even to imitate it. He was too honest a believer in the spiritual power of creative arts to carve an image not formed in his heart. And his was too sensive a heart not to grapple with what Christ might mean to him. In the end the deep meaning of Christ eluded him He could not grasp it. Without a spiritual communion between him as an artist and Christ, the subject of Christian faith and devotion, he could not carve a head of Christ. He had to band a chisel to the Christian missionary and say to him: "You carve the head of Christ; I have no image of him in my heart."
Christian Theology in the Midst of Religions
This story of a Japanese woodcarver tells us, Christian artists and theologians in Asia, that we cannot trifle with images and symbols of religions, be they of Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism or primal religions. They evoke in us deep respect and awe. They also remind us of the mystery enshrined in them. They let us perceive sparks of light from the depths of human being and they make us apprehensive about the darkness concealed by those sparks of light. They demonstrate human capacity to transcend the limits of life on the one hand and, on the other, remind us of the transitoriness of human existence within the confinement of space and time. They are indicative of human being at their most ecstatic, but also of human being at the most vulnerable.
Religious images and symbols both reveal and conceal truths about human beings in relation to God and the world. You cannot enter the world of religious images and symbols assuming that they will make themselves transparent before your very eyes. The fact of the matter is that they conceal from outside intruders much more than they care to reveal to them. For us Christians in Asia awakened to the religious reality of our part of the world, this presents us with an enormous dilemma. How are we to confess Christian faith not as Christians estranged from our own land and people but as part of them? How are we to make of Jesus, God, the Sprite, the church and its task and mission in a society shaped by religious cultures other than that of Christianity? What role, if any, could the historical, social, political, cultural and religious experiences of our fellow Asians play in our doing of Christian theology? In short, how are we, Christians in Asia, to tell stores of our faith in the world of cultures, religions and histories which though unrelated to Christianity in origin and development, cannot be separated from who we are and what we are?
To be aware of this theological dilemma is very much a part of doing Christian theology in Asia. There is no easy way out of it. The dilemma becomes unbearable when you realize that doing Christian theology is an act of confessing Christian faith, an engagement with the life outside the church as well as inside it, and interactions with the people of God not only in the Christian community but in the wider human community. And doing Christian theology is a communion with God who is creator of heaven and earth, lord of the history of nations and people, God who holds the ultimate meaning of life and the ultimate purpose of the entire creation. The theological dilemma that concerns us cannot be resolved. But it compels us to raise the horizon of our faith beyond ourselves as Christians, to expand our theological frontiers, and to engage ourselves with the life and faith of men, women and children around us who also have much to tell us about how God has been dealing with them.
Doing Christian theology is, then, to tell people's stories and to engage them with the stories of Jesus's life and mission, In the engagement of these two sets of stories, we Christians are not storytellers uninvolved in what happens in these stories. To be good storytellers we must first be good listeners. As we listen and listen, many of these stories become our stories. We find ourselves sharing the despairs and hopes of women, men and children. Their suffering become our suffering, their pain or pain, their aspiration our aspiration, and their liberation our liberation. The distance between us and people in the stories is shortened and a communion of minds and spirits is created. Is it not in the depth of such communion that we find ourselves in the presence of God? Does it not dawn on us that in the engagement of people's stories and Jesus' stories the stories of God are unfolded?
We do not, then, have to be afraid of doing Christian theology and to be apologetic about being Christian theologians. I cannot, therefore, agree with the statement that "the phrase 'Christian theology,' one stop to reflect about it, is a contradiction in terms. At the very least, it is un -Christian, in any serious meaning of the word." The view expressed here is puzzling at first, and then misleading. We Asian Christians, for example, live in the midst of the people of other faiths. We are part of Asian humanity. The awareness of this reality has shaken many of us out of ignorance and arrogance. Not only materially and culturally, but also religiously and spiritually, we have come to realize that we are "soul-mates" of our Buddhist, Hindu or Muslim neighbors. We have no choice but to rethink our Christian faith and reformulate our Christian theology in fundamental way.
But we are not Buddhists. We are not Hindus. Nor are we Muslims. We are Christians. As Christians our experience and understanding of religions other than Christianity may be very inadequate, inaccurate and even distorted. Some of us now know that we have much homework to do and have set out on an arduous task of learning from our neighbors who practice faiths different from ours. In this way we are trying to fathom the depth, breadth and height of God's creating and saving activities in the world of Asia. The result is Christian theology with all its limitations and shortcomings, yet a Christian theology deeply involved in the spiritual world of Asia. How can it be anything else when the ways of God with Asian humanity are explored from the perspective of Christian faith?
True, Christians have often insisted that "outside the Church there is and can be no knowledge of God," that faith" occurs in no other form than the Christian" How claims such as these not only fly in the face of facts and reality, but grieve the heart of God! I am quite in sympathy with those Christian theologians who want to take off the theological straight-jacket tailor-made according to the specification of traditional theology and to put on a more comfortable, one-size-fit-all, kind of theological outfit. They strive towards a "universal" theology, a theology that does not carry the trademark of Christianity. It is supposed to be made up of the best and the noblest in human religious endeavors towards the truth of God.
But not all Christians insist that "outside Church there is and can be no knowledge of God," or that "faith occurs in no other form than the the Christian." Surely Jesus himself would not insist on such things. It is not only uncharitable but wrong to make claims such as these. Such claims contradict what Jesus told us about God and about God's dealings with the world. This, however, does not lead to the conclusion that Christian theologians should abstain from Christian theology. The fact of the matter is that Buddhist theologians are engaged in Buddhist theology, Hindu scholars in Hindu theology, Muslim imams in Muslim theology. Why not, then, Christian theologians in Christian theology? Of course we cannot agree with a narrow sectarian kind of Christian theology. For that matter, nor can we be sympathetic towards narrow sectarian Buddhist theology or Muslim theology. But theological effort, be that of Buddhist, Hindu or Christian, pursued in the spirit of humility and open-mindedness, cannot be marrow and sectarian.
What this age of ours has taught us is that we must, and we can, practice our own faith and reflect about it in the spirit of charity and respect towards people of other faiths, knowing that each and every religion, including our own, carries records that make us both proud and shameful. We are aware, much more deeply now that never before, that for the survival of our Mother earth mercilessly plundered by us human beings, for the peace of the world torn with division and bigotry, for love and justice to prevail in human community, and for worship of God to bring shalom to ourselves and to the community around us, we must learn to be repentant, each one of us acknowledging we have fallen short of God's glory, But repentance alone is not enough. We must translate our repentance into action. We must inspire each other, correct each other, and together bear the responsibility of striving towards the world of hope and future.
One thing is certain: the world cannot afford a fanatical faith that treats people of other faiths as enemies to be won over to one's fold or to be eradicated from the face of the earth. There should be no room either for a sectarian theology, be it Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist, or Christian, a theology that takes its own experience and tradition for nothing less than the very oracles of God. This does not mean that we must go for a "universal" theology. Theology of whatever brand has to be particular in orientation and specific in context. But if we believe in the God of creation, is it not possible from time to time for people of different faiths to meet that God at the cross-sections of our journeys of faith and theology?
The Christian theology that engages us in Asia must have must have room, yes, plenty of room, for people of different walks of life and of diverse religious traditions and cultural backgrounds. Its stage is the world of Asia - the world blessed with immense human and natural resources and tormented by endless natural disasters and human tragedies. To make sense of this world with all its good and evil, hopes and despairs, joys and anguishes, as an Asian Christian is the main theological task of the Christian church in asia.
Let us face it, The dream of "christendom" has, the demise of Western colonial domination of the Third World, vanished. The Christian church alone cannot deal with the mounting problems that threaten to tear apart the moral fabric of human community. As Christians we have to learn to work together with people of other faiths to be a spiritual force that creates a mew vision for humanity. This is a theological experiment with both promises and challenges. Asia with its diverse cultures and religions offers a most experiment with both promises and experiment. I hope our theological experiment in Asia in the coming century will be a modest contribution to the human search for the meaning of life and eternity in the world of transition and temporality.
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