Asian Theology Today: Searching for Definitions

by James M. Cone

James H. Cone, Briggs Distinguished Professor at Union Theological Seminary in New York, is the author of Martin and Malcolm and America: A Dream or a Nightmare (Orbis).

This article appeared in the Christian Century May 23, 1979, p. 589. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


Liberation is emerging as Asian theology’s chief motif. As in African theology, Latin American liberation theology and theologies of the oppressed in North America, the search for an Asian theology has its origin in the recognition that Euro-American theology is totally inadequate to provide universal concepts of religious understanding.

An avowed dedication to developing unique, non-Western theological concepts, and a marked emphasis on liberation, are the two dominant factors in Asian theology -- currently in a stage of self-definition. As in African theology, Latin American liberation theology and theologies of the oppressed in North America, the search for an Asian theology has its origin in the recognition that Euro-American theology is totally inadequate to provide universal concepts of religious understanding. The shapes of a future Asian theology were seen in creative emergence at a recent conference held in Wennapura, Sri Lanka, the theme of which was “Asia’s Struggle for a Full Humanity: Toward a Relevant Theology.” I attended this conference as one of the “fraternal” or non-Asian delegates who were invited to help ensure that the Asian reality would not be divorced from the global reality.


During the conference, several guidelines emerged concerning the character of Asian theology. Eliciting general consensus was an emphasis on liberation as the chief motif. And while the liberation theme connects Asian theology with other Third World theologies, the specific meaning of liberation in the Asian context must be derived from the struggles of people who today live on that continent.

Because Asian theology focuses on liberation, it must also be a servant theology -- one arising out of a commitment to serve the poor and the oppressed. No theology is seen to be neutral; each must take sides in the struggle for freedom. As expressed in a national group report prepared by the Philippine delegation to the conference, “The basic question here is: for whom are we theologizing?”

In order to serve the poor in their liberation struggle, it is necessary for theology to have included in its methodology the critical component of social analysis. How can theology serve the poor if its spokespersons do not understand the reasons for poverty? It is not enough for theology to proclaim freedom; it must also participate in the struggle for freedom.

Yet the liberation of the poor is real only when the poor themselves participate in their own struggle for relief from poverty and oppression. This participation occurs authentically when the concept used to analyze the situation of the oppressed is derived from their own history and culture. Hence Asian theology cannot ignore the culture of its people as it is expressed in the living faiths of the area. To quote the national group report of the Philippines again: “[The] trust of the people and [the] belief that they can theologize and are the real theologians is central to our position.”


Emphasis on liberation, service, social analysis and culture leads to a focus on the Bible and Jesus Christ. To be sure, the presence in Asia of various faith groups means that the biblical Christ does not dominate the emerging shape of Asian theology as might be the case in other Third World theologies. However, it would be incorrect to suggest that Christ has been excluded, On the contrary, he occupies a central place in Asian Christianity; the emerging theologies are simply reinterpreting Christology in relation to all of the living faiths of Asia. A study group has expressed it this way:

As we do theology in Asia, we move in a context of other faiths as a small, diaspora community. This littleness of the Asian Christian flock is providential and formative of our own theology. One of the places of God’s action in and through Christ is the living faiths. In the history and present teaching and praxis of these faiths, we must learn to discern the presence of God and his message to us.

The concern with Christ and Scripture also prompts a concern with the church -- identified both with ecclesiastical institutions and with emerging communities committed to the struggle for freedom. The emphasis here is that theology should be done for and within the context of a particular community.

The minority status of Christianity distinguishes Asia not only from Europe and North America but also from Latin America and Africa. This fact is obvious in Sri Lanka. as I learned from a brief “live-in” stay with some industrial workers in Ratmalana. Nearly all of my hosts were Buddhists; they were also Marxists, or at least were influenced by that ideology. It was fascinating to encounter people who combine their devotion to the Buddha with their commitment to Marx and do not experience any apparent contradictions.

After the live-in experience which began the Sri Lanka meeting, the conference proper was convened in Wennapura. Exciting oral and written reports -- some in dramatic form -- were presented by various live-in groups. The most controversial of these dealt with race relations in Sri Lanka between the minority Tamils and the majority Sinhalese. At the end of a debate on the race problem, someone took the microphone and appropriately announced: “The conference has now begun!” (Before this debate there had been a tendency to treat human problems in a detached manner as if the Marxist ideology would provide all the answers.)

While Marxism as a science can indeed help us to understand the world, it will not necessarily inspire people to join the struggle for freedom. It is not until persons experience a sense of indignation (which arises when they realize that their suffering is unnecessary) that they are aroused not only to take Marxism seriously, but also to join together in a common effort against the enemies of freedom.

To ask people to regard their suffering as secondary, as some Marxists ask the victims of racism to do, only serves to alienate them from the truth of the Marxist analysis. No oppressed minority group is going to join with the majority in a common fight for justice while the latter insists on ignoring racism in its own group, or in exhorting the minority to regard the race problem as secondary to class analysis.


Despite the general consensus on priorities reached by the conference delegates, some interesting disagreements preceded a final compromise. For example, Aloysius Pieris contended that “the common denominator between Asia and the rest of the Third World is its overwhelming poverty,” and that “the specific character which defines Asia [in comparison with] . . . other poor [regions] is its multifaceted religiosity. These two inseparable realities in their interpenetration constitute what might be designated as the Asian context, . . . which is the matrix of any theology that is truly Asian.”

Some delegates (especially those from the Philippines and Hong Kong) felt that Pieris placed too much emphasis on religiocultural factors and not enough on the social, political and economic aspects of life in Asia. In order to challenge his emphasis, the delegates from the Philippines issued their national group report, in which they agreed with him on the two essential characteristics of Asian theology: its “third-worldness” (sociopolitical liberation of the poor) and its “Asianness” (the religiocultural dimensions). But they separated themselves from him with the assertion that “the main and principal characteristic of a truly Asian theology . . . is its ‘third-worldness’: this is the substantive, while the ‘Asian’ is the adjective.” Therefore “the primary thrust and concern . . . of Asian third world theology is liberation (which to be authentic must be indigenized or inculturated); inculturation, though an essential and unavoidable task, takes second place.” The concern of the Philippines delegates was to emphasize the class character of theology in contrast to Pieris’s emphasis on the religiocultural: “Every theology is conditioned by the class position and class consciousness of the theologian. Are we aware, in this consultation, of the petty bourgeois character of our theologizing?”


My own view is to treat each emphasis with the same weight; it is not necessary to decide which is more important -- the religiocultural or the sociopolitical. If a decision were to be made, it ought to be formed in the context of struggle and with an openness to learn from both emphases. On the one hand, to ignore the religion and culture of a people only serves to alienate them from the liberation struggle being waged on their behalf; how can they participate if they do not understand the language in which the struggle is being articulated? But on the other hand, to ignore the sociopolitical factors in order to accent religion and culture only serves to make the latter the opiate of the people.

Just as conference delegates were able to compromise on such disagreements as these, they also displayed a remarkable ecumenical spirit. Delegates represented 11 Asian countries: Bangladesh, Hong Kong, India, Indonesia, Japan, Pakistan, the Philippines, Thailand, Taiwan, the Fiji Islands and Sri Lanka. They included Catholic and Protestant bishops, church officials and seminary professors, nuns and priests, Muslims and Buddhists, young workers and persons engaged in alternative ministries. The several contexts from which these persons came reinforced the multifaceted nature of the Asian reality -- and of the theology which is developing from it. Forming their own interfaith dialogue groups, and creating their own foundational concepts, Asian theologians are indeed struggling for a full humanity in their construction of a relevant theology.