The following are the opening comments from the Rev. Winfred Vergara, the Episcopal Church’s missioner for Asiamerica Ministries, at the Asia-America Theological Exchange Forum held Feb. 3-6 in the Philippines.
In the 1960s and 1970s, there was a flurry of theological activities in Asia centered on the contextualization of theology. As many Asian countries struggled for nationalism, selfhood and decolonization from Anglo-European influence, Asian theologians were also struggling to deconstruct theology. They reckoned that theology “was made in Germany, corrected in England, corrupted in America” and exported to Asia. Asian theologians struggled to liberate Christian theology from its Teutonic captivity. Sri Lankan theologian, D.T. Niles wrote:
The gospel is like a seed that must be sown. But our temptation is to bring along not only the gospel seed but our own plant of Christianity, flower pot included. The need now is to break this flower pot and let the seed grow as it should be in its own soil.
What D. T. Niles was referring to was that both catholic and reformed theologies that developed in Asia were largely products of Western and European theological thinking that have their own times and their own frameworks. Asia (and for that matter Africa and Latin America) were arenas of Western (Europe, England, the United States) colonialism and missionary expansionism. Many countries in Asia learned about Christ through the Cross and the Sword, reminiscent of the Constantine era when the Holy Roman Empire was at its triumphal stage. When German and English Reformation competed with Roman Catholicism in the 16th century, Asia became also a target for missionary enterprise and a theater for Roman Catholic and Protestant theological debacles. In the competitive atmosphere of colonial and imperialistic church planting, Asians themselves have lost sight that the Christian religion had already reached Asia even before this faith had been embraced in Europe and the Americas. (Read “The Lost History of Christianity”)
Literally tens of thousands of Western missionaries have lived and died in Asia and millions of American dollars were spent for Christian evangelism in Asia but they have not dug and cultivated the soil of early Christianity such as the Nestorian Christians who reached China in the 7th century) or followed the trails of the apostle Thomas who reached India in 33 A.D. and was martyred in Madras. Instead, Christian theology that came to Asia was garbed in the medieval Europe, the English Enlightenment or American evangelicalism. As a result, many Asians rejected the claims of Christ and looked at Christianity as a foreign religion and its missionaries as “foreign devils.” While it is true that catholic Christianity has made headway in the Philippines and East Timor and reformed Christianity in South Korea and Singapore, the vast Asian continent remains largely un-catholicized and un-evangelized. It is a demographic fact that Christianity is still a minority religion in Asia.
The crucial challenge to theology in Asia is to incarnate the full gospel and imprint the marks of Christ in the life and culture of Asia and how theology can become a tool for explicating and sharing the love of God in Christ Jesus.
Broadly defined, “contextualization” simply means to being able to respond meaningfully to the Holy Scriptures within the framework of one’s total context. Theology cannot exist in a vacuum. It comes out from the theologian’s particular historical, cultural, social and religious situation. The late Japanese American theologian, Kosuke Koyama, referred to a theologian’s “particular orbit theology.” The task of Asian Christian theologians is how to present the Gospel in context, taking into account the Asian indigenous culture, art forms and values and press beyond indigenization to include the struggle for total human liberation and development.
I was a graduating seminarian at St. Andrew’s Theological Seminary in the Philippines when the resource called What Asian Christians Are Thinking was first published in 1978. It became my second bible when I was taking my graduate studies at the Southeast Asia Graduate School of Theology at Trinity Theological College, Singapore in the 1980s. Edited by one of our SATS professors, Dr. Douglas J. Elwood, “WACAT” (as we called it,) is an anthology of various and diverse articles written by Asian theologians made possible by the Fund for Theological Education of the World Council of Churches. It seems to me that the late 1970s and the early ‘80s (with such theological greats as M.M. Thomas from India, D. T. Niles from Sri Lanka, Shoki Coe from Taiwan, Kosuke Koyama from Japan, Won Sol Lee from Korea and Emerito Nacpil from the Philippines) were the “golden era” of Asian contextualization. I hope that it will be repeated in our own time.
One of the major contributions of that “golden era” was the description of what is Asia from the perspective of Asians. Won Sol Lee, noted the various “definitions” of Asia, thus:
Asia means different things to different people. For geographers, it is a term delineating the vast land mass stretching from the Middle East to Northeast Russia. For historians, it is the cradle of civilization. For economists, it is an area comprising of many underdeveloped countries. For political scientists, it consists of newly emergent nations struggling to modernize their societies. For most Westerners, Asia means a way of life antithetical to that of the West. (Lee, 1979,9)
The Association of Theological Education in South East Asia (ATESEA) and the South East Asia Graduate School of Theology (SEAGST) formulated in 1972 what they called the “Critical Asian Principle” as their framework in describing Asia. This principle consisted of seven features which were characteristics of Asia during that time. These features included:
- Plurality and diversity of races, people, cultures, social institutions, religions and ideologies are distinctively Asian.
- Most of the countries in Asia have a (Western) colonial experience.
- Most of the countries in Asia are now in the process of nation-building, development and modernization.
- The peoples of Asia want to achieve self-identity and cultural integrity in the context of the modern world.
- Asia is home to the world’s living and renascent religions which have shaped both the cultures and consciousness of the vast majority of Asians.
- Asian peoples are in search of forms of social order beyond the current alternatives.
- The Christian community is a minority in the vast Asian complex.
Doubtless these seven features of the critical Asian principle needs updating in light of the contemporary times when many Asian countries have successfully modernized and are competing with the European and Western world in the realm of global economy and geopolitics. In the theological arena, however, there remains the need for more serious theological reflections and continued wrestling for Asian theological direction. It is my hope that this Asia-America Theological Exchange Forum will help revive the interest for contextualization like its golden years in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, but would press on towards global context.
The global context that we are working on is the term “Asia-America.” We believe that significant theological discourses in the 21st century will happen more and more across the Pacific than across the Atlantic partly because of the significant population in Asia and partly because Asian peoples have been in diaspora all over the world. Asians comprise almost 2/3 of the world’s population and by immigration, overseas work and refugee movement, they have scattered across America, Europe and the Middle East. If we view Christianity in its global dimension and ensure the growth of the Church for the 21st century, we must include serious theological and missionary reflections in Asia-America context. Towards this end, the “Asia-America Theological Exchange Forum” was conceived.
The Rev. Dr. Winfred B. Vergara, Missioner
Asiamerica Ministries, The Episcopal Church