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 Global Perspective

August 3, 2004
Vol. 2, No. 15

Edmund Chia
Edmund Chia is a Malaysian theologian serving in Thailand as executive secretary of the Office of Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs for the Federation of Asian Bishops' Conferences. He plans to step down from the position in August and will move on to Chicago in the fall to serve on the faculty of the Catholic Theological Union. His e-mail address is:



It is only in and through the "triple dialogue" -- the dialogue of the church with the poor, the cultures and the religions of Asia -- that the church discerns its raison d'etre and mission in Asia.

The coming of age of the Asian church

By Edmund Chia

BANGKOK, Thailand -- About a year ago Global Perspective featured a two-part article by Josť Comblin delineating the downfall of the Latin American church during the pontificate of John Paul II. (See How Pope John Paul II has changed the church in Latin America, July 2 and July 9, 2003.) Comblin's analysis of the suppression of liberation theology and the basic Christian communities and his conclusion that the Conferences of Latin American Bishops (CELAM) is all but dead paint a rather dreary picture of today's church.

There is, thankfully, another side of the picture, namely, the Asian side.

If the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith was principally responsible for the demise of liberation theology and the Latin American church, it was also the same which drew attention to the rise of the Asian church and its concomitant theology of interreligious dialogue. It's prefect, Cardinal Ratzinger, in a 1996 speech delivered in Mexico, suggested a correlation between the "twilight" of liberation theology and the fall of Communism in Eastern Europe. In that very same speech he sounded the alarm that "relativism" is the "central problem for the faith" in the present church, especially among those involved in the ministry of interreligious dialogue. He then mentioned India by name, as the country that allegedly is giving rise to the philosophical and theological vision of relativism. Incidentally, this was not the first time India received such honors; the Indic sub-continent has sometimes been cited as the "epicenter" of theological deviance!

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That Sri Lankan theologian Tissa Balasuriya was initially excommunicated in 1997 on account of a book he wrote is by no means unconnected to this "central problem." There is also the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith's 1998 notification warning against the writings of the late Indian spiritual author Anthony de Mello. Belgian missionary Jacques Dupuis, who theologized for more than 30 years in India, is yet another who was put under the congregation's microscope. The editors of New Delhi's Vidyajyoti theological journal recently received a multi-paged missive outlining the deviation of some of its authors. These cases are but testimony that, indeed, the Asian church has become a "problem" for the faith.

Viewed from another perspective, one can also say that this is testimony to the Asian church's coming of age. Like the Latin American church which had to struggle against "parental" control and which had many of its theologians condemned on its way to giving birth to its own identity and brand of theology, the Asian church too must have its share of encounters and tensions with the center as it journeys toward adulthood.

The Asian Synod of 1998 was the first time this struggle was made explicit between the Roman magisterium and the Asian church's magisterium. The dialectics of growth and change suggest that such tension is necessary if one hopes that the center will one day take note of the experience and challenge from the periphery. Just as liberation theology has more or less reached the center's consciousness, the way the Asian church negotiates the phenomenon of religious pluralism would also one day make its way to the consciousness of the universal church. The praxis of interreligious dialogue is, without doubt, the Asian church's most significant contribution to the world church.

Pope John Paul II alluded to this when presenting the conclusion to the Asian Synod in his encyclical "Ecclesia in Asia." He began by expressing hope that "just as in the first millennium the cross was planted on the soil of Europe, and in the second on that of the Americas and Africa, we can pray that in the third Christian millennium a great harvest of faith will be reaped in this vast and vital continent [of Asia]."

While some regard this as an exhortation for intensifying evangelization and for the mass conversion of the Asian peoples to Christianity, others regard the pope's statement as somewhat radical, even prophetic. For, according to the latter view, John Paul II was not speaking about a quantitative harvest, measured by the number of converts, but of a qualitative one, made manifest by fundamental changes brought to the very nature and way of being church.

In other words, the pope hopes, the reasoning goes, that Asia will provide leadership to the universal church in discerning what it means to be Christian in an increasingly religiously plural world.

In this regard, the contribution of the Federation of Asian Bishops' Conferences (FABC) is by no means insignificant. A product of the "sign of the times" spirit of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), the FABC has been taking seriously the multi-religious context of the milieu in its discernment of what it means to be church in Asia. Since its foundation more than 30 years ago, through its seven plenary assemblies (the eighth is scheduled for this month, Aug. 17-22) and numerous bishops' institutes, the FABC has evolved a consistently progressive and contextual theology.

Needless to say, this is at once rooted in the Christian tradition as well as sensitive to the Asian contextual reality of religious pluralism. It can best be described as a "theology of dialogue" as it takes seriously the encounter of the church with the context and realities of Asia. FABC regards this as the "triple dialogue," referring to its fundamental thrust of the dialogue of the church with the poor, the cultures and the religions of Asia. It is only in and through such dialogues that the church discerns its raison d'etre and mission in Asia.

Because such a manner of doing theology is not yet the practice of most Christian theologians in the world, the Asian church is regarded as having being ordained to lead in this direction. When this dialogical method of doing theology has gained better currency, it might coincide with the time when the Asian church has fully come of age. Of course, like the Latin American church and in keeping with the dialectics of change, the Asian church and its theologians can expect many more tensions and encounters with the center and the guardians of faith. This will probably happen until such a time when, either the center yields or the Asian church too becomes suppressed.

Part Two, The theological vision of the Asian church, of this Two Part series appears Aug. 10.


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