Paul Puthanangady, S.D.B.
We can look at the role of the Church in the world in two different ways: as a community in a stage of mission or as an institution that is engage in a mission. In the former case its structures and symbol system will be conditioned by a sense of mission with its two elements, namely, the Gospel message and the people to whom the community is sent; in the latter case, the expressions of the mission will be conditioned by the institutionalized form of this Gospel and the people whom the institution intends to serve. In the former case, the objective will be the conversion of hearts of the peoples who will evolve their own structures and symbol systems, while in the latter case, the objective will be to make the people belong to the institution with all its structures and symbol systems. In the case of evangelization of Asia, in most of the cases what happened was the establishment of the institutionalized form of Gospel. The result was that we have a Church in Asia, but we do not have an Asian Church. As a consequence there has been a change of religion, but not always a change of heart; there has been the Church, but not always the kingdom. This brought with it also an unhealthy tension in the relationship between the Gospel and the cultures of Asia.
We are living in an age in which profound cultural transformation are taking place all over the world. Some of the characteristics of this cultural revolution seem to be the following:
a) Subjectification of reality
There is a heightened consciousness of self in the human person today. This awareness has become so strong that the existing structures are questioned and evaluated in terms of their usefulness to the self in search of fulfillment. In secular life it has resulted in consumerism; in religious life, it is shown in the pursuit of personal religious experience. It is described by some as ontological individualism; “the individual is a primary reality whereas society is a second-order, derived or artificial construct” (Robert N. Bellah et al. Habits of the Heart: Individualism and commitment in American Life (New York 1985, 10).
b) Lack of confidence in social and cultural institutions
Society is built on personal intimacy and not on principles that transcend one’s own likes and dislikes. There is a desire for the small, more intimate and easily communicable groups. This is slowly replacing the large communities and gatherings in which people feel more impersonal and incapable of communicating meaningfully.
c) Universalization and politicization of cultures
The growth of communication systems and the capacity of the technologically progressed countries to import their life-patterns into other peoples’ lives has given the impression that a global culture is evolving; in fact it is nothing but politicization of culture by a particular group. This is affecting, to some extent, the traditional cultures, especially in the urban areas.
The Christian mission becomes diversified because of the changing context in which the Church finds herself. Perhaps this was not sufficiently taken into account during the pre-Vatican era. As a consequence there was a theological interpretation of faith and a methodology for mission, which was uniform all over the world. The new vision of Vatican II demands that the Church enter into the world taking seriously the cultural differences of the people. Context becomes important. The Church wants to take into serious account the Asian context in order to fulfill her mission relevantly in this continent. We shall briefly delineate the main elements that constitute today’s Asian context:
a) Asia, a continent of religions
Several world religions have their birthplaces in Asia. They have shaped the lives of the people of this continent and their cultures in the course of centuries. Even today, they play a significant role in all the aspects of their lives. Neither colonialism, nor the invasion of western ideologies have succeeded in weakening or diminishing their vitality. The Church in Asia feels an urgent need to enter in dialogue with these religions as an integral part of her mission. The Federation of Asian Bishops has very clearly expressed this: “In Asia especially, this involves a dialogue with the great religious traditions of our peoples. In this dialogue we accept them as significant and positive elements in the economy of God’s design of salvation. In them we recognize and respect profound spiritual and ethical meanings and values. Over many centuries they have been the treasury of the religious experience of our ancestors, from which our contemporaries do not cease to draw light and strength. They have been (and continue to be) the authentic expression of the noblest longing of their hearts, and the home of their contemplation and prayer. They helped to give the shape to the histories and cultures of our nations” (Evangelization, Prayer, Communion in Asian Context n. 4). There is a revival of these religions today. In many Asian countries, especially of Southeast Asia, it is not infrequent to see families with members having different religions.
b) Asia, a continent marked with poverty and social injustice
Like all the third world countries of today, the majority of Asian countries have also emerged from the colonial regime. This has created in this continent a poverty of the masses caused by the past exploitation of resources by colonial powers and by the present accumulation of wealth and concentration of economic power in the hands of the few economic and social elite created by the colonial rulers. As a result of this we, not only have a state of economic poverty, but there is a politics of poverty. The departure of colonial governments did not result in the severing of economic and cultural ties between the colonials and the local elites. Instead, these local elites gradually banished the masses from political power and co-opted the major religions and cultures of each country so that they remain insensitive or at least neutral towards socio-economic injustices. They manipulate the political system to their advantage at the expense of the masses of struggling poor. In the first Plenary Assembly of the FABC in 1975 on Evangelization in Modern-Day Asia, the Bishops made the following analysis of Asia: “The majority of the poor of Asia are poor, poor not in human values, qualities nor in human potential, but poor in that they are deprived of access to material goods and resources which they need to create a truly human life for themselves, deprived because they live under oppression, that is, under unjust social, economic, and political structures” (Taipei 1975, no. 19).
c) Asia, a continent of millennial cultures
Asia can be diversified into seven major linguistic zones, the highest any continent can be boast of. The language of myths, legends, songs, etc. put us in touch, in different ways, with the basic truths that every religion grapples with: the meaning and destiny of human existence, human beings’ crippling limitations and their infinite capacity to break through them, the liberation both human and cosmic; in short, the struggle for humanity. Every Asian culture has grown around a soteriological nucleus (Salvation content) the recovery of which is indeed a new creation. Thus in Asia culture, religion and society are inter-dependent, interacting, and mutually transforming. In our Asian world, culture and religion are integrated and interact with the socio-political system of society, permeating every sphere of life.
d) Asia, a continent of spirituality and contemplation
The contemplative dimension dominates the religiosity of Asia. This is coming from a holistic approach to reality. We can notice an integration of cosmic and meta-cosmic elements in Asian religions. This spiritual and the contemplative dimension should be discovered if any one wants to enter into dialogue with Asia.
e) Asia, a continent of youth
The great majority of the population is young. We might even say that the majority of the young people in the world live in Asia. This has its consequences on the life and activity of the Church. The hope of humanity is in the youth. Their aspirations and struggles indicate the energies of growth hidden in this vast continent. By and large this youth is attracted by western technological progress. It is necessary that they contribute towards the growth of this continent having their roots firmly established in their cultural foundations. No authentic growth can take place without rootedness in one’s own soil and in one’s own traditions, without in any way impending the movement towards progress. The Church has to strive to maintain a delicate balance.
f) The socio-political and economic situation of Asia
i) The life of Asia has been truncated by centuries of colonialism and a more recent neo-colonialism. Its cultures are marginalized. There is wanton affluence side by side with abject poverty. This extreme disparity is the result of a continuous domination of Asia by internal and external forces.
ii) Although a far larger number of people in Asia live in rural areas - and hence the urban population forms a relatively small percentage of the total population - Asia’s urban population is larger than that of Europe or America. One third of the urban population in the world lives in Asian cities.
iii) This continent seriously poses the challenge of pluralism. While Pax Romanawas the result of a converging unity, the unity of Asia cannot be built up by ignoring its rich diversities.
iv) There is a concerted effort towards development and progress in all spheres of life. This has to be integrated into the cultural ethos of the people. In other words there is a great need to ensure that the movement towards progress has a continuity with the past. Culture and technology should be combined in a harmonious way.
v) Contemporary Asia is simultaneously engaged in numerous struggles:
- the struggle to create national and cultural identities
- the struggle to integrate various diversities, parochial and religious loyalties, linguistic and ethnic particularities, into workable political institutions
- the struggle to modernize social and cultural institutions in order to humanize relationships between individuals and groups
- the struggle to reconstruct religious traditions in order to provide a new spiritual basis for the modernization and humanization of Asia societies.
vi) There are many positive aspects that are emerging in this continent which is the homeland of ancient world religions and prestigious millinery civilizations:
- The coming of political independence has fostered the renaissance of local cultures, revitalization of old religions
- throughout the region, the forces of secularization and modernization have been at work, although their aspect has been somewhat different from that produced in the western nations
- by and large, in spite of the inevitable alteration of social relationships, thought-pattern, value systems and life-styles, moral religious values have still their appeal, expression and practice.
- Finally, in relation to economic, social and political development, the nations of Asia are, in general, along with all Third World nations, in a critical situation of dependence and exploitation.
The II Vatican Council opens up a new vision of the mission of the Church. In the light of this vision we can and ought to envisage a new encounter of the Gospel with Asia. Let us briefly examine this new vision of Vatican II.
It must be confessed that in spite of centuries of existence in this continent, there has not taken place a serious and meaningful encounter between Asia and the Gospel. The objective of missionary activity has been more the planting of the Church than the preaching of the Gospel. In fact where the Church could not be planted, we have refused to preach the Gospel. The vision that Vatican II opens up is, I believe, especially suitable to facilitate the meeting of Asia with the Gospel because it offers a common platform for dialogue. Asia is ready to welcome the Gospel provided her identity and individuality are not sacrificed. She wants to accept Christ with all the vigour and vitality of her being.
It is in this sense that we have to understand the objective of the Asian Synod proposed by the Holy Father: “The issues of the encounter of Christianity with ancient local cultures and religions is a pressing one. This is a great challenge for evangelization” (Tert. Mill. Adven. n. 38).
The forthcoming Asian Synod will have to face some very specific issues, unique both for their content and for the methodology to be used when dealing with them. There is a worldview and a philosophical approach that differ very much from the traditional ones for interpreting and formulating faith during the last two millennia. We can compare this to what happened in the third century when the Church encountered the Greco-Roman worldview and philosophy. Meeting with Asia means to attempt an interpretation of faith through cultural and intellectual categories that are totally new. This will result in a new formulation of faith without in any way distorting it. It is evident that in this process there can be deviations as happened in the third century. But the outcome is going to be rich unfolding of the content of revelation and faith, which will certainly enrich the whole Church. The initiative of the Holy Father at this crucial juncture of the history of the Church is indeed a bold one. It is going to have far reaching consequences for the life of the Christian community. The main issues that we have to face as we undertake this colossal task are the following:
a) The search for a new hermeneutics
In a theological context, hermeneutics refers usually to the theory of text-interpretation. It is concerned with the development of criteria for such interpretation. It tries to answer the question: how can we today understand the sense of texts, especially of ancient texts whose world view we no longer share? The Christian community in India has been interpreting its faith situating itself in a worldview, which was alien to it. As a result, its profession of faith has been a mere repetition of a text that has been formulated elsewhere. Today the Asian Church wants to profess her faith situating herself in her own cultural milieu. Therefore she needs new criteria for its interpretation, a new hermeneutics, an Asian Christian hermeneutics. In our attempt to evolve it we need to keep before us the focal points: the context, the goal, the process.
The context includes three elements: (i) self-identity; we are Indian Christians. We have both our Indian heritage and a Judeo-Christian heritage. We are a people who, being fully part of this land have given our allegiance to Jesus who is in historical continuity with the Jewish people. (ii) the cultural and religious context; as Indians, we have shared the cultural and religious ethos of this land. Our Christian experience has to be interpreted from within our cultural and religious heritage. (iii) the socio-economic structures; the socio-economic reality is an integral part of human existence and history. The interpretation of Christian faith outside this context will not only be irrelevant, but will go against the very historical character of Christian revelation.
The goal of our hermeneutics can be nothing else but to bring the good news to the Asian continent. This would imply the transformation of our religious and cultural values in the light of the Gospel. It would also, as a consequence, imply the overthrow of all oppressive socio-economic and cultural structures.
The process to be followed in our hermeneutics has to be somewhat different from that which has been followed in the Greco-Roman milieu. Experience plays a very important role in this. Instead of merely looking at the text and analyzing it, we allow the text to resound within us. The outcome will not be a mere intellectual formulation, but symbolic expressions that unfold the rich content.
These are a few indications of what would follow from an encounter of the Gospel with Asia of which the Holy Father speaks. An indispensable condition for being successful in this effort is to be unconditionally open to the Spirit who has been operative in this continent from time immemorial.
One of the concerns expressed by the Holy Father in referring to the Asian Synod is the need to project a correct image of Christ in the religiously pluralistic society of Asia. Without in any way entering into the controversial issues of Indian Christology, I would like to make a few reflections that will have to be taken into account in presenting Christ to Asia.
(i) Christ enters into Asia as the one who answers the quest of this continent for fuller life. Therefore, it is necessary to take into account all the expressions of this quest including the religious ones. Christ does not come to destroy the religions of Asia. Chenchiah wrote: “The Indian Christian can never understand Jesus until he understand the drama of God’s dealings with man in and through the other religions of the world”.
(ii) All Christologies are the formulations of peoples trying to respond to God who reveals him. Therefore, all our statements, while being true, do not exhaust the totality of the Mystery of Christ.
(iii) The uniqueness of Christ must be studied taking into account the mission entrusted to him by the Father and not only by a philosophical analysis of the ontological reality of Christ. This is evident in the New Testament: Christ is God-with-man. He is the one sent by the Father.
(iv) Christ cannot be dissociated from the socio-economic reality of this land, just as Jesus of Nazareth is inseparable from the oppressed and the socially rejected section of Palestine.
(v) The place of Christ is not in the company of the founders of religions. He is one who is involved in every human situation. His Gospel is not primarily a book that constitutes a religion, but it is a character for creating a new world in order, the Kingdom of God.
In the light of these considerations, I would say the concern and preoccupation about Christology should undergo a shift of emphasis from the 'religious’ to the 'secular’, i.e. to the human society that is struggling to build up a new Asia. Undoubtedly, all the factors that are involved in the struggle, such as religion, politics, socio-economic reality, cultures etc. should be taken into consideration. Only then Christ will become an answer to Asia’s quest. That is the true Christ of Asia, her Lord and Saviour. Such a Christ will not be a threat to cultures and religions. He will be opposed only to the irreligious.
c) The search for a new way of being Church
The question of the identity of the disciples of Christ is another crucial issue that the Asian Synod has to deal with. To date, to be a Christian signified belonging to a community that had its roots elsewhere, in another cultural context. There are two issues at stake here: our belongingness to the universal Church and the exigency to be an intelligible and meaningful sign in the context.
(i) The idea of universality through allegiance should give place to a universality through communion. The II Vatican Council has affirmed clearly that the local Christian community is a Church in the full sense of the word: “This Church of Christ is really present in all legitimately organized local groups of the faithful, which in so far as they are united to their pastors, are also quite appropriately called Churches in the New Testament... In these communities, though they may often be small and poor, or existing in the diaspora, Christ is present through whose power and influence the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church is constituted” (L.G. 26). This understanding of the Church must be deepened in the context of Asia.
(ii) The Christian community has to be a meaningful and intelligible sign for the rest of the human community around. This is possible only through a relationship with all the human groups around. Here comes the question of inter-religious communion. Chenchiah wrote: “To us in India the inter-relations of religions have become a matter of life and death. We can have no place here or hereafter and our nation can have no future until we find the key to this mystery”. “In a religiously pluralistic world, Christians, together with their neighbors of other faiths, are called upon to participate in God’s continuing mission in the world”. In the light of these considerations, to be Church in Asia with its religious pluralism and socio-economic situation may not always and necessarily mean belonging to a well ordered organization with its world structures. Can we think of being Church in another way?
The Spirit of Jesus Christ who is the architect of the Christian community in Asia has endowed every member of this community with his gift so that each one of them can contribute his or her share to its realization. The theologians have a specific role to play here. They are the prophets of Asia. Religious educators are joining their ranks. What does the Spirit expect from them?
a) The first condition for anyone who wants to build up the Kingdom of God is to get immersed into the reality. A thorough process of inculturation is indispensable for any meaningful Christian ministry. We should be able to enter into the Asian ethos without any reservation and fear, be it religious, social, or cultural. Our reflections on faith should begin from there. Institutes of higher studies should aim at not only conferring degrees approved by the Central authorities, they also have a sacred duty to re-interpret and reformulate the rich content of Christian revelation from within the cultural and religious ethos of Asia. They should be able to create faculties and Institutes that foster such reflections, instead of copying the existing patterns of Church Universities.
b) Communion with the universal Christian community is an equally important task that the Asian Church has before it. In the process of expressing our specific Christian identity, the need for a deep communion with all the Christians in the world should also be our concern. But this should in no way be at the cost of sacrificing the rich unfolding of the revealed truths in our context. A communion of particularities and a unity of diversities will enable us to build up an oneness that is rich and enriching.
c) The ultimate aim of our Christian communion is the universal gathering of all the peoples in the fullness of time. This is possible only through a healthy relationship among peoples of diverse cultural, ethnic and religious affinities. One of the great contributions of Asia to the universal Church, I believe, could be the dynamics of a life of dialogue. The theologians should contribute towards the building of this life of dialogue through their openness to other ideologies and religions. They can and should make it become a method in their study and research. Every center of higher studies should foster it on all levels, intellectual and experiential. This must be distinguishing mark of our centers of studies and formations.
The Asian Church has had three moments of Christian experience. The first was the apostolic experience of the first century; the second was the colonial experience of the 16th century; the third is the indigenous experience of the 20th century. In spite of these three visitations of the Lord to our continent, we have not yet had a serious encounter of Christ with the Asian reality. During this third period, which is just beginning, the Spirit is beckoning the Christian community of Asia to facilitate this encounter in an effective manner. Christ does not want to be a foreigner in this continent. He neither wants to be a mere honoured guest nor does he want to be a conqueror. He wants to be at home as part of our human community because only in that way he can fulfill the mission entrusted to him by the Father.
Evangelization does not consist in bringing Christ to the people, but in discovering him who has preceded us to Galilee, that is the world of encounter, and in proclaiming him through a process of enfleshment in the context of the people. He has to be born from the flesh and blood of Asia and he has to meet the heart of this continent, so unique and rich in her cultural and religious heritage. The third millennium should be the millennium of this encounter of Christ with the Asian reality. The words of Pope John Paul II: “Behold the Saviour of the world is born for us” must be proclaimed in all its truth and vigour by all the Christians of Asia in the year 2000. Once he is born in Asia, he will proclaim the good news from within the life and culture of this land; there will be an Asian Christianity, which will have its uniqueness, which can take its rightful place in the world together with all the other continents where the same process will have taken place. We cannot have a communion and catholicity that is genuine and true, unless this incarnation has taken place. It is from the root of Jesse through the action of the Holy Spirit that the messiah appeared in the world; it is from the cultural and religious tradition of millennia, fostered by the Spirit of God that the messianic age will be inaugurated in the Asian continent.
Mary responded to the challenge of God to become the instrument of that first epiphany of God. May the Christian community of Asia accept this same challenge in docility and humility. Then Jesus, the God-with-man, will appear in our continent; he will walk through our streets; he will enter into the lives of the peoples; he will proclaim his good news to them; he will transform this continent through his Paschal Mystery; he will communicate to them His Spirit who will impart to them the fullness of life. The Asian continent with its ethnic, cultural and religious diversity will proclaim its unity based on the fatherhood of God. That will be the day of the Lord for our beloved continent of Asia.