The Quest For 'Truth' in Asia

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José M. de Mesa



Because human experience is a constitutive element in understanding the Gospel, the theological issues, which are being raised, must necessarily arise from specific cultural conditionings and particular historical circumstances. A theological reading of a given situation is intimately connected to a distinct perspective.  This is true with regard to the question of ‘truth’ and the concommitant concern for orthodoxy.  Without denying the validity of this question and its importance for the life and mission of the church in general, it is at least equally consequential not to assume that the serious questions asked by a local church are meaningful, or meaningful in the same way or to the same extent, to all local churches in the world.  This insight has long been recognized in the theological enterprise as exemplified by the scholastic dictum, Quidquid recipitur ad modum recipientis recipitur.

Moreover, what is claimed as ‘true’ in the church is deemed true because it is in harmony with the Judaeo-Christian Tradition, particularly as expressed in scripture.1  This is not a mere matter of ascertaining the ‘truth’ by the observance of uniformity mandated by the authorities. Together with the inquiry as to their cultural and historical relevance which are necessarily plural, it is essential to assess theological claims to truthfulness in terms of their fidelity to the Tradition.  Otherwise, truth will simply be equated with what is regarded as important by people.  Any statement about the faith can then be made and will be considered ‘true’ provided people think that it is meaningful to them.  When this happens the Tradition will lose its significance and power. Human conjectures and projects can no longer be challenged or judged by the Gospel.

It is within this framework of a double fidelity that we shall discuss the question of ‘truth’ in the Asian setting: fidelity to the imperatives of a given situation and fidelity to the Judaeo-Christian Tradition.


In re-appropriating the Judaeo-Christian Tradition through inculturation or contextualization, the fundamental and urgent issue in Asia is how the Gospel can be meaningful or true to the lives of people in their concrete situations.  Two important points undergird this statement: a certain priority of the question of relevance or meaningfulness, and the understanding of ‘truth’ itself.

It is undeniable that theology does not only have to square with the demands of meaning, but also those of truth. Legitimate attention to meaningfulness and relevance, after all, does not dispense with fidelity to the Tradition.  But however closely the question of meaning may be connected with that about truth, the two questions are different.  More than that, the question of meaning always precedes that of truth, because only a meaningful and relevant statement can be true or false.  The inevitable consequence of this is that, whenever this relationship with actual human experience is no longer felt, no attention is paid to christians when they begin to speak even about the real significance of Gospel.

This attitude is characteristically verbalized by the expression: ”It means nothing to me.”  This implies, at a more reflective level, that the speaker cannot immediately see any relationship between the theological statement and his/her own ordinary experience.  As a result this person finds no reason to investigate that statement seriously.  The question of meaningfulness is prior to the question of orthodoxy.  Settling the question of orthodoxy without ensuring the meaningfulness of the theological response risks the indifference of people concerned to the important matter itself of the Gospel.

The basic condition, then, for every interpretation of faith which is faithful to the Gospel is the meaningfulness of that interpretation.  This meaningfulness is present when an interpretation reflects real experience.  In other words the experience of our everyday existence in the world must give meaning and reality to our theological talk.  There ought to be a recoanizable reference in the theological interpretation to the lived experiences of the people concerned.  It is only when our theological formulations are drawn from experience that we ensure their intelligibility.  If this basic condition is not satisfied or if human experience is not expressed in theological language, then such theological talk is meaningless and the question whether the new interpretation is either orthodox or heretical is a priori superfluous.2 The connection between the challenge of the Gospel and contemporary experiences must first be seen before claims of orthodoxy are raised.

Most instructive to this discussion is a story narrated by the Indian theologian Felix Wilfred about the parachutist and the theologian.

Once a parachutist found himself caught up in a storm, and he was swept off several kilometers away from his original destination.  He landed on the top of a tree, and was only happy his life was saved.  He saw someone passing by, and called out to him and asked,”Sir, can you tell me, where I am?” Came the answer,”You are on the top of a tree.” The parachutist said,”Are you a theologian?”At this the other man was simply wonder-struck.  He asked the parachutist,”Yes, I am, but how do you know that?” The parachutist replied,”Oh, that is easy.  Because what you said is correct, but useless !”3

Perhaps, even the Western European theological preoccupation with orthodoxy is really concerned with meaningfulness rather than with orthodoxy per se. The reason is that it presupposes culturally (philosophically) that the quest for true knowledge is what fulfills the rational ‘nature’ or ‘essence’ of the human being.4  Could this be an explanation, at least to some extent, why for theology in the West, orthodoxy appears to be much more important or urgent than in the theologies of the Third World?  The question of orthodoxy and the absoluteness of the truth seems to be a question primarily drawn from both the cultural presupposition about the human person and the western theologies which start from, and build on, this premise.  Without denying that it is also theological concern, it may well be that the present discussion regarding the orthodoxy of theologies from the Two-Thirds World by the West is more of a cultural issue than a theological one.


Meaningfulness, we earlier noted, is not the only consideration in articulating our understanding of the faith.  Fidelity to the Judaeo-Christian Tradition of such an articulation is also a sine qua non.  In discerning the ‘truthfulness’ of our theological understanding, we turn to scripture which is not only the”soul of theology”5 but also its norma normans non normata.

God’s ‘truth’ (‘emet) is primarily and eminently relational and is revealed relationally.  To understand its unique character, we must bear in mind that ‘emetconcerns primarily ‘a-being-together.’  It signifies”the community relationship, immediately and centrally, as it functions in life in its fullness, not the abstract knowing relationship between thought and being in their correspondence. Much more inclusive than the knowing relationship, ‘emet describes the total conduct, and that as one which is reciprocally trustworthy and which one can expect of the other.”6  The Hebrew word for truth, ‘emet, comes from the Semitic root ‘aman.  The Hebrew Scriptures used this term in its various forms to affirm the constancy, dependability, fidelity, reliability, and thus the ‘truth’ of both God and human beings.

This Hebrew notion that God (and, dependently on God, any human) is one in whom a person can, and should, place trust continues to be an important aspect of truth in the NT. Jesus, for instance, is referred to as”a truthful man” (Mk. 12:14; Mt. 22:16) because he is someone who is reliable and in whom one can place confidence.  When Paul proclaims that”Christ became a minister of the circumcised to show God’s truthfulness” (Rm. 15:8), he is referring to the reliability and fidelity of God to promises made to Israel.7

God is the one who is ‘true’ (faithful and, therefore, reliable) to us in all moments and situations of life, in good times and bad times, in happiness and sorrow, in confidence and helplessness. God’s truth, then, is divine fidelity, the guarantee of the truth of divine words and promises, and the power which overcomes all obstacles, even that of human sin, to bring to fulfillment what God had pledged to do.  Divine will and power are undoubtedly aimed constantly and continuously at the happiness and well-being of persons and of people.  This is true; this is trustworthy.  We can depend on it.  God’s”faithfulness endures to all generations” (Ps.119:90).

According to scriptural testimony God is ‘true’ because God is committed and faithful to us:”And I will walk among you, and will be your God, and you shall be my people” (Lev. 26:12).  This commitment and fidelity is reliable:”The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, [God’s] mercies never come to an end” (Lam. 3:22-23). God’s ‘truthfulness’ is manifested in hearing the cry of His/Her people.  Hence, for Israel the manifestation par excellence of Yahweh’s historical truth is its liberation from bondage in Egypt. There God’s ‘emet came to light decisively and with a strong hand.  And for the christian community, in Jesus God’s ‘truth’, that is, God’s Godness itself as the dependable God of compassion and salvation, became flesh.  In Jesus God’s truth was revealed decisively and definitively;  He, as Emmanuel, is the truth of God’s faithful solidarity with us (Jn. l4:6; Mt. l:23).

The christian truth of God, however, is not confined to God’s self.   As God relates with us, so we, who share in the divine image and are the disciples of Jesus, are related to one another.  In the way we deal with each other, God’s truth is either disclosed or obscured.  We are ‘true’ images of God and true disciples of Jesus when we are committed and faithful to each other’s happiness and wellbeing:”These are the things you should do: Speak the truth to one another; let there be honesty and peace in the judgments at your gates, and let none of you plot evil against another in his heart, nor love a false oath.  For all these things I hate, says the Lord” (Zech. 8:16-17).  Truth was associated with the biblical notion of justice, which touched on the level of relationship with one’s neighbor. The truth of discipleship, as far as Jesus was concerned, depended on our faithfulness to love one another, that is, to care for each other in our needs and not on the convincing clarity of the correspondence of our definitions to the realities we are referring to:”Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action” (1 Jn. 3:18).8

From the above considerations it is evident that the definition of truth employed by Albertus Magnus and Thomas Aquinas (veritas est adaequatio rei et intellectus:‘truth is the correspondence of thing and understanding’) cannot, if ever, be applied to the biblical notion of it.9  ‘Truth’ in the bible”is not a ‘metaphysical-idea’ kind of truth; it is a dependable salvific reality in the God-human relationship.  Moreover, it makes its claims upon the heart’s trust rather than appeal to the theoria (contemplation) of noetic thought.”


The church shares in God’s truth as”the universal sacrament of salvation, simultaneously manifesting and exercising the mystery of God’s love for man” (G.S. 45).  Impelled and oriented by the spirit of Jesus, its sole intent is”that God’s kingdom may come, and that the salvation of the whole human race may come to pass” (G.S. 45). Thus, the ‘truth’ of the church is revealed when the believing community faithfully and reliably manifests and exercises the mystery of God’s love for people.  The ‘truth’ of the church is to sacramentalize God’s love for humankind.  In Asia the church does this by responding to the urgent needs of the various peoples of the region, proclaiming salvation in a manner most suitable to the situation.

Again and again it is being said: Asia is poor, Asia is the home of many diverse cultures, Asia is the cradle of world religions.10  If Asia is so, then the church that bears witness to the truth of salvation cannot but be concerned precisely with these realities.  Justice, cultural identity and integrity, and religious harmony are soteriological concerns.  The Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World has articulated this conviction well:”The joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the people of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted, these too are the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ.  Indeed, nothing genuinely human fails to raise an echo in their hearts” (G.S. 1).  Because of this peculiar situation of Asia and the active presence of God in the world, there is an urgent need for the church of Asia to manifest God’s truth not by way of claiming the monopoly to the truth, much less through triumphalistic imposition of what it thinks to be the truth, but rather through humble and respectful dialogue.  Its first task is to listen to, to discern, and to discover God’s truth already operative among the poor who inspire us with their trust in God’s reliable promise of liberation, in the plurality of cultures which reveal the wonderful creativity of God, and in the faith though which the Spirit leads people to holiness in so many surprising ways.

‘Truth’ in Asia is commitment and fidelity of the local churches to the peoples of Asia through dialogue with the poor, with cultures and religions.  Thus, the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences (FABC) believes that”the Church is called to partake in the paschal mystery, and die to herself in order to be raised up with the Lord.”  The Church is in need of continual conversion and needs to”pass over” with Christ to the poor, to Asian cultures and to other religions.”11

ln delineating mission in Asia, its challenges and mode, C. Putranta writes that”the present situation of Asian peoples urgently [emphasis added] calls for a faithful and ardent proclamation of the Gospel, a proclamation to be carried out with ‘dialogue as its basic mode’.  Dialogue, that is, with these Asian realities: the cultures, the living religious traditions and the poor masses of Asia. These make up the ambience in which and through which the Gospel is to be announced and the inchoation of God’s Kingdom is to be realized.”12  Through a dialogical approach to the witnessing to and proclamation of the Gospel, the local churches of Asia ensure the rootedness of their witness and proclamation in the experiences of Asian peoples.

The church’s dialogue with the poor peoples of Asia implies genuine solidarity witll them, excperiencing their situation and struggling with them to realize a more just society that is worthy of human beings. Its dialogue with cultures means that the local churches live their faith and the Gospel in cultural terms.  In this process the churches are not only enriched by these cultures but also in turn transform them from within by the power of the Gospel.  Dialogue with the Asian religious traditions will lead the local churches to a real and living experience of the breadth, the depth and the height of God’s saving action among the peoples of the world.13

As the FABC Office of Evangelization states it in its”Conclusions of the Theological Consultation” (Hua Hin, l0th November, 1991):”The local churches of Asia have to be committed to dialogue with socio-political movements and forces working towards integral development, social justice and peace.  Possessing the same cultural heritage, we commit ourselves to dialogue with the various cultural traditions of Asia, for the construction of a more humane society.  We engage in dialogue with the different religious traditions of Asia and collaborate with them in promoting human and spiritual values.  We extend our commitment to dialogue to all those involved in preserving the integrity of creation.”14

This triple dialogue is not a response of the church to three unrelated situations in Asia; it is focused attention to the total situation of Asia where poverty, cultural diversity and plurality of religions are conspicuously interwoven.  In Asia the proclamation of the Gospel requires”the promotion of justice, entry into cultures, and openness to other religious experiences”. Indeed to use the words of the 34th Jesuit General Congregation,”no promotion of justice without communicating faith, transforming cultures, collaboration with other traditions.  No inculturation without  communicating  faith  with  others, dialogue with other  traditions, commitment to justice.  No dialogue without sharing faith with others, evaluating cultures, concern for justice.”15


So what is the quest for ‘truth’ in Asia? It is, first of all, the ensuring of the meaningfulness of the Gospel by listening to the experiences of people in Asia and discerning what God is already doing in their lives.  Attentiveness to actual human lived experiences makes real the ‘truth’ of the Gospel and of the church for the church proclaims a salvation that is genuinely human.  This pursuit for ‘truth’ is, secondly, the proclamation of God’s ‘truth’ as the God of compassion and salvation as revealed in Jesus Christ through solidarity and dialogue.  This is what our Judaeo-Christian Tradition reminds us of.  We do not arbitrarily define our faith in Jesus Christ.  Rather, we listen to it as seriously as we listen to the human situation.  For in both contexts, our God of the ‘truth’ is at work.  We discover finally in this search for ‘truth’ that the church is ‘true’ when, as a sacrament of universal salvation, it can be relied upon to respond to the joys and hopes, griefs and anxieties of people, and when it is faithful to its vocation precisely as the church of Jesus Christ, making visible and palpable the salvation which Jesus brings.



  1. Judgment as to whether a theological claim is ‘true’ or not in this sense requires careful discernment. See the discussion of Stephen B. Bevans of the issues of criteria for orthodoxy in Models of Contextual Theology (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books,1992), pp.17-20.
  2. It is interesting to note that the Buddha says something pertinent to this matter. He advises that”people should first discern what is of the first importance, what problem should first be solved, what is the most pressing issue for them.” The Teaching of Buddha (Tokyo: Buddhist Promoting Foundation, 1980), pp. 296-298.
  3. Felix Wilfred,”Felicitations and Tribute to the Missiological Institute of MISSIO, Aachen on the Solemn Occasion of the Twenty-Fifth Anniversary of Its Establishment, Through a Lecture Entitled, The Contours of Third World Contextual Theologies” (Aachen, November 1996), emphasis added.
  4. The presupposition is made more clear when one shifts to another philosophical presupposition that states that the human being. instead of being essentially”rational”, is essentially and existentially”relational”. If authentic relationships, rather than true knowledge, is what fulfills the human being, then the major preoccupation of this philosophy would be human relationships and the different aspects of such relationships.
  5. Cf. Dei Verbum, art. 24.
  6. lbid., pp. 24-25.
  7. See”Truth” in Carroll Stuhlmueller, C.P. ed., The Collegeville Pastoral Dictionary of Biblical Theology (Collegeville, Minnesota: the Liturgical Press,1996), pp. 1018-1020.
  8. I find it significant that when the FABC asks the question,”But what does it mean to be the Church of the Poor?”, it does not primarily provide a theoretical answer. Rather it points to what is happening, what the churches are actually doing:”We found an answer in the way many churches of Asia are moving in the direction of greater and greater involvement with the life of their people; their simply being with the poor, their attempts at working out programs of human development -- integral, respectful of the people’s dignity, attuned to their cultures, their standing with them in their hard struggle for justice and for self-empowerment; the insistence that the rich become themselves real members of the Church of the Poor by fulfilling their obligations in justice and charity toward fhe poor.””BISA V: Final Statement and Recommendations,” in Gaudencio Rosales and C.G. Arevalo, eds., For All The Peoples of Asia: Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences Documents from 1970 to 1991 (Quezon City: Claretian Publications, 1992), p. 219.
  9. lbid., p. 23.
  10. See the different FABC documents in the collection Gaudencio Rosales and C.G. Arevalo, eds. For All The Peoples of Asia: Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences Documents from 1970 to 1991 (Quezon City: Claretian Publications,1992), passim. In the document”Conclusions of the Theological Consultation” it is stated that”the present Asia is characterized by rapid social change, overwhelming poverty, cultural and religious pluralism”; see p. 335.
  11. FABC Office of Evangelization,”Conclusions of the Theological Consultation,” in Gaudencio Rosales and C.G. Arevalo. eds., For All The Peoples of Asia: Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences Documents from 1970 to 1991 (Quezon City: Claretian Publications, 1992). p. 338.
  12. Carolus B. Putranta, S.J.,”A Brief Survey of the FABC Documents,1970-1982,” in Gaudencio Rosales and C.G. Arevalo, 2ds., For All the Peoples of Asia: Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences Documents from 1970 to 1991 (Quezon City: Claretian Publications,1992), pp.266- 267. See also the Consensus Paper”Towards a Theology of Mission for Asia Today” on p. 135.
  13. lbid.
  14. FABC Office of Evangelization,”Conclusions of the Theological Consultation,” in Gaudencio Rosales and C.G. Arevalo, eds., For All the Peoples of Asia: Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences Documents from 1970 to 1991 (Quezon City: Claretian Publications, 1992), p. 344.
  15. Cf. Decrees of General Congregation 34 (Rome: Curia of the Superior General, l995), p. l6.