Doing Practical Theology A Malaysian Perspective

Resources »Eapr »East Asian Pastoral Review 1999 »Volume 36 1999 No 3 »Doing Practical Theology A Malaysian Perspective

Jojo M. Fung
JOJO M. FUNG is a Malaysian Jesuit. He is a member of the International Shamanistic Research Society, the Borneo Research Council and the Sabah Society. He engages in a dialogue of solidarity with the indigenous peoples and their shamanic tradition, and hopes that this dialogue with the people’s religiousness and poverty will have an impact on his efforts of “birthing” a germinal Malaysian liberative theology of dialogue.

IntroductionAsian theologians are not new-comers to the theological talk on doing practical theology. Some theologians prefer the word local to practical while others prefer the word indigenous.1 The question of semantics is undeniably important. I rather leave this semantic debate to the competent linguistic experts. The debate on doing Asian theology enjoins that theologians begin with the Asian realities of poverty and religiousness. In this article, I will reflect on doing indigenous/practical (I/P) theology from a Malaysian perspective. It will begin with a critical dialogue with St. Anselms definition of theology. I will proceed to spell out the gap between learning theology in the classroom and the people outsidethe walls of learning. Then I will share what few Malaysian and Asian theologians have to say about doing I/P theology. I will dialogue with a renowned theologian in the North whose proposal for a global-local dialectics is worthwhile considering. In the last two sections, I will first propose a vision, model and method for doing I/P theology in Malaysia. Before I conclude, I will share how this model and method has enabled me to initiate a humble germinal effort at doing I/P theology in Malaysia.


Before making an attempt to understand I/P theology, one basic question has to be addressed, what is theology? St. Anselm defined theology as faith seeking understanding. This is a concise and useful definition but limited and situated because it reflects a mindset and a worldview of a particular time and space. This definition has left many questions unanswered. Yet I am fully aware that my own attempt at filling the lacunae of St. Anselm is also conditioned by my lived-experience, my socio-political, cultural and historical positions, and lastly, my social location as a male middle class Chinese Malaysian and religious priest.

Let me begin to address each of the arising questions: Whose faith?Certainly, it is the faith of the Christians who are in community and who are reflecting and acting together as a community of believers. I envisage some members to be believers of the world religions. Who is doing the understanding? A group of believers (Catholics among them) who, for instance, are involved with the sex workers and/or the indigenous people. Where from? Like myself, most of these believers are (in terms of place) urban dwellers. From what and whose context? In the Asian-Malaysian context, I am convinced that it has to come out of a praxis - a commitment to the struggle of the marginalized. Understanding what? Believers seek to understand, from reflecting on the praxis, who they are, what it is to be a church in solidarity with the marginalized in the hope that they gain a deeper understanding of who is God, Christ, the Spirit. The glimpses which we have of the religiousness of the marginalized will (hopefully) lead to a deeper sense of who is God, Christ and the Spirit. How? In response to whom? Believers look at the situation of the marginalized, analyze it in relation to what is happening in Malaysia and the world, examine their plight in the light of the Christian faith, and, work towards a relevant response. In this way, believers respond (at the level of faith) to the God who is beckoning believers in and through the cries of thereligious marginalized. At the level of action, believers are responding critically to the struggle of the marginalized.2


St. Anselm’s definition has guided the theological development in the Roman Catholic Church, from the time of the Greco-Roman Church to the time when the church becomes a European Church and even up till today. With the rise of the colonial power in the 15th century (thereabouts), European theology was“exported” to missionary countries. Knowledge of theology (theories) was applied to the different contexts (socio-cultural and political) of the Two-Thirds World: Latin America, Africa, and Asia. The first model used by the European missionaries was total imposition. The locals were regarded as gosong dalam (tabula rasa) - they have no beliefs in their cultures/lives. The aim was to make/manufacture Christians out of the locals in the European mold. When this failed, the civilization model was used instead.3 The motto then was civilize and Christianize! The locals have to become Europeans in order to become Christians. Oftentimes, the locals were made to despise their own culture (language and customs) and hence deny their identity (partial or outright). According to Thomas H. Groome, these two models are applied theology - it moves from theory to practice (it is true of the approaches of seminaries, parishes and church institutions). It resulted in a trickle-down effect in which knowledge from those who have are handed down to the people who do not have it.4

I have heard feedback from not a few of the young priests that part of what they have learned has no relevance to the people they serve in their parishes. What they question is, first, the relevance of western theology to the needs and struggles of the people of Malaysia; second, the uncritical application of western theological knowledge/theories in the Malaysian context (from theory to praxis). Rightly so, the young priests pointed to a gap between what they have learned (theology/ knowledge/ theories) and the everyday life-struggle of the people and their parishioners. The theological knowledge taught at the seminary does not seem to fit or match the situations and needs of the people. I call such a gap between theological studies and the people a ‘mismatch’ or a ‘misfit’ between theory and practice. Western theology has been found to be ‘impractical,’ even irrelevant, in the Asian-Malaysian situation. In the same way, many critical minded Christians realize that our catechism (consists mainly of knowledge from western theology) does not articulate adequately the hopes, joys, sorrows, aspirations, problems and issues of our people. We are in need of a new way of interpreting our situation in the light of our faith so that we can respond more adequately to the needs of our people. This calls for an indigenous way of doing theology in Malaysia. We need an indigenous theology in Malaysia which is more fitting and matching (therefore more practical) rather than and/or in addition to western theology. In other words, we are in need of an indigenous/practical theology. This alternative way uses the praxis-theory-praxis model of doing theology because it begins with the lived-experience of marginal people.


How are we to understand doing I/P theology from the exposition of the different theologians in Malaysia and Asia and in the North? What are some of the aims and methods of doing I/P theology in the Asian context? First of all, doing I/P theology calls for a rereading of Scripture in the light of the oppression of women. Dulcie Abraham, a Malaysian theologian states that the journey to recover the maternal traits of God has been important “to discover for ourselves the gentle, inclusive womanly face of God. And for this women are rereading the bible through women’s eyes”5 In her opinion, the aim of doing/studying theology and culture“has been to critique both traditional theology and culture, because one reinforces the other in its discrimination against women. Malaysian women experience a double burden and outrage when cultural prejudices, discriminatory practices and wrongful exercise of power over them are reinforced by teachings and practices in the church.”6 Paul Tan spells out for believers the “how” of doing I/P theology. The“how” involves a process by which native genius is called upon “to reflect creatively upon local problems in the light of the gospel and in accordance with the teachings of the Universal Church.”7 In the 1998 Symposium, Paul Tan insists “that any theologizing must take seriously into consideration its reflections on the realities of the place in which the local church is found.”8 He reiterates, “we are only beginning to theologize and to take seriously into consideration the hopes ad aspirations, the sorrow and joys of the people in Malaysia.”9 Michael Amaladoss, SJ, an Indian dialogue theologian, believes that I/P theology “is, therefore not an abstract philosophical elaboration of eternal verities reserved for a few professionals. It is a discerning search for God in the here and now of history that is the concern of everyone. It inevitably leads to a dialogue of life in the context of a common God-experience with all those with whom we share in living and creating this history.”10

Carlos Abesamis, a Filipino Jesuit Scripture scholar and theologian, spells out his understanding of I/P theology. He believes that doing theology has to begin with the need to be in touch with the “life-and-reality” of the people.11 Doing I/P theology requires that the theology students undergo a baptism by immersion. Abesamis adds, “any authentic theological study must include ‘immersion,’‘involvement,’ ‘inserted communities,’ ‘field study,’ to put them in touch with the lived-experience of the grassroots.”12 Abesamis argues that doing theology must also take “seriously the burning issues of our time” and “put value on contemporary life-and-death issues for humankind and the cosmos.”13 The method which he proposes is “(1) serious understanding, (2) judicious judgement, (3) silent contemplation - all of which lead to (4) committed pastoral action.”14 The aims of theology are manifold: to “go back and theologize, serve, train, educate, disciple their own people, and participate in transforming their communities,” Abesamis is concerned about “the formation of conscience, of (counter-) values and alternative spirituality in the Two-Thirds World,” to “produce people” who are “immersed in God, immersed in people, immersed in the true self.” He “...inspires people to engage in thorough study, serious discernment, staking options, risking committed action-with enthusiasm!”15 The hallmarks of I/P theology consist of “the journey of contemplation, silence, communion,” the use “of the sharpest tools of analytical reason” “the simplicity and concreteness of Jesus and the depth and cosmic reach of Paul and John.”16 Since “theology is for the enterprising, participants are expected to be ‘willing to risk... but always geared up to explore’ and do ‘ground-breaking work - tedious, dangerous’ which may ‘lead to new realizations, insights, and even later official teachings. Today’s heresies are tomorrow’s dogmas.’”17 Therefore, “theology is broad, tolerant, ecumenical, willing to drink from sources of authentic wisdom that God has laid out before us ... treasuring the pearls in it - and moving on ...That is the journey of theology and faith”18

Asian liberation theologian, Aloysius Pieris, SJ, has engaged in a critical theological discourse with the theologians of liberation and inculturation. He calls for an Asian way of doing theology in which the poor and the spiritualities (their experiences of God) of the oppressed and the religiosity (their popular beliefs) of Asians in the basic human communities (people of different world religions) be taken into account.19 Why? Because he believes that “the Asian reality is an interplay of religiousness and poverty...” The religiousness of the poor and the poverty of the religious masses together constitute the complex structure of the Asian reality that is the matrix of an Asian theology.”20 Today, Asian theologians such as Chung Hyun Kyung are calling for a rethinking of the way of doing theology by which the oral traditions (stories, folklores, shamanic chants and prayers, pass on from one generation to the next) be taken into account.21 This process of utilizing Asian non-biblical resources has been identified by R.S. Sugitharajah as one of the emerging trends among budding Asian theologians in the arena of doing Asian local theologies. This emerging hermeneutics calls for an audacious way of weaving written (literary) and oral (non-literary) resources in Asia into theological discourse. Sugitharajah has rightly calls it the extratextual hermeneutics.22

Doing I/P theology requires a bifocal perspective, as advocated by David Tracy, which takes into consideration what is taking place in the local setting and the global world. Tracy warns, “to assume that only the ‘local situation’ or only the‘global situation’ demands attention is to downplay, however unconsciously, the full demands of all practical-theological analyses of the ‘situation.’”23 Doing I/P theology has to pay attention to “the import of the serious interreligious dialogue of our days, second, the actuality of the ecological crisis in all three worlds - especially in the rapidly industrializing Third Word (e.g., Brazil); third, the possibility of a nuclear holocaust and the reality of neuclearism.”24 Therefore, doing I/P theology calls for a greater sensitivity to the global flows in the world, and, yet to the “various kinds of context-dependent criteria needed - dependent, above all, on the particular subject matter under study”25 Using a ‘mutually critical correlations’ method, Tracy explains “that wherever and whoever the practical theologian is, she or he is bound by the very nature of the enterprise as theological to show how one interprets the present situation, and how the two interpretations correlate: as either identities of meaning, analogies, or radical non-identities.”26 Therefore, “Christian theology is a discipline which develops a mutually critical correlation in theory and praxis between two sets of interpretation: an interpretation of the religious dimensions of the contemporary situation and an interpretation of the Christian fact.”27 Furthermore, he believes that “theology is an interpretative enterprise that attempts to establish a ‘mutually critical correlation (in both theory and praxis) between interpretations of our contemporary situation and interpretations of the Christian tradition.’”28 Doing theology involves a “hermeneutics of retrieval and critique-suspicion” in which the participant must restore what is lost and be suspicious of the meaning that is given.29

The explanations of these theologians have attested to the fact that doing I/P theology is never an apolitical and ahistorical enterprise of the community of believers.


Since my days of learning theology in the Loyola School of Theology in Manila, I have been rather concerned about having our own (Malaysian) theology/ies. I was convinced that there is a big difference between learning theologies to pass exams and doing theology so as to be more committed to the struggle of the marginalized.

The need for indigenous theological reflection calls for a theological vision, a viable theological model and method. By a theological vision, I refer to a contextualized understanding of what the Kin-dom30 of God is in Malaysia. As I critically reflect on the unequal and violent relationship between members of the dominant society and the marginal aboriginal people known as Orang Asli, I begin to translate my understanding of the Kin-dom of God in the Malaysian context (socio-anthropologically) as a society of equals or equal citizens. In a society of equals, every citizen has equal right of access to the resources and benefits. This theological vision serves as the end-goal toward which the community of believers aspires when it puts into operation a certain theological model and method. I understand model to be a relatively simple and artificially constructed case.31 The method is the manner by which the model is put into operation.

I like to propose a theological model and method for doing I/P theology in Malaysia. This model and method is specific to an enterprise which aims to motivate urban Christians to respond to the cries of the Orang Asli for a society of equal citizens. The theological model, which I propose, calls for a critical correlation between experience, culture and Scripture, including the Christian Tradition.32 By experience and culture, I mean the lived-experiences and belief-system of the Orang Asli.

To operate this theological model, it requires the community of believers to undertake a process of discernment, which involves five essential steps: (1) description, (2) analysis, (3) critical dialogue, (4) articulation, and finally (5) pastoral response. The initial step in doing indigenous/practical theology is description. This step requires the community of believers to listen to God’s heartbeat by being attentive to the patterns of relationship, both within the situation of the Orang Asli and the dominant society. In taking the second step, the community of believers engages in the critical analysis of the violent and unequal relation suffered by the Orang Asli. This violence has become a painful dissonance in God’s heart. The community of believers which resonates with each beat of distress in God’s heart is tasked with doing the socio-historical, the mythic semiotic and the subaltern analyses of the situation of the Orang Asli. Attentive listening to the movements in God’s heart demands that the community of believers become attuned to the dynamics of an engaging and critical conversation. This is the third step to be undertaken by the community of believers. It will have to engage in a critical dialogue during which it will have to correlate the experience of the Orang Asli and the cultures of the ethnic communities with the Christian faith. Out of this critical conversation, it will have to engage in a process of communal articulation. The fourth step requires it to translate what it has understood from that critical conversation into a dominant theological notion (e.g. solidarity). This overarching notion will form the vision and mission of the community of believers until the next round of theological reflection. With the dominant theological notion, the community of believers comes to the final step when it plans its pastoral response. It will be a response that is appropriate and relevant to the needs of the Orang Asli within their struggle for a struggle for equal citizenship.

This method has three distinct ways of proceeding. First, it will regard the experience of the Orang Asli as a “living word.” The community of believers will discern the “living word” while being attentive to the larger context. In other words, the experience of the Orang Asli will be situated within the communal experience, cultures and traditions of the three (Malay, Chinese and Indian) dominant ethnic communities. In this way the community of believers pays close attention to the violent and unequal encounter between the dominant society and the marginal Orang Asli. Second, this method requires the community of believers to correlate, in a critical manner, the experience and cultures of the Orang Asli in the Peninsula of Malaysia with Scripture and the Christian Tradition. Third, with the critical correlation, the community of believers will discern the ensuing pastoral response in relation to the struggle of the Orang Asli for a society of equal citizens in Malaysia. In diagram form this method is represented by a hermeneutical spiral and a fountain (see Diagram next page).

The first and second ways of proceeding are represented by the upward spiral movement, while the third way of proceeding is represented by the downward movement of the fountain. Since action and reflection involves critical theological reflection in a continuous process of discernment, each downward movement of the fountain is succeeded by an upward movement of the spiral. Each successive downward and upward movement will bring believers to a new plane of consciousness in terms of reflection and action. Those who engage in the struggle for a society of equals will further deepen their understanding of the complex and intricate reality of the Orang Asli. Their concerted action will be more effective and relevant to the struggle of the Orang Asli. In addition, their faith in the God who beckons them to the struggle of the Orang Asli will be strengthened.


My own efforts at doing I/P theology is like a drop in the vast (Asian theological) ocean of Asia. It is a challenging enterprise. I began this journey of writing/doing I/P theology in 1992. I have attempted to articulate a germinal theology based on the barefoot experience of fellow Malaysians.33 I understandbarefoot to be a symbol of the grinding poverty and political marginalization suffered by the dispossessed and disempowered in the Malaysian society. I further postulate that “among the poor women of the marginal communities, barefoot is a further sign of double discrimination and oppression on the basis of gender and biology (and therefore nature).”34 Yet this barefoot is a symbol of the capacity of some believers from the dominant society in Malaysia for crossing the cultural boundary and entering into solidarity with the marginalized. Barefoot is thus a symbol of crosscultural solidarity. Furthermore, barefoot is symbolic of our response in faith to the call of God. It is an experience analogous to the “burning bush”experience of Moses and the conversion experience of Peter. Like Moses, our people have encountered the biblical God, and like Peter, they felt empowered by the Spirit of the Risen Lord to cross over and get involved in the struggle of their fellow Malaysians for a society of equal citizens. The symbol barefoot takes on added meaning in the light of the Incarnation. The Incarnation is the event by which God has covenanted Godself with the marginalized and those who struggle alongside them. This covenant has given the marginalized an inviolable human dignity whose rights to equal citizenship must be defended at all times. Barefoot is indeed symbolic of the journey of crosscultural solidarity in which the believers from the dominant society and the marginalized regard each other as equal citizens. Ultimately, barefootedness is a “counter-sign of the Kin-dom of justice, peace, equality and fellowship.”35

More recently, I have reflected on the theological significance of women and men wearing sarong in Malaysia.36 I realized that the simple tunic worn by Jesus is the emblem of a counter-culture of solidarity with the peasants and the marginalized in early Palestine. His tunic was in sharp contrast with the attire of the Jewish aristocracy. I am convinced that sarong can become a countercultural symbol of solidarity in Malaysia. Just as Ghandi donned the dhoti as a symbol of resistance and subversion against the British, so the committed members of the dominant society can wear sarong in their struggle against the violent and unequal relation between the dominant society and the marginalized communities of Orang Asli in Malaysia.


Doing I/P theology in Malaysia is an urgent enterprise. In terms of the urgency of doing our own theology/theological reflection, Paul Tan’s call in 1979 was really prophetic: “For years the local church has been dependent on Western Christianity for everything - from economic support to intellectual nourishment. It is high time that we grow up to be responsible mature Christians who are able to nurture our own local church: be independent”37 We, the theologians and the communities who engage in critical theological reflection upon their actions must begin somewhere to learn (take small steps) how to do theology together. The time has come. It is now. Few/some of us in the community of believers have to write and sing our own (theological) songs to nurture and motivate the growth of our people in the Malaysian church. Doing I/P theology in our own soil is one of the new ways of being an indigenous church in Malaysia.


  1. Given my current involvement in the everyday struggle of the indigenous people af Malaysia, I personally prefer the term indigenous. The term indigenous is more in line with the FABC’s orientation, calling for the development of ‘indigenous theology’ in the no. 13 (9) of the document, Evangelization In Modern Day Asia. For the use of the term local, please see Robert J. Schreiter, Constructing Local Theologies (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, l993). Aloysius Pieris prefers the term indigenous. See his book, An Asian Theology of Liberation (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1988).
  2. In responding to some of these gaps, I have inadvertently spelled out my own understanding of what is indigenous/practical theology.
  3. For more details on the two models, see Gideon C. Goosen, “Christian and Aboriginal Interface in Australia.” Theological Studies, I (1999): 75-6.
  4. Thomas H. Groome, “Theology on our Feet: A Revisionist Pedagogy for Healing the Gap between Academia and Ecclesia” in Formation and Reflection. eds. Lewis S. Mudge & James N. Poling, (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1987), pp. 55-78.
  5. Dulcie Abraham agrees with Archbishop Leo June Ikenaga, SJ of Japan that we need to give greater expression to the feminine aspects of God. See her paper, “Journeying Ahead Together - Journeying with Malaysian Women,” p. 4. Paper delivered at the symposium entitled Journeying Ahead Together, December 5, 1999, Petaling Jaya.
  6. Ibid., p. 5.
  7. See the editorial in the 1979 issue of Information & Formation (Kuala Lumpur: Vinlin Press Sdn. Bhd., (1979), p. 2.
  8. Paul Tan, “Journeying As a Malaysian Believer - a Personal Experience.” Paper delivered at the symposium entitled Journeying Ahead Together, December 5, 1999, Petaling Jaya.
  9. Ibid.
  10. See foreword in Jojo M. Fung, Shoes Off Barefoot: We Walk (Kuala Lumpur: Longman Malaysia Sdn. Bhd., 1992), p. 11.
  11. Carlos H. Abesamis, ‘How (not) To Do Theology in Asia Today?’ CTC Bulletin, 15/1 (1998) 1.
  12. Ibid. p. 9
  13. Ibid., pp. 11-12. In the context of 1999, it will be important to consider the recent political development in Malaysia, East Timor, NATO and the Kosovo crisis, as well as human rights, women, environment issues, etc.
  14. Ibid., p.11.
  15. Ibid., pp.16-7, 19.
  16. Ibid., p.25.
  17. Ibid., p.26.
  18. Ibid.
  19. Aloysius Pieris, S.J. An Asian Theology of Liberation (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1992).
  20. Aloysius Pieris, S.J. "A Theology of Liberation in Asian Churches? Valid Theology and the Local Church: The Dilemma of Asian Catholics" in An Asian Theology of Liberation (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis).
  21. Chung Hyun Kyung, Struggle To Be The SUN Again: Introducing Asian Women's Theology (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1994).
  22. See K. S. Sugitharajah, ed., “Introduction,” in Frontiers in Asian Christian Theology: Emerging Trends (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1994), pp. 1-8.
  23. David Tracy, “Practical Theology in the Situation of Global Pluralism” in Formation and Reflection, eds. Lewis S. Mudge & James N. Poling (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1987), p.140.
  24. Ibid., p. 141.
  25. Ibid., p. 142.
  26. Ibid., p. 140.
  27. Ibid.
  28. Ibid., p. 148.
  29. lbid., p. 144.
  30. Usage of Kin-dom is not only gender-sensitive but Asian-specific for kinship is greatly valued in the Asian ethnic and indigenous cultures.
  31. For further reference on model, see Avery Dulles, Models of Church (Garden City, NY: Doubleday Image Books, 1978); also see Stephen B. Bevans, Models of Contextual Theology: Faith and Culture (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1992), p. 23.
  32. I am not using the model and method as proposed by James D. and Evelyn Eaton Whitehead, in their book, revised ed., Method in Ministry: Theological Reflection and Christian Ministry (Kansas City: Sheed & Ward, 1995).
  33. Jojo M. Fung, Shoes Off: Barefoot We Walk (Kuala Lumpur: Longman Sdn. Bhd., 1992)
  34. Jojo M. Fung, “Glimpses of the Malaysian Jesus,” Vidyajyoti, Journal of Theological Reflection, 5, 62 (1998): 320.
  35. Ibid.
  36. Sarong is a simple tunic worn by women and men, more so in the rural than urban areas. See Jojo M. Fung, “In Sarong We Walk - Toward a Local Sarong Theology.” Unpublished paper, Petaling Jaya: Xavier Hall, November 30, 1998.
  37. See the editorial in the 1979 issue of Information & Formation (Kuala Lumpus: Vinlin Press Sdn. Bhd., 1979), p.2.