The post-synodal apostolic exhortation The Church in Asia suggests that “the Church in Asia sings the praises of the ‘God of salvation’ (Ps 68:20) for choosing to initiate his saving plan on Asian soil, through men and women of that continent” [(1) the numbers in brackets are from The Church in Asia]; it prays “that in the Third Christian Millennium a great harvest of faith will be reaped in this vast and vital continent” (1); it wonders: “it is indeed a mystery why the Savior of the world, born in Asia, has until now remained largely unknown to the people of the continent” (2). But without really exploring the possible reasons for such a development, it goes on to call for “a renewed commitment to the mission of making Jesus Christ better known to all” (2).
“The ancient religious traditions and civilizations, the profound philosophies and the wisdom which have made Asia what it is today” are recognized (4); but “the religious values they teach await their fulfilment in Jesus Christ” (6). Among the reasons for the disappearance of small communities of Christianity in Mongolia and China in the 13th Century are mentioned: “the absence of an appropriate adaptation to local cultures, and perhaps above all a lack of preparedness to encounter the great religions of Asia” ( 9). The repetition of exclusivist statements throughout the text of the document perhaps shows that the Church’s preparedness to encounter the great religions of Asia has not improved. While acknowledging the fact that “Jesus is often perceived as foreign to Asia” (20), the document suggests that “the ontological notions involved, which must always be presupposed and expressed in presenting Jesus, can be complemented by more relational, historical and even cosmic perspectives” (20). It mentions various images of Jesus mentioned by Asian Bishops at the Synod: “the Teacher of Wisdom, the Healer, the Liberator, the Spiritual Guide, the Enlightened One, the Compassionate Friend of the Poor, the Good Samaritan, the Good Shepherd, the Obedient One” (20). Asian images here merge into scriptural ones.
But it is very clear that the document does not know what it means to talk in images when it goes on to suggest: “Jesus could be presented as the Incarnate Wisdom of God whose grace brings to fruition the ‘seed’ of the divine Wisdom already present in the lives, religions and peoples of Asia” (20). This is not an image; it is a whole treatise in comparative theology. But the document attributes to the Asian Bishops a desire to “rediscover the Asian countenance of Jesus,” though this is immediately identified as the challenge of how the cultures of Asia can grasp the universal saving significance of the mystery of Jesus (20).
The document goes on to evoke all the human and social, cultural and religious problems that Asia is afflicted with. I shall not go into them here. But I would like to take seriously the challenge of “rediscovering the Asian countenance of Jesus.” Jesus was born in Asia. But his disciples spread mostly westward. Jesus was appropriated by Graeco-Roman and later European cultures and has come back to us in that garb. The few non-Greek, basically Syriac, Oriental Churches have not really flourished. If the disciples of Jesus had pushed across rather towards the East and grew into a community in India and Asia what would Jesus and his community have looked like? I am going to exercise my imagination, but basing myself on the life and work of Jesus as we know them and some of the early reflection over them before the beginnings of hellenization. This might give us some indication of a possible Asian face of the Good News.
It is now accepted that the Wisdom tradition of the Bible may have been influenced by the Orient. Alexandria was the meeting point of the Orient and the Occident. Oriental philosophies and spiritual practices like Buddhism and Yoga were known there. It was there that one stream of the wisdom tradition which is more sensitive to the presence of the divine in nature and more open to different religious manifestations and experiences had their origin. The wisdom of Solomon and Sirach are still considered deutero-canonical texts. Wisdom was the principle of life, creativity, freedom, revelation, joy, order and harmony. It was often personified. The reflection of the early Jewish Christians led them to see Jesus as the incarnation of Wisdom. They began to use titles and attributes for Jesus that were till then used only for Wisdom. It is in this way that the divinity of Jesus is discovered and affirmed. The culmination of this process is the Johannine hymn to the Logos. We see here already a change of register. There is a move from the feminine Wisdom to the masculine Word, perhaps helped by the fact that Jesus was a male. Many theologians today feel that this shift leads the western Church to develop their theology and praxis along more androcentric lines.
What would happen if we start rethinking Christology in Wisdom categories? I would like to give here just one element of a response to this question made by Elizabeth Johnson.
The gospel can be proclaimed as the story of the prophet and child of Sophia sent to announce that God is the God of all-inclusive love who wills the wholeness and humanity of everyone, especially of the poor and the heavy-burdened, the outcast and those who suffer injustice; sent to gather them all under the wings of their gracious Sophia-God and give them shalom. This child of Sophia delights in being with people, and joy, insight, and a sure way to God are found in his company. Again and again, in parables, healings, exorcisms and inclusive table community he spells out the reality of the gracious goodness and renewing power of Sophia-God. His proclamation is too much for those heavily invested in the religious status quo - they will not listen. The gentleness and inclusive care of Sophia are rejected as Jesus is executed, preeminent in the strong line of Sophia’s murdered prophets. He is not abandoned, however, but Sophia’s distinct blessing of new life is given to him as pledge of a future for all the dead. The Spirit of their mutual love is poured out on the circle of disciples who had been gathered by the attractiveness of Jesus and his gracious God, and they are missioned to make the inclusive goodness and saving power of Sophia-God experientially available to the ends of the earth [Johnson 1985: 291-2 (“Jesus, the Wisdom of God: A Biblical Basis for Non-Androcentric Christology.” Ephemerides Theologicae Lovanienses, 61:261-94.)]
One can see the contrast immediately. The Good News is not dominating, exclusive, aggressive, imposing. Even the cross is not vaunted as a standard inviting every one for a crusade. It is an invitation to humility and effective solidarity.
Correspondingly, we can also explore the images of Jesus that would have developed in Asia. The images in the West seem related either to a conquering community identity like Christ the King or to private emotional piety like the suffering Christ or the pierced heart of Christ. The latter images may be made use of to enforce moral behavior by creating a sense of guilt: Christ suffering all this for me. The images of Christ the King helped to legitimize civil and ecclesiastical authority and justify its abuses. There was a mystical Christ side by side, who was present in the sacraments, mediating salvific grace. None of these images would have found much appeal in the East.
In Asia Jesus would have been seen as a Sage, who had realized in his own life the readiness for total self-gift, even unto death. He was a free person, open to love and reach out to all, but particularly sensitive to the poor and the marginalized. He was a wanderer, a sannyasi, who had no roots because he belonged to everyone everywhere, a pilgrim always on the move taking one more step, in the company of many others, on the way to the Kingdom. He did not need to go on a well-orchestrated propaganda campaign to advertize his Good News. People heard about him, saw his works and crowded round him to listen to him, so that he really had no time to be alone. He had no big back up organization, no institutional headquarters. Some rich ladies did help him to survive, not to launch big social work projects for the needy. But he did speak about the real problems of the people and did not hesitate to criticize the rich and the powerful when they turned oppressive. He promoted the jubilee spirit of equality and sharing, of justice and brotherhood, of forgiveness and reconciliation. His love was unconditional. “Love one another as I have loved you!” was his only law. He spoke about the great love that God has for the people through many images and stories and underlined one or other point by a miraculous gesture. Many Hindus and Buddhists in Asia have been attracted by the Jesus of the Gospels, though they were critical of the Christianity of the Churches. For Christians, of course, such a distinction between an ‘ethical’ and a ‘sacramental’ Jesus is not acceptable. But let us stop to ask ourselves what is the image of Jesus we project when we keep repeating ad nauseam that Jesus is the only Savior.
When Jesus proclaimed his Good News about God’s unconditional love through images like the birds of the air or parables like that of the ‘Prodigal Son,’ he did not have back up obligatory lectures, to be delivered either by himself or by a deputy, on the mystery of divine providence and on the interplay between justice and mercy (love) in God’s relation to the humans. Yet we are constantly worried about creeds and dogmas and their correct interpretations and our catechisms are becoming longer and longer. The Good News is not meant to be a body of truths about God. It is an invitation to experience God as love, not in some abstract, distant and mysterious way, but in each one’s personal life. We understand God’s love by experiencing God’s forgiveness and we experience God’s forgiveness when we forgive each other. We acknowledge that all we have is a gift from God when we hold all we have in common and share it with others to each according to his or her need. The Good News is primarily a way of living and relating to the other. It is not speculative explorations. It is orthopraxy, not merely orthodoxy. The Asians will be totally at home with this. Hinduism speaks of four margas or ways to liberation. Buddhism initiates one into the eightfold path to free oneself from desire. Christianity too was known as the ‘way’ in the early centuries.
To discover the Good News as the way is to find that ways are as different as there are persons. For each one, her way has to be discerned taking into account the circumstances, the will of God for that person at that moment, and the freedom of the person herself. Discernment is an art and people become expert at it by practice. But ultimately it is a mode of listening to the Spirit present and speaking to each one of us and also through each other. It is easier to impose a clear set of rules to guide people’s action instead of risking a wrong discernment. But no clear rule is universally applicable. When you are walking on a difficult terrain, you keep the goal in mind and you look for the next step. You do not predetermine “a royal road.” But, yes, there is one principle that is almost a royal road. When Christ comes in glory he is not going to ask about our Christology, but whether we fed the hungry, clothed the naked, visited those in prison, etc. (Mt 25).
In Asia today, I do not think that Christianity presents a specific way that is both Asian and Christian. We have the sacramental system and the devotions for the people and some prayer groups for the elite. All of these are imported from the West with no specific relevance to the peoples and situations in Asia. When Christianity offers an inviting way of life then it will probably attract people.
From the life of Jesus it seems clear that he wanted a group of people to continue his work in the world. He was probably convinced that the whole of Israel is not going to follow their Messiah. But he wanted a group of witnesses, who will be itinerant prophets, travelling as lightly as possible, living wherever they are welcomed, proclaiming the Kingdom of God and challenging them to change and making them experience God’s nearness through their activities of healing. He did not expect them to have a settled, pleasant life. They will be persecuted (Mt 10; Lk 9: 1-6). Jesus wanted small scattered groups of witnesses and prophets. Such people have fortunately not disappeared from the Church. Founders of many religious Congregations aimed at reviving such charismatic Gospel (Good News) groups. Francis of Assisi was an outstanding example. But by the side of such groups and dominating and obscuring them we have a powerful institution which claims to speak in the name of God, to have a monopoly over truth, to offer unfailing access to divine grace in its rituals and even to remit some of the punishment due to one’s sin. It looks for and thrives on the support of economic, political and media power. It seems to believe in big numbers.
How can we reinvent the Church in Asia as a network of Good News communities? Among the Asian Religions Buddhism has been a ‘missionary’ one. It has spread across Asia, adapting itself to the local situation and integrating into the local culture, affirming continuity rather than discontinuity, while holding fast to its four noble truths. We are so worried about our clear identity. We build walls (literally) around our mission compounds. We wish to have precise laws that govern everything and foresee every contingency. We do not allow the people the freedom of the Gospel and of the Spirit.
Good News communities would be open communities, with clear centers but open borders, easily relating to, merging, dialoguing or collaborating with other communities with their own specific faith convictions, but ready to walk together in the pursuit of common human and spiritual values. These communities do not need elaborate funding, large bureaucracies, highly trained personnel and massive organization. All that they need are a few enthusiastic people, preferably young, bitten by the person of Jesus and by the dream of the Kingdom.
People speak today of refounding institutions. In order to reveal the Asian face of the Good News we will rather have to destroy many that are blocking our attempt to rediscover the Good News and reinvent the Gospel Community. We will have to give back the initiative to the Asian people without subtly patronizing them. Are we ready for this?