Teaching Theology in an Asian Context: A Conference to Evaluate Curricula

Resources »Eapr »East Asian Pastoral Review 2003 »Volume 40 2003 Number 3 »Teaching Theology In An Asian Context A Conference To Evaluate Curricula

Annette Meuthrath

Annette Meuthrath holds an M.A. in Indology, Philosophy and Theology, and a PhD in Indology from the University of Munster, Germany. Her studies included a year’s research in Xian, China. From 1997 to 2001 she was project manager at Missio, the Pontifical Mission Society in Aachen, for India, Sri Lanka and Oceania. She directs the South Asia and Middle East Desks at the Institute of Missiology-Missio, Aachen, Germany.
 

Concept of Contextual Theology

Fortyseven theologians from all over Asia gathered at the WE-Train International House in Bangkok, Thailand, for a four-day conference (2nd – 5th December 2002) entitled “Teaching Theology in Asia. A Conference to Evaluate Curricula.” The conference was organized by the Institute of Missiology-Missio in Aachen, Germany, and the Asian Christian Higher Education Institute, Hong Kong. The ecumenical meeting with participants from the Catholic Church as well as from different Protestant Churches, welcomed representatives from South Asia (Pakistan, India and Sri Lanka), Southeast Asia (Philippines, Indonesia and Thailand), East Asia (mainland China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Korea, Japan) and from New Zealand. Moreover, there were four participants from European countries.

Background of the Conference

The idea to hold this conference was born in June 2001 when the Institute of Missiology-Missio1 (MWI) organized an international consultation on “Academic Curricula of Philosophy and Theology” in Aachen, Germany. It was a follow-up session of a worldwide inquiry concerning the situation of theology and philosophy at the end of the 20th century, conducted by the MWI in 1999. The results of the inquiry were published in “Theologie im III. Millennium - Quo Vadis?”2 which documents the statements of 77 theologians from all over the world. The Asian representatives present in the June 2001 consultation decided to organize—with the help of MWI—a continental consultation or conference in order to analyze more profoundly their own situation of teaching theology in Asia.3 Like most of the participants they came to the conclusion that contextual perspectives are not usually integrated into the theological courses given in seminaries and universities despite some remarkable exceptions. Seminaries and universities are important places for theological discussion where theological traditions are being formed, developed and passed down. Therefore, it was decided to evaluate the situation in these academic institutions, especially in terms of the theological curricula.

Both the worldwide inquiry as well as the international consultation on curricula of philosophy and theology provoked critical observations regarding the present state of theology by pointing out the lacunae in intercultural, contextual and gender perspectives. As a consequence, all three aspects namely, contextuality, interculturality and the gender perspective, constituted the basis for the Asian conference.

Contextuality

In the long history of theology and its teaching, there was an understanding that European or Western theology is culturally “neutral.” Often it was exported as a worldwide valid theology to non-western cultures. So the process of Christianization became equivalent to Westernization. The theologies of Asia, Oceania, Africa and Latin America were mere echoes of academic Western theology. However, reflections on the culturality and contextuality of faith and theology led to a renewed awareness of the near impossibility of translating certain concepts across cultures. An awareness that living theologies should be as numerous as living cultures has led to a critique of the eurocentrism of most theologies. Acceptance of inter-culturality also led to new theologies, most of them with roots in the South, each with its own particular cultural shape and flavour. During recent decades contextual theologies have developed their own profiles and have been challenging classical theology.4

The awareness of contextuality characterizes a new dimension in doing theology. It is accepted that every theology carries elements of the historical, cultural, political and economic conditions in which it has developed. But this “conditioning” is not understood as weakness or imperfection. It is understood as a call not to carry these elements unconsciously, but on the contrary to develop theologies that are intentionally worked out from their own context—in other words, to develop theologies that are meaningful and relevant to the context out of which they are born (Su 1997:25). This is the way in which theology responds to the questions and problems of its own context, i.e., of its own people.

“There is no theology objective, universal, and relevant to every context. There are theologies, open-ended, always on the way, and in dialogue with surrounding cultures and religions” (Kim 1998:60). This understanding of theology as theologies was exactly the basis of the conference “Teaching Theology in an Asian Context” and the reason for the urgency to evaluate how far the Asian contextual theologies have entered into the theological schools beckoning them to change their ways of teaching—in other words, how far contextual theologies have reformulated the curricula/syllabi of theology.

Interculturality

If contextuality is/should be one facet of theology, then interculturality is/should be the other. In answering the question “Which task do you think should be given priority in theology at the beginning of the 21st century?”5Felix Wilfred wrote: “One of the tasks ahead is to forge greater dialogue among the various contextual and regional theologies.”6

Every Christian theology is influenced by certain contexts, but at the same time, it is an expression of a universal whole, a universal religion.7 In so far as each Christian theology is part of a whole, contextuality means not to be isolated from this whole but rather to be an integrative part of the universal unity. This plurality in unity can only function if there is a dialogue between people, between theologians of different cultural contexts. Such a dialogue across the cultural boundaries, such an intercultural dialogue prevents misunderstandings, isolation and one-sidedness. The conference “Teaching Theology in an Asian Context,” with its aim to concentrate on contextuality regarding the syllabus, was an expression of such an intercultural dialogue.

Gender

Although women make up 50% of all Christians, their voices in theology have not been heard for centuries. Women have not been treated as equal to men. The list of sins of “omission and commission” (Monteiro 2001:1) against women is long. Women have been excluded and alienated “from positions and opportunities not only in society but also in church.” It is a scandal that in many Christian churches, women are barred from Church leadership and governance and that these churches, at the head of all the Catholic Church, through their patriarchal-hierarchical system, legitimize gender inequality and injustice. But during the last decades, the voices of those who have been silenced for centuries have become louder. A renewed self-confidence and self-understanding calls for equality and justice. Both begin in and with the education and formation of future theologians. Therefore curricula/syllabi that in no way include gender justice and equality as a way of teaching and as a topic of curricula are unacceptable. Gender justice and equality should be the basis of theologizing and should be constitutive of the method of theologizing.

Process of the Conference8

On the first day, reports on the situation of contextual theology were heard and discussed from India, Sri Lanka and Pakistan in South Asia; Indonesia and the Philippines in Southeast Asia; Taiwan, China, Hong Kong, Japan and Korea from Northeast Asia. Particularly, the country reports from Pakistan and Indonesia gave a good overview on the situation of contextual theology in their respective countries. In preparation for the conference, national-level consultation on “How to teach theology in Asia: in Indonesia/in Pakistan” had already been organized. The first day ended with two papers on “Teaching Theology and Gender Perspective.“

In the morning of the second day, the participants were introduced to three Catholic and three Protestant examples of curricula that have been restructured with special attention to their context. All the presented papers were taken as basis for group discussions that started in the afternoon of the second day and ended with a plenary session in the evening of the third day. Beside key issues that arose during the paper readings, the following questions were discussed: “What is contextual theology?” “In what way is context affecting our teaching?” “In what way is contextual theology affecting our curricula?” and “What are the methods of teaching contextual theology?”

On the final day, three inputs—worked out against the background of the things heard so far—were presented and discussed.9 José de Mesa spoke on concept, philosophy and method of contextual theology. Michael Amaladoss gave an input on the importance of integration and interdisciplinarity for contextual theology and Kim Yong-Bock on future directions of theological curricula in the context of globalization. In the afternoon, the participants gathered in regional groups to look for any future prospects. Decisions were also made here.

Future Plans

South Asia

It was decided to organize a follow-up meeting for South Asia in Sri Lanka with its focus on the interdisciplinarity of contextual theology, illustrating the method of contextual theology in regard to the sacraments, especially the Eucharist. Representatives from all seminaries (40-50) will be invited to the conference. Pakistan will prepare a follow-up session by reporting on the conference to the staff of those ten institutes which already shared in the national preparatory meeting to this conference. India has to recover the ancient tradition of the Oriental Rites. All agreed to deliberate over the possibility of an Asian Forum website.

Southeast Asia

Indonesia will use the revision of the national/governmental curricula to introduce contextual theology. A report on the conference will be sent to the participants of the previous national meeting. Papers of the conference will be translated and edited. Thailand will create a network on doing contextual theology and will seek target groups, e.g., fisher-folk women. The Philippines will pursue the vision for contextual theology and unity. The appointed committee convenors will organize a similar conference and decide who will be invited.

Northeast Asia

Though each country has its different needs, there was a desire to come together again. Taiwan met in December 2002 about curriculum. Korea is far ahead with regard to contextual theology, hence the need was felt that they continue sharing with each other. Hong Kong with China will serve as a base for creating a syllabus and posting on the web readings, research, and fieldwork.

There was a common understanding that it is not easy to change curricula, but that it is important. Participants therefore agreed to begin by communicating information, and share an inventory of resources. A consensus was formulated to go ahead by starting networking by e-mail, etc. and having a forum within three to four years. Contact persons were identified for each country and coordinators for each region.

Consensus of the Conference

Description of Contextual Theology (CT)

·         CT is not another/separate subject in the curriculum.

·         CT is a way of doing all theology that begins with the experience of a community.

·         CT is a way of discerning God’s presence in a people and in a concrete situation.

·         CT is not one particular theology or method but it is theology by its very nature.

·         CT is an ongoing and transforming process for teacher, student, church, society.

·         CT is a radical critique of theological suppositions and existing models.

·         CT is a challenge to the institution and to our way of being church in our own context.

Some Assumptions

  • All theology is culturally conditioned and contextual but some contexts are wrong.
  • The context has to be addressed consciously.
  • Context is both global and local; one has to be aware of the political and economic elements in a given culture.
  • Context decides the meaning of language.
  • The experience of a community is that of a community suffering, rejoicing, weeping, dancing, hoping.
  • CT does not begin in a mind filled with information but in a compassionate heart ready to listen.
  • To do CT is to take a faithful stance.
  • CT involves risk.

Towards a Methodology : A Task List

  • Use Asian resources and the “body of knowledge” as a resource.
  • Embrace the multi-religious context as our heritage.
  • Nourish the imagination. Put students in touch with beauty (poetry, art, symbols).
  • Link students with the struggle of a community.
  • Use a feminist perspective as integral to CT : from experience to analysis (the hermeneutic of suspicion and affirmation), deconstruct in order to reconstruct.
  • Train lay theologians.
  • Change faculty formation, faculty-student relations and the infrastructure.
 

NOTES

1. The Institute of Missiology-Missio (MWI) is a research institute with about 15 members. Though located in the West, its center is not the West. It was founded in 1971 on the initiative of the Pontifical Mission Aid Society Missio-Aachen. In the wake of Vatican II and the resulting fundamental changes affecting the Universal Church, the Institute’s statutes define as its purpose, the promotion of philosophical and theological research and teaching in the field of Catholic mission work. Today, the Institute’s main concern is to encourage through its different projects (scholarships for higher studies in theology and philosophy, conferences, publications etc.) the development of contextual philosophies and theologies in Asia, Africa, Latin America and Oceania. Moreover, MWI tries to introduce these theologies and philosophies to the German-speaking countries. By doing so MWI attempts to support intercultural philosophical and theological dialogue. MWI pursues this in a spirit of ecumenism. The present conference was an example of this ecumenical exchange. For more information about the Institute, its history, projects, publications, etc. see the Institute’s web-site www.mwi-aachen.de.
2. Theologie im III. Millennium - Quo Vadis? Antworten der Theologen. Dokumentation einer Weltumfrage. Edited by Raúl Fornet-Betancourt. Frankfurt/Main 2000 (Denktraditionen im Dialog: Studien zur Befreiung und Interkulturalität 7).
3. During the year 2002, there were continental meetings in Africa, Latin America, Asia and Europe. There is also a plan to have a second intercontinental meeting in 2004 with representatives from the four continents.
4. See the “Call for Papers,” sent out in preparation for the conference to as many theologians from all over Asia as was possible.
5. Theologie im III. Millennium - Quo Vadis? 14.
6. Theologie im III. Millennium - Quo Vadis? 300.
7. Universal is understood here as worldwide spread.
8. Most of the following notes were put together by Chrys McVey and John M. Prior who functioned as general secretaries for the conference.
9. Revised papers of these three inputs are published in the present issue of this journal.


REFERENCES

Su, David Kwang-sun
1997 “Asian Theology in a Changing Asia: Towards an Asian Theological Agenda for the 21st Century”, CTC Bulletin, Special Supplement 1.
Kim, David
1998 “A Tao of Asian Theology in 21st Century: From the Perspective of the Ugumch’i Phenomon”, CTC Bulletin 15,1.
Monteiro, Evelyn
2001 Ecclesia in Asia: A Woman’s Response. Lecture at the Asian Theology Conference “Ecclesia in Asia and the Church’s Service to Asia.” Pune, Nov. 11.
Inukawa, Hisako
1998 “Toward a Household of Unity in Christian Faith from a Feminist Perspective,” CTC Bulletin 15.
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