Asian Christianity and Modernity: Forty Years After Vatican II

Resources »Eapr »East Asian Pastoral Review 2005 »Volume 42 2005 Number 1 2 »Asian Christianity And Modernity Forty Years After Vatican Ii

By Felix Wilfred

Felix Wilfred is professor at the School of Philosophy and Religious Thought, University of Madras. As visiting professor, he has taught at the universities of Nijmegen, Muenster, Frankfurt, Boston College, USA, and at the East Asian Pastoral Institute, Manila and has lectured at the Divinity School of Harvard University. He has been a member of the International Theological Commission of the Vatican and has been secretary of the Theological Advisory Commission of the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences, Hong Kong. His research and field studies cut across many disciplines in the humanities and social sciences.

Significant developments have taken place in Asia since the close of the Second Vatican Council and the publication of its document Gaudium et Spes (GS) forty years ago. Different parts of Asia have undergone rapid and amazing changes in the political, economic, cultural, and social realms. Several Asian countries have moved from a situation of under-development to becoming the fastest developing nations on the planet, and are competing in every sphere with the developed nations of the West. This process of modernization and globalization has also created deep contradictions in Asian societies.

For its part, Asian Christianity has made, if not giant steps, at least significant strides, towards greater self-understanding about itself, and its mission in relation to this accelerated progress on the continent. We need only to think of the journey official bodies like the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences (FABC) and the Christian Conference of Asia (CCA) have made in this direction as well as that of the many grassroots Christian movements and initiatives in relation to the modernizing and globalizing Asian situation.

It is from an Asia in rapid transformation and an Asian Christianity in evolution that we want to revisit the Vatican document Gaudium et Spes. We shall reflect on the significance of its spirit, content, and orientation from the evolving Asian situation as well as identify its limitations. In the second part of the article, we shall ask: What are some of the pointers for the future in the encounter of Asian Christianity with modernity?


A Mission Document Par Excellence

In spite of all its historic limitations, Gaudium et Spes may be the most significant mission document for Asia, though mission is not its explicit theme. It remains so even after 40 years since its publication. It is a document that provides the basis to begin a serious dialogue with Asia.

First of all, its method, spirit, and vision find resonance among Asians. For one thing, the triumphalism that is perceived by neighbors of other faiths as an expression of arrogance is absent from GS. The genuine spirit of dialogue and the sense of modesty in admitting that the Church has no solutions to all the problems of humanity, as well as the readiness to cooperate with others set the right tone for a proper approach to mission in Asia. The fact that serious mission engagement on the Asian continent has been pursued more in the spirit of GS than perhaps any other document, is only a confirmation of the validity it has even today for Asian Christianity.

Secondly, from a deeper theological perspective, this document provides a more meaningful approach to mission, since it does not contrast "the natural" with "the supernatural," where the former is identified with the temporal realities of life. To view the question of economy, politics, culture, and other areas of life as interwoven into the process of salvation and emancipation, is to acknowledge at the same time the theological and religious character of these realities of life. Questions of economy, politics, and culture are not simply extensions of Christian faith or fields in which to practice one’s faith, as if they had nothing directly to do with faith itself. From this position it is possible to construct an integralist approach, i.e., the subjugation of all temporal realities to the spiritual. That would simply be a revival of political Augustinianism. Gaudium et Spes does not follow this line. What it does is to relate the religious and theological character of temporal realities to the affirmation of their autonomy. This has deep implications for the understanding and practice of mission in Asia.

A third significant aspect of this document for Asia is its recognition of the role of the subject and her agency, departing unmistakably from some of the earlier orientations in the history of Christianity. The spirit of this new orientation can be discerned also in the document on Religious Freedom (Nostra Aetate). In earlier classical approaches (which are being followed even today in many Christian circles), what dominates is truth understood as an "objective" order completely disassociated from the subject: an order which one has only to adhere. In more basic terms GS did not succumb to a an approach that divorces truth from freedom. This has serious implications for Asia, especially in our relationship with neighbors of other faiths, and our joint collaboration with them regarding the transformation of Asian societies. An approach based simply on an "objective" order will tend to be self-imposing and doctrinaire—even authoritarian—and not open to dialogue which is possible only where the pursuit of truth in freedom by the subject—individual and collective—is acknowledged. This latter kind of approach which the document pursues does not give up the quest for truth, but takes into account the important role of the subject and the fidelity to conscience. In former times, this was ruled out on the plea that error has no right to exist.

We can see the seeds of a deep theology of religions in the orientations of Gaudium et Spes. Nostra Aetate: the document directly dealing with the relationship of Christianity to other religious traditions, treats the matter from a theological perspective. But the anthropological basis and the presuppositions of such a theology of religions, it appears to me, are to be found in Gaudium et Spes and in Dignitatis Humanae which deals with religious freedom. This is very significant for Asian Christianity at the present moment as well as for its future. By highlighting the role of freedom and the subject, GS responds both to the challenges of modernity as well as to the presuppositions of a theology of religion with which Asians could resonate. There can be no proper understanding of mission in Asia without drawing two important factors into the picture—modernity and other religions.

A fourth area of significance for GS concerns the affirmation of the universal destiny of earthly goods. Though this insight has been present in the Christian tradition and in the teachings of the Fathers of the Church, the fact that the Second Vatican Council highlighted it in the circumstances of today is something very noteworthy. Private possession itself is relativized vis-à-vis the universal destiny of the goods of the earth. It is an antidote to the growing individualism under the aegis of modernity and to the philosophy of competition and self-seeking nurtured by globalization. In this connection we may recall here the reference the document makes to the customs and traditions among certain peoples which have a strong community orientation, and are expressive of solidarity.

In economically less developed societies it often happens that the common destination of goods is partly achieved by a system of community customs and traditions which guarantee a minimum of necessities to each…one should not rashly do away with respectable customs (GS, 69).

We may think of the tribal and indigenous peoples of Asia who have such inbuilt systems in their culture and society. They constitute an important resource for Asian peoples to face the crass individualism of modernity, further reinforced through the process of globalization.

Limitations of Gaudium et Spes – An Asian Perspective

The first major limitation of GS relates to its understanding of modernity. This understanding goes back to the heritage of the European Enlightenment, its worldview, and particularly its affirmation of critical reason. GS was a response to the "adult world" that had come of age—the modern world. The adulthood and "coming of age" could be looked at from their historical and cultural implications. Historically they mean that the modern world is no more an infant under the tutelage of the Church, but is freed from this stage of dependence and control. From a cultural and philosophical perspective this means that the modern world is one which has come to be through the exercise of critical reason. Modern technology, science, and other marvelous developments are to be viewed as expressions of critical reason, dominating and controlling nature and its powers. In short, the defining and interpretative key for modernity is critical reason which is also the driving principle of a linear, human progress. It is to this understanding of modernity and human progress to which the document responds.

Looking back from an Asian perspective we note that this interpretation of the modern world as progressing (Enlightenment optimism) is only partial. What is lacking is the exercise of moral reason. As long as this is absent the modern world should not be considered as having come of age—a presupposition on which GS operates. That the West had to respond to modernity created by critical reason was a historical necessity. That is understandable against the background of the gulf which existed between faith and the modern world. In the face of an incomplete rationality, what Asia seeks is a more complete "coming of age" by the exercise of moral reason expressing itself through an ethical and humane quest.

The West has had a tradition of a critique of modernity. This critique has been associated with the so-called "critical theory" (Hoy and McCarthy 1994) or in its more radical form with some versions of postmodern theorizing. Asian critique, on the other hand, is directed to the failure of modernity to respond to the moral demands of humanity, especially the vulnerable ones, and the absence of the spirit of solidarity and collective responsibility. Those who critique modernity in Asia are not theorists in the first place, but the victims of modernity and globalization. By their very situation of being exploited, marginalized and excluded, the poor of Asia are the most effective instruments of critique who constantly challenge the ambiguities of modernity and globalization built on science and technology without regard for moral responsibility and solidarity.

A second limitation is the absence of attention to the issues of conflicts, struggles and contradictions in understanding modernity. This is not surprising, since the predominant concern in the document is to bridge the gap between faith and the modern world. Approaching modernity from this perspective, the Second Vatican Council needed to affirm the secular realities of the world with a sense of optimism after a long period of displaying a negative attitude towards modern developments. Further, the document was an attempt to overcome the "Augustinianism" which tends to subordinate the secular and temporal realities to the superior and supernatural reality of faith and bring them under the "City of God."1 This background also explains its concentration in affirming the autonomy of temporal realities, on the one hand, and the inattention to the incontrovertible fact of conflicts, struggles and contradictions, on the other. These latter aspects which we do not find in the document are important today for an Asian response to modernity. Besides, GS does not address some crucial questions of significance for the life of Asia. Some of these are poverty, ethnicity, race, religious conflicts, minorities, gender issues, and economic exploitation.2

Thirdly, if we go deeper into the question, GS‘approach to the society is that of the "common good," the attainment of which is reached through deliberation, consensus-building, etc.3 The "common good" approach does not do justice to the experiences in Asia and in other parts of the developing world. The basic orientation of the "common good" approach is harmony. It does not take into account the asymmetry of power, social conflicts and systematic exclusion of peoples and groups from participation and consensus building. This can be seen in the Asian experience of the marginalized peoples, who are systemically excluded like the Dalits ("the untouchables"), indigenous peoples and tribals. Unfortunately, the pre-conditions for an approach to the common good through participation and consensus-building is not yet present in most Asian societies. What we have, depending on the different Asian societies, are various expressions of centralization, hierarchization and exclusion. The traditional Catholic understanding of state is related to the pursuit of common good. This traditional doctrine is repeated in GS.4 But the idea of the common good is vague. It serves as a middle-point between individualism and collectivism. It does not, however, take into account the deep division and conflicts which characterize Asian societies—something that has been further aggravated by the process of globalization. On these issues of Asia, GS is of little help.

Finally, it is to the credit of GS that it related the Church to the world in a spirit of dialogue, acknowledging that the Church alone cannot solve all the problems of humanity. The background to such a spirit and affirmation is probably the realization that the role of secular movements and ideologies—including atheistic ones—is to contribute to the transformation of the world. Important as these are, there is something else lacking in the document, namely, the affirmation of the role of religious traditions and collaboration with them for the creation of a transformed world. This is an area to which Asian Christianity could contribute a lot from its own actual experiences.


The earlier meeting of Asian Christianity with modernity took place under different conditions and historical circumstances. While we will not fail to notice a certain continuity of paradigm underlying the relationship of Asian Christianity to modernity, the experiences of the present time call for a new and different stage of this encounter.

Christianity as Entrypoint to Modernity

It may be strange but true, that, whereas Christianity in the West disassociated itself from modernity for a long time and was in conflict with it, in Asia it has been irrevocably associated with modernity. In simple terms, for Asians to be Christian meant to be modern. In general, Christianity as a culture and tradition has been welcomed in Asia as an entry point to modernity. In this article we do not want to discuss whether there is continuity between Christianity and modernity in the West, or whether modernity results from the obsolescence of Christianity, or whether modernity is the extrapolation of Christianity and its spirit in the secular realm.

Let us instead point out that the perception of Asian Christians, both in the past and in the present, is in terms of continuity rather than of a caesura between Christianity and modernity. It is this which has evoked their interest. When Matteo Ricci paid his homage to the Chinese Emperor and presented him with two clocks, the interest was more in the clocks than in anything else. When the clocks stopped, he found in Ricci a fantastic clock repairer which interested him more than all the doctrines of heaven he came to proclaim. So also the maps of Ricci were objects of much curiosity. We note too how the Chinese were in praise of the astronomer missionary, Johann Adam Schall von Bell, when he could predict an eclipse in 1623 and 1624, something the Chinese experts could not do (Neill 1990:160). From history we also learn that when the Emperor Yongzheng expelled all Christian missionaries, he saw to it that those of them who were astronomers and scientists were allowed to stay. This basic matrix of an association of Christianity with scientific and technological discoveries, as long as they served their purpose, seems to be at work today with "cultural Christians," namely, Asians who avidly read and study Christianity—that is, if the sign of the proliferating literature on Christianity is any indication. Besides the ideological background of this trend,5 there is also the pragmatic consideration of the affinity of Christianity with Western science and technology.

If we shift our attention to India, the mass conversion of the Dalits and other lower caste groups signified stepping into the world of modernity and its institutions (education, health-care, mobility, and equality before the law, etc.). They were thus liberated from the traditional yoke of caste hierarchy and its oppression. Their aspiration for access to the material needs of life and entry into the world of modernity was, in the view of the marginalized groups, facilitated by Christianity.6 It is not so much through the preaching of the Gospel but through indirect means that Christianity has been able to make a dent in society. The numerous educational institutions, medical services, legal reforms, and so forth offer examples.

But we stand today in a fresh encounter with modernity and its advanced form of globalization, with all its ambiguities and contradictions as well as the prospects it offers. We need to reflect deeply on this new stage of encounter. Let me highlight here some aspects of the new stage in the vastly changed present situation.

Civil Society—The Meeting Ground

In most Asian countries, the situation of Christianity is one of isolation. This may have derived from the prejudice, discrimination and opposition Christian communities experience in the larger society on account of the Church’s "foreign" origin and colonial connections. But there are also intrinsic reasons, turning community isolation into self-isolation. It is a fact that Christianity has not made any significant effort to reach out to the larger society and dialogue with it. The manner of engagement by the Christian communities has given the impression that they act parallel with other institutions such as the state. There is the unspoken message that the Church can live by itself without needing others, and indeed it often sees itself as better than others. We may cite here the examples of education, welfare and health sectors in which Christianity has been traditionally involved. Christian churches do not really read the "signs of the times" if they maintain their strong institutionalization, even if with some marginal adaptations. Christianity could do more to meet the challenges of modernity and globalization. Opting for the poor in this age of modernity and globalization calls for new means, strategies, and mediation (Wilfred 2003). It is here we realize the importance of civil society and its mediation for an effective response.

Civil society is the space that is open for citizens to meet together, to discuss, to debate, to voice their views, and also to critique and make their contestations (Seligman 1992; Cohen and Arato 1999; Chandhoke 1995; Kaviraj and Khilnani 2001). Civil society or the public sphere is so very crucial today for the democratization of society at all levels, to make the voices of the poor and the marginalized heard, and to check the excesses of the state. The contours of civil society and its mode of functioning will differ from country to country, depending upon the nature of the society, its composition, and past history. Participation and dialogue in civil society can help individual Christians and Christian communities make important contributions and thus affect the society and its transformation.

The picture of civil society in Asia is very diverse. In some countries it is vibrant; in others dormant; and in still others it is practically absent because of centralization and totalitarian regimes. The basic task of committed Christians is to contribute by their participation and involvement to the creation of civil society where it is non existent, and to make it alive and vibrant where it does exist. Through engagement in civil society, Christians could contribute in such important areas as the exercise of democracy and the defense of the dignity and rights of persons and groups. They could create discourses, form opinions and make these available through modern social media and communication. All this is truly required in a situation in which, as a result of modernity and globalization, the poor of Asia are being more and more exploited and displaced as migrants and refugees. Such an involvement in civil society would, in effect, be an exercise in prophetism, with other citizens across religious borders. Negotiations in the terrain of civil society is the surest means to break the persisting general isolation of the Christian communities in Asia.

Civil society offers Christianity an opportunity to be a critical voice in the political realm. Given the minority position of Asian Christian communities, the confrontation with the state in matters of justice could have serious practical consequences, if it is exercised in the name of religion. On the contrary, if it is done in civil society along with other citizens, especially the poor and the marginalized, it will have the important effect of holding the state under check and challenging it to fulfill its obligations. After all, the totality of the good of the society is not identified with the state and its role. It is not a question of direct interference in the state (given the autonomy of temporal realities, including the political order), but a matter of involvement for the good of the society which goes beyond the sphere of the state. Asian Christianity also needs to seize the opportunity the civil society offers to contribute to the transformation of the modern political order.

Engagement with the civil society can help Asian Christianity to overcome some of the vulnerabilities it is subjected to as a result of its minority position (Wilfred 2005). The minority situation need not mean a lesser capacity to contribute to the society. On the other hand, the issue of minorities and the claims of minority rights themselves need the mediating role of the civil society. Civil society can also help project a proper self-image of Christianity in these modern times. As it is, there is a yawning gap between a life of commitment of the people in the Christian communities and the public image of Christianity. Except for a token appreciation of the works of Christians in the educational, medical, and other humanitarian fields, the public image of Christianity is that of its association with colonialism and imperialism. To actively participate in civil society is the way to bring to public awareness the new image of Asian Christianity. It also offers an opportunity to clear many misunderstandings about those things that concern mission.

Joint Asian Critical Response to Modernity and Globalization

Christianity, with its immense spiritual heritage and long historical experiences, will be an important actor and force in responding critically to modernity—a response already being given by the victims. This would be more in tune with the vision of Second Vatican Council. A conservative option in face of the challenges of Asian modernity, may isolate Christianity from the stream of actual realities. In other words, instead of adopting what could be a Church-centered approach, Christianity needs to adopt a collaborative approach. It is more important to be on the way with others, than try to reach the goal before them, which could be an expression of selfishness. It is more important to work with others, even though things are not done perfectly, than try to do everything perfectly all by oneself. If the Christian praxis in Asia adopts this kind of attitude, it will never suffer isolation, nor will it be exposed to the temptation of triumphalism and "holier than thou" attitude. In short, in the face of the crisis triggered by modernity and globalization, Christianity should respond jointly with others to a commonly shared historical situation.

What we have said would receive further confirmation if we look at the matter in more basic terms as an issue of the relationship of religion to modernity and globalization. Peter Beyer in an interesting study notes that in present times of growing specialization, religions which concern themselves with wholeness and totality are left with no space to operate. Of course, they could continue to function with their traditional roles (ritual, worship, devotion, etc.), but with no effective influence in other social systems or in the public sphere. He contrasts "function" of religion with "performance."

In the present context, function refers to ‘pure’ religious communication. Religious performance by contrast, occurs when religion is ‘applied’ to problems generated in other systems but not solved there, or simply not addressed elsewhere. Examples of such problems are economic poverty, political oppression, familial estrangement, environmental degradation, personal identity. Through performance relations, religion establishes its importance for the ‘profane’ aspects of life (Beyer 2000:80).

A viable option for an effective presence of religion is to ally itself with critical social forces and movements. In light of this, the approach that is most indicated would be one which focuses on the ethical and moral implications of modernity, studied, and analyzed jointly with all those new social forces which move towards greater humanization of the Asian continent. In Asia, the most effective responses to modernity and globalization are not institutional ones, but are in fact provided by the many grassroots movements which take up the local issues that affect the lives of people. The quality of the response of Asian Christianity to modernity and globalization, will then, depend very much on the intensity of its collaboration with Asian grassroots movements which embody the aspirations of the victims.

Asian Theology of Religions as a Response to Modernity

The pursuit of an Asian theology of religions is not merely a theological issue. It is an issue of modernity, and indeed a response to some of the characteristics of modernity impacting on religion and its practice. One such major characteristic is relativity (which is not the same thing as relativism) understood as a dynamic principle of mutual interaction which includes the religious realm as well. What the Asian theology of religions could do is to contribute to harmonious living, peace, and tolerance. A wrong theology of religion is a dangerous source of fundamentalism, religious bigotry, and obscurantism (anti-modern or pre-modern) that is not respectful of the religious sentiments and expressions of peoples of other faiths. An insensitive theology of religion is ammunition for communal conflicts, and social dissension in an Asia where already there are convulsions on the basis of ethnicity, language, and religion.

Hence Asian theology of religions will be critical of any theological position that is based on the "dogma of intolerance" In the West, the birth of modernity coincided with the Enlightenment attempt to overcome religious conflicts by bringing to the fore the idea of tolerance and peace (Wolfinger 1984:63-94). This idea was further deepened by the application of modern scientific methods of study as is evident in the field of comparative religion. When Vatican II published the document on Religious Freedom (Nostra Aetate), it was a belated response to one of the challenges of the Enlightenment and modernity. In the present times, the spirit of religious freedom and scientific enquiry should characterize Asian theology of religions. This has important consequences for the social and political life in different Asian countries. If all theologies ought to be socially responsible, how much more the theology of religions.

Awareness of diversity and plurality (of world-views, ways of life, religious expressions, and practices) is another important characteristic of modernity. But interestingly, this has been the millennial tradition of Asian cultures and civilizations. In that sense, through its unambiguous affirmation of plurality and diversity, Asia has been in the age of modernity and postmodernity for millennia! What came about through many struggles and conflicts in the West has been so naturally imprinted in Asian civilizations. Thus we can speak of a convergence of modernity and Asian traditions in the issue of diversity and tolerance, understood as a positive and proactive reality. Asian theology of religions should be so developed, as to respond in the spirit of Asian heritage, to the exigencies of modernity.

There is a second aspect to the relationship of theology of religion to modernity. The question about modernity is something in which all the religious traditions can and should collaborate. GS views modernity mainly from the perspective of the Church. The very title of the document reads: Pastoral Constitution of the Church in the Modern World. It does not fall within the purview of this document that the relationship to the modern world is something to which all religions bear responsibility. We realize in Asia that the Church could make a greater contribution, if it does it in collaboration with peoples of other faiths. Facing modernity jointly calls for a theology of religion that is attuned to this urgent need of the times. This may not be possible without a basic rethinking of traditional Christian soteriology and the understanding of mission and conversion.

Christian Studies: the Twilight Discipline

Today we need a new and distinct discipline, namely, Christian Studies, which could be a twilight discipline—a meeting point of many issues and concerns relating to Asian Christianity and modernity. It appears to me that such a discipline is the need of the hour. It will take different contours in different regions in relation to Christianity and its relationship to the wider society in specific contexts. However, we can already think of some broad lines of general orientation in our Asian context.

The questions and issues which a program of Christian Studies could address are those that are not adequately met by theology, phenomenology or sociology of religion. Christian studies will not be a discipline which will pursue a purely confessional approach to the study of Christianity. It will include the study of world Christianity from a historical, cultural, theological, sociological, and phenomenological perspective. But it will be more than that. In multi-religious and pluralistic societies more and more people would like to have an understanding of Christianity that is developed in intense conversation with the broader society as well as with the religious experiences of peoples of other faiths.7 This discipline will take up issues that should engage Christianity in relation to modernity, globalization, civil society, and the public sphere. A discipline that develops through such a practice of interaction with the society will be able, on the one hand, to help Christians develop the art of negotiating the boundaries, and on the other hand, make people of other religious traditions feel comfortable by vibrating with their questions, issues and concerns.

In this regard, one of the important functions of Christian Studies, as I envisage, would be to focus attention on the interpretation of Christianity and Christian truths and spirituality by people belonging to other religious traditions. This discipline will also take into account their critical reflections of Christianity and its mode of presence in the modernizing Asian societies. Ultimately, this will help to develop, from an academic point of view, a deeper and more critical understanding of Christianity, while from a practical perspective, it will encourage interreligious understanding and harmony. In this sense, it will also be doing a great service by stimulating theological reflections in the wider horizon of a fast modernizing and globalizing Asia.


The vision of Vatican II, was developed in Asia predominantly in terms of culture. Consequently, the issue of "inculturation" took a very important place during the past forty years of the post-conciliar period. The challenge of the Second Vatican Council for Asia is much larger than the issue of culture, which could—in spite of all good intentions to the contrary— make Christianity turn in on itself and become engrossed in its own survival. Relating Asian Christianity to modernity is a call to extend the approach of Christianity in terms of culture, and see Asian societies as dynamic and historically evolving with new questions, problems, and prospects.8 Such an approach is evidently much larger and closer to the actual experiences in Asia and the understanding of mission on this continent.

We need to respond critically to the challenges of modernity and globalization. Unfortunately this is not happening in any measure or degree. However, it is heartening to see this taking place in a small but intense way at the grassroots level with engaged Christian groups. Their experiences provide important clues and leads for developing a proper understanding of the relationship of Asian Christianity to modernity. This relationship is developing in new directions and avenues not contemplated in Gaudium et Spes, however great its other achievements.

It is interesting to note that, whereas in the West, modernity led to a process of alienation from Christianity and secularization, in Asia, modernity is bringing many Asians closer to Christianity. There is an increasing search for ethical values and even "transcendence" in the context of the crisis caused by modernity in the personal lives of many people. In some countries, especially in east Asia, people turn to Christianity since, in their view, modernity is closely associated with Christianity which may offer a solution for overcoming the crisis resulting from modernity and globalization. They look for resources within Christianity to surmount the crisis. In the traditional sense these people do not belong to confessional Christianity. What is happening is an attempt by Asians to discover for themselves in Christianity a system of values, ethics, and orientations which may help them in their encounter with modernity. The growing interest among "cultural Christians" in China and other parts of Asia could be considered an important expression of this search.

Finally, one of the great contributions of Gaudium et Spes is that it has given us an understanding of a Christianity that wants to learn from the world and society. In fact, this document as well as the one on Religious Freedom (Nostra Aetate) are examples of the influence the secular developments and history have exerted on the thought of the Church. Only a Christianity that is willing to learn from Asian realities, secular traditions, and sacred history will draw the attention of Asians. The significance of the Church in the Asia of the future will depend upon the ethical and moral perspectives it brings into the institutional structures and ways of life in Asian societies. To achieve this we need to be attentive, listening to the voices of Asia and its many distinct languages. Only a learning Christianity will be able to make its contribution to the modern and developing societies of the Asian continent.


1. We need to only think of the debates in the 1950’s regarding "political Catholicism," "Catholic State" or "the Spain," of General Franko - not to speak of medieval Christendom. Cf. Congar 1966:312–32.

2. Cf. Colloquium on Church in Asia in the 21st Century, Office for Human Development, FABC, Manila, n.d.

3. For the background of this concept, its history and its use in Christian theology and tradition, see Hollenbach 2002.

4. "The political community, then, exists for that common good." (GS, 74).

5. The roots of this phenomenon of "cultural Christians" may go back to the experience of the persecuted intellectuals at the time of the Cultural Revolution. There was on the one hand disappointment with the Marxist-Communist ideology, and on the other hand, serious doubts about the capacity of the traditional Chinese heritage to respond to the crisis in Chinese society. This particular cultural and intellectual situation made them turn to Christianity and its theological and philosophical traditions as more suited to answer to the basic questions of human life in a technological and scientific world. Cf. Evers 2003:125 ff.

6. The position of Ambedkar, the foremost Dalit leader of modern times, went along these lines. He welcomed modernity and its institutions (democracy, educational, and legal systems, etc.) as important means for the liberation of the outcastes of India from the longstanding yoke of oppression by the traditional high castes. Christianity was viewed by many Dalits as the mediator of modernity. Cf. Omvedt 1994.

7. There has been growing interest in the study of Christianity in China. See Xinping 2003:49-61.

8. This sort of approach is well-meant, and it has its advantages, given the cultural estrangement of Christianity in the Asian continent. However, what I am suggesting is that, in so doing, Christianity has been following the Western trajectory which studies the non-Western societies as cultural entities. This is contrasted with the study of the West in terms of society. This could be seen in the reservation of "anthropology" for the developing societies, whereas sociology was for the developed Western societies! The underlying assumption is that whereas the societies of Asia and other developing world are stagnant and static (hence object of the study of a de-historicized anthropology), the study of the dynamic societies of the West is done through sociology.


Beyers, Peter

2000 Religion and Globalization (London: Sage Publications).

Chandhoke, Neera

1995 State and Civil Society. Explorations in Political Theory (Delhi: Sage Publications).

Cohen, Jean L. and Andrew Arato

1999 Civil Society and Political Theory, (Cambridge, Massachusettes: The MIIT Press), fifth printing.

Congar, Yves

1966 "A Letter on Religious Liberty With Reference to the Position of Protestants in Spain," in Dialogue Between Christians (London, Dublin: Geoffrey Chapman).

Evers, Georg

2003 Kirche und Katholizismus seit 1945. Die Laender Asiens (Paderborn: Ferdinand Schoeningh).

Hollenbach, David

2002 The Common Good. Christian Ethics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).

Hoy, David Couzens and Thomas McCarthy

1994 Critical Theory (Oxford: Blackwell).

Kaviraj, Sudipta and Sunil Khilnani (eds.)

2001 Civil Society. History and Possibilities (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).

Neill, Stephen

1990 A History of Christian Missions (London: Penguin Books), reprint.

Omvedt, Gail

1994 Dalits and the Democratic Revolution (Delhi: Sage Publications).

Seligman, Adam B.

1992 The Idea of Civil Society (Princeton: Princeton University Press).

Wilfred, Felix

2005 The Sling of Utopia. Struggles for a Different Society (Delhi: ISPCK).

2003 Asian Dreams and Christian Hope (Delhi: ISPCK).

Wolfinger, Franz

1984 "Niedergang der Missionen in der Zeit der Aufklaerung: Toleranz kontra Mission?" in Warum Mission? (Munich: EOS Verlag Erzabtei St. Ottilien).

Xinping, Zhuo

2003 "The Study of Christianity by Chinese Scholars in the Twentieth Century and its Significance for the Future," in Quest. An Interdisciplinary Journal for Asian Christian Scholars Vol. 2 No. 1.

  • Licentiate in Sacred Theology (STL) in Spirituality and Leadership
    Aug 04
    Nov 30