Jesus-Interpretations in Asia: Fragmentary Reflections on Fragments

Resources »Eapr »East Asian Pastoral Review 2006 »Volume 43 2006 Number 4 »Jesus Interpretations In Asia Fragmentary Reflections On Fragments

By Felix Wilfred


The most obvious title for this presentation would be “Asian Christology.” But I have, on purpose, avoided the expression “Christology,” which is a very loaded word. If it is true that the language we use conditions our thinking, this is surely the case with Christology. Therefore, the first and foremost thing we need to do in Asia, it appears to me, is to give up the language of Christology, so that we may understand and approach the mystery of Jesus with a certain innovativeness and originality. After all, the gospels speak throughout about Jesus Christ, but have not found it necessary to use the expression “Christology.”

There is another important reason for not employing the traditional terminology: The term “Christology” presupposes a faith-discourse in the Christian communities, whereas the Asian experience unmistakably shows that Jesus has been the object of devotion and interpretation by our neighbors of other faiths. This latter experience would break the traditional framework, and call for an open-ended approach, untrammeled by the language of the past.

You may ask, how could we set aside the traditional terminology, when today Christology has become a burning theological question? Have not issues such as the fullness of revelation in Jesus Christ and his uniqueness become questions of central importance for Asia in its multi-religious context? Would it not be the legitimate expectation from this conference in Asia that we clarify and arrive at some conclusions regarding these much-debated questions? My suggestion once again is that we also set aside these questions which have for quite some time dominated “Christology,” which in turn has conditioned the theologies of religion. I am afraid our conference could end up as an exercise in futility and turn out to be a cul-de-sac experience if we spend our time and energy discussing these issues.

 Let me explain. I do realize that the uniqueness of Jesus Christ is very important for present-day Western Christianity which is facing a crisis following the positive discovery of the reality of other religious traditions after centuries of negation of and isolation from them. I would like to use the analogy of knots to characterize the crisis situation. Questions such as the uniqueness of Christ are knots that have come to be as a result of centuries-long Christological interpretations in the West, and we understand the need to unknot them—if I may coin a new word. But for us to turn unknotting into our major task in the interpretation of Jesus would be to engage in something that has neither historical nor cultural precedents and implications in Asia. I believe that we need to spend our time and energy, not in unknotting but in carrying forward the thread of the interpretation of Jesus which will take us to new vistas and horizons. In short, creative interpretation of the person and message of Jesus in Asia is something that should engage our attention.

Part I: The Fragmentary Character of Asian Jesus-Interpretations

 The difficulty Asia experiences with the traditional approaches to Christology is that these approaches claim to offer a total and comprehensive interpretation of Jesus, allowing, at the most, the addition of some frills from other cultural areas. The trouble with the Enlightenment-inspired quest for the historical Jesus was that it presupposed that we could arrive at a single master-picture of the real Jesus. This tendency and claim to present a single universal picture of Jesus has continued in the Western tradition, and could be seen as recent as in the writings of Hans Kung (1979:145ff). Underlying such attempts are, it seems to me, a positivist approach that claims neutrality and a scientific-type of “objectivity” in “Christology.”

The Asian approaches instead follow a path conforming to experience: It is a path to totality by starting from fragments, from our experiences and concerns. We seek a response to our Asian questions. I am reminded of a little story about a charismatic pastor who put up a huge banner on the entrance to his church, which read, “Jesus is the answer.” The pastor woke up next morning to find to his amazement a disturbing scribbling underneath: “But what is the question?” 

I would distinguish two kinds of fragments—mechanical and organic.  The mechanical fragments are pieces per se, and could exist always as fragments without relation to the whole. Organic fragments are the ones that contain the dynamic potency towards an integrated whole—a whole which, however, is not fully defined, only adumbrated. The organic fragments possess dynamism of their own. The way they grow through their own inner dynamics and get integrated into the whole can be as much normatively laid down as a gardener can regulate how a tree should grow and put out its branches and leaves, and bear fruit.

Asian approaches to Jesus Christ have been, so to say, through organic fragments, namely, through the questions and challenges that face us immediately in our experiences, but which nevertheless lead us to the larger horizon of the whole. Is it not true that we begin to understand the mystery of love through concrete and historically situated acts of love? So it is with the mystery of Jesus, namely that in discovering concrete facets of his person, teaching, and life, we also begin the quest for a much fuller understanding of his mystery. The whole is not sacrificed; it accompanies us as the horizon in our continuing quest.

Realizing the Fragments

The fragmentary character has its consequences for traditional Christology in relation to Asian cultures and traditions.

As in other areas of Christian life, so too in the understanding of the mystery of Jesus Christ, efforts have been made to inculturate it in Asian soil. In these endeavors, categories such as guruavatarbhaktamaha yogi have been employed.1 Hypothetically, if Jesus were born in India, it is with these titles he would have been designated by the disciples in their gospels. But, as a matter of fact, the birth of Jesus in Palestine led the disciples to attribute to him the titles that were readily available in their culture and tradition—Messiah, prophet, son of man, Lord, new Adam, etc. It may not be easy to translate these titles into our languages and connote what these meant in the Jewish and Hellenistic traditions. No one single title or epithet attributed to Jesus is able to fully convey to us his mystery. They were important, even though fragmentary in character. If we expand the same, we may realize how each one of the four gospels presents some distinct facets of Jesus; each one opens a different window to his reality. We cannot superimpose the four windows of the evangelists and imagine that thereby we have come to acquire the full vision of Jesus. The attempt to create a comprehensive explanation of Jesus and his mystery by piecing together the languages of the four gospels in a universal explanatory system would be tantamount to creating a Christological Esperanto—if I may say so.

In this connection we may recall here that in early Christianity interpreting Jesus was not simply a matter of elucidating his nature through concepts, or defining his person by way of titles. Do we not find the image of “shepherd” in the New Testament? There were other images drawn from the cultural milieu. In art form, Jesus was depicted in such a way as to suggest the figure of Orpheus and the poet Homer (Cf. Williams 2001:220ff). The mediaeval devotional and mystical tradition discovered many more such images. 

We have other forms of referring to him in terms of metaphors. He is referred to as the “crown” of humanity and as “horse-tamer” because he quells the human passion (ibid.), and as the bird “pelican.” Obviously none of these images could be superimposed. Each one of them is fragmentary, and yet they reveal what other images are not capable of doing.

We need not, therefore, be hesitant to employ the categories and images of our Asian cultures to designate the mystery of Jesus, even though none of those categories or metaphors may express fully the mystery of Jesus Christ. It is important that the categories we employ resonate with our experience and reflect our cultural and mental grid. Similarly, even if Asian efforts to interpret Jesus Christ do not succeed fully, they may achieve more in terms of conveying to us the mystery of Jesus than a simple translation of some presumed universal formula. In fact, the Christian communities have nourished their faith in Jesus Christ more through these fragmentary categories and images than by means of any abstract and universal formulation about his nature.

While acknowledging this, we need to also realize the limitations in employing images. First of all, given the cultural pluralism and diversity in our societies, the images that are used in the name of inculturation may not speak to all the segments of the society. Therefore, the categories are fragmentary and partial, also in this sense. This is true particularly for tribal people and dalit of South Asia. In fact, the critique of inculturated Indian theology is that it is “Brahminic.” Since Brahminism as an ideology of hierarchization has been the cause of their oppression, the dalits specially would not adopt the categories of their traditional oppressors to connote their (dalits) liberation in Jesus.

One may argue that other categories that find echo among the tribals and dalits could be employed. But that brings in a more radical question, namely, whether deploying epithets and attributes is the best way to understand and interpret the mystery of Jesus. Is not the conceptual approach to the mystery of Jesus itself something fragmentary?  In this case, it may not be a question of finding other titles, but other modes of approaching Jesus and experiencing him. I have been struck by the statement of the African thinker Eboussi Boulaga, “I dance, therefore I live” (Boulaga 1977:56), which is best understood when contrasted with “I think, therefore I am” (Descartes). What Boulaga has done implicitly is to challenge the primacy of representation of reality through mental categories, and to bring in the bodily dimension of reality which is very close to the African experience and way of life. The ubiquitous dance defines the African life and culture. Therefore, our approach to Jesus’ interpretation should be such that it opens up spaces for dalits and tribals, the minjung, and the Burakumin people, to employ other modes of expression than conceptual categories, titles, and epithets (Teruo 1994:11-26, Kwang-sun Suh 1991).

Fragmentary Jesus-Interpretations of Our Neighbors

Christology in Asia is not something that pertains to the Christian community alone. It is well-known from experience that our neighbors of other faiths relate themselves to Jesus and his message, and they have tried to understand and interpret him. In this enterprise, the religious traditions of our neighbors is important, because these offer them the key to interpret everything divine and human, and consequently to also understand the message of Jesus and experience his person. To deprive them theologically of their religious traditions is to render it difficult, if not impossible, for the overwhelming majority of Asians to interpret Jesus Christ. As a matter of fact, Asian interpreters have seen in Jesus the embodiment of the highest ideals they hold as Hindus, Buddhists, Jains, Sikhs, and so on. Given this, many Hindu interpreters of Jesus believe that they have greater accessibility to him through Hindu religious experience. Their experience of Jesus cannot be thought simply in individual terms, dissociated from their collective religious experience as Hindus, Buddhists, Jains, etc.

Whether one looks at the issue of Christ as avatara or Christ as an ideal, there is a single thread that runs through Hindu views of Christ. This thread is the depiction of Christ as an Oriental or Asiatic. One might even be more specific and say that it is the depiction of Christ as the quintessential Hindu, the one who lives Hindu ideals, as they ought to be lived and teaches the essence of Hindu truth, as it ought to be taught (Neufeldt 1993:172; cf. also Badrinath 2000, emphasis mine).

For example, how could we presuppose that a Buddhist would be able to interpret Jesus Christ without her/his understanding of Buddha? (Pieris 1993:46-61). To see in this any effort to equate Buddha and Christ is to jump to conclusions hastily, besides being insensitive to the religious experience and spiritual development of our neighbors. In matters of religious experience we cannot expect that the others interpret everything in terms of our categories. Our neighbors of other faiths give us an empathetic understanding of the person and message of Jesus that is born out of the realization of Jesus’ Asiatic origins and the milieu of his life and teaching.

As a matter of fact, the varieties of interpretations of the mystery of Jesus coming from different Hindu backgrounds have revolved around the fact that Jesus was an Asian. This is true of Ram Mohan Roy, Keshub Chunder Sen, Muzumdar, and many others (Coward, 172). Keshub Chunder Sen refers not only to the Asiatic character in Jesus’ appearance, manners, customs, and relationships with people, but also sees the person and life of Jesus through the perspective of the Hindu belief in the ultimate divine character of humanity (Sen 1954; cf. also Mozoomdar 1933).

Speaking of our neighbors, it may not be correct to limit ourselves to what they have to say about Jesus Christ through religious and philosophical categories. Their avenue to the truth of Jesus Christ has been through other expressions such as art. In fact, by delving deeper into our neighbors’ artistic depiction of  the events  of  Jesus’ life,2 his meal-sharing,  and especially his suffering and self-sacrificing death, we gain some inspiring insights into their encounter with Jesus.3 Besides, there are a lot of popular forms of devotion to Christ on the part of our neighbors. This is true even of the past Muslim rulers of India.

Both Akbar and Jahangir had their various palaces frescoed with Christian angels and saints; the latter had Christian pictures in his bedroom, and even said his morning prayers before pictures of Christ and the Virgin. He went so far as to adorn the tomb of his father Akbar at Sikandra with Christian frescoes (Butler, 68 op.cit.).

Recently during a visit to Goa, I was fascinated by some of the depictions of Jesus’ life, some of them by Hindus and Muslims, adorning the dining hall of the Pilar Mission Seminary. Those artistic images made such an impression on me that, on returning home, I wrote to Fr. Cosme Jose Costa, a very learned Church historian, to send me copies of those pictures.

An important task for the Christian community would be to create the condition for our neighbors to be able to have an encounter with the person and message of Jesus. Obviously, this cannot be done by exclusive claims or by theological categories that are insensitive to the nature of the mystery of God and God’s mediation. The task of the Christian community and its theologians and Church leaders is not so much to persuade our neighbors about our “Christological” interpretations of Jesus Christ, but rather help them to discover Jesus and his mystery, however fragmentary their perceptions may be. After all, even those classical “Christologies” which claim to be whole are in fact only partial and fragmentary. It may be beyond the scope of this keynote address to elaborate this point.

There is an important reason why we need to listen attentively to the interpretations of our neighbors:  It is the general association of Christianity with colonialism. We should not undermine this fact, and wish away such a deeply ingrained impression about Christianity in the minds of our neighbors. We know that the identification of Christianity with colonialism is having its political consequences in the present situation in different countries of Asia. Any amount of distinction between the two (Christianity and colonialism) does not seem to convince our neighbors. A fresh encounter of Jesus with the peoples of Asia is facilitated if we free Jesus and the Gospel from colonial experience, and open up avenues for our neighbors to discover Jesus and experience him by the interior illumination he brings in. And that will also mean the slow and sure dispelling of the mental and spiritual barriers caused in them by the experience of colonialism.  In this regard, it is instructive to note the incidence Seichi Yagi of Japan narrates.

In the Meiji era, there was in Kyoto a famous Zen-master named Gasan. One day he read the Bible. He began with the first page of the Gospel according to Mathew and, having read the Sermon on the Mount (Mt 5–7), he said, “These are really the words of a great master.” Then he called his disciples and warned them, saying that they should not speak ill of Christianity. The words of Jesus awaken, call forth, and activate in their hearers the reality of the primary contact (Yagi, 36).

We Christian believers will be mistaken if we were to think that because our proclamation of Jesus Christ through our categories and expressions are not responded to, Jesus is not met by our neighbors. Jesus Christ is not encapsulated within the world of our interpretative categories. The mediation could take place in our neighbors through an interior illumination or revelation. After all, Christian tradition has held that God is the inner master who teaches us from deep within us. Paul himself notes that God “has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Cor 4:6).

In considering the approaches to Jesus-interpretation by our neighbors we need to be aware of the asymmetry that exists between our ways of doing theology and those of our neighbors. As the Hindu theologian Parimal Patil points out, whereas in the Christian tradition, theology today is being pursued in the academia and in institutional contexts, this is not the case with Hindu theology (Patil 2001:185-95). Therefore, it would be wrong to expect that our neighbors can articulate their perspective academic interpretations of Jesus Christ. In fact, all those insights and intuitions on Jesus and his mystery by our neighbors are not from the academic and institutional context, but from life-experiences. And that is precisely why they are bound to be fragmentary. There is no pretension of offering a comprehensive interpretation of Jesus Christ, which perhaps might have been the case, if that interpretation were to emanate from any institutional space.

Varying Grades of Encounter with the Mystery of Christ

The mystery of Jesus Christ cannot be reduced to our mental categories. This is to state the obvious. However, this needs to be said, because of our constant temptation to identify logic and consistency of our language with reality and truth.4 The experience and encounter with the person and message of Jesus is bound to break our cherished concepts and mental frames. 

Taking into account the Jesus-interpretations of our neighbors means that we do not rule out different grades and modes in their encounter with Jesus Christ and his mystery. This is to realize in a different way the partial and fragmentary character that accompanies all our encounters with Christ. From the New Testament we know that there was a wide variety of patterns in the discipleship of Jesus. There were the 12 who were in the company of Jesus, women who were accompanying him, the 72 disciples who followed him, and the few who were present at his crucifixion. Then we have Nathaniel who, perhaps, out of curiosity (cf. Jn 1:45-51) wanted to acquaint himself with Jesus, Nicodemus who visited him at night, and the centurion who was so impressed by Jesus that he uttered a praise that has been recorded as part of the faith of the early Christian community: “Truly, this man was the Son of God!” (Mk 15:39).  Then, we have Joseph of Arimathea who came in touch with the wounded body of Jesus, even though there was no need for him to concern himself with the burial of Jesus. How poor the Gospels would be if we were to reduce them to only what the 12 disciples had to say about Jesus Christ. The various disciples of Jesus did not experience him in the same way, nor to the same degree; there was a difference among them in this respect. 

If we believe that Jesus continues to be with all humanity (Emmanuel) through his Spirit, how could we discount the ever-new encounters of people with him and his teachings? It is important to note that the encounter with Jesus and his message have effected deep transformations in people for whom what is most important is not a conceptual definition of the reality of Jesus, but the vivid narration of their deeper experiences. These narrations and experiences could become an important source for Jesus-interpretation.

The Christian community should learn to appreciate and value not only the experiences and encounters of its neighbors with Jesus Christ, but should also realize the widespread influence of these encounters on the larger society. I think of a person like Sri Ramakrishna who was an illiterate man but a great mystic. No one, perhaps, has influenced the contemporary religious life of India as this illiterate mystic. He narrated his own mystical experience of Jesus, so much so that when the Ramakrishna Mission was founded on Christmas day, it is said that the monks took the oath to be “Christs.” Who can deny the influence of the teachings of Jesus on Ram Mohan Roy, the influence of the self-sacrifice of Jesus and his Sermon on the Mount on Gandhi? (Wilfred 2001:69-85). The great modern social reformer Jyotirao Phule derived much inspiration through his acquaintance with the gospels and the person of Jesus (Keer 1974; cf. also Chakravarthi 2000). In the light of these and similar instances in other parts of Asia, I am inclined to think that,  what our neighbors of other faiths have learnt of Jesus and from his message exerted far greater influence on Asia than all the preaching of Jesus by the Christian community for the past 2,000 years. It may not be proper to say that our neighbors should learn from Christ and the gospels only what the Christian community teaches! If they learn more than what the Christian community can teach them, are they to blame?

Political and Social Consequences of Totalizing Claims

The fragmentary character in our approach to the mystery of Jesus Christ and the different grades of encounters with him are but invitations for a fuller and an ever more intense meeting with him. If from epistemological, theological, and biblical perspectives we understand the fragmentary and partial nature of all our interpretations of Jesus, we need to also pay serious attention to the political importance of such an approach. Formulations and claims in exclusive terms about Christ do not remain simply in the realm of theological thought. They have serious political consequences, especially in view of the burden of the Asian colonial history, identified with the religion of the colonizers. To say this does not imply giving up the prophetic dimension of Christianity (Wilfred 2003). On the other hand, if Christians believe that the mystery of God’s communion with humanity is manifested in Christ, how could it be that the proclamation of this communion takes place by alienating and excluding people?

A socially irresponsible “Christology” that divides people from people on the basis of their religious commitment cannot be a true interpretation of Jesus Christ in Asia—an Asia that gives such a primary place to harmony in society and in inter-human relationships, and indeed with all of nature. Some of the official statements and declarations from the Christian churches claim to maintain the purity of doctrine, while in fact they contribute to religious divisions and antagonism. This is all the more serious in an already communally charged situation as for example is the case in South Asia.5


Part II: Practical Implications of a Fragmentary Approach           


Pedagogy of Encounter

The fragmentary approach to Jesus-interpretations as well as the Asian theology of religions, calls for some practical measures. I would like to highlight four such measures: pedagogy of encounter, developing of appropriate language, cross-scriptural interpretations, and overcoming the chasm between the theological developments and pastoral realities.

When Church leaders, theologians, and Christian communities are bent on bringing to others their faith-understanding of Jesus Christ, one thing they fail to pay attention to is that there is also a pedagogy in matters of faith. By and large the regrettable absence of this pedagogy in Christian mission history has caused serious harm and difficulties in our relationship with our neighbors. The cross may be a “stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles” (1 Cor 1: 23).  This, however, has not been the case with the neighbors in our parts of Asia. What has been really scandalous is that the supreme message of love and compassion of Jesus could be proclaimed through the centuries of mission history with so much insensitivity and lack of understanding for the spiritual experience of others and their religious traditions. The present-day openness that we find in the attitude of the churches to other religious traditions need to be accompanied by a pedagogy of encounter. The basic lesson I learnt in pedagogy was that it is not a matter of making others do what we want, but rather leading others to wish what is best for them. This calls for respect for the intellectual, inner, and spiritual development of each person or group. 

We can look at the matter from an anthropological perspective as well. The capacity for expression inherent in human beings is not limited to a single language. Theoretically, the human potentiality for language is infinite. It is this which makes possible for a human person to reach out and be able to learn other languages—each one of which is a new and refreshing encounter. Learning the language of the other does not amount to the loss of one’s own language, compromising it, or confusing the two. If the ultimate and abiding reality is love, it would be anomalous that the language of religious experiences should divide us from others. Our experience of Jesus Christ as God’s embodiment of love will spur us on to meet the other in what she/he values as most important in her/his life—her/his deep spiritual and religious experience, which includes also her/his belief in mediations. 

Developing an Appropriate Language

The conceptual language, which is but one mode of human communication, has claimed in the past the prerogative of explicating the mystery of Jesus. One of the challenges we face in Asia is to develop the kind of language that will speak to us more intensely about him. There have been a lot of symbols which functioned as windows to the understanding of the reality of Jesus. The love for images, and metaphors in the Asian ethos should find expression also in our approach to the understanding of the mystery of Jesus. The writings of theologians like C.S. Song and Kosuka Koyama have brought out how the Asian soul vibrates with symbols and metaphors.6 Stories are also powerful means through which we come to realize important truths. We cannot wait for a total story; all our stories are only fragmentary and partial, and yet they have a power to carry us to the realization of truth. This is something which the one-time vogue program of “demythologization” did not take into account. This is also the case with the protracted discussions regarding the Jesus of history and Christ of faith, that has been so very central in modern western Christological debates.

What we have in Asia (especially speaking of realities that go beyond our rational categories) is a blending of symbols and interpretations, history and myths. These are not placed in opposition to one another. Consequently any program or debate that would go into Christology by making a neat distinction between the Jesus of history and Christ of faith would not find any vibration in our cultures and traditions. All this is an indication of the need to develop the kind of language that will bring the mystery of Jesus closer to our contexts and experiences.

Language is much more than a simple device for communication. Language structures the way we perceive reality and make sense of the world.  In this connection, we need to mention the importance of art which overcomes the dichotomy between subject and object, reality and representation. Art does not simply copy the reality; there is a process by which the representation of reality passes through the subject and her experiences. In fact, as I noted earlier, for our neighbors, art has been an important avenue for their approach to Jesus. Every piece of art is fragmentary, and yet it opens up infinite horizons of meaning and signification.      

Jesus in an Asian Cross-Scriptural Interpretation

The fragmentary approach calls for a practice of cross-scriptural interpretation. It is well known that for a long time the term “Scripture” was employed almost exclusively to refer to the Jewish-Christian sacred writings. But today we realize that the sacred writings in other major religious traditions hold an important place. The scriptures have been viewed in the religious traditions as invested with great power, supreme authority, and are considered to be eternal and immutable (Graham 1987:133-45). The Scripture of a particular religious tradition becomes the benchmark for the identity of its believers. Such being the case, any attempt to enter into the understanding of the scriptures of other faiths will be very enriching. The Christian Scriptures with the perennial messages of Jesus, belong to the entire humanity and have universal appeal. 

What is envisaged here is not just the study of other Scriptures, but rather the reading of one’s scripture through those of others. It can be extremely creative and transformative for those involved in the process, besides contributing to a deeper understanding of both traditions. Obviously, the cross-scriptural reading should not be for an apologetic motive nor for an “irenic” purpose nor to satisfy intellectual curiosity as could happen in an uninvolved comparative religious perspective. Aloysius Pieris, from his experience of cross-cultural reading and interpretation of Christian and Buddhist Scriptures, advocates a “symbiotic” reading, and explains what that would mean:

Cross-scriptural exegesis of the symbiotic type is quite an innovative exercise in interreligious dialogue. For here a seminal teaching in the Scriptures of one religion, sown and buried in the texts, when exposed to the warm light that comes from the teachings of another religion’s Sacred Writ, sprouts forth and grows into a fruitful source of new insights. In this “symbiotic” approach, no room is left for diluting or distorting the basic teachings of either religion; and no effort made to indulge in easy equations or odious comparisons (Pieris 2003:253).

Such a cross-scriptural reading has been attempted in Asia, for example, between the mission command of Jesus and a similar injunction found in a Buddhist text. What it brings out are some of the differences in emphases and accents, which contribute to the understanding of both the texts and help us enter into a deeper realm of reality towards which they converge (Soares-Prabhu 1994:264-82).

I would like to highlight here what a cross-scriptural reading could mean for the understanding of Christ and the New Testament when it is read in the light of Srimad Bhagavadam—the most important scriptural text, perhaps, in the Sri Vaishnava tradition. The Vaishnava Scriptures narrate the stories of Sri Krishna. One of the fascinating scenes is that of Krishna playing the flute which has a magnetic pull on the milkmaids who are drawn towards him; so also all the living beings, and the entire nature. In these narrations we also come across the “playfulness” of Krishna (Vempeny 1988). Lord Krishna with his flute and playful frivolity may appear outlandish when looked at from the perspective of the New Testament that presents Jesus making his supreme sacrifice on the cross—the central symbol of Christianity. And yet if we were to read the New Testament through the Sacred Writ of Srimad Bhagavadam we would be taken into the deeper recesses of the human, divine, and cosmic realities.

The reading of the New Testament will reveal how it has all the things necessary for salvation. But I must say that I miss one thing in the New Testament. I mean the humor. Though the gospels are meant to convey joy and peace, the humor does not seem to have a due place. A reading of the divine intervention in human history as through the avatar of Sri Krishna would bring in the element of play, both in God and also in human life. Through the play (lila) of Krishna is expressed the unbound freedom of God and God’s creation. In fact, creation is viewed as the play of God. What is happening at the microcosmic level with the play of Krishna is in fact the mirror of the macrocosmic reality of infinite freedom. We have here the criss-crossing of borders between the microcosm and the macrocosm. The magnetic pull of the milkmaids towards Krishna playing the flute is nothing but the irresistible way the Divine power draws everything to itself. In the Christian tradition we speak of the cross as the power of God’s mystery drawing us all. “When I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all to myself” (Jn 12:32). In short, a reading of the New Testament symbolism of the cross through the story of Krishna playing the flute could be very enriching for both traditions. A cross-scriptural reading of the New Testament message of the cross with the play and aesthetics (rasa) involved in the play of the flute by Krishna could save Christianity from the possible danger of masochistic trends.

Bridging the Gulf

The fourth measure in the fragmentary approach to the mystery of Jesus is to overcome the gulf between theology and pastoral praxis in the Christian communities.

It is a fact that the overwhelming majority of Christians in Asia are brought up with little or no knowledge about the faith of their neighbors and their belief in divine mediations. For many pastors and priests any positive reference to other religious traditions remains a taboo, and if they venture to speak in a positive tone about other religious traditions and divine mediators, they risk their position on account of the reaction of the Christian communities entrenched in deep and centuries-old prejudices.  

One may argue that there has been a change in the attitude of Christianity towards other religious traditions, thanks to the theological developments of recent times. This is true if we examine also some (not all) of the official documents of the Roman Catholic Church and those of the World Council of Churches, for example.  In spite of these statements, debates, and controversies involving theologians and Church leaders, what has not happened—at least not in any significant way—is the change in the ground reality. The political consequence I mentioned earlier derives from the position of Christian communities, their attitudes, and are not determined by changes in the official statements of the churches—assuming, of course, that these are open enough. The situation is one in which theology is becoming fat, so to say, whereas the Christian communities in Asia are allowed to starve. 

This anomalous situation needs to be changed. This is possible when ways and means are devised and effective measures are taken to feed the Christian communities with the religious experiences and insights of our neighbors of other faiths, their faith in mediations and their insightful interpretations of the mystery of Jesus. This involves also the efforts to introduce them to the truth, that, entering into the world of the religious experience of their neighbors and their faith in divine mediators, does not contradict the faith and commitment of Christians to the person of Jesus.

The future development of the theology of religion in Asia needs to take into account this pastoral responsibility, and should be able to respond to these needs. What use is it to imagine that we have an Asian Christology if we speak of Jesus in terms of avatar, guru, etc., when the Christian communities have not the faintest notions of what these categories mean in the experience of the neighbors of other faiths? Further, the Christian communities need to be led to appreciate the fragmentary approaches of our neighbors towards Jesus, his person and message. The Christian community should not belittle these approaches, as though it were in possession of an exhaustive understanding of Jesus Christ.

Part III: Underlying Theoretical Orientations

From what I have tried to say, it should be clear that these reflections rest on certain theoretical foundations. In this last part of my address, I think it would be necessary to highlight at least some of those theoretical issues, even though in a very sketchy form.

Porous Borders 

First of all, Jesus-interpretation in Asia requires a theoretical orientation that is capable of negotiating different borders and boundaries. Asian Jesus-interpretations may not take place from a theoretical framework in which borders are viewed as established once for all, only to be maintained rigidly. If there is one common characteristic in the Asian mode of thought and practice, it is to believe and practice as if the borders are flexible and porous. This is true as much of South Asian as South East Asian and East Asian thought. In the Asian way of thinking, there is a continuous osmosis from one realm to the other and criss-crossing of spheres. Consequently, Asia has developed in its many regional and local forms, the art of negotiating the boundaries. Let me explain.

Many aspects of our individual and societal life are today rigorously structured and regulated, meticulously planned and executed. This is the world of systems.  Yet, there are other aspects of our life that are elusive, and they defy ordering in prefabricated schemes and modules. Things cannot be assorted and clearly demarcated as black and white, devil and angel, axis of good and “axis of evil.”  The fact is that we need to grapple constantly with the grey zones, and they are plentiful. This requires proper art and pedagogy of negotiating the borders. The political experience of present times tell us how this has become a matter of primary importance. This art and pedagogy of negotiating the borders is all the more required when we deal with religious realities and experiences. The study of the genesis of religions certifies that the coming into being of the various religions in their present forms is the result of many negotiations with concepts, symbols, and rituals. I may refer here to examples as diverse as the struggle that led to the formation of a Christian identity distinct from the Jewish tradition, the formation of a Chinese Buddhism through negotiation with the Confucian and Taoist thought and practice, and the relatively recent “construction of religious boundaries” in the case of Sikhism (Oberoi 1997).

With reference to an Asian interpretation of Jesus, it means that we cannot erect rigid borders between heaven and earth, immanence and transcendence, human and divine, human and Christian, Christian and non-Christian, and so on. An Asian Jesus-interpretation will be a task of continuous moving across the borders and boundaries. Any attempt to define each one of these elements in its specificity would be to disregard the mutuality in which they are interlocked and ignore the porous and flexible borders between them.

This grey zone of porous borders is not something to be regretted, but something to be viewed as enriching. It is the terrain where we encounter the other. Here we may find the intersection of our experiences with those of others and the merging of our perspectives with the persuasion of others. Moving in the grey zone is not a weakness or compromise, but a sign of spiritual maturity. The borderlines in the grey zone cease to be walls or fences but become source of creative possibilities.

Beyond Metaphysics

This approach of negotiating the borders and boundaries will meet with difficulties from a certain understanding of Christianity, tied to a particular kind of metaphysics. The matter is much deeper than a polarity of liberal and neo-orthodox Christianity. It is observed that the de-christianization process in the West coincides with the dissolution of metaphysics. The metaphysics meant here is one of essences, or a “metaphysics of presence.” This very dissolution of the metaphysics could be the starting point for a fresh recovery of Christianity and religion in general. As Gianni Vattimo observes in another context, “the recovery of religion is not a return to metaphysics but an outcome of metaphysics’ dissolution” (Vattimo 2002). In fact, we could notice how most religious revivals today  have a strong experiential basis and  tend to foreground the world of the subject. The advent of experience-based forms of Christianity like Pentecostalism all over the world implies in varying degrees the crossing of borders. This type of Christianity is able to cross over to indigenous religious traditions and experiences.7 Basically, we are in a fresh experience of the Spirit in our times, the Spirit who moves where she wills and crosses over borders and boundaries. This experience is now accentuated by popular forms of religiosity which have also the propensity to move beyond borders. We realize more and more the inability of traditional Christology cast in a metaphysical mould to be sensitive to the issues and questions that vibrate with the Asian spirit.

Against this background, some of the difficulties from the West regarding negotiation of borders are at bottom the crisis within the West itself (Wilfred 2005). Asia may be the screen on which the difficulties and crisis of the dissolution of metaphysics in the West are projected. The fears of “syncretism” and “relativism” regarding the Asian path of interpreting Jesus Christ could be the fear to venture a Christianity that will be crafted and interpreted differently than through the medium of metaphysical essences. In this sense, we can speak of a convergence of certain aspects of postmodernity and Asian thought and interpretation.8

Quest of the Subject

A third underlying theoretical question is the place of the subject and its quest in Jesus-interpretation. An “objectivist” approach tries to make “Christology” an enterprise in establishing the objective identity of Jesus Christ. It does not pay enough attention to the religious quest of the subject and her role in Jesus-interpretation. This is of crucial importance in Asi

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