Is There an Asian Way of Doing Theology?

Resources »Eapr »East Asian Pastoral Review 2008 »Volume 45 2008 Number 1 »Is There An Asian Way Of Doing Theology

Michael Amaladoss, SJ

Michael AMALADOSS, SJ is the Director of the Institute of Dialogue with Cultures and Religions in Chennai, India. He also lectures at the Vidyajyoti College of Theology in Delhi. A well-known international speaker and writer, he writes extensively on issues of mission, inculturation, interreligious cooperation, and liberation. He has been a visiting professor for many years at the East Asian Pastoral Institute (EAPI).


Asian theology is not a recent phenomenon, though it is being taken note of outside Asia only now. According to local tradition, the Apostle St. Thomas came to found communities of Christians in India in the first century. They have been in touch with the Syrian Church since then. But they have not done much theologizing till recent times.

Following the trade routes, Christian communities were also present in China in the 8th century. Later, there were some attempts to understand or present Jesus in terms of the Tao.1 Starting from Matteo Ricci in China and Roberto de Nobili in India, there have been efforts to present the Gospel in a way that is intelligible to the Chinese and the Indians. Writing in the local languages, they were obliged to translate Christian terms in their dialogue with the intellectuals of those countries. There was a two-way development in this process. Local terms like Tian (Heaven) and Avatar (manifestation), used to indicate “God” and “incarnation” in Chinese and in Tamil respectively, were given new connotations.2 To the hearers, they must have evoked resonances from their own religious traditions, not fully understood by the missionaries. Since some of these terms were controverted by other missionaries, the discussion did give rise to some sort of theologizing.

The attempts by the early missionaries to present Christian doctrine in an intelligible way to the Asians did involve dialogue or polemics. Roberto de Nobili, for instance, wrote books in Tamil, not only explaining Christian doctrine, but also refuting Hindu beliefs like “polytheism” and rebirth.3 These writings would be considered more apologetics than theology. The presentation of Christian doctrine did not go beyond a translation of scholastic theology. Real theologizing, however, starts to happen in the 19thcentury. It would be surprising to know that in India the first efforts at local theologizing were made by Hindus. A comprehensive survey of Asian theology has recently been made by a group of scholars.4 Its quantity and extension is amazing. It would be beyond the capacity of any one person to attempt to summarize this rich output. So I am limiting myself to the question whether there is an Asian way of doing theology.

This question is not asked in the abstract, but takes into account some familiarity with the situation of theologizing in Asia. It will also be explored in contrast with what I call the Euro-American tradition. To be precise, the Euro-American tradition that Asians normally react to is the official Vatican school, which daily impinges on us and which is built around neoscholasticism. There are many theologians and theological movements in Euro-America who dialogue with us. Inspired by the Enlightenment “turn to the subject” and dialoguing with modern philosophies, they have abandoned neoscholasticism. But given the present situation of dominating relationships within the Church, it is the official school that we have to differentiate ourselves from, since they tend to identify their theology with the faith. Till recently St. Thomas Aquinas was often acclaimed as the master and model of theology in the Church. I am not opposing them. They have a right to their way of thinking. But they serve as a foil for us to become better aware of our separate identity. I request the readers’ indulgence for this.

An Asian Way?

Given the rich cultural diversity within Asia, is it meaningful to speak about Asia as one unit? There are two big Asian cultural units, China and India, each of them having more than a billion people. There are hundreds of smaller local cultures, though the cultures of India and China extend beyond their borders. China and India cannot speak of one culture either. They are a mosaic of cultures. In an era of globalization, every ethnic and cultural group seems to be fighting for its autonomy. If language is seen as one of the main determinants of culture, there are thousands of Asian languages and dialects. How can we speak of Asia then?

Let us start with the example of China. It has many languages or dialects that are not mutually intelligible. But we cannot deny that Confucianism as a socio-cultural framework underlies Chinese society. As a matter of fact, it extends beyond Chinese territorial limits to countries like Korea, Vietnam, and Japan. China is also animated by a mixture of Taoism and Buddhism integrated with many cosmic local cults. One literary language—Mandarin—has also unified Chinese literature and philosophy. China has a certain unified political history. Below the overall unity, there are certainly tensions and dominant-subaltern relations between the diverse units. But the overall unity-in-diversity cannot be denied.

Similar arguments can be made about other big Asian units like India. Even today, the dances and shadow plays of Thailand and Java (Indonesia) are based on an epic of India known as the Ramayana. There is an overall cultural unity that brings Asia together when we contrast it with Euro-America or Africa. The Orient and the Occident are not only geographical, but also cultural categories. Without going too much in detail, we can say that the cultural unity of Euro-America is based on Greek philosophy and the religions of the Book, namely Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. These religions are considered prophetic and contrasted to Asian religions looked upon as mystical. I think that what underlies the cultural unity of Asia is Buddhism, though it has taken different avatars in different regions, interacting creatively with various local cultures and religions. With Buddhism goes a particular psycho-physical technique of meditation, namely Yoga, which has its roots in India. Countries in Euro-America have largely been dominated by one religion, Christian or Moslem, though there may have been internal conflicts within these. Asia has been and is multireligious.

The Asian identity has been further fostered by the formation, thirty years ago, of the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences (FABC, Catholic) and the Christian Council of Asia (CCA, Protestant). This has led to a common point of view and shared theologizing. That this can happen smoothly is testimony to the underlying unity of Asia. As soon as we understand this we realize that cultural Asia is not geographical Asia. West Asia would rather go with Euro-America. The unity of Asia comes out even more strongly when Asians meet theologians from other parts of the world, especially Euro-America, in international meetings.

Contextual Theology

Asian theology is contextual.5 Every theology is actually contextual. But Euro-American theology pretends to be free of context, abstract, “objective,” and universal. By contrast, Asian theology is unashamedly contextual. It shares this characteristic also with African and Latin American theologies. Euro-Americans consider contextual theology as merely pastoral, while their own theology is systematic. I shall show that contextual theologies, while staying close to experiential reality, can also be systematic, although in a different sense from the Euro-American.

In Euro-America, theology has been described as “faith seeking understanding.” Faith is seen as a body of truth or dogmas. Theology seeks to understand, explain, and defend this. It makes use of philosophy to do this and to construct a system. It starts with first principles drawn from doctrine and develops them logically and deductively. Its way of reflection is conceptual and rational. It is even more so after the Enlightenment. Concepts are abstractions from reality and experience. It impoverishes experience. But it is easier for systematization. Whatever does not enter into the system can either be ignored as irrelevant or questioned as inappropriate. Experience is subordinated to the system and judged by it. If any new idea emerges in the course of history, it has to be shown that it is only a rediscovery of what has always been there, hidden in the tradition that has been handed over, and hinted at by the “Fathers of the Church.”

In Asia, as in Africa and Latin America, theology starts with faith-experience. Lived in a particular historical and cultural context, this experience raises questions to faith-tradition. We try to understand the question more sharply and clearly by analyzing the situation, making use of the sciences, particularly social, like psychology, sociology, and cultural anthropology. Once the question is clear, there is an effort to correlate the faith-experience with faith-tradition mediated by the question. A two-fold hermeneutic or interpretation follows. There is an attempt to reinterpret tradition in the context of experience. There is also an effort to find new meaning in the experience in the light of tradition. This dialectical reflection is philosophical. In the light of this reflection faith may get a new formulation and experience may acquire a new meaning. This new vision suggests new interventions that seek to transform reality and experience. Discernment follows reflection. Theology then becomes “faith urging transformation.” The method of reflection is not conceptual-rational. But it is intellectual, not merely emotional or imaginative. The process of reflection is not logical-deductive. It is neither merely inductive as in the physical sciences. It is correlative and hermeneutical. It is systematic, if system means coherence.6

An Example: The Church and the Religions

Let me illustrate the different methodological approaches with an example. We have already seen that one of the characteristics of the Asian context is multireligiosity. The question is how do we relate to the other religions and their believers and how do we make sense of their presence in our own faith tradition. Let us focus on three ways of answering this question.

The first way starts with tradition. Tradition says: “There is no salvation outside the Church.” Today this is formulated in a positive way: “The Church is necessary for salvation.” As long as we do not have a real experience of other religions, it is easy to dismiss them as devilish or natural/human. When the early Fathers discovered some good ideas or principles in the ancient Greek philosophers, they tried to show how they may have been borrowed from Judaism or are the products of human reason. Some of them were considered as “seeds of the Word.” As modern theologians come into a real contact with the other religions, they also start to recognize in them the “seeds of the Word.” Later, they accept that the Spirit of God is present and active in other cultures and religions. But inspired by the “Old Testament/New Testament” paradigm, we see these religions as preparations that have to find fulfillment in the Church. The people belonging to the other religions, if and when they are saved, are saved by the Church to which they are related in a “mysterious way.” Evangelii nuntiandi (53) considered other religions as human arms outstretched toward heaven and Dominus Iesus (22) said that they are “objectively deficient” with regard to salvation.

A second way of reflection on other religions is provided by Karl Rahner. His argument is purely a priori—what he would call “transcendental.”

In view of the social nature of man and the previously even more radical social solidarity of men, however, it is quite unthinkable that man, being what he is, could actually achieve this relationship to God—which he must have and which, if he is to be saved, is and must be made possible for him by God—in an absolutely private interior reality and this outside of the actual religious bodies which offer themselves to him in the environment in which he lives … If man can always have a positive, saving relationship to God, and if he always had to have it, then he has always had it within that religion which in practice was at his disposal by being a factor in his sphere of existence.7

The members of other religions find salvation in and through their religions. But Rahner will still say that they are related to the Church in a mysterious way. He will also say that the other believers are “anonymous Christians.” Rahner’s reflection is not based on any concrete experience of other religions and their believers.

The Asian bishops offer a third way of reflection in a similar multireligious situation. The Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences, including Bishops from Pakistan to Japan, said at their First Plenary Assembly:

In Asia especially this (evangelization) involves a dialogue with the great religious traditions of our peoples. In this dialogue we accept them as significant and positive elements in the economy of God’s design of salvation. In them we recognize and respect profound spiritual and ethical meanings and values. Over many centuries they have been the treasury of the religious experience of our ancestors, from which our contemporaries do not cease to draw light and strength. They have been (and continue to be) the authentic expression of the noblest longings of their hearts, and the home of their contemplation and prayer. They have helped to give shape to the histories and cultures of our nations. How then can we not give them reverence and honor? And how can we not acknowledge that God has drawn our peoples to Himself through them?8

Their appreciation of other religions is based on their experience of other believers. The people who follow the first way will seek to fit into their ready-made framework any new experiences that they might have. Their paradigm will not change. Rahner could have argued his case without having met a single member of another religion. He is open to new frameworks but will not stray too far from tradition. His method is still a priori. The Asians are open to change their framework, without denying anything that is truly valid in the original framework, but setting it as their new experiential context. Let us look at a couple of statements that outline tentatively a new paradigm. The Asian theologians say:

This positive appreciation is further rooted in the conviction of faith that God’s plan of salvation for humanity is one and reaches out to all peoples: it is the kingdom of God through which he seeks to reconcile all things with himself in Jesus Christ. The Church is a sacrament of this mystery—a symbolic realization that is on mission towards its fulfillment (Lumen gentium, 1 and 5; cf. BIRA IV/2). It is an integral part of this mission to discern the action of God in peoples in order to lead them to fulfillment. Dialogue is the only way in which this can be done, respectful both of God’s presence and action and of the freedom of conscience of the believers of other religions (cf. Lumen gentium, 10-12; Ecclesiae sanctae, 41-42; Redemptor hominis, 11-12).9

The Guidelines for Interreligious Dialogue of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India’s Commission for Dialogue and Ecumenism says:

The plurality of religions is a consequence of the richness of creation itself and of the manifold grace of God. Though coming from the same source, peoples have perceived the universe and articulated their awareness of the Divine Mystery in manifold ways, and God has surely been present in these historical undertakings of his children. Such pluralism therefore is in no way to be deplored but rather acknowledged as itself a divine gift.10

The Indian bishops, in their response to the Lineamenta before the Special Synod of Bishops for Asia, say:

In the light of the universal salvific will and design of God, so emphatically affirmed in the New Testament witness, the Indian Christological approach seeks to avoid negative and exclusivistic expressions. Christ is the sacrament, the definitive symbol of God’s salvation for all humanity. This is what the salvific uniqueness and universality of Christ means in the Indian context. That, however, does not mean there cannot be other symbols, valid in their own ways, which the Christian sees as related to the definitive symbol, Jesus Christ. The implication of all this is that for hundreds of millions of our fellow human beings, salvation is seen as being channeled to them not in spite of but through and in their various sociocultural and religious traditions. We cannot, then, deny a priori a salvific role for these non-Christian religions.11

Anyone can note here a clear change in the overall vision of salvation history and the role of the Church and other religions in it. It is not my purpose here to develop the Asian theology of other religions.12 This has been done elsewhere. I just wish to point to the different ways in which the other religions can be looked at, the difference that a living experience of other believers makes to this reflection, and the readiness to adjust theological frameworks and language to give meaning to this new experience. This is not pastoral theology applying traditional systematic affirmations to new situations. On the contrary, new experiential contexts are challenging our ways of thinking and are leading us to modify our system. It warns us that we should not quickly identify a particular systematic theology with doctrine and faith. I point out in passing that the approach to other religions plays a crucial role in the way that Asians theologize about God, Jesus Christ, the Kingdom of God, the Church, the ways of receiving salvation as God’s gift, and the manner in which they relate to and live and work with other believers.

An Asian Way of Thinking?

Contextual theology is not peculiar to Asia. The contextual method is also followed in Africa and Latin America. What is special to Asia is its context: the presence of ancient and living cultures and many world religions that refuse to disappear in the face of or be absorbed by Christianity. But besides this context there is also an Asian way of thinking. Human nature may be the same everywhere. But humans are the products of nature and culture. They are born into a group of people and interiorize their language and culture which structures their way of looking at and thinking about their world. I suggest that the Asian cultural way is different from that of Euro-America. Scientists who study the human way of thinking and expressing speak about the left and the right brain. The left brain is supposed to be the seat of abstract, conceptual, and rational thought. The right brain, on the other hand, animates imaginative and emotional intelligence through images and symbols. All humans have both parts of the brain. But according to the culture or context in which they grow, one or the other part may be more developed in particular individuals or groups. Cultural anthropologists suggest that Euro-America has developed the left brain more than the right one. The Greek way of thought and the rationalism of the Enlightenment have favored this development. The growth of the physical sciences had further contributed to this rational orientation. This does not mean that there are no artists, poets, and mystics among the Euro-Americans who work rather with their right brain. But the thrust of their culture as a whole is left-brain-oriented.

The Asians, in contrast, have developed more the right brain. They still feel at home with images, myths, and symbols. Their approach to the world is more holistic than abstract. Rational argument is integrated with intellectual intuition, emotion, and the experience of the body and the world. Yoga promotes such integration. There is no philosophy separate from theology. Sankara, a Hindu theologian, and Nagarjuna, a Buddhist, are excellent dialecticians (among many others), equal to anyone in the world. But their argument seeks, not merely knowledge, but spiritual, experiential insight. Analogy, correlation, and interpretative (hermeneutical) reflection guide their quest for experience. India has excellent mathematicians and computer scientists. Under the impact of globalization it may be that the left brain is trying to dominate the right brain today. But people are already seeking a balance. In religious matters, particularly, I think that the right brain still dominates in Asia. People are not individualistic. Relationships are important. A sense of the other becomes an element in reflection. Thinking becomes dialogical. The guru becomes an important mediation for the communication of experiential knowledge. Stories and examples form integral parts of religious discourse. Once again, I would like to stress that the difference is historical and cultural and not natural. The Buddha’s discourses are full of stories and examples. So is the teaching of Jesus conveyed through parables and miracles. But stories are not part of Euro-American theological discourse today.

Christian theologians in Asia have been formed largely by Euro-American teachers, or Asians formed in Euro-American universities. So they are still slaves to the Euro-American patterns of thinking. But we have people like Kosuke Koyama,13 C. S. Song,14 and Anthony de Mello who have perfected the art of theologizing through story telling. This should inspire contemporary Asian theologians. Here is a small story by Anthony de Mello:

Husband: “I am going to work hard, and some day we are going to be rich.”

Wife: “We are rich already, dear, for we have each other. Someday we may have money.”15

The story can keep us reflecting for a long time on the meaning of life, of family, of relationships. For some of us it may take years to acquire the attitude of the wife in the story. The essence of Asian spirituality is contained in the following story:

A salt doll journeyed for thousands of miles and stopped at the edge of the sea. It was fascinated by this moving liquid mass, so unlike anything it had seen before. “What are you?” said the doll to the sea. “Come in and see,” said the sea with a smile. So the doll walked in. The further it went, the more it dissolved, till there was only a pinch of it left. Before that last bit dissolved, the doll exclaimed in wonder, “Now I know what I am!”16

The Indians or the Chinese masters have not felt the need for imprisoning their faith in “clear and distinct ideas” and statements (dogmas) gathered together in a catechism. Like the Fathers of the Church, they prefer to keep their epics and stories and comment on them. A commentary can interpret the story in the context in which it is renarrated. The significance of the story may vary from context to context. The point of the story is not to give us knowledge, but to challenge us to decide and to act.

What is it that makes the Asian way interesting? Concepts are abstracted from sense experience. Clear and distinct ideas may help clarity, but they lack depth. In religious reflection we are dealing with human and divine realities that transcend sense experience. They cannot be imprisoned in concepts. Symbols that can have connotation beyond denotation may be a little more helpful. But even symbols will have to be transcended before the ineffable where all we can say is neti, neti—not this, not this. Euro-America is not unaware of apophatic or negative theology. But that will not stop systematic theologians from asserting the truth and certainty of their statements. Symbols and stories need interpretation. Interpretations depending on the context and the interpreter are always contextual and pluralistic. A pluralism of interpretations can be enriching. The many forms that some parables take in the different gospels are good examples of this. The four gospels are four interpretations of the life and teachings of Jesus. People have tried unsuccessfully to merge them into one story. Theologians aim at simplifying them into a Christological synthesis. All these efforts only impoverish the richness of the original narratives. While systematic theology remains the preserve of specialists, even peasants can reflect on symbol and story and find meaning for their lives.

Categories like “objective” and “subjective” acquire new meaning when we are dealing with symbols and interpretation. Deductive reasoning may claim some abstract “objectivity.” But interpretation is conditioned by the interpreter and the context. It is not objective and universal. It is neither subjective nor relative. The meaning is not created by the interpreter. S/he is only reading it from the symbol that s/he is interpreting. But s/he knows that it is not the final word. S/he recognizes that others may see other meanings in the same symbol. S/he acknowledges that s/he her/himself may grow in his/her grasp of the symbol. The symbols engage the whole person—not only the reason, but also the imagination and the emotions. They lead, not only to action, but to experience. Theology will not be fragmented into biblical, positive, systematic, moral, etc. Specialists today are said to be people who know more and more about less and less. The Asians look, not to teachers of knowledge, but to gurus who can communicate, initiate, and guide experience. We do have “unbelieving” theologians today in the Euro-American universities. For them theology is a “science” like any other. For the Asians, theology is a sadhana or spiritual practice. They look up, not to a scholar, but to a holy person. One of the complaints that Asians have is that the priests of the Church are scholars, administrators, and social workers, not gurus.

A Holistic Way

The rational way of thinking deals with clear and distinct concepts. Its logic functions with the principle of noncontradiction. Two contrary affirmations cannot be true at the same time. It has to be either one or the other. So one speaks of the approach of “either-or.” If both seem to be true or valid then one has to be subordinated to the other in terms of a hierarchical order to safeguard unity and escape pluralism which seems automatically suspected of being relativistic. This kind of thinking leads to many seemingly irreconcilable dichotomies: nature-supernature, body-soul, human-divine, secular-sacred, lay-priest, world-church, etc. In every case the two realities will be declared to be essentially different and the first will be subordinated to the second.

Correspondingly, there is a tendency to see any distinction between two elements in one reality as a separation. Asian theologians who seek to distinguish between the Church and the Kingdom or between the humanity and divinity in Jesus are often accused of separating them. For example, we are told that the Kingdom is Jesus Christ or that the Church is the Kingdom. There is no problem as long as such relationships are not seen as identities. But it becomes problematic when attributes like uniqueness, fullness, universality, etc., are applied, not only to Jesus Christ, but also to the Kingdom and to the Church without qualification. In such a case it will be difficult to accept the Church as a historical, limited, or sinful reality. The Church then becomes dominant and inclusive. One takes the verb “is” as affirming identity and any differentiation or distinction is seen as a threat to unity and identity. Vatican II said that the one true Church “subsists” in the Catholic Church. Some theologians take “subsists” as the equivalent of “is” and affirm identity. Then of course, they cannot consider other ecclesial bodies as “churches.” This attitude reduces the “other churches” to second class realities and sees their integration into the one church as the only goal of ecumenism. We will have a similar problem in Asia with other religions when some affirm that Christianity is the only true (i.e., salvific) religion.

Another example would make this clearer. In contemporary missiology, there is always a tension between “proclamation” and “dialogue.” One can define them in the abstract as “proclaiming Jesus in view of converting the other” and “dialogue in view of mutual understanding.” In this sense one is not the other. One cannot do both at the same time. One can do only either one or the other. One would even say that they are “formally” different or that these activities have different “formal objects.” Dialogue is then subordinated to proclamation as preparation or means. The Asians do not look at these activities in an abstract manner. They will consider a situation in which a Christian meets a Hindu. As they converse, the Christian can start talking about his/her faith convictions, just as the Hindu may share her/his faith conviction also. They are at the stage of mutual “proclamation.” But as the conversation goes on, the Christian and the Hindu realize that God has also spoken to the other and that s/he cannot talk about God to the other without taking into account the other’s experience of God. S/he starts correlating the two experiences. This is already “dialogue.” “Proclamation” and “dialogue” are two moments in one conversation or relationship. One cannot proclaim without dialoguing, that is, taking into account the other person’s experience. One cannot dialogue without proclaiming, that is, witnessing to one’s own faith-convictions. Proclamation is not dialogue. Yet, they can happen together in the same relationship, though they may be in tension with each other. At any given time, one may be more dominant. Abstracting the activities from the concrete relationship impoverishes them and isolates them. They are no longer experiential. Conceptual logic cannot handle this. The Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences spoke of evangelization as a threefold dialogue of the gospel with the many poor, the rich cultures, and the deep religions of Asia. People who do not understand the Asian approach will always ask: “But what about proclamation?” The answer will be that any dialogue of the gospel with people and with the realities they live is always proclamational and prophetic. That is why Asian theologians speak about integral evangelization.17

Here the approach is not “either-or,” but “both-and.” Holding two things together in this way supposes that each has indeed an identity of its own, but this identity is not defined as the absence of the other. Each identity is positive. It is different. But it is not seen as the contradiction of the other. It can be one pole of a dialectic or tensive relation. One can speak of “identity-in-difference.”

Asians, for instance, may find it easier to grasp the divine and the human in Jesus. In Euro-America, in spite of the Chalcedonian definition, the tendency has been to stress either the divinity or the humanity one-sidedly in practice and often even in theory. The people who affirm divinity seem to explain away the humanity, as if the Word of God was just acting (putting on a show) for the benefit of humans. Those who stress the humanity of Jesus do not know how to accept his divinity and speak of a person, specially inspired in a unique way by the Holy Spirit. The Church is the sacrament of salvation. Salvation is mediated by the Church. This is a positive affirmation. But if one goes further and says that salvation is mediated only by the Church, that is a comparative statement that cannot be made a priori without taking into account other religions and their place in the plan of God. This cannot be decided a priori. Only the a posteriori approach of Asian bishops and theologians can help here. We can look at the other pairs that I have mentioned above in similar manner.

Identity-in-difference is not the same as analogy, which remains a logical tool. A concept is predicated analogically of two things which are similar in some ways. In other words, analogy handles “similarity-in-difference” between two different objects. Identity-in-difference, on the contrary, deals with a complex reality which is one and not one or two and yet not-two. For example, the Church is the Reign of God and yet the Reign of God is more than the Church. It is not apart from the Church. But it is not identical with it either. The Church is sinful in a way that the Reign of God is not. Analogy cannot handle this kind of situation. Logic seeks to escape the situation by saying that the Church is not sinful, but its members are. It does this by positing an abstract reality called Church which is independent of its members. It would further be considered mysterious. One needs to be a Platonist who believes in the existence of independent “Ideas” to understand this.

In a world governed by noncontradiction, if one is not for, then one must be against. It is a world of fundamentalists. It is not the world of the Trinitarian God who is pluralistic.

The Advaitic Principle

The problem of the one and the many has always been a philosophical problem. Euro-America has of course to choose between the one and the many. In the process it subordinates the many to the One as creation to the Creator. India however affirms neither the one nor the many, but speaks of reality as not-two, advaita. There are many forms of advaita in India in which the relationship between the One and the many are analyzed. It is not my intention to go into that metaphysics here. I have already mentioned that the approach of “both-and” can be considered advaitic. I want now to point to another dimension of advaita, namely, the absolute in the relative. For example, a person loves me. S/he expresses that love in many symbolic ways: a gesture, a look, a gift, a service, etc. No expression can express fully that love. On the other hand, I cannot experience that love independent of any expression. I experience that love in and through its many expressions. In the horizon of that love, every expression becomes significant. The expressions are relative to the love which they express. Once again this relativity is not subjective, something that I create, which therefore depends on me. It is an objective, but limited, expression. It is the relationship that gives it meaning. This is the model for experiencing the Absolute in its relative manifestations of the world. No manifestation can claim to be Absolute, conditioned as it is by history, culture, and person. And yet, we touch the Absolute in the relative. We do not relativize the Absolute, but relate the Absolute to its many symbolic expressions. Our interpretations of these symbols have an open character.

Such a symbolic approach to reality and experience questions the scholastic idea of truth being the “adequation” between the intellect and the object. What we know of the object through the symbol is indeed true, but it is not the whole truth. We can never claim to know a reality totally. This is true at all levels. Such a view of the Absolute in its relative expressions makes space for pluralism in knowledge, in religions, and in theology.

An Integrative Approach

The distinction between philosophy and theology in Euro-America is based on rationalism. Philosophy is supposed to be rational, while theology is based on faith. Hermeneutics and postmodernism have shorn philosophy of its claim to objective rationality. Asia, however, has never envisaged a philosophy that is independent of theology. Philosophical reflection is part of theology. In that sense it is postmodern. On the other hand, even Asia cannot ignore the differentiation between the sciences, physical and social, and philosophical theology. The social sciences—economics, politics, psychology, sociology, and cultural anthropology—seem essential to any quest for meaning in life in the world. These sciences have a certain autonomy of their own. But in so far as philosophico-theological reflection focuses on life in the world, it has to take into account, dialogue with, and integrate within itself the discoveries of the other sciences. Such integration would mean, in practice, interdisciplinary reflection, with an active dialogue between the various sciences and philosophy-theology, focusing on questions of meaning that arise from life in the world. The principle of integration then is not some abstract first principle, but the question. This leads us back to the theologico-pastoral cycle.

Integration is also important from another point of view. If the goal of our theologizing is not simply discovering meaning, but transformation of life, then this is not possible if there is no integration within the person and between the person and reality. Theology ceases to be an academic discipline and becomes a sadhana or spiritual practice. The actual movement in Euro-America seems to be going in the contrary direction. In Asia, on the contrary, there is an effort to take theology closer to life. Theology therefore is not merely faith seeking understanding. Rather, it is faith seeking transformation through understanding. It is in that way that the person, the others, the world, and God are integrated in advaitic communion.

A Dialogical Approach

Life in Asia is lived in a multireligious situation. Believers in different religions are not living in ghettos but in common, shared civil and political societies. Common life is possible only if the members of various religions are able to converge in common action, even though it is justified by each religious group in terms of it own faith. But conversation between different groups leading to convergence need not exclude dialogue at the religious level. Interreligious dialogue is also justified from the strictly religious points of view. If we believe that God is one and that the Spirit of God is present and active in all cultures and religions, then even when God is directly speaking to me, God’s self-revelation to the other is not totally irrelevant to me. If I believe, further, that God wants to gather all things into a unity, then interreligious dialogue becomes an obligation.18

What this means for theological reflection is that I can no longer talk about God while ignoring the religious other. Asian Christians cannot think about God without dialoguing with the advaita and the avatars of the Hindus, the strict monotheism of the Muslims, and the agnosticism of the Buddhists, not to speak of the various popular religiosities. In academic circles today, one has moved from comparative religious studies that claim to look at the religions as it were from the outside, to comparative theology which takes the faith perspectives of each religious group seriously. We have to move on to dialogical theology. This has been happening in Asia already. People practicing Hindu and Buddhist meditation have sought and succeeded in integrating the religious other in their own sadhana.19 When Asian Christians discover their double roots both in Christianity and in the religions of their ancestors, which need not be cast aside, their theological reflection will become dialogical. When the Office of Theological Concerns of the FABC developed a theology of harmony, it chose the dialogical way, exploring the theme of harmony in other religions and in the Bible before integrating them in its own reflection.20


By distinguishing Asian from Euro-American (i.e., official) method of theologizing, I am trying to show in what way the Asians are special and different. It has been easy to do this by contrasting the two theologies. But it is not my intention to criticize this “official” Euro-American theology. It is not for me as an Asian to say what it should be. I only want to say that we are different and to request that we be not judged with criteria drawn from such a Euro-American theology, projecting this as universal. Respecting pluralism within Asian theology, we have no hesitation to accept pluralism in world theology. We hope and demand that this pluralism be acknowledged, respected, and accepted and that there are no claims to a universal theology beyond cultures that is imposed on us in the name of fidelity to the tradition of faith.


1. See Hieromonk Damascene, Christ, the Eternal Tao (Platina: Valaam Books, 2002).

2. Cf. Roman Malek, ed., The Chinese Face of Jesus Christ, Vols. 1 & 2(Sankt Augustin: Institut Monumenta Serica and China-Zentrum, 2002, 2003); also, Raimon Panikkar, La Pienezza dell’Uomo. Una Cristofania (Milano: Jaca Book, 1999).

3. S. Rajamanickam, The First Oriental Scholar (Tirunelveli: De Nobili Research Institute, 1972).

4. See John C. England et al., eds., Asian Christian Theologies: A Research Guide to Authors, Movements, Sources, Vols. 1-3 (Delhi: ISPCK, Manila: Claretian, and Maryknoll: Orbis, 2002-4).

5. See David Kwang-sun Suh, Annette Meuthrath, and Choe Hyondok, eds., Charting the Future of Theology and Theological Education in Asian Contexts (Delhi: ISPCK, 2004).

6. This method is known as the pastoral cycle. For a recent exploration, see Frans Wijsen, Peter Henriot, and Rodrigo Mejía, eds., The Pastoral Circle Revisited: A Critical Quest for Truth and Transformation (Maryknoll: Orbis, 2005).

7. Karl Rahner, Theological Investigations, Vol. V (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 1969), 128.

8. Franz-Josef Eilers, ed., For All the Peoples of Asia, Vol. 1 (Manila: Claretian, 1997), 14.

9. See J. Gnanapiragasam and Felix Wilfred, eds., Being Church in Asia (Manila: Claretian Publications, 1994), 13.

10. Guidelines for Interreligious Dialogue, No. 25 (New Delhi: CBCI Centre, 1989), 29.

11. Ibid., 22.

12. See Jose Kuttianimattathil, Practice and Theology of Interreligious Dialogue (Bangalore: Kristu Jyoti Publications, 1995).

13. See Kosuke Koyama, Waterbuffalo Theology (London: SCM, 1974).

14. See C. S. Song, Tell Us Our Names: Story Theology from an Asian Perspective (Maryknoll: Orbis, 1984).

15. Anthony de Mello, The Song of the Bird (Anand: Gujarat Sahitya Prakash, 1987), 149.

16. Ibid., 114-115.

17. Cf. Michael Amaladoss, “Integral Evangelization: Pre-Synodal Reflections,” Vidyajyoti Journal of Theological Reflection 61 (1997): 223-232.

18. Cf. Michael Amaladoss, Making Harmony: Living in a Pluralistic World (Chennai: IDCR, 2003).

19. See Dennis Gira and Jacques Scheuer, eds., Vivre de plusieurs religions. Promesse ou illusion? (Paris: L’Atelier, 2000).

20. See “Asian Christian Perspectives on Harmony” in Franz-Josef Eilers, ed., For All the Peoples of Asia, Vol. 2 (Manila: Claretian, 1997), 229-298.


Amaladoss, Michael

2003 Making Harmony: Living in a Pluralist World. Chenai: IDCR.

1997 Life in Freedom: Liberation Theologies from Asia. Maryknoll: Orbis.

1991 “Liberation: An Interreligious Project,” East Asian Pastoral Review 28/1:4-33.