A Theological Interface with Pieris and Sobrino

Resources »Eapr »East Asian Pastoral Review 2008 »Volume 45 2008 Number 2 »A Theological Interface With Pieris And Sobrino

Jojo M. Fung, SJ

Jojo M. FUNG, SJ is Director of the Skudai Catholic Center in Malaysia.  He has a PhD in Theology from the Catholic Theological Union, Washington D.C.  Among his publications are Ripples on the Water (Johore, Malaysia: Majodi Publications) and Shoes-Off: Barefoot We Walk (Malaysia: Longman).

There is a wealth of Asian traditional wisdom, indigenous spirituality, religiosity, and epistemology unknown to Christians in Asia. The theological insights of Aloysius Pieris have been reverberating in the hearts of many students of theology since the 80s. In this article, I would like to attempt an interface of the contextual theologies of liberation from East and South Asia and Latin America. I will explain Pieris’ experience of the "baptism into the Jordan of Asian religiosity" (see Pieris 1982:426-41 and Ng 2004) and then my own, also examining their significance in terms of liberational praxis. In the last section, I will attempt a correlational conversation between the Asian liberational approaches and that of Sobrino’s (1998, 1992) theological option for the poor.

Baptismal Initiation

The renowned Asian theologian, Aloysius Pieris, has indicated to the Asian Church that the "window" to Asian religiosity is the way of baptismal initiation. Two incidents in Pieris’ baptism deserve our attention: his encounter with a Buddhist bhikku (monk) and his immersion in the River Ganges.

In his desperation to gain the rightful recognition and consent of a Buddhist bhikku to be his master in Buddhist philosophy in fulfillment of his doctoral studies, Pieris had to undergo a profoundly humbling "baptism." As he recounted (Pieris 1994:143),

One day, garbed in my cassock as a Catholic priest, I took a basket of fruit and flowers and, in the presence of a Buddhist leader, fell prostrate. I worshipped him and asked to be accepted as his pupil. From that day, after this act of humility, I have had no problem with Buddhist monks. And now (thank God), they have accepted me as a scholar among them.

Once accepted, Pieris began an eighteen-month "master-disciple" process of guided meditation that initiated him into Buddhist monkhood. The experience was so indelible, Pieris admitted, that it became "an important experience in my life—forgetting Christianity, to the point of denying it—to receive the fullness of the Buddhist kenosis (Pieris 1994:143)."

Pieris’ second "baptismal immersion" was inspired by his pilgrimage as a mendicant to the sacred site of Benares in the north of India. Frustrated by the refusal of the Golden Temple to let him into its sacred precincts, he made his way to the River Ganges, plunged himself into the said sacred river, and was thereafter overwhelmed by the sacrality experienced by believers of radically differing traditions.

In this atmosphere of absolute tolerance I felt that I was free to speak, free to act, and free to worship. I suddenly realized that this bathing was God’s sacrament, not human perversity polluting religion in the name of ritual purity. In that vast expanse of space, with people communing with nature, with water, and with God, I felt that I had really touched something beyond religion and therefore had touched the core of true religion. (Pieris 1987:12-13, quoted also in McConville 1988:74-75).

Emerging from the waters, Pieris celebrated the Eucharist outside the Golden Temple and near the River Ganges, witnessed by fellow pilgrims who acknowledged the presence of the holy.

Pieris’ narratives and critical reflection on his praxis have become a springboard for what I have undergone—the "baptism into the deep" sacred mysteries of life.

Plunging into the Deep

Since the 80s, I felt led by God’s Spirit to cross many boundaries. This time, however, it was a religio-cultural threshold related to an initiation that was important for my research on the indigenous shamanism of the Muruts in the southwestern interior of Sabah, formerly known as British North Borneo. My anthropological research, based largely on a methodology of observation-participation, led me to a direct participation which was very much guided by the insight of Edward Said (1992:15), who postulates that "no production of knowledge in human sciences can ever ignore or disclaim its author’s involvement as a human subject in his own circumstances."

Garing bin Muntalan, the last of the renowned Murut shamans, passed away on Monday, 26 April 2004, a few days after I left his village. Having befriended him for almost three years and having interviewed him on a number of occasions, he had offered me an occasion to "cross over" into the world of the spirits. The disclosure of this knowledge to an uninitiated "outsider" constitutes a severe breach of trust between the spirits and the shaman. The wrath of the water-spirits could bring sickness, even death, to the shaman. The initiation provided me an opening to the esoteric knowledge of Murut shamanism.

Indeed, as an outsider, I felt really blessed to experience such a privileged moment. Garing presided over the initiation on 19-20 July 2001 (Fung 2005:230-233). We were squatting in a pond. He was upstream; I was a few meters downstream. It was a process so ordinary, punctuated by instructions, questions, and answers. On the second day, Garing’s assurance to the spirits that I was his son moved me. It ceremonially sealed our relationship. Garing also disclosed to me that the spirit he was conversing with was positioned between him and me. He also told me that the water-spirits were a family of spirits in translucent human forms, only visible on a moonlit night. The day after the initiation, 21 July 2001, I came to a fuller understanding of the baptismal significance of this initiation.

I realized that my own initiation has to do with baptism into (a) Asian religiosity and (b) Asian poverty. This initiation made me return from halfway around the world and share in the poverty of the Muruts in the village of Bantul in the upper region of the interior of Sabah. In 1997, I told a First Nation Chief, Paul of Vancouver Island, about my desire to be initiated. He asked me why indigenous peoples needed to share their esoteric knowledge with me. The baptism I underwent identified me with Jesus and with fellow Asians in their religiosity and poverty, the way Jesus did with the religious poor of early Palestine. This specific ritualistic initiation into Murut shamanism identified me with Jesus, who was himself ritually initiated into Jewish religiosity (and Galilean-Judaean shamanism) and the majority who suffered marginalization.

On 22 July 2001, Garing informed me that the water-spirit visited him the previous night and told him the name of my spirit-guide. I spent the next few evenings dipping in the stream near the longhouse. I witnessed the glow of the fireflies. Garing explained them as the presence of the water-spirits in another form. They had come to watch over me.

Reflection: Similarity and Difference

The four-day initiation ceremony was so extraordinarily ordinary. It took place in a rural stream, under the canopy of the equatorial forest, witnessed by the believing poor and marginalized Muruts, amidst chuckles and surprise. Yet it was as profound and mystical as my burning bush experiences (See Fung 2003). I really felt in all humility bared to the bone of my human existence, one with life in all its pluriformity, realizing that God is the Creator of the spirit, human, and all other worlds.

I realized that the initiation is more than just crossing a threshold at a particular time and space. It is a ritualized "baptism into the deep" sacred mysteries of life. It is so "very profound" that I have yet to grasp the intricacies of the "spirit world" embedded in the matrix of the created universe. Until now, I have neither seen nor communicated with the water-spirits. For the Murut shamans, however, the sacred mysteries of life are integral to their everyday existence. They have the experience and knowledge to travel between the different worlds and collaborate with the benevolent spirits for the well-being of the Murut community.

As I reflect further, I must admit that despite the Muruts’ material poverty, there is more wealth in them than what the dominant societies, cultures, and religions would suppose. When I contrast their treasures with the modern technocentric lifestyle, the latter really pales in comparison because of its apparent hollowness, not to mention the emptiness it leaves in the hearts of many.

After all is said and done, I submit that my own "baptism into the deep" mysteries of life is an "epiphanic moment." It made me experience anew the sacredness of the universe. Up till then, I had only experienced this during moments of intimacy with God, especially in solitary prayer.

This baptism has similarities and differences with that of Aloysius Pieris’. Both are baptismal immersions in the River Jordan of Asian religiosity and poverty, leading to deeper interreligious enrichment and collaboration in liberational praxis. The observable differences are: first, that the Buddhist bhikku commands comparatively greater respect in wider society than Garing, who is little known, except within the immediate Murut community and, second, that Buddhism in Asia represents a world religion while Murut shamanism is a little tradition, an aboriginal religiosity, a marginal spirituality that is held in contempt by the elite. It is often belittled and branded as superstitious and, worse, satanic by many religious leaders of the world religions. This subaltern spirituality of the indigenous peoples is best described by them as suspect, related to shamanism and characterized by an interstitial marginality. It is still intentionally outlawed by most, if not all, the organized religions, Christianity included.

Liberational Praxis: Option for the Poor

The baptism in the River Jordan of Asian religiosity and the baptism into the subaltern spirituality of the marginal aboriginal community resonate with Sobrino’s theology of liberation that begins with the poor as locus theologicus. The poor of the world are the "least and last" (Mt 11:25) and Sobrino reads the Bible "with the eyes of the poor" (Pieris 2007:250). Sobrino "thinks, prays, and writes in the midst of the Crucified Ones" and explains the incarnation from the perspective of the Cross (Pieris 2007:251). Liberational Christology and soteriology are two sides of the coin that constitute an ecclesiology of the poor.

Believing that the poor qualify others to enter God’s reign, Sobrino also advocates that "in principle, the discovery of the reality of the poor is the origin of solidarity, for when believers relate to the poor, they teach us how to relate to them as equals." This form of solidarity "brings with it a demand for change and conversion (Sobrino 1992:149)." Thus, believers recover their true identity through communion with the poor. Once believers discover this truth, they find themselves involved in the liberational praxis of solidarity that enables the poor to be agents of change in their own struggle for equality.

Sobrino believes that this solidarity comes full circle when the initiated "are re-sent to their ordinary local churches by the poor" and though "this sending has no canonical status," it is nevertheless "a sending from the poor, ‘from below’" (Sobrino 1992:156-157). The poor person is "a question and a challenge," not because s/he is ignorant, but because s/he is "someone from whom (at least through whom) [the Christian] must learn what is most basic in the Christian faith" (Sobrino 1992:157).

Indeed, the liberational praxis of both Sobrino and Pieris has convinced me of the centrality of the poor as the dialogue partner and magister (authoritative teacher/guru) in the East Asian contextual theology of liberation. We should pay attention, not only to the religiosity of the world religions, but more so, to the subaltern suspect spirituality of indigenous peoples.

Based on my ethnographic experience, the indigenous shamanic belief systems and their magister-shamans offer the Church significant hermeneutical keys to understand the complex and holistic spirituality of the indigenous peoples. Beyond the traditional rituals and beliefs is the existence of a host of spirits whose power can be harnessed during ritualistic performances by morally upright women and men shamans for the good of the community and the individual.


This humble attempt to interface with Pieris and Sobrino represents the need to highlight the poor of the world not just as hapless victims. They are potential and actual protagonists who are endowed with a spirituality laden with a wealth of wisdom and local knowledge. Yet, they are little known and acknowledged, let alone tapped, in their desire for integral liberation. The "last and least" are fundamental to the economy of salvation. Their plight as inhabitants on the margin serves as a perennial reminder that the Church is called to renounce all death-dealing powers within and without, if we are to be filled with the resurrectional power of the powerless Crucified Lord. Only this way can the Church truly become the gospel (good news), the desired leaven and salt in the world of the excluded and marginalized.


Fung, Jojo M.


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