Return to Origins: Christianity and Asia
At the Catholic School I attended in Long Island in New York, Jesus was always milky-white. I can still see the full-size version of him hanging on the cross, a streak of bright red blood where the nails pierced that whiteness. I think I also believed he spoke English. Church history seemed to revolve mostly around Europeans, whether decreeing, conquering, or heroically witnessing to their faith. The Church was Europe (and increasingly, America, though the Vatican did not always seem to realize this). Subconsciously, I probably thought Jesus was an English-speaking Milanese or Venetian based on art museum exhibits.
When I was in a Catholic Church in San Francisco years later I did a double take at the statues of a noticeably Confucius-like Jesus. Thus, began a slow, but steady reappraisal and fascination with what can be called global Christianity, liberation theology, and intercultural theology –leading to my ongoing work today in interfaith theology.
Jesus, of course, did not speak English and was not Italian. Fortunately, the Jewishness of Jesus, born and reared in the Middle East, has been stressed with greater appreciation since the moral failures and horrors of the Holocaust. Yet, the idea of Jesus as Asian or highlighting the Early Church’s deep Asian (and North African) roots still remain an underdeveloped and often misunderstood foundation among many Christians (and non-Christians). The future of Christianity, though, is a return in many ways to its original past in Asia, with its billions of (mostly non-Christian) peoples—and a diversity of cultures that would seem to render any book on Christianity in Asia an impossible task.
For those familiar with the Oxford Handbooks, they are generally comprehensive, wide-ranging, and interdisciplinary. They also demand a reader’s commitment with their length and girth, averaging around 750 pages per volume. The Oxford Handbook of Christianity in Asia (684 pages) is ably edited and structured by Felix Wilfred, a preeminent Catholic Indian theologian and Editor of the important Catholic journal Concilium. Wilfred was also capably assisted by a Who’s Who of academics involved in research and publication in Christianity and Asian studies, including Francis X. Clooney, Edmund Tang, and Wong Wai Ching Angela. Wilfred, in particular, is one of those theologians who has his pulse on the global scene of Christianity, and in Asia in particular. The work is a noteworthy and valuable contribution to the Oxford Handbook series and to Asian studies, more broadly. The wide-range of authors manage to be nuanced and localized, but still reflect on the broader geographical, linguistic, and cultural diversity in Asia, and in turn, such repercussions for our globalized world. The handbook is structured into five main parts which each include introductory essays written by key scholars to render the volume of interest for the general reader, too.
What makes Christianity in Asia so fascinating and challenging (from a European or North American perspective) is its generally minority status (outside, principally, the Philippines and South Korea); the deep ongoing structural injustice and poverty in vast parts of the continent; and the rich interfaith cultures and ways of life still extant, even as such have been challenged by various ethnic, cultural, and religious ideologies from Communist China and Vietnam, to Sinhalese Buddhism in Sri Lanka, Hindutva ideology in India, and growing, wide-spread Islamism. While Christians look to a poor, itinerant miracle worker and preacher as their Divine source, Christendom, bulwarked by political and military power (and boots on the ground and people in the pews) generally betrayed its source and foundations. But when Christians are the minority, the themes, language, and theology inevitably shift—there is need for more dialogue, give-and-take interactions, and mutual learning. There is also no hiding poverty in many parts of Asia—and so (as with liberation theology in South America) it demands some kind of response. The reality of deep religious pluralism and more cases of multi-religious belonging can all help to humble and keep Christianity in perspective—for it is a humble Christianity that is the most potent and valuable, morally, spiritually, and theologically.
In this regard, Christianity in Asia is often linked (with Africa) to the future of Christianity. Of crucial import is the role and claimed uniqueness of Jesus, an issue of paramount importance in much of the West, but playing a more expansive and open possibility in Asia, as Michael Amaladoss writes in his interesting and solid contribution, “Asian Theological Trends.” The handbook, in fact, produced two particularly ‘wow’ passages, one of them by Amaladoss, who ends his essay: “Finally, harmony and nonviolence will find their support and inspiration in an experience of reality that is relational and non-dual, having its roots in the advaita of India, the Dao with its yin and yang of China, the ‘inter-being’ or mutual interdependence of Buddhism, and the Trinity of Christianity (cf. John 17:21-23)” (p. 116). Such a quote is representative of the fruit and limitless potential of Christianity immersed in its roots and future in Asia, one of deep interreligious learning and partnership without sacrificing core principles and identity. There is confluence and overlap but also distinction.
Peter Phan hits a similarly high and deeply laudable passage: “Moreover, because of its intrinsically plural character, Christian spirituality is fundamentally open and receptive to other spiritualties, learning from their distinct emphasis on the divine (e.g., in Hinduism), or on the human (e.g., in Confucianism and Buddhism), or on the cosmos (e.g., Taoism)” (p. 512). Other highlighted works include Ahmad Fauzi Abdul Hamid’s careful analysis of the historical and contemporary plight of Christians in Syria, Iraq, Palestine, and Lebanon, while David Mark Neuhaus helpfully examines the history, developments, setbacks, and key themes of Jewish-Christian dialogue in West Asia. Such a context, as he reminds scholars like me, is different than the one happening in Europe and the United States—or in the Arab-Muslim world. He challenges scholars to broaden their conception of Jewish-Christian dialogue in predominantly Buddhist, Hindu and “other Asian religious milieus”(p. 376).
Finally, I also want to highlight Gudrun Löwner’s fascinating piece on Christian art and architecture in Asia, which had me seeking out monographs specifically examining the theme. While not every essay will appeal to every reader, the strength of collections like this is to get a sample of the diversity and range of material in various related fields and themes examining Christianity in Asia (such as worship, music, spirituality, migration, evangelizing, gender, peace and conflict, and other interfaith contexts involving, for example, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Confucianism) to begin to form a more nuanced and holistic picture while providing opportunities and material for deeper, more focused study or research.
In this regard, the handbook continues my ongoing learning and awareness of global Christianity and interfaith dialogue, perhaps first sparked in that Catholic Church in San Francisco a few decades ago. The Confucian Jesus does not replace the milky-white one in my mind, as they subsist together, sometimes harmoniously, but more importantly, side by side with other images and conceptions. How such multifaith or interfaith reflections and realities bear on faith journeys, beliefs, and identities remain a key question moving forward. So-called traditional faith may be diminishing or adapting in many parts of the West, but beliefs and a need for believing and belonging endure. Examining Christianity in Asia won’t give all the answers, but it will provide many of the key questions, which in some contexts, is as important.