Understanding the Spirituality and Theological Thought of Our Region

Forum of Asia Theological Librarians - Feb.2003

Understanding the Spirituality and Theological Thought of Our Region:
An Outline for Meditation and Discussion

John C. England

1. Our Priorities

As Theological Librarians in Asia the central priorities for us are:
1. The Christian resources of our own country and region (because the central Christian task is always to respond to the saving presence of God where we are....)
Our central concern therefore is Asian Christian thought, writing and witness which have arisen from, and fed, Christian life in our country and region; the ‘reflective’ responses to God’s historic and present work in Tamilnadu or Tomohon, Guangdung or Luzon, Cholla or Kyushu. [The important focus is therefore upon contextualizing, incarnational or ‘local’ theologies which discover within ‘a people’s presence struggle and aspiration, and in their creative cultural and religious traditions, the presence of the same liberating and transforming Spirit known in Jesus the Christ].

2. The unique Christian history and experience of our peoples as they recognise and respond to God’s Spirit known in Jesus Christ. Tihs is the primary food and resources for all present learning, teaching and living and gives our work as librarians a unique and very special role, both for our own people and for the world Christian community. From early centuries on, and now often in the midst of sharp socio-economic and cultural discord, we have a vast range of Christian Writing that aries from faith and mission in our own countries: theological reflection of very diverse forms, intentions and methods, written by women as men, lay people as well as clergy, expatriates as well as nationals.

2. Asian Resources - these can be summarized as follows:

a) For early periods (pre 1500): collections of hymns, poetry, treatises, homilies, chronicles, scholia (commentaries), letters, liturgies, parables, dialogues, biographies, inscriptions, carvings, crosses, seals and frescoes. Large collections of these have been located across the Asian region, but many are still unrecognised and unclassified, let alone studied.
In particular, the collections heal in scores of libraries and museums world-wide include:
- hundreds of Syriac writings in a wide variey of forms from the 4th century on in Central Asia, India and elsewhere;
- dozens of lengthy sutras from Turkestani and Chinese Christians of the 7th to 11th centuries;
- letters and journals of numberless Christian travellers, from the East as well as from the West, in the 9th to 14th centuries;
- along with narratives, inscriptions, art-forms, chronicles, biographies and letters.
For these and much later writing we are still in the ‘excavatory’ stage, when much work remains in order to unearth neglected, and even suppressed materials.

b) For the ‘early modern’ period, (1600-1800) we
Some national bibliographies, for example for India, Vietnam, the Philippines, or Japan, include a number of writings from this period, and bibliographies for others, such as the Moluccas, Korea and China, have been begun. Many writings in this period remain anonymous (or were attributed to a missionary author) and we are only now beginning to realise the extent, and the thrust, of contextualising writings in these centuries.

A brief summary would have to include writings in which:
i) Local Christians encounter, modify, even reject, forms of western teaching (in for example India, China, Korea, Japan), in commentaries, treatises and narratives;
ii) Indigenous verse, drama and art-forms express and reshape Christian thought (in for example Ceylon, Indo-China, China, Japan, the Philippines);
iii) Indigenous religious tradition is restored and reconciles with Christhian teaching (in e.g. India, China, Malaya), in dialogues and treatises;
iv) Complete integration of vocation, life-style and writing can be observed in the works of some authors or artists, and is especially notable in the lives of a number of women in e.g. Japan, the Philippines, India and China;
v) Local friends or converts interpret and collaborate with missioners, in producing catechisms, grammars, liturgies and manuals, in almost every country of the region;
vi) Chronicle, testimony, apologetic, and biography also appear in letters, diaries, confessions and narratives across the region.

In this period, in addition to a wide range of individual works which are now known, a number of prolific authors have emerged from recent studies, some of them being recently republished. Among those writers for whom a series of significant works have survived, are Yang Ting-yun (1557 - 1627), Li Ma tou (Matteo Ricci, 1552 - 1610), Hsu Kuang-chi (1562 - 1633), Zang Ching-yao (1633 -c.1725), Roberto de Nobili (1577 - 1656), Jacome Gonsalves (1676 - 1742), Jean Calmette (1693 - 1740), Joseph Vaz (1651- 1711), Bartolome Saguinsin (1694 - 1772), Philipe de Rosario Binh (fl 1790), Chong Yak-jong (1760 - 1801).

For all these we so far have only partial attempts to establish some listing or bibliographical control. Few adequate bibliographies exist - although a number are now in preparation - and for some earlier periods the work of ‘excavation’ has only recently begun.

c). The 19th and 20th centuries
We must now add to the materials outline above the many contemporary forms of essay and monograph, people-stories, statements of faith or prophetic witness, meditations, declarations of conscience, testimonies, theses, songs, protest liturgies, micro-forms, oral histories, and the wide range of Christian arts,(perhaps also web-sites - for a very few?).
National bibliographies are available for most countries of the region, although they very in size from twenty or so pages to a dozen volumes. Most entries are however for the period post-1950, with heavy weight given to years 1970 - 1990. This is not least because of tyhe sheer quatity of Christian publishing in these decades - (now more than 200 significant volumes per month across the region with four to five new journals appearing each year).
To chart the vast range and diversity of Asian Christian writings since 1900, it is useful to first attempt to list them according to intention of the writer. We find that they can be grouped in the following functional categories:
i) Transplanting Western forms of teaching - whether in a ‘pre-fabricated/colonial pattern; by studying and copying Western writings, or by providing “Asian garments” for theology.......
ii) Rejecting Western interpretations of doctrine, forms of institutional life, or socio-political choices.
iii) Encountering Asian culture and tradition - in a sympathetic study for context and parallels; in theologies of accommodation and acculturation, or (more creatively) in theological dialogue as amutual exploration.
iv) Gathering resources as the Asian Church - though contextual study of the life and history of a particular people, tradition or church; in works of ecumenical and mission theology; or in the very extensive writings on pastoral theology, education and ministry.
v) Constructing a ‘Living’ or ‘localized’ theology - which is people-centred, pastoral and missional in concern, and which makes the ‘leap from Israel to Asia’ in order to respond to present suffering and hope by discerning ‘what God is now doing our midst’.
Beyond the motives of communicating the faith or nurturing believers, creative theological reflection is here often a wrestling with such issues as:
-“What understanding of Christian faithh in our culture will make possible social reconstruction and spiritual reform for our nation and people?” (in the seventeenth or eighteenth centuries: such authors as Yang Ting Yun, Fucan Fabian, and Chong Yak Jong; in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries; such authors as Krishna Mohab Banrjea, Jose Burgos, Nguyen Truong To and Kozaki Hiromichi, amongst many others);
- or :what faith and spirituality will nourish our people in prophetic and holistic mission?” (in the twentieth century: such theologians - our of very many - as C.L.Wickremasinghe, Khin Maung Din. Park Sun-ai, T.B. Simatupang, Shoki Coe, Horatio de la Costa).

3. Intentions and Spirituality - the directions and concerns of creative Asian Theologies.

Obviously there is a dynamic theological understanding present, that envisions a coming “peaceable commonwealth” -the reign of God now coming. which is the central “gospel” we have, along with an internalised experience of creative traditions whitin one's own culture. But there is also in many, the fruits of wider religious, humanist or political studies, and fearlessness in tapping these. Vision has moved to intention which in shaped by living faith and living culture.
a) There is a particular commitment to, and identification with, the aspirations of one’s own people, which leads on to situational analysis of, and involvement in, their most urgent human and societal issues. Theological obedience has threfore included both engagement and critical reflection: co-operative action and formulation.
b) This includes a certain identity and selfhood, careful attention to place and environment, and a measure of both “nationalism” and communitarianism. But the fundamental commitment is to the core activities of compassion, social justice, creativity and community-building.
c) But note that these reflections-in-life are directly applied to particular localities and histories. The intention is to discern and respond within a present situation or struggle.... to take the “next step in (God’s) mission” by understanding the dilemmas of our peoples and our life-response to those.
d) So collaborative communication has here a priority over construction; theological mobilising and alliance-building has priority over theological debating. The sequence is not normally “study-reflection-theoretical debate-writing-co-operation”, but rather a fuller seeing-hearing-acting along with reflecting, which is first communicated and with partners mobilised: and only after further “being and doing together”, “:revised for publication:!
e) And from, and only because of, the above commitments, come: fuller critical reflection; inter-national discussion and exchange; publishing beyond the immediate needs for communication and collaboration; and wider, deeper action, networking and research, with consequent wider responses.

4. Postscript.
The central questions remain:
- whether we discern the transforming ppresence of God’s Spirit, know to us in the life-of-Jesus-Christ-with-others, in the life, history and mission of our own peoples;
- wether we accept the autonomy and conntinuing validity of creative Asian Christian traditions, the rich diversity of contextualizing theologies they make possible and the wide-ranging implications such theologies have for our own contemporary tasks;
- whether we plan to give priority to ssuch resources, in our work to discover, collect, promote and preserve our theological collections - and of course priority to their rich insight and devotion in our own Christian understanding and discipleship
For the spirit of the One Living God still brings her Common-wealth amongst us in peace, justice and love: and we are ministers of Her wisdom, mediators (and therefore priests) of the life and salvation found in Jesus’-life-with-others. And this is to be rooted first where we are, amongst our own peoples, whom God so loves.


Contact Persons *

Mrs. Elizabeth T. Pulanco, Convenor, email: btpulanco@gmail.com
Mr. Yesan Sellan, Secretary, yesans@gmail.com, library@saiacs.org

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