Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Asian What?

Recently I witness a surging interest among Asian professional theologian-bloggers to come up with a distinctive 'Asian' theology. It started with Tony Siew's post.

His post is being highlighted by Kar Yong and responded by Alex Tang. And Tony has responded further.

Initially when I read Tony and Kar Yong, I didn't feel much excitement about producing a distinctly Asian theology. That's until Kar Yong blogged on the publication of Christian Theology in Asia. But not the publication that provoked me, but Kar Yong's allusion to Alex Tang's brainstorming post that takes on Tony's proposal seriously.

Alex's post is challenging. He questions the feasibility of the project. I like his questionings. And his questioning provokes me to give deeper thoughts on this project.

Although I am not a theologian yet the discussion among these theologians got me excited! So, I'll amateurishly throw some ideas around here.

What Is Asian Theology?

I noticed that the main difficulty to construct a distinctly Asian Theology is in the characterization of the adjective 'Asian'. That means we have to ask the question what do we mean by Asian?

Obviously, those who are born and bred in Asia! And since the function of theology is always to serve the believing communities, then an Asian Theology is the theology that is born and bred for Asia!

That means we have to realized that an Asian Theology is first of all is NOT distinctively recognized by the exercise of exegesis on Biblical text. This exercise is the groundwork required in all construction of theology, thus this will not characterize or provide the character for any theology.

Secondly, for a theology to serves a particular community, it must recognize and be familiar with the issues faced by the community which it intends to serve. That means in the construction of an Asian Theology, the theologians have to bear in mind the questions and problems faced by Asians. Nevermind the impact of globalization or post-colonialism unless you are constructing a historical Asian thelogy. What matters is the effectiveness of the theology to respond to the condition and situation engaging Asians now. For eg. the long working hours which is prevalent among Asians; or the unexamined and uncritical admiration, and hence the importation, of some Western practices; or the exploitation of Asian natural resources and manpower (legally and illegally) by the other Western continents.

We have to recognize that no theology is without chronological or geographical context. Western theologies were first constructed to respond to Westerners' problems. When these problems spilled over to the rest of the world, their theologies inevitably followed. That's why we find so many Western theologies applicable to us; because we are facing some of the same issues they faced and still facing.

Hence when we construct an Asian Theology, we should not try to extend its application to the rest of the world, but instead, we should concentrate its usefulness to our own issues. So whether Obama will be the next president of USA is not our main concern. In fact, we shouldn't concern so much over it. What we concern is whether Thailand's PM able to solve the problem faced by Thais; How should Christian respond in current political uncertainty in Malaysia; The food crisis faced by ASEAN; The image of Christianity as a 'Western religion'; The misperceived association of Christianity with Western imperialism in our current times; etc.

A theology is characterized by the questions it attempts to answer. When we say "Rowan Williams' theology", we are actually referring to the theological response formulated by Rowan Williams for the questions he faces. Hence, I contend that an Asian Theology is referring to the formulated theological response that engages the questions facing Asians. Therefore the more explicit a particular theology in tackling and expounding the problems distinctively dominating Asian, the more Asian the theology is.


Alex Tang said...

Hi Sze Zeng,

I like your post and your formulation of Asian theology as referring to the formulated theological response that engages the questions facing Asians. Therefore the more explicit a particular theology in tackling and expounding the problems distinctively dominating Asian, the more Asian the theology is.

The problem with that definition is that it limits Asian theology to problem-solving. While theology has the role of the wise-man in problem solving, theology also must play the role of the prophet in reminding us that we are resident aliens, and the role of the priest about our relationship with God.

Western theology especially the German branch is heavily dependent on the Enlightenment. It frames issues in concrete propositional terms. I suggest that you are not radical enough in your construction of Asian theology. I suggest that you reexamine the exegesis of the text not with a modern Western worldview but with an Eastern worldview. Do you think it will make any difference?

Sze Zeng said...

Hi Alex,

Thank you for your comments. All the issues you raised have been given tentative contemplation when I wrote the post.

On 'limiting theology to problem-solving'. Here I use the term 'problem-solving' in a broad sense. Hence, the role of prophet subsumes under it. To highlight that, we need to construct a prophetic voice which current Asians (not ancient/past Asians) are familiar with. And that is a problem to be solved.

Western theology heavily dependent on the Enlightenment? That really depends on which era of Western theology, don't you think? All theology is not without chronological and geographical context.
Hence, current Eastern worldview which we are to do theology is not an exercise to 'go back' to the ancient/past Asian civilization or culture to find out a specifically Asian character (which might make the theology irrelevant and dry), but to recognize that the current Asian as the post-colonized and globalized-affected nations. And we theologize without the need to extricating theology from these.

Thus, we should recognize where are we now and what is our status in the current socio-political, economical, and educational milieu.

On 'exegesis of text', I'm referring strictly to 'historical-critical criticism', not 'theological interpretation'. On the former, scholars across the globe share presumption that is not far from each other.

Tony Siew said...

Hi Sze Zeng, I find your post enlightening and helpful. Though there are some points that I take issue with, but hopefully I can post further comments on this soon.

For instant, I take a much more global outlook to theological scholarship that will impact on how we construct an Asian theology. By writing as Asians doing Asian theology I believe we can address even Western concerns because Scripture in a sense is universal. So my view is that we can address specific Asian concerns without neglecting Western or global issues at the same time. That's why I think Asian scholars trained in the West has the advantage of both worlds, the East and the West.

And I do believe that whether Obama becoming the President of the USA matters to us Asians here because of the nature of globalization as it is impacting us now and in years to come. For example, how Obama deals with Iran in 2009 will be crucial. If there is a wider war in Middle East region should US or Israel attack Iran, the price of oil will probably go up to US500.00 per barrel and we could be paying RM10.00 per litre then.

Sze Zeng said...

Hi Tony,

I anticipate the issues that you raised. They are all valid and important issues that need to be addressed and clarified.

Although I was not explicit about this in my post, I do share your aspiration to construct a theology which is useful globally.

And yes, though I sounded as if I was suggesting that we should abandon western issues, I didn't meant exactly that. I was subtle on this. And I totally in agreement with you that whether Obama runs USA is important.

My point is that, whether a theology will be or can be recognized and useful globally depends on how effective the theologians extract the abstract of a local issues.

To give a (perhaps, naive) example: Jurgen Moltmann's theology of hope is 'western'. And his theology stemed from his respond to Auschwitz, and his experience with the horrors done by the Nazi regime.

He started with the formulation of a theological response to a local issue. Then when he extracts the abstract from his response, and tadaaaa, we have the 'theology of hope'.

Kar Yong said...

Hi Josh,

Thanks for your stimulating thoughts.

Like Tony, I would also take issue with a couple of points you raise, but perhaps I would respond to this later.

I would also agree with Tony that haveing a western theological education is not really a disadvantage. I think it does bring some riches to the debates.

Having said that, I also think that western theological education may not necessary be a hindrance for developing asian theology.

But I also wonder whether sometimes the biggest hurdle we face is not the scholars that are working on asian theology but the church at large. Is the church ready to embrace "asian theology"? or would she prefer a "western" answer? Just an example, I have been trying to read the scriptures from my own Asian (or better still, Malaysian) eyes, and my upcoming SBL International paper is an example.

Sometimes, I find some of my readings may sound too "radical" in the eyes of the people in our own church. One even remarked to me, "How can you read the Bible like that!" Asian scholars may be ready to work on Asian theology, but would the church be ready to listen? I am saying this as a person that is not an armchair scholar, but one that is fully engaged and involved in the church as well. On the contrary, I find my Western counterparts are more willing to engage me in this area.

Sze Zeng said...

Hi Kar Yong,

You brought up an important question on whether are Asian churches ready for an Asian theology. Personally I have no idea, but my gut feeling is that most are not.

I don't think western theological education is a disadvantage or hindrance. On this point, I am more positive than Alex. In fact, I think that western education benefits Asians not only in theology but also in politics, economy, education itself, and etc.

Hence I think globalization and postcolonialism are a 'nevermind' in constructing of Asian Theology. We dont have to busy ourselves with ridding off their effects. We just need to recognize their contributions and use them whenever and wherever applicable. Similar with Tony and you on this.

BTW, will there be a 'pre' or 'post' presentation of your SBL paper in the local scene?

Kar Yong said...

Pre or post presentation in the local scene of my SBL paper? Better don't....I still need my job in the churhc.. else some may think, "hah...we support him to do this kind of things ah!" :-)