Mangoes or Bananas?


The subtitle is pretty attractive – The Quest for an Authentic Asian Christian Theology and reflects the genuine concern of my former Christian theology and Asian Theology lecturer, and also principal of the seminary I studied in, Rev. Dr. Hwa Yung (later he served as the Director of at Trinity Theological College, Singapore, and now Bishop of The Methodist Church in Malaysia). Of course, now after graduating from seminary, stumbling and fumbling in life and ministry as well as progressing/growing in learning and expanding minsitrial horizons I find myself at a place more able to interact with what he shared with us from a different angle.

I must say he was a passionate teacher and a sharp mind with a deep concern for “on the ground” ministry faced by pastors in the local churches. And I found working through his Doctoral thesis during the classes quite an experience, but of course, it was more then just intellectual engagement, there was friendship, mentoring of some sort, and heart talk on the church scene in Malaysia. This deep respect is unchanged.

A good review by Amos Yong can be found here, I think he pretty much captures what I’ve been hearing over and over in the classes I attended, :-).

… Hwa’s thesis is that a truly indigenous Asian Christian theology has yet to emerge insofar as previous Asian Christian theological contributions have been held captive by western presuppositions, concerns and methods.Thus, for example, he concurs with missiologists like Charles Kraft and anthropologists like Paul Hiebert that Enlightenment rationality has bequeathed to the contemporary mind what Hiebert calls the “flaw of the excluded middle”: the arbitrary reduction of reality to two tiers—phenomenal and noumenal, to use Kantian language—that contemptuously dismisses or purposefully ignores the middle realm of spiritual and demonic beings. This has resulted in less than fully contextualized theologies that have only superficially engaged Asian cultures and mentalities which include ancestors and complex layers of cosmological spirits. Asian Christian theologies have therefore to date been more akin to bananas (Asian-yellow on the outside, but Western-white on the inside) than mangoes (the quintessential Asian fruit representing an authentic homegrown theological product).

… More adequate contextual Asian Christian theologies, Hwa suggests, must therefore be theologies of mission or missiological theologies. With this in mind, he develops four criteria by which to assess Asian Christian theologies: (A) their ability to address the diverse socio-political Asian contexts in which the Churches find themselves; (B) the empowerment they bring to the evangelistic and pastoral tasks of the Churches; (C) the means by which they facilitate the inculturation of the Gospel; and (D) their faithfulness to the Christian tradition.”

My fellow seminary mate and now pastor use to tell me this book is where our teacher first states what he want to do, tells us what he thinks are inadequate in people’s theology whether ecumenical or evangelical and then gives us some pointers … and insome ways many of us went through some form of “deconstruction” (the stronger word) or at least “reconsideration” (to put it more mildly).

I was then happy that there was a place for the supernatural in his proposal, and
provided me with some language to stand pretty firm and try to interact with some Asian Theologians at a memorable workshop on reading the Bible organized by the ecumenical (and the what is seen as the more “liberal” influenced) Christian Conference of Asia There was a lot of necessary (I think!) critique … enough to get me in a Rethinking mode … but just when I felt we’re into Construction mode … it’s time to graduate … and we’re plunged into the reality of ministry, until I suppose things started to crash for me and then I found myself in “reconstruction” not only theologically, but even spiritually and in ministry … (that’s another story)

Amongst Yong’s critique .. I find these few to be intriguing and resonate with some thoughts I had, probably more at an unrefined intuitive level,

“Hwa expends much energy exposing the inadequacy of the western theological paradigm, based as it is on Enlightenment dualistic categories. His argument that Christian theology has yet to achieve emancipation from the West and genuine contextualization and inculturation in Asia, is surely successful. Yet, Hwa does not in turn suggest what kind of worldview would be superior for the emergence of a genuine Asian Christian theology.”

This is exactly what I felt at some points of the classes, I’m not sure what are his views now (I should check) But we were all expecting him to write his constructive proposals for Theology and Ethics in days to come but now he’s Bishop (so that’s quite a different role). This of course, opened up my interest and openness to see try to understand the “postmodern”, “premodern” or alternative worldviews (whatever that means) – at least, I was sensitized to my own worldview and what influences it.

If “dualism” is to be discarded, is “monism” now favored? Hwa never comes out and says that an Eastern worldview is to be preferred to that of the Enlightenment West. On the one hand, this may be what is implied by his suggestion that a fully contextualized Asian Christian theology must be presented and comprehensible in Asian categories. On the other hand, his treatment of theologians like Thomas, Song, and Koyama would seem to suggest that the Asian worldview is the object toward which inculturation is directed rather than the framework within which theologizing occurs. It would seem that Hwa advocates a “biblical” worldview. Does this refer to a Hebraic-Semitic, a classical-Hellenistic or an Eastern Orthodox paradigm? Hwa does discuss the classical worldview, and suggests that Asian Christian theologians would benefit from an encounter with the patristic fathers. But his reading of the fathers is itself dependent on westerners (E. L. Mascal and Thomas Oden; similarly, Hwa’s rejection of theological pluralism with regard to other religious traditions seems to rely on the work of Western evangelicals like Harold Netland). “

These are tough questions Yong poses and it does and has crossed my mind too … but I suppose though Hwa doesn’t come out and say what worldview … I felt that in a sense we’re all exploring what this worldview is … the directions he pointed to definately was helpful to me … I tried to read a little on the Desert Fathers for areas of spirituality, and then at elast have an awareness of the Patristic Fathers in terms of theology, I also founf myself being more willing to wrestle with issues related to other religions, pluralism, secularism and now globalization. But, what has happened is I found myself on a journey of exploration now. And trying to do all this while being a church planter (5 years ago) and now pastor of 50-60people at the same time interacting with youth and young adults. It has never been a purely intellectual exercise for me. Personally, I don’t mind drawing from the work of westerners as a tentative or transitional process … the fact is there’s not much in Asia we can do yet because there’s still a lot of work in progress … so a kind of fluid interaction is still very useful We’ve got to start somewhere. At least, raising the questions and begin moving …

“What does his own constructive proposal consist of? Perhaps if Hwa had included in his analysis and assessment Catholic thinkers like Raimundo Panikkar, Bede Griffiths, and Aloysius Pieris, or other Protestants like Stanley Samartha or those affiliated with the Association for Theological Education in South East Asia (ATESEA), he may have been forced to confront this question more straightforwardly. Rather than simply rejecting Panikkar’s and Samartha’s work as tainted with Advaita Vedantism, or dismissing Pieris for his recourse to Buddhist praxis and spirituality, or labeling ATESEA thinkers as Christian-Confucian syncretists—none of which he does, but which would be easy enough for any evangelical to do, Hwa would have had to more clearly identify and delimit options available to Christian theologians in arguing against these Asian-based theologies.”

A constructive proposal was in progress (I suppose), constructive proposals are so needed in our part of the world. But whenever we move into constructive mode, there’s always need for “space” to explore, converse, interact, even make some mistakes – hopefully not too bad that it’ll hurt the church(?!). And constructive proposals must not stay at a theological level … it has got to have a parrallel practical dimension – which I felt more from Rev. Dr. Hwa Yung in our personal interactions and conversations. More on some areas he pointed out tomorrow. This is becoming a long post. Anyway … as I joked with a friend about the book, hey before Rowan Williams became the Archbishop of Canterbury he wrote an endorsement for the book … cool! here’s what he said,

“The contribution of Hwa Yung’s excellent work is to suggest that we have as yet hardly seen the beginning of an authentic Christian theology for Asia. He shows with great clarity how both radical and conservative Asian theologians have so far failed to break out of western captivity and points the way to a fresh and powerful recovery of authentic Christianity in a genuinely Asian mode. This book is a hugely welcome contribution to a discussion on method in Asian theology, which is rapidly becoming more and more sophisticated and interesting.” ~ Rowan Williams, Bishop of Monmouth

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