A Tale of Two Theologians

Treatment of Third World Theologies

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Ambrose Mong
  • Cambridge, England: 
    James Clarke Co.
    , May
     2017.
     208 pages.
     $60.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780227176580.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

A Tale of Two TheologiansTreatment of Third World Theologies is a fascinating book that presents, with a new perspective, how the third world theologies of two theologians have been treated by the Roman Catholic Church. The theologies under consideration are the liberation theology of the Peruvian theologian Gustavo Gutierrez and the liberation-inculturation theology of the Indian theologian Michael Amaladoss. Both theologians have been questioned by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) of the Roman Catholic Church. Even though they have now been cleared, it is observed that there has been a difference in their treatment. This book successfully attempts a twin task of explaining this treatment of third world theologies, particularly those that do not fit into Western systems, and offering a comparative study of Latin American and Asian theologies. Mong has beautifully woven together these two tasks in one book without losing focus.

Mong dedicates four chapters each to the theologians before he offers a comparative study in the last chapter. He highlights major themes in the liberation theology of Gutierrez including his preferential option for the poor and Marxist class analysis, and also offers a discussion of the Russian Orthodox existentialist philosopher Nicolas Berdyaev whose ideas can be connected with liberation theology. While explaining the religiously pluralistic theology of Amaladoss, Mong discusses in detail themes such as inculturation, salvation in Christianity and in other religions, evangelization, local churches, and Asian understandings of Jesus Christ. In Mong’s understanding, while Gutierrez’s theology is about how to be a Christian and Marxist at the same time, Amaladoss’s is about how many religious adherents in India remain Hindu-Christians, something that may not be easily understandable or welcome from a Western perspective. 

Mong rightly argues that even though liberation theology met with difficulties with the CDF for its use of Marxist tools and methods, now it is accepted for at least two reasons. First is the perception in the Western world and also in the Roman Catholic Church that Marxism has dwindled and is disappearing, and therefore it is not a threat to religion or to the Western world. Second, Marxism, like secularism, is basically a Western product rooted in Western ideals and norms. Of course it challenged capitalism and the structures that supported it in the same Western context, and it is true that during the last century it has been critically and uncritically appropriated by many non-Western societies and systems. Mong strongly argues that both for its critical use of Marxism and functioning within the accepted ecclesial and institutional structures, liberation theology is essentially a Western discipline that falls within the European intellectual tradition. This makes it easy for the Roman Catholic Church to understand and accept it in spite of some reservations it has.

However, while Latin American liberation theologies have concentrated primarily on economic inequalities in society, Asian/Indian theologies focus on another concern that is equally an important part of liberation theology: religious plurality. In the Asian/Indian context it is impossible to talk about liberation—both mystical and social—without also talking about the plurality of religions and traditions. This, as Mong observes, poses greater challenges to the Church in the West and its theological formulations than liberation theology does. Also, Mong points out that for the CDF it is easy to evaluate theologies that fall within the Western tradition, whereas it is difficult when it comes to dealing with other contexts. One major aspect he points out is the ecclesial context that Gutierrez employs in his theological formulations whereas for Asian theologians, what is most important is not the ecclesial context but the wider social and cultural context in which they theologize.

In the last chapter, Mong puts the investigation by CDF into a wider context, showing how other theologians in Latin America and Asia have also come under the scrutiny of CDF. He highlights the plight of Asian theologians in such scenario because the Church is still dominated by Western thinking and is confused when it comes to understanding how theologization is done in the Asian context.

I am personally fascinated by this book for a few reasons. First, it offers a unique perspective on how the Roman Catholic Church approaches third world theologies. There is still a struggle for the Church in the West to understand and appreciate theologies from Asia and other contexts where plurality and diversity are norms of life. This generally resembles the attitudes in the wider political and social context where people with different religious persuasions are not often welcome.

Second, in the process of arguing out his thesis about the Church’s treatment of third world theologies, Mong has also offered a comparative study of the two different contexts and content of these theologies. While comparative study of non-Western theologies is not new, comparing a Latin American context and Asian context does not happen often.

Third, Mong has addressed one of the most important problems for Christians in the West. In the second World Missionary Conference in Jerusalem in 1928, William Ernest Hocking, an American philosopher and scholar of religion, proposed that religions come together to fight what was perceived as their common enemy: secularism. Most of the missionaries present at the conference did not accept this proposal. I have often wondered why this was the case, not because I want there should be a religious-secular rivalry, but because for centuries Christians and missionaries in the West have mounted attacks against what they thought of as the secular Other. Perhaps the answer lies in the fact that for many Western Christians, even though secularism has been a problem, “other religions” have been an even more serious problem. This attitude continues to be prevalent in many Western approaches today, and the Roman Catholic Church is not an exception. Mong has boldly and beautifully articulated this issue in his book.

I am sure this book will be of great interest to scholars, especially those specializing in third world theologies and those who continue to understand and articulate Western Christianity’s interactions with the non-Western world.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Muthuraj Swamy is Director of the Cambridge Centre for Christianity Worldwide.

Date of Review: 
April 11, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Ambrose Mong is part-time Lecturer and Research Associate at The Chinese University of Hong Kong. He is also the chaplain to Spanish-speaking inmates at Hong Kong correctional institutions. His books include: Purification of Memory: A Study of Modern Orthodox Theologians from a Catholic PerspectiveAccommodation and Acceptance: An Exploration in Interfaith RelationsGuns and Gospel: Imperialism and Evangelism in China, and Dialogue Derailed: Joseph Ratzinger's War Against Pluralist Theology.

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