Asian Christianities

History, Theology, Practice

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Peter C. Phan
  • Maryknoll, NY: 
    Orbis Books
    , August
     2018.
     275 pages.
     $50.00.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9781626980938.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

In his latest book, Asian Christianities: History, Theology, Practice, Peter Phan, the renowned Vietnamese American Catholic theologian and former president of the Catholic Theological Society of America, seeks to “make a contribution to what is called ‘Asian Christianities,’ its multiplicity and diversity” (xv). The book is arranged in sixteen essays/chapters, deriving from the Edward Cadbury Lectures that Phan delivered at the University of Birmingham in 2010. These essays have also appeared in journals and have been revised. 

Phan divides his book into three parts: history, theology, and practice, with each section having five, seven, and four chapters respectively. The book marks a continuation of Phan’s effort toward dialogue between Christianity and Asian traditions. Subsumed under the rubric of “Asian traditions” are non-Christian religions, cultures, philosophies, spiritualities, and even political ideologies.

For the section about “theology,” Phan’s major contribution lies in his lucid analysis of the Asian context and its significance for the Roman Catholic Church in the spirit of the Second Vatican Council. One of the central tasks of the Asian Church, according to Phan, is to find “a new way of being Church” in a pluralistic and globalized world. This theme recurs throughout the chapters and three layers of meanings have been unraveled. “A new way of being Church” adopted Phan’s own description.

First and foremost, it refers to dialogues between Christianity and Asian traditions, especially the triple dialogues of liberation, inculturation, and interreligious dialogue. Phan argues that these dialogues should be implemented on four levels: the sharing of life, working for justice and peace, theological dialogue, and the sharing of religious experiences. 

A second and important implication is the shift of Church mission: from “saving souls” and “planting the church” to promoting the reign of God (31). Then from the historical past to the present, Phan elaborates that the foundation of interreligious dialogue has passed through the seven-stage movement of “church—Christ—God—the reign of God—the Trinity—the Holy Spirit—the spirit/s” (190). Phan’s lengthy exposition on the teachings and activities of FABC (the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences, an important organization for the reception of Vatican II in Asia) speaks volumes about his attitude toward Asian traditions, namely that non-Christian religions and their cultural symbols are revelatory and may become “ways of salvation.” Clearly, as an Asian theologian, Phan consistently ventures beyond the ambivalent stance of the Roman magisterium. 

Third, the new modality of being Church also raises issues of identity and belonging for both the Church and Christians. For Phan, the juxtaposition of “Asian” and “Christian” should not be defined as adjective versus substantive, but rather as double substantives of a new identity where both can fully flourish. Therefore, the phrase “world Christianity” serves better to explicate the polycentricity of Christianity. In response to the challenges posed by global migrations, Phan suggests a “migrant church” to construct an ecclesiology that “lives in solidarity and struggle with migrants,” showing a preference for the marginalized and the poor.                              

Phan offers a constructive proposal for interreligious theology formulated in the reading of other religious texts and the interpretation of the texts through interfaith encounters. While non-Christian scriptures were deemed divine revelation since “scripture is a human activity,” Phan sees double religious belonging as an unresolved problem to be negotiated at the existential level. 

Before moving on to a case study of the reinterpretation of John 4:4-42, offering fresh insights for interreligious dialogues between Christianity and Asian traditions, Phan recognizes the importance of comparative theology as a means of conducting interreligious reading. He declares that the practice of reading interreligiously should not be confined to the spiritual elite; it is a daily necessity for all. 

Though the majority of the book is dedicated to Phan’s comprehensive review of the theological underpinning of “Asian Christianities,” the historical context provides readers with some unique perspectives, such as the conundrum of the relationship between church and state. Phan utilizes the trope of “pas de deux” to depict the historical relationship between the Vietnamese Christians and the communist government. Since the unification of Vietnam by the Communists in 1975, progress has been made in terms of religious freedom, but the two sides have taken “one step forward and two steps backward … occasionally stepping on each other’s toes” (80-81). In general, the VCP would not give into anything that might “jeopardize its total control over the society” (72). In this way, Phan concludes, the challenges for some Asian Christians are twofold—they are confronted with not only political suppression but also the postmodern condition in which the impact of religions appears to wane. 

Beyond the impressive characterization of the multiplicity and diversity of Asian Christianities noted above, Phan’s book raises a few questions. First, how does one engage with the non-textual Asian traditions in interreligious dialogue, such as “festivals and dramas”? How could reading interreligiously be possible and accessible to all as a daily task in poverty-stricken areas of Asia? 

On the one hand, Phan places a high premium on Asian experiences, including small traditions, both local and regional. On the other hand, except for some steps for action on ecological issues included in the last chapter, theological analysis and reasoning from “above,” rather than living encounters from “below,” pervade most of the chapters.

As the book originated mainly from a lecture series, at times certain themes repeat themselves, rendering the work redundant and less coherent. One example is the treatment in chapters 13 and 14 of the Jesuit encounter with Asian traditions. Given the complexities of Asian history and its long span, occasional blunders may be unavoidable. Thus Gonçalo Fernandes and Roberto de Nobili were lumped into the same category of exceptional missionaries who embraced inculturation in India, whereas in fact the former adopted the then mainline European attitude of condemnation toward Asian religions. 

These concerns notwithstanding, Phan’s book provides highly insightful discussions of Asian Christianities where challenges and opportunities abound; the salvific role of non-Christian religions and traditions is recognized; and reflections on demanding issues like identity, mission, and new ways of doing interreligious theology are offered. This book could be profitably used as a primer for a class on Asian systematic theology.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Amy Yu Fu is Assistant Professor of English at Zhejiang University City College, China.

Date of Review: 
October 9, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Peter C. Phan, a native of Vietnam, immigrated to the U.S. in 1975. He obtained three doctorates from the Universitas Pontifica Salesiana in Rome and the University of London. He is currently Ignacio Ellacuría Professor of Catholic Social Thought at Georgetown University. A former president of the Catholic Theological Society of America, he is also a recipient of the Society’s highest honor, the John Courtney Murray Award.

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