A Theology of Southeast Asia

Liberation-Postcolonial Ethics in the Philippines

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Agnes M. Brazal
  • Maryknoll, NY: 
    Orbis Books
    , March
     232 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Which nomenclature would support a favorable reception of theologies from the Global South in an age of globalism and discovery of world Christianities: hybridity (or its cognate expressions, liminality, marginality, and subaltern studies), intersectionality, interculturality, liberational philosophy, or postcolonial hermeneutics? Agnes M. Brazal’s A Theology of Southast Asia: Liberation-Postcolonial Ethics in the Philippines employs a confluence of past and present contextual approaches expressed as liberational-postcolonial (vernacular) hermeneutics to read roughly seventy years of indigenous constructions of (Catholic) moral theology in the Philippines.

The introduction and the two chapters in part 1 explain how Brazal conflates vernacular hermeneutics, liberational ethics, and postcolonial discourses (chapter 1) with Jamaican-born British cultural theorist Stuart Hall’s discourse analysis in Representation, Cultural and Signifying Practices (Sage, 1997), among other works, for reconceiving indigenous and inculturational theological initiatives and applying them in various contextual-ecclesial or caregiving settings (chapter 2). The four chapters in part 2 examine the axes of theological ethics facing Filipino Christians’ struggle between cultural and theological mores. Brazal limits her coverage to the reception of feminism (chapter 3), the struggle for cultural and ecological survival and indigenous sustainability (chapter 4), the virtues and toils of migration in a global neoliberal capitalist economy (chapter 5), and the challenge of the pursuit of the common good in an age of social media, cybernetics, and populism (chapter 6).

Besides retrieving Vatican II resources, Brazal also retrieves acclaimed political resources, which she critiques tacitly, such as Edward Said’s Orientalism (1978) and Homi Bhabha’s constructive hybridity of culture and identity (an article from 1985 and The Location of Culture, 1994). Brazal finds affinity with Gayatri C. Spivak’s recognition of subaltern cultural nuances that have been missing in Western trajectories of feminism. It is odd that she would construct her framework predominantly from Sri Lankan British biblical scholar R.S. Sugirtharajah’s rather dated (and no doubt programmatic) The Bible and the Third World (Cambridge University Press, 2001). This includes her use of Sugirtharajah’s confluential paradigms of vernacular, liberational postcolonial axes for representing postcolonial hermeneutics as a springboard for her 2017 lecture against cultural hegemony.

A more obvious choice would have been to anchor her project in Sugirtharajah’s Exploring Postcolonial Biblical Criticism (Wiley-Blackwell, 2012) or Chakravorty Gayatri Spivak’s Other Asia (Wiley-Blackwell, 2008), even leaving aside prolific contributions by Hong Kong American Pui-Lan Kwok, among others, or exciting developments in the field with critical-race, social, and political theories. All of these were well-charted trajectories within postcolonial theological reflection by the time Brazal delivered her lectures in 2017. Readers may also be familiar with attempts to overcome controversies in the continual use of the term postcolonial for navigating a multidirectional flow of exchange in glocal culturality in the aftermath of scholarship that has deconstructed modernity, which contributed to much of paradigms of theorization and prescriptions for postcolonial discourses.

Still, Brazal’s book is praiseworthy. It contains a rich introduction of Filipino contributions that reframe moral theological-ethical reading and the dynamic translation of contextual issues and themes in the vernacular language for application in many grassroots associations, communities, and churches. The main issues raised are feminism, ecological care, indigenous sustainability, migrant responsibility toward families in their homeland, and cyber-economy. Brazal’s appraisal is not blindsided by the plurality of 150 spoken languages amid eight major official languages in the Philippines. Ideas in the vernacular are adequately translated throughout the volume, making the book an indispensable go-to resource for appreciating Filipino theologies, many of which are published in local academic presses. As a pace setter and trend observer, Brazal has noted that an essentialist binary reading of favoring either Western or local sources and ideologies will soon give way to heterogenous, dynamic, and contested proposals as theologians gain insights from interculturalism, globalism, and poststructuralism among other vantage points for addressing the plurality of concerns in the Philippines.

A succinct annotated mention of select projects will give readers a glimpse of Brazal’s coverage. Vitaliano Gorospe objected to Western denigration of traditional local Filipino values in the 1960s. Jose M. de Mesa elevated Filipino reception of divine providence as a “come what may” type of responsibility to the family in the 1970s. Juan Luis Sergundo—who played a key role in the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences, along with many others, including Romero Intengan—tapped into liberational ethics and Catholic social teaching to aid resistance and criticism of Ferdinand Marcos’ dictatorship (1972–1986) and to advocate for political development toward socialist democracy. Dionisio Miranda recentered theological understanding of personhood and conscience in Filipino terms, such as with the use of the term loobmoral (translated as virtues as the nature of one’s inner self) in the 1980s. Various Filipino theologies of struggle for the emancipation of the poor and for standing in solidarity with the oppressed emerged since the 1970s and flowered in the 1990s and 2000s, such as by Eleazar Fernandez. Since the 1980s, nonviolent grassroots communities, such the basic ecclesial communities, were formed to support advocacy, community development, alliance building, and local reconciliation. Political theologies of varying types emerged, such as by Daniel Franklin Pilario, to curb the drawbacks of vernacular and liberational theologies since the 2000s. Jose Mario Francisco showed the problems of a binary (essentialist/nativist) reading of moral theology in the most recent decade. The thin book is packed with amazingly rich resources to mine on inculturated theologies in the Philippines in the 20th century.

Readers who seek a longitudinal study may need to read Brazal’s thematic treatment with José Mario C. Francisco’s chronologically rich review of indigenous reflection in a chapter that traces struggles of indigenization and inculturation as far back as the 17th century (see Peter C. Phan, ed., Christianities in Asia, Wiley-Blackwell, 2011, 97–127). The title, A Theology of Southeast Asia, betrays a neocolonial vernacular Filipino resourcing (rather than a thoroughgoing postcolonial discursive treatment) for readers desiring a grander treatment.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Timothy T. N. Lim is visting lecturer at the London School of Theology.

Date of Review: 
March 30, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Agnes M. Brazal is associate professor of theology at De La Salle University in Manila, Philippines, and a past president and founding member of the DaKaTeo (Catholic Theological Society of the Philippines).


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