Asian Theology of Religions as a Response to Modernity
[40 years after Gaudium et Spes]
The pursuit of an Asian theology of religions is not merely a theological issue. It is an issue of modernity, and indeed a response to some of the characteristics of modernity impacting on religion and its practice. One such major characteristic is relativity (which is not the same thing as relativism) understood as a dynamic principle of mutual interaction which includes the religious realm as well. What the Asian theology of religions could do is to contribute to harmonious living, peace, and tolerance. A wrong theology of religion is a dangerous source of fundamentalism, religious bigotry, and obscurantism (anti-modern or pre-modern) that is not respectful of the religious sentiments and expressions of peoples of other faiths. An insensitive theology of religion is ammunition for communal conflicts, and social dissension in an Asia where already there are convulsions on the basis of ethnicity, language, and religion.
Hence Asian theology of religions will be critical of any theological position that is based on the “dogma of intolerance” In the West, the birth of modernity coincided with the Enlightenment attempt to overcome religious conflicts by bringing to the fore the idea of tolerance and peace. This idea was further deepened by the application of modern scientific methods of study as is evident in the field of comparative religion. When Vatican II published the document on Religious Freedom (Nostra Aetate), it was a belated response to one of the challenges of the Enlightenment and modernity. In the present times, the spirit of religious freedom and scientific enquiry should characterize Asian theology of religions. This has important consequences for the social and political life in different Asian countries. If all theologies ought to be socially responsible, how much more the theology of religions.
Awareness of diversity and plurality (of world-views, ways of life, religious expressions, and practices) is another important characteristic of modernity. But interestingly, this has been the millennial tradition of Asian cultures and civilizations. In that sense, through its unambiguous affirmation of plurality and diversity, Asia has been in the age of modernity and postmodernity for millennia! What came about through many struggles and conflicts in the West has been so naturally imprinted in Asian civilizations. Thus we can speak of a convergence of modernity and Asian traditions in the issue of diversity and tolerance, understood as a positive and proactive reality. Asian theology of religions should be so developed, as to respond in the spirit of Asian heritage, to the exigencies of modernity.
There is a second aspect to the relationship of theology of religion to modernity. The question about modernity is something in which all the religious traditions can and should collaborate. GS views modernity mainly from the perspective of the Church. The very title of the document reads: Pastoral Constitution of the Church in the Modern World. It does not fall within the purview of this document that the relationship to the modern world is something to which all religions bear responsibility. We realize in Asia that the Church could make a greater contribution, if it does it in collaboration with peoples of other faiths. Facing modernity jointly calls for a theology of religion that is attuned to this urgent need of the times. This may not be possible without a basic rethinking of traditional Christian soteriology and the understanding of mission and conversion.
Christian Studies: the Twilight Discipline
Today we need a new and distinct discipline, namely, Christian Studies, which could be a twilight discipline—a meeting point of many issues and concerns relating to Asian Christianity and modernity. It appears to me that such a discipline is the need of the hour. It will take different contours in different regions in relation to Christianity and its relationship to the wider society in specific contexts. However, we can already think of some broad lines of general orientation in our Asian context.
The questions and issues which a program of Christian Studies could address are those that are not adequately met by theology, phenomenology or sociology of religion. Christian studies will not be a discipline which will pursue a purely confessional approach to the study of Christianity. It will include the study of world Christianity from a historical, cultural, theological, sociological, and phenomenological perspective. But it will be more than that. In multi-religious and pluralistic societies more and more people would like to have an understanding of Christianity that is developed in intense conversation with the broader society as well as with the religious experiences of peoples of other faiths. This discipline will take up issues that should engage Christianity in relation to modernity, globalization, civil society, and the public sphere. A discipline that develops through such a practice of interaction with the society will be able, on the one hand, to help Christians develop the art of negotiating the boundaries, and on the other hand, make people of other religious traditions feel comfortable by vibrating with their questions, issues and concerns.
In this regard, one of the important functions of Christian Studies, as I envisage, would be to focus attention on the interpretation of Christianity and Christian truths and spirituality by people belonging to other religious traditions. This discipline will also take into account their critical reflections of Christianity and its mode of presence in the modernizing Asian societies. Ultimately, this will help to develop, from an academic point of view, a deeper and more critical understanding of Christianity, while from a practical perspective, it will encourage interreligious understanding and harmony. In this sense, it will also be doing a great service by stimulating theological reflections in the wider horizon of a fast modernizing and globalizing Asia.
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Felix Wilfred is professor at the School of Philosophy and Religious Thought, University of Madras. As visiting professor, he has taught at the universities of Nijmegen, Muenster, Frankfurt, Boston College, USA, and at the East Asian Pastoral Institute, Manila and has lectured at the Divinity School of Harvard University. He has been a member of the International Theological Commission of the Vatican and has been secretary of the Theological Advisory Commission of the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences, Hong Kong. His research and field studies cut across many disciplines in the humanities and social sciences.