« Reflections from Asia » – F. Wilfred

« Christian Faith and Socio-Cultural Rationalities. Reflections from Asia »

by: Felix Wilfred

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A couple of years ago, during a visit to Bressanone (Brixen) in the South Tyrol in Italy – a town where Nicolas of Cusa was once bishop – I got into a monastery adjacent to the cathedral. Here, on the vault of the cloister, I saw a fifteenth century fresco of a strange animal figure – a big and powerful horse with two elephant tusks, a trunk and two large ears. It was intriguing. Having watched elephants move around from my childhood, I could only smile at the attempt of the artist to portray something he never experienced – an elephant.On the other hand I was in admiration for the ingenuity and rationality of the painter – Leonhard von Brixen. When portraying the biggest animal, logically he could only think of the biggest horse in his experience, and then add on to it what he might have heard from the descriptions about elephants -two tusks and two large ears and one long trunk.[1] From the point of view of the artist, there is perfect logic and rationality in the reconstruction of the image; at the same time there is such a wide chasm between the image and the real elephant!

[1] In Medieval royal courts of Europe, there were menageries with exotic animals. With little mobility at that period, probably very few people saw them. Though manuscript illuminators painted exotic animals, it is doubtful how many of them got to see an animal like elephant. In reproducing an animal like elephant they depended a lot on their imagination, narratives in travelogues, and some descriptions in bestiaries of the time.

1. Plurality of Rationalities 

Theology is in need of approaching reason in new ways, profoundly conscious of its serious limitations, and at the same time aware of the plural forms of rationality flowing from history, culture, tradition, philosophy, visions of the world, etc. A closer analysis would show that the mode of reasoning is a function and an expression of one’s culture. So, then, what we actually have are polymorphous rationalities – in plural.[2] In my view, the project of inculturation has hardly gone into the investigation of the cognitive modes and processes, and the social and cultural construct of different rationalities and their import in the formation of different theologies.[3]

[2] Cf. Stefano Occhipinti – Micahel Siegel. “Cultural Evolution and Divergent Rationalities in Human Reasoning”, in Ethos vol. 24, no. 3 (1996): 510-526; see also Cf. Hajime Nakamura, Ways of Thinking of Eastern Peoples (Hawaii: University of Hawaii Press, 1964).

[3] Felix Wilfred, “Inculturation as a Hermeneutical Question. Reflections in the Asian Context, in Vidyajyoti Journal of Theological Reflection, 52 (1988): 422-436.

In Christian history, there has been a dichotomous and antagonistic approach in defining the relationship of faith and reason.[4] The manner and the measure in which reason was deployed made the difference in defining the nature of and approach to theology. On the one extreme were the ones like Bonaventure who thought that the pure wine of faith should not be diluted by pouring into it the water of reason.Others argued for a theology that harmoniously blends faith with reason. For the former, it is faith that leads to understanding (crede ut intelligas) whereas for the latter, faith should not be blind and obscurantist or based solely on testimony but should seek reason (fides quaerens intellectum).[5] Around these two major axes, I think, the entire Western history of theology up to our times could be re-written.

Theology becomes inauthentic and looses its anchor in reality when it succumbs to a rationality that claims universal validity – Allgemeingültigkeit. Even more, legitimate theological pluralism is compromised when one particular understanding of reason – the Greco-Roman – is raised to be the reason consonant with faith, and indeed as part of it. This is what Pope Benedict XVI expounded in his controversial lecture in Regensburg in 2006. Referring to the Greco-Roman reason, he stated, “the fundamental decisions made about the relationship between faith and use of human reason are part of the faith itself; they are developments consonant with the nature of faith itself”.[6]

[4] Cf. Yves M.-J. Congar, A History of Theology,(Garden City-New York Doubleday & Company, Inc.1968); ID., La foi et la théologie, (Tournai: Desclée,1962).

[5] The problematic of the relationship between reason and revelation has been dealt with also in the Indian tradition. However, the manner of relating and reconciling the two has been quite different. See, Wilhelm Halbfass, Human Reason and Vedic Revelation in Advaita Vedanta” in his volume Tradition and Reflection. Explorations in Indian Thought (New York: State University ofNew York Press, 1991): 131-204.

[6] L”Osservatore Romano (September 14, 2006).

What we have here is an idealization and even romanticization of a particular brand of reason – Greco-Roman – clubbing it with Christian faith, with the implicit claim that other religions have separated reason and faith. Methodologically, this is a purely deductive approach and ill-informed about the history of religions and the developments of their doctrines and practices. Let us direct our gaze to some of the factors that urge us today to interrogate such universalization of one particular construct of rationality and absolutizing it.

2. Rationality and Structure of Language

There is a correlation between the structure of language and the structure of thought; between genesis of language and the crystallization of ideas.One’s language, its pattern and functioning make a clear dent on one’s reasoning, analysis and interpretations. Ancient Indian linguistics and medieval hermeneutics by Anandavardhana (820 – 890),[7] as well as modern Western structural linguistics starting from Ferdinand de Saussure have unmasked the naïve view that language is simply a vehicle of thought.[8]Asian tradition and modern western linguistics have brought to our awareness that language is more a source of thought than its form or expression. To cite second Heidegger, it is not so much that we speak a language; rather the language speaks us – “die Sprache spricht”.[9] Precisely because the Chinese language, the Arabic and the French operate with different linguistic modes, we have distinctly different reasonings, consequently different approaches to reality, many ways of ordering and interpreting the world, and structuring the society. In short, cognitive processes and construal of thought follow linguistic patterns.

[7] Cf. Kunjuni Raja, Indian Theories of Meaning,(Madras: TheAdyar Library and Research Centre); P.C. Muraleemadhavan, ed., Indian Theories of Hermeneutics, (Delhi: New Bharatiya Book Corporation, 2002).

[8] See Ferdinand de Saussure, Course in General Linguistics, (London: Duckworth, 1983).

[9] Martin Heidegger, Unterwegs zur Sprache, 4th edition (Pfullingen: Neske, 1971): 19.

If we take seriously into account these inputs of linguistics, we will readily acknowledge not only a plurality of reasonings and culture-specific universals, but also will challenge absolutization of any one of them in theology – be it Latin or Greek. I am afraid that theology, in general, has not benefitted from the study of structural linguistics, which would have opened the doors for recognizing plurality of rationalities and understand their implications. Further, the failure to deploy consistently the heritage of Asian and modern hermeneutical insights explains also the difficulty of traditional theology to understand Christian faith in relation to reasonings and approaches to universals obtaining in differing socio-cultural situations. On a practical note, the turn to plurality of cultural reasoning seems to be vital for the future of the world, for its peace and security. Theology will be accomplishing its mission to humanity by adopting a plurality of reasoning in the cognitive and interpretative processes of faith.

3. Elements from Asian Traditions 

A general theme running through the Western history of theology is that faith does not contradict reason; rather enhances and fulfills it. This argument was put forward by early Christian thinkers who wanted to justify faith as reasonable and reconcile it with the Greek intellectual world.There is no conflict between Jerusalem and Athens. In modern period, Hegel justified Christianity theoretically as it perfectly fits into the world of reason (also differently named as “idea” “World spirit” “logic”, etc.) and into his philosophy of religion. Christianity makes explicit what reason and philosophy have to say about ultimate reality and its becoming self-conscious in humanity. As ultimate and universal truth, Jesus himself would be but the historicization of reason. Karl Rahner, deploying his transcendental method tried to examine on the basis of an analysis of the structure of the human spirit the a priori conditions for the possibility of Christianity and its various beliefs.[10] In recent times Pope John Paul II in his Fides et Ratio holds that faith makes up for the deficiencies and weakness of reason and guides it. The end point is clear: Sincere rational enquiry cannot but lead to the fullness or absoluteness of truth which Christian faith offers.[11] These are some of the ways by which faith has been justified and so to say rationalized without however reducing it within the parameters of reason.

[10] Cf. Thomas Sheehan, “Rahner’s Transcendental Project” in Declan Marmion – Mary E. Hines, eds., Cambridge Companion to Karl Rahner (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005): 29-42.

[11] Pope John Paul II, Fides et Ratio, (14 September, 1998).

Markedly different from the above approaches, Asia bases itself on the trans-rational realm of experience (anubhava) as the foundation for the truth of Christianity, rather than try to argue how Christian revelation can be reconciled with the claims of reason. In doing so, Asia has tried to interpret Christian faith closer to early Christian period when experience and witness were points of reference and litmus test for the claims of Christianity. Further, the Asian theological reasoning is one that is consonant with the experience of faith as recorded in the Sacred Scriptures, which is different from a reasoning harnessed to elaborate the tenets of faith. Experience of faith is, as the Scriptures testify, is an experience of liberation. “The truth will set you free” (Jn 8:32). In Asian theologies, reason and rationality, as subsidiary instruments of knowledge, are directed to the goal of liberation and salvation which are trans-rational and experiential realities, requiring for their expressions something more than the language of reason.

4. Rationality in the History of Mission

The history of mission in India, China, Japan and elsewhere in Asia shows how the missionaries believed earnestly that people could be brought to the truth of Christian faith by defeating them through the help of rational arguments. There are numerous stories in India, China, Japan and elsewhere which narrate how missionaries entered into disputation with pundits and mandarins of Hinduism and Buddhism, and demonstrated through their argumentsthe falsity of the beliefs of their opponents. The arguments of missionaries to prove the falsity of the beliefs of other religions and the truth of Christian faith could not win over the scholars to Christian faith as they expected.[12] The missionaries were at a loss to understand this. What they did not realize was that the instruments of rationality they deployed could not make any dent on the modes of thought and practical logic of the people. The cognitive processes the local people followed, their way of acquiring, accumulating, classifying and transmitting knowledge were different; so too the manner of reasoning. What the missionaries failed to understand is that people have their own rationality of why they do what they do – a rationality deeply embedded in their millennial culture and tradition. To speak in imagery, even while the missionaries were trying to build a tunnel of arguments in the hope of reaching the people, the people built their own tunnels with their distinctive rationalities. Both the tunnels never met. The underlying missionary argument that error has no rights succeeded to exclude peoples, religions, cultures, practices and indeed the exercise of reason and freedom. It has served also as an ideology underpinning the horrendous and irrational practices of inquisition.[13]

[12] Missionaries entered into disputation with the local intellectuals – pundits in India and Mandarins in China, for example. With the increase of the print media, they took to apologetic and defensive pamphleteering with arguments, in their estimation, very convincing.See Jacques Gernet, China and the Christian Impact. A Conflict of Cultures (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985).

[13] The statement that error has no rights, found also in the Syllabus of Pius X (1864) and some subsequent popes, was a stumbling block to the acknowledgement of religiousfreedom by Vatican II in Dignitatis Humanae

5. Asia and the Trans-rational Mystery

There is another important Asian approach that calls for a plurality of rationalities in theology. St Thomas Aquinas reminds us that the act of faith does not end in its expression, but in reality itself – “Actus autem credentis non terminatur ad enunciabile, sed ad rem”.[14] Now the object of this faith is a mystery which, precisely because it is incommensurable, defies any one single approach, but calls for multiple human cognitive and affective means which all could cumulatively help explain its various inexhaustible dimensions. “Truth is one, sages have called it many” (ekam sat viprā bahudhā vandanti).[15] This statement of Rig Veda is so to say the leitmotiv that runs through the Asian approach to reality as a whole and to the truth of religion in particular. The ways of approaching truth, experiencing it and expressing it go beyond discursive thought and conceptual elaborations. Truth in Asian tradition is never something once and for all given and to be possessed, but something that is to be continuously sought after. Journey (yatra) is a root metaphor in the Asian tradition and it provides dynamism and movement in the quest for truth and its deeper experience and understanding. All this is well-expressed in the form of prayer in the ancient Upanishads:

[14] S.Th. II-II, q. 1, a. 2 ad 2. 

[15] Rig Veda1:164:46.

From ignorance, lead me to truth;
(asato mā sadgamaya)
From darkness, lead me to light
(tamasomā jyotir gamaya)
From death, lead me to immortality (mrityormā amritam gamaya)
Om peace, peace, peace
(Oṁ śhānti śhānti śhānti)[16]

[16] Brihadaranya Upanishad 1.3.28.

Having found the conceptual tools of traditional theology too static and failing to come to terms with the movement character of faith, Asian theologies have sought to overcome these shortcomings through rationalities that reflect the spirit of search and constant quest. Even though the truths of faith are known, yet they are also objects of our unending quest. To recall St Paul, “Now we see indistinctly, as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. My knowledge is imperfect now; then I shall know even as I am known” (I Cor. 13:12). Any genuine theology, precisely because the divine mystery is inexhaustible will become apophatic and mystical, and this is important since it relativizes reason and sets limits to its role and its claims.

6. Widening the Scope of Reason

That the reason is not the sole instrument of knowledge is portrayed so well by the celebrated words of Blaise Pascal, “The heart has its reasons which reason does not know”.[17] One other role of reason is that of being an instrument of control and check. We recall here Plato’s allegory of two winged horses driven by a charioteer. One of the horses is of noble breed, and the other the opposite, and therefore pulling in different directions. Reason symbolized as the charioteer has to control the disparate pulls of the horses – one representing the rational force and the other the irrational one – and guide them towards the goal.[18] Asian tradition is full of references to self-control, discipline, restraint which allow one to tread the ethical and spiritual path. Reason not only helps understand, experience and express faith, but as practical reason, helps us also to draw out the moral and spiritual implications of the same faith. Here the practical reason takes on the form of efforts for integration and wholeness of mind and body, and facilitating just and ethical practices. Seen in this light, the many practices in the Asian tradition like yoga and zen to control mind and body could be interpreted as practical reason helping to live out the implications of faith in an integral way and making it fruitful by self-transformation and transformation of the world. Hence, the warning by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (1989)[19] against the use of such “eastern methods” is regrettable as it associates faith with a particular brand of reason, and betrays almost total ignorance of the nature of these practices of practical reason in the Asian context.

[17] Blaise Pascal, Thoughts, section IV. No. 277.

[18] Plato, Phaedrus 246a – 254e. 

[19] Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith: Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on Some Aspects of Christian Meditation, October 15, 1989. 

7. Class-Dimension of Reason

Reason is not neutral. The theoretical operations like analysis, synthesis classification, inference, dialectics, etc. are not immaculate conceptions; they reflect also the class factor, cultural inclinations, social conditions and dispositions.[20] The way the poor perceive, judge and analyze situations and reason out is different from the way it is done by the dominant classes, castes and elite groups in the society. The resistance to domination and injustice by the poor reveal a sharp analysis of the situation and perspicacious reasoning. In movements of resistance, protest and revolution, generally the element of passion is highlighted. What is forgotten is that these movements are also fruit of sound reasoning. It is the kind of reasoning Jesus uses while confronting the Pharisees and Sadducees. “Let anyone of you without sin be the first to throw a stone at her” (Jn8:7). Such substantive reasoning is required for any theology that wants to be prophetic, different from formal and procedural rationality. Prophetic reasoning indeed is the need of the hour of all theologies, including Asian theologies. It is striking that rationality is not among the seven gifts of the Spirit; wisdom, yes. The prophetic rationality Jesus indicates flows from faith, comes from the Spirit. “Whoever believes in me, as Scripture has said, rivers of living water will flow from within them.” (Jn 7:38). Reasoning flowing from within comes from faith, from the Spirit.

[20] Though Jürgen Habermas has the merit of re-defining the Western Enlightenment reason in communicative terms, nevertheless, in my view, his approach to reason and his efforts to propose a universal ethics and normativity remain unaffected by contemporary burning issues such as identity-construction and cultural and cognitive pluralism across the world, and hence his cannot but be seen as a partial, constricted and “truncated” view of reason.See also Fred Dallmayar, “Habermas and Rationality” in Political Theory, vol. 16, No. 4 (1988): 553-579.In the Western tradition itself, the classical and Enlightenment understanding of reason Habermas seeks to defend, have found critiques starting from Leftist Hegelians, Martin Heidegger, Theodor Adorno, Michael Foucault, Jacques Derrida and an increasing number of scholars from every part of the world and in every field.SeeRodolpheGasché, “Postmodernism and Rationality” in The Journal of Philosophy, vol.88, no. 10 (1988): 528-538.Further, any consideration of reason in the abstract without taking into account factors such interest, desire and passion, which all can cloud reason, cannot but be viewed as woefully incomplete. 


By way of conclusion, let me make some concrete suggestions for the future of Catholic theologies in Asia and all over the world.

To do authentic theology, we need to acknowledge historicity of reason, attend to the social conditions of its exercise, and get liberated from the fallacy of universalizingany particularculturally-conditionedrationality and mode of thought. Given the plurality of rationalities, the various theologies will distinguish themselves in their methods and approaches on the basis of the difference in socio-cultural rationalities. This indicates the paramount importance of understanding any theology in its context.

What follows is that the judgment about authenticity and orthodoxy of faith has to be sorted out in context. What is said theologically in one context with a particular world of cultural rationality may appear as heterodox when viewed and interpreted through the prism of another world of rationality. It is then impossible to have one single and centralized way of judging the soundness of Christian faith and its expressions. The failure to recognize this has led, unfortunately, to much unfair treatment of many creative and innovative theological enterprises in context. Today, doctrinal difficulties with theologians have to be sorted out by the people, its pastors and theologians in a particular context, and not with reference to some presumed neutraland universal doctrinal normativity. This will avoid the caricaturing of theological thought from another cultural world, and shadow-boxing. Theologians need to be involved in understanding and interpreting what their colleagues are saying. Regional and national bishops’ conferences while playing a decentralized doctrinal role will be in a position to judge the statements of theologians regarding their orthodoxy in a definite pastoral situation, provided the bishops themselves are not alienated from their own intellectual and cultural worlds.

From what we have said follows a critical question regarding the epistemological soundness and theological legitimacy of an institution like the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith within the Roman Curia. There are many assumptions in the way it judges theological soundness of faith and doctrines, which are difficult to uphold today, as they belong to a bygone age. The Congregation would be taking on itself an impossible task of having to master innumerable ways of socio-cultural reasonings to be able to function. This could better be left to the local Churches, which are in a position to judge matters of orthodoxy and heterodoxy in context. This means that the Church may not need such an institution as the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith. It needs to become soon a matter of history. Is not its disappearance long overdue?


Felix Wilfred is founder-director of the Asian Centre for Cross-Cultural Studies, Chennai. Earlier he was the Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Chairman of the School of Philosophy and Religious Thought, at the State University of Madras, India.  Since 2007, Prof. Wilfred is the President of the International Theological Review Concilium. He was a member of the Vatican International Theological Commission, then chaired by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. He was on deputation by the government of India as ICCR Professor of Indian Studies, Trinity College, Dublin, Ireland. Recently he edited a landmark volume: The Oxford Handbook of Christianity in Asia, published by Oxford University Press, New York. He is also the chief editor of the International Journal of Asian Christianity (IJAC 2017), published by Brill, Leiden, The Netherlands.

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