Po-Ho Huang – Doing Theology with Literatures

« Doing Theology with Literatures: An Asian Attempt »

by Po-Ho Huang

1. Literature and Religions

There is a slogan among the literary community in Confucius influenced countries saying that “literature and history are not separation” (文史不分家 – Wen shih pu fun chia). This is because the literature studies cannot ignore its historical background and their development in time; similarly, it is desirable for historians to possess elegant literary skill, in order to reproduce accurately and lively the historical fact and their meanings. In some cases religion and philosophy are also entangled with.

Literature as a form of expression for human thoughts and emotions is more or less, explicitly or implicitly revealing the circumstance of the particular age or its religious background of the authors. There are numerous great literatures in the world, which have come to existence under deep affection of different religions, for instance, those western literary masterpieces such like Dante’s “Divine Comedy”, Goethe’s “Faust”, and the “Decameron” by Giovanni Boccacio are all with strong influences of Christian religion behind; The “Arabian Nights” and the other Arab famous literatures which are mostly come into being by the influences of Islam; the Hindu literatures of “Mahabharata”, “Ramayana” by Hinduism; and not to say the Buddhism. Most of the early Buddhist sutra “Sutta-nipāta” are by nature (both in their format and contents) implicated with strong artistic characters.[1]

The spreading of Buddhism, has also made its impacts to different cultural ethnic groups, for instance in China, there are plentiful novels and poetries, particularly those famous Zen poetries are mostly products associated with Buddhist thoughts and philosophies. While in Japan, the “Genji Monogatari”(源氏物語) and “Heike Monogatari”(平家物語) both have shown the karma cogitation of Buddhist thinking and the Buddhist concept of reincarnation. Many of the Korean poems of the “Hyangga  (향가country song) ” are written by Buddhist writers.[2] It is therefore, the field of literary studies has always been interwoven with religious ideas. It is perhaps no surprise that the re-evaluation of the discipline of literature that accompanied the rise of theory in the second half of the twentieth century saw, among other things, a renewed appreciation of the capacity of religion and literature to contribute to our understanding of the other. This new critical awareness manifested itself in modes of theological inquiry that sought to recover the centrality of literature (the rise of Narrative Theology, for example), in scholarship committed to reflecting on the place of religion and theology in literary studies.

2. Theopoetics and Imagination 

The discourse of “theopoetics” in general and particularly in relationship with the interpretation of Scripture and theological reflection is still a very recent development of the intersection between esthetics and rationality. It puts theology in dialogue with all forms of aesthetics: art, literature, music etc. There is an interactive space between biblical literary studies and theology and mysticism. In another word, literature has been taken as a perspective or an approach, to interpret biblical message or elaborate theological discourses. Theopoetics suggests that instead of traditional systematic theology that trying to perceive the nature of God through scientific theories, it is more accurate for theologians to talk about God through poetic articulation. [3]

With the rise of post modernity, the decline of grant narratives has stimulated the surge of aesthetics as medium of religion and theology. Theologically speaking, symbolic and even mythical languages are considered better way to deal with human experiences, particularly their religious experiences. It is widely recognized that images, fables and stories are much more effective to motivate people than that of ideas. Imagination is perceived by many theologians as a way to deepen theological insight and perception. Stories and ritual are thus taken as resources of theology to interact with Biblical texts, for instance, C.S. Song a Taiwanese theologian who proposes that theology in Asia should be a story theology, has argued that story is the basic element of the creation of the world, he thus contends that the opening statement of the Gospel according to John: “In the beginning was the Word”[4] should be read: “In the beginning was the story”.[5] Theology therefore has to be started with story, an imaginative form of literature that reflects the life struggling of the people, particularly those suffering people, their anguish, tears, laugh and hope. People’s story therefore serve as a key for hermeneutic of Scripture passages and a criterion to determine the disposition of theological discourses.    

3. Christian application of Literatures and Christian Literatures

Different approaches have been taken to engage theology and literatures, generally speaking three positions are found particularly in the area of biblical studies:

  1. Perceiving biblical passages as literature: theopoetic theology, and narrative theology have commonly emphasized on the literature characters of the biblical passages, or taking literature approach to do hermeneutics to the theological texts. The work of Buckner B. Trawick on “Bible as Literature” [6] is a representation of this position.  
  2. Comparative studies of Bible and literatures: This has focused on the analysis of common mode, concern, metaphors, symbols and significant themes between Bible and literatures. The Canadian literary critic Northrop Frye has made significant contributions to this endeavor. 
  3. Literature from the Bible: studies focused on individual Biblical text that characterized literature format and nature. 

It is however, all the three positions are still taking literature as s subject foreign to theology. Even though it has been appreciatively borrowed to characterize some texts of the bible, and thus literary critic theories are also utilized for the hermeneutics and interpretations of the Bible. The narrative theology that emphasizes the descriptive depictions to challenge the doctrinal approach of traditional systematic theology though softens the rational and scientific arguments of the nature of theology; it is still treating aesthetics and literature as reference or supplementary elements to illuminate biblical or theological messages. 

It was the theological movement of “Programme for Theology and Cultures in Asia (PTCA)” that advocates for “doing theologies with local (Asian) resources” has opened up a new dimension of the role of literature and aesthetics in the construction of Christian theology. As John England, its first associate dean has put it:

From these movements,[7] and from the work of many individual working theologians,…come insights and commitments for a radical renewal and reorientation in the doing of Asian theologies. Such commitments were rooted first in a strong consciousness of local, and ethnic or national identity, of geographical place and of particular historical context,….And the concern is not only for the “Asian face of Jesus” within such settings but also the marks of Jesus’ humanity as signs of God’s presence within each diverse religious and cultural context.[8]

To advocate the principle of doing theology with Asian resources is in some degree to implicitly illustrate the theological conviction of many Asian theologians that “Identity determines theological resources”. Cultural resources are generated through people’s struggling with their surrounding world throughout their histories; they are not only representing peoples’ historical experiences and their identities, but also disclosing the particular concerns and hopes that people envisioned in the midst of their struggling. Cultural resource thus, is not to be limited to its narrow sense of those written materials or exhibited relics, but has to be understood in a broad sense to include socio-political, economic, ideological and peoples’ spiritual life, which have expressed in local literatures, folk tales, stories, songs, religious texts, symbols, images, and people’s movements etc.[9]

Arts, poems and literatures are thus, no longer considered as only an instrumental role to enhance Biblical hermeneutics and theological discourses, but are a step further being taken as resources of theology. Archie Lee, an Asian Biblical scholar has proposed a method of “Cross textual Hermeneutics”[10], deliberately he take biblical passages as “B” text and Asian resources include literatures, histories, people’s movements, religious scriptures and symbols as “A” text, arguing that two texts are entangled to shape Asian Christian identity, and therefore, any appropriate interpretation of the biblical passages must be engaged these two texts for interactions. 

C.S Song, the first Dean of PTCA instead, advocates story theology with proposed methodology of storytelling method, he encourages young Asian theologians to take up Asian stories which are the texts reflecting Asian people’s experiences and struggling in the midst of suffering and anguish.[11] These are stories of people of God, and therefore, the texts of theology.  

4. Doing Theology with Literary Resources 

Christian theology has been made in forms of rational discourses and analytical arguments since Christian religion has confronted with Hellenic culture and was entangled into its philosophical form of expression. The Reformation and Enlightenment Movement have further distanced theology from aesthetics. Particularly the Calvinist reformed denominations which this writer affiliated with are purposely playing down the role of human creativity skills and imagination in order to stress and underline the WORD of God as the central of Christian faith. All the artistic products, visual and audio are considered obstacles to the nurturing of devout Christian faith, and thus are removed or suppressed from Christian liturgies and forms of theology. Christian theologies are thus dogmatized mainly to appeal to human rationality and not their heart. 

In point of fact, Jesus’ theological presentations which we learned from the Gospels are mostly in forms of parable and story with profound imaginations. It was Paul and his contemporary church fathers, who were confronted challenges of either personal authority or churches’ authenticity that tried to produce dogma and rule of faith in order to define orthodoxy and protect the tradition. It is therefore to distance theology from people’s experiences and affections. Jesus’ theology is by no means to distance from people’s agony and hope that local cultures of arts and literature are created to minutes and communicate for, and thus are most profound resources for theology. 

The initiation of the theological movement on “Doing Theology with Asian resources” by PTCA therefore suggested a methodological breakthrough for local resources and particularly literatures and artistic pieces to be reconsidered their significant roles in doing theologies. It is nevertheless, some of the novelists have tried from another aspect to embody theological discourses into their novels and stories. Endo Shusaku[12], for instance, is a Japanese Catholic thinker, who has published many Christian novels and received many awards for his contribution in literature. Among his books, two most influential works are “Silence”(1966) and “Deep River” (1993), which have demonstrated Endo’s theological struggling to explore the nature of Christian God (Jesus) and also the purpose of doing Christian mission in the context of Japan during the Shogunate period of its history. 

As a writer Endo did not try to present his point of view on Christian faith through arguments or discourses on doctrines, but he has contribution to theologies by drawing sympathy and identification from his readers through his narrative of plots. The stories that he has depicted in his novels have challenged Christians to imaging the struggling of Jesus when he tried to live out his status of being the Son of God, which today’s Christian has also faced in a dilemma context and situation. He proclaims through his writings a theology to strike our heart and not appeal to human reason.These Christian literatures are powerful treasures of our theological resources. It is worthy and important for us to re-read those many good literary works produced by Christian writers in different part of world[13] with a new eye of contextual theology, so that theology be enhanced its creativity and profundity.

[1] For example, the “Sad-dharma Puṇḍárīka Sūtra” (法華經) with its fantastic and colorful narratives, the “mahā-vaipulya-buddhâvataṃsaka-sūtra” (華嚴經) which is characterized as an “enlightening motif”, and the “Vimalakīrti-nirdeśa-sūtra” (維摩詰經) that has shown dramatic effect of the conflict and paradox. See: Ku Ming Yau, The History of the relations between Literatures and Buddhism in Taiwan – from oral tradition, Classic literatures to modern literatures., conference collections from 18th national Buddhist consultation, (Chungli: Yuan kuang Buddhist College, 2007), pp. 1-20.

[2] Ku Ming Yau, ibid.

[3] Ref. Wilder, Amos Niven, Theopoetic: Theology and the Religious Imagination, (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1976).

[4] John 1.1

[5] Ref. C.S Song, Tell Us Our Names – Story Theology From An Asian Perspective (New York: Orbis Books, 1984).

[6] Buckner B. Trawick has published a series of books on “Bible as Literature” includes Old Testament and New Testament and also World literatures.  

[7] Here the author means the national theological movements included the “theology in action” workshops in six countries organized by the EACC/CCA in early 1970s, and series of national colloquia, resulting from similar partnerships, gathered and published the work of frontier thoelogical group in such areas as “Church and State” (Philippines”, “homeland theology” (Taiwan) “MingJung Theology” (Korea), “indian realities” and “Bicultural Journeys” (New Zealand). John C. England, A Theological Overview of the Programme’s work Doing Theology with Asian Resources – Ten Years in the Fromation of Living Theology in Asia, edited by John C. England & Archie C. C. Lee, PTCA, pp. 37 

[8] John England & Achie CC Lee, ibid.

[9] Huang Po Ho, Doing Theologies in Asian Ways with Asian Resources, Keynote Speak for Global Ecumenical Theological Education (GETI) Program, WCC Busan Assembly Meeting, Seoul Korea, Oct. 28, 2013, unpublished paper.

[10] See Archie Lee, Lamentation, Global Bible Commentary, edit by Daniel Patte (Nashville: Abingdon press, 2004), p. 227.

[11] C.S Song, Tell Us Our Names: Story Theology from an Asian Perspective (New York: Orbis Books, 1984) pp. 3 ff, chapter one: open frontiers for theology in Asia: ten positions. 

[12] Endō Shūsaku, March 27, 1923 – September 29, 1996) was a Japanese author who wrote from the rare perspective of a Japanese Roman Catholic, Endō is categorized as one of the “Third Generation“, the third major group of Japanese writers who appeared after World War II.

[13] There are many novelists who are doing great contributions like Endo Shusaku, novelists such like Tolstoy, Dostoevsky and many others.

Leave a Reply