Felix Wilfred – Asian Christianities

Felix Wilfred – « Asian Christianities and Theologies through the Lens of Postcolonialism »

This text is a part of the issue:
English: Asian Christianities
Deutsch: Asiatischen Christentümer
Italiano: Cristianesimi asiatici
Português: Cristiandades asiáticas
Français: Christianismes asiatiques
Español: Cristianismos asiáticos
中國人: 亞洲基督教

There is a standard presentation of Christianity in Asia.  It deals with such themes as mission-history, inculturation, the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences, local Church, liberation, inter-religious dialogue and so on. These are questions and issues in which Asian Christianity gets represented, and have occasioned a lot of publications and doctoral dissertations. Here instead is an attempt to view Asian Christianity from a quite different perspective, and indeed through the lens of postcolonial theories.[1]

A Vignette

I would like to start with my first lesson on postcolonialism. Over fifty years ago as a seventeen-year-old teenager student in Italy, on a visit to London during summer, I witnessed a demonstration of Indian immigrants against racial discrimination. I saw a young Indian woman holding a placard which read: “We are here, because you were there!” Colonialism is indeed a two-way traffic, affecting both the colonized and the colonizers. This spark was kindled in me already then. It took many more years to understand the deeper postcolonial implications of that placard. Colonialism is like the Indian theory of karma.  Every action of ours creates waves and vibrations which endure, and there is no escape from them.  

A Caveat: Hurried Burial of Colonialism

There is a tendency to dwell on Christianity of the present, downplaying the history of colonialism and its connection with mission. Why to mull over the past colonial history; why not switch over to faith and theology in our times?  Here one fails to recognize the erosion colonialism has effected into the life of the people and the distortions it has caused in the understanding and practice of the Christian Gospel. Postcolonialism with its theorizing is an important reminder that the legacy of the colonial past is still very active in the present life and history of the peoples of Asia, as elsewhere in Africa and Latin America. One cannot wish it away, but needs to analyze the ways in which colonialism continues to affect the theological frame of thought, epistemology and hermeneutics. Colonial experiences and the missionary past have left such indelible imprints that construction of any Asian theology is not possible without coming to terms with them.  

This is why we turn to postcolonialism to decolonize theology and explore how and to what extent it (postcolonialism) could help for an Asian theological and pastoral agenda today. A dialogue with postcolonialism could be a force of creativity for the varied forms of Asian theologies. Unfortunately, very little has been done to deconstruct missionary discourses, practices and structures of power – an important premise for Asian theologies. 

Deconstructing Eurocentric Representation of Asian Christianity and Recognizing Its Unique Character and Agency 

Deconstructing the conventional modes of representation and frames of interpretation has been one of the important contributions of postcolonial theories. It finds application as well   in the study of   Asian Christianities and their theologies.  

Let me start with the case of the interpretation of the significance of Vatican II. Karl Rahner in his widely  cited article “Basic Theological Interpretation of the Second Vatican Council” saw the abiding significance of Vatican II in that the Church became  for the first time  truly Catholic and universal.[2]  Now, to claim that through Vatican II, the Church became universal, is to ignore the fact that much before the conversion of many nations and peoples in the West, Christianity had spread in Persia, India and China  and central Asia along the silk road, where there were flourishing communities of Christians. For example, the stele erected under Tang dynasty in 781 in Sian in the Chinese imperial capital of the time, attests to the presence of active Christian communities for a long period. The stele contains texts both in Chinese and in Syriac.  Christian communities in India known as Thomas Christians go back to even earlier, back at least to third century and to the Apostolic age. We cannot ignore what is known as the Church of the East with ancient roots when we speak of the universality of the Church.  Euro-centrism – often unintended – identifies universality of the Church with the expansion of the Western Latin patriarchate of Rome and Rahner himself does not seem to be free of that mindset.[3]

Apart from the absence of this historical perspective, Rahner’s position seems to reduce the significance of Vatican II to ecclesiology. For Asians it is too restrictive to think of Vatican II in terms of the ecclesia becoming truly universal. For Asians, the abiding significance of Vatican II is not bound up with such an ecclesiological vision. Rather the most significant thing for Asia is the Council’s theological vision that the revelation and self-communication of God has truly a catholic or universal reach within the larger frame of a single history of salvation. Asian Christians have paid great attention to the approach and orientation of Vatican II attuned to God’s creation, revelation and relationship to the entire humanity. And this is a key point in the reception of Vatican II in Asia.[4] It crystallizes their many experiences, and especially helps them see in a new light, millions of their neighbours of other faiths as part of God’s single and inclusive plan.  

The raging debate since the Synod of 1985 on the interpretation of Vatican II in terms of continuity or rupture with tradition has not caused any excitement in the Asian Churches. Asian Christians have learnt to interpret Vatican II through their life-experiences in a multicultural and pluri-religious Asia. They have put into practice in effect a “hermeneutics of distanciation”.[5] For Asians, Vatican II is an open-ended text which is to be interpreted in the light of the issues and questions they face in the continent.[6]  It is not a text whose meaning is confined to the mind of the Council Fathers to be extracted simply through the minutia of   historical exegesis. Asian Christian thinkers are aware that the Council could not have provided all the answers to their questions and problems of today, and they are not upset by that. For, Vatican II remains for Asians a point of departure of a journey, a journey which they themselves should make. More than the individual texts, it is the overall spirit and orientation of the Council that matters for the Asian Churches to build their future in conversation with their contexts. 

Beyond the Universal and the Particular to the Singular 

“Universal versus the local” is an important epistemological question which is discussed at time openly, but most of the times it underlies the difference in theological approaches. Whether it is the relationship of the universal Church vis-à-vis local Churches, or universal theological categories versus contextual theologies, we observe a tension. For the theologian Ratzinger and others, particular or local Church is only a concrete realization in a place of the Church universal which is pre-existent, reminding us of the old Platonic school of de-historicized abstract thought.  It has as its consequence a universal theology attached to a universal Church that has “ontological and chronological priority over local Church”.[7]  Consequently, theologies from the local Churches at bottom are but attempts to mould the universal theology in a particular cultural setting.  Consequently, local Churches and contextual theologies become diluted versions of what is considered the normative and universal. 

Asian theology has been, so to say, at gut level resisting this kind of thinking, but never tried to articulate it in theoretical form. I think here postcolonial theory could come to its aid with its conception of “singularity” which challenges the way the universal and the particular are inter-related.[8] Singular, unlike the particular, is not an application of a normative universal, but something which is repeatable and each one of the repetition has a difference and profile of its own. In this sense, Asian Church is singular, and not a copy of the universal Church. The singularity of the Asian Church and Asian Christianity makes them a reality of their own and not a derivative reality or a realm of application. In other words, Asian  local Church has its own narrative wherein its subjectivity is involved which no narration or report can capture. It has its consequences in the field of theology, worship and other faith-expressions. The real co-relate of singularity is not universality but pluriversality. In early centuries, the relationships among the Churches, each one very singular in its origin and narrative,was characterized by the spirit of pluriversality, of communion and exchange.  This leads us to our next point. 


[1] Space does not permit me to present even summarily postcolonial theories and the growing literature on them. I can only assume that the reader is familiar with them. 

[2] Karl Rahner, “Basic Theological Interpretation of the Second Vatican Council” in Theological Investigations, vol. 20 (New York: Crossroad, 1981), 77-89. 

[3] Cf. Felix Wilfred, “Nostra Aetate of Vatican II: An Asian Re-Reading after Fifty Years and the Way Forward, in FABC Papers 152 (Hong Kong: FABC Secretariat, 2017), 21-40. 

[4] Cf. Felix Wilfred, “Die Rezeption des II. Vatikanums in Asien”, in Vaticanum 21. Die bleibenden Aufgaben des Zweiten Vatikanichen Konzilsim 21. Jahrhundert, (Freiburg im Breisgau: Herder, 2016): 426-446. 

[5] See Ormond Rush, “Towards a Comprehensive Interpretation of the Council and Its Documents”, in Theological Studies vol. 73, no. 3(2012), 191-206.

[6] The open-endedness of text for a semantic plurality was recognized already by the Medieval Indian hermeneuts such as Anandavardhana and Abhinavagupta with reference to Sanskrit poetics. 

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