Jojo Fung – Postcolonial Encounters with Indigenous Religions

Jojo M. Fung – « Postcolonial Encounters with Indigenous Religions for Peace and Ecological Harmony »

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

1. Introduction

Asian Christianities represent a marginal presence in Asia, oftentimes regarded with suspicion and skepticism apropos the operational colonial and imperialistic logic. This operational logic in Asian Christianities continues to uncritically conflate, hollow and erase rather than celebrate the epistemological differences in traditional/indigenous religions. The transition of Asian Christianities from “in Asia” to “of Asia depends on how our postcolonial encounters with the Indigenous Religions encourage the religio-cultural Asianization of Christianities. This means Asian Christianities need to audaciously create spaces for the articulation of the distinctive religio-cultural differences in the otherness of Indigenous Religions.[1] At the same time, this articulation enjoins Christianity to critically yet discerningly appraise and appreciate the hitherto undervalued theological richness of Indigenous Religions. This paper attempts to create spaces for the “bursting in” of the different contextual theological voices of Asian Christianities that are enriched by the sapiential and mystical sources of Indigenous Religions. The first section addresses the postcolonial encounter of Asian Christianities with indigenous religions in the “pneumatic site of contestation”; and the second section reflects on the geo-ecological site of contestation with the nation-states. 

2. Paradigm Shift in Postcolonial Encounters           

The pneumatic contestation between the “many spirits” of indigenous religion and the one Divine Spirit of Christianity calls for a radical paradigm shift in the postcolonial encounters in Asia.  This shift calls for a mentoring process facilitated by the wo/men elders, healers, mystics, sages and shamans of the indigenous communities. Their mentoring will sensitize us to an attentive “listening and conversing with spirit world, our ancestors, the wonders and creativity of nature and feel the presence of the Divine in an embodied, non-dualistic and non-dominating ways.”[2] They facilitate our journey of faith in “the arena of faith” [3] that enables us to see the mystico-theological nexus between the incarnational omnipresence of God in all of life in creation, and God’s incarnated presence in each created life-form. In other words, “God in all things” (Theo-en-passim) is correlated with “all things subsist in God” (pan-en-theism) and thus understand “panentheism as the flip side of Theo-en-passim, establishing the “compenetrative presencing” or “indwelling of God in creation and creation in God.”[4]

In this way, the “many spirits” of nature attest to the creaturely yet plural manifestation of God indwelling in all created life-forms. This correlation enables us to understand why Indigenous Religions ascribe the incarnated and creaturely manifestation of God as “spirits” to the elements of nature. This ascription is analogous to how Jewish mysticism in the Book of Jubilees and 1 Enoch designates the “elemental spirits” as the angels of the spirit of fire, of the spirit of the wind, the clouds, snow and hail, thunder and lightning (Jub. 2:2 ff; 1 En. 60:11 ff.; 65:8; Or. Sybill. 7:33ff., etc.), including the angels of the seasons of the year (1 En. 82:10ff.).”[5]

This cognizance of the “many spirits” as the incarnated manifestation of God undergirds Yangkahao Vashum’s postulation that the benevolent spirits are mediators between God and the world rather than the death-dealing malevolent spirits.[6]  This cognizance also gives us the theological basis to understand why Gine posits that believers of Indigenous Religions shows reverence to “every good spirit, which they encounter in their day-to-day life like, the god of the land, the god of harvest, the god of the waters, the god of the animal kingdom.”[7]

Therefore the Spirit world is the indispensable core of the local mystical cosmologies in Indigenous Religions. This core is “defined by such values as sacredness, compassion, love, respect, balance, empathy, service, joy, wisdom and peacefulness.” [8] This core promotes a “lifestyle guided by the principles of ‘limit and balance and help us to live sustainably and spiritually” and further encourages “a ‘universalising meditative interiority’ that expresses itself through positive ecological, social and symbolic thoughts and practice.”[9]

In fact the religio-cultural/spiritual traditions of Asia “present sustainability as the ‘other side’ of spirituality – one side looking outward, the other side looking inward”.[10] These diverse ‘spiritualities of sustainability’ spur the indigenous wo/men healers, mystics, sages and shamans to be concerned about the sustainability of communities/societies, the ancestral homeland inclusive of the environment rather than mere sustainable economic development. 

For Indigenous Religions, life is primarily about nature and the spirit world integral to their communities and not the mere prevalence of economic development in their societies.

3. Negotiation for Peace amidst Contestations

Having stated the contestation with the modern religions (section I), the attainment of interfaith peace enables the Indigenous Religions to pay fuller attention to the strategic geo-ecological negotiation with the aggressive policies of the nation-states that collude with the multinational proponents of neo-liberal capitalism. These policies centralize the state control of the forestland and the resources with the capitalization of agriculture that eroded the subsistence economy of indigenous communities. [11]

Furthermore the nation states subject the indigenous communities to arbitrary arrests and relocation. This hegemonic aggression has been a statist strategy to deterritorialize the indigenous communities. Modern nation-states regard these rural communities as the last bastion of the rich natural resources below and above the ground. 

A case in point is Thailand. Currently the protected area under the control of the State amounts to 28.78 % of Thailand land surface area and the protected land surface covers an area where more than 10 million people live.[12] Relocation of the indigenous communities began with the implementation of the Seventh National Economic and Social Development Plan (1992-1996) by virtue of the Cabinet Act of 1989. [13] In 2008, Muntarhorn averred, “some communities cannot practice shifting cultivation without risking arrest” thus depriving many communities of self-sufficiency “in food production and they faced increased poverty.” [14]

This forceful eviction of the indigenous peoples to the non-arable sites without the voluntary and informed consent of the indigenous peoples contravenes Article 10 of the UN Declaration on the Rights of the Indigenous Peoples. In the light of this history of systematic violation, the indigenous and human rights groups petitioned the UN in February 2012 for a hearing of their plight. Due consideration was granted under the early urgent action (EW/UA) procedure at the Committee’s 80th session. The UN sent a letter dated March 9th 2012 to the Thai government “requesting to know the steps that had been taken to improve the situation of the Karen people.”[15]

The same statist strategies also de-religionize the indigenous communities, de-valuing their mystical cosmologies, which are central to their diverse spiritualities of sustainability. This asymmetrical relation and the aggressive statist policies left the indigenous communities in dire need of peace since they live in a conflicted state of relentless geo-ecological contestation. 

4. Sacred Sustainability: A Strategy of Negotiation for Peace 

Indigenous religions resort to two key concepts of sacredness and sustainability as a critical tool for their strategic negotiation for peace with the authorities in the indigenous homeland of contestation. These focal understanding of sacred sustainability is born of a personal participation in the Karen’s annual celebration of the water-spirit ritual in the Karen village of Dokdaeng.[16] In the indigenous life-world, these focal concepts articulate with a felt mystical sense that undergirds the matrix of the indigenous sacred web of life.[17]

4.1. Sacred Sustainability: A Felt and Embodied Mystical Sense

This felt sense is born of a recurrent everyday mystical experience calling for a life of solitude that fosters a contemplative communion with nature/Mother Earth. Over time, there is a glowing/growing realization that creation is sacredly sustained by the Great Creative Divine Spirit (Ruach Elohim). In this mystical sense, there is a felt-sense that the Divine Spirit of sacred sustainability enlivens Mother Earth. Hence Ke Le, 20, the president of the youth in the village of Dokdaeng believes in “the spirits’ presence in every mountain and water and river.”[18] Chan Kam, age 47, an assistant official of the local municipal council and a Buddhist residing in Maelid, firmly believes that “everything becomes sacred because the spirits come and dwell in nature.”[19]His friend, Kai Mi Tu, a boy who is 11, believes that the “spirits protect him, everybody, forests, water, animals, parents, grandparents and other people.”[20]

4.2. Sacred Sustainability: A Sacred Web of Interrelation

This felt-experience of sacred sustainability in the spirituality of Indigenous Religions informs us that humankind lives in a sacred web of interdependent interrelations with the Creator Spirit, with all the ancestral and nature spirits. Rituals provide the reputable indigenous wo/men shamans, healers, mystics, sages and religious leaders access to the spirit power within this sacred web of life. The seasonal agro-ritual celebrations harness the spirit power that sacralizes the village space, including the land, the forest and its resources, the riverine life. The spirit power also empowers the struggle of the indigenous communities in their negotiation with the powers that be. 

Rituals and the sustaining power of the Spirit world are interrelated. This is expressed by the third group of three girls from Mae Ho and Mae Sariang on the May 19 seminar held in the Dokdaeng village.[21] They believed in the sustaining power of the ritual performances because the “rituals can protect the forest and make the land and mountain sacred. The forests sustain the lives of birds and animals.”[22] The eight boys from the village of Maelid endorse the previous views but they added, “everyone believes nature has spirits so we choose rituals to preserve nature.”[23]

This web of interrelation is duly affirmed by Pope Francis in Laudato Si’, “everything is interconnected” (§70), “interdependent” (§86), and “interrelated” in which “we human beings are united as brothers and sisters on a wonderful pilgrimage, woven together by the love God has for each of God’s creatures and which also unites us in fond affection with brother sun, sister moon, brother river and mother earth.”[24]

This sacred web of life calls for a profound reverence and respect for all things, all life forms, all spaces and all persons because God’s all-pervasive Creative Spirit is intuitively and mystically experienced as sacredly alive in all of creation. It is this omnipresence of God’s Creative Spirit that sacredly sustains all of God’s creation. This mystical sense of the sacred web needs to become a rallying call to all faiths and people of goodwill to build an emerging consensus to cherish, safeguard and promote the environment and Mother Earth.[25]

4.3. Sacred Sustainability: An Ethos and Pathway of Life

Sacred sustainability is indeed an ethos and a pathway of life in which all life forms truly live in a world suffused with the Spirit Presence of the Divine who sustains creation in all her splendor and suffering.[26] Hence the Divine Spirit-presence makes life on earth sustainable. In this fundamental sense, over and above the socio-cultural and economic sustainability, is this foundational sense of sacred sustainability of life on earth. This commonality of sacred sustainability is inherent in the cosmocentric spirituality of Indigenous Religions worldwide. 

At the global level, this cosmocentric spirituality of the Indigenous Religions is spelt out in the 2012 Kari-Oca 2 Declaration. The reference to culture in this Declaration denotes the religio-cultural/spiritual traditions of the traditional indigenous peoples. Indigenous traditions speak of the sacredness of the human-earth-space. The Rio+20 Declaration of the International Conference of Indigenous Peoples on Self-Determination and Sustainable Development declares, “we believe that all societies must foster cultures of sustainability, and that Rio+20 should highlight culture as the most fundamental dimension of sustainable development” and “call upon the world to reestablish dialogue and harmony with Mother Earth and adopt a new paradigm for civilization based on Buen Vivir in the spirit of survival, dignity and well being.”[27]

A cosmocentric spirituality of living well (Buen vivir) with Mother earth alerts us that peace can only be attained when we regard nature/creation as sacred and spirited because this world is suffused with God’s suffusing Spirit. This mystical sense enjoins humankind to live in gratitude for everything and everyone. Humankind is called upon to embody “a new reverence for life, the firm resolve to achieve sustainability, the quickening struggle for justice and peace, and the joyful celebration of life” (LS §207) for today’s generations and future generations. 

5. Conclusion

The postcolonial encounters of Asian Christianities have to facilitate interreligious peace through a discerning and critical correlation of the “many spirits” of Indigenous Religions and the one Divine Spirit of Christianity through the lens of theo-en-passim and pan-en-theism. In this way, postcolonial encounters facilitate the celebration of the religio-cultural alterity of Indigenous Religions. This interreligious peace will enable the Indigenous religions to resort to sacred sustainability as a strategic tool of negotiation for peace in the ancestral homeland with the local, regional and global authorities and institutions. Sacred sustainability is a culture, a mystical cosmology and a cosmic spirituality that the believers of the Indigenous Religions advocate. The Spirit power of cosmic spirituality will restore the peace between indigenous communities and the nation-states at the national, regional and global levels. At the same time, sacred sustainability will bring about a state of ecological equilibrium and balance in the cosmos/creation for the divine indwelling is the peace between the religions, the nations, the planets and ultimately the cosmos/creation.

[1] I prefer Seong Hee Kim’s discourse on postcolonialism that “questions all kinds of conventional knowledge, systems, power, their relationships, threatening the privileged, demanding the well-being of all human beings”, “resists all forms of exploitation and oppression and seeks to change the way people think and behave, disturbing the order of the world”, and “mobilizing the wisdom” to deconstruct the “Western ways of thinking and perceiving” especially the prevalent tendency to create, valorize and reinforce the dualistic distinctions that “seek to distinguish the powerful from the powerless,” and the reconstruction of greater “space for the subaltern, or marginalized groups, to speak and produce alternatives to dominant discourse” and “rehabilitation of empowerment”. For more details, see Diarmuid O’ Murchu, “Jesus and the Imperial Demise,” in Christianity’s Dangerous Memory: A Rediscovery of the Revolutionary Jesus (Quezon City, Claretian Publications, 2012), 5-22.

[2] The conference was attended by 30 Asian members (more women than men) of EATWOT from the countries of Bangladesh, India, Indonesia, Myanmar, Pakistan, Philippines, Sri Lanka and Taiwan came together for the VII Asian Theological Conference (ATC) on the theme: “Indigenous Peoples’ Struggle for Justice and Liberation in Asia”, November 8 to 10, 2010, Good Shepherd Center, Antipolo City, Philippines.

[3] The emphasis in italic is mine. These salient points came from the country reports, synthesis, the plenary session (facilitated by Karl Gasper) and the Concluding session (facilitated by Fr. Anthoniraj Thumma) after the exposure to the Aeta community located in Sitio Target, Sapang Bato, Angeles City, Pampanga (a province North of Manila). The respective countries (India, Sri Lanka, Taiwan, Myanmar, Indonesia and the Philippines) reported on the indigenous peoples’ situation in their respective country while highlighting the issues that would enable participants to understand and appreciate the situation of the indigenous peoples.

[4] Jojo M. Fung, SJ, Chapter 9, “What Christians Can learn from a Shamanic Pneumatology” in Interfaith Dialogue: Global Perspectives, eds. Edmund Kee-Fook Chia & Francis X. Clooney, SJ (New York: Palgrave McMillian, 2016), 126.

[5] Ibid See “Jewish mysticism: Angels and Angelology,”, accessed on June 15, 2015; also see Jojo M. Fung, A Shamanic Pneumatology In a Mystical Age of Sacred Sustainability (New York: Palgrave McMillian, 2017), 118. 

[6] See Yangkahao Vashum, “Jesus Christ as the Ancestor and Elder Brother: Constructing a Relevant Indigenous/Tribal Christology of North East India,” Journal of Tribal Studies 13, no. 2 (July-December 2008), 27. 

[7] See Pratap Chandra Gine 2005, “Tribalism: A New Form of Religious Fundamentalism – A Challenge for Doing Theology in Asia,” JTCA – The Journal of Theologies and Cultures in Asia, 4 (2005), 96. 

[8] See M. Nadarajah, Living Pathways: Meditations on Sustainable Cultures and Cosmologies in Asia (Penang: Areca Books, 2013), 79. 

[9] Ibid., 86-87.

[10] Ibid., 77. 

[11] In the upland indigenous communities of the Hmong, Karen and the Lua, capitalization of the farmland leads to large-scale chemical farming of cash-crops, leading to unsustainable livelihood due to ill-health, contaminated air, soil and water.  

[12] See Vitit Muntarhorn, “Shadow Report on Eliminating Racial Discrimination on Thailand.” Submission to the CERN Committee Meeting on August 9-10, Geneva, Switzerland, 84. 

[13] See Vitit Muntarhorn, op. cit., no. 44.  

[14] See footnote 1 and 2 in Prasert Trakansuphakon, “Space of Resistance and Place of Local Knowledge in the Northern Thailand Ecological Movement,” Ph.D dissertation, Chiangmai University, 2007, 221.

[15] See Vitit Muntarhorn, op. cit., 84. 

[16] See Chapter III, “Sustaining Indigenous Religio-Cultural Traditions” in Jojo M. Fung, A Shamanic Pneumatology In a Mystical Age of Sacred Sustainability (New York: Palgrave McMillian, 2017); also see Jojo M. Fung, SJ, Creation Is Spirited and Sacred: An Asian Indigenous Everyday Mysticism of Sacred Sustainability (Manila: Claretian Communications Foundation, INC, Asian Institute of Spirituality and Jesuit Communications Foundation INC, 2017).

[17] I posit that much of indigenous every mysticism is about a context-specific/local God-Talk as much as the God-Talk emerges out of a God-Feel as the human body has become an important affective and sensorial locus theologicus in doing contextual theology. See Jojo M. Fung, PowerPoint presentation entitled “Postcolonial Encounters with Indigenous religions For Peace and Ecological Harmony” at the Concilium International conference entitled Asian Christianities: Postcolonial Encounters: Theological Conversations, held at the Adamson University on June 30, 2017.  

[18] Based on a conversation in the village of Dokdaeng on April 12 and 15, 2013.

[19] Ibid. 

[20] Ibid. 

[21] These are the participants of the Youth Leadership Seminar on Saturday, May 18, 2013, in Dokdaeng. The theme of the seminar is: Sacred Nature and Sustainable Life. It was organized under the aegis of the Seven Fountains Jesuit Retreat House, Chiangmai, Northern Thailand that also acts as a Chaplaincy Center for the university students. 

[22] Ibid. 

[23] Ibid.  

[24] Pope Francis, Laudato Si’- Care For Our Common Home, accessed May 17, 2015. 

[25] Jojo M. Fung, A Shamanic Theology of Sacred Sustainability: Shamans and Church in Dialogue for Liberative Struggle (Manila: Jesuit Communications Foundations, 2014).

[26] Ibid. 

[27]For further detail on the Rio+20 Declaration of the International Conference of Indigenous Peoples on Self-Determination and Sustainable Development, see http:–peoples-international-declaration-on-self-determination-and-sustainable-development, accessed on November 19, 2012; also see Jojo M. Fung, SJ, “Sacred Space For Sacred Sustainability,” Landas 26 (2012): 267-290.


Jojo M. Fung SJ facilitates learning at EAPI in modules like Leadership and Cultures, Spirituality and Cultures, New Evangelization and Leadership, Amoris Laetitia and Pastoral Leadership, Mission as Ecological Responsibility. He is also an Assistant Professor of Contextual Theology at the Loyola School of Theology, offering courses such as Doing Contextual Theology in Dialogue with Indigenous PeoplesAn Asian Contextual Theology of Sacred Sustainability, Dialogue with Indigenous Cultures & Religiosity, Pneumatology: Asian, Catholic and Indigenous. He has published extensively articles and books in the areas of Shamanic Theology, Pneumatology, Spirituality and Leadership. His latest book is entitled A Shamanic Pneumatology In A Mystical Age of Sacred Sustainability by Palgrave McMillian;Creation Is Spirited and Sacred: An Asian Everyday Indigenous Mysticism of Sacred Sustainability by Claretian Communications Foundation, Inc., Jesuit Communications Foundation, Inc, Institute of Spirituality in Asia, Manila. His upcoming book will be D’ Mystique of A Sacred Cosmic Spirit: Beyond Earth-Mysticism. 

Address: East Asian Pastoral Institute, Ateneo de Manila University, Loyola Heights, Quezon City, Philippines.

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