Felix Wilfred – Asian Christianities

A Postcolonial Critique of Inculturation in Asia 

It would appear that the project of inculturation in Asia (as well as in other parts of the world) at bottom reflects the conception of a pre-existent universal Church. Hence inculturation needs to be radically rethought in its very validity, not to speak of its feasibility. Inculturation basically does not change the method and concepts of a received universal theology, but finds ways to accommodate them and makes them acceptable locally. On the other hand, experience of faith in context creates a theology with the local episteme. The language of this theology also will be necessarily different. Here, the theological language will not be one that tries to express in the local what is presented as the universal. The difference between colonial theology and indigenous theology could be illustrated by the difference between commonwealth literature and postcolonial literature. Indigenous theology and postcolonial literature are not attempts to present in local idiom a universal theology or classical literature. Rather, postcolonial theology like postcolonial literature seeks to find its own language and episteme to express the indigenous and contextual experiences challenging the universalist claims of Western theology or classical literature. The imported theology despite its claims to the contrary, is in fact, limited to the West and hence provincial; it   bears clearly the marks of colonialism. This inherited colonial theology tries to frame the questions with its own points of reference, and what is expected of colonized people in Asia, Africa and Latin America is to respond to the questions already framed. Postcolonial theology is one which would challenge the usurping of the privilege of framing theological questions for all and then invite responses. Contextual and postcolonial theologies will frame the question themselves through their episteme and language and deal with the theological question in context. 

Let me illustrate the point with an example. Though the Japanese bishops may not know anything much of postcolonial theology, they seemed to have acted in the spirit of this theology when they took a stand vis-a-vis the lineamenta of the Vatican on the Asian Synod of 1998. The local Churches of Asia were expected to respond to the position taken by the Roman Church – to be precise, the Roman Curia – and answer the questions they had framed. The Japanese bishops found these questions odd and not resonating with what they experienced in Japan. So, they decided to formulate their own questions and answered them and send their response back to Rome – a true exercise in postcolonial pastoral theology! Further, over against a Christology which insisted on the uniqueness of Jesus and presented him as the Truth and the Way, Japanese bishops responded in postcolonial spirit, stating:

“One finds in the Lineamenta a certain defensiveness and apologetic attitude…. Jesus Christ is the Way, the Truth, and the Life, but in Asia, before stressing that Jesus Christ is the Truth, we must search much more deeply into how he is the Way and the Life. If we stress too much that “Jesus Christ is the One and Only Saviour”, we can have no dialogue, common living, or solidarity with other religions. The Church, learning from the kenosis of Jesus Christ, should be humble and open its heart to other religions to deepen its understanding of the Mystery of Christ.”[9]

By going into the pastoral concerns, the Japanese bishops have also indicated the importance of a theological method from below, from the bottom up. 

There is another element in the postcolonial theory which could help to review critically the project of inculturation. Postcolonialism is at one with poststructuralism and postmodernism, in the critique of essentialism. Applied to the realm of culture it means that cultures may not be viewed as water-tight compartments or insulated monadic entities. They are fluid and porous with a lot of criss-crossing among them in such a way that there is hardly any culture that is not hybrid and in a constant process of change affected by social, political and economic factors. Prasenjit Duara, a great Chinese historian calls  the story of osmosis between cultures as  “circulatory history”.[10]  Seen in this perspective, inculturation, far from being a translation of faith-essentialism into the mould of a cultural-essentialism becomes a dynamic process in which expressions of faith and its symbols get constantly re-appropriated, reshaped and renewed by the collective subjectivity of the community of faithful whose subjectivity itself is also in a constant flow,  and its culture  in constant evolution.  

Furthermore, one of the assumptions behind  inculturation seems to be that culture is a whole. This may be of service to the need of cultural anthropologists to create a general, macro or grand framework of interpretation. Such an approach served also the needs of colonial administration which called for mapping of the colonized peoples and their societies. Such totalizing trends in the understanding of culture are open to ideological manipulation. However, for the local people, their culture is something that gets reflected in the fragments of daily life and in infinite and disparate manners. They are not in need of any unified understanding of culture. The local people simply live their culture. Hence, to understand really the culture of a people,  one has to follow the movement and rhythm of their lives and respect the dynamic creation of new cultural forms and tropes in the community. Further, socially situated culture is also a site of conflicts,  contentions and play of power as could be observed in creation/contention of signs and symbols and in their interpretations. Postcolonialism could help theology to overcome a naïve and totalizing understanding of culture in its project of inculturation.  

Postcolonial Ecumenical Path of Asian Churches – Towards Post-denominationalism 

Space does not permit me to discuss in detail the many contributions of Asian Christianities and theologies. By way of example, I would highlight here a less known contribution of Asian Christianity, that is in the field of Ecumenism. The approach to ecumenism in Asia manifests postcolonial spirit and method and reveals the potential of Asian theologies and their contribution to global Christianity. 

The same missionary movement that brought to Asia denominationalism, ironically, was also an important source of ecumenism. World Missionary Conference – Edinburgh 1910 – was the occasion for the missionaries of different denominations to come together to affirm common Christian witness.[11] There was a lesser known movement that followed the Edinburgh Conference. It was the move from denominatinalism to autonomous indigenous Churches with their own features. It was an attempt to break loose of the traditional framework of thinking and acting in mission on the basis of past denominational identities. Visionaries like Bishop V.S. Azariah (1874 – 1945), who was a participant at Edinburgh Conference of 1910, already foresaw new forms of Christianities in Asia and in other continents – Christianities not bound by past historical divisions.[12] It would appear that Bishop Azariah and others preferred to invest their energies in the future shape of Christianities in indigenous forms rather than be caught in the agenda of reconciling the historical divisions that occurred in the history of Western Christianity. Similarly, a young pastor from China, Cheng Ching-Yi, urged the conference that the Chinese Church exercise its own agency, shape and sustain a Chinese expression of Christianity, according to its genius and with a non denominational identity. Let me quote from the speech of Azariah:

Through all the ages to come the Indian Church will rise up in gratitude to attest the heroism and self-denying labours of the missionary body. You have given your goods to feed the poor. You have given your bodies to be burned. We also ask for love. Give us FRIENDS.[13]

For him, the Edinburgh Conference was a great opportunity to highlight the importance of mutuality, reciprocity and friendship, since the relationship of missionaries to the local people  was characterized by aloofness, condescension and lack of interaction. Implied herein is a postcolonial critique of power relationships in the Asian missions. The postcolonial critique of Azariah antedating contemporary postcolonial theories, called for reciprocal self-understanding. Where there is domination, there is no room to talk of friendship or equality. I tend to think that colonial mission was perhaps the greatest religious enterprise in human history, but it was an enterprise lacking in friendship and inter-subjectivity. Azariah referred how the missionaries never cared to visit the home of native workers, nor would share meals with them. Of the missionaries and their societies, he apparently said in the same speech how they exclude the locals. “Too often you promise us thrones in heaven, but will not offer us chairs in your drawing rooms”. One cannot but admire the audacity of Azariah who was addressing an assembly of over one thousand white Protestant representatives of various missionary societies at the height of the colonial period. Apparently, these words got deleted in the official proceedings of the Edinburgh Conference. 

Thanks to this heritage of V.S. Azariah, Cheng Ching-Yi and other Asian participants of the Edinburgh Mission conference, the Asian path of ecumenism was marked by a progressive shift of attention from denominations to indigenous forms of Christianities. In other words, what has been happening in Asia is similar to the process in the early Christianity which led to different ecclesial traditions due to particular culture, history, vision and world-views. Against this background one may understand why today Asian Catholics view their local Churches as having their own agency, and not simply as extensions of a centralized Latin Patriarchate of the West – a realization that has helped them forge closer ecumenical relationships in context.   


[7]  See Walter Kasper, “On the Church: A Friendly Reply to Cardinal Ratzinger,The Furrow, Vol. 52, No. 6 (Jun., 2001), 323-332. The author argues why the historical and theological arguments of Ratzinger are untenable. 

[8] See Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, “Scattered Speculations on the Subaltern and the Popular”, in Postcolonial Studies. An Anthology (Oxford: Wiley Blackwell, 2016): 60-70, at 60. 

[9] Peter Phan (ed.), The Asian Synod. Texts and Commentaries (New York: Orbis Books, 2002), p.30. 

[10] Prasenjit Duara, The Crisis of Global Modernity. Asian Traditions and Sustainable Future (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015). 

[11] Cf.  John A. Rodano, ed., Celebrating Century of Ecumenism: Exploring the Achievements of International Dialogue, In Commemoration of the Centenary of the 1910 Edinburgh World Missionary Conference (Grand Rapids and Cambridge, U.K.: William B. Eerdmans, 2012).

[12] On the person and contribution of V.S. Azariah, see Susan Billington Harper, In the Shadow of the Mahatma. Bishop V.S. Azariah and the Travails of Christianity in British India (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 2000).

[13] As quoted in Brian Stanley, The World Missionary Conference: Edinburgh 2011 (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 2009):125.