Po-Ho Huang – Interfaith Dialogue in Asian Religious Contexts

Po-Ho Huang – « Interfaith Dialogue in Asian Religious Contexts »

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. Religious Profundity and its Challenges in Asia 

Asia is the birthplace of many world religions such as Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism, Jainism, Sikhism, Zoroastrianism, Shamanism and Shinto. All major religious traditions are practiced here, and new forms are constantly emerging. 

Being the largest and most populous continent in the world, with a wide variety of cultures and religions, Asian history and culture have been profoundly influenced by these religions. These religious traditions offer spiritual guidance but also set moral and ethical standards for the daily life of peoples in Asian countries. The formation of cultures of communities across the region was informed by regional religious traditions. However, their social structures were challenged by the waves of colonialism and imperialism in the modern era. The Western modernization created after the Enlightenment movement has affected Asia through colonial activities across the areas of the continent’s social, political, legal, cultural, and intellectual dimensions of life. It even made impact on the domestic traditional religions. This modernized civilization welcomed, compelled or swayed local societies; and made indigenous moralities either weak, irrelevant, or were forced to transform in order to survive. Many new religious movements also emerged as alternatives. David William Kim, an Australian religious scholar has pointed out that:

The localization of a region, group, culture, or a nation was a common social phenomenon in the pre-modern era of Asia, but global colonialism began to affect the lifestyle of local people. In particular, western authorities introduced advanced skills of technology, navigation, medicine, education, and civilisation into Asia, but whether they always cooperated with regional people is a curious issue…. The influence of imperialism has been criticized in various ways, but the role of colonial power over the religious communities and the emergence of new religions in Asian cultures have not received significant attention among scholars, even though the Asian continent is the home of many religions…. It is also an undeniable fact that the Asian society and culture were formed based on such a religious environment.[1]

Being the birthplace of world religions, the Asian continent can be categorized geographically speaking to five areas namely: Western Asia, Central Asia, South Asia, Southeast Asia and Northeast Asia.[2] These geographical divisions, though not absolutely unique, have also their cultural religious implications. Religious and cultural profundity brings richness and blessings, yet it also potentially can be turned to negative segregation or even creates confrontations between people. Many ethnic and religious conflicts domestically or internationally have continually taken place in many countries and different regions. The Christian-Muslim tensions and conflicts that cross the borders of West Asia and Central Asia have developed to worldwide clashes, indiscriminatingly threatening people’s security. Sub-national conflicts are the most deadly, widespread, and enduring. Recent studies by the Asia Foundation indicate that more people have died in the region’s twenty-six sub-national conflicts than in international conflicts during the past twenty years. In South and Southeast Asia, active conflicts affect regions that are roughly the size of Indonesia and inhabited by more than 130 million people. In many countries, such as the Philippines, Sri Lanka, and Thailand often derive from deeply rooted religious and ethnic differences and struggles over minority rights.[3]

2. Dialogue: Interfaith versus Inter-religious

The definitions and terminologies of interfaith and interreligious dialogues are controversial. Some traditional theologies, particularly those concerning the doctrine of revelation, tries to make a distinction between religion and faith. Religion is considered a human attempt to understand God and grasp the power of the divine. Faith, in contrast, is a gift from God. Traditional Christians and theologians thus assign to Christianity the privilege to be called living faith; other belief systems are called religions. 

The issue of Christian attitude towards other religions was raised to its controversial status after the Jerusalem conference in 1928. Wesley Ariarajah wrote:

Jerusalem 1928 met, however, under the cloud of rising secularism in both East and West, and that issue dominated the meeting. While asserting that the Christian gospel provided the answers to a troubled world, the conference affirmed the “values” in other religions and called on all believers to join hands with Christian in confronting the growing impact of secular culture. But some participants could not agree with the positive affirmations of other faiths and maintained that the Christian gospel was unique among religious traditions. Thus, even though the message was unanimously accepted (partly due because of the drafting skills of William Temple), the Christian attitude to other faiths became a highly controversial issue shortly after the Jerusalem meeting.[4]

The controversy reached its height in 1938 when the book on The Christian Message in a Non-Christian Worldwritten by Hendrik Kraemer,[5] a well known Dutch missionary, was taken as the preparatory study book for the Tambaram International Missionary Conference at Madras, India. Kraemer’s point was influenced by Karl Barth and insisted that biblical faith based on God’s encounter with humankind is radically different from all other forms of religions. He insisted that the only true way for human being to know the revealed will of God is by responding to the divine intervention in history in Christ. Both Kraemer and Barth emphasized the uniqueness of the revelation in Christ and considered Christianity as a religion to be as human as any other; yet at the same time inevitably giving an impression that Christianity is unique to become the vehicle through which the divine revelation is lived and proclaimed.[6]Kraemer’s position made a great impact on the Tambaram conference and subsequent mainstream missionary thinking, but not without dissenting voices. Read against this background of debates, we may be able to feel the sensibility of the terminologies about religion and faith. Even though different concerns and purposes are taken into consideration, the World Council of Churches, for instance, has shifted its language to address different religions as “living faith traditions” in order to avoid this negative theological implication. 

Beyond the controversy over terminologies lie deeper issues of representation. On the one hand, religion as a cult (system) is a collective organization; individual practitioners of a religion may not all have an identical position with regard the understanding of their doctrines. “Interreligious dialogue,” therefore, is more an institution-based exchange. It tends to be defensive as it tries to clarify the tenets of one’s own religion while seeking to understand others. But it is imperative to engage in such to solve the conflicts that occur between different religions in many regions of the world. 

“Interfaith dialogue,” on the other hand, emphasizes more the exchange of values and ways of life. Faith, according the Paul Tillich, is one’s ultimate concern which involves the entire personality: “It happens in the center of the personal life and includes all its elements.”[7] The conscious and the unconscious, the ego and the superego, the cognitive, the emotional, and the voluntary functions are all included in faith as a centered act of the total personality.[8]Interfaith dialogue thus connotes exchange of personal convictions; it means to share and to demonstrate one’s world views and values, and consequently one’s religious convictions and ways of life. Interfaith dialogue, as a concept without institutional considerations is wider and more inclusive in its ways of engagements, can take various forms and work for different purposes.

3. Proselytism and the Asian Christian Religion

Generally speaking, interreligious dialogue is particularly a Christian agenda. We seldom see other religions in Asia establish an institutional unit under its organizational structure to be specifically in charge of dialogue with other religions. These Asian religions are by nature open and hospitable; they treasure truth and wisdom not only from the elite but also from the least of the society and from nature.  Even if these Asian religions hold a doctrine on salvation, they are mostly receptive towards other beliefs. The Buddhist teaching on “non-discriminatory heart” (無分別心) is a demonstration of this inclusiveness. Take the northeast Asia context for instance: the coexistence of plural religions in society has been normal and traditional.

It is the Christian religion, an Asian-born faith that has grown as an institutional religion in a Greco-Roman setting, and brought back to Asia accompanied by the imperialist colonial movement mainly in 19th century, that created tensions and engendered hostile relations among Asian religions. Derived from its monotheistic tradition, Christian religion is characterized by an exclusive nature in its doctrines, and was enhanced by the superior mentality hinted at by the political colonial companion. Christian mission in Asia has been received by most Asian people as a triumphal conquest which was confronted consequently by explicit or implicit resistance. 

The desire of “interreligious dialogue” thus created and nurtured either as an alternative way to proselytism or as a solution of conflicts. Some occasions become steps forward in the search for religious cooperation in common concerns related to religious freedom or promotion of social wellbeing. As a concept, inter-religious dialogue inevitably involves religious identity in which participants are expected to represent his/her affiliated religion, and becomes separated from one’s personal positions. However, inter-faith dialogue gives more space for the dialogue participants to freely express their personal views. Inter-faith dialogue effectively helps the mechanism of dialogue to shift from its institutional and problem-solving nature to become a lifestyle, and encourages people to live out a dialogical life on a daily basis.   

Even though Christianity is an Asian-born religion, most Asian Christians today are baptized into a western-bred Christianity and its accompanying colonial mission. The two major waves of the so-called overseas missions were accompanied by the colonial activities of the western ocean empires, such as Spanish, Portuguese, German, French, British and American in the 17th and 19th centuries. Christianity was received by Asians as a superior religion in terms of its associations with political and economic forces, and the advancement of their material civilizations. Accompanied by colonial activities, Christianity and its mission were characterized as confrontational and discriminatory towards local cultures and native religions. The proselytisms resulting from the missionary efforts not only shifted the religious affiliation of the new believers, but also their cultural and even political (national) identities. The slogan of “one more Christian, one less Chinese” used by the “Anti-Christian League” to attack Christianity in early 20th century China is an example of the common reactions to the nature of Christian conversion in many Asian countries. This aggressive pattern of missionary strategy has casted a negative and even evil image on the local religions, as well as strictly enforcing the new converts to practice self-denial through destroying their traditional rituals and even burning the tablets of their ancestors. 

4. Interfaith Dialogue in Asian Contexts

Confronting the traditional Christian views with other religions, the project of dialogue has been a sensitive proposal, and created inner debates and conflicts within the Christian tradition. Questions have been raised “regarding the theological assumptions about other faiths at the heart of Christian mission.”[9] Suspicions regarding interfaith dialogue among some Christians surfaced during the open controversy at the World Council of Churches’ (WCC) fifth assembly in Nairobi in 1975. For the first time, “five representatives of other faiths were invited to a WCC assembly and took part in the discussions on the section “Seeking Community,” where the dialogue issue was debated.”[10] Plenary discussion of the report of this section highlighted the deep disagreement among the churches on the issue of dialogue. “Fears were expressed that dialogue would lead to the kind of syncretism against which the 1928 Jerusalem meeting warned about; or that it would compromise faith in the uniqueness and finality of the revelation in Christ, or that it would threaten mission seen as fundamental to the being of the church itself.”[11]

Asian Churches, both Catholic and Protestant, played significant roles in defending dialogue as the most appropriate way for the church to live in a pluralistic world. In fact, the so-called people of other living faiths engaged in dialogue events are mostly from the religions born in Asia: Christian – Jew, Christian – Hindu, Christian – Buddhist, and Christian – Muslim among others. In the other words, despite different motivations the Asian context of religious plurality has nurtured Asian Christians with a special spirituality and commitment to interfaith dialogue. 

The following observations are personal reflections that may provide some clues to delve into the complex contributions of Asian religions in relation to interfaith dialogue in the region.

  1. Sense of CompensationAmong Asian religions, Christianity is the most aggressive in undertaking missions of conversion. Accompanied by political colonial forces, Christian mission in Asia has been perceived by Asian peoples as a triumphalistic religion that has destroyed or damaged native cultures and threatened the latter’s traditional values in different ways. Christian missions are considered as religious aggression, and perceived to have created tension and hostile relations with other religions. To launch inter-faith or interreligious dialogue is a way to remedy the tense relationship, and to make up for transgressions. Furthermore, the theological debates on the natures of other religions in comparison to Christianity can be understood as means of discernment to properly engage with other religions in Christian missions.
  2. Alternative Tactics for Proselytism The struggle of Christians to understand their relationship with other religious traditions has been an important issue from the very beginning of the church. However, this interest on interreligious relations was mainly derived from the missionary concern of developing effective mission tactics with a proselytizing purpose. It was only after the Second World War which saw the western colonization of the world gradually ending and the Christian religion was no longer in alliance with the colonial authorities, that the dialogue projects with other living faith traditions were implemented and became prevalent. Even though many efforts have been exerted to define the nature and purpose of interfaith dialogue in order to preclude its instrumental and proselytizing tendencies, the latter unavoidably remains to be a hazard in genuine dialogue. 
  3. Dilemma of Inner Conflicts: Many Asian churches today are still primarily missionary churches. Incidents of religious conversion are still taking place in many local churches. As long as the church’s mission and evangelization strategies have not changed much from its previous confrontational and discriminatory stance (seeing other religions as idolatrous and evil), interreligious dialogue projects would inevitably engender inner conflict in local churches, and dilemma among newly-converted congregation members. Although it is a chance for newly-converted Christians participating in dialogue events to rediscover the values and significance in their original religion, much work of renewal needs to be done in local congregations in relation to their mission strategies and theological understanding of religions. 
  4. Minority Complex and Spirit of Dialogue: Christian churches are minorities in many Asian countries. In some cases, however, minority Christians become dominant in society. For instance, in North East Asian countries (besides Korea) Christian populations are small portions in their societies; yet due to their affiliation with western mission-sending countries, they become empowered  through access to higher education opportunities. Christians mostly become middle class in their societies, and possess leadership positions with strong social influence. Sometimes they are even criticized as being militant and oppressive. Interfaith dialogue in this region does not enjoy an enthusiastic welcome. 

In other places, however, minority Christian populations are marginalized and oppressed, particularly those in Muslim populated countries like in Pakistan, Indonesia, and Malaysia. Inevitably, minority peoples are affected with feelings of insecurity; they tend to be defensive and conservative. In contexts of oppression, dialogue is an alternative tactic for proselytism, amidst the fear of syncretism and loss of identity. 

5. Conclusion

Religious plurality in Asia is a unique God-given reality – the diverse faiths are all people’s religions nurtured by the land and its inhabitants. Thus, for Christians, it is a God-given mission to make this pluralistic reality a blessing instead of a source of conflict or division. Despite the complexity and historical factors involved, Asian religions should work together to build a model of interfaith and interreligious dialogue for the fullness of life for all.


[1] David William Kim, Colonial Transformation and Asian Religions in Modern History, (Newcastle, UK: Cambridge Scholars’ Publishing, 2017) p. 1.

[2] WEST ASIA includes Isreal, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Oman, Bahrain, Qatar, Iraq, Iran, Kuwait, and all other Arabic nations. CENTRAL ASIA: Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turmenistan, Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Armenia. SOUTH ASIA: Pakistan, Maldives, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal, India. SOUTH EAST ASIA: Burma, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Malaysia, Singapore, Indoneisa, Brunei, Papua New Guinea, Philippines. NORTH EAST ASIA: Mongolia, Japan, China, North Korea, South Korea and Taiwan.

[3] See Asian Foundation webpage, http://asiafoundation.org/slideshow/critical-issues-ethnic-and- religious-conflicts/

[4] Wesley Ariarajah, Dialogue, Interfaith, Dictionary of the Ecumenical Movement, eds. Nicholas Lossky, Jose Miguez Bonino, John S. Pobee, Tom E. Stransky, Geoffrey Wainwright, Pauline Webb (Switzerland: WCC publication, 1991), 282.

[5] Hendrik Kraemer, The Christian Message in a Non-Christian World, (New York: Harper, 1938).

[6] Ibid.

[7] Paul Tillich, Dynamics of Faith (New York: Harper & Row, 1957), 4.

[8] Ibid., pp. 4-8

[9] Wesley Ariarajah, ibid., p. 282

[10] Ibid.,

[11] ibid.,


Author

Po Ho Huang is currently professor of Theology and vice president of Chang Jung Christian University in Taiwan. He is the founding chairperson of Formosa Christianity and Culture Research Center. He served as President of Tainan Theological College and Seminary, Associate General Secretary of the Presbyterian Church in Taiwan, Moderator of Council for World Mission, London¸ Co-Moderator of CATS (Congress of Asian Theologians) and the Dean of PTCA (Programme for Theology and Cultures in Asia), He is now the Moderator of The Asian Forum for Theological Education (AFTE), Associate Editor of IJAC (International Journal for Asian Christianity) and member of Editorial board of Concilium. His numerous books include, A Theology of Self-determination, From Galilee to Tainan, No Longer a Stranger, Mission from the Underside and Embracing the Household of God.

Address: c/o Chang Jung Christian University No. 1, Changda Road, Guizen District, Tainan City, Taiwan.

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