Breaking New Ground: CAT III In Indonesia

by Geoffrey Lilburne
Australia

Introduction

In August 2001 the third meeting of the Congress of Asian Theologians was held in Yogyakarta. The third Congress was a significant gathering of 120 Christian theologians drawn from 18 countries in the Asia Pacific region, including representatives from Burma, Japan, Tonga, and Australia, in addition to strong contingents from South Asia, Korea and South East Asia. Hosted by the Duta Wacana Christian University, the gathering focused on the timely theme, “Envisioning New Life among the Religions of Asia.” While the theme picked up elements of previous Congresses whose focus has been upon “life” in Asia, the tackling of the theme of the ubiquity and pluralism of religions in Asia was an important clarification of one of the central and distinct elements of Asian life and theology. It was of special significance that such a widely representative Congress should be held in the Republic of Indonesia at a time of both political transition and, most significantly, inter-religious conflict. The timeliness of the theme and the deliberations were underlined by the interest in the Indonesian press on the statement that the Congress issued on the conflict in the Maluku Islands.

Asia has been called the cradle of the world religions. Yet the regions of South Asia, North East Asia, South East Asia and the Pacific have experienced a most intensive series of western missionary interventions, especially in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. As is well known, following the Second World War, the period of post colonial movements of national liberation highlighted the colonial nature of so much missionary endeavour and the mixed heritage it has left among the cultures and social structures of the region. Christian theology had already by the close of the twentieth century acknowledged multiple shortcomings and errors, and the paradigm shift in missiology had spawned new understandings and new missionary practice with most of the mainline Churches and missionary Societies. Still the heritage of old style mission persisted in many of the Churches and in the minds of the people of Asian countries. The arrogance, ethnocentrism, and rejection of the rich pluralism of the Asian religious life have left an impression in the region with which present Churches must still live and for which they are called not only to give an accounting, but also to supplant in the name of Christ’s gospel.

While inter-religious dialogue is well advanced within some Asian academic institutions and among some of the leadership of various religions, it has not reached the consciousness of most Asians, especially those devout followers of various faiths other than Christianity. The Congress, then, was faced with a deep and varied challenge as it took up the theme. In particular, with what theology can the Christian Churches be inspired to deepen their cooperative contact with people of religious conviction where there is so much that needs to be done to relieve the burden of human suffering and to bring about the conditions of peace and security for so many people who are unacceptably at risk daily? At a time when the ecumenical imperative of Christianity is seen in so many quarters to be on the decline, can there be a new infusion of a broader spirit of inter-religious mission? While the role of the theologian is a modest one, there is surely a significant contribution to be made in laying new foundations for a new era of respectful and cooperative relations.

Main Addresses Of The Third Congress

The keynote speaker of the Congress, Dr Wesley Ariarajah, is a scholar with outstanding credentials in this area. Rather than narrate or commentate on the recent rich tradition of Christian thought in relation to other World Religions, Dr Ariarajah pointed to three areas where further theological work can really make a difference in contemporary Asia. These he identified as:

  1. An Asian Christian theology of religions
  2. An Asian Christian missiology
  3. An Asian Theology of Community.[1]

Asian Christian Theology Of Religions

Dr Ariarajah pointed to seven affirmations, which in his view should guide such a theology.

  1. God is creator and sustainer of all life. While God is in solidarity with the poor (Christian biblical vision), yet all persons are equally the children of God.
  2. No one explication of the mystery of God, no single way of approaching the Ultimate Reality, is more important than any other.
  3. While there are specific salvific figures or revelations in each faith community, every attempt to understand and respond to God is essentially ambiguous. It is not possible to judge the truth or otherwise of the experiences and affirmations of specific traditions from outside the narrative of each.
  4. For each the revelation or salvific event becomes so profound that they wish to claim universality and to commend it to others. All religions share this to varying degrees.
  5. Christianity is distinct and different from all others, but there is no reason to believe that it is in anyway superior to others or that it is the culmination or end of other revelatory experiences.
  6. Anyone who wishes to theologise must be attentive to the experiences of God of other people.
  7. The truth of Christianity should stand or fall on its own merits, without claims to one, only unique decisive, final etc.

Distinguished Roman Catholic theologian, Dr Felix Wilfred, responded appreciatively to Dr Ariarajah’s presentation but offered the following footnotes in relation to the theme of theology of religions.

  1. What is most glaringly lacking in Christianity today is a “pedagogy of encounter” in which Christians may learn not only the arts of listening and speaking but also the ability to be creative and imaginative in negotiating conceptual boundaries in relation to people of other religions.
  2. It is insufficient to relate to the religions of Asia as theologies or ideologies alone. We need to acknowledge the importance of socio-political realities in the synthesis of theology of missions. The performance of a religion in society can only be measured in terms of its embodiment in social movements.
  3. We need to take into account more of “folk religions” and to realize that they offer trenchant critique of dominant Christian religion because of their immediacy and the way they challenge all forms of clericalism and institutionalism.
  4. More attention must be given to the “public practice of theology” within civil society.

An Asian Christian Theology Of Mission

According to Dr Ariarajah, Christian mission in Asia has been a dismal failure if measured by its own aims, on account of its unhelpful theology of religions and missiology. In its place a new theology of mission is emerging. Its elements include the following:

  1. Our mission is to participate in the mission of God and to witness to God’s love in Christ precisely because God is already present with the people of Asia.
  2. We do not witness against the religious experiences of others, rather we add to those experiences.
  3. Christian witness is about bringing healing, wholeness and new life into the lives of individuals, communities and nations and not about increasing the number of Christians in the world.
  4. Religions are irreducibly different so there is need and room for mutual witness, mutual enrichment and mutual criticism. This is part of mission today.
  5. The heart of mission is seeking justice and dignity for all, building community, enabling reconciliation and peace among all peoples. It is not our mission to build barriers, to divide world into saved and unsaved.

Felix Wilfred acknowledged the failure of Christian mission, but felt there were wider factors than simply a wrong-headed theology. He added four footnotes.

  1. There is a certain incompatibility between Christianity and Asia; it is like a plant in marshy ground whose roots became rotten.
  2. The arrogance of missionary Christianity, its intolerance of tolerance, its notion of universality, which denied the possibility of Asian pluralism, meant that it was very difficult for our neighbours to understand us.
  3. It is no longer ontologically sustainable to universalise a past so that the future is closed.
  4. Soteriology needs to be revised so that sin is defined as past and redemption is getting out of the past bonds that bind us.

Towards A New Understanding Of Community

Dr Ariarajah called for the formation of a new reality of religious community that would be based on location. While there are specific religions communities in Asia there is as yet no concept of a “religious community” of a place that cuts across all religious tradition. Yet this is needed, for we need to belong to community at two levels: first, of our specific religious community and also to the wider religious community of a place. To build such a community of place is one of the most urgent needs in Asia today. We will need to learn to practice language at two levels: the language of faith and the language of interfaith. Only in this way can we discern and participate in the wider mission of God for Asia and the world.

Felix Wilfred endorsed this suggestion but warned of some difficulties, and spoke of the false appearance of universal or global community.

  1. The unity created by globalisation is a big lie. What is the role of religions in creation of a truly universal community?
  2. Religion’s role in the creation of this community is to create and sustain justice.
  3. Globalisation is exclusion, religion is inclusion.
  4. Conflict between integration and prophecy, for the religious community to be rooted in its socio-political context and yet not to compromise on its stand for justice and human rights.

In the ensuing debate, most notable were the voices of folk religions and those of the Dalit theologians who felt that this “WCC orthodoxy” failed to take adequate account of the specifics of their struggle for justice in the midst of social situations of severe marginalisation. Those suffering in present apparently religious conflict in areas such as the Malukus also felt that the proffered framework was difficult to apply to their current situation.

Father Thomas Michel, S.J. reminded the Congress that at their first continental meeting in Manila in 1970, the Catholic bishops of Asia noted three elements of Asian realities that form the societal context in which Christian faith must be lived.

  1. Christians in Asia live amidst millions of committed followers of other religions,
  2. They belong to ancient and rich Asian cultures of which they are heirs and stewards, and
  3. They live in societies in which crushing, oppressive poverty is still the daily lot of the majority of people.[2]

In this light the mission of the churches must be the task of dialogue of the Gospel with these three realities, the triple task of interreligious dialogue, intercultural dialogue and dialogue with the poor and marginalized.

In Father Michel’s view this triple dialogue has now entered a new phase with the emergence of a fourth factor: globalization. Globalization is a dynamic process that appears to be even stronger than individual nation states and national cultures. It promotes a secularising process that touches the life of every religious group and culture and every suffering individual.

Interreligious dialogue cannot be separated from dialogue with cultures and even more importantly, from the centrality of ongoing dialogue with the poor. Inter-religious dialogue can too easily become an elitist exercise in which scholars and religious leaders create among themselves a clubby brotherhood-the gender specific term used intentionally-across religious lines to perpetuate and, in the worst cases, justify the economic and social status quo. We Christians seem to forget the basic Gospel teaching concerning the majority of our neighbours who daily “hunger and thirst for justice,” whose demands, our Master teaches, will be satisfied. Part of the reason must be that most of those who engage in formal dialogue are well-fed, well-housed, well-educated, and well-placed in society.

Muslim-Christian Dialogue

A North American by birth, Thomas Michel, S.J. has been engaged in Muslim-Christian dialogue in his new home in Asia since 1969. In his view, Muslims need to know about the liberating aspects of Christian faith, and it is just as important that Christians learn about the elements of liberation and transformation in Islam. Christians need to know the ways in which the Muslim poor find grounds in their Islamic faith for strength and hope and consolation. Muslims are usually no better informed about our faith that we are about theirs and are normally surprised to find that Christianity has any concern for human liberation. They often regard Christian faith mainly as a justification for power and wealth.

Liberative Elements

The Qu’ranic ideal, which has influenced Muslims down through the centuries, is that of a simple, family-oriented life-style that rejects both consumer-oriented displays of wealth and the piling up of material possessions. It teaches that aggressive economic activities and amassing personal wealth serve to distract people from what is truly important in life: to do God’s will and to stand before God in patience and humility.

Competition has distracted you, until you visit graveyards. Nevertheless, you soon will know (102:1-3)

Islam teaches that those who have been blessed with sufficiency or, a fortiori, abundance have a serious obligation to those who are lacking the basic essentials.

Virtue does not mean that you turn your faces towards the East or West, but [true] virtue means to believe in God, the Last Day, the angels, the Book and the prophets; and to give one’s wealth away out of love for Him to relatives, orphans, the needy, the migrant and beggars, and towards freeing captives; and to keep up prayer and pay the tax for the poor; and those who keep their word whenever they promised anything and are patient under suffering and hardship and in time of violence. Those are the ones who are loyal, and those are the ones who are heedful [of God’s message] (2:177).

Structures have been created in the religion itself to carry out such injunctions. The zakat or “poor tax” is the fourth obligatory pillar of Islam. It is a tax of 2.5% of a Muslim’s income or 10% of harvest, which is levied expressly for those classes of society who cannot provide for themselves. In the list of recipients of zakat, the Qu’ran always puts in the first place near relatives, particularly one’s aged parents, and goes on to list other categories of those whose circumstances put them at the mercy of others: the Biblical orphans and widows, beggars, and migrants. Assistance is also given to “refugees who have been expelled from their homes and property” (59:8).

Charity or alms (sadaqa) to anyone in need, Muslim or non-Muslim, is highly encouraged in the Qu’ran. As Jesus also suggested in the Sermon on the Mount, alms giving is to be done in secret. The Qu’ran teaches: “If you give sadaqa (alms) openly, that is good, but if you conceal it and give it [directly] to the poor, that is better for you” (2:271). The practical outworkings of this teaching are seen today. An aid worker in El Salvador reports that after last year’s earthquake in that virtually 100% Christian country, the most effective organizations in supplying fast and much-needed assistance were the Christian organization Caritas and the Islamic Relief Worldwide. I.R/.W. operates in some 22 countries offering not only disaster relief but development projects on water and sanitation, literacy, business loans, reintegration programs for returning refugees, projects for women’s empowerment, mother and child care, computer centres, mobile clinics, orphanages, homes for the aged, and so on. The list reads very much like those of Christian welfare and Jewish relief agencies. In each case, the same prophetic tradition finds expression in this way.

Zakat is more than emergency relief for it aims at a kind of income redistribution. For those who possess wealth, the Qu’ran speaks of the need for its extension beyond self to family and non-family members in need. Wealth should be made available “to relatives, orphans, the needy and the migrant so that it may not circulate merely among the wealthy among you (59:7). The intricate Islamic laws of inheritance also address the goal of periodic redistribution of wealth.

Economic justice is also a focus of Qu’ranic teaching. Warnings against devouring the wealth of others through exploitation and manipulation are matched by God’s commitment to defend the defenceless. Those who exploit the weak and defenceless are promised severe punishment. God’s care of the defenceless extends beyond the orphan to the child who is abused, exploited or killed by their parents. The Qu’ran could not be more clear or relevant to a widespread contemporary issue. “Do not force girls, if they want to preserve their chastity, in prostitution, so that you may seek worldly benefits” (24:23).

A wide range of other social concerns fill out the picture of the kind of community Islam envisages. Condemned are dishonesty in business practice, manipulation of markets, use of power to obtain unjust advantages, partiality and favouritism in judicial systems, racism and ethnic chauvinism. On the positive side, the Qu’ran upholds the Old Testament principle “an eye for an eye” as a strict limit of justice. Yet believers are encouraged to go beyond strict justice and to operate instead on the principles of mercy and forgiveness.

“The payment for an injury should be a proportionate injury. But anyone who pardons offences and makes reconciliation shall be rewarded by God (42:40, 41).

It would seem that there is much room for Jewish Muslim as well as Christian-Muslim dialogue on these points. What a shame that successive governments of Israel with their policy of disproportionate retaliation are unable to follow the truth of their own and other prophetic traditions!

Globalization And Christian-Muslim Dialogue

Ibrahim M. Abu-Rabi, a distinguished Muslim scholar who has settled in North America from his birth country of Lebanon agrees that the liberationist Islamic world-view must be renewed in our day.

In order to reclaim vitality, modern Islamic thought, be it in the Arab world or in the larger Muslim world, must reinterpret anew the main theological and normative precepts of Islam in a manner that opposes the totalitarian nature of the ruling political and educational systems in the contemporary Muslim world, and the great boost they have received with the onslaught of globalization on the world market and the universal human psyche.[3]

It would be absolutely naïve to imagine that modern Islamic thought follows specific internal dynamics that have nothing to do with the complex mutations in modern Western thought of that modern Islamic thought refuses to ‘borrow’ from external sources. In this ongoing process of engagement, Islam cannot turn a blind eye to the accelerated process of change the world has seen since the eclipse of the Soviet project and the series of important transitions the Arab world has undergone since then. The most obvious transition has been the military defeat of Iraq in the second Gulf war and the de facto occupation of the Gulf by the American military.

In fact, the Muslim world is going through a dramatic process of change in its educational premises. The best education is privatised, elitised, Westernised and Americanised, so that common people in many Muslim countries have been robbed off their traditional pride. Any attempt to develop the possibilities of Christian-Muslim dialogue must grasp the significance of these dynamics.

The end of the cold war and the emergence of the hegemonic power of globalization has in fact brought many disadvantages for the Muslim world. In its earlier phase, capitalist globalization of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it led to the modernization of some leading institutions and segments of the colonized world, such as the army, the police force and the educational system. On the other hand, it created social and economic disequilibria. It opened major gaps between country side and urban centres, which in turn led to the flight of the poor to the city, and at best a bilingual and anxious indigenous intelligentsia. Still, the existence of the Soviet Union and the ensuing Cold War after World War II gave the new nation states some room to manoeuvre.

However, the conquest of the huge Chinese market by American capitalism and the collapse of the Soviet Union created for the first time since 1917 of a mono-polar world with a tremendous potential for economic and political chaos in the Third World. The polarization of the world into Centre and Periphery which flows as a direct consequence of globalization has left nation-states an easy prey to the challenges and dangers of the new geopolitical and economic realities of the New World Order.

For the Muslim world, the new globalization is the latest and most lethal form of colonialism. The neo-colonialism has permitted the Centre to preserve its markets and cultural influence, and even sometimes its troops at a minimal cost. It is difficult to measure the cultural impact of these developments. Where now are there the space and the strategy to form a genuine Islamic identity, consciousness and world-view? Paradoxically, the belief of many American Muslims is that only in America do Muslims have a real opportunity in these regards. Living in a multi-cultural, pluralistic and religiously-diverse society, Muslims must recognize that some of their classical legal formulations might no longer be suitable.

Eventually, Muslims will have to formulate new legal and theological concepts in order to express the unique nature of Muslim community, its interaction with other religious communities, and its tolerance of many diverse views and philosophies. It is Dr Abu-Rabi’s conviction that only by creative engagement with modern Christian thought that the Muslim community in the West can find answer to some perplexing questions such as secularism, identity and modernity. The call to dialogue could not be more dramatically stated.

Popular And Folk Religions

The congress was enriched by the presence of Dr Chung Hyun Kyung, the Korean theologian whose presentation at the WCC Assembly in Canberra in 1991 caused such a stir and raised concerns about syncretism and Christian identity. Dr Chung’s presentation at the Congress was no less remarkable. She called the Congress to enter with her into a new experience of Asian eco-feminist Tai Chi. Soon all the delegates were dancing to different vision!

Now I see the world as a female Asian migrant worker who lives and works mainly in the people’s republic of New York. I am an intellectual worker who produces and reproduces religious knowledge to change the world. I am uprooted from my motherland. I am located at the margins of Western Academic to teach mainly Western students about the perspectives of the East. Theoretically, I am a “strategic Essentialist”. Politically, I would like to think of myself as an “Eco-Feminist Cultural Guerrilla”. Culturally I would like to think of myself as a “Bridge Builder a Boundary Crosser and Cultural Translator”. Vocationally, I am a “Theological Artist.”[4]

By popular religion, Dr Chung understands “non-official, non-elite, unorganised, eclectic and lived religion, which comes from people’s everyday need for well-being, protection and healing. It does not emphasize the importance of scriptures, literary tradition, institution, clergies or doctrinal purity. It is syncretistic and implicit in its nature.” No doubt orthodox theologians of every stripe would find ample ground to reject this viewpoint, but Dr Chung is clear that this is the way that new Popular Religion will arise in our time.

More than ever in human history, we are forced to live in a culture of acquisitiveness, addictions, amnesia and violence. New oppressions of humanity come with “the manipulations of desire”. Increasingly invisible oppressors use the method of “seduction” to pacify people with their material New Heaven and New Earth…In this culture of acquisitiveness, our souls [are] exiled from our selves…we become “hungry ghosts” constantly wandering around with a sense of “cosmic homelessness”.

To address this hunger, Dr Chung developed ten principles of life from an eco-feminist “Salimist” vision. Based upon basic elements of historical and spiritual wisdom from Korean women and insights from people all around the world, these principles resonate with many Korean eco-feminists’ ultimate longing for life in its fullness.

  1. Forest: According to Vandana Shiva, the Forest Principle is also a feminine     principle, which embraces diversity, differences, interconnectedness, reciprocity and sustainability for a better flourishing of the forest.
  2. Water: From Taoist practitioners and the metaphor of God in the Christian tradition, water represents a soft, gentle power of transformation.
  3. Fire: While fire has made a major transformation in human civilization, we need another fire to transform the present materialistic civilization. Audrey Lord, a black, radical feminist scholar-poet, urges us to find the “power of the Erotic” to transform the world. Is this the new fire?
  4. Air: Air teaches the necessity of emptiness, simplicity and renunciation in our lives.
  5. Justice-love: This is the principle which Jesus of Nazareth demonstrated so clearly. Without this justice-love there is no peace, no earth.
  6. Beauty: Echoing the words of a Native American sage, “Eventually, beauty will save us all”, all our people need to create something beautiful to restore order and spirit in the world.
  7. Joy and Celebration: The theological epistemology of Chilean Catholic priest, Diego Irarasavat can stand for this theological expression, “Celebration seeking understanding” or “Joy seeing understanding.” Most indigenous people meet their God through fiesta, music, vibrant colours of clothing, food, dance etc.
  8. Ant and Spider: These represent the power of the common people. When small ants make a hole in the big pyramid structure of oppression, it will eventually collapse. We also need networking in every level of our lives, like the spider.
  9. Seventh Generation: Native American people teach us to make decisions today by thinking about the consequences of our decisions and how the result will affect the seventh generation of our children. We especially need living land to pass onto our children. Only living land and continuation of community make the lives of the seventh generation-and our life-possible.
  10. Compassion-Ahimsa: When the whole world is filled with multiple forms of violence, we need compassion to forgive ourselves and others. Otherwise, we will die with our political correctness.

In the face of all the forms of death in our world today, the Salimist says, “Life is an organism (or orgasm)! Multiply!” Salamists make thing alive, especially dying things like Earth. She loves to clean laughing children, polluted rivers and the politics/economics of dirty old men. She recycles everything: paper, milk cartons, glass bottles, politicians and leadership positions, ex-lovers, ex-husbands, ex-Gods and life itself. She promotes conflict resolution, non-violent resistance, peace, reconciliation, and harmony wherever she goes. Salamists love woman, nature, earth, Goddess, rice lotus, emerging Salim-kun” men and everything flowing like tears, rivers, shakti, prana, blood. If womanist is to feminist as purple is to lavender, Salamist is dark green, the colour of “En-darken-ment” which makes purple and lavender flowers more beautiful.

Dr Damayanthi Niles and Dr Sathianathan Clark suggested that Dr Chung’s vision of folk religion was somewhat romantic and at variance from the realities of folk religion as commonly understood in most societies. For the most part, folk religions partake no less than major world religions in the violence of patriarchal systems. There is an important role of women in reclaiming folk religions, but the role of exaggeration may be the first step, it cannot be the last. Dr Chung acknowledged the eclectic nature of her Salamist vision and the need to continue the process of learning from folk religions. As far as the charge of romanticism was concerned, she made a simple response. “That is the way I wish to live.”

This session was energetic and uplifting for the delegates. Animated discussion followed and the glimpse afforded of what new religious possibilities might emerge from postmodern consciousness was a stimulus to the members of the Congress. Dr Chung’s willingness to share her personal vision without need for defense or evasion was a refreshing draught as we grappled with the variety of religious phenomena of our day.

Buddhist-Christian Dialogue

Rev. Packiam T. Samuel, Executive Secretary of the Programme Unit on Unity Fellowship & Dialogue of the National Council of Churches in India, Nagpur, initiated discussion of the concept of “new life” in Buddhism.[5] There are a number of difficulties in this discussion. Buddhism is a minority religion in the vast continent of Asia, with major concentrations in South, south East, Far East and in the major cities of the continent with many different denominational perceptions. In Rev Samuel’s view, there is no serious contemporary Buddhist perspective for problem-solving teaching for the present context. While it is clear that from the Buddhist perspective, both the anthropocentric element and the belief in progress in the modernizing project are fundamentally flawed, few contemporary Buddhists have a vision for new life in the present scenario.

The ideal of “right livelihood” is upheld in Buddha’s first sermon and its admonitions against evil trades such as the trade of the flesh of beings, trade of poison and trade of intoxicant drinks and drugs are certainly relevant, they do not pose a sufficiently versatile vision for life for most Asians. The majority of Buddhists have no participation in economic life, belonging in the lower strata of the social system. The lofty Buddhist spirit remains in Asia only in small pockets for individual or local development, and, by and large, Buddhist development models have not been established in such a way that responses from Buddhist communities would be sufficient to counter the negative elements of modern uneven development. It is clear, however, that in authentic Buddhist civilisation a good life could be materially simple and in tune with the natural environment. One would have few belongings and abundant time for meditation, friendship and community life.

An alternative Buddhist vision is provided by the holy community of brothers and sisters, the Sangha. Unlike the lay community, the Sangha reverses the process of degeneration described in Buddhist creation myths and replaces coercion by cooperation, private property by propertylessness, family and home by the community of androgenous wanders, and hierarchy by egalitarian democracy. In this way the critical perspective of the Buddha is maintained. In many cases, the efforts of governments and multinational corporations to participate in dubious technological advances have been successfully countered by the critical Sangha. Clearly such work needs to be refined and extended so that the liberative potential within the Buddhist tradition may reach each local community.

Indeed, there are now many new Buddhist movements, such as that of Ven Bhikku Buddhadasa and his Garden of Liberation in Siam, the meditation practices of Ven. Phra Ajan Cha Subaddho, and the Vietnamese “Order of Interbeing.” Such groups are networking. It is the speaker’s hope that such efforts may contribute to a rediscovery of the Middle Way for each and for the society at large, to connect peace within to the outside world in engaging and creative ways.

The presence of Professor Sulak Sivaraksa from Siam was a source of encouragement to members of the Congress. In his words and actions he offered to us the gift of friendship. We are ready, he said, what are you waiting for? This invitational style was also expressed in the Buddhist perspective Sulak offered on the Congress theme. First, he offered a self critique of Buddhism.[6] In many parts of Asia today Buddhism is only concerned with ritual and tradition and thus gives legitimacy to dictatorial regimes and the transnational corporations which impose globalization on the region. If we are to confront the greed, hatred and delusion upon which present day consumerism rests, we will need to practice an “Engaged Buddhism” (or Buddhism with a small “b”) which concentrates on the true meaning of the Buddha’s teaching (nibbana or freedom).

From a Buddhist perspective, freedom has three aspects:

  1. freedom from the insecurities of war, poverty, famine etc.
  2. social freedom and the freedom from human oppression and exploitation in a state of tolerance, solidarity and benevolence;
  3. freedom of the inner life from mental suffering and impurities of mind

A common agenda for religions and an arena for cooperation lies in finding alternatives to consumerism and promoting ways of life that are ecologically sustainable and that allow people to develop their full potential as individuals.

Ten points of ignorance were listed: science, technology, money, sexism, poverty….

Professor Sivaraksa acknowledged the inspiration such Christian groups as the Quakers and the Mennonites have been to him and his community. Their honesty, simplicity and non-violence have become a model for many engaged Buddhists. Another word of confession: “We Buddhists often preach about non-violence but we have not confronted structural violence in a very meaningful way, especially in the age of globalisation, which promotes violence, greed and delusion skillfully via the mass media.” Together the various religions can offer a wonderful alternative to the nihilism of consumerism. By sharing their experiences religions can find new ways to operate in the modern world while still keeping in touch with their traditions.

Antony Fernando, of the Inter-cultural Research Center in Kadawata Sri Lanka, called for realism and responsibility as we face the fact that often religion is seen more as the divider of society than its unifier. We use religion” ambiguously, at times to refer to clan religion, which is inherited by accidents of birth and location, at other times to refer to adult or life vision religion. A focus on the latter with special attention given to the spirituality of each adult religion could be the means for drawing the religions of Asia closer to one another. Christianity is too often identified by its verbally fixed doctrinal forms. To gain access to the spirituality of any religion, use of the distinction developed by the Ve Bhikku Buddhadasa of Thailand may be useful. Buddhadasa speaks of everyday language about religion and Dhamma language, which concerns the mental world lying beyond the physical. In Fernando’s view special responsibility falls upon the teachers of religion, whether Christian, Buddhist, Hindu or Muslim.

Only if we…strive to present to the people of Asia the spirituality-dimension of the religions we teach…will (we) create the right atmosphere for them to come together and work hand in hand and in unity of heart to build up an integrally developed and spiritually rich Asia.[7]

Common Horizons With The Hindu Traditions

The consideration of Hindu traditions revealed a sharp difference of methodology and approach between major speakers and members of the Congress. In particular, Dalit theologians felt that Hindu traditions are largely to blame for the intractability of their social disadvantage, and called for a confrontation between Christian theology and the Hindu support for the caste system.

Father Francis X. D’Sa, S.J. offered an insightful reading of Hindu traditions.[8] Returning to early Hindu sources, such as the Bhagavad-Gita and the Vedas, Father D’Sa sought a common horizon between an emergent Hindu world- view and the Christian vision as encapsulated in the notion of the “cosmostheandric Christ”, as developed in the thought of Raimon Panikkar and Thomas Berry. This unifying vision was set in the context of the difficult situation created in Asia by recent Vatican pronouncements such as the Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation, Ecclesia in Asia,[9] and the Declaration of the Congregation of the Faith, Dominus Jesus, upholding the uniqueness and universality of Jesus. From early Hindu traditions, Father D’Sa explored four beliefs of the Hindu traditions which indicate areas where the Christ of the Christian traditions might meet the Christ of the Hindu traditions. The four beliefs are Yajna, Purisha, Ata-and Dharma, and Lokasangraha. While Yajna pointed to “reality as sacrifice”, Purisha spoke of “the universe as Consciousness. Ata and Dharma pointed to “the network of holistic relationships” and Lokasangraha to “the welfare of the World.

From these foundational beliefs, Father D’Sa constructed a vision of the world as an interconnected, interrelated, interdependent whole, in which the liberation of each part is related to the liberation of the whole. For in this view liberation is wholeness, and the liberation of the individual is as much an illusion as the individual itself.

For his part, Dr Sathianathan Clarke found that this unifying version was a-historical and tended to dissolve the particularities of each tradition.[10] Drawing on the insights of Dalit theology, Dr Clarke insisted that Hinduism could not be considered apart from its historical expressions and that the lens through which it must be seen is that of the suffering of those whom the historical practice of Hinduism excluded. While acknowledging the value of such a unifying vision as Father D’Sa offered, Dr Clarke expressed doubts about the prospects of “envisioning new life together with Asian religions” if the particularities of the Christian world- and word-picture are not included in a more concrete and conscious manner.

Conclusion

A vital new direction in visioning new life in Asia has been taken by the Third Congress of Asian Theologians. For the first time new voices were heard within the religious conversation. The challenge now facing the Asian theologians is to find ways to carry the dialogue further, so that the inter-religious dialogue may be deepened and the historical communities of faith may be drawn into a deeper level of engagement and discourse with their fellow religionists of different persuasions and life-styles. It seems to me that there can be no turning back from this important new direction. But the way ahead must be worked out in collaboration with others whose vision of the situation and a projected future differs greatly from our own.

Notes:

  1. S. Wesley Ariarajah, “Asian Christian Theological Task in the Midst of Other Religious Traditions”, CATS 3 distributed paper.
  2. Thomas Michel, S.J. “Toward a Dialogue of Liberation with Muslims”, CATS 3 distributed paper.
  3. Ibrahim M. Abu-Rabi, “Christian-Muslim Dialogue in the Era of Globalization”, CATS 3 distributed paper
  4. Chung Hyun Kyung, “Popular Religion and the Fullness of Life: An Asian Eco-feminist Reflection”, CATS 3 distributed paper.
  5. Packiam T. Samuel, “Visioning New Life Together Among Asian Religions: Buddhist Perspective”, CATS 3 distributed paper.
  6. Sulak Sivaraksa, “Visioning New Life Together Among Asian Religions: A Buddhist Perspective”, CATS 3 distributed paper.
  7. Antony Fernando, “Response to “Buddhist Perspective” with “How to Bring Asian Religions Closer to One Another”, CATS 3 distributed papers.
  8. Francis Xavier D’Sa, “Discovering a Common Horizon with the Hindu Tradition”, CATS 3 distributed paper.
  9. Pope John Paul II made this statement: “Just as in the first millennium the Cross was planted on the soil of Europe, and in the second on that of the Americas and Africa,, we can pray that in the Third Christian Millennium a great harvest of faith will be reaped in this vast and vital continent.”
  1. Sathianathan Clarke, “Response to ‘Discovering a Common Horizon with Hindu Tradition’ by Francis X. D’Sa, S.J.”, CATS 3 distributed paper.

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