Friday, June 20, 2008

The Making or Unmaking of an Asian Theologian

Tony Siew from Trinity Theological College (TTC), Singapore, has mooted an excellent idea about a series of books on theology/commentary on the books of the Bible written by Asian scholars or theologians. Kar Yong from Seminari Teologi Malaysia (STM) whole heartedly supports the idea.

Doing my daily musings on my doctor’s chair, it occurs to me to try to define an Asian theologian. The obvious answer is that anyone who is born in Asia and has a theological degree qualifies! My impression is that Tony and Kar Yong has something more in mind. An Asian scholar/theologian is a person who is born in Asia and has a higher theological degree (PhD) and has published in some significant journals or book(s) by a reputable academic publisher. This narrows the field considerably. What about a person of Asian origin but was born and brought up in a first world country? Maybe not. So this leaves me with these Asians who is born in Asia and have achieved a PhD. The implication is that this person will be able to write theologically from an Asian perspective.

Here are my musings:

First, almost all Asians have to go overseas to get their PhDs. Finishing a PhD averages from 5-7 years or longer, full time. One must add in the time for a ThM which is about 2-3 years. Altogether, we may be talking about 10 years. Earning a PhD is a formative process because a person has to be trained to think and write in an ‘academic’ way. Basically it is a very Western model of thinking, based on deconstructing and reconstructing propositions. It is actually an antithesis of the Asian way of consensus thinking. This is not a criticism of the PhD process but an observation. I may be wrong but I believe that those who have gone through a PhD process do not think like an Asian anymore. Let us say, a person get his or her PhD at 40 years old. Even though born in Asia, 25% of his or her adult life will be involved in learning how not to think like an Asian. Is it possible for such people to think like an Asian again?

Second, these 10 years of the higher degree process will be spent in a first world country. Though many students are poor, they are living in a first world country; enjoying its support services, attending a first world church and sending their children to schools there. For these 10 years, they have been out of touch with the Asian church of their home country. Will it be possible for them to go home and continue as if nothing has happened? Will they be able to adapt to the low payscale now when they have accomplished so much? Having being transplanted and are out of circulation in the local environment, will they ever able to readapt, let alone be like the locals again.

Third, most of those who return with a PhD end up with the local seminaries because they find that they had difficulty fitting into the local churches. They think differently from the locals. Again, this is an observation and I have no particular person in mind. Seminaries are great and I want to live there too (especially in their libraries). However, seminaries are not the grassroots and occasional preaching in churches do not really enable one to know what it is really happening at the grassroots. Without the common touch with the grassroots, is it possible to do a really contextualised theology?

Finally, do they know enough or their own heritage and culture to really contextualise what they have learnt overseas? Again, this is my personal observation. Many PhD holders regurgitate what they have learned overseas with a bit of ‘window dressings’ to make it look local. They use overseas textbooks and recycle overseas lectures notes. Is that Asian theology?

I hope these musings will not get me into trouble. I wonder if there is such a person as an Asian theologian. Or a theologian who is Asian. No, don’t throw that stone….


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Blogger Geoff Pound said...

I appreciate the idea and the opportunity to brainstorm a commentary or theology series written by Asian scholars.

As one or two comments have indicated it is important to define ‘Asian’. When teaching in Indonesia on conflict resolution I put my foot in it’ (is that an Asian expression?) as I made assumptions about the ‘Asian’ approach to conflict—avoidance, only to discover in the discussion that followed that Indonesia is made up of many peoples and some members of different regions told me that their people meet conflict head on! ‘Asian scholarship’, as Alex Tang has suggested, must be defined. Is Asian-ethos best defined by country or place of origin?

I grew up in NZ and never thought of myself as Asian but increasingly I am channeled by conference organizers into the Asian Regional meetings. Tony Siew refers to China, India, Japan, Taiwan, South Korea and Singapore but does he have in mind Australia, NZ and Fiji when he writes of Asians? In Oz and NZ they have made significant advances in thinking through theology and ministry for their context.

I agree with Alex that Asians undertaking their theological training in the west may be almost unsuited to fit back into a teaching and ministry role back at home, like some women preachers who are trained by male teachers who come to have a very masculine approach to such ministries as preaching.

Unfortunately a number of seminaries in Asia have been so influenced by Americans that the students that graduate might be better serving the church in the American South than in the backblocks of Thailand.

The urban/rural dichotomy is so pronounced within Asia that one wonders whether Water Buffalo theology has much relevance to people grinding away in the urban rubbish dumps of Manila.

I hear the view that many Asian theologians come from non-Christian backgrounds but when putting it positively, it may be more helpful to consider the specific ideology in which their thinking has been shaped—Confucianism, Communism, Hinduism etc.

Is it better to have books that address more specific contexts—a theology for the Islamic contexts, Doing Urban theology?

It is essential to have authors who take their own culture and the context of their prospective readers seriously rather than viewing the Scripture as something wooden ‘with one size fitting all’ cultures.

Good brainstorming!


2:28 PM  
Blogger Paul Long said...

I hope this post generates more discussion. I find it interesting as for the life of me I am not sure what I am. Sure I am of Asian descent, born and bred in Asia but I am pretty much a "banana".

I think I often think like a Westerner but just as often, in many issues I think I think more like an Asian. But then again, maybe I am actually thinking biblically rather than Asian or Western? (Now wouldn't that be cool!)

I beleive I would enjoy a commentary series of theology series written by Asians only if they are of high quality and have something to offer. Not just because they are written by Asians. I am not really into the "Malsysia Boleh" or "Asia Boleh" kind of thinking.

Back in my early days as a seminary student, I bought books on Asian theology.... but I personally found them dry and uninspiring.

Of course that would definitely have a lot to do with my lower academic level and lack of depth. :-( But then again, on the the hand if they were insightful, down to earth and well written, a student of my level would have been motivated to make an effort to read them.

If I am flitting back and forth ... maybe its because of a subtle Asian "Yin-Yang" "both-and" thinking! :-) But if I were a Westerner then I would say it's due to my post modern relative outlook :-)

2:45 PM  
Blogger Tony Siew said...

Dear Alex, appreciate very much your comments and will reply in more details soon, maybe in my blog. Also Geoff's and Paul's comments are very helpful. I agree wholeheartedly with Paul that it must be of good quality and I am not one for "Asia boleh!" syndrome. Thanks a great deal for putting forth your insights. I hope to brainstorm (as Geoff said, "good brainstorming") the idea by writing my post, but I may have inadvertently caused a fiery storm instead!!

2:56 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

interesting: change 'Asian' into 'Belgian' and you could say the same thing, even if Belgium is part of the West, most evangelicalism is American or British.

Is there a way to say 'Asian'? Shouldn't we talk more about 'chinese', 'malaysian (sic?)' and 'japanese'?

3:43 PM  
Blogger Alex Tang said...

thanks, Geoff for your comments. I look forward to your brainstorming. Your experience with theological education both as principal of a seminary and now with Theologian without Borders are invaluable. Also good to hear from an OZ and NZ perspective.

10:08 AM  
Blogger Alex Tang said...

hi Paul,

I believe many of us Asian who are Western educated feel the same way - a banana. Yellow outside but white inside. :)

I always wonder like Bishop Hwa Yung's metaphor-a ripe mango. Yellow outside and inside.

10:11 AM  
Blogger Alex Tang said...

Hi Tony,

I look forward to reading more about your thoughts on this.

10:12 AM  
Blogger Alex Tang said...

hi Anton,

welcome. Yes, we can equally use 'Belgian' instead of 'Asian' and have the same discussion. Even in using 'Malaysian' or 'Japanese' is not enough. There are also numerous factions in a single country that prevent us from generalising. Geoff gave a good example of his experience in Indonesia about conflict resoultion.

10:15 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I personally think that "Asian theologies" which emanate from the chairs of academicians are nothing more than a fallacy, a presumptuous endeavour of academicians in thinking that they have a right to speak on behalf of the Asian peoples.

For real Asian theologies to emerge, I believe we need to find a way to detect the intrinsic theologies of the Asian peoples and document these findings. This requires close collaboration between anthropologists and theologians.

Let the Asian peoples speak for themselves about what they really believe rather than have some academician write from his office chair about what he believes they believe. Even if their beliefs might not be agreeable with the official doctrines of the church (do any of these official doctrines still matter in many Christian denominations anyway?), at least our documentations aptly reflect what people truly believe.

And yes, we might be shocked at what we find out.

11:35 AM  
Blogger SATheologies said...

Hi Alex,

I've think a bit about the project. Not sure if that is helpful. But if you want to take a look, it's here

8:13 PM  
Blogger Alex Tang said...

Hi Sze Zeng,

I like your post and your formulation of Asian theology as referring to the formulated theological response that engages the questions facing Asians. Therefore the more explicit a particular theology in tackling and expounding the problems distinctively dominating Asian, the more Asian the theology is.

The problem with that definition is that it limits Asian theology to problem-solving. While theology has the role of the wise-man in problem solving, theology also must play the role of the prophet in reminding us that we are resident aliens, and the role of the priest about our relationship with God.

Western theology especially the German branch is heavily dependent on the Enlightenment. It frames issues in concrete propositional terms. I suggest that you are not radical enough in your construction of Asian theology. I suggest that you reexamine the exegesis of the text not with a modern Western worldview but with an Eastern worldview. Do you think it will make any difference?

2:16 AM  

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