Friday, May 26, 2017

Friday BookReview: "Grassroots Asian Theology" -- Simon Chan on perfecting the Body of Christ in Asia

[first published March 6, 2015]

by David Pence

Simon Chan is an Oxford PhD in theology, as well as a Pentecostal. He lives in Singapore, the city-state which under the unique leadership of Lee Kuan Yew developed an Asian model of economic dynamism and social order without losing its distinctive ethical and communal identity. Dr. Chan teaches at Trinity Theological College where classes are taught in English and Chinese. A member of the Pentecostal Assemblies of God, he immersed himself in Catholic and Orthodox traditions to write a book several years ago on liturgical theology (reviewed here). He lives in an ethnically-dominated Chinese city state with a strong interracial civic identity, at the tip of an Islamic peninsula (Malaysia) and in the midst of an island chain constituting the largest of all Muslim nations (Indonesia). He is a man who understands intersections.

Like Singapore's founding father and the Catholic Church's Holy Father, he rejects the individualism and rationalism of the Western Enlightenment as the inevitable blueprint for human development. Dr Chan criticizes the "elite theologians" who speak for Asia in the language of egalitarianism and structures of oppression. He calls the concerns of most third world theologians as "no more than social critiques which NGOs like Amnesty International and Greenpeace can do better." He echoes the pope who laments churchmen who would shrink the message of the Gospel to the agenda of a "pitiful NGO."

In the first chapter of Grassroots Asian Theology -- Professor Chan's newest book -- he argues that "the living faith of the people of God (living tradition) is the locus of primary theology"... Professional theologians must "listen carefully what the spirit of truth who indwells the church is saying through the people of God." This is precisely the message of Pope Francis, who rejected the Marxist version of liberation theology of French and Spanish intellectuals for the wisdom of the faithful holy people of God (santo pueblo fiel de Dios). The pope from Argentina and the professor from Singapore find the ecumenism of Pentecostal prayer a much more fruitful locus of the Spirit than theological conferences advocating for the third world. Chan repeats a favorite quote: "The theologians opted for the poor and the poor opted for Pentecostalism."
Phat Diem Stone Cathedral (Vietnam)

The book is organized by chapters treating particular Christian truths in an Asian context: 1)The Nature of God, 2) Humanity and Sin, 3) Christ and Salvation, 4) The Holy Spirit and Spirituality, and 5) The Church. In the epilogue he, then, ties these categories into a simple narrative. It turns out that an authentic Asian theology is not just for Asia but for the whole Church. He is also very clear that Christianity is not to be drowned in some "larger" cultural context. The coming of Christ and the establishment of the Church is not a particular pointing to a larger human truth. Human cultures are particular manifestations of vestigia Dei -- the footprints of God -- but they must be baptized and completed in a Church that incorporates the human species in the trinitarian communion as the Body of Christ. This inculturation will not sing of the anonymous Christians.  Simon Chan clearly says he is no Paul Tillich burying Christ in the ground of our being, but much more a Karl Barth confronting every culture with the reality of Christ. He goes further on the church:
“The church precedes creation in that it is what God has in view from all eternity and creation is the means by which God fulfills his eternal purpose in time. The church does not exist in order to fix a broken creation, rather creation exists to realize the church.”
Each chapter teaches several lessons, not only about Asian culture but the truth of the Christian religion.

The Trinitarian Nature of God                                                                                                                                                                                    

"Unlike the western church in the last two hundred years, the question has not been about God's presence or absence, or whether God exists or not. Especially in the world of primal religions, God's existence is never in doubt but always presupposed. The question is not about God's existence. It is about his identity and his nature." The task is "to commend the Christian view."

"In Islam, the primary attribute of God is power. In the strict monotheism of Islam, love could be actualized only after God created. In Christianity the eternal love of the Father for the Son highlights another important feature in the Muslim convert's experience of God: the decisive turning point is almost always a personal encounter with Jesus Christ as the Son of God; they almost always involve Jesus coming to them in a dream or vision or in some deeply existential moment."

In the Chinese context there are several aspects of the Trinity in both primal aspects and philosophical systems that are set against the Western egalitarian and feminist ideologies of the modern university. The "yin-yang relationship establishes a complementarity or the irreducible distinction of the male and female. The denial of gender distinction is an ontological sin, for God made man and woman to complement each other." Man and woman are both made in God's image. As Pope Francis has said, there is still great need to better  formulate a theology of the feminine. This is a deficit that cultures steeped in the Tao may help rectify. It will not be a solution to discover the feminine as the Holy Spirit though that is discussed in this provocative chapter.

The Trinity as a declaration of Patriarchy (the rule of the father) and Filial Piety (the obedience of the son) is another fundamental truth which might be understood at a much deeper level in societies that do not apologize for patriarchy or customs of primogeniture. Again, the Asian customs in which a domestic female serves the more public father-son axis is not to be scrubbed clean by western ideologues, but learned from by all Christians. The Patriarchal household is a cross-generational passing from Reverend Father to Beloved Son and brothers. The traditional biblical household looks more like the western ranchers of TV's 'Bonanza' (the father and his sons) than the suburban family (Ozzie and Harriet and brood). Patriarchal fraternity is the shared nature of both the ancient household and the Catholic diocese. Thus, Asian cultures don't have to be taught this but they will need to be introduced to the eldest brother of us all -- Jesus Christ, the first and only begotten Son of the Father.

Humanity and Sin

"The nature of humanity and sin needs to be defined against two forms of reductionism: the sociopolitical reductionism found in Asian and Latin American liberation theologies and the individualistic reductions of modernity found predominately in the West." The understanding of man as embedded in a relationship with God, the spirit world, our ancestors, our families, and our countries is a description of reality -- not a quaint quirk of the Asians. This reality is acknowledged in a several-thousand-year tradition of Chinese depiction of ordered hierarchical human relationships as a manifestation of an ordered Universe. "On the question of human relations, the modern tendency to read democratic egalitarianism into all aspects of human relations needs to be seriously questioned in the light of the larger Catholic and Orthodox traditions based on an ordered Trinity and the Asian concept of an ordered universe.

The concept of sin as shame and dishonor has New Testament affinities where sin is more an infinite affront against God's honor than a breach of a legal code, more relational and communal than private and juridical. The biblical concept of shame and honor shows that the Christian life is really about community and relationships and how they must be ordered, and as such it addresses wider concerns than the Asian context." Honor and shame behaviors and categories are the real parameters of any public culture. This is understood most acutely in the densest areas of human population where men must live together by public codes and ritualistic manners that indicate a sense of place and decorum.
Christianity was a radical new honor code which replaced paganism. At the summit  of this new honor code was the weekly public Word/Action of Eucharistic worship in which the whole community led by a big brother (the bishop) would gather in praise, adoration, and honor to the Living God who made the universe. Any oppositional cult to Christianity (like the modern-day sexual inversion ritual) seeks above all to replace our sensibilities with new definitions of public pride and forbidden utterances. Understanding Christianity as an honor code is not learning something new from Asia, but returning to more fundamental biblical categories which we had lost. This ressourcement will emphasize grandeur and primacy to our worship in honoring God, and secondarily point us to better strategies in cultural debates. In dealing with depravities masked as love or freedom, polite natural-law debates in which all involved strive to show how tolerant and personally sweet they can be to each other in the name of Christian love may not be the best honor/shame approach.
Christ and Salvation

"For elite theologians, liberation is freedom from poverty and political oppression. For the grassroots, liberation is physical and psychospiritual: healing of bodies and freedom from the fear of evil spirits and fatalism. The Christ of elite theologians is encountered in dialogues with religion, cultures, and the poor. The Christ of grassroots Christianity is encountered in Christophanies, healings, and deliverance from demonic spirits, big and small instances of answered prayers and other providences. Asian Christianity stresses the cosmic, corporate, and progressive nature of salvation while Western evangelicalism tends to emphasize the juridical and individual nature of salvation and depicts salvation as a crisis event. The most distinctive contribution of Asian grassroots Christianity is Jesus as ancestor mediator. This provides a theological basis for addressing one of the most intractable issues -- ancestor veneration and the communion of saints."

This whole discussion about Christ as the elder brother from the beginning -- the oldest ancestor --may help us offer a better description of salvation than snatching the living as saved from those they venerate as lost. Evangelizing a culture tied to the living dead provides a new impetus to reflect on the communal meaning of Christ's baptism. He was after all the new Adam. When He was immersed in the Jordan, who knows how far in time and space He swam to gather in his flock? We already ask the same questions of the meaning of His descent into Hell. The Asian understanding of mediator and rituals makes the culture particularly open to Christ’s sacerdotal priesthood as well as preachers who come with real priestly authority and status.

The Holy Spirit and Spirituality                                                                                                                                             
In this chapter, Chan generously quotes John Paul II and then makes some startling statements of his own as a Pentecostal. From JPII:  "The presence of the Spirit in creation and history points to Jesus Christ in whom creation and history are redeemed and fulfilled. The Holy Spirit's universal presence can never be separated from his activity within the Body of Christ, the Church."                                                                                                                                                         
And Chan: "The Spirit who, like the wind, blows where He wills, is at once the agent who universalizes the particular in its concreteness rather than reduces the particular to general and abstract principles. The cosmic Christ then is His Eucharistic presence in the Church. That is not to say he cannot be present outside the Eucharist but if He is present elsewhere, it is to lead men and women -- indeed the whole creation -- into Eucharistic Communion with the Church."
The Church                               

Of all the discussions in this intriguing book, Chan's ecclesiology best shows his ability to synthesize grassroots and ancient tradition. He shows his catholicity by coupling his respect for Watchman Nee's church planting with his deeply Orthodox explanation of the communion of saints as a communion of holy things grounded in sacraments. He ties all this to a very corporate sensibility of the Last Judgment. Like the Chinese lunar new year when there is a great return to founding households and villages, so he quotes the Book of Revelation describing the in-gathering in the new Jerusalem for the nuptial reunion. Integration in communion is not a ticket to salvation. It is the nature of salvation. Dr. Chan discusses integrating ancestor veneration in a set of rites centered on the communion of saints as he puzzles over the lack of ontology in most mainline church discussions of ecumenism. That deficit sends him to such contemporary phenomenon as Watchman Nee's local church and such ancient traditions as communio sancta (the holy things, not just holy persons, which unite the living and the dead in a sacramental church life).

Grassroots Asian Theology is a remarkable synthesis of the Christian Creed and the patrimony of Asian cultures. Reading this book is a pivot toward Asia which points one to Christ. The Church is very much like one of my nephews born with an out-sized head. It took him years to grow into that big head of his, but now we see him as a whole boy in perfect proportion. The Church had a perfect Head from the beginning. Reuniting with the grandsons of Noah who have shaped the nations of Asia is going to help us all live out our corporate human destiny as a more perfectly proportioned and fully matured Body of Christ.
Dali Catholic Church (southern China)

UPDATE: Here is Richard Mouw's take on the book.

And more insights from Dr. Chan on worship (as well as assorted links).

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