Faith From the Ground Up
An Asian theology is about the Christian faith in Asia. Simon Chan
In his book, Grassroots Asian Theology: Thinking the Faith from the Ground Up, Simon Chan contends that most of what the West believes about Asian theology consists of what the “elitist’ Asian theologians have written. The elitist theologians do not take grassroots Christianity seriously, but Chan believes that it is at the “grassroots level the we encounter a vibrant, albeit implicit, theology.”
Chan’s aim is to refocus on how theology is to be done. It is more than just content; it is also about the process. Using sketches of elitist theologies, summaries of theology taken from sermons, devotional works, testimonies and popular writings by Asian Christians, historians, sociologists and anthropologists, and case studies, Chan presents his case for a grassroots Asian theology. He also shows how Asian grassroots theology can contribute to the wider church’s theological efforts.
Since theology is about what we do as much as what we say we believe, then we could hardly have a better example than Jackie Pullinger who serves in Asia. Her example shows us how we can relate to the grassroots Asian Christian. Chan illustrates the distinctive Asian thinking.
This book invites itself to many dialogues but I will focus on points of discussion that are pertinent to our studies in Leadership and Global Perspectives.
- Primal Religions– The idea of belief in the spiritual or supernatural ran all through Chan’s book. It was quite interesting the way Chan made the connection between Christianity and the primal religions in their belief in the supernatural. I thought it was very telling that the ‘elites’ of Asia as he calls them, and what we used to call ‘dead’ churches in the sixties in the US do not believe in the supernatural realm. I am not even sure about some of the conservative denominations who do not believe in miracles today. In any event, in a very special way this connected me to our grassroots Asian Christian family.
- Shame– “Your name is mine!” In intercultural studies classes, we learned that many cultures are more relational than in the West. In the West sin is a breach of God’s law. In Asian culture sin is an affront to God’s honor. Chan makes the case that the Asian position is more biblical. “The biblical concept of shame and honor shows that the Christian life is really about community and relationships and how they must be ordered.”
- Women– I am happy that Chan mentioned Pandita Ramabai of India. Ramabai rescued hundreds of cast-off widows, fed thousands of homeless and starving people during famines, and opened schools which have since educated many thousands. Around the time of the Asuza street revival in the United States (1906) she prayed for revival in India and saw 25,000 souls come to Christ. Yes, she was one of those Pentecostals.
I am sad, however, that Chan insists on a hierarchical form of relationships for men and women. “Hierarchical orders or classes need not be oppressive,”states Chan. But unfortunately in this sinful world hierarchies are mostly oppressive. He uses an analogy to support his patriarchy that has been blown out of the water years ago. He says that because the Father is over the Son, husbands must be over wives. First of all, I dispute the “eternal subordination” theology of the self-named Biblical Manhood/Womanhood society. Christ is NOT subordinate to the Father. Second, maybe children honor parents but the husband/wife relationship is not the same. And third, while gender for the Trinity is disputable, both are apparently ‘male’, not male andfemale. Chan stated that he hopes that Asian theology will add to world theology, but I sincerely hope this part gets left out.
- Pentecostals– As in South America and many parts of Africa, Pentecostalism is having a great impact. It makes sense that in grassroots Christianity the poor and marginalized would turn to churches where Christ is preached as savior, friend, and spiritual liberator. “For the grassroots, this freedom cry is answered in their personal encounter with Jesus Christ. We cannot underestimate the radical paradigm shift that takes place when a person experiences conversion.”Amen and in Pentecostal churches the changed lives result in works that demonstrate those changed lives. Here is another area where the Asians that are involved in primal religions can relate – strong faith in the supernatural. Pentecostalism has avoided syncretism with the culture though because of its strong emphasis on conversion. Faith is in Christ alone. In primal religions, spirit is an impersonal force. In Christianity, the Holy Spirit is “personally present and active, carrying out certain actions as an active, personal agent.” The highly relational aspect of the Holy Spirit fits in with Asian theology very well. That aspect could be emphasized more in the West. Again, Jackie Pullinger will be someone who will emulate this grassroots theology. “In the South Asian context, its ability to transcend caste, race and social status is unprecedented when compared with other churches.”(Hmmm. I wonder if it will transcend gender?)
- Ancestors– I was reminded again of the lecture on ancestral veneration by Winston Meshua that we heard in South Africa when Chan talked about ancestral veneration. Here is another place in Asian theology (and should it be in any theology?) where many threads come together – a strong belief in the supernatural, the family, eschatology, the communion of saints, and the protensive church – “In Christ, all the saints throughout the ages, in heaven and on earth, are united as one organic, living church by the power of the Holy Spirit.”As a young Roman Catholic I prayed to saints. I did not worship them; I knew only God was to be worshipped. We were taught that since the saints were there they could intercede for us with God. As a Pentecostal/Calvinist I now believe that I only need Jesus for a Mediator. But, I see ancestor veneration as a way to begin a conversation for witnessing. And this fits in with Chan’s point – we have more in common with the primal religions than we might have thought. We read books on secularism. I think it is more challenging to get someone to even believe in the supernatural, especially here in our materialistic West.
Chan’s book was very helpful in dispelling some of the mythological thinking that I had about Asian Christianity. Really we are not so far apart. In some of their theological thinking they are closer to the Bible than westerners. They may seem a bit slower to accept progress and change, but traditions are important too. The important thing is our relationship to the Lord Jesus Christ. How exciting to have brothers and sisters everywhere in the world!
Simon Chan. Grassroots Asian Theology: Thinking the Faith from the Ground Up. Downer’s Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2014. 7.
An Asian theology is about the Christian faith in Asia. Simon Chan
10 responses to “Faith From the Ground Up”
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“He says that because the Father is over the Son, husbands must be over wives. First of all, I dispute the “eternal subordination” theology of the self-named Biblical Manhood/Womanhood society”
I’m with you on that one. The relationship between a father and son is different from Husband and wife. I missed that comment in my reading.
Thanks for your post.
Thank you, Lynda. Actually I wasn’t going to get specific but I had just been reading about the paper that Jason wants us to write on a synthesis of the reading, critically analyzing how the reading impacts our studies, along with how it fits into our own research and “clearly demonstrate critical reflection”. So, I thought, “Why not?” This might be a good time to say that I really appreciated Chan’s book. It helped me to understand how Asians do theology. I appreciated everything except the hierarchal thinking about women. Is that an example of critical thinking?
Ok, thanks for your response to my post.
Thanks for your deep analysis of the book. Your ideas give me a lot to think about. I so much appreciate your perspective.
When I read the part of hierarchy, I saw it in a different light. Most Asian cultures have a strong sense of hierarchy in every relationship. In Korea, younger students in high school will bow (literally) before older students. Actually, the concept of bowing in Japan, Korea, and Thailand are an expression of this value of hierarchy (I once got out of a sticky situation in Thailand by bowing repeatedly to a police officer.).
In Asia, the respect of teachers, police, bosses, and the elderly is a highly held value in their society. In America we value equality, fairness, and self-reliance. In Asia, people often value interconnectedness, honor, and avoiding conflict.
Let me give you an example, in the Philippines (and some other Asian countries) the eldest child (of a large family) will drop out of high school to go to work to pay for the school fees of the younger siblings. The younger siblings may go to college and end up with a high paying job. Yet, those younger siblings will always honor the eldest who sacrificed. We (Americans) look that situation as unfair. The eldest sibling does not see it that way, it was an opportunity to make a family sacrifice and to be honored for a lifetime.
Looking at marital relationships, in the Philippines, the husbands have the public appearance of being in control, but the wife and the grandmothers often are the final say about family matters, how money is spent, etc.
I believe that outsiders should be cautious when they want to change a culture (hierarchy) in order to fit our theological perspective of relationships (based on a Western worldview).
Thank you, Stu for your thoughtful reply.
I had just finished reading a book on Human Trafficking, which as you know is a multi-billion dollar business in SE Asia. I think that may have contributed to my passionate response to Chan’s theology on women. Perhaps I just should have asked the question, “How will Asian theology address the problem of human trafficking?”
Your point on respecting other cultures is well taken. That is why when Angie and I visit Potala Palace and Jokhang in Lhasa we will be careful to walk around the buildings in a clockwise fashion so as not to offend the Buddhists’ local customs.
Enjoy this very much and looking forward to more great conversations!
Thank you for highlighting Chan’s view on patriarchy. Of course, I completely agree with your perspective and so appreciate you countering him. Like you, I also hope this part gets left out of any world theology.
I also found it interesting that Pentecostalism had a big impact on Asain theology and became a shared theological connection to cultures throughout the world. A beautiful reminder of the uniting work of the Holy Spirit, regardless of the class, culture, or gender. As it should be in any church or religion. As usual, thank you for your insightful and informative post.
Mary, I appreciated you highlighting Chan’s emphasis on the complementarian highlights of current Asian theology. I, too, have a difficult time with that model, especially in light of scriptures like Ephesians 5:21 (mutual submission). I believe it’s right and good for us (East/West/rest) to be mutually challenging each other’s theologies– that’s how we are enriched and our understanding of the way of God matures. I think we in the West could learn much from the power of submission (we don’t do well with that term at all), and Asians might be challenged to imagine what it might mean for men to submit to the Holy Spirit at work in women.
I do want to challenge, though, this: “Since theology is about what we do as much as what we say we believe, then we could hardly have a better example than Jackie Pullinger who serves in Asia.” While Pullinger has given of herself sacrificially and her work has transformed many lives, I don’t believe what she– a Brit– has done is Asian theology. We would do better to watch and learn from Asians to see Asian theology at work. (Likewise, I would not say I developed an African theology, but learned from my sisters & brothers in Kenya who were developing it.) That’s part of what Chan’s emphasis on ‘grassroots’ suggests.
Mary, I agree that really are no so far apart from our brothers and sisters in Asia. The gospel has a quality that transcends culture and yet works within all cultures. It is a great miracle. Thank you for another great post.
I loved that you began with recognizing that process is an important element to be considered along with content.
In particular, you said: ‘Since theology is about what we do as much as what we say we believe’
I fully agree with that statement, but at the same time, how often do we unwisely separate orthodoxy (right thinking) from orthopraxis (right practice). The two should, obviously (right?) be twin pillars of our Christian life of discipleship, but we so often divorce the two and focus on the individual rather than the communal of the two. We miss so much when we do that.
Thank you for this thoughtful post, Mary. I was also disappointed in Chan’s patriarchal bent, but I am trying to remember that this may be a part of the culture that I just can’t grasp. I know some Japanese business women who have vast amounts of power, but readily submit to men in their hierarchy. I don’t understand the mindset, but they seem very comfortable with it.
You said, “I think it is more challenging to get someone to even believe in the supernatural, especially here in our materialistic West.” I think this is a huge takeaway from both this book and the Pullinger book. Supernaturalism is almost a joke here. We have to provide “proof” of supernatural activity or people likely roll their eyes. I hold my own supernatural experiences very tightly, not sharing them with many lest they assume I am making it up or imagining the connection. These experiences are too dear to me to have them mocked.
Thank you for such a thoughtful response, Kristin. I know what you mean about holding those supernatural experiences close. The wonderful ones are very precious.
The scarier ones I don’t tell too many people about. My sister and I can remember in detail the time a shadowy being came in our room and sat on her bed. We both saw it. No making that up. (My mother we found out later was playing with Ouija boards with her friends after bridge was over.) Thankfully, the Lord has spared me and there were only a couple of other scary times. He does protect us!!