I was delighted that we were assigned a book on Asian theology in light of our up and coming trip to Hong Kong. Upon reading Grassroots Asian Theology, I had two immediate insights: First, I realized that I remembered very little of my “Indian Traditions” class of 40 years ago (though I remembered my professor, a quirky woman who sit yoga style on her desk in brightly colored skirts while she lectured). And second, I had discovered a helpful guide to practicing global theology. I found this book to be highly informative and timely, as our world become much smaller and the church so much bigger and less influenced by Western thinking. Today, as Simon Chan puts it, we are to confronted by a “rapidly globalizing Christian church’s emerging reservoir of insights, testimonies, and convictions from diverse and various perspective.”[i]
Chan provides a primer on how to do theology in our emerging globalized world through the lens of Asian traditions and grassroots church experience. “My main focus is on how theology ought to be done. This book is as much concerned with the processes as the content of theology.”[ii] What Chan proposes is a multi-layer approach to theology, as opposed to a monochrome approach often practiced by Western Protestants. He calls for opening the door to a wider array of voices, providing a space for them to speak and be heard, and suggesting that these voices will not only give greater color and depth to our own theological discussions, but might even bring us closer to the very heart of the Gospel and the teachings of Scriptures. He suggests at least three areas that are often found wanting in Western theology that, if utilized, will provide space for the larger church to hear what is happening among the churches in Asia (and around the world). This dialogue has potential to draw the church back to some of her roots that have been lost throughout much of history. This conversation begins with a genuine acceptance of the legitimacy of the other’s traditions and beliefs in order that they might be approached as valuable dialogue partners, and not just as people that must be proselytized or exorcised false beliefs.
To bring about this open conversation requires then a balance approach. It will first require that we take serious (as Protestants) older Christian traditions. There is a need to recapture much of the earlier teachings and theology that came prior to the Reformation and that continues to be practiced by the Catholic and Orthodox traditions. To be open to and dialogue with the global community will involve taking “freely from Catholic and Orthodox sources. I believe they offer a broader and more solid basis for contextual theologies compared with what goes on in much of mainline Protestantism and evangelicalism today.”[iii] A broader base may be necessary for local theology to be viewed as “authentically Christian,” as Chan recognizes the need for the local church to “have substantial continuity with the larger Christian tradition.”[iv]
Second, it requires that religions, traditions and spirituality are taken seriously. In the past, Western theologians often too quickly written-off other religions and their practices as the result of the “fall” or sin, or the seeking after other gods, or simply those parts of cultures that need to be exorcised and replaced by “true religion” of Christianity. This approach does not give room for genuine dialogue, because it does not accept as legitimate conversation partners those religions and traditions. Without such respect for the other, opportunity for real dialogue, or self-criticism, cannot happen.
Finally, it requires taking seriously the development of the culture and theology of the local church in its new context. As Chan suggests, “the grassroots is where primary theology is lived out…”[v] Here is where real theology is done, through the experience of the church interacting with Scripture, with culture, and with lived faith. The resulting theology is a response to “….how the distinctive culture of the ekklesia is to live and grow in the midst of the alien cultures of the Gentiles, and what it means that men and women are called out by the gospel from their own indigenous ethnic cultures to the new culture of the people of God.”[vi]
The result of this lived theology of the local church is the opportunity for the wider church to hear what God is saying through His people. “The task of the professional theologian is not to tell the church what is good for it but to listen carefully what the Spirit of truth who indwells the church is saying through he people of God.”[vii] Here, Chan’s book is most insightful, as he challenges our presuppositions and Western colored thinking by teaching us through the culture, religion, and local church practices in Asia. He challenges our thinking about issues like the Trinity, the family, shame, sin, honor, and so much more. As he indicates, so many of the practices of the grassroots church in Asia are closer to the culture of the Early Church and Scripture than what is today practiced and believed in so many of our churches in the West. We have much to learn (and relearn) from our Asian church family.
Simon Chan efforts are well captured in Veli-Matti Karkkainen’s own global theological program:
“Only when the ‘global’ theological scholarship—the term ‘global’ here should be understood as inclusive of geographical, racial, sexual, ecumenical, and other distinctions – will engage in a (self-) critical and constructive mutual dialogue between tradition and contemporary challenges and promises is there hope of a more balanced, robust, and vigorous theology.” [viii]