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!
An Asian theology is about the Christian faith in Asia. Simon Chan