I ran out of room for what has become my customary blog title procedure, where I give part of the title and then add, ‘or . . . .’ The first part of the title was just too long this week. That doesn’t mean, however, that I don’t have an ‘or’, because I most definitely do….. The ‘or’ for this week would be something like, ‘or things I didn’t expect to be reading and thinking about in a book about ‘Asian theology.’
This subtitle is telling in many ways. First, it doesn’t mean that I wasn’t looking forward to reading Grassroots Asian Theology: Thinking the Faith from the Ground Up by Simon Chan. But, if I am being completely honest, I didn’t necessarily expect to connect so closely to as many parts of the book as I did. And even more than that, I think I expected it to be and/or feel more foreign and exotic.
This is a disheartening and embarrassing revelation for me to admit – it was just as embarrassing for me to realize. There is, of course, nothing wrong with experiencing something as new or different, in fact encountering new (to me) and different (from my previous experience) cultures and viewpoints is a high value for me and a significant reason I am a part of this program.
But, the frustrating/disappointing/embarrassing element in my engagement with this book his how surprised I was, not by the differences, but by the similarities. I was thrilled and enthralled by the sections of this book on ancestor worship, communion and the ‘communion of the Saints’ – especially as I see them connecting directly to my doctoral research on hospitality and adoption (and there is even a section with explicit references to adoption – which have made their way into my thinking and possibly will make their way into my thesis –p. 197-98).
But, at the same time, I was genuinely surprised to find these connections and references and to find such engaging, important and pertinent theological thought and engagement. I was looking at this assignment as sort of a ‘vacation’ to an exotic locale and a chance to engage with strangers from different cultures. I had forgotten, that because of Jesus Christ, and his reconciliation of the world to God, this wasn’t a vacation, but rather a family reunion!
Of course the work and thought and ‘working out of salvation’ of our Asian sisters and brothers would be more than just interesting to me, but actually meaningful and possibly transformative – these are my people or, rather, we are all God’s people and as such we are in this together.
That this comes as a revelation, though wonderful, feels particularly embarrassing because I know better. I know this already. My preaching and teaching regularly highlights God’s commitment and love for all of humanity. I am regularly – usually weekly (possibly too often if you ask my congregation) about our bond and commitment to each other – especially those that we don’t or don’t want to claim as part of ‘us’.
This is a powerful reminder to me of just how powerful and insidious that temptation to division and separation is….. we seem to naturally want to mark out clear dividing lines between ‘us’ and ‘them’ when the message of Jesus is that the good news of the Kingdom of God is that in and through Jesus Christ there is only an ‘us’. God’s love if for all. Jesus Christ’s sacrifice and grace is for all. God’s family and the extending of welcome is, truly, for all of us.
Now that I have said all of that, a few thoughts specific to the text itself – rather than my reaction to it:
- The issue of ancestor veneration was one that touched a nerve with me for some reason. I think while the specifics are significantly different, it is a conversation that the Western (American) church would benefit from. How many in our churches talk about their departed loved ones as ‘their guardian angels’ or as ‘looking down on/watching over them’?
- Beyond those comparisons, I think the discussion as Chan has it in this book also hits on one of the questions I get most as a pastor: what happens to people that die without faith?
- Chan’s response, below, is as succinct and clear argument for an open understanding of possible redemption as I have seen or read and is something that I will likely be appropriating as a means of pastoral comfort:
- The only objection that could be raised against the JICM view is that it goes against a commonly held view that the offer of salvation is given only in this life , based on texts such as Hebrews 9 : 23 – 28 and Luke 13 : 23 – 30.173 This direct proof – texting approach , however , fails to consider the larger context of Scripture . The idea of the finality of judgment after death must be rejected for the same reason that we reject an immediate resurrection at death . It goes against the biblical teaching and the overwhelmingly received view of all the major Christian traditions that final resurrection and judgment occur only at the end of history . 174 It is to account for this “ lapse ” between death and final resurrection – judgment that the doctrine of the intermediate state is introduced . But the intermediate state also implies that death does not seal the soul in its final condition until the final judgment . If this is so , then the Hebrews 9 passage cannot be taken to mean that the state of the soul is settled with finality at or after death . The argument from Luke 13 is even more tenuous . There is nothing in the text to suggest that the closing of the door of opportunity ( Lk 13 : 25 ) occurs at death. (Chan, p. 196)
- If you spend any time with missionaries that have encountered ‘unreached’ people groups, you are likely familiar with stories of semi-miraculous preparation (for lack of a better term) for the gospel… these stories come in the form of dreams local leaders or shaman have had, etc. Chan makes a critical point here about why that might make so sense, particularly with the ancestor veneration culture: In fact , venerating dead ancestors reveals more than just some vague belief in life after death ; it anticipates the Christian doctrine of the communion of saints transcending space and time. (Chan, p. 190)
- Chan also had a powerful critique of Protestant practice vs. belief in his discussion of the communion of saints:
- Protestantism , however , falls far short in practice what it acknowledges in theory . It acknowledges one holy catholic and apostolic church , but in practice the communion of the church does not extend to its diachronic dimension . Here is where a juxtaposition of the doctrine of the communion of saints with the Asian practice of ancestral veneration could become mutually enriching . For the family in East Asia , family solidarity is experienced not just with those present but with those who are dead . So significant is this concern that failure to address it adequately is a main reason why Christianity has not had strong appeal among the masses in Confucian societies (Chan, p. 190).
- This can also be considered an issue of hospitality that the Protestant church has missed (that many Asian, African and Middle Eastern cultures ‘get’ at a fundamental level)…… That ‘family’ and ‘us’ extends beyond those present with us right now….In this I am thinking about these cultures fundamental understanding of not just family, but also their commitment to hospitality, etc. The dead (the Saints) is the focus of Chan’s argument, but I think you can extend that in terms of the Kingdom of God, that the ‘family’ extends to all of those we encounter…. ‘They’ are our responsibility as well….Perhaps especially those that are most in need: the poor, the orphan, the widow, the oppressed. What might it look like if we strove for a better understanding of this ‘Family of God solidarity’ and sought to actually live it out in practice not just theoretically?