Last fall, I was first introduced to Simon Chan through his book Spiritual Theology. For my essay on theology, this core text summed up much of my own understanding of God. With a contextual theology to be in a “conscious, personal relationship with God through Jesus Christ,” Chan applies his systematic understanding about God to the “lived reality” of spirituality. In that pivotal book, Spiritual Theology, Chan quotes many of ancient fathers to describe the reality of and living into faith. With his use of Orthodox, Catholic, and Evangelical influences, he acknowledges the value of traditions while laying the foundation for the added dimension of context from Asian culture.
“Theology is an exact tracing of the glory of God.” Diadochos, 5th century Greek bishop
“[Theology] is the doctrine of living unto God” William Ames, 16th-17th Century Puritan theologian
“Spiritual theology…can be defined as the science which decides from revealed principles what constitutes the perfection of the spiritual life and how man can advance towards and obtain it.” Joseph de Guibert, Jesuit father of the late 19th Century
After Spiritual Theology, Chan’s foundational thesis in Grassroots Asian Theology comes as no surprise, other than providing even more Asian context. Chan offers that theology – both Western and Asian – is meant to be lived out in “the encounter with God’s revelation of himself in Jesus Christ and in the Holy Spirit.” With the unique blend of contextual-systematic theology, Chan expresses how to understand God within traditional Christianity along with an Asian lens that remains consistent to what he wrote nearly 20 years ago.
In summary of the chapters, first, the Trinity reminds us, especially in the communal culture of Asians, that God operates with others in mind. Secondly, God wants to heal us, emotionally and physically, as reflected in many of the Asian Pentecostal grassroots churches. Thirdly, the family as central to Asian culture connects us to the understanding of our identity with the “elder brother” (Jesus Christ). Fourthly, Asian cultures respond readily to the work of the Spirit through personal encounters with God. And finally, Chan demonstrates the value of integration of grassroots and ancient tradition. Both are necessary, and easily accessible within Asian churches, and from which Western churches can benefit.
The point that resonates most deeply comes as a result of his use of “grassroots” for a descriptor. From the World Council of Churches, Chan states their assessment: “[Ecumenism] must touch the life of people in all its layers and dimensions.” The lived out reality of theology, as in the unity of and purpose of the church, emanates from what it means to understand the prayers – the liturgy – of the people. As people pray and interact with God, that’s where faith and understanding reside. Quoting a student of Augustine, Chan reminds us that the “rule of faith should be based on the rule of prayer” (Prosper of Aquitaine). People, within their context, live out theology. Can we not learn from them, rather than having to rely on elitists who proclaim the way God operates?
Now to my point – how does “theology from below” or a “grassroots” theology inform us as we live our faith? From Chan’s contribution about Asian culture, the understanding of God seems to provide a way to hold God in his mystery and grandeur along with the reality of God’s work on earth. Rather than explaining everything, the encounter becomes informative. Rather than relying only on an academic understanding of God, we can learn also from those who respond to God in “amazed recognition.” With this posture of recognizing what little we know, yet with a deep desire to connect with God, we can live in both the transcendence and immanence of God. From that place, we have the opportunity to hear what God has to say about the hard places where there seems to be no formula or academic solution.
I’ll be honest. I’m not one to best articulate the value of starting with “theology from above” as Barth would argue to “theology from below” as Grenz proposes. But I do know that I understand God best in my experiences of him, whether in scripture, encounters with others, through service, or simple silence and solitude. And that’s where I hold Vanhoozer’s doctrine as drama close, “Doctrine is not merely a proposition, or an expression, but a prompt: a spiritual direction for one’s fitting performance of the script.” The purpose of theology – to understand God – is knowing God. Chan appears to believe the same with his exhortation: “The whole created order will participate in the eternal liturgy of glorifying God and enjoying him forever.”
 Simon Chan, Spiritual Theology: a Systematic Study of the Christian Life (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 1998), 9.
 Ibid, 16.
 Ibid, 16.
 Ibid, 17.
 Ibid, 17.
 Simon Chan, Grassroots Asian Theology: Thinking the Faith from the Ground Up (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2014), 50.
 Ibid, 28.
 Ibid, 7.
 Quoting C.S. Lewis, Ibid, 17.
 Ibid, 13.
 Westminster Shorter Catechism, Ibid, 204.