Developing an Asian Christian theology for modern Asians

What will the Asian church look like in a few hundred years to come, and what are we going to do to get there?

This was food for thought posed by Dr Tan Gee Paw in delivering the ETHOS Institute™ Annual Lecture 2016, held at St. Andrew’s Cathedral on 18 Oct 2016.  Titled “Theology Amid an Infocomm Technology Revolution – an Asian Perspective”, the lecture expounded on two main points: first, the need for an indigenous Asian theology in the Asian church, and second, the challenge of conveying the Gospel message to the current generation.

The need for an Asian theology can be most keenly felt in the fact that while Christianity comprises both rational and relational aspects, its initial introduction to Asia by Western missionaries had focused more on the rational and logical side, which was not the norm for the predominantly-relational Asian psyche. For Christianity to further develop and become deeply rooted in Asia, it cannot merely be a carbon copy of Western Christianity; it must be accessible to more than just the “Western-educated” or those in the upper fringes of society.

A truly indigenous Asian Christian theology must take cognisance of the relational and communal Asian culture so that all of its people can understand its truths. Only then will Asian Christian missionaries be able to effectively bring an indigenous Christian theology into an accepting Asian society, and Asian Christians be better placed to engage in dialogue with those from other religions.

So what makes up an indigenous Asian Christian theology? We must find a middle ground between the extremes of a detached, almost-forensic rational religion on one hand and a narcissistic, self-focused experiential one on the other. In this respect, the Asian theology needs to have its own cultural ballast for stability, instead of blindly copying the latest trends from the West which may do more harm than good in the long run. Some examples of such problems include the infamous prosperity gospel, and modern Christian worship expressions which focus more on the self than on glorifying God.

An indigenous Asian Christian theology, developed from a relational perspective to complement – not replace – its rational facets, must be missiological to carry the Gospel to the unreached in Asia, pastoral to serve the needs of people, and contextual to address the needs of people in nations who are emerging from poverty. It must be able to see the upcoming future challenges in Asia, and address these in advance. In this sense, such a theology would go beyond mere education, which equips pastors with the working knowledge to meet the current needs of the church, to theological leadership, which develops and shapes the character of the church for centuries to come.

The other challenge apart from developing an indigenous Asian Christian theology is conveying its message. Within the span of a few decades, communications in modern society have changed drastically, and today’s vocabulary may vary depending on “what’s hot and what’s not”. The indigenous Asian Christian theology for the modern audience requires a fresh clarion call, not unlike the Solas of the Reformation which formed the bedrock of the Christianity we know today.

It may be challenging to find a way to communicate Christian values such as reliance on God and denying one’s self, especially since modern culture is becoming increasingly focused on self-sufficiency and self-gratification. However, while there is always a risk of incorporating non-Christian elements using a modern language, spiritual discernment is necessary and the church must find a way to adapt, or risk being unable to reach out effectively to future generations.

Chye Shu Yi –

is a member of Methodist Church of the Incarnation.

Photo courtesy of ETHOS Institute for Public Christianity