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Dr. Jonathan Tan

Asian theology helps bolster interreligious dialogue

Jonathan Tan, a Malaysian Catholic and expert on Asian Catholicism, studied the documents produced by Asian Catholic bishops over the past 50 years. The result was his new book, “The Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences - Bearing Witness to the Gospel and the Reign of God in Asia.”

In this interview, Tan offers a theological reflection analyzing the Church’s engagement with post-colonial Asia.

In addition, he also highlights a spectrum of specificities proper to the Church in Asia. Tan suggests that Asian bishops apply an intersectional approach to respond to challenges that the Church encounters across the continent.

Could you tell us more about yourself?

I was born in Malaysia in the town of Ipoh, the capital of Perak state. I grew up in Malaysia and Singapore and finished university studies in Singapore. I also worked for a while before going to the United States for graduate studies.

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I did my masters at the Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley and did my Ph.D. at the Catholic University of America. I was always interested in Catholicism in Asia while growing up, and my studies revolved around Asian Catholicism. My master’s dealt with liturgical inculturation, and my Ph.D. was on theology and culture.

I started work on the FABC for my master's because I was interested to know how the bishops in Asia influence the work of liturgical inculturation in different parts of Asia. My Ph.D. work looks at the FABC and its mission theology.

Asian bishops gather together for a commemorative photo after a closing Holy Mass as part of the FABC50 golden jubilee celebrations held in Bangkok, Thailand from Oct. 12-30, 2022. (Photo: FABC)

Can you tell us what the FABC is and what it does?

After Vatican II there was a thinking that bishops' conferences in a region should come together. The regional conference of bishops from Latin American nations, which began even before Vatican II, was a model for similar development in Asia and other places.

The FABC is a transnational federation of bishops’ conferences in 15 Asian Catholic bishops’ conferences across Asia as full members — Bangladesh, India, Indonesia, Japan, Kazakhstan, Korea, Laos-Cambodia, Malaysia-Singapore-Brunei, Myanmar, Pakistan, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Taiwan, Thailand, and Vietnam, and ten associate members — Hong Kong, Kyrgyzstan, Macau, Mongolia, Nepal, Siberia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Timor-Leste.

The FABC only covers Latin Catholics. Eastern Catholics are under the umbrella of the Council of Catholic Patriarchs of the East (Conseil des Patriarchates Catholiques d’Orient, CPCO). The CPCO deals with Eastern Catholics and the FABC deals with the Latin Catholics, i.e., Catholics in Asia who were evangelized by European missionaries, as opposed to say, Catholics of the historic churches split away from Orthodox or Oriental Orthodox Churches of Asia, which comprise the CPCO.

The idea for the formation of the FABC came in 1970 when Pope Paul VI visited Manila. That meeting was important as it, for the first time, brought together most Asian bishops. The bishops proposed the idea of a regional conference and in 1972 Rome approved the statutes that gave birth to the Federation of Asian Bishops Conferences.

In 2022, the FABC celebrated the 50th anniversary of its inception.

Asia is one place where most people don't think anything of Catholics. So, the FABC has never been on the radar among many Catholics. We look at global Catholicism and everybody knows what's happening in Africa or in Latin America.

My book was an effort on my part to bring all the research I've done over the past 20 years since 2000. Before that, it was scattered in various journals and book chapters.  These were hard to find earlier as they were published in various Asian print journals — mostly in Indian and Filipino ones — that are not on electronic databases.

Cardinal Charles Maung Bo, Archbishop of Yangon, Myanmar (left) and Archbishop Tarcisius Isao Kikuchi of Tokyo are pictured attending a press conference as part of the FABC general conference held in Bangkok, Thailand from Oct. 12-30, 2022. (Photo: FABC)

What were the findings of your research on the text produced by the FABC in the past 50 years?

I think what makes the FABC’s theological pastoral approach interesting and unique is that in this age of globalization and transnationalism, the FABC’s theologizing deals with the complexities of religious diversity and pluralism in Asia. Except for the Philippines and East Timor, which is a small island, Asian Catholics are a tiny minority in all other nations across the vast continent of Asia.

FABC membership, as you can see in my book, covers the entire geographical spread of Asia. So, my argument is that the FABC is different from other regional federations because Asian bishops cannot assume a Christian culture or a significant Christian presence that gives a certain balance of power or social position in most parts of Asia.

When we talk about Catholics in Asia, we cannot talk about Catholics in isolation. Asian Catholics are always in conversation with or engaging with Hindus, Buddhists, Taoists, Shintoists, and Muslims.

If there's one thing that makes the FABC’s theological and pastoral approach unique, it is its effort to try to respond to these challenges and articulate a theology that seeks to engage with the realities of Asia. In other words, putting into effect, as I argued in my book, the vision of Gaudium et spes — the Church in the modern world. That means the Church has to engage in the modern world and not fuga mundi or flee from the world.

Your book argues that post-colonial Asia offers challenges to theologizing. Can you explain it?

Latin Catholics in Asia, whom the FABC represents, are the product of European mission endeavors. That brand of Christianity was brought by the Portuguese to India, Malacca and Goa; by the Spaniards in the Philippines; by the French in Vietnam, or by the Italians, Germans and French in parts of China. The missionaries have always arrived as part of the colonial project.

In the minds of many Asians, Christianity has always been, often unfairly, seen as a white man's religion. The rise of nationalism that began to seek for self-determination and political independence in the 20th century, added to this impression in Asian minds. The Christian religion has always been labeled as a foreign one. You can still see the impact of it in India, China and Vietnam, or other nations.

Another challenge emerged in Asia as part of the process of decolonization. Decolonization also meant the resurgence of local religions along with nationalism and national pride in most nations across Asia. National pride also meant taking pride in the national religion and its culture.

As part of de-colonization projects, we see a revival of national religions such as Buddhism, Hinduism or even Islam. Religiosity suddenly becomes center stage of socio-political reality in most Asian nations. Politics becomes linked with religion. In Asia, one would not find secularism the way one would see it in Europe or elsewhere. For example, we see Buddhist monks actively involved in politics in Myanmar and Sri Lanka.

The Sri Lankan civil war (1983-2009) was actually between Sinhalese Buddhists and the Tamils. But Tamils are not just Hindus. Many of them are Christians and Catholics. The Tamils who fled Sri Lanka as refugees included Catholics. Many of them often expressed surprise that many Europeans and Americans consider Buddhists as peaceful people. But in Asia Buddhists are not so peaceful. The violence that Sri Lankan Catholics, Christians, and Hindus had to experience essentially stemmed from Sinhalese Buddhist nationalism.

Post-colonialism also includes deliberate efforts to de-colonize nations and cultures. The evils of colonialism are seen as linked with Christianity, which was planted by the colonizers. It is unique in Asia as we don't find it in Latin America or Africa.

Delegates from Asia attend a presentation during the FABC general conference held in Bangkok, Thailand from Oct. 12-30, 2022. (Photo: FABC)

How does Christianity then relate to Buddhist, Hindu, Islamic nationalism?

The bishops are mindful of that. The FABC does not, for political reasons, critique governments and nationalism directly. That would be political suicide. They use a kind of coded language to engage with religions amid the process of post-colonial de-colonization. For example, they say: “We are part of the local landscape. We are not the European colonial legacy. We are here to stay. We are not foreign. We are as local as you are.”

All the major religions of the world have come from some parts of Asia, for better or for worse. The process of decolonization also meant the revival of these religious traditions across Asia. So, the FABC must walk a thin line trying to balance how it contributes to this post-European world in Asia.

That balancing act includes bishops being politically sensitive as to avoid being thrown into jail. And, persecution has always been a challenge. So the bishops try to keep away from politics, unlike the bishops in Latin America, where they confront the political realities.

Your book insists that the FABC adopt an approach of intersectionality. Could you explain?

Intersectionality is a new paradigm that emerged in North America. But even before North American scholars of religion and society used the term intersectionality, the FABC has been talking about triple dialogue — with religions, cultures, and the poor — meaning those who are marginalized socially and economically.

[Intersectionality argues that individuals have their own experiences of discrimination and oppression, disregarding their socio-economic situations. It also emphasizes that any difference such as gender, race, class, religion, culture, sexual orientation or physical ability can become a tool for marginalization.]

One of the key contributions that emerged from the FABC in engaging with religious diversity and cultural pluralism is its theology of triple dialogue and it is a good example of intersectionality. The FABC makes it very clear that you cannot talk about inculturation without having a dialogue with culture. You cannot speak about theology without considering the social and economic marginalization of people.

You cannot just have interreligious dialogue without dialogue with religions. In Asian religions, these three things — religion, cultures, and poor — intersect and so the Church has to engage in dialogue with all three of them at the same time.

The situation in Latin Amrica is very different. They developed liberation theology, but Christians are a majority in Latin America and one can assume a Christian culture. But when you are a minority, you cannot avoid questions about the culture and religion of the dominant religions.

What the FABC has done is to say that we are going to engage, we are not here to challenge the status quo. It is just a strategic maneuver. The FABC wants to address social, political, and economic issues, but they do it in a very strategic manner with religions, cultures, and marginalization tied together. The FABC wants to talk about social, political, and economic marginalization. But all those talks happen in the context of religion and culture at the same time. That's what I meant by the intersectionality of all three.

At the same time, we live in a world that is fast becoming religiously diverse as migration brings Muslims, Buddhists, and Hindus to other parts of the world, such as North America. We see more Muslims, Hindus, or Buddhists in European countries that were traditionally Christian. Unless we have a theology that deals with religious diversity, we will see ultra-right-wing groups emerging like the Alternative for Germany (AfD).

A delegate interacts with the speaker (not pictured) during a paper presentation at the FABC general conference held in Bangkok, Thailand from Oct. 12-30, 2022. (Photo: FABC)

What were the challenges you encountered in this research?

I was studying an official organization constituted by the Vatican. The FABC has published all its documents. I have had good friends such as the late Father Edward Maloney, who was the former Secretary-General of the FABC.  I also was able to talk to older theologians like Fathers Michael Amaldoss and Felix Wilfred and other folks who were there before me and who could share their personal experiences.

The FABC, like the Vatican, issues encyclicals and documents, but how it filters down is a challenge in itself. It is a challenge because most national Churches are just trying to survive as minorities in their countries. In such situations, the last thing you want to do is to draw attention.

The FABC documents, like many documents of the Church, are nice blueprints. They're like the documents of Vatican II. Although many may not pay attention, at least there's a vision. I doubt if they get filtered down to the local parish church. I’m not sure if Catholics in parishes study FABC documents.

Let me speak about it from the context of Malaysia, which is an Islamic country. The Catholic bishops in Malaysia have taken some of the ideas of the FABC’s triple dialogue and implemented it. The Catholic Church has taken the lead to form umbrella groups.

They engage in dialogue with the government in a country that follows Islamic law and restrict churches and even the use of the word Allah or the Bible.

They engage in dialogue with the government and their negotiations have taken some ideas from the FABC documents. I've seen how the Malaysian bishops have used ideas and points from these documents in their dialogue with the Malaysian government.

I think the key point is that often people outside Asia don't understand or realize how small Catholics are in the grand scheme of things. In Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore, and other places you cannot assume the kind of in-a-half negotiating stand that you could do say in Europe or Latin America.

How is your research impacting your own understanding of Catholicism?

One of the things that flows from my study of the FABC is that the FABC itself has shown the importance of looking at Asia. When we think of global Catholicism, most often scholars in North America think of Latin America or Africa because of the huge number of Catholics in those regions.

Asia is often overlooked because people often assume Asia is a continent of Muslims, Buddhists and Hindus. Most people don't think of Asia when they speak about Catholics. The number of Christians in Asia may be negligible but Asia houses roughly two-thirds of the world's population and also has the highest birth rates.

Asia must interest global Catholicism because here you see Catholics in their cultural variety, not in the majority, not in a position of influence. The Asian Church has so much to offer to global Catholicism because Catholics in Asia thrive as a minority community amid dominant religions and great cultures of the world.

* This is an edited version of a podcast interview that appeared on the webpage of the Initiative for the Study of Asian Catholics (ISAC). The initiative, hosted by the Asia Research Institute at the National University of Singapore, is a global network of social scientists who develop new research projects to analyze live realities and the social contribution of Asian Catholics. It aims to deepen and promote academic research on Catholic life in contemporary Asia.

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2 Comments on this Story
All major world religions began in Asia. Theologians from Asia are yet to do justice to their enormous potential in interreligious bridge-building and dialogue.
I am surprised that someone who studied the documents of the FABC and talks about the FABC Vision in this article, does not mention the Vision articulated by the FABC at their Vth Plenary Assembly in Bandung in July, 1990. Where the Church in Asia was envisioned as a Communion of Communities - where clergy, religious and laity journey together as sisters and brothers. A co-responsible and participatory Church where the gifts and charisms given by the Holy Spirit to all- laity, clergy and religious – are recognized and activated to build the Body of Christ, the Church in the neighborhood, to fulfill her mission. Where has that vision disappeared to? Why did it disappear?

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