December 6th 2003, 07:00 AM #1
Aloysius Pieris, An Asian Theology of Liberation
Aloysius Pieris, An Asian Theology of Liberation
(Faith Meets Faith Series, edited by Paul F Knitter; New York: Orbis, 1988)
Aloysius Pieris is a leading Sri Lanken theologian, and founder and director of the Tulana Research Centre in Kelaniya, Sri Lanka. The book collects together material, previously appearing in a number of journals, which deals with the interrelation between Asian poverty, religiosity and the development of an authentically Asian theology and faith.
The book is divided into three sections. Section one examines the relationship between spirituality and secular action. Section two addresses the need for and method of developing an indigenous theology of Asia. Section three provides the outline of such a theology.
For Pieris, it is of prime importance that Asian theology be derived from the practice of religion. Spirituality, which should be intimately involved with the concerns of the culture, is not then the conclusion of theology but theology’s starting point. In an Asian context this requires a living involvement with Asian culture, one that creates a radical empathy with the central realities of Asian life - identified by Pieris as “overwhelming poverty” and a “multifaceted religiousness” (p69).
Local churches in Asia are strongly criticised by Pieris for failing to be local churches of Asia. Drawing on the example of Jesus in beginning his public ministry by humbly following another (John the Baptist), Pieris argues that the Asian church must immerse itself in the baptismal waters of Asian culture – losing itself in order to gain itself. In support of such an uncompromising demand on Asian Christians, Pieris’ choice of Jesus as precedent is deliberate. His is the only possible authority for the scope of what Pieris is demanding. Pieris claims that the Asian church cannot rely on the theological idiom and authority of Rome to gauge the orthodoxy of the theology it will develop (p51). Development of an authentic Asian Christianity must ironically run the risk of losing its (Latino-Hellenistic-) Christian identity.
Nevertheless, in the face of 3% Christianity after some 400 years’ exposure to Christian messages, Pieris’ resolute line has received many hearers. And it is difficult to criticise a theology so compassionate in its plea for Christian identification with the poor of Asia. Pieris is right to affirm that a liturgy separated from the day-to-day struggles of its members is a liturgy that has lost touch with the struggle and death of Christ, and his kingdom of justice - which the sacraments in fact symbolise. He is also right to stress the importance - the “vital nucleus” (p15) - of the liberation of the poor and oppressed in the Gospel, as the many references to Mammon and “the poor” in the Gospels testify. But to call the story of Jesus “preeminently” (p94) the story of a God acting for the poor, is to swing the pendulum too far in the other direction. And it contradicts his earlier, more balanced view of a “mutual enveloping of liturgy, spirituality and secular action,” (p5) arising from the realisation that each are “different modes of perceiving the same mystery of redemption” (p3). Yet, because Pieris writes with a prophetic conscience for the people of Asia, we are inclined to forgive him his hyperbole as an ‘act of passion’ within an orthodox, albeit radical and provocative, vision of an Asian theology.
The boundaries of this orthodoxy are pushed, but not crossed, in respect of the second feature identified as central to an Asian consciousness: religiosity. Pieris’ has a progressive interpretation of Vatican II’s position on Christ working within other religions. Unlike South America, where inculturation primarily involves economic liberation, Pieris claims that inculturation in an Asian context must address and involve both poverty and religiosity. It is “enreligionization” as well as “inculturation” (p52). This is because Asian religion is inseparably interfused with life and philosophy. Whereas Roman theology applied Greek philosophy but rejected Greek paganism, such a separation would be impossible in Asia. To ignore Asian religiosity in forming a local theology is described as colonial cultural arrogance. And to simply pluck out elements of Asian religion without regard for their soteriological matrix is identified as a subtle ‘crypto-colonialism’.
So in asking Asian Christians to be immersed in the culture of Asia, Pieris is asking for nothing less than (using his own baptismal imagery) their immersion in non-Christian soteriologies, so that genuine Asian Christologies may be developed. Furthermore, and more controversially, his claim is that the soteriological nucleus of Asian religions is the only door for Christian kerygma (p59). Pieris is not asking for something that he would not do himself; he is the first non-Buddhist to receive a doctorate in Buddhism from the University of Sri Lanka. Yet it remains a demanding requirement for others to follow.
While recognising that religion can have an enslaving as well as a liberating side, Pieris points to the triune mystery of salvation at the heart of many religious cultures, i.e. the ‘beyond’ entering within the individual; salvific mediation; and a human capacity for salvation. This religious urge inside of all people, which for Pieris is equivalent to the urge to create a new humanity, must be given its own voice in its search for Christ – a voice not necessarily delimited by Western terminology. As an example, Christianity must make use of the psychological tools of introspection that Eastern sages have discovered (p80). At this point it is unclear what side of the somewhat greying borderline Pieris sits on: inclusivism and acceptance of diverse idioms, or a pluralism of different essences. But despite the radicality of the theological method Pieris is advocating, his aim in his own words is simply to allow Asians to express the Asian discovery of Christ (p63). This appears quite in keeping with Vatican II’s position in Gaudium et spes, but may be less so in respect of the more defensive fundamentalism of Dominus Iesus, recently used to ‘correct’ the writings of Pieris’ fellow Jesuit, Jacques Dupuis.
The reader cannot help being impressed by Pieris’ attack on Mammon, acquisitiveness and a capitalism thriving on waste and want. Pieris critiques both Marxism and capitalism, as failing the Asian culture. There is also a challenge to the Buddhist monastery, which, while advocating voluntary poverty, does so without the Biblical co-requisite of giving to the poor.
Although one may disagree with some aspects of the book, this is perhaps inevitable from a book that issues a powerful and prophetic challenge to both Western and other Third World theologies.
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