Min Review of Phan Christianity with an Asian Face Asian American Theology in the Making

Phan, Peter C. Christianity with an Asian Face: Asian American Theology in the Making. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2003. Pages, xvii + 253. Paper, $30.00. ISBN: 1570754667 Reviewed by Anselm Kyongsuk Min Asians have been coming to North America for some decades now, yet there has been no significant theological output that represents the Asian American experience. Peter C. Phan, the first Asian American President of the Catholic Theological Society of America, has written a book that aims to be, as the subtitle states, “Asian American theology in the making.” The book is divided into two parts, the first dealing with methodological issues of intercultural theology, the second with substantive issues bearing on inculturation in the context of an Asian American theology. Part One, consisting of three chapters, includes cultural reflections on the experience of migration in its displacement, suffering, and marginality as source and perspective of an intercultural theology, a fine synthesis of the methodologies of various liberation theologies in terms of the threefold mediation of theology (socio-analytic, hermeneutic, and practical), to which he adds interreligious dialogue, and a critical yet fair analysis of John Paul II’s Fides et Ratio, especially in its potential as a basis for inculturation and interreligious dialogue in Asia. Part Two, consisting of eight chapters, contains insightful reflections on the appropriateness of the symbol of the “kingdom of God” for Asia, a critical survey of Asian christologies (those of Aloysius Pieris, Jung Young Lee, Chung Hyun Kyung, and Choan-Seng Song), and the fascinating proposal of two Confucian models of “eldest son” and “ancestor” for christology. It also includes relevant suggestions for making the churches in Asia more Asian (greater sense of community and equality, greater participation and collaboration, the triple dialogue with Asian culture, Asian religions, and the Asian poor, greater prophetic service), a discussion of the intrinsic relationship between human development and Christian evangelization, a historically informative discussion of catechesis as inculturation of Christian faith, and a presentation of the characteristics of the Vietnamese American community and the possible elements and resources of a future Vietnamese American theology. As the author acknowledges at the outset, this is not a full-blown systematic work in Asian American theology but a collection of independently written essays that seek to provide “some building blocks” for constructing such a theology (xi). As such, the chapters bear uneven relations to the theme of Asian American theology. Chapters like the last one bear directly on the concerns, perspectives, and sources of an Asian, i.e., Vietnamese American theology; most chapters in Part Two bear directly on Asian theology and only indirectly on Asian American theology. The second chapter on theological method is an excellent synthesis of the methodologies of different liberation theologies such as Latin American, feminist, and Asian, but its bearing on Asian American theology as such is not explicitly brought out. Still, the chapters do contain important “building blocks”: insights, concepts, and principles indispensable to the making of any Asian American theology. Phan demonstrates an impressive command of a wide variety of relevant sources from various contemporary liberation theologies, theories of culture, histories of the missions, and pertinent ecclesiastical documents. His summaries and treatments of other thinkers are fair and thorough. His critical reflections are insightful and apropos. Largely methodological, programmatic, and suggestive, this is a pioneering work in the new area of Asian American theology that must be taken seriously by all future Asian American theologians. It also highly recommends itself to all theologians and pastoral agents interested in Asian and Asian American theologies and ecc1esial life. Among the many issues Phan’s work raises, two are particularly significant and worthy of further consideration. First, the sixth chapter on Jesus as “eldest son” and “ancestor,” I believe, might be the most original chapter of the whole book in terms of its contribution to an Asian American theology. Phan sees a significant analogy between Jesus in his filial obedience to the Father and in his role as the new Adam on the one hand and the Confucian roles of eldest son and ancestor on the other. Certainly, such models would find a profound echo in the hearts of most Confucians. One would think, however, that the task of christology is not only to find an appropriate paradigmatic model or even to apply it to Christ according to the rules of analogical predication such as affirmation, negation (i.e., elimination of all sexism and patriarchy), and eminence, which Phan does. It is also to show how such models fulfill all the soteriological and trinitarian functions traditionally attributed to Christ as the Son, Word, and Image of the Father or, should such functions be judged inappropriate for any reason, at least to argue how they must be rethought in light of the new models without ceasing to be Christian. One would think that it is precisely this latter task that makes the models truly Christological, though Phan fails to accomplish it adequately. Secondly, like all contextual theologians today, Phan assumes that “the context determines both the method and the agenda of all theologies” (100), and like many Asian theologians he also assumes that “Asia” constitutes a single context. I would invite Phan and Asian theologians to ask whether the second assumption is tenable. Speaking of Asia is not like speaking of Europe, North America, or South America, each of which has a certain unity based on a community of language, religion, culture, and/or political history, which is simply not true of Asia. We should remember that “Asia” covers all the disparate countries east of Greece, west of Alaska, north of the South Pacific, and south of the North Pole, and there is so single culture, language, religion, or history common to all or even most of them. It is not true that “there exists throughout Asia ... a common religio-cultural heritage and a similar socio-political context” (99). What Phan means to say, along with Pieris, is that Asians are both profoundly religious and extremely poor, but this abstracts both from the significant differences among Asian religions and from the different political and economic origins of poverty in Asian countries. Can we seriously argue that theologies in Islamic Iran, Hindu India, and Confucian China should all have the same method and same agenda since they all belong to “Asia”? It is time to reexamine the appropriateness of the theological use of the term “Asia” or at least to discuss how it could be made to refer to something more determinate and meaningful.