Jonathan Tan - "World Christianity: Perspectives and Insights"
8:16PM Jun 28, 2020
Jonathan J. Armstrong
Today is our honor to be speaking with Professor Jonathan Tam. Professor Tan is Archbishop Paul J. Helen and Professor of Catholic studies at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. He is the author of several texts on world Christianity including introducing Asian American theologies, Christian mission among the peoples of Asia. And also he and on cue Tran are the co-editors of the text that we'll be discussing today, World Christianity: Perspectives and Insights. Professor Tan, thank you so much for being with us.
Thank you, Jonathan, for inviting me to this conversation.
Professor tan as we begin, world Christianity perspectives and insights is an anthology of essays dedicated to the honor of Peter see fam, when did you first learn of Peter fans research?
Oh, beautiful. was actually my doctor father, it was my
PhD advisor and my dissertation director. So, the book in a both my co editor and me, we are both his students, doctoral students. And it was a work that several others who either his students or his collaborators, or his close friends
who decided to honor him
on the occasion of his 70th birthday, sec, the dedication
and it is an important milestone for us because we are so few Asian American theologians who have reached the kind of level that who is cited and quoted and seen as the movers and shakers in the geological world. So I think it is just as important to honor him with a fascist
What is some of the early research of Peter fan that most attracted you to his work?
I think what attracted me to Peter fan and to study with him when he was at a time was at the Catholic University of America was his work on Asian Christianity. There were very few professors in the US who were doing Asian and Asian American Christianity generally and Asian and Asian American Catholicism in particular. So, he's worked in that field. I mean, which is marked by his book, mission and catechesis, where he looked at the world of the enculturation of Christianity in Vietnam, so, so that attracted me to work with him and to have him direct my research.
Dr. Tan Would you be willing To share just a moment of your personal story, how did you come to teach theology in the United States? And when did you first develop academic interests in world Christianity?
I think I was always interested in
Christianity, missions world Christianity at a young age. And it was always my dream to pursue graduate studies in theology. So when I could, I started my graduate studies in theology at the Graduate theological union in Berkeley, so that there was in the early in the mid 1990s. And at a time when I finished my master's, I was looking for looking to continue. And there were very few universities in the 1990s doctoral programs that were interesting interested in contextual theology because I was interested in contextual geology The relationship between faith and culture and mission. So when I was looking for doctoral advisors and who I could work with so, Peters name came on board so and so I applied to Catholic University of America was accepted. And so I studied with Peter from 1998 to 2002 when I graduated, so I've been teaching theology I've been a professor since 2002.
Thank you, sir.
Doctor to part two of the text world Christianity perspectives and insights is titled world Christianity and new ways of doing theology. This part in the text features contributions on an array of dogmatic foe side including the sacraments, the Trinity, Christology, hermeneutics, missions and more. What is it possible Eisley about the phenomenon of world Christianity that opens up new insights into these traditional areas of theological research.
I think this shift from mission studies to world Christianity is an important paradigm shift and should not be overlooked. Because for the longest time, we have often conceived the world I mean, and we look at evangelism from the perspective of sending churches and receiving churches. And the idea that mission lands are passive recipients, but the real theological work is done in Europe or North America, that where theology is done, and we go to the global south. It is pastoral ministry, evangelism. church planting is a solid like recipients. What this goes to show is that no, these are not just simply mission plans or church plans, but they are also churches in their own right. And, you know, when we look at Christianity through a contextual lens, we realize that all Christianity is ultimately contextual, even European Christianity, if that's the case, systematic theology, doctrines, theological reflections also take place in the global south in the tutors work. And so this book is a collection of essays in perspective of how my systematic theology Look, if the theologians who are doing the theological reflections take their cue their social location, from all across the world, North America, South America, in Asia. And what might that say because what we are looking for now is not just a one way street, but a two way dialogue between theologians in the globe enough engaging in a dialogue with people allergens in the global south.
I'm struck by your phrase,
world Christianity opens the insight that these churches in the so called two thirds world are, quote churches in their own right. Not mission fields, but actual churches and ought to be producing theology. Can you help me unpack that phrase? What do you mean when you say the churches in the two thirds world are churches in their own right? What does that mean theologically?
What I mean is we have to go beyond the denominationalism that came about as the fruits of the Protestant Reformation. We are going to celebrate 500 years of the Protestant Reformation next year. But part of the churches are the we're looking at church. They were the mission, the missionaries planted in the Tudors. Where was they replicated, replicated, the denominational structures, their theological confessions and stuff. In the tutors world, so when we talk about African initiated churches, Asian initiated churches, local churches, emerging churches, these are real churches that emerged from the ground up in response to contacts, challenges, life experiences, they encounter the theological battles of Europe. confessional battles between reformed mainline Protestant Catholic orthodox are not really the issues that confront Christians in Africa, Asia and Latin America today. And we explain the explosion of the so called, you know, what we call African or Asian initiated churches, sometimes called independent churches, but they're not really independent and because no church is truly independent, all churches find the foundation of their faith in Jesus Christ.
I hear you say, Doctor, I hear you saying Dr. Tan, that global theology world Christian theology is a theology that's done with the conviction that all Christianity is ultimately contextual, and that this theology is being done from a world Christian perspective. Therefore, is it possible that we've been doing theology in a particularly Western way? And that in fact, the project of world Christian theology ought to expand beyond our categories of traditional theology.
That is possible I mean, questions and challenges arise much of the key ology that have emerged in Europe, looking from classical theology or say, a Gustin Aquinas In response, and then we move to say Martin Luther swingley Calvin Calabar. They were all responding to the social challenges, political challenges, cultural challenges of their times. Whether it's anti clericalism church and politics church and state. So likewise, in Africa, in Asia, in Latin America, faith and the development of faith and doctrine and theological reflections take on a very different color because we have to look at the challenges that Christians in Asia and Africa are facing, and see how they respond to that.
Dr. Tan what is one area of theological research that you would welcome new contributions on from a world Christian perspective?
I think it's the feel of ecclesiology the theology of church. This is a I think the time is right, to move beyond the denominational structures. That is the legacy of the reformation, and to rethink what it means to be a follower of Christ. Because I'm sure you're aware, I mean, Bill Dinah's latest book on emergent insider movements. And Simon Chang in his grassroots Asian theology. The last chapter of his book he, both dynast Chan and even myself too, we are interested to look at emergent movements, where there's this rise of this phenomenon in Africa and in Asia, a bunch of folks who believe in Christ, but not institutionally Christian. So like Chris lamb in Nigeria, the yes assassins are crushed back in India. You have in Japan, in Thailand, in all across Asia and Africa, this phenomenon, where they are followers of Jesus, they accept Jesus they accept the gospel, but they remain institutionally or and culturally, perhaps an African, Buddhist, Hindu. So how do we make of that? Because if we count them as followers of Jesus, then Jesus has a lot more followers. I think the challenge that ages Africa is facing is a tremendous and as groundbreaking and in fact, paradigm shifting the way when Paul made a major shift for the gospel message from a purely Jewish phenomenon into in his day and time, a global movement all across the Mediterranean, whereby the gospel of Jesus is not limited to a certain cultural or social or traditional approach, but it transcends that and he can be planted, he can emerge, he can take on different forms in different contexts. So we are seeing, I would argue, the kind of change that we saw with the first Pentecost and report, we need new language. We need new ways. We need new theological concept of saying, how do we include all these people who have chosen who have been inspired by Jesus and His gospel, but who feel no desire and no need to want to join a traditional Eurocentric denominational structure?
factor 10 tan, you are a Roman Catholic theologian. And so you are a member of the Christian church that probably has the greatest emphasis on institutional unity and institutional presence. How do you reconcile these things in your own mind? And how how do you understand theologically the diversity of streams of Christianity that we see around the world With the Roman Catholic claim that the church is absolutely one also institutionally?
Well, I mean, the theologically I mean, I would argue that the Catholic Church have shifted since Vatican two. I mean, in the old days, this notion of extra ecclesia nullah silos outside the church, there's no salvation. And the idea that the Catholic Church is absolutely the one true Church of the Holy Mother Church. But the I will add Vatican to the dogmatic constitution on the church, lumen gentium. article number eight, which speaks of the Church of Christ subsists in the Catholic Church, the phrase enlightening subsisted as, and that article goes on to say that there are also elements of truth. There are elements of church beyond the Catholic Church. Now conservatives in the Catholic Church, the traditionalist and others are very unhappy with that because seems to suggest that the Church of Christ is broader than average. The Catholic Church is one important manifestation of it, but the Catholic Church does not fully capture or encapsulate that. So that gives an opening to my mind that, that have the kind of openness that for example, you find with the current Pope Francis, who prefers to use the Bishop of Rome, rather than Pope and who has gone out of his way beyond what other Pope has done to interact with the Orthodox with Lutherans. In fact, on October 31, this year, he will be in Sweden, in loon to launch the 500th anniversary of the celebration of the Reformation. I mean, no Pope I would do that because but as you can see, so that kind of openness I think gives me hope And another point I want to add to the other thing that has really transformed the Catholic Church in Catholicism is the charismatic movement in Latin America, close to 20%, or something even more. Latin American Catholics are pentacle are charismatic. And same thing in Asia. The majority of Asian Catholics are charismatic. Now the charismatic movement transcends institutional boundaries. And that itself creates I think, new openings, new avenues for the kind of relationships and reconceptualizing Church in a manner that perhaps, you know, if we just look at just true Western gaze or Western filter, we might not see that So I would argue that the charismatic movement coupled with a more traditional Marian movements, that Marian devotion so for example, in India, in Asia, most of the devotees who go to the popular devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary, the program is sized, most of them are non Christians, but they participate in Catholic rituals. So, what we what we see is, is a kind of complexity and one of the one of the difficulties of trying to define the boundaries of Catholicism because, with the charismatic movement, with popular devotion to saints and married that, in a way the most of the adherents are not Catholics are not even Christian to begin with. And coupled with these major changes that's happening after Vatican two that that that suggests that we can look for the church Christ beyond the institutional boundaries of the Catholic Church, out of the Catholic church that is a is an important, the fluidity but not exclusive manifestation. I think it opens the floodgates to the kind of theological explorations that might lead to new insights for us today.
Dr. Tam, Chapter 17 of your text is an essay by Edmund key focaccia. And it is entitled inter church dialogue, global perspectives, in your view, sir, what are the real opportunities and the real challenges that the phenomenon of world Christianity brings to the ecumenical task?
I think the this phenomenon, I mean, they they when we look at church, to a global world perspective, we see new ways of interactions like for example, mentioned the charismatic movement. You know, I grew up in a more charismatic Catholic parish. You know, the youth groups that I attended were essentially ecumenical. The Bible studies that we did, were basically ecumenical. So even though it was, I mean, traditionally, at least institutionally a Catholic Parish, much of the music we use will, charismatic praise and worship music, Maranatha vineyard. We never use traditional Catholic hymns. You know, and most Catholic parishes around Asia, are charismatic, charismatic in orientation and so big, we go to each other's prime meetings, charismatic conventions, so on and so forth. So in that sense, what Christianity I think gives us a better lens rather than a lot a traditional cable theology or ecclesiology. That looks This purely from a Western Protestant Reformation filter where everything is seen as us versus them. And the challenges I think in in Asia where they are. So in a way Christianity is a minority religion, if we exclude the Philippines, and maybe it's Timo, Christianity is essentially a minority religion. So, which means, you know, the kind of ecumenical collaboration is really important. So, if you look at the chapter that you just cited by Edmund chair it he is to discuss in one of the subsections the phenomenon of Pentecostal and charismatic as it is mentioned, the challenges are trying to relate to them because they are institutionally diverse. They are not as you know, in a centimeter Have a word not as structured in a way. But I think perhaps their flexibility and their dynamism is what is their strength. And so there is a lot of truth in the fact that when you say Pentecostalism slash renewal Christianity we're denomination to be the largest denomination in the world, so that we don't look at it through that lens. And, and I think word Christianity allows us to see these global, transnational interlocking networks beyond traditional denominational structures. And looking at ecumenism not just in terms of denominations coming together and working together but new ways of being Christian.
Dr. Tan it's fascinating to hear you speak about the diversity and the unity of Christianity. We've been speaking about the diversity of Christian The entity how it may look and it's very different forms. Let's also address the unity of Christianity. What is it that makes the church the church in an essential form? How is it that these different forms of Christianity, Asian Christianity, Middle Eastern Christianity, all can represent the same body.
Ultimately, the center of the church has to be in must be Jesus, beyond whatever institutional affiliation or confession or loyalty, what unites churches across the globe, and we look at World Christianity, global Christianity is a reality the fact that all churches are ultimately communities of believers, with Jesus Christ as the center and the point that simple mix in his lattice in his in his pieces. To all the various local changes from current to glacier, to Rome. So I think if we move beyond denominational structure and theology, theological debates, and go back to the essentials, that what really matters is putting Jesus at the front, at the center at the beginning and at the end, that the gospel of Jesus, the good news that we share with our neighbors, the hospitality that we extend to everyone in the name of Jesus, I think that's what matters more than what theological confessions or debates. So if we use that as a starting point, I think we can go beyond the theological impasse of the Reformation and its legacy. And I would hazard a guess I would suggest, in fact, that Africans and Asians and Latin American Christians who do I have the baggage of the Reformation and the centuries of debates and quarrels, may be able to provide a way forward. new ways of conceptualizing church, new ways of relating to Jesus and His gospel and bringing that to the world today.
Dr. Tan if I can ask you, what is it that Christians, individual Christians can do today to pursue the real unity of the church,
I would suggest that Christians could learn to work together, led to collaborate Because ultimately, as I explained, you know, what really matters is what we do to the world, not what we do within our institutions. So if you could go out and collaborate and work together and that's what you see in in Africa and Asia, especially in Asia where they so much challenges that Christy face that, you know, you find a kind of ecumenical collaborations in many Asian countries, simply because there is usually a common enemy that you have to confront, whether it is nationalism, or xenophobia, or, you know, the kind of religion or religious populism. So you you find the kind of working together, collaborating together, standing united together. And I think that every individual Christians can do because it is not our institutional affiliation that ultimately saves us. It is our response to the gospel mandate. And not just simply Matthew 28 Great Commission, but also metric 25. What have you done, you know, also the challenge of the parable of the Good Samaritan who is my neighbor? What would what do we do to And all those we can do without necessarily reading to the institution we do it Christians as Christians.
Dr. Tam, can I close by asking you what are your current and future research projects? What might we see you writing in the near future?
Well, I'm looking at various aspects of world Christianity. So, and some of these you can see in my second Buddha, you you refer to it in the beginning of the interview Christian mission among the peoples of Asia. The last chapter of the book, you know, I look at two phenomenon, then of migration, and the other one is cyberspace. I would like to explore that further in my further in my future research, because we have always looked at theology as propositions as rational, critical discourse. But especially in Asia, Asia is where migration is has changed. Phase of Christianity. And I would like to explore what that means in the challenges or for migration, because seven out of 10 countries that will, will bang has referred to as countries with the most migrants sending people are in Asia. For example, in, in the so called Middle East, West Asia, Saudi Arabia, there are at least 1.5 million Catholics, primarily Filipinos and Asian Indians while working in the oil and hospitality or industries.
you know, you cannot openly plan a church or have a have a church in in Saudi Arabia. So, what does that mean? And essentially and why NYC was a where Muslims move into areas where it's a Christian population with Christian moving to places with significant Hindu presence of Muslim presence. What does it mean for both the Christian as well as the non Christians. So and this is not really a theological debate. So we cannot close the floodgates and say no migration, notwithstanding developments in Europe and for example, in the United States, where the kind of xenophobia and migrants, migration is part and parcel of being Christian today. And across cyberspace, too, with people going online with and especially in the in Asia, where, you know, what nourishes Christians in the Middle East where they're not allowed to have institutional congregation of our churches is the web. And so virtual meetings and whatnot. How do we rethink what does it mean to gather in a country like Saudi Arabia where you cannot gather for Sunday service, because it's against the law You cannot come in as a minister or pastor, but you can use the internet and they are using the internet. So I think this I think it goes back to your first question about doing theology. We have always done theology in the so called West Europe or North America. We do not realize it, but we are uncritically privileging our context, our social location, our debates, which is essentially we are still fighting battles that date back on the Reformation. And we are still trying to figure out what to do when we are looking at elements by secularism. And, and, you know, folks who stop going to church to know religions, those are important questions, but in the broader scheme of things, so we look globally, we see a very thriving Christianity the moment we go beyond Europe and North America, but this is the Christianity the tribe, in challenges in migration. In places where they are not allowed to open churches, but yet they are, they are united by social media, they're united by their faith. They are united by a kind of spiritual entrepreneurial lism where perhaps, you know, they're telling us something and we could draw new theological insights from this. Events, changes that are taking place right under our nose, if only we are prepared to doctor and, and see what they are doing. And then reflect on what the Spirit is doing or what, what the Spirit is trying to tell us today.
It's been our distinct honor to be speaking with Professor Jonathan Tam, Archbishop Paul J. Helen and Professor of Catholic studies at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, also the editor of the text that we've been discussing today, world Christian world Christianity, perspectives and insights. Thanks You so much, Dr. Tam, for being with us.
Thank you very much, Jonathan for the invitation to engage in the conversation on this book.