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Christianity's eldest son: an interview with father Peter Cho Phan.

Ordained a priest in Vietnam, fleeing to the U.S. in April '75 after the fall of Saigon, and finding a job in Texas as a garbage collector before becoming a theology professor art the University of Dallas--Peter Cho Phan is not your typical academic.

With about 70 people Ire had taken with him from Vietnam, Phan stayed for two and a half months in a refugee camp in Pendleton, California. He recalls, "When we moved to Dallas, we didn't even know where Texas or Dallas was, So we asked someone what the weather was like there, if it would he cold. He said no, so we said, 'OK.'"

By 1980 Phan chaired the theology department at Dallas and went on to do the same at the Catholic University of America. Three years ago he became the first nonwhite president of the Catholic Theological Society of America, and today he is the Ignacio Ellacuria Chair of Catholic Social Thought at Georgetown University.

Author of 11 books, his latest volumes comprise a series on Asian American theology from Orbis Books, including In Our Own Tongues (2003) and Christianity with an Asian Face (2003).

Many people are under the impression that Christianity is relatively new to Asia. Is this true?

Very often when you look at church history books they are written as if Jesus died and the apostles all picked up and moved to Rome. But there is a lot of history between the life of Jesus and the emergence of the Roman Catholic Church that is rarely mentioned, partly because we do not have many written records. But we do know for a fact that the first nation to declare itself Christian was the state of Oshroene at the end of the third century. The next state was Armenia, also way before Rome did.

The first Christians in Asia were Syrians. We now call them Nestorians, after Nestorius, a bishop in the fifth century. They went east through Asia, particularly to India. By the sixth or seventh century we know that some Nestorian Christians reached Xian, the ancient capital of China.

In the 13th century some Franciscans came to Asia, but the major missionary activity occurred in the 16th century. The Jesuits were first in this wave, then the Franciscans, Dominicans, Augustinians, and then in the late 17th century came members of the Society of Foreign Missions of Paris.

The Protestants came later, in the 19th century, mostly from America and Germany. So Christianity in Asia is both Catholic and Protestant, in addition to Orthodox and Pentecostal. However, statistics show the largest number of Asian Christians are Catholic, with about 130 million members.

What happened to the Asian Christianity of the past?

Most of the Syrian Christianity had disappeared by the 10th century--there were no traces of it. But we are now trying to recover these Asian roots of Christianity.

For example, in many of my writings I talk about different ways of interpreting the Bible. There is one Western way that has become dominant, almost normative, in the West. We call it the historical-critical method. But that is not the only way to interpret the Bible. In Asia we had many other methods--the Syriac Church's method, for example--and we need to recover those methods in order to be much more faithful to our Asian context.

Some churches of the early Asian Christians continue to this day, like the St. Thomas Christians who are in India and even have a small branch in the U.S. But most of the early Christian groups have disappeared.

In the 16th century, when Christianity came back to Asia, it came in European, Western garb, and it came with colonialism. So Christianity in Asia has this heavy burden of the past, of colonialism and imperialism.

One reason I think Syrian Christians who came to China in the seventh century disappeared is because they were very much associated with the T'ang Dynasty, which was the most glorious Chinese dynasty. When the T'ang Dynasty ended by the beginning of the 10th century, that branch of Asian Christianity disappeared as well.

It is a key lesson for us to learn that when the church is closely aligned with a government and that government passes away, then we are also in serious trouble.

What are some of the ways that Asian Christians have combined their native and traditional customs with Christianity?

The veneration of ancestors is the most well-known. In these rituals people offer food, flowers, cloth, and things like that to their ancestors.

In the 16th century, Matteo Ricci, the Jesuit missionary who died in 1610, wrote in his diaries of the practice of veneration of Confucius and veneration of the ancestors. Ricci questioned whether these veneration practices should be allowed for Chinese who become Christians. He concluded they should be allowed because the rituals are not religious but simply a manifestation of piety toward the dead or a lesson to teach the living children to honor their parents.

However, by the middle of the 17th century, when the Dominicans came to China--up to that point China was exclusively the mission territory of the Jesuits--they also confronted this issue and decided that it was superstitious and wrong. They thought that the people believed the ancestors were actually present in the tablet, a piece of wood in which the names of the dead are written.

They reported this to Rome, and the practice was condemned until 1939. This was referred to as the Chinese Rites Controversy. Seven popes engaged in the debate; the last pope to condemn veneration was Pope Benedict XIV.

Today the problem is resolved because in 1932, in Japan, there was an incident in which students of a Jesuit university there passed by a memorial for dead soldiers and refused to bow to show respect. Many government officials were upset by this.

So the director of the university asked the government: "What is meant by this ritual?"And the government minister wrote back and said,"This is not a religious thing. It is simply a civil and patriotic act." So Rome accepted this explanation and said it can be allowed.

Today in most Asian countries, Catholics have an altar to the ancestors in their homes. They make offerings of incense, food, and gifts, particularly on the anniversary of their death, on the marriages of their children, and on the New Year.

In Vietnam we now have a new Mass and new prayers to celebrate the memory of the ancestors. Now this is very important for Asians, particularly Asians who live in a Confucian culture. This ritual manifests one of the most fundamental virtues of Asians, the virtue of filial piety, which is just as important as the virtue of love or charity.

After three centuries of very painful, terrible controversies ancestor worship has become again something that Asian Catholics can practice.

How has the Asian virtue of filial piety influenced your theology?

In my work I have developed a Christology based on the idea of veneration of ancestors. Some Indian theologians talk about Jesus as a guru, Jesus as a manifestation of God, and so forth. And some even propose the idea that Jesus is also considered as the Buddha, the Enlightened One.

In the ritual of ancestor veneration, the role of the elder son is central. It falls upon him to initiate and perform these rituals. Because I come from a Confucian background, I ask whether Jesus can be described as the first son. In the scriptures you find references to Jesus as the eldest, the first-born, but it's not always in the context of veneration of ancestors.

Many people imagine Jesus as the high priest, performing the liturgy for the church. In the same way, I imagine him as the eldest son performing these rites of the ancestors, those who have gone before him--his father, his mother.

The second idea I developed is that Jesus himself is an ancestor. And again, scripture, particularly Paul's Letter to the Romans, has very explicit statements about Jesus as the new Adam, the new progenitor of the human race.

So he is indeed the new ancestor to all of us. When we Christians today worship Jesus, we do so in his name, but we also worship him directly, we confess him as our Savior and Lord. And so I tied in that worship with the veneration of Jesus as an ancestor. It makes sense to the people who come out of that tradition.

What are some religious customs in Asia that are different from those we have in the U.S.?

There are a lot of rituals we do at the New Year's Day of the lunar calendar. For us it's the most important celebration. First of all, you go and pay respect to your parents, if they are alive.

The parents sit in chairs and the children bow in front of them and wish them happiness and many more years. And the parents give the child a gift, good luck money in a red envelope.

In the Catholic Church we also go to church on the first day of the year, and the Mass is offered to God, to give thanks to God and wish God a happy New Year.

We also have a ritual at weddings when the bride is welcomed into the house of the groom. One of the sacred moments is when the groom and the bride stand in front of the family altar and perform a ritual of bowing--three deep bows with incense in their hands. In that way the new bride is introduced to the family--not only to the living members but the dead as well. She's now woven into the whole history of the family.

How does the Asian idea of harmony complement Catholicism?

In Catholicism we believe in the communion of saints. And recently we have rediscovered the theology of the church as a communion of churches. This idea was renewed at the Second Vatican Council.

The Asian concept of harmony is parallel to this. Harmony is central in Asian philosophy. Most everyone is familiar with the concept of yin and yang--the positive/negative, male/female, light/ dark. In this concept, the two parts do not destroy the other. If one destroys the other, it cannot survive itself. It's the same thing with life and death.

Harmony is not uniformity. It's not everybody or everything becoming the same, becoming one. There is the element of difference in harmony. Difference is essential to the well-being of harmony.

Harmony is the working out of the conflict between the elements, and these different elements must be kept in tension with each other. The best person is the person who can combine both male and female, light and dark, qualities. Then the body is healthy because the body has the balance of all the elements.

For harmony to exist in the church, the church must recognize that differences are essential to its well-being, that a person in India doing something different from what a person does in Rome is not something to fear, but something to be promoted, because that would foster the well-being of the church itself.

What difference did Vatican II make in Asia and with Asian Americans?

In my book In Our Own Tongues, I survey the impact Vatican II had on Asia. At Vatican II, most of the Asian bishops were expatriates, missionaries from the West, not natives of Asia. So the Asian heritage and church were not very clearly present in the council. Actually, Vatican II was very much dominated by Europeans and some Latin Americans, but few Asians.

But after Vatican II there was a very strong and wide reform in India, the Philippines, and all the Asian countries. First of all, to translate the documents for the Asian populations was a tremendous task. It was not just a matter of looking in a dictionary and finding the equivalent words, because many of the words in Latin do not have corresponding terms in Asian languages. Therefore, it required a lot of creative adjusting of the text.

The second thing to note is the liturgical renewal in many countries. The liturgical renewal took on a lot of local elements, particularly prayers, rituals, and music. I already mentioned the veneration of ancestors, but a lot of other religious and cultural practices were brought into the liturgy as well.

The way the churches saw themselves also changed dramatically. The church now is seen very often as a communion of churches. Asian bishops have used a common expression: "The church is a communion of communions."

But the most important event that marked the impact of Vatican II is the 1998 Asian Synod. That was the first time that the Asian bishops came to Rome as one body.

What are the problems and challenges facing the Asian church today?

The greatest challenge for the Christian churches is the questions of mission--to be sent by God to the local people for the reign of God. How can you be an agent of God's mission in Asia?

The Asian bishops keep repeating that we have to do three things: dialogue with the people, especially the poor; dialogue with the other religions; and dialogue with the cultures themselves. And dialogue is not talking, dialogue means four things: living together, common life together; working together, common action; sharing religious experiences, common worship; and then--and only then--theological exchange. The theological exchange is a task for scholars after they have real feedback from the people.

In more practical terms, in Asia there are three communist countries, China, Vietnam, and North Korea. How can the church in these countries bear witness to Christ in the midst of communism?

Another problem confronting the church in Asia is that some of the countries do not allow evangelization. For example, in Indonesia, Malaysia, Afghanistan, and Pakistan it is sometimes forbidden to explicitly preach and proclaim Christ.

The Catholic missions of the 16th through 19th centuries were focused on converting the people to Christianity. Is that still the goal?

In the past when people heard the term mission, they thought of foreign missions that would send people to China or to Africa to convert people.

Today when we talk about mission we talk not primarily of foreign missions, but of the question: What is the church supposed to do?

Missio in Latin means "to be sent" To be sent for what? Who sent you? To whom? And how do you go about it? Theologians began saying that who sent you is God--not the pope and not the bishop, but God. The mission is God's mission that he sent his son Jesus and the Holy Spirit to realize in the world. We Christians continue that mission of God.

To whom is the mission directed? Not simply the so-called pagans, as we thought before, but to all people, to humanity. This is the new understanding, that a mission also includes mission to Christians.

So who sent us? God did. To whom? To the whole world. For what? To realize the reign of God. It's not just simply to go and make the church bigger, make the church more numerous, wealthier, better known, but to really work for the reign of God, which is the reign of justice, of peace, of love, of reconciliation--all these things that the scripture talks about.

And the ways that the mission is carried out are the pillars of Asian theology today--inculturation, interreligious dialogue, and liberation.

Inculturation is dialogue and interchange with Asian cultures. Interreligious dialogue is interchange with Asian religions. And liberation is interchange with Asian people, especially the poor.

Many would say that a mission without a goal of conversion implies that all religions are equal. Isn't religious pluralism frowned upon in the Catholic Church?

When people hear the term religious pluralism, there is a negative knee-jerk reaction. Does it mean that every religion is the same? Does it mean that all religions are equal? That everything goes? Of course not.

There are some theologians who would argue that Christianity is simply one of the many paths to God. But most Catholics would reject this. What they would say, however, is that today religion is everywhere in many forms. There are many kind of religions, and so we ask: Is this something that belonged to the plan of God? Or is it something that comes out of human sinfulness?

A lot of Catholic theologians, such as the Belgian theologian Jacques Dupuis and myself, would argue that the plurality of religions is not just simply something that happened by chance, but that it's in the plan of God. God wants this plurality of ways.

Obviously as a Christian I would say that this plan is centered in Jesus. That's why I do not say that all religions are the same--and neither would followers of other religions. They would claim that their religion is better than ours, otherwise they wouldn't remain Hindu or Buddhist. But I as a Christian believe that Christianity is God's plan, and this plan also includes all the other religions as well.

That's a newer theology of religion. I suggest that this religious pluralism is something that God wants.

RELATED ARTICLE: One God of all.

I believe that the God of Judaism, the God of Islam, the God of Christianity, and all other religions is one and the same God. God is manifest in different ways to different people.

Recently Time magazine ran an article in which the author talked about God and Allah as if they were two different Gods. I wrote a letter to the editor, saying, "This is terrible. Allah is not another God. Allah is simply the ARabic translation of the word God."

And when you use God as opposed to Allah you indeed create a division, a division that is absolutely false. This division causes great animosity between the two faiths.

i pointed out in the letter, which by the way was never published, that Christians in Arabic countries use the word Allah in the liturgy. So when christians pray to God the "Our Father," they use Allah.

In that sense that is the one God that we worship as Jews, Muslims, Christians, or Hindus--one and the same God.

Now I have to add that doesn't mean that theologies that we Christians, Jews, Muslims, or Hindus have developed about God are the same. Not all.

Muslims sometimes don't are monotheistic. When we say, "Father, Son, and Holy Spirit," some see that as worship of three separate Gods.

But the one God, the God of Jesus, the God of Abraham, and the God that Muhammad worshiped, is the same God.

--Peter C. Phan

RELATED ARTICLE: Latin American liberation theology and Asian theology.

Asian liberation theologians have very explicit knowledge of their indebtedness to Latin liberation theology. But having acknowledged that, we point out very quickly that in Asia you cannot simply use the kind of social-scientific, often Marxist, analysis of the economic and political situation.

That analysis is certainly helpful, but in Asia there's a second element that needs to be taken into account, namely the presence of other world religions there.

You could say, as the Jesuit theologian Aloysius Pieris did, that in Asia the poor are religious and the religious are the poor. And therefore, beyond social analysis, to understand poverty we need to have some other system of knowledge to understand Asian religion.

We need to take into account the work of listening to the spiritual masters, for example, a Hindu guru or Buddhist monk or Zen roshi--or any other teacher that gives us insight into the human condition, human existence, human life.

And the third element is the variety of cultures. So there must be some way of understanding the cultural and religious, in order to understand the socio-political and economic factors.

So yes, Asian liberation theology has learned from Latin America, but it has also moved quite beyond that.

--Peter C. Phan
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Article Details
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Title Annotation:theology professor at the University of Dallas
Author:Dix, Tara K.
Publication:U.S. Catholic
Article Type:Interview
Geographic Code:9VIET
Date:Jun 1, 2004
Previous Article:His Own Troubles.
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