Erenlai - Displaying items by tag: christianity
Friday, 26 February 2010 00:00

Religions as languages

The remarkable diversity of religious expressions typical of South-East Asia has led to a focus on the interaction between the various faiths operating in the region. Such attention has been also fostered by the various ethno-religious conflicts that have developed, especially in the Philippines and Indonesia. If religious communities had to be agents of peace, the narratives on which they rely would play a role: creative interpretation of canonical narratives can stress peace and reconciliation; in the pluralistic situation of the Philippines’ southern island of Mindanao, some narratives play a mediating role by incorporating elements from different religious traditions; the sharing of stories (especially role-model stories) at the local grassroots level is by itself a factor of reconciliation.

At the theological level, some thinkers nowadays see hermeneutics not as a tool for redefining religious identities in the region but rather as a resource for challenging them. R.S Sugirtharajah says that “the task is seen not as adapting the Christian Gospel in Asian idioms, but as re-conceptualizing the basic tenets of the Christian faith in the light of Asian realities. … There is a willingness to integrate, synthesize and interconnect.” The need to connect with other believers in order to implement justice, peace and environmental concerns also plays a role in the “communication and interconnection” paradigm, which is strongly influenced by theologians such as Michael Amaladoss, Raimundo Panikkar, Paul Knitter and Aloysius Pieris. Of special relevance might be the concept of intra-religious dialogue as championed by Panikkar: one’s religion is very akin to a native tongue, and any religion is as complete as a language is. The discovery of the Other draws us out of our language and leads us to understand what its “words” mean to our religious partner. To enter another's world is a religious experience that engages a dialogue not only with the Other but also within our self.

In this approach, and other similar, the hermeneutics of inter-religious dialogue is not seen as a theological task among others but as the one that determines the future of Christianity in Asia and even the shaping of religious forms, identities and experiences in the world. South-East Asia is a place in which the intermingling and communicability of religious faiths is especially visible, which gives it a prominent role in the continuation of this global endeavour.

Photo courtesy of James Russell




Tuesday, 20 January 2009 04:09

Finding Words for Christianity in the Far East


The encounter between Christianity and East Asian languages, cultures and nations took place, for the main part, in the larger context of the confrontation between Western expansionism and societies meeting with a number of crises. The original conditions of the encounter still partly determine the relationship between Christianity and East Asian languages. However, this relationship was shaped not by historical factors only but also by the intrinsic difficulties encountered in translating the Christian worldview as elaborated in Europe throughout centuries with words, concepts and linguistic structures proper to East Asia.

Christianity as shaped by European tradition encountered the civilizations of Japan, China and Korea from 1550 on. Till the beginning of the nineteenth century, East Asian nations witnessed the arrival of mostly Catholic missionaries, whose lingua franca was Latin, though Portuguese (due to the patronage consented by the Pope to the King of Portugal) and other European languages were also used as communication and translation tools. Protestant missionaries arrived in the region around the beginning of the nineteenth century. Their linguistic policies had much to do with efforts developed for translating the Bible into vernacular languages and will therefore be sketched in Part II.

Jesuit missionaries in particular dealt directly with a variety of linguistic problems. Matteo Ricci (in China from 1583 till his death in 1610) took pains to write his apologetic works in elegant literary Chinese. In 1615, the Jesuits received from the Pope the permission to use vernacular language in the liturgy and to translate the Bible in classical Chinese. However, the development of the Rites Controversy prevented them from making use of this permission. Attempts made in Japan during the same period were also aborted. More generally, if apologetic and catechetical treaties in East Asian languages were numerous, the authoritative sources of Catholicism were still controlled by the use of Latin till the middle of the twentieth century. In the Catholic world, it is only with the foundation of the Fu Jen Faculty of Theology, in Taipei, that teaching and research were conducted in Chinese, starting in 1968. From that time on, the shift has been swift and complete.

In Korea, Christian use of the Hangul script enabled the spreading of the faith. As early as the end of the eigtheenth century, portions of the Gospels, doctrinal books and a hymnary appeared in this script. This was a challenge to the perceived cultural superiority of Chinese and a factor in the rise of literacy. In Taiwan, the influence of the Presbyterian Church is strongly linked to its early advocacy of the Taiwanese (minnan) language and romanization.

Protestant missionaries in the Far East saw the encounter between Christianity and Eastern languages mainly through the prism of Bible translation. An exploratory stage took place from 1820 to 1890, a time where full translations in Japanese and Chinese of both Testaments were completed. In 1919, the publication of the Mandarin Union Version, coinciding with the May Fourth Movement, was a lasting cultural and literary event. In Japan, authoritative Catholic and Protestant versions of the New Testament were published around 1910-1917. After 1960, new publications appeared, based on renewed scholarship. The first complete Chinese Catholic Bible was published in 1967 in Taiwan. In Korea, the Bible was newly translated for common use by both the Catholic and Protestant churches--the New Testament in 1971 and the Old Testament in 1977. Questions as to the reliability of these two translations have been raised; a Catholic Bible was been completed only in 2002.

Over the last thirty years of the twentieth century, Korean minjung theology has provided East Asia with an example of the importance of language issues in the crafting of a new Christian way of being. Though minjung roughly means “people”, the word is usually not translated in order to preserve the specificity of the historical experience it represents. Korean minjung theology pioneered extra-textual hermeneutics, insisting on popular rituals and expressions of feeling as a source of inspiration. Of special importance has been the stress put on kut, a shaman-like rite that makes the community as a whole gathering, resurrecting and offering sacrifice. Similarly, much writing has been devoted to han, the dominant popular feeling arising from “the suppressed, amassed and condensed experience of oppression.”(Suh Nan-dong) Such journey allowed for instance the Korean feminist Chung Hyun Kyung to write: ”I discovered my bowels are shamanistic bowels, my heart is a Buddhist heart and my head is a Christian head.” Though not as vibrant as was the case in the 1980s, minjung theology still provides a set of questions for East Asian Christianity as a whole:

From the middle of the sixteenth century on, the encounter between Christianity and East Asian languages and cultures was partly shaped by European expansionism, partly by the interaction between cultural-linguistic matrices proper to worldviews that had developed apart from each other. Biblical translation was a battleground on which religious inculturation slowly occurred. The determination of theological terminology also allowed for creative linguistic and cultural accommodation. Today, biblical, literary and extra-textual hermeneutics contribute to the reshaping of East Asian Christianity. The appropriation of Christianity by East Asian languages and cultures is ultimately an ongoing narrative told in many tongues.


Photo : Taipei Ricci Institute Archives

Wednesday, 26 November 2008 23:40

Tafalong, past and present

Tafalong is a traditional Amis village located nearby the township of Fata’an (Guangfu), in Hualien county – a township with which it entertains an healthy, deep-rooted rivalry... Working the land remains the main activity: cultures of betel nut, rice, sweet potato fruits and vegetables shape the surrounding landscape. Yield is rather good, and the first impression of the outsider entering the area is certainly one of a hard-working, moderately affluent population. Older people are slowly walking along the streets, speaking mainly Amis among themselves, while the wandering groups of schoolchildren speak only Chinese and seem to be spoken to solely in that language.

Tafalong keeps alive songs and legends describing the creation of the world and evoking spirits, genealogies and rituals. As in other Amis areas, the Yearly Offering ("Ilisin" – often translated in English as the Harvest Festival), taking place sometime in August, remains the biggest event of the year. In Fata’an and, to a lesser extent in Tafalong proper, the Offering now takes place on a large scale and has become a much-publicized touristic event. Its State-sponsored promotion may have gone along the loss of meaning that the one who watches it might experience – still, its long preparation unites the whole community, and everybody seems to get great fun out of it. In Sado, the very small size of a closely-knit community obviously concurs to better preserve the spirit and the ritualistic undertones traditionally attached to the festival: in this particular hamlet, during the three days event, men are chastised by the village chief if they did not meaningfully participate in community life during the year (the punishment consists in the drinking of a large bowl of rice wine), praised if they did so (such men are by far in the minority…). Young men’s initiation is still a commonly observed feature, though the way it is followed and performed varies from place to place.

In the still recent past, several shamans (or, more frequently, she-shamans.) were living in Tafalong. There is still one of them remaining in Sado, who also plays the role of a medium catering for the needs of Han people through Taoist rituals. Underlying shamanist creeds and practices are certainly present, but they are largely covered and transformed by Christian beliefs. The Catholic community is the most numerous and active, while two Protestant churches also enjoy a significant following. The faith brought from afar has been acculturated through songs, community bonding (there is a very active Catholic old women association) and well attended Sunday services celebrated at the same time in Amis and Chinese. Parish retreats and study sessions are an important part of village life. Japanese priests preaching to the elderly in the language they have learnt during their youth come to Tafalong once every year.

The term "kawas" refers at the same time to the Christian God and to the gods of the Amis tradition. Therefore, the shaman is usually called "Sikawasay", meaning the One who possesses a god. Spirits, demons and guardian angels are regularly invoked during all rituals. The invocation to the Ancestors is a basic part of traditional Amis rituals, and it is common to see Amis people offering some alcohol to the pictures of latter generation ancestors adorning the walls of their house, muttering to them a rapid prayer if they fear that trouble is brewing or that they have somehow behaved improperly. At the same time, the stress on ancestors and on their watchful presence is assimilated into Christianity without too much ado, especially by the Catholics, more accommodating in that respect than their protestant brethren.

Photo: B.V.

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