A focus on the future of interreligious dialogue in Asia, in the context of a marked increase in secularization and the potential for new conflicts gathered theologians from across Asia in mid February in India.
Loyola College (University of Madras) organized a conference on “Religions and Society in Asia Today.” Organized by two Jesuit theologians, Michael Amaladoss and Vincent Sekhar, participants came from all over India as well as from China, Indonesia, Malaysia, Sri Lanka, the Philippines, France and the USA.
Amalados and Sekhar together direct the ‘Institute of Dialogue with Culture and Religion” (IDCR) at Loyola College. IDCR is a close partner of the Xu-Ricci Dialogue Center at Fudan University (Shanghai), led together by the author (Benoit Vermander) with Prof. Li Tiangang.
Central to the discussion were approaches to social and cosmic “harmony” found in different Asian traditions, exploring the possibilities that such approaches provide for fostering creative peace-building.
What struck me most during the conference is that doing theology in Asian context is less about content than style. In Asia, this is actually how it should be: an authentic theological discourse is grounded in an experience of the way the Word of God has been received and made flesh in the midst of a community, an experience that it precisely endeavors to translate into the syntax, stylistic turns and metaphors proper to any language.
The development of an Asian theological style is intimately linked to the ambitions of the Federation of Asian Bishops' Conferences (FABC), a body created in 1970 of 22 national conferences stretching from Pakistan in the west to the Philippines in the east, from Korea in the north of Asia to Indonesia at the south of Asia.
The “FABC papers” series comprise more than 145 documents, which can be read as a patient search for in-depth sharing and consensus-building among nations who experience a dizzying variety of social, political and cultural challenges. If some theologians contributed decisively to the endeavor, no name can encapsulate it. Asian theology belongs to no one. In that respect, its construction process reflects the values and methods it defends.
Built on dialogue and consensus building, Asian theology promotes these same values. The FABC has consistently emphasized its preference for the dialogue as explained in Nostra Aetate, the Declaration on the Relation of the Church with Non-Christian Religions of the Second Vatican Council.
According to the Indian theologian Felix Wilfred: “In our context, dialogue must come first. In Asia, Christians are only a small minority. We dialogue through life situations with people of other faiths. Theology of harmony is part of the discussion and reflection on theology of dialogue.”
There are many approaches to dialogue, and an Asian way of entering into dialogue differs from the argumentative style that other civilizations prefer. What another Asian theologian, Raimon Panikkar, defined dialogue as “the optimism of the heart” suggests an openness beyond dialectical argument.
More than any specific topic, “optimism of the heart” offers a basis for present-day Asian theological endeavors. While exploring the interconnectedness of all sentient beings, Asian theology re-asserts that all human beings are “capable of God” as long as they experience and nurture the solidarity that links them with their fellow travelers and the whole of creation. Because it is dia-logical – a piercing of the logos – the Asian interreligious quest is truly theo-logical: an opening towards the perpetual novelty of God.