Seventh Congress of Asian Theologians –CATSV11
2-6 July 2012
I was privileged to be one, along with Rev Prince Devanandan, of 54 participants selected to attend this Congress sponsored by the Christian Conference of Asia.
My reasons for applying to attend were that the Auckland parish in which I am located has a growing membership from Asian countries, and my desire to be more informed about contemporary Asian theology. Since the demise of CCANZ, there has not been the same visibility in Aotearoa for the radical, postcolonial theology that has been the hallmark of CCA.
I have not engaged with Asian theologies since my doctoral studies in San Francisco 20 years ago. My visits to Asian countries have been brief – 2 day stopovers en route to somewhere else, and a week-long visit to semi-rural Japan 11 years ago when my daughter was teaching English.
So this was an opportunity for me to expand my horizons in every respect.
From the moment of stepping off the plane at Incheon International Airport to boarding the homeward flight at Shanghai I was on sensory alert. And what a feast of sights, sounds, smells, emotions and experiences it was.
The weight of monsoon rain which greeted us, the hot but not too hot air temperatures, the warm friendly welcome from Congress stewards, the stimulating conversations that began in the arrivals forecourt of the airport, and continued throughout the week, as well as the rigorous theological reflection all contributed to the richness of the experience.
The Methodist Theological University hosted the congress, providing generous and gracious hospitality. Korean and International students from the university were stewards at the Congress, not only ensuring that we were in the right place at the right time , but photographing everything, accompanying us on brief sightseeing trips, answering questions, interpreting, providing entertainment, and much more.
Congress participants came from Aotearoa, Australia, Bangladesh, Hong Kong, India, Indonesia, Japan, Korea, Malaysia, Myanmar, Pakistan, Philippines, Sri Lanka, Taiwan, Thailand, USA, and the Ukraine. International students came from countries as diverse as Fiji, Cuba, Mexico, and Niger, all recipients of generous scholarships from the Methodist Theological University.
A women's forum preceded and reported to the Congress. Some members of the CCA General Committee and some male participants expressed dis-ease with the continuation of the tradition of the Women's Forum. However, young female theologians affirmed the need for such a gathering, in which they could find support and encouragement, and meet with other women theologians from the region. The statement from the women's forum encouraged churches and theological institutions to address gender justice, not only in the institution but also in family and community. It also drew attention to the fact that associating the embodiment of hospitality with women could lead to exploitation and commodification of women and the sexualisation of understandings of hospitality. On more than one occasion, challenges were issued to the men at the congress to consider holding a men's forum, where they might address issues of men's health, family violence, power and control, inclusivity, to name a few.
We New Zealanders were each invited to take up some roles during the congress. Prince moderated both the panel discussion on "Inter-religious Relations" and the thematic issues group "Gender Issues". I was invited to facilitate the morning worship on the second day of the Congress. In addition, all invited participants were invited and encouraged to prepare discussion papers for their choice of discipline and thematic issue groups. As I had selected the discipline of Homiletics and Liturgy, and the thematic issue "Migration & Multi-cultural Society" I prepared a discussion paper using Pitt St Methodist Church as a case study. (This paper is available on request from the Auckland Central Parish office)
Theme presentations, panel discussions, worship, discipline groups, thematic issues groups and plenary sessions explored the Congress theme from a variety of aspects, including Theology of Tao, Eucharistic Hospitality from an Orthodox perspective, inter-faith relationships, ecological justice, the experience of migrant workers, what it means to be the household of God. The importance of context, indigeneity, and day to day reality undergirded all reflection. Critique of received "western" Christian theology and ideologies, especially that which had elements of triumphalism and superiority and was disrespectful of ancient traditions and ways of life, is essential in this postcolonial era, as is the need to be alert and resistant to new forms of colonisation.
Korean theologian Rev Dr Heup Young Kim, in his opening presentation, set the tone for four days of robust theological engagement. He used personal experience and theological reflection to both highlight the contradictions in the received European Christian tradition, and to suggest a new model of theology, a Theology of Dao. In the former, he reminded us of the way in which, in an age of imperialism and Christian expansion, western Christians frequently repaid the hospitality of host (indigenous) peoples with violence, even genocide. He proposed that, for Asian Christians, a theology of the Way (Tao), in which the practice of hospitality is relational and harmonious, characterised by an attitude of respect and reverence, and is a more appropriate theological option than either classical or more contemporary liberationist theologies.
A highlight for me was the "exposure visit" to the Korean Women's Centre for Equality and Peace. This centre was established 25 years ago, with significant fundraising to build the centre. The centre includes offices and resources for Women Church, the Korean Association of Women Theologians, Women Making Peace, Korea Association for Women Minjung, Dignity in the Military, and other organisations. The Korean Association of Women Theologians has a membership of about 100, and publishes a bi-annual Journal of Korean Feminist Theology. In response to a question from one of the visiting male theologians about whether the journal was also published in English, the reply was that the subscriber base in Korea was large enough to sustain publication without an English language version.
Another highlight was the panel presentation by Rev Kanan Kitani, a young Japanese pastor and theologian. She gave a powerful testimony to the need for the decommissioning of nuclear power plants and the use of alternative renewable energy sources, using the Fukushima experience as the basis of her reflection.
Yet another presenter proposed that the word "religion", imposed as a descriptor by western/Eurocentric philosophy is not an adequate word to use to describe what for Asian peoples is a way of life. This applies equally to Moslem, Christian, Confucian, Hindu, Buddhist or whoever. Such recognition of different "ways of life" could lay the ground for authentic and respectful relationship, and an end to religious triumphalism and superiority.
As with any such events, there were some prickly moments. A young female scholar from India drew a sharp response in a discussion group when she offered a critique of contextual theology, suggesting that comparative theology now needed to be an essential method of theological engagement. In a plenary session, the question was raised about "who is a theologian?', in other words, who may attend such a Congress? This identified some familiar and ongoing tensions between academic theologians and theologian practitioners, and whether or not an individual can only claim to be a theologian if he or she has a mainstream publication record and teaches in a tertiary institution.
I am grateful for the encouragement and support I received both from CCA and from Te Haahi Weteriana o Aotearoa to attend the Congress. I hope that as a church we will be intentional in future about ensuring participation in this and other CCA events.
In Aotearoa of the south
And Korea of the north,
In the east and in the west,
In all the countries from which we have come,
The name of God is echoed far.
In village, town and city,
In the places we call our home,
The name of God is echoed far.
On mountain tops,
In plains and valleys,
The name of God is echoed far.
In farmlands and in forests,
In marketplaces and in shopping malls,
The name of God is echoed far.
In committee meetings and in congress,
In casual conversations,
The name of God is echoed far.
In synagogue and mosque,
In temple and in church,
The name of God is echoed far.
In our longing for peace,
In our cries for justice,
In our hope for humankind to be as one,
The name of God is echoed far.
May all that we think and say and do, this day and every day
Echo the love and compassion of God. Amen.
Embracing and Embodying God's Hospitality Today - Prince Devanandan's Report
This was the theme of the VIIth conference of the Congress of Asian Theologians held from 30 June to 5th July 2012. The hosts were the Methodist Theological University (MTU) in Seoul. MTU has a student roll of 1500, Undergraduates 800 post graduates 700 and 35 teaching staff. The university is situated in beautiful setting on a hill in the mid town. I was told that 70 % of the students would get employed by the church when they pass out. Others opt for higher studies or go abroad. There are about 50 international students currently studying.
70 theologians (of which 24 women and 46 men) from all over Asia, Australia and Aotearoa met together under the theme of Embracing and Embodying God's Hospitality in the VIIth Conference of the Congress of Asian Theologians. I learnt that there were over 250 applicants expressing interest to participate in this conference. Lynne Frith and I were privileged to be chosen by the organisers to attend the conference from New Zealand.
The conference began with an opening worship. While Rev. Dr. Hong Ki Kim, the president of the MTU led the sermon, Rev. Dr. Henrietta Hutabarat Lebang general secretary of CCA and Rev. Dr. Sung Mo Moon chairperson of the Korean Association of Theological Schools welcomed the delegates and shared the greetings of their institutions.
Each day started with morning devotion followed by a theme talk by one of the invited speakers. Lynne Frith led the devotions on the second day with good Aotearoa flavour. The topics addressed were:
i. Embracing and Embodying God's Hospitality Today in Asia – Rev. Dr. Heup Young Kim
ii. Eucharistic Hospitality from a Christian View Point – Dr. Antoine Arjakovsky
iii. God's Hospitality on the Perspective of Inter Religious Relations – Dr. Thomas Thangaraj
iv. God's Hospitality on the Perspective of Ecological Justice – Rev. Dr. Ivy Singh
Dr. Heup Kim drew insights from Confucius' theories and contextualized God's hospitality from Asian point of view. He quoted the beginning of Analects of Confucius: "Is it not a pleasure, having learned something, to try it out at due intervals? Is it not a joy to have friends come from afar? Is it not gentlemanly not to take offence when others fail to appreciate your abilities?" Dr. Heup drew parallels between Christian understanding and Confucius' teachings. He further contended that "Aggressive Christians misled the innocent Christian faith of a new convert, ignorant in theology and used Christian hospitality as a means for triumphant evangelism and mission." Relating to the American Church History, Dr. Heup said … [the church] was built on the bloody sacrifice of Native Americans who welcomed the migration of European Christians and showed extraordinary hospitality to welcome these strangers to settle in the new land. In return for the hospitality of these native hosts, these Christian guests not only brutally killed an expelled them, but also confiscated their lands to become self-claimed hosts of the so-called continent of the great 'discovery' of the new world." In conclusion Dr. Heup drew the attention of the participants to a new paradigm of theology: a theology of Dao (Theo-tao). "The notions of Christian hospitality corrects the defective habit of Western Christian thinking since its contextualization with Greek thought … the Christian notion of hospitality endorses that a theology of the Tao (way) is a more proper theological option than classical, dogmatic logos-theologies and modern, liberationist praxis-theologies." Though Dr. Heup's argument appears to be more critical of the western theology he presented and alternate Asian version of hospitality as the way for Christian faith to be practiced.
On Eucharistic hospitality, Dr. Antoine Arjakovesky presented Eucharistic hospitality as a way of life. His argument was more on inclusiveness at Eucharistic table as a way of expressing God's hospitality. He stated: "… ecumenism is based upon the ecclesiology of baptism, Eucharist and pastoral ministry, not on a conceptual ecclesiology, but on a corporal one, which allows for various types of ecclesial consciousness in order to direct all members to the Kingdom."
Speaking on "Embodying God's Hospitality in a Multi Religious World," Dr. Thomas Thangaraj drew insights from ancient Tamil poetry of Thirukural that dates back to 1st century CE. According to this poetry hospitality is defined as the ultimate purpose of living as a householder … then describes the benefits of practicing hospitality, namely the blessings of the goddess of wealth and a welcome by the gods in heaven offering their hospitality. In addressing how we may embrace and embody God's hospitality Dr Thangaraj stated that "our hospitality should foremost be a grateful response to God's own hospitality toward the whole creation… we have been slow to recognize the spiritual wealth that Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims, Sikhs and others bring to us. We develop a sense of self-sufficiency with the given Christian tradition that we fail to be guests at the rich table of religious plurality." Dr. Thangaraj quoted the words of Dr. Wesley Ariarajh's in his conversation with Dr. Visser't Hooft: "your generation had to move from the theological hostility to theological neutrality about the faith of our neighbours. Our generation needs to move beyond neutrality." In conclusion Dr. Thangaraj said that the story is about a boy who went as a guest to the mountainside to listen to the teaching of Jesus. He was transformed into a host. He offered his five loaves and two fish to Jesus and thus became a host of five thousand or more people that day – a miracle of transformation. When we are mutual hosts in settings of interfaith encounters, we can boldly expect miracles of transformation to happen. And miracles will!
Rev. Dr. Ivy Singh's theme presentation was on "God's Hospitality on the Perspective of Ecological Justice." She began by saying human induced climate change threatens to create an unmanageable environmental crisis during this century. She also drew the attention to rising sea level and the modernity (high consumption pattern) becoming a threat to the sustainability of nature. She also stated the issues such as climate justice, eco-justice concerns and the negative impacts of capitalism on these concerns. As an alternate to this situation Dr. Singh spoke about "Re-visioning Hospitality as a Green Theological Paradigm. It is an alternative consciousness that creates new challenges and provides new directions. … God's hospitality is not restricted within the church, rather extended to neighbours of other faiths and cultures and God's entire creation. She added further that God's hospitality is for Greening of the Church and challenged the practice of the church at various levels.
- In addition to the theme presentations there were panel sharing on the following topics:
- Household of God – Embracing our Neighbours
- Inter-religious Relations
- Ecological Justice
Theologians from various Asian and Australian contexts presented short papers on these subjects and participated in discussion.
I was invited to facilitate the panel sharing on Inter-religious Relations. There were two presenter; one a Buddhist and the other a Muslim. Out of the two, the presentation by the Muslim raised too many questions for discussions. Many of them were addressing the area of Islamic Fundamentalism. The presenter who belongs to progressive Islamic movement of Nahdatul Ulama Indonesia discussed the issues openly and drew the attention to various interpretations. It was a good thing to see this Muslim scholar staying for the entire conference and participating in the discussions. There was very little focus on Buddhism and it appeared that people were not interested in discussing the Buddhist perspective.
INTER DISCIPLINARY DISCUSSION GROUPS
There was one session in which inter disciplinary discussions were held in groups. The topics included were Biblical Studies, Contextual Theologies, Homiletics and Liturgy, Mission and Culture, and Religious Education. I participated in Mission and Culture. The discussions were lively addressing the theological issues in present day Asia. They were particularly focussed providing hospitality to the stranger and the alien.
Two presenters: Kanan Kitani and Judy Chan shared their papers.
Kanan's paper focused on "Welcoming New Christian Members to Society and its Potential Impact on the Japanese Church." The second presentation by Judy Chan focused on "Welcoming the Stranger: Christian Hospitality to Refugees and Asylum Seekers in Hong Kong".
Both presenters gave the pictures from two different contexts, but the common issue was welcoming the strangers. The paper from Hong Kong highlighted the lack of hospitality on the part of the people in the church as well as outside while the paper from Japan pointed to the re-integration of the returning Brazilians in Japan.
GROUP DISCUSSIONS ON THEMATIC ISSUES
Group Discussions on thematic issues were under the following topics:
- Migration and Multi Cultural Society
- Christian Unity
- Inter-religious Relations
- Peace and Conflict Resolution
- Ecological Justice including Nuclear Energy
- Gender Issues
A variety of issues were discussed in these groups and they brought the reports to the plenary. Though I indicated my interest as Inter-religious relations and Christian Unity, the organisers asked me to co chair the group on Gender Issues. Asia being a very strong patriarchal society, finding a man to co chair gender issues became a critical one. The organisers had confidence in me. I tried my best to be sensitive to the issues in co chairing with a woman from Indonesia. These discussions gave me an opportunity to learn issues from different cultures and practices. When I mentioned that I studied feminist theology as a subject, it was unbelievable for the Asian women. How come a man study feminist theology was a question for some of the women as it does not happen normally. Most of the time the problems discussed was the way women are treated in society. The group agreed that it is imperative to educate men to overcome the prevailing situation.
CHURCH SERVICE ON SUNDAY 1 JULY
Those of us who were at the MTU on Sunday morning were guided to the Saemoonan Presbyterian Church of Korea for the service. The church was established by a missionary, P. J. Underwood. This was the first organised church in Korea dating back to 1886. The service of Holy Communion was in Korean language with a simultaneous translation in English via headphones.
The choir alone must have been a 200 member group sitting on either sides of the sanctuary. After the service an elder took us on a guided tour of the museum of the church. He explained various parts of history. The total membership of the parish church now is 13,000. The space in the church is not enough. Therefore over the next two years, the existing church to be demolished to build a larger church that would accommodate more people in the service. During the construction work for 2 years, the congregation will meet in the chapel of the MTU for worship. After the service we were taken for a guided tour through the city centre where the historical places are. It was a wonderful experience to learn a little of Korean history and the life of the church amidst it.
THE EXPOSURE VISIT
Exposure visits were organised for the Wednesday afternoon to visit various ministries in Seoul. I was in the group that visited the Anglican Cathedral in Seoul. The Cathedral itself is a very traditional building with Roman architecture resembling a basilica. The deacon and the Vicar explained to us the kind of ministries that are delivered from the Cathedral parish. They are very much the usual pastoral ministries. In addition the Cathedral is running a cafe in the premises. The women who work in this cafe are all from North Korea who came as refugees by crossing the border. While they work for the cafe, it provides an opportunity for these women to earn a living.
On our way to the Cathedral I was shown the first Methodist Parish in Korea with a church and a school for girls run by the Methodist Church. The students from MTU who guided the group told us that when the Methodist Church started a school for girls it was the first in the country. Average Korean family was hostile to educate girls in the 1880s. So the first girls who received education were orphans, destitute and children of the sex workers. The parish church and the school for the girls continue to serve the community after 125 years.
Before entering the Anglican Cathedral of Saints Mary and Nicholas, the palace of the last Korean king is on the left side of the Cathedral. While we walked towards the Cathedral, it was 2.00 pm and the change of guard at the top of the hour at palace gate was about to take place. So the group stopped to watch the entire show if I may call it. The Palace is not the residence for a king anymore, but a tradition of the change of guard is in place as a way to attract the tourists. While the traditional marching and band music takes place a commentary in English explained every step of the show. The final part of it concluded with the outgoing guards handing over a box that contains the keys of the palace to the incoming guard.
I was asked to give the reflection in the closing worship. I drew the attention of all the participants to work towards transforming the outcome of the conference into practical ministries in their contexts. Many people welcomed this thought.
Reports from various groups were collated and the CATS Committee came up with a statement (attached to this report). The conference as a whole helped me to become aware of the theological issues that are in focus in relation to contemporary issues. The presentations by the speakers helped me to understand the issues from different contexts. The discussion in the formal groups and the informal conversations with various participants opened the doors to build new lines of communications on specific issues. One of the theme presenters, Rev. Dr. Heup Young Kim has shown interest in visiting New Zealand and to give speeches on Christianity and Taoism.
I also built networks with the staff of MTU. One of it is to ask for a scholarship to a minister in Solomon Islands who is awaiting to do his Masters in Theology. The MTU President was open to the idea and instructed his PA to give me the necessary forms. I will hand over these to the Moderator of the United Church Solomon Islands when I meet him in Adelaide next week.
I thank Te Taha Maori for the generous financial assistance given to me through the Travel and Study grant for me to attend this conference. If not for their support it would not be possible for me to receive the education and experience of this conference. The learning has certainly enhanced me in my work with Mission and Ecumenical as well as my teaching role at the Trinity Theological College.
Secretary – Mission and Ecumenical
12 July 2012