Interreligious Dialogue in Asia: A look at the past to understand the future
Over the last decades interreligious dialogue in Asia has faced some tough challenges. Even though many religious leaders, organizations and thinkers have been working constructively and efficaciously, at the popular level religions often limit themselves to coexisting rather than engaging in dialogue and collaboration. Besides, tensions and conflicts, both short- and long-term, continue to be all too frequent.
Two reasons explain the difficulties that are faced in this field. First, conflicts are very rarely “simply” religious: they are generally mixed with ethnic, political, economic and social factors. Second, believers instinctively tend to underline the specificity of their own creeds and their own style of life, rather than allowing other experiences of faith to be expressed together with theirs. Yet, everyone knows that the social, cultural and political development of Asia depends mostly on the way that the religions traditions and communities of this continent not only coexist but also cooperate.
In this article we seek to offer some perspectives on the future of interreligious dialogue in Asia, first considering “the roots in the past,” not only the experience of recent decades. Distance can help us evaluate the problems under another perspective and plan out a sort of “projection” of how that dialogue might evolve in the Asian context.
Even if we are talking about the Asian continent in its entirety, it will be useful to first distinguish the experiences of Southern Asia from those of Northern Asia. This will help us identify more precisely the issues currently at stake.
Babel or Pentecost? Interreligious meetings in Southern Asia
In the year 1546, when drawing near to the Moro islands in the Indonesian archipelago, St. Francis Xavier wrote the following words to his fellow Jesuits in Europe: “The people of these islands are wild and treacherous … Each of these islands has its own tongue, and there is one island where almost every village has its own language.” Three years later, arriving in Japan, St. Xavier noted with some relief that “in all this land there is only one language, and it is not hard to understand.”
The discovery of the linguistic world of Southern Asia – particularly the Southeast – by Christian missionaries from the 16th century onward was for many a cause of disorientation. This linguistic Babel was seen as an obstacle to evangelization and in some way was associated with the “savage state” of the natives. Meanwhile, the linguistic unity – even if only relative – of China and Japan was considered as proof of their higher civilization, more open to welcoming the Christian faith.
This linguistic and cultural diversity – around 600 different languages and dialects in Indonesia, 135 in Malaysia – could today be claimed by the theologians of Southeast Asia as their specific contribution to the Christian world: the Christians in these territories, in fact, offer through their respective Churches the multiplicity of languages, rites and visions of the world that come from their countries.
An important book published in 1974 titled Waterbuffalo Theology was written by Kosuke Koyama, a Japanese Protestant theologian working in the north of Thailand. Its opening depicts a herd of buffaloes grazing in a muddy paddy field: “The waterbuffaloes tell me that I must preach to these farmers in the simplest sentence-structure and thought development. They remind me to discard all abstract ideas, and to use exclusively objects that are immediately tangible.”
Kosuke Koyama defended the use of figurative language as a way to avoid Western abstraction and return to the essence of the Christian faith and the center of people’s lives. Monsoon frogs, sticky rice and cockfights provided communities with metaphors akin to the language and intuitions of the Hebrew Psalms. Koyama compared the “coldness” of the vocabulary of Thailand’s Buddhism with the “warmth” of the Christian lexicon. The accent placed on being detached from desires and free from suffering was translated into a specific vocabulary, as well as the insistence on the burning “passion” of a God who intervenes in history.
To bring these two hot and cold religious perspectives together to meet and reciprocate requires a linguistic operation, a recovery of an entire range of vocabulary drawn from the different traditions, to “warm up” one tradition and “cool down” the other. For Koyama, the Letter of James offers a good example of the use of images when he seeks to “cool down” the tongue: “The tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great exploits. How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! And the tongue is a fire… From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so. Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and brackish water?” (Jas 3:5-11).
Thus Koyama defended humility, the kenosis of Christian vocabulary in Southeast Asia, as a means to root the faith in the real experience of the poor who lived in those lands. Generally, such thoughts were welcome. In an ecumenical consultation held in Singapore in 1987, the participants recognized that “the Asian ethos is very attentive and sensitive to the particular, the concrete. Every particular is allowed to live, respected, fostered for what it is. No attempt is made to reduce the particular to an abstraction, to ready-made categories of thought.”
It is on such premises that the theological quest has progressively moved from lexical questions to the narrative dynamic. Religious experience, it was recognized, is translated not only into creeds and practices but also into various kinds of narrative. Mythical tales, hagiographies, the story of one’s conversion, the enacting of certain rituals are all multi-layered narratives. Within Christianity the narrative structure of the Apostles’ Creed or of the memorial of the Last Supper has become a topos of contemporary theology. Was not the rooting of Christianity in Southeast Asia dependent on the way faith-based communities were able to enact, develop and exchange their own narratives?
Jose Mario C. Francisco noted this about the Philippines: “Traditional religious narratives before Spanish colonization have been preserved among some tribal groups who continue to tell folktales and to chant indigenous epics during ritual feasts and religious events… However, due to the majority status of Christianity in the Philippines, the dominant religious narratives are those of the Christ story, its canonical form from the Bible and its popular form in the vernacular passion tradition. Before the recent translations of the Bible into the vernaculars, the popular form of chanting and later of dramatizing the Christ story during Holy Week has functioned like an epic in lowland communities. It makes the Christ story available as foundational narrative and enables Christians to appropriate this story as their own.”
Thus the attention placed on the roots of Christian narratives and the ritual expressions in the cultures of Southeast Asia led to a focus on the interaction among the various faiths operating in the region. Such attention was also fostered by various ethnic-religious conflicts that had developed, especially in the Philippines and Indonesia. If Christian communities were to be promoters of peace, religious stories had their own roles to play: creative interpretation of canonical narratives can, indeed, bring forth peace and reconciliation. In the pluralist situation of the southern isles of Mindanao (Philippines), some narratives have a role of mediation, incorporating elements that come from different religious traditions: the sharing of stories – especially of good examples – at the local level is in itself a factor of reconciliation.
A hermeneutical approach to religious diversity in North Asia
Christianity as shaped by European tradition encountered the civilizations of Japan, China and Korea from 1550 onward. Until the beginning of the 19th century, North Asian nations witnessed the arrival of Catholic missionaries, whose lingua franca was Latin, though Portuguese (due to the patronage granted 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 19th century. Their linguistic policies had much to do with efforts developed for translating the Bible into the vernacular.
The Jesuit missionaries in particular addressed the various language issues directly. Matteo Ricci – who was in China from 1583 until his death in 1610 – worked to present his apologetic writings in an elegant Chinese literary form. In 1615 the Jesuits obtained permission from the pope to use the vernacular in the liturgy and to translate the Bible into classical Chinese. However, they did not use that permission. Also, the efforts made in Japan during the same period failed. More generally, even if the apologetic and catechetical writings in the languages of Eastern Asia were many, the authoritative sources of Catholicism were accessed in Latin up until the middle of the 20th century.
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 between 1800 and 1900, a time where full translations into Japanese and Chinese of both Testaments were completed. Around 1910-1920, translations of the Bible in Far Eastern languages were published that are still in use today. 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. From the 1920s on, the translated Bible was not only a religious but also a literary text, influencing the intellectual life of China, Korea and Japan. Biblical narratives and stylistic features entered into Far Eastern languages. After 1960, new publications appeared. The first complete Chinese Catholic Bible was published in 1967 in Taiwan. In Korea, the Bible was newly translated for common use by both Catholics and Protestants: the New Testament in 1971 and the Old Testament in 1977. A Catholic Bible was completed in 2002.
Biblical hermeneutics was helped by the translation enterprise. The challenge was to explain and reciprocally illuminate the Far Eastern cultural canons and biblical literature. Chinese commentaries on the Classics provided a basis for an inculturated hermeneutics. Classical commentaries do not simply use logic but let readers take into account their subjective experiences. The Bible can be read in a dialogue with the Book of Changes or the Laozi (“The Way and Its Virtue”). Reciprocally, biblical narratives can put their own questions to Chinese culture and history.
When it comes to elaborate theological discourse in East Asian languages, the reference to Chinese is somehow analogous to the reference to Latin in classical Christianity. Linguistic-cultural concepts embodied in characters such as dao (the Way), li (reason), xing (nature) and xin (heart-mind) are the indispensable tools used not only by Chinese but also by Japanese and Korean Christian thinkers. The challenge is that the Chinese intellectual tradition – at the same time a corpus of wisdom, a philosophical worldview and a religious way of life – does not easily accommodate the conceptual framework of current Christian theology.
Chinese as a linguistic tool differs greatly from languages such as Greek, Latin and Sanskrit. Its morphology does not distinguish between clear-cut grammatical categories. On the other hand, Chinese characters have a concrete flavor and a suggestiveness of their own and constitute a framework for expressing perception and thought that closely associates form and meaning. Such difficulties have deeply influenced the history of interreligious and intercultural dialogue.
The meeting between Christian faith and the various religious narratives of Eastern Asia is supported by many contributions: attributing great importance to the variety of experiences as translated into linguistic forms; recalling stories of hardships, traumas, forgiveness, survival and hopes that have shaped the Asian nations and their Christian communities; being attentive to the style of storytelling found in various East Asian cultures. Words and concepts take flesh and blood within the flow of a story told in many tongues.
Religions in Asia today: beyond Revivalism
Interreligious dialogue in Asia has become an endeavor that no religion can escape from, not only for spiritual reasons but also in order to achieve the following goals: progressing toward national and ethnic reconciliation; ensuring human dignity; tackling global challenges together (dialogue of civilizations, ecology, struggle against consumerism, development of a global ethic). At the same time, new orientations have partially redesigned the structures of Asian religions and influenced the conditions under which interreligious dialogue takes place.
Revivalism has become a predominant religious trend in Asia. The clearest example – but not the only one – is provided by the new vitality found by Islam in the continent, which is also the case in other parts of the world. Indonesia is the most populous Muslim nation in the world; Bangladesh and Pakistan have overwhelming Muslim majorities, and Malaysia also has a Muslim majority, though not as pronounced; India has a strong Muslim minority, and Muslim populations are located in conflict-prone frontier regions in the Philippines, Thailand and China.
The point here is that such “vitality” encompasses an array of very different phenomena that have to be carefully distinguished. First, there is a revivalist atmosphere, stressing both religious and ethnic pride over a background of postcolonial sensitivity and widespread religious indoctrination, affecting the consciousness of various segments of the populations all around Asia.
Second, there are marginal violent movements, fostered by international networks, which provoke attacks and attract the attention of the whole world and make the strengthening of dialogue much more difficult.
Third, there are pervasive political strategies trying to impose and enforce Islamic laws and Islamic state apparatus. Such strategies threaten the fabric of the secular state, which was a feature of postcolonial Asia. At the same time, it is important to note that, since 2001, Muslim communities often suffer from accrued hostility and prejudices, especially in countries where they are a minority; and these prejudices can reinforce violence and deviant behaviors. Some of these communities also suffer from a disadvantageous social background and economic conditions.
A coordinated response by religious organizations to current challenges
In a context marked by potential or actual confrontations, believers should not renounce the ideal of living and praying side by side as a privileged form of dialogue. Sometimes, and in different circles, there have been hesitations and reservations about the consequences of such behavior. Still, one can reasonably think that God takes more pleasure in seeing people praying together than killing each other… Prayer often manifests itself as a kind of “revolutionary force,” and religious believers need to find their own way of praying together in times and places of conflicts, natural disasters or just for building up brotherly neighborhoods. Actually, what might be the most dangerous feature of violence is the fact that it exercises a kind of fascination that leads all people involved to a hardening of their own identity, fostering a chain of violent reactions.
In this light, and even if such a goal looks “idealistic,” the importance of a spiritual, even “mystical” approach toward an interreligious understanding cannot be overlooked. At the same time, it is impossible not to tackle the political dimension of interreligious encounters (understood as dialogue and tensions): ethnic or national revivalist movements and religious revivals are associated phenomena; ethnic, partisan and religious lines are often blurred.
In the Catholic Church, the Second Vatican Council declaration Dignitatis Humanae established the principle of religious freedom, associating it with a reflection on the mission, nature and duties of the state. At the same time, the text was strongly influenced by the tradition of American constitutionalism. As cultural and political developments challenge this tradition today in many ways, Asian religious leaders now need to clarify their stance on the secular state – which most of them tend to belittle or flatly reject – and become aware of how their definite coexistence depends on the defense and rethinking of this political form.
Asian religions should debate their political principles and agree on a few pressing tasks: How to define the secular state? Can we push toward further regional union, encompassing a bill of rights emphasizing the spiritual roots of Asia? How to work more effectively for equality between the sexes?
The final point to include in this interreligious agenda is the need to be always truthful about history. Interreligious and inter-ethnic encounters are made possible or are blocked by narratives that are shared or are conflicting. When they happen in a context where conflicting narratives are honestly recognized and retold, such encounters operate as a healing of memory.
True interreligious dialogue depends on a greater use of the notable variety of cultural traditions and classical Asian texts, as against any form of reductionism. Today, the human and spiritual intuitions they contain are appreciated only in the sphere of the particular traditions that they come from; but they could be better appreciated through reading them together and through encounters. The new interpretations that this exchange fosters will help, in turn, the human and civil values needed for the process of development that the Asian continent desires. The future of Asia, by its own nature, must be interreligious. And this task goes beyond even the vastness of its territory, its traditions and its challenges.
DOI: La Civiltà Cattolica, En. Ed. Vol. 3, no. 2, article 2, Jan. 2019: 10.32009/22072446.1902.2
 J. Costelloe (ed.), The Letters and Instructions of Francis Xavier, St. Louis (OK), The Institute of Jesuit Sources, 1992, 142.
 Ibid., 327.
 Kosuke Koyama, Waterbuffalo Theology, New York, Orbis Books, 1974, VII.
 Christian Conference of Asia, Living and Working Together with Sisters and Brothers of Other Faiths. An Ecumenical Consultation, Hong Kong, FABC, 1989, 80.
 Cf. B. Vermander, “La nascita di una teologia pan-asiatica. Sotto il segno dell’armonia,” in Civ. Catt. 2017 III 114-126.
 J. M. Francisco, “The Mediating Role of Narrative in Inter-religious Dialogue: Implications and Illustrations from the Philippine Context,” in E. A. DeVido – B. Vermander (eds), Creeds, Rites and Videotapes: Narrating religious experience in East Asia, Taipei, Taipei Ricci Institute, 2004, 290f.
 Cf. N. da Silva Gonçalves, “L’attività missionaria nei territori portoghesi d’Oltremare,” in Civ. Catt. 2018 III 241-255.
 Cf. C. Oliva, “Cina e liturgia in lingua nazionale. La missione di Niccolò Longobardo,” ibid., 2018 II 546-557.
 Cf. C. Starr, Chinese Theology: Text and Context, New Haven, Yale University Press, 2016.
 An earlier version of this article appeared in Lumen, Vol. 1 No. 1, January 2013, under the title “Prospects for the Development of Interreligious Dialogue in China: Lessons from Neighboring Asian Countries.”