European theology – Asian critique

European theology has been built around a ponderous legalistic and doctrinal framework and Canon Law enforces a rigid stance on complex issues, regardless of culture and historical differences. Bishops have been turned into papal policemen appointed to carry out the Vatican’s orders and secure control and conformity.
European theologians have a long tradition of writing erudite tracts, theorising, conceptualising and prescribing but given Europe’s colonial history, the church’s sanction of capitalism, the culture of consumerism and practical rejection of Christian values, they have no moral authority to preach to others. It is time for them to move away from the sterile message of ‘sin and salvation’ and denounce oppression and social injustices by their governments, and press for distributive justice.

Fr Felix Machado (Vidyajyoti Journal, vol 57, 1993)
Fr Machado is Professor of Theology & Indology at the St Pius College, Goregaon East, Bombay 400 063. 

The Good News is not anyone’s property
God alone is its author. One does not chronologically first possess or own the Good News and then proclaim it, but the proclamation is done precisely by not possessing or owning it.
Over the years, the West narrowed down the content of the Good News to its logos aspect – making it something one must understand intellectually. It was reduced to something rational and analytical. The Good News did gain much in the process of rational thinking but was also impoverished in many ways.

Jesus did not come to establish any religion – he came to give life and life in abundance. Having lost the dynamism and vitality of the Good News, the church seems to have become an ideology. In the course of history, Christianity has become a culture, confusing the proclamation of the Good News with the propagation of a particular culture. The important question confronting the church is: how can the institutional church free herself from her exclusive attachment to the Greco-Roman culture and express herself in many forms?

Fr Aloysius Pieris (Vidyajyoti Journal, vol 63, 1999)
Fr Pieris is Founder-Director of the Tulana Research Centre, Kalaniya, Sri Lanka. 

1. Divided Authority
Some great theologian-pastors of the church of the past exercised their authority by teaching what they professed and practising what they taught. They were both teachers of the church and witnesses to the Faith. They were doctors of the church and professors of the faith.

This teaching office degenerated into sectarian politics. The early Christological debates were marred by a theological obsession with doctrinal precision and episcopal entanglements. Personal animosities and power struggles had infected the episcopate. Her are two examples of bishops drunk with power and therefore bereft of authority. One was Nestorius who invited dissidents to his palace and had them beaten up. The other was Cyril (a saint!) was biased against non-Christians who was involved in the murder of pagan philosopher Hypatia in a church ans also ‘bribed the mperial officials with gold worth several million dollars at today’s prices’. Things did not improve as the centuries rolled by.

Another development was the emergence of universities as new centres of learning in which  professors of theology or Chairs of Canon Law proved themselves more learned than the bishops. As a result the authority of the bishops lost its lustre. St Thomas Aquinas referred to two distinct teaching authorities – the pastoral authority of the bishops and academic authority of the theologians – a division that still operates today in the way theology is taught.

Increasingly, the theology taught in the universities distanced itself from the lives of the people and became ‘scholastic’ (academic) in the centuries that followed. The Protestant reformers totally rejected scholasticism.

2. Fondness for dry doctrinal formulations
Today there is an excessive concern for doctrinal accuracy. The Catholic church runs the risk of producing experts in doctrine who may not be professors of Faith. In January 1997, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith decided to excommunicate Fr Tissa Balasuriya, a Sri Lankan theologian, for having misrepresented certain faith issues. This Congregation serves as a watchdog (in the manner of the former Inquisition) for preserving doctrinal purity among theologians. The act of excommunication was in breach of sacred tradition whereby only the Popes or the Councils have this authority and it cannot be delegated to others.

It is true there must be a doctrinal dimension in the expression of our faith. Articulating our beliefs through the medium if well chosen words is legitimate and necessary. Academic rigour and accuracy of expression should be accorded a high priority. But all theoretical formulas must be given popular expression ie complemented (and even redeemed of dogmatism) by recourse to various artistic and literary means such as poetry and song, dance and drama, painting and sculpture, narrative and parable – these are more appropriate vehicles to convey our insights and intuitions into the mystery of the uncreated wisdom. Furthermore, they are better appreciated in non-European cultures than dry intellectual formulations.

A formulatory theology, unless aided by the evocative idiom, can run into the claws of idolatry. Such a theology should not be pre-occupied by the unholy desire to invent precision instruments to fathom the Wisdom of God using human concepts. Those who accuse the Asian Christians fo reducing theology to poetry are precisely those who prefer to use the mathematical method to understand the Salvific Truth. Again, those who have absolutised the relative have branded us ‘relativists’ for having respected the iconic nature of all dogmas. The Latin Church’s own theological tradition demands that we relativize every formula of faith before the one absolute Truth. This is what the mystics have taught the dogmaticians.

According to Giuseppe Alberigo, a distinguished church historian of our times, the Salvific Truth has been gradually degraded into a series of doctrinal propositions and dogmatic formulas which could not be maintained in their rigour without a powerful clerical class armed with punitive powers to maintain purity of doctrine.

3. The Poor have been forgotten
A major consequence of this intellectualisation and depersonalisation of the Saving Truth is that we have lost a significant dimension of patristic theology – justice for the poor.
‘Poor’ is biblical shorthand for people that have been marginalised, dispossessed and victimised. Christ has identified such persons as his own ‘me’ (Matt 25:31-46 etc). When the Saving Truth loses its identity as a Person in a maze of abstract and depersonalised doctrines, then the poor who are the visible extension of that person disappear from the central concerns of theology.

The resulting decadent scholasticism forget the the historical & contemporary realities of poverty and tend to spiritualise poverty. My plea is that the body of bishops, theologians and mystics humble themselves before the magisterium of the poor. In the bible, the Poor form a social category of people opposed to and by the Powerful and Wealthy and are chosen by God as the vehicle of God’s presence and action and transforming history into the history of God’s salvation.  

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