Thursday, June 19, 2008

The Making or Unmaking of an Asian Theologian

Tony Siew from Trinity Theological College (TTC), Singapore, has mooted an excellent idea about a series of books on theology/commentary on the books of the Bible written by Asian scholars or theologians. Kar Yong from Seminari Teologi Malaysia (STM) whole heartedly supports the idea.

Doing my daily musings on my doctor’s chair, it occurs to me to try to define an Asian theologian. The obvious answer is that anyone who is born in Asia and has a theological degree qualifies! My impression is that Tony and Kar Yong has something more in mind. An Asian scholar/theologian is a person who is born in Asia and has a higher theological degree (PhD) and has published in some significant journals or book(s) by a reputable academic publisher. This narrows the field considerably. What about a person of Asian origin but was born and brought up in a first world country? Maybe not. So this leaves me with these Asians who is born in Asia and have achieved a PhD. The implication is that this person will be able to write theologically from an Asian perspective.

Here are my musings:

First, almost all Asians have to go overseas to get their PhDs. Finishing a PhD averages from 5-7 years or longer, full time. One must add in the time for a ThM which is about 2-3 years. Altogether, we may be talking about 10 years. Earning a PhD is a formative process because a person has to be trained to think and write in an ‘academic’ way. Basically it is a very Western model of thinking, based on deconstructing and reconstructing propositions. It is actually an antithesis of the Asian way of consensus thinking. This is not a criticism of the PhD process but an observation. I may be wrong but I believe that those who have gone through a PhD process do not think like an Asian anymore. Let us say, a person get his or her PhD at 40 years old. Even though born in Asia, 25% of his or her adult life will be involved in learning how not to think like an Asian. Is it possible for such people to think like an Asian again?

Second, these 10 years of the higher degree process will be spent in a first world country. Though many students are poor, they are living in a first world country; enjoying its support services, attending a first world church and sending their children to schools there. For these 10 years, they have been out of touch with the Asian church of their home country. Will it be possible for them to go home and continue as if nothing has happened? Will they be able to adapt to the low payscale now when they have accomplished so much? Having being transplanted and are out of circulation in the local environment, will they ever able to readapt, let alone be like the locals again.

Third, most of those who return with a PhD end up with the local seminaries because they find that they had difficulty fitting into the local churches. They think differently from the locals. Again, this is an observation and I have no particular person in mind. Seminaries are great and I want to live there too (especially in their libraries). However, seminaries are not the grassroots and occasional preaching in churches do not really enable one to know what it is really happening at the grassroots. Without the common touch with the grassroots, is it possible to do a really contextualised theology?

Finally, do they know enough or their own heritage and culture to really contextualise what they have learnt overseas? Again, this is my personal observation. Many PhD holders regurgitate what they have learned overseas with a bit of ‘window dressings’ to make it look local. They use overseas textbooks and recycle overseas lectures notes. Is that Asian theology?

I hope these musings will not get me into trouble. I wonder if there is such a person as an Asian theologian. Or a theologian who is Asian. No, don’t throw that stone….


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