Reviewer: Samuel George
Samuel George is from Jammu (India). He has completed his doctorate at UTC, Bangalore. Currently he is working as the editor of New Life Theological Journal and is also on the reference group of EDAN-WCC.
Felix Wilfred was born in Tamil Nadu, India in 1948. He was the President of the Faculty of Arts, and Chairman of The School of Philosophy and Religious Thought at the State University of Madras. He is also a member of the Statutory Ethical Committee of the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Madras. He was a member of International Theological Commission of the Vatican. He has been a visiting professor at universities around the world. At present, he is the Founder-Director of the Asian Centre for Cross-Cultural Studies, Chennai. He is also the President of Concilium: The International Review for Theology.
His research and field studies today cut across many disciplines in the humanities and social sciences. Some of his prominent publications in the field of theology are Beyond Settled Foundations: The Journey of Indian Theology (1993), On the Banks of Ganges (2002), Asian Dreams and Christian Hope (2003), The Sling of Utopia: Struggles for a Different Society (2005), and Margins: Site of Asian Theologies (2008).
The book reviewed is one of Wilfred’s latest where he interacts with Asian realities. In his own words, Wilfred maintains that he conceived the book in the form of a journey. This journey takes him to four different yet intertwining paths, namely: the subaltern journey, paths to justice, theological crossroads, and continuing common journey. These four paths are further divided into chapters, each dealing with a particular path to which it belongs.
Wilfred maintains that the starting point of Asian public theology is the subalterns. His focus is on all those who are excluded from the mainstream. However, to be precise, Wilfred reflects on two of the most affected groups of subalterns – Dalits and women. He analyses these subalterns from a theological-ethical perspective. His understanding of women as theological agents who (can) wield religious power to effect change in Asian contexts is highly appreciated.
Subalterns yearn for justice. It is only by traversing the path of justice that subalterns can experience life in its fullness. Now, justice cannot be ideated without attendant change in the structure of society. Structurally speaking, Asian society is one in which corruption and poverty reign. Globalization, too, has affected the core of Asian society. Ecologically, Asian society finds itself on the backside of flourishing. Asian public theology is a holistic theology where God, the human, and nature are intertwined. Indeed, theology cannot be confined to the “private” domain of the four walls of the church and its institutions. Christian theology is public and as such addresses the issues that affect marginalized people, who often happen to be the most basic ingredient of Christian church.
In the midst of post-Christian environments and resurgent Christian trends, Christianity finds itself at a crossroads. The Asian context is a context of resurgent Christianity. Felix argues that Christianity can contribute immensely to the Asian public platform by bringing to bear the social message of Christianity. However, Wilfred neglects one thing; that is, the Asian context is a context of religiosity and spirituality. Therefore, the reductionist notion that Christianity can only contribute a social message is something to be re-examined. The message of Christianity is much more than just a social message.
A spirit of universality and commonality is the hallmark of the common journey of Asians. The mystery of the Divine transforms the Asian public into a space for the expression of a common journey among Asians, a public that is reshaped every time it re-engages with the multi-faceted context of Asia. Finding commonality is extremely important in our pursuit for justice, especially in the Asian context. However, the danger of finding common grounds is quite evident. In the pursuit of commonalities, particularities will often be subsumed. If Asian theology, as proposed by Wilfred, takes corrective measures to counter this seemingly hegemonic tendency to find and forge commonalities at the expense of particularities then such a theology would pave a revolution in the Asian context.
The book raises the fundamental question of what constitutes public theology. Public theology seeks to engage in dialogue with social, political, economic, cultural, and spiritual realities affecting contemporary society, as well as with knowledges and methodologies to which academic disciplines give rise. It seeks to bring a coherent Christian perspective to bear upon public policy and cultural discourse. Duncan B. Forrester rightly explains what public theology is:
Public Theology, as I understand it, is not primarily and directly evangelical theology which addresses the Gospel to the world in the hope of repentance and conversion. Rather, it is theology which seeks the welfare of the city before protecting the interests of the Church, or its proper liberty to preach the Gospel and celebrate the sacraments. Accordingly, public theology often takes ‘the world’s agenda’, or parts of it, as its own agenda, and seeks to offer distinctive and constructive insights from the treasury of faith to help in the building of a decent society, the restraint of evil, the curbing of violence, nation-building, and the reconciliation in the public arena, and so forth. It strives to offer something that is distinctive, and that is gospel… (Forrester, “The Scope of Public Theology,” 2004).
In his pursuit of developing a public theology in the Asian context, Wilfred seems not to see things from the inside out but the other way around. This helps him to see Asian realities in a more holistic and complex manner. Felix Wilfred wanted to conduct his analysis not from an internal perspective of religious doctrine as Dupuis has done, but from an external view of religions in general (sociology of religions). As noted above, there is always the danger of particularities being subsumed in the pursing of public theology. Although Wilfred points this out quite succinctly in his work, he also reminds us that Asians have a common journey of justice to pursue where the divine Mystery meets us as fellow traveler.
This book is a wonderful piece of theological-ethical interaction with Asian realities. It is targeted to both lay audience and the theologically trained. I highly recommend this book to every serious reader who is interested in studying Asian realities. Every theological library should have a copy of it.