Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Father General's Asian Perspective

Those attempting to plug the new superior general of the Society of Jesus into an old 16th century mold may have a little trouble doing so. After all, he fairly clearly contradicted the famous letter on obedience that Ignatius wrote, saying that "obedience can be very creative and very helpful when it is open, when there is inner freedom... blind obedience, I think, as a norm would be a disaster, for the Society or anybody." This before a Congregation that will be dealing specifically with the meaning of Ignatian obedience.

A little background search on his theology raises I think some interesting observations about what can be expected from him as a leader and writer. He appears to evoke MacIntyre in an article in Concilium - a journal that may already raise some eyebrows due to its intellectual history and current left wing tendencies - entitled "Christianity in Crisis: Asia. Which Asia? Which Christianity? Which Crisis?" A rather audacious title, like MacIntyre's book it asks the difficult question as to the "concrete Christianities that we have here." When speaking of a possible "crisis" in Asian Christianity, one should not, it appears, speak as if Christianity is a univocal phrase without many referents which language only serves to veil, not reveal.

Nicolas defines crisis: "Every time we open ourselves to the 'others' and let our minds, hearts and imaginations be affected (enriched) by them." There is a strong tone from contemporary phenomenological personalism in these words, as well as a genuine contact with the East which should be expected. Nicolas doesn't think that Christianity has done such a great job facing this crisis. He argues in the article that "concepts like 'pre-evangelization', 'adaptation', 'inculturation', 'tranculturation' or other such words... were theoretical, mostly theological, with some timid and seldom fully satisfying liturgical experiments." My limited experience would have to agree, insofar as the theoretical paradigms that have been erected in the past thirty years in the name of evangelization have appeared to be largely unsuccessful. Instead of allowing the Other to judge us, says Nicolas, we have become fixated on saving our own lives as a Christian group. The judgment of the Other has very concrete criteria for Adolfo: do they or do they not listen to our message and confirm its depth and power? That is the criteria, the criteria erected by St. Paul from the beginning. If there is no power in the message, then it is probably not the saving word of God.

Nicolas sees Asian Faiths, and especially Buddhism, as ongoing challenges to theology. "Because it is a clarity without transparency that explains better concepts and definitions than life with all its pains and joys," theology turns to language to explain itself. This, however, is not the Asian way. In what may be interesting to many, Nicolas quotes the (then) Cardinal Ratzinger, explaining that "'all theological statements have only an approximate value' or something of the sort." While western theology throws language around verbosely and, to the mind of an Asian, rather casually, the actual referential meaning of this language in the context of human living and exigency for salvation is meaningless. He explains: "The kind of theology that has become normal currency in our seminaries has remained distant from the life of people in East and West; it takes a double distance when used in Asia as if it were 'Catholic common sense.'" As in philosophy, I always get uncomfortable when use of the idea of "common sense" is thrown around as if it were something actually common to all. There is no more useless term in the realm of epistemology as far as I am concerned than this one. Much more so for an Asian culture that knows nothing of the accumulations of western Christianity which then presumes it in its evangelical mission. Nicolas' point I think is well taken.

Where the critical questions must be asked to Nicolas are when he sums up his article. He remarks that masters of all ages are keener on teaching ways to God than in answering questions about him. One remembers the story of Marius Victorinus in order to recall that Christianity is precisely this, a "way" more than anything else. Nicolas observes that "Asia has produced an incredible wealth of such 'ways.'" The challenge of meeting these other rich ways must challenge Christianity to continually re-examine what is exactly its own "way." What are the necessities and what is the true core of this following of Christ? "The gospel is more than words, and the sacraments more than rituals. Asia is asking us why these practices have not become part of the Christian way through the daily struggles of people."

The strong point that Nicolas makes from his Asian perspective is this: "Asia can never understand how a 'humble' Church can so easily dismiss 'other ways of salvation' or put them down as 'lesser than ours.' Asia, with its saints and mystics, its witnesses and heroic faithful, will never comprehend how a Church born out of the Gospel and led by the Spirit of Jesus Christ can practically ignore the religious wealth of other faiths and the real and actual salvation they have brought to a thousand generations."

The exact meaning of the "actual salvation" of these "other faiths" remains the crux of the issue. The question is a good and serious one. The answer that the current Father General of the Jesuits may give will be a critical one for the future of the Catholic missions. With the current Pope's definite ideas in regards to evangelization and other faiths (see Dominus Jesu), it will be interesting to watch what is to come.

Markel, SJ

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