Monday, July 09, 2007

Religious Pluralism and Problems of Mission in Asia

This is the fifth part of Augurlion article in Mission Dei, A Journal of Mission and Evangelism of Myanmar Institute of Theology.

The ecumenical movement and the formation of the WCC in the west certified that the existence of the church as a Christendom was no longer possible after the Reformation. The emergence of city-states and the national churches became the phenomenon to be tolerated. Though the idea of the extension of Christendom was no longer relevant to the West it was still practiced in the non-Western world by means of Christianization. However, the extension of Christendom was more problematic in Asia than it was in the Reformation world. Andrew Walls puts it:
The success of the Spanish project to incorporate its new world into Christendom was thus more apparent than real. More important for the future of Christendom, however, than the apparent success of the Spanish was the fact that the Portuguese found the task impossible... The Portuguese began its empire with joyful acceptance of the task of expanding Christendom. But its resources were slander, its hole often precarious, and even in the territories it occupied, resistant Islam, and resistant Hinduism, and resistant Buddhism refused to lie down.
Asia is a pluralistic continent populated with millions of people from different ethnic, social, cultural, and religious background. The world major religions such as Hinduism, Buddhist and Islam have become the national and cultural identity of the countries where they have dominated. For example, Hinduism is the national and cultural identity of the India; Buddhism is the national and cultural identity of Thailand, Myanmar and Sri Lanka; and Islam is the national and cultural identity of Pakistan, Indonesia, and many Arab nations. Thus the situation in Asia was and is totally different from the West. Reinsie Perera states:
It is true that in Europe, Christianity played the role of the dominant religion, and one might even say, the only religion for centuries. It is that influence that created the concept of Christendom. But this was and is not the case in Asia... In Asia many religions are competing with each other and the religious ethos has shaped the language, culture, and the psyche of the people. The religious impact on the life and destiny of people is so immense that one finds it difficult to make a clear separation between the sacred and the secular.
Christianization in Asia has always been a difficult task for the missionaries because conversion to other religions, for the Asian people, is a betrayal of their nations and their cultural identity. Loyalty to their nations, for them, is loyalty to the national religion of their countries. The missions in Asia have won converts most from the ethnic minority groups and the outcasts who have never attached to the religions of the majority in their countries. However, the number of converts from the major religions always be small. Therefore, Christians are only the minority Asia.

After having discovered that evangelism in India was difficult Robert di Nobili, a Jesuit missionary in India in the fifteenth century, tried to use the strategy of "contextualization." He dressed like a guru, studied Hindu Sanskrit and Brahmin Philosophy in order to indigenize the gospel. It is said that he won some convert among the Brahmans. Another early missionary who used this strategy was Matteo Ricci, a Jesuit missionary in China. He studied Confucian philosophy and tried to accommodate Christianity in the cultural context of China. It is stated: "Ricci accommodated Christianity to Chinese life by allowing for the customary veneration of Confucius and of the ancestors among Chinese.

The Protestant missionaries who became active in Asia in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries also came to learn that evangelism in Asia was not as easy as they expected. They also came to realize "the need to live on someone else's terms. The first missionary conference held in Edinburgh in 1910 dealt with the issues which the missionaries faced in the non-western world, especially in Asia. The cultural, ethnic and religious pluralism in Asia enlightened the mission groups to work together and consider their mission techniques that met the need of the non-Western people. For these reasons, mission schools and medical mission came to the fore as the channels for evangelism. In addition, the mission strategies such as indigenization, contextualization, and inculturation became popular both in academic discussion and practical fields. Despite the use of these methods conversion to Christianity in Asia was and is very limited. No matter whatever strategy is used it is not successful because its objective is to conquer and to win. Christian mission was regarded as a threat to national unity and identity. Thus, Christianity has faced with the accusation, critique and hostility of the non-Christians. Christianity was perceived as a heretical religion in Asia.

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