Global Christianities: A Minority Report

Chloë Starr

The future of Christianity in a more integrated pluralistic world is an important debate. We have, mostly, now grasped that diversity and difference are sources of enrichment in our common life, and that the global-scale problems of our era (climate change, terrorist ideologies, weapons proliferation, and mass refugee movements) require solidarity across religions as well as across borders.1

However, we still need to face an equally foundational debate on the nature of Christianities in our own society and abroad. It is easy to assume that we know what we mean by “Christianity,” or can represent our own faith in interfaith debates, but which of us really has a clear sense of what Greek Orthodox in the US believe, let alone Chinese Catholics or Japanese Presbyterians?

The recent Anglican primates’ meeting at Lambeth Palace has once again highlighted the profound cultural and theological differences that can exist within a single (global) church community. Sitting in an Episcopal church in New Haven recently I listened to a sermon on the topic of the Lambeth meeting. The preacher helpfully pointed to the US experience of the civil rights movement and AIDS as factors in the development of the current Episcopalian stance on minority inclusion – but then suggested that “racism” was a primary cause of the “Global South” primates’ stance on human sexuality, an explanation that sounds bizarre to an Anglican from elsewhere in the Communion. We all have our prejudices and partial explanations, especially of global phenomena. A prime role of a divinity school is to enable us to see these, to trace their histories and the curvature of their distortion through greater exposure to others’ lives, perceptions, and thought.

Global and Glocal

One of the gifts of the Asian church to world Christianity is its theological reflection on life in a multireligious society. As we all interact more globally and glocally, and as migration slowly changes the composition and patterns of interaction in our own societies, it is a voice worth heeding.

According to Pew Research Center data, the US professes to be over 70 percent Christian, and no other single religion comprises more than 2 percent of the population. Even in European countries like Britain or France, religious minorities such as Muslims make up only 4.8 percent and 7.5 percent of the population respectively. Yet in Asia, other than the Philippines with its dominant Roman Catholicism or South Korea where Christians comprise the largest single religious group (just under 32 percent), there are few countries in which Christians number more than one in ten of the population. In most, they are a small minority alongside majority or mixed Hindu, Buddhist, atheist, Islamic, or Shamanist populations.

The Sri Lankan Jesuit Aloysius Pieris wrote decades ago that inculturation of Christianity in Asia was a matter of three-fold dialogue: with cultures, with the poor, and with other religions.2 Whether in the shared use of worship spaces, in Christian ashrams, in joint spirituality explorations, in “Six-Text Scriptural Reasoning,”3 in comparative studies, or in theoretical proposals for reading across religious scriptures,4 Asian churchgoers and scholars have pioneered multifaith dialogue, both pragmatically and theoretically, for centuries.

The decision of the Anglican primates in January 2016 not to give much latitude to cultural (and therefore theological) diversity within unity – a diversity which was the early Christian norm, as Gregory Sterling suggested in the Fall 2015 Reflections – underplays the degree to which all of our theologies are necessarily in close dialogue with our societies. Yet the application of others’ very different ways of thinking can produce much insight into our own situation and religio-cultural matrix.

Pragmatic Pluralism

One of the joys of the end of semester is reading students’ work. Among the crop of essays from a course I taught last semester, “Introduction to East Asian Theology,” were several theological reflections that drew on Asian theologians’ thinking on pluralism in order to examine local matters of belief.

One such essay focused on bridge-building in a fractured Connecticut church, using Taiwanese theologian C. S. Song’s understanding of the meaning of symbols to different faith communities. A Ghanaian student applied Song’s “one-stroke theology” to his own Ashanti culture. Another student used Song’s “Third-Eye Theology” to re-think the appropriation of Native American symbols at a New England retreat center. One essay showed how Japanese burial rites might improve the process of mourning for western Protestants. Another student wrote about Christ as samurai, re-examining the triumphalism of certain western mission theologies and the presence of Christ in solidarity with the poor.

In each case, the experience of life in a multifaith society proved fruitful for reflection on life at home.

In the US, we need not look quite so far away for inspiration. The field of Asian American theology is burgeoning, and gaining institutional strength: There is an annual Asian and Asian American Hermeneutics panel at the national Society of Biblical Literature convention, for example, and a new Chinese Christianities seminar at the American Academy of Religion meeting. Single ethnic-group studies such as Religion and Spirituality in Korean America, edited by David K. Yoo and Ruth H. Chung (Illinois, 2008) or Filipino American Faith in Action by Joaquin Jay Gonzalez III (NYU, 2009) have been joined on the bookshelf by volumes on Asian American women’s experiences and theologies, theological narratives of journeys and border crossing, and studies of postcolonial biblical hermeneutics or Asian American queer sexuality.

For many first- or 1.5-generation Asian Americans, themes of in-betweenness and hybridity recur across sub-fields. This language frequently describes both a religious or religious-cultural belonging and the experience of being American yet perceived as Other. Several theologians have followed Korean American Sang Hyun Lee in working on the concept of liminality, or the positive side to marginality and its prophetic possibilities. Unlike some other ethnic minorities in the US, Asian American experience is often one of a pluri-religious home culture, and this is now a prominent factor in theologizing, alongside reflection on experiences of race discrimination common to other ethnic populations, and those particular to Asian Americans.

Challenging American Identity

Asian American experience and theologizing speak both to American society and to America-in-the-world. This experience can challenge American views of itself and open up engagement with Asian Americans’ own history of inclusion, such as when we read searing accounts by Japanese American Christians of life in US internment camps. A more recent example is theologian Rita Nakashima Brock, who discusses her countercultural experience of “life as a mixed-race, Asian North American woman,” given that “the United States prefers its citizens to be pure racial types and monolingual people who can be categorized easily as friend or foe, elect or damned, patriot or terrorist,” and when purity “is deeply embedded in the founding myths of society,” affecting all aspects of cultural, religious, and sexual relations.5

From its marginal position, Asian American experience can relativize and critique “the complacency of mainstream white theologians, challenging them to rediscover and retrieve elements of the good news of Jesus Christ that were lost when Christianity was transformed from an erstwhile religion of the powerless and marginalized … to the official religion of an imperial empire,” as Jonathan Tan notes.6 It can offer models for dialogue across difference, frameworks for moving from ethnicity to solidarity,7 templates of engagement beyond bilateral dialogue,8 as well as articulate the social locations of power of all those engaging in partnerships and supposedly equal conversations.

As debates on religious pluralism progress, it might be good, in other words, first to look inward – to begin with the pluralities of Christian experience in the United States, and to listen to those with rich experience of inter-religious dialogue and life in multi-religious families and communities.

Chloë Starr is associate professor of Asian Christianity and theology at YDS. Her research interest is in Chinese theology, and her latest volume, Chinese Theology: Text and Context (Yale, 2016), explores Chinese theological texts from the Ming dynasty to the 21st century. Her courses at Yale include introductory surveys to East and South East Asian theologies, and seminars on Chinese and Japanese Christian literatures, Asian American theologies, and China mission.


1 Cf. Martin Conway, “Key Issues for Theological Education in the Twenty-first Century,” in Handbook of Education in World Christianity, edited by D. Werner, D. Esterline, N. Kang, and J. Raja (Regnum, 2010), pp. 23-30.

2 See e.g. Aloysius Pieris, S.J., An Asian Theology of Liberation (T&T Clark, 1988). See also his “The Place of Non-Christian Religions and Cultures in the Evolution of a Third World Theology,” EAPR, 19, 1982, pp. 5-53.

3 For a lively account of one such session, see David F. Ford, “Flamenco, Tai-Chi and Six-Text Scriptural Reasoning; Report on a Visit to China,”…

4 Such as, for example, Hong Kong scholar Archie C. C. Lee’s “cross-textual” reading method for Asian and biblical texts; see e.g. ‘Cross-Textual Interpretation and Its Implications for Biblical Studies,’ in Teaching the Bible: Discourse and Politics of Biblical Pedagogy, edited by F. F. Segovia and M. A. Tolbert (Orbis, 1998); “Cross-Textual Hermeneutics on Gospel and Culture,” in Asia Journal of Theology, vol. 10, no. 1 (1996), pp. 38-48.

5 Rita Nakashima Brock, “Cooking without Recipes: Interstitial Integrity,” in Off the Menu: Asian and Asian North American Women’s Religion and Theology, edited by Rita Nakashima Brock, Jung Ha Kim, Kwok Pui-lan, and Seung Ai Yang (Westminster John Knox, 2007).

6 Jonathan Tan, Introducing Asian American Theologies (Orbis, 2008), p. 82.

7 One good short essay we read in class is Anselm Kyongsuk Min, “From Autobiography to Fellowship of Others: Reflections on Doing Ethnic Theology Today” in Journeys at the Margin: Toward an Autobiographical Theology in American-Asian Perspective, edited by Peter Phan and Jung Young Lee (Liturgical Press, 1999).

8 On the need for “inter-multicultural theology,” see Peter C. Phan, Christianity with an Asian Face: Asian American Theology in the Making (Orbis, 2003).