Jose Francisco – Reclaiming Christianity as Asian

Jose Mario C. Francisco – « Reclaiming Christianity as Asian »

This text is a part of the issue:
English: Asian Christianities
Deutsch: Asiatischen Christentümer
Italiano: Cristianesimi asiatici
Português: Cristiandades asiáticas
Français: Christianismes asiatiques
Español: Cristianismos asiáticos
中國人: 亞洲基督教

The immense Asian region, linked by land or maritime bridges and shaped by movements of peoples and their artifacts, has never been characterized by essentialized qualities but by a network of family resemblances between many diverse contexts. From its beginnings, Christianity emerged in and has journeyed across this region, entering contexts that changed and were changed by it; hence some speak of “Christianities.”

Though Christianity in Asia attracts popular and scholarly interest, it is often seen through distorting perspectives. This essay critiques such perspectives and discusses the fundamental epistemic shift toward re-claiming Christianity as Asian.

1. Liberation from Distorting Perspectives

1.1. Christianity as Minority

Though Christianity is “one of the largest and fastest-growing religions in Asia”[1] and is projected to increase from 287 to 381 million between 2010 and 2050,[2]many focus on its minority status (7% of total population in 2010), often identified as its defining feature.

However, this account presumes a view of religion defined by a social institution with articulated belief-systems, uniform moral codes and differentiated structures, and thus with clear borders for membership. This view arose from the “specific Christian history” of modern Europe,[3] characterized by violent intra-Christian conflicts between Catholicism and Protestantism during the Long Reformation (1400-1700 CE).[4]Religion thus becomes “essentially a matter of symbolic meanings linked to ideas of general order (expressed through either or both rite and doctrine), that it had generic functions/features, and that it must not be confused with any of its particular historical or cultural forms.”[5]

This view even underpins the concept of world religion/s, which was intended to turn from 19th century Eurocentric obsession with exoticism toward “a more egalitarian and lateral delineation.”[6] But what emerged is the incorporation of the prevailing discourse on religion into “the new outlook of the pluralist ideology—or supposed democracy—of world religions.”[7]

In contrast, Asian religious traditions—ancient and new, “great” and “little”—have taken multiple diverse forms born out of their interaction with one another and with traditional local practices. One finds varying forms of Buddhism, Islam and Christianity that interact with traditions such as Confucianism and Daoism or with local practices like shamanism and indigenous traditions.[8] Although conflicts have occurred, their causes are often rooted in social, economic and political interests coopting these traditions.

Thus Christianity in Asia cannot be defined by its demographic minority status as this assumes religions, including Christianity, to be clearly bounded institutionsisolated from other entities and forces. Asian religious identities are complex and fluid, though distinctly different from what has been called “multiple religious belonging” or “cafeteria Christianity” in other contexts.[9]

1.2. Christianity as Colonial

Christianity in Asia is also labeled “colonial” due to European intrusion 16th century onward. This claim implies institutional links between Christianity and colonization, and coercion behind all instances of Christian incorporation.

“Colonial” cannot be universally applied, because Christianity’s colonial links varied and produced differing consequences across Asia. Only in certain coastal parts of India and the Spanish Philippines were these links first established under the 1493 Patronato. Moreover, their implementation and impact were not uniform. Geographical diffusion of islands and insufficient Spanish forces mitigated colonial force in the Philippines.[10] Subsequent competition with Dutch and British trading companies influenced Catholic and Protestant missions.

Bryan Turnernotes “significant differences between the early Portuguese and Spanish empires in which the church and state worked in unison, and the Anglo-American imperial expansion in which there was greater separation between the economic imperatives of empire and the missionary churches.”[11] These shaped Christianity’s status and local reactions: “The history of the Christian churches has been checkered, in so far as different states either sought to exclude Christianity, or to embrace it as a necessary precondition of modernization.”[12] Thus, in the 16th century, Christianity was received in parts “where there was relatively little competition and where local states were either weak or non-existent”; but in the 19th and 20th centuries, it “was opposed by nationalist or communist movements.”[13]

Labeling Christianity as colonial is partially true: “the success of Christianity in Asia cannot be separated from economic and imperial power, and that its spread in Asia has also been a function of the strength or weakness of other religions, especially Islam.”[14] But it cannot be a comprehensive perspective because of Christianity’s varying relations with these powers and traditions across Asia.

1.3. Christianity As Foreign

The construal of Christianity as foreign to Asia, closely linked to its colonial label, also needs to be interrogated, especially since describing Christianity in Asia as primarily the product of imperialism still serves important political functions; for instance, “in contemporary Malaysia and Indonesia, where it can be important, ideologically, to define Christianity as being a foreign intruder.”[15]

From origins and spread in Western Asia through pre-colonial arrival in South Asia and China and from the 16thcentury onward, Christianity has been in Asian soil, albeit intermittent and geographically confined. Behind this presence lie the historic experiences of Asian Christians, not just in terms of individual lives but also of the shared identities of Asian Christians.

Many, whether officially declared or popularly revered, present exemplary lives as Christians and as Asians marked with their personal identifications. Asian Catholic saints and blessed are very diverse: of the total 486 from 8 countries, 384 were lay of which 108 were women.[16] Though all except four died of martyrdom from imperial or local authorities, their “dying for the faith” did not involve renouncing their native identities.

Moreover, Asian Christians often contributed to “nativist” or nationalist sentiments. Many lay Catholics in the 1896 Philippine Revolution saw their struggle for freedom and wellbeing as participating in Christ’s passion.[17] Filipino diocesan priests like Jose Burgos and Pedro Pelaez promoted the nationalist agenda within and beyond the Church; others even took active and supportive roles in the Revolution and the subsequent Philippine-American War.[18]

Similar examples are found in other Asian countries. When Catholicism in Vietnam was known as Đạo Hoa Lang[religion or the way of Portuguese], Hàn Mặc Tử (1912-1942), arguably the most prominent and first Vietnamese Catholic modern poet, created works where “Christian faith and Vietnamese culture encountered each other at a deeper, more intimate level that enabled each to enrich the other”: “on one hand, the newly claimed self-awareness in Vietnamese cultures enabled Catholics like Hàn to articulate their faith in their authentic cultural expression. On the other hand, the post-persecution Catholic church opened Vietnamese cultures to a new world perspective at the beginning of the twentieth century.  Hence, Catholicism remains neither as a ‘guest’ nor a ‘stranger’ to Vietnamese cultures and religions.”[19]

Another example is Jesuit Albertus Soegijapranata (1896–1963), ordained the first Indonesian bishop and officially declared a national hero.[20] Despite his “Orientalist” formation from Dutch missionaries, he promoted Javanese self-esteem and played significant roles during critical events like the Japanese Occupation (1942), Indonesian Independence (August 1945) and its aftermath in the fight against returning Dutch troops.

The profound witness of myriad Asian Christians does not only undermine distorting claims about the foreign and imposed nature of Christianity, but also provide grounds for a profoundly postcolonial perspective on and of Asian Christianity.

[1] Julius Bautista and Francis Ghek Kee Lim (eds), Christianity and the State in Asia: Complicity and Conflict (London: Routledge, 2009), p. 1.

[2]“Religious Landscape Study,”

[3]Talal Asad,Genealogies of Religion (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1993), p. 42.

[4]Meredith B. McGuire, Lived Religion: Faith and Practice in Everyday Life (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), pp. 22-43.

[5]Asad, op. cit., p. 42.

[6] Tomoko Masuzawa, The Invention of World Religions: Or, how European Universalism was Preserved in the Language of Pluralism (Chicago and London: Chicago University Press, 2005), p. 13

[7]Ibid., p. 33.

[8] Felix Wilfrid (ed),The Oxford Handbook of Christianity in Asia (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), pp. 1-11.

[9] Albertus Bagus Laksana, ‘Multiple Religious Belonging or Complex Identity?: An Asian Way of Being Religious’, in Wilfred, op. cit., pp. 493-509.

[10]Linda A. Newson, ‘Old World Diseases in Early ColonialPhilippines and Spanish America’, in Daniel F.Doeppers and Peter Xenos (eds), Population and History: TheDemographic Origins of the ModernPhilippines (Quezon City: Center for Southeast Asian Studies, 1998), pp.17-36.

[11]Bryan S.Turner, ‘Globalization, Religion and Empire in Asia”, in Peter Berger and Lori G. Beaman (eds), Religion, Globalization and Culture (Leiden: Brill, 2007), pp. 146-47.

[12]Ibid., p. 160

[13]Ibid., p. 160.

[14]Ibid., p. 160

[15]Ibid., p. 156

[16] Francis X. Clark, Asian Saints: The 486 Catholic Canonized Saints and Blessed of Asia, Quezon City, 2000, pp. 7-19.

[17] Reynaldo Clemeña Ileto, Pasyon and Revolution: Popular Movements in the Philippines, 1840-1910 (Quezon City: Ateneo de Manila University Press, 1979), pp. 75-113.

[18]John N. Schumacher, Revolutionary Clergy: The Filipino Clergy and the Nationalist Movement, 1850-1903(Quezon City: Ateneo de Manila University Press, 1981).

[19] Hưng Trung Phạm,“Hàn Mặc Tử (1912–1940): A New Moon for the Season of the New Evangelization in Vietnamese Catholicism,” Kritika Kultura 25 (2014), 113-33 <>

[20] Albertus Bagus Laksana, “Love of religion, love of nation: Catholic mission and the idea of Indonesian nationalism,” Kritika Kultura 25, 91-112 <>