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Asia and Christianity in History:


Addressing Some Problems of Church
Historiography
Teotonio R. de Souza'
Introduction
It should be clear from the introductory reflection why our formulation of
the title separates Asia and Christianity, rather than joining them into Asian
Christianity, or Christianity in/of Asia. It is meant to shun the pitfalls of both
colonial and nationalist trends of historiography.
The subtitle serves to make it clear that we do not intend to pick on
individual authors, but shall restrict to pointing to trends that we recommend
as positive or to criticise as undesirable. Our readers could then assess the
value of my readings.
If I chose to borrow some ideas from some authors, particularly and
extensively from Amartya Sen in these introductory remarks, it is because I
wish to highlight that the studies of History of Christianity in Asia, or elsewhere,
need to pay attention to critics of culture beyond the exclusive sphere of
religion, seeking to view the role of religion in a multidisciplinary perspective.
Being more familiar with the Indian historiography I may be allowed to draw
from it, in my illustrations and bibliographical references.
The belief in incarnation of God as Jesus defined the beginning of a cultural
interaction that we call Christianity and institutionalized Church, emerging
from Judaism that considered itself as God's chosen people. This happened in a
province of the far-flung Roman empire, in the Levant that is known as a cradle
of some early civilizations, but also a close neighbour to desert region with
harsh conditions for any stable growth dependent upon agricultural surplus.
The geography obviously conditioned the nature of the religions which
promise land flowing with milk and honey elsewhere. Christianity born in
Israel is one such proselityzing religions driven by the mission of preaching
and baptizing till the confines of the Earth. Unlike the semitic desert religions,
the Hinduism grew in a fertile tropical soil and saw no need of gaining converts
to ensure its survival.
Hindus are born as Hindus, not converted to Hinduism. Buddhism, its
offshoot, also shared the same characteristics, and its expansion was largely
Teotonio R. de Souza is Professor and Head of the Department of History. Universidade
Lusfona, Lisbon, Portugal, and Fellow of the Portuguese Academy of History. For more biobibliographical details, see http:/lorcid.org/0000-0002-9397-1433.

Asia and Christianity In History

19

helped by the silk route and large scale trade links. Judaism, Hinduism,
Buddhism, Chrlstlanit)4 Islam, they all served as basis of trust that made
distant trade possible worldwide.,
These considerations suggest the need of avoiding generalizations about
Asian Christianity with some specific Asian values as argued by Lee I(uan
Yew, the former prime minister of Singapore and a great champion of the Idea
of "Asian values" His views and policies were kept up by his successors Goh
Chok Tong and Tommy Koh with the Foundation of ASEM and ASEF.
The Indian Nobel laureate Amartya Sen sees in such a defence an exaggerated identification of Asian values with Confucian values, Sen calls our attention to the vastness and diversity of Asia, with no quintessential values which
distinguish the Asians as a group from people In the rest of the world and
which fit all parts of this immensely large and heterogeneous population.
The temptation to see Asia as a single cultural unit betrays a temptation to
follow the traditional Eurocentric perspective. The term 'Orient" which Europe widely used for a long time to mean essentially what Asia means today,
referred to the positional vision of Europe, as it contemplated the direction of
the rising sun.
The advocates of Asian values" have tended to look primarily at East Asia
as the region where such values apply. The generalization about the contrast
between the West and Asia often concentrates on the land to the east of Thailand, referred to as Asian "tigers' but Implies a more ambitious claim that the
rest of Asia is rather "similar:'
Lee Kuan Yew has outlined what he sees as the fundamental difference between Western concepts of society and government and those of East Asia.
By East Asia, he means Korea, Japan, China, and Vietnam, as distinct from
Southeast Asia, which Is mix between the Sinic and the Indian, though Indian
culture itself emphasizes similar values.
In fact, Sen reminds us that even East Asia itself has much diversity, and
there are many variations to be found among Japan, China, Korea, and other
parts of East Asia. Various cultural influences from inside and outside have
affected human lives over the history of this large territory. These influences
still survive in a variety of ways. Houghton Miffhin's Almanac describes the religion of the 124 million Japanese as follows: 112 million Shintoist, 93 million
Buddhist.
Cultures and traditions overlap in regions such as East Asia and even within countries such as Japan or China or Korea, and attempts at generalization
http:IIwwwjcu.eduIfacultyfnietupskIIrI25i/projecuInjiIk...roadIreligion/maIn.htrn
Lee Kuan Yew's speeches and interviews may be consulted online at http://www.Iee-kuart-yew.
corn/
Yo Lay Hwee / Mad Lath, eds. Asia and Europe: Essays and Speeches of Tommy Koh, Singapore.
2000.

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Thotonio R. de Souza

about "Asian values (with forceful and often brutal implications for masses of
people in this region with diverse faiths, convictions, and commitments) cannot but be extremely crude
Even the 2.8 million people of Lee's Singapore have vast variations of cultural and historical traditions, despite the fact that the conformism that characterizes its political leadership and the official interpretation of Asian values
is very powerful at the present.
Amartya Sen cites the eleventh century Iranian writer Alberuni, who came
to India with the invading army of Mahmood of Ghazni and recorded his revulsion at the atrocities committed by the Invaders. He proceeded to study
Indian society, culture, religion, and ideas, and addressed the subject of the
Intolerance of the unfamiliar.
He wrote: "in all manners and usages, [the Hindus) differ from us to such a
degree as to frighten their children with us, with our dress, and our ways and
customs, and as to declare us to be devil's breed, and our doings as the very
opposite of all that is good and proper. But 1 must confess, in order to be just,
that a similar depreciation of foreigners not only prevails among us and the
Hindus, but Is common to all nations towards each other:'
All this serves Amartya Sen to demonstrate the exaggerations in theorizing about tolerance and freedom in the Asian traditions. The championing of
democracy and political freedom in the modern sense cannot be found in the
pre-enlightenment tradition in any part of the world, West or East.
What needs to be Investigated, instead, are the constituents, the components, of this compound idea. These can be found in non-Western as well as
Western societies. It is hard to make sense of the view that the basic ideas
underlying freedom and rights in a tolerant society are exclusively "Western",
and alien to Asia.
Amartya Sen concludes his reflection about the controversy of Asian values
by stating "The recognition of diversity within different cultures is extremely
Important In the contemporary world, since we are constantly bombarded by
oversimple generalizations about "Western civilization," "Asian values;' "African cultures' and so on. These unfounded readings of history and civilization
are not only Intellectually shallow, they also add to the divisiveness of the world
In which we live:"
If we accept that the history of humanity is a history of diasporas that started in the distant pre-historic past from East Africa, and a process of fixation
In distant and varied spaces and climates of this globe, giving rise to different
ethnlclties, we need to get reconciled to the fact that such diasporas, ethniclties and cultural formations necessarily involved conflicts of varying Intensity

'Amartyn Sari, "Human Rights and Asian Values' 21e NewRepublic, July 14-July 21, 1997 http://
www.mtholyoke.eduiacad/ intrei/sen.lflrn

Asia and Christianity in History

21

and duration across history.'


Religions and creeds served as spiritual and moral supports to communities in their struggle for survival. Gods and goddesses were Invoked to band
communities together, as well as to legitimize the destruction or domination
of others. This was usually done by claiming divine protection for oneself and
one's cause, while contesting the validity of the belief-systems of others., Christianity has not been an exception to this rule. It is therefore to be seen how far
the scholars and other authors who have endeavoured to describe and analyse
the expansion and functioning of Christianity have been able to perceive the
multiple motivations of those engaged in such expansion and domination in
the name of Christianity.
More importantly, we need to pay attention in Church historiography to
Its capacity to reach beyond conscious intentions of the religious agents to the
more covert promoters and to the unintended consquences that shape human
history. Good faith and Ingenuousness cannot be good criteria for any scholarly analysis. They could even be damaging as manuals for pastoral or theological
formation.
Addressing some problems of Asian Church historlography
In this brief essay I shall obviously draw on my reflections which I shared
over the past three decades and to which I can provide some bibliographical
references. It should be clear from them that I had several opportunities to
share my views beyond the Anglo-Saxon World, covering at least three continents.'
'Mitchell Beuley, Prehistoric Past Revealed, London: Octopus Publishing Group Ltd., 2003.
Samuel P. Huntington, 0 Choque des Civilize cs c a Mudanca na Ordain Mundlal. Lisboa:
Gredlva, 1999. This author maintains that this religious base for cultural conflicts will be the prime
motivating force during times to come. NB. I am using references to many books In Portuguese
that are more easily accessible to me In Portugal where I am presently based.
'Souze, Teotonlo R.,'Spiritual Conquest of the East: A Critique of the Church Historiography
of Portuguese Aslu' Indian Church bllstoiy Rei'hnv 19 (1985). 1: 10 - 24; 'A conquista espiritual
do Oriente: Nets critics sabre a historlografla cia igreja no Asia, Portuguese", Pare anus hlsidrla
da Igreje tie Amdrlca Latina, ad, Jos6 Deozzo, 123. 135., Petrhpolis: Voaes (1986); 'The AfroAsian Church In the Portuguese Estado do Indus African Church HlstorloEaphy, An ecumenical
perspective, ed Ogbu Kotu, 56 -76,. Bern: World Council of Churches (1988)1 'Algumas feces de
Cristo no Asia' Condillum, 246: 173 - 180(1993); 'The Indian Christians of St. Thomas and the
Portuguese Padroado: Rape after a century-long courtship (1498-1599)'; In Christen and Guivarze:
Konfrrjntatio,, and Interakekm kolonhiler stud indigener Chrlste;iturnsvarlai:ten, ad. K. Koachorice,
MOnchen (1997): 31.42 'The Council of Trent (1545-1563): Its reception In Portuguese Indle, In
7)'n':scontluuntal Links In the History of Non. Western CisrIsLigsuj ed. K.Koschorke, Wiesbaden
(2001): 189-201; "0. Jos de Costa Nunes . A Patriarch who cared for more than souls; A case
of ceesaro-papism In Portuguese India, 19424953', In Mission and Maclit ha Wandel polltischer
Orientlerungen: Europaishe Mlssions.gesellscivajtsn In palhechen Spennungs/eldern in Afrika and
Aslen zwischen 1800 and 1945, eds Ulrich van der Hayden / Holger Stoecker, Miinahen: Franz
Steiner Verlag (2005): 243-256; "0 Padroado portuguSs do Oriente visto do lndla' Rei'Lsta de
CMncIa das Reltgles, Lisboa, 2008: 13/14: 413 - 430: ".4mora.s and Arnares: The Ambiguities

22

Teotonio R. de Souza

An International conference that gathered nearly thirty scholars from


various nationalities and continents, debated upon the "Christianity In
History: Encounters, Engagements and Experiences" in February 2-4, 2011.
It was organized at the Centre of Historical Studies of the Jawaharlal Nehru
University (JNU) In New Delhi.
One main objective of this conference was to help developing a
historiography that could be liberated from the near-monopolistic domain of
a few 'religious' and Western experts who focused largely on the origin and
nature of mission societies from their metropolitan countries, the personnel
that were involved, the numbers that were converted, and how much charity
was exercised or hunger relieved.
In my keynote address, entitled "Christianity in Asia and its Historiography
In the Postcolonial Context A Review and Challenges I focused on the
postcolonial context, risking obviously the displeasure of some Western
participants and their accusations of simplifying the Issues.
I saw no need for us to be led by the agendas aimed at completing an
"unfinished business" an expression that opens the introduction to the Missions
and Empire (OUP, 2005) by Norman Etherington, edited as Companion Series
for the Oxford History of the British Empire.9 It seeks to Impress upon the
International community (aimed particularly at the ax-colonies) and remind
us how the missionary Sons and daughters of the Western colonial powers
promoted the spiritual and material welfare of the colonized and converted
Asians, helping to break away from the injustices of the local cultures.
The general tendency In such historiography is to eschew handling the
complexity of the process that bred new forms of injustices that the colonial
West exported to Asia under the guise of modernity and civilizing mission.
It is curious to note how the above mentioned Missions and Empire
denounces the aphorisms that popularized the relationship between
evangelization and Imperial expansion. The frequent use of such aphorisms
is attributed to spokesmen of anti-colonial nationalisms. We are told that it
hardly corresponded to reality, where the missionaries were more often seen
of Colonial Mandhandllng in Sri Lanka under the Portuguese", In The Portuguese in the Orient.
Kandy; international Centre for Ethnic Studies, 2010, pp.239-2$0 The Economic and Racial
Implications of the Globalization of Knowledge by the Catholic Missionaries In Portuguese
India, 16th -18th Centuries", in Mission:tecl;khte als Gechlcht. der Globallulerung von Wissen,
ads Lunch Van der Hoyden / Andreas FeidtkeUer, Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag (2012): 881388; 'From Chrlstlanlzation of Karma to Luso-Troplcallem and Lusosphere SEMINAR, Delhi,
Feb. 2012: 23 - 27; Rethinking Polycentnic Structures in the Posicolonlal Church: Dangers of
'Drone Miselology' or Afghenizaelon of Christianity". In Vor/tndrae Landkarten, ads Ciprian
Bunlecloiu und Adrian Hermann, Wiesbaden: Harrouowltz Verlag, 2013 pp, 267-274, Cf. Sundry
forthnightiy Op-Ed columns In the Goon daily Herald may be consulted online at http://pt.scrlbd
corn! collecUontef2370869Il-listonical-Explorallons
'M1.rions and Empire, ed. Norman Etherington, Oxford University Press, 2005. Companion Series
of the Oxford History of the British Empire, p.1.

Asia and Christianity in History

23

as nuisance and even barred from Interfering into imperial schemes. Then goes
on to uphold Christian Mission in the Twentieth Century (Cambridge, 1994) by
Timothy Yates as a model of postcolonial historiography of Christian missions,
because It studies the Christian Missions in our times as predominantly nonWestern, and more Importantly, the book contains only five references to
Imperialism, two references to British, and none to colonialism.
The Church historiography can come In a variety of assorted packages, and
most of them can be appreciated for their Inputs to provide some minutiae that
can help filling some lacunae in known data of local or regional nature.
They can be particularly useful when they use private archives in the form
of diaries, correspondence, mission bulletins, often of ephemeral nature and
with difficult access to scholars. They can serve as good building blocks to
complement, correct and complete the existing accounts of larger scale.
Though we often hear that the Devil lies In the details, God too is present in
the details, as God of small mercies that make the routine of our lives and the
culture of an organization or a communitI4 If we are to believe in the Gospel
statement in Luke 121 that the very hairs of your head are all numbered.
I wish this last remark may serve to alert to the need of not letting the faith
replace the ideology of an agnostic or atheist. There Is no substitute to a critical handling of sources. Non-Christians or non-practising Christian historians
have produced good or even better histories of Christianity than many devout
and practising Christians.
We have seen recently the major work of Dauril Alden about The Making
of an Enterprise: ThB Society offesus in Portugal, Its Empire, and Beyond, 154017S0 focusing upon the financial structure and functioning of the Jesuit Order in the Portuguese empire, and quite a few Interesting insights Into the Jesuit haglography and missionary methods In Asia by Ines Zupanov. 2iopicalized
Christianity of Zupanov is somewhat a parallel to my readings of christianized
karma that keeps worrying the Roman church till today in Its post-Vatican II
openness to inctdturatlon in India. It is an oppenness frought with fear of syrscretisms and of being absorbed by the traditional creeds and rituals,
The historiography of Christianity cannot merely hark back to the teachings of Jesus, but needs to examine how those teachings have been Interpreted
and manipulated along the centuries to serve the Interests of dominant political, social and economic elites or other forces. It Is obvious that the modern
day beneficiaries and sympathizers of that process are likely to resent and disapprove this approach.
Expansion of Christianity has always been advocated as essence of Its mis Dauril Alden, The Maki ng of an E.nterprise:The Society ofJes, I,, Port ua1, its mplraa,rd Beyond
1540-1750. California: Stanford University Press, 1996.
"Ines Zupanov, Missionary Tropics: The Catholic Frontier In India (161h-1 7 ceninries), University
of Michigan, 2005.

24

Teotonlo R. de Souza

sion to reach the ends of the earth) incarnated in the cultures It meets, replicating the Incarnation of Jesus. We need to study Christlanities of Asia, not
merely a Christianity in Asia.
The recent attempt by Peter C. Phan at editing Christlanities in Asia in
Blackwell Guides to Global Christianity series' Is most welcome. Particularly
noteworthy Is his observation about Asia as populated by massive number of
believers of religions other than Christianity The Christianity represents an
influential, but insignificant minority.
It does not mean that earlier histories that covered Asian Christianity)
mostly as histories of missions of the Churches in Europe) are no longer relevant. They help to understand the specificities of the Institutions they left
behind and the types of responses that they still evoke. For instance) even in a
small region like Goa, in western India, erstwhile capital of the Portuguese empire in Asia, where different religious orders had carved out different provinces
for their pastoral labours, their specific methodologies are still reflected in the
social, economic and political responses of the local Christian communities.
The Jesuit converts in Salcete province still reflect the cultural and political
militancy In the new federal State of Goa.13
One more caveat about the Inherited models of Church historiography is
about their suffering of the general malaise of colonial historlographies that
reduced the history of Asia (and its regions) to episodes in their national histories. A Goa-born Indian savant, P.D. Kosambi warned the Indian historians
against this malaise, and advised them against It In their professional exercise.
According to him "history must reflect mans [sic] progress at satisfying his
needs In cooperation with all his fellowmen, not the success of a few at satisfying them at the expense of most of their fellow men"14
The Asians need to assume their active role in the globalization, instead of
continuing to feel victimized and at the receiving end. The Catholic Federation
of the Asian Bishops' Conferences born at Taipei (Taiwan) in 1974 has placed
It on record that the history of Christianity was being 'newly returned' to the
Asian peoples themselves.' That is a recurrent point in the thought and texts
of the FABC conferences the vision of a 'new world being born' in Asia since
the end of the colonial period.
The FABC (Federation of Asian Bishops' Conferences) has affirmed time
and again that the church's missionary proclamation and activity must be in
close dialogue with the realities of the continent and must seek to respond to
' Peter C. Phen (ed.) CIsrLstlanlLles in ,4i1a, West Sussex UK: Blackwell Pubi. Ltd., 2011.
i'e, Macau:
Teotonlo R. de Sousa & Charles), Borges (ede) Jcnit.c in hidlai In historical perspecfl
1CM. 1982,
Prakashan Pvt,
D,D.Kosambi, Au Introduction to the Study of indian History. Mumbal: Popular
Ltd., 1975, pp. xii.
'GaudencIo Rosales and CG. Ardvaio (eds.), For all the Peoples of Asia (FABC documents from
1970-1991), N.Y: Orbis Books, 1992, p. viii.
11

Asia and Christianity in History

25

the 'signs of the times.'


Another recurring theme is 'dialogue,' as the 'basic mode of mission in Asia,'
meaning dialogue with histories and cultures, religions and religious traditions,
and life situations of poverty. This dialogue cannot any longer be strategic adaptations tried by De Nobili and Ricci and which fizzled out as a result of the
cultural superiority of the European Imperial church leadership.
The missionary strategy of cultural adaptation was a sort of a paternalist
concession to the Asian cultures. It is important to note that nowhere In the
FABC documents does one find any recrimination or resentment against the
colonial experiences. I see It as the basis of all challenges: sublimating, without
bypassing, the colonial experiences.
I wish to recall here the advice of Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, in his Glimpses
of World History: 'Our study of history has shown us that life is often very cruel
and callous. To get excited over It or merely to blame people, is foolish and
does not help. It is much more sensible to try to understand the causes of poverty and misery and exploitation, and then try to remove them."
At a seminar organized by me in Goa in 1992, Fr. Benny Aguiar, the former
Editor of the Catholic weekly The Rxamlner of Bombay and who had covered
the last leg of the Vatican II and three synods of Bishops In Rome for the journal, spoke about the continued colonial inheritance In a paper entitled 'Decolonizing the Church.'
Fr. Aguier cited Cardinal Parecattil speaking at the World Conference of
Religions held at Cochin In November 1981: 'We must be humble, shedding all
superiority complex in our approach to other religions.., In God's providence
every religion has a part to play in leading men to their destiny.' This conference
was a kind of summit meeting of all dialogue groups that had sprung up in various parts of the country on the Initiative of the CBCI Dialogue Commission.,,
Concluding Remarks
KM.Parilkkar, author of Asia and Western Dominance (1953) dedicated the
last section VII of his book to Christian Missions. His five general conclusions
tell us that the Christianity under the patronage of Imperialism failed to attract the Asian mind. This was the experience of every Asian country, whichever be the specific European power involved in its colonial domination. It is
still relevant to listen patiently to his conclusions because decolonization and
postcolonlallsm have not gone much beyond changing of flags and political
frills. Many sections of the former missionary clients in the newly independent
Asian countries have not yet been weaned from the Old Mother Hubbard, or
perhaps just as much as her proverbial dog.
"Jawaharlal Nehru, Glimpses of World History. New Delin Out', 1997 (12th ed.), p. 435.
"Benny Auiar, 'Decolonising the Church: in Teotonlo R. de Souza (ad), Discoveries, Missionary
Expansion and MIan Cultures, New Delhi: Concept Publishing Company, 1994, pp. 139-147.

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Thoto&o R. de Souza

Ihe success of the missions? Panikkar tells US, need not have been so meager but for certain factors: In the first place, the missionary brought with him
an attitude of moral superiority and a belief in his own exclusive righteousness.
The doctrine of the monopoly of truth and revelation Is a claim that is alien
and unreasonable to the Hindu and Buddhist mind. Secondly, the association
of Christian missionary work with aggressive imperialism introduced political
complications. National sentiment could not fall to look upon missionary activity as inimical to the country's interests. That diplomatic pressure, extra-territoriality and sometimes support of gunboats had been resorted to in the interests of the foreign missionaries could not be easily forgotten. Thirdly, the
sense of European superiority which the missionaries perhaps unconsciously
Inculcated produced also its reaction. Even during the days of unchallenged
European political supremacy no Asian people accepted the cultural superiority of the West. The educational activities of the missionaries stressing the
glories of European culture only led to the Identification of the work of the missions with Western cultural aggression. Fourthly, the wide variety of Christian
sects, each proclaiming the errors of others, handicapped missionary work. Finally, the growth of unbelief in Europe in the nineteenth century and the crisis
In European civilization, following the Great War of 1914.18, and the October
Revolution, broke whatever spell the different sects of Christianity had among
certain classes of Asians. With the disappearance of European dominance
Christianity assumed Its natural position as one of the religions of Asia and the
missionaries ceased to have any special or privileged position."
A prominent Indian journalist, political analyst and economist, was invited
by the CBCI on the occasion of Its golden jubilee celebration to present his
views at a plenary meeting to review the work of the Church In India. Bishops,
senior clergy and Christian scholars participated in this meeting in Pune, in
Western India, in 1994. The author draws from his personal experience as well
as from reading prominent national leaders, particularly Swami Vivekananda
and Mahatma Gandhi,
Arun Shourie does not fail to mention the impact of Panikkar's Asia and
Western Dominance, specially with reference to the missionary support to the
secessionist groups In Nagaland, Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur, the North-Eastern States of India, through foreign funds and media networks." Shourie Is a
good representative of many political leaders in Asia who see the Christianity
as poet-colonial extension of the Western interests and a source of threat to
" K.MPanikkar, Asia and Western Dominance (1993 reprintl, The Other Books, Kualalumpur,
with a new Preface by Claude Aivares and T.R. de Souza, p.29?. Panikkar was the architect of the
foreign policy of India soon after its Independence, and was the first ambassador to communist
China. His Asia and Westerii Domluasice played an important role In India's decision to ban the
entry of foreign missionaries in india.
"Arun Shourle, MissionarIes In India: Continuities, Changes, Dilemmas. New Delhi: HarperCoiflns

Publishers India, 1994, pp. 3. 205-10.

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27

political stability of the newly Independent Asian nations.


The mission of the Church in upholding human rights and preaching salvation to the oppressed will continue to be a permanent thorn in the flesh for the
political interests but unfortunately the real and alleged weaknesses of Church
Institutions, clergy and faithful may also help substantiating the accusations.
T18 requires an unbiased and critical handling by the Church historiography
and can be a touchstone of Its credibility.

Frederick S. Downs, History of Chr(1ianity in India, Vol. V.


117ff.

Pt-5., l3angalroe; CHAI, 1992, pp.