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Presentation III

NEW ECUMENICAL AGENDA: ANOTHER REFORMATION

Baw Tananone

 

Let me begin by describing a translation project for a study group in rural northern Thailand.

A combination of factors have made it possible for a small rural northern Thai congregation to have a weekly study on their Christian faith in light of a new description of other living faiths through the use of the text "My neighbour's faith and Mine". This study is probably out of the ordinary not only by the fact that such a book is used but also in that it is an attempt to get the "audience" to participate in the very process of translating the English text into a common grassroot Thai. The participants are not encouraged to repeat what is expected as correct or right, tether, they are to work together, with the translator and leader, to formulate a common adaptation of the text. The final translation aimed at is the one the study group has helped to revise until a commonly understood text is determined and agreed upon. The translation may differ significantly from the English text. But that is not of primary concern. What is of primary concern is that the group of participants themselves will learn to speak their deep conviction together in a new way.

I feel strongly that, for too long, the faithful in Thailand have been fearful of deviating from dogmatic and other predetermined correct teachings. For too long, we have sought to hold on to some static ways of doing things religious in order to be sure of our own individual salvation. We have, as a result, failed miserably to speak and live cur faith and bear witness to Jesus Christ in the community. Given a new description of other faiths in the experiences of others, the group is challenged to work out their faith in relation to that new field of meaning.

To be sure, it is no longer an attempt to secure and defend a position or to attack a different position but to "conjure" up the faith together. Charismatically speaking, the question is "Do we have the Spirit at work in our midst

 

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that we dare to engage in the process of uttering a new name for God"?

It would have been a more fruitful effort if the study could have included sane Buddhist participants. But at this point in time in Thailand, the culture does not seem rife for such inter-religious meeting. Theravada Buddhism has been the dominant factor in the shaping of this very homogenous culture for over a millennium. Even though modernization for the past two centuries has changed much of traditional Thailand, Buddhist sages, reformers and artists seem to have succeeded in helping the people through the era of secularism brought about by modern science and technology. Even the drastic changes in the economic and social sectors that have taken place in the last two decades have not meant a cultural disintegration. With self-confidence, our Buddhists neighbours do not really find it necessary to participate in dialogue with people of other faiths. In other words, pluralism is not perceived to be an emerging reality. There is no sign that our neighbours have considered the matter of building a new community based on a new reality of pluralism.

But that does not mean that the Christians can afford to be monistic. They must assume pluralism. For one thing, they can no longer go back to their monistic home in the West because the West is no longer a culture dominated by the Church it once was. This fact is reflected in the growth of pseudo-church organisations. Coupled with that is the rise of new forms of religions and charismatic fundamentalism. Together with other secular "confessions", these bodies make the West pluralistic where the Church has lost its dominion. But the pluralistic West is not the reason for our assuming pluralistic approach to reality. In Thailand it is required by the very nature of our minority status in relation to Buddhism. It is demanded of us as a Christian remnant community that we renew and reform ourselves in the context that we are found. Buddhism in Thailand due to its overwhelming domination in the Thai situation will not see any need to engage other faiths in the task of community renewal and reform. But from a minority position the Christians must seek to renew and reform themselves in dialogue. They need to build a Christian community while at the same time participating in the process of rebuilding the larger community based on pluralism, if they fail to do so, they will continue to be Western and alien to the Thai culture. My belief is that, at this stage of Christian history in Thailand where we are much more individualistic than communitarian, we must engage in dialogue among

 

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ourselves and with people of other faiths, particularly our Buddhist neighbours. There are multiple fields of meanings that we cannot ignore but must be engaged by. We must be confident that if the Spirit is with us, we will not be absorbed into godless existence or into the realm of death. It is more likely that we will inject newness of life and transformation of the larger community in such a way that we ourselves become its legitimate part. In summary, we must reform our community, informed by our particular cultural context, and we must participate in reforming the common community.

In the long history of Christian mission to Thailand, the Church was established as a separate colony from the existing society. The process of reintegration or inculturation has seared very superficial and artificial. The Christians must do more than putting on indigenous appearance and taking it off like clothes. They must be engaged by the indigenous culture to the point of being transformed by the culture. The Gospel must not get presented in Thai garb. It has to be re-presented. Shall we say, we must put on new skin and not merely new clothes to communicate the Gospel of Jesus Christ. I realize of course that this process of incarnation will not be an easy matter. After centuries of putting on Western skin, it may not be possible for Christianity to put on a new skin; for one thing, Thailand itself is undergoing the process of Westernization.

But no matter how difficult the process of taking on a new skin may be, it is better than the mockery of "packaging” the eternal truth of God in various cultural costumes as if the Gospel was a product. Jesus Christ is both the message and the medium; God Himself and His image are one.

What I am trying to say, in other words, is that the Gospel of Jesus Christ in terms of community building cannot become a reality in a monistic model of the world.

Wesley Ariyarajah speaks of the resurgence of religion, "both in its traditional and in its new forms", in our contemporary global situation. In this resurgence a major aspect is the return to the fundamentals. But, as in Thailand and elsewhere, fundamentalism has tended toward preserving the old and fighting against the new.

In Thailand, Christian-Charismatic fundamentalism has come to us again from Western Christianity. It has created quite a ruckus in the established churches across the land. Those who

 

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have joined the movement, as I have encountered, appeared cultic and close-mindedly dogmatic. It is hard to see that they represent a creative force for building community. For one thing, their minds are set on the Armageddon that will precede the final arrival of the Kingdom. Clearly, they have no desire of working together with people who have not converted to their way, whether they are Christian, Buddhist, or otherwise.

Coupled with the fact that in Thailand, Buddhism is still the only major religious factor, Christian fundamentalism will not contribute to the building of the new community. The Buddhist Sangha has no rival. New Buddhist orders have been able to rejoin the hierarchy. Buddhist reformers, intellectuals and wise gurus are busy with multitudes of followers. Christian fundamentalism will only contribute to sectarianism and not communitarianism.

But without a doubt, Buddhism in Thailand has been suffering a decline under the assault of modernization, westernization and, secularization through science and technology. This community definitely have suffered from the negative effects of material growth; its communitarian spirit and its spiritual link with the ultimate have been deteriorating. In this setting I do not think that Christians should be sectarian but to join the force of reinterpretation, reformation and rebuilding. We should join in seeking, both, to form a living Christian community and to participate in building a new community based on pluralism.

No doubt, this task seems beyond anything human can do. How, in the world, can a minority religion be anything but alien in a monistic setting, albeit declining in strength. But we have learned that our faith was not a "once-and-for-all" faith. We must constantly adjust or reform our lives together as our culture also undergoes changes. Eternal truth keeps taking on new images in the concrete world.

I would like to take us, at this point, to an issue that has continued to dominate the Church today, i.e. evangelism. What does this non-propositional theology, this mutual participatory engagement, and pluralistic communitarianism do to evangelism? How do we bear witness to Jesus Christ who, once and for all, reconciled us to God? How is the Church to bear witness in Thailand? Is not our final objective to displace Buddhism in the hearts of Thai people? Is it not commanded by the Lord himself that all are to be baptized in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, and that

 

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they confess Jesus Christ alone as their Lord and Saviour?

I believe that here we are face to face with the human dilemma of being under heaven and on earth. Heavenly truth takes shape on earth. The revelation of God does not come to us as lightning bolts out of the blue. It comes into specific and concrete living situation in a familiar way. It definitely involves a meeting of souls, of senses and of lives. Human faith is alive in the human limits. We can only point to the moment of transfiguration. We can only attempt to describe it afterwards but we go beyond our own limits to attempt at objective description. The Good News must be formulated in the encounter between souls. It cannot be prefabricated. A reflection and an articulation are necessary for the sake of communication and community.

This means we have to be aware that we communicate analogically and we must not encapsulate the Good News in static logical correctness.

Evangelism is a meeting. Without a meeting it becomes enslaving. Evangelism is not presenting a ready-made answer to a problem. It is representing Jesus Christ with imagination in a new setting. It is a rediscovery of his saving power in the very meeting of ordinary human beings. As we consider together what may be our new ecumenical agenda, dare we put a new emphasis on evangelism? I would like to hope that Evangelism in the pluralistic age will seek to build, at least, dual communities: a Christian community and a larger community of which it is an integral part.