Erenlai - Items filtered by date: Thursday, 25 February 2010
Friday, 26 February 2010 00:00

Idols and sutra-chanting in churches

We asked the Archbishop Shan-Chuan Hung S.V.D. about examples of religious dialogue in a local setting; after mentioning the meeting between a Taiwanese Cardinal and the Dalai Lama, where Catholicism was creating space for dialogue where the Dalai Lama had otherwise received a cold reception. This is Catholicism’s dialogue with the world.

Indeed dialogue does not come without difficulties. In August of last year his church in Yilan was celebrating its 50th year, the local temple’s sutra-chanting troupe brought some Tudigong idols to the pay their respects to the church. The following day there was accusations that we had been worshiping false idols. However the troupe had first joined in singing some hymns and indeed left before mass formally started. Cardinal Hong was very upset about them being criticised in the media and by some members of the parish as he felt that the sutra-chanters had genuinely wanted to congratulate.

If a Buddhist monk was sat calmly at the back of the room and we forced him to leave, that would mean that the church still didn’t treat all as equals. Jesus said: ‘I love benevolence more than sacrifice’. If they are willing to take part in our ceremonies, who says they won’t be capable of hearing the voice of God, of knowing him.
For me this situation is not a crisis, but a turning point, an opportunity for Christians to be re-educated. To appreciate the good hearts of others is a valuable life lesson. So Catholics should not try to cleanse the church of this type of activity and instead reflect and discuss, as this could be the match that lights the fire, releasing the flame of truth.






No matter the time or context, inter-religious dialogue is rarely a simple endeavour. Throughout history, occasions on which Christians and Muslims have met have unfortunately most often been ones of tension, conflict and misunderstanding - a situation which, in many places, is little improved today. And yet, more than one thousand years ago, in and around the currently volatile cities of Basra and Baghdad, Christians and Muslims lived side by side in a context where they were able to debate openly and defend their respective faiths, resulting in an awareness and understanding of each other’s traditions which is largely unparalleled in today’s world.
The period in question is that of the early ninth century C.E., barely two centuries after the expansion of the Islamic Empire, which by that point stretched from Southern Spain in the West to the borders of China in the East. In doing so, it incorporated a number of native Christian populations, who remained the majority for a number of centuries, and who provided essential skills to their Arab conquerors, with many Christians being employed as physicians, bureaucrats and translators. Indeed, under the patronage of the ruling caliphs, it was Christians who were responsible for transmitting Greek philosophical thought into Arabic and Islamic thinking. It is in this context that we find the first generation of Christian theologians who wrote in Arabic, and who were faced with explaining Christian beliefs and practices in a language closely intertwined with Islam and the Qur’an.

From the texts available to us, it is evident that Christians felt the need to defend a number of elements of their faith, one of the most fundamental being that of their expression of God as Trinity; that is to say Father, Son and Holy Spirit. For their Muslim counterparts, whose central tenet was that of tawhīd (declaring the oneness of God), the idea of the divine being as one God in three persons or hypostases was completely unthinkable.
At the same time that Christians were looking for ways to explain the Trinity to their Muslim neighbours, an internal Islamic debate was taking place, which centred on the nature of God and His ninety-nine ‘beautiful names’ (ʾasmāʾ allāh al-Ḥusnā). These names are considered to be the names of God revealed to Muhammad in the Qur’an, and are accordingly given as a list of nouns, such as; ‘The Living’, ‘The Knowing’, ‘The Wise’. Some Muslims began to question what these names actually meant, both semantically and metaphysically speaking. Were they purely nominal, that is to say were they simply empty terms which pointed to God Himself and therefore identical with Him? Or should they be conceived of as real meaningful characteristics or entities present alongside God? The Christian theologians, who were clearly deeply involved in Islamic society, witnessed this internal debate taking place and saw the opportunity to use it in order to explain the doctrine of the Trinity in a way that their Muslim counterparts might understand. The way they achieved this was to say that if Muslims accept that God is ‘speaking’ and ‘knowing’, then they must accept that He has ‘word’ and ‘life’. This, they state, is what the Christians mean when they talk about God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit: His ‘word’ is the Son and His ‘life’ the Holy Spirit. Whilst they did not succeed in persuading their opponents to accept the doctrine, the exchanges they experienced provides the twenty-first century reader with much to take away.
Although these representatives of the two faiths were engaged in polemic against one another, what one can see is that both groups are asking similar questions about the nature of God, and having very similar internal as well as external debates, even though the final outcomes are different. In the context of interfaith dialogue today, this observation is highly important.
Early attempts at inter-religious dialogue were geared towards finding common ground. The Second Vatican Council (1965) issued a declaration about Muslims, stating that it has respect for Islam and listing a number of common features between Christianity and Islam such as belief in one God and reverence towards Jesus. This highlighting of similarities, however, whilst being a positive first step, can only achieve so much. For as soon as members of different faiths reach a fundamental difference (for example, Jesus being the Word and Son of God for Christians, and no more than a human prophet for Muslims) those in 'dialogue' either come to an impasse or attempt to 'paper over the cracks', as it were, by ignoring fundamental and important differences between their two faiths.
Recently, however, a significant shift has been taking place, whereby dialogue increasingly involves recognising each other’s differences and accepting them. In order to do this one has to put oneself in the shoes of the other and understand their faith in its own terms, not looking in from the outside, or viewing the other as holding a distorted version of one's own beliefs. A huge part of this endeavour requires understanding how the other person came to hold a certain belief: the processes they went through, questions they asked, possibilities they dismissed, and so on. Only then do we begin to see that actually we are not that different at all: we are all trying to answer the same questions and achieve the same goals. And this is exactly what the Christian and Muslim scholars of ninth century Iraq were doing, genuinely attempting to understand the beliefs of the other. They may not have come to an agreement; yet their deep awareness and appreciation of one another allowed them to live side by side for centuries in relative harmony.
The message for us today, over a millennium later, is clear. Yes, we may ultimately have different beliefs, but at least in understanding another's journey we are able to be more accepting of his or her destination - something which is applicable to all faiths, societies and belief-systems.

Friday, 26 February 2010 00:00

Narrating religious experience in East Asia

Religions in East Asia today have undergone transformations similar to the ones happening in other parts of the world. No longer are religious creeds, affiliations and practices taken for intangible realities, be it in metropolis or in rural settlements. At the same time, stressing one’s religious identity can be a way to assert a person’s or a community’s set of cultural, ethnic or social features that once were going unchallenged.

The diversity of creeds and rituals is more and more striking, as new religious movements appear every day. Such diversity also affects traditional faiths and practices as they experience revival and changes induced by external influences. Looked at from a distance, the East Asian religious psyche experiences the tensions that can be noted in East Asian societies as a whole: a strong affinity with contemporary values and technologies mixes with a nostalgia for things past; individual fulfilment meets with a stress on community values and support; the quest for harmony and inner peace goes along with an unceasing curiosity for the hybrid, colourful and ever evolving post-modern culture.

Religious experience derives from and - at the same time - is translated into specific creeds and practices. The content of the faith professed induces fears, hopes, guilt, longings and similar feelings. Large or small-scale rituals nurture a sense of affiliation, exaltation or quieting down. These feelings in turn give their intensity to the creeds and rituals that have produced them. But religious experience is also translated into narratives of various kinds. Mythical tales, hagiographies, the story of one’s conversion, the enacting of certain rituals are all narratives, even if a Taoist ritual or a Catholic mass for instance can also be analysed from alternative angles. Sure enough, “narratives” are multi-layered. A Catholic mass for instance is composed of a set of different narratives – the ones induced by the liturgical readings, the recitation of the Credo (the narrative structure of which has become a topos of contemporary theology), the re-enactment of the last Supper that gives its structure and meaning to the ceremony as a whole. And the recording of a mass on the occasion of a priestly ordination for instance will make it a second-level narrative. In the same vein, an exorcism in far-away Liangshan (the Cool Mountains), Sichuan Province, is based on the recitation of a set of genealogies – those of the healer, of the family, of the ghost and even of the animal killed for the sacrifice - a practice that makes storytelling and ritual one and the same performance.

The East Asian way of narrating one’s religious experience might well turn around what it means to trespass boundaries – a risk and a chance to be run. The trespassing might have to do with the limits separating this world from the outer world, ordinary experiences from extraordinary ones; meditation from illumination, lay status from clerical dignity; narrative trespassing might also be a way of dealing with a variety of religious affiliations; it might challenge the religious, social and political boundaries. Rituals fix the rules through which the trespassing can take place while dealing with its social and institutional effects – they make the trespassing possible while deciding on the level of trespassing not to be trespassed... The recording of narrations and rituals is often meant to enhance their religious or social effects. At the same time, it might induce a temptation to categorize them into well-known genres and pre-conceived identities, such ignoring the fluidity observed on the field and in daily life. Linking creeds and rites into a consistent whole, “videotaping”, might paradoxically deny the space and role of the story that plays at the articulation between beliefs and rituals. However, when videotaping recognises its own status as a story within the long chain of stories told and retold, it does make the narrative rebound and it further concurs to the ultimate end of East Asian religious storytelling: allowing for the creed to be lived and experienced, and for the ritual to be re-enacted.

This is an excerpt of the book edited by Elise A. DeVido and Benoit Vermander, "Creeds, Rites and Videotapes, Narrating religious experiences in East Asia"

Buy the book at the eRenlai online bookstore



Friday, 26 February 2010 00:00

Religions as languages

The remarkable diversity of religious expressions typical of South-East Asia has led to a focus on the interaction between the various faiths operating in the region. Such attention has been also fostered by the various ethno-religious conflicts that have developed, especially in the Philippines and Indonesia. If religious communities had to be agents of peace, the narratives on which they rely would play a role: creative interpretation of canonical narratives can stress peace and reconciliation; in the pluralistic situation of the Philippines’ southern island of Mindanao, some narratives play a mediating role by incorporating elements from different religious traditions; the sharing of stories (especially role-model stories) at the local grassroots level is by itself a factor of reconciliation.

At the theological level, some thinkers nowadays see hermeneutics not as a tool for redefining religious identities in the region but rather as a resource for challenging them. R.S Sugirtharajah says that “the task is seen not as adapting the Christian Gospel in Asian idioms, but as re-conceptualizing the basic tenets of the Christian faith in the light of Asian realities. … There is a willingness to integrate, synthesize and interconnect.” The need to connect with other believers in order to implement justice, peace and environmental concerns also plays a role in the “communication and interconnection” paradigm, which is strongly influenced by theologians such as Michael Amaladoss, Raimundo Panikkar, Paul Knitter and Aloysius Pieris. Of special relevance might be the concept of intra-religious dialogue as championed by Panikkar: one’s religion is very akin to a native tongue, and any religion is as complete as a language is. The discovery of the Other draws us out of our language and leads us to understand what its “words” mean to our religious partner. To enter another's world is a religious experience that engages a dialogue not only with the Other but also within our self.

In this approach, and other similar, the hermeneutics of inter-religious dialogue is not seen as a theological task among others but as the one that determines the future of Christianity in Asia and even the shaping of religious forms, identities and experiences in the world. South-East Asia is a place in which the intermingling and communicability of religious faiths is especially visible, which gives it a prominent role in the continuation of this global endeavour.

Photo courtesy of James Russell



Friday, 26 February 2010 00:00

A new dialogue centre at Fudan University

In January 2010, the School of Philosophy at Fudan University in Shanghai officially founded the Xu Guangqi Matteo Ricci Research Center for the Dialogue among Civilizations and Religions, abridged as Xu-Ricci Dialogue Institute. Located within the premises of Fudan, the launching of the new center coincides with two world-class events:

- Shanghai World Expo will showcase the contribution that Shanghai, home of the scholar and statesman Xu Guangqi, can make to the global quest for a renewed model of sustainable development and cultural diversity;

- 2010 is also year of celebration in the honour of Matteo Ricci, who died on the 11th of May 1610.

The Xu-Ricci Dialogue Research Center is thus named after the Shanghai-born scholar and statesman Xu Guangqi (1562-1633) and the Jesuit sinologist Matteo Ricci (1552-1610), whose friendship pioneered the dialogue pursued between China and the West in modern times.

In recent years several academic institutions have been created to focus on 'dialogue' from a trans-disciplinary perspective. 'Dialogue' can be related to conflict resolution, global issues and peace building; it might be related to negotiations on salary, work safety or social advantages between entrepreneurs, the State and civil society at large; it often centres on interactions among cultures, religions and even civilizations. In such a case it is concerned both with substance (dialogue on certain topics considered as particularly sensitive and contentious) and methodology (ways of fostering a respectful and fruitful dialogue and to foster procedures akin to the purpose for which dialogue is engaged).

The Xu-Ricci Dialogue Institute at Fudan University inscribes itself within this tradition of trans-disciplinary research. At the same time, it develops a few characteristics linked to its setting and its origin:

- The Institute is part of Fudan University School of Philosophy. As such, it aims at focusing on epistemological issues: 'Dialogue' corresponds to an array of philosophical styles, exemplified in the Socratic, Confucian, Indian or scholastic traditions, to name just a few. In other words, the research on 'dialogue' raises questions linked to the relationship between 'styles of communication' and 'categories of truth.' These questions are formalized differently according to times and cultures – and this variety of forms and procedures is part of the study program of the Institute.

- At Fudan University, the School of Philosophy includes a department of religious studies, the development of which has proven to be particularly vigorous. Therefore, the Institute wishes to serve in a special way the qualitative progress of religious studies at Fudan. It does so by focusing on 'religious dialogue' as an academic topic. Its point of departure is that the study of the interaction between different religious and spiritual traditions is particularly fruitful for understanding the nature, history and dynamics of each tradition when independently considered. Furthermore, in a period where the religious landscape of China is changing rapidly, the interaction (or lack of it) between the different religions of contemporary China has become a topic of special relevance. This requires a pragmatic approach to religious dialogue rooted into social sciences, humanities and field research.

- By referring to the friendship that developed between Xu Guangqi and Matteo Ricci, the Institute is indeed making a statement: Xu Guangqi and Matteo Ricci fostered a cross-interpretation of different canonical traditions, namely the Confucian and Christian ones; they anchored their common quest into their shared passion towards scientific truths; ultimately, their dialogue flourished into a deep and genuine friendship, which reminds us of the humane dimension of all the dialogical endeavours in which we engage.

- Founded during the year of Shanghai World Expo and the 400th celebration of Ricci’s death, the Institute aims at modestly contributing to the ongoing dialogue between China and the rest of the world. China’s spiritual, religious and cultural resources are continually reinterpreted when meeting with other traditions, and similarly, they challenge and reinterpret the ones they meet with. Such a process receives special significance at a time where the global community has to share and redistribute the entirety of its resources – material riches, knowledge and spiritualities – so as to answer the challenges that determine its destiny.





Thursday, 25 February 2010 14:14

San Zhi: Ghost town on the coast

On the ride up from Taipei, I wondered if I had chosen the right bus. There was a group of girls sitting next to me, dressed for the beach. "我要去一個地方...很多大樓,可是沒有人. 你知道嗎?" I asked them. "I want to go to a place with many buildings, but no people. Do you know it?" They shook their heads no, and asked me a question in Chinese I couldn't understand. But just then an old woman a few seats up swiveled her head back and pointed a bony finger at me. "那裡有鬼魂," she told me in a grave tone, worry sweeping across her features. "There are ghosts there."

These pictures are of a strange complex of buildings on the outskirts of Taipei that was abandoned in the early 1980's, before it could be completed. There is something pervasively odd about the site. Or rather, there was something pervasively odd about the site -- it has since been torn down. The crumbling flying saucers seemed to come from the future, but this was a forgotten future, a failed one. To visit this place in person was like stepping into a 1960's sci-fi film. It was the future as the past once imagined it could be: the ruins of retro-futurism.

The pod city was visually stunning in an unearthly way. Some of its buildings had been completely destroyed, others merely gutted by the harsh rain and wind of Taiwan's north coast. From inside the pods you could enjoy some truly spectacular views of unspoiled coastline juxtaposed with apocalyptic visions in pastel red, yellow, and blue.

Even on a sunny day, you could not escape a vague sense of dread hovering before you, just out of reach. And so it was often told that a series of mysterious accidents led to the deaths of several of the pod city's construction workers, causing the project to be abandoned. Some locals, including the old woman on the bus, believed that the ghosts of these workers haunted the site.

It is easy to understand why these stories spread. The sheer strangeness of the place challenges our sense of reason. But no construction workers died in the making of San Zhi's pods. There were no ancient burial grounds, no angry ancestors. The site was intended to be a vacation resort for the rich, but lack of funding halted its development. The only ghosts that were haunting San Zhi were the ghosts of financial failure.

Still, though there was nothing at all supernatural about these buildings, the intense weirdness of walking among them was undeniable. And now, looking back on my experience there, I feel the reason for my unease has taken a more definitive form. With a global recession spreading fear and panic, the real history of these buildings seems far more poignant than any ghost story ever could be; this place was a graveyard for dreams.

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Thursday, 25 February 2010 14:03

Elo Progo: Kusno in wonderland

The Eloprogo Art House is an artists retreat in Yogyakarta province, Indonesia. Its a mystical place overlooking a holy river, which lies but a five minute ride from the great Borobudur Temple, an awe-inspiring wonder of the world.

I entered through the gates protected by the great dragon gods, the first thing I saw was a huge statue of a women's face, strangely I found it somewhat comforting, this face was the link between this magical world and those in the magical kingdom above who protected it. A holiday resort for gods who wanted a human holiday! I continued past the marauding chickens, and an old one-legged farmer muttered some incomprehensible words as he smoked his home made kretek, as big as a cigar, slowly twisted his head around his neck and pointed in that direction. As I continued through I heard the sounds of harmonica's, djembes, a guitar and powerful voices enchanting the woods. I had come upon a feast, a banquet, four people we're dancing on tables, had I gone back in time?!

A female seductress dressed in black recanted her pains, and a human/beast of a madman screamed and tried to attack, though controlled and held back by his master. 'saya mau setu Kretek, Kusno?' I could do anything 'mau bir?' And I drunk and sang and screamed through the night, kretek after kretek, beer after beer...and its six o clock. Eat. Eat like there's no food tomorrow (there isn't, not until 6 o clock anyway). One of the men told me to come along with them we went through strange windows, small rooms filled with colours and shapes then we were led down some winding cliff stairs through the snake infested forests and down to the magical river. At first I was shy, but then following everyone elses cue I ripped off all his clothes and jumped in to the river, massaging myself under the rapids, feeling just as I had done when I emerged from mine mothers body, so pure, so clean, so natural that I would never wear clothes again and then something came into sight...a baby...a baby on the side of the river, and when I saw this I knew, this was perhaps a new prophet, he had a mission to deal with the new evils which were coming. I was struck by an intense headache and collapsed to the ground as I blacked out. I woke up in a deep hole ...



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