In the past decade, the explosive growth in contextual theologies in the United States and elsewhere has spawned many creative and insightful tomes by theologians of all stripes, shades and colors. Nonetheless, compared to their Black, Latino/a, South American and African colleagues, theological ruminations by Asian-American theologians are comparatively few in number, while the works of Asian-American Catholic theologians are rarer still. Thus, when the Vietnamese-American Catholic theologian Peter C. Phan, who holds the Ignacio Ellacurķa Professor of Catholic Social Thought at Georgetown University, sets out to articulate his theological vision in a carefully crafted three-volume series on Asian theology, one could not help but sit up and take notice. Phan's In Our Own Tongues is the second in a projected three- volume series, coming hot on the heels of Christianity with an Asian Face: Asian American Theology in the Making (Click to see review).
The span of the material which Phan covers is truly breathtaking - twelve essays grouped into three broad sections, elegantly written and cogently argued, spanning the entire spectrum of theological discussion from missiology to ecclesiology, from liturgics to popular piety, and from spirituality to theological methods. In the first part (chapters 1-4), Phan articulates his thought-provoking reflections on mission and inculturation in Asia, wrestling with the challenges of doing Christian mission in Asia. Next, he examines the critical issues in Asian liturgical inculturation in chapters five to eight. Unlike many theologians who tiptoe gingerly around the question of popular piety and spirituality, Phan contends that one will ignore Asian popular piety and spirituality to one's peril. The fruits of this conviction are seen in chapters six ("Mary in Vietnamese Piety and Theology") and seven ("Culture and Liturgy: Ancestor Veneration as a Test Case"), both of which make delightful reading with superb English translations of hitherto inaccessible information in Vietnamese. In Part III (chapters 9-11) he discusses and evaluates the various approaches to doing theology in the contemporary Asian milieu. Chapter 10 ("Doing Theology, Asian Style"), in which Phan examines and reflects upon the challenges of doing theology in the context of the cultural and religious pluralism of the Asian milieu, is truly a gem and masterpiece, besides being a groundbreaking contribution to the ongoing discussion on contextual theological methodologies. Scholars who are interested in the impact and reception of Vatican II in Asia would find chapter 12 ("Reception of Vatican II in Asia: Historical and Theological Analysis") and its footnotes brimming with bibliographical references for further research.
Overall, Phan shows a general sense of balanced and informed discussion on the complex issues facing Asian Christianity which he articulates so well for his readers. Clearly, the title In Our Own Tongues (from Acts 2:8) is especially apt and fitting for this work. As Phan himself puts it: "Inculturation, in a nutshell, is an attempt to help people hear the word of God today, each in his or her native tongue" (p. xii). Hence, it comes as no surprise that the consistent theme, indeed the underlying thesis which runs throughout this entire book is the reception of Christianity in Asia, a continent marked by much diversity and plurality in cultures, religions and worldviews, many of which are more ancient than Christianity. On this point, Phan is clear and unequivocal on the need for dialogue: "the future of the church, especially of Asian Christianity, depends greatly on whether the work of inculturation is taken seriously and carried out thoroughly and consistently" (ibid.). Phan certainly does not mince his words when he contends, among many other things, that inculturation and interreligious dialogue are pressing issues for the 21st century Catholic Church as it struggles with the implications of moving away from a Eurocentric church to becoming a truly global church. Having finished reading Christianity with an Asian Face earlier and now In Our Own Tongues, I look forward with much anticipation to his forthcoming third volume, which would undoubtedly be just as comprehensive, stimulating and insightful, if not more.