Yiu Siong Lucas CHAN, James F. Keenan, and Shaji George KOCHUTHARA, eds. DOING ASIAN THEOLOGICAL ETHICS in a Cross-Cultural and Interreligious Context. Bengaluru, India: Dharmaram Publications, 2016, pp. 372. ISBN 978-93-84964-3-68. Reviewed by Alice L. LAFFEY, emerita, College of the Holy Cross, Worcester, MA 01610.
The volume is comprised of 25 essays written by Catholic ethicists who represent 10 different Asian countries [Sri Lanka (1), India (9), Australia (3), the Philippines (4), Hong Kong (1), Malaysia (2), Japan (1), Indonesia (1), Myanmar (1), Philippines-USA (1) and Vietnam-Australia (1)). The origin of the volume was the first ever Pan Asian Conference of Catholic Theological Ethicists that took place in Dharmaram, India, in July, 2015. The volume also includes, besides a Preface, the homilies delivered at the conference’s two liturgies. James F. Keenan, S.J. from Boston College is the only non-Asian contributor to both the conference’s planning and the volume’s editing. While the conference itself had 14 speakers at plenary sessions and 36 speakers at concurrent sessions, the volume is structured so as to contain three speakers from each of three plenary sessions whose broad topics include “Doing Cross-Cultural Ethics in Asia;” “Doing Interfaith Ethics in Asia;” and “Catholic Theological Ethics in a Cross-Cultural and Inter-Religious Context: Future Perspectives” and concurrent sessions paired with the plenary sessions. The broad topics of these sessions include “Contemporary Threats and Struggles;” “Environment and Economy in a Time of Instability;” and “Varia: Bioethics, Sexuality and Marriage.”
What my own area of expertise (Old Testament) has in common with this book is a strong emphasis on ethics and the origin of that ethics in a culture very different from my own. Despite those similarities, I had/have a great deal to learn. I can honestly say that almost every article taught me something —either brand new information, or more often a reinforcement of things I was aware of but whose importance I had not fully integrated. A review such as this does not allow me to detail the contents of each article and so I will try to highlight, chosen at random, a few of what I consider to be most relevant insights. I did not know, for example, before reading Stanislaus Alla’s article, “Hindutva at 90 and the Challenge of Engaging Hinduism,” that there were Hindu extremists (Hindutva) who wish to destroy the notion of India as “a nation that…upholds, respects and celebrates diversity, democracy and secularism” and wish to impose on all India “one nation and one religious culture” (p. 83). Alla sees Hindutva as a real threat to human flourishing and pleads for greater engagement by the Catholic Church with Hinduism.
Nor did I know that Australia, unlike the United States, upholds its secular identity while not espousing separation of church and state. In his article, “Secularity as Cross-Cultural and Dialogic Space: The Australian Example,” Robert Gascoigne quotes Bruce Kaye who contrasts the US, that has moved in its interpretation of foundational documents to a doctrine of separation of church and state and a doctrine of non-entanglement with Australia, that has moved from its founding documents to a position of non-separation of church and state and a doctrine of “equitable entanglement.” The broader and social institutional effect of this difference gives religion in Australia a recognized place in public life and in public institutions that is absent in the US. Australia, like the US, is not a religious state, but unlike the US it is a state that incorporates religion in its statutory view of public life (p.48).
Jose Mario C. Francisco, S. J. (“Context in Doing Moral Theology; East Asian Considerations,” pp. 59-73) pleads for an incorporation of context in doing theological ethics, specifically the context of East Asia. There multiple forms of Buddhism, Islam and even Christianity have interacted with ethical traditions such as Confucianism and Daoism as well as with practices like shamanism and indigenous traditions for centuries and are an essential part of people’s lived religion. He pleads for the church not to ignore this reality and to be willing to learn from competent people inside and outside the church.
More than one of the articles deals with migration and its ethical effects. In “Beyond the Maid Trade: Indonesia Labour Migrants and their Communicative Practice,” Bernard Kieser, S.J. provides startling data as to the numbers of migrants, their cultural expectations, and the changed understanding of work. The data lead to ethical questions and concerns that cry out for attention.
An article by Jim Keenan published online in Commonweal, July 17, 2015, provides a context for the inclusion of seemingly a disproportionate number of Indian theologians in the volume. Of the 90 participants in the Conference 33 were from India. That was because, despite the fact that only 2.3% of India’s population is Christian, India has more than 140 moral theologians and is among the world’s five leading countries in the field (the others being the US, Germany, Italy and Brazil). Indian ethicists bring to the conference (and to this volume) their experiences with Hindus and Muslims as well as with poverty, medical tourism, and sexual assault. The Filipinos are the second largest group represented both at the conference and in this volume; they bring their experiences with typhoons and their consequent attentiveness to the environment and the use and abuse of natural resources.
I recommend this volume most especially to Euro-centered scholars whose field is not ethics because we have the most to learn from it. More broadly I recommend it to everyone: it is an informative, provocative and worthwhile read.