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D. T. Niles Lecture II

"For Such a Time as This: Our Moment in God's Time"

by Wong Wai Ching, Angela*

 

While I feel extremely honored to be invited to deliver one of the Niles Lectures at this very important occasion, I must say that I find the topic given to me a highly challenging one. The theme before us seems to reflect a particular interest in time. There are in one short phrase three references to time: "such a/this time," "our moment" and "God's Time." To tell you the truth, although I live in a city where time has literally monetary value, I am not particularly a time-conscious person. I must confess that at one point the several references to the different "time" in my topic completely confused me. If the question of time is asked because this Assembly takes place at the year 2000, what is so significant about this number? Is it not that this numerical year has already invited heated debate on whether it is the beginning or the end of a century? Before I had a chance to talk to Dr. Carino and find out what is the mind behind the theme, I kept asking myself why is such obsession with time in the CCA community? Is it not that God has already pronounced such a debate void in Revelation 1, stating that "I am the Alpha and the Omega, "who is and who was and who is to come? In God, the beginning and the end are the same; the past, the present and the future all belong together. In short, in God there is no urgency for a new time, and there is no irrelevance of past time.

Before my "confusion" about time confuses you, I better come back to one point: the urgency for a new time. I believe this is the main quest underlining the theme. In this sense, such urgency for a new time almost asks the speaker to be a prophet of a New Age. I am certainly not able to do so. What I can promise is to take this urgent quest for a new time seriously and reflect on the meaning of it. In fact, when I think of it, besides the problem of the invisible bug, the sense of urgency is perhaps why the turn of a century has caught so much attention among us. 2000 as a whole number does heighten a unique sense of time in us, it marks neatly a beginning and an end. On the individual level, it does invite us to check our account, so that we could be congratulated on how well we have been doing and be ready to clear our debts. On the social level, we want to be assured that bad time is behind us, and we shall look forward to all good time ahead. Further, such a turning of time and history is highly religious as well. For ourselves as well as for our communities, it is a time to confess our sins, to repent for our wrong deeds, to ask for forgiveness, to renew relationship, to make new resolution and to dream new dreams before God.

About A New Time

What does Christian tradition tell us about new time? I could not but think of Revelation 21:1-5

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, "See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away." And the one who was seated on the throne said. "See, I am making all things new." (NRSV)

Indeed, the urge to inquire about the beginning and the end has always been central to all religions. It is a central theme in the Book of Revelation. The book has always attracted the attention of the millenniumists precisely because of its rich elaboration of the end of evil time and its strong envisioning of the beginning of a new time, a new heaven and earth. There are many believe that we have two ages consecutively, the old evil time shall pass and the heavenly new time shall come. Revelation 21 does sound like this at the first glance. Wes Howard-Brook and Anthony Gwyther suggests that it may not be simply so. Understanding the concept of time and space from the perspective of first century people in Asia Minor, evil and good, the old and new, past and future are not incompatible. Rather, they belong to one bifurcated reality.

The word "bifurcate" means to divide into two branches: one of the old, evil and one of the new, good. But according to Howard-Brook and Gwyther, Revelation reveals a bifurcated universe in which "ordinary" life and "divine" life coexist at all times and places. In other words, there is no absolute separation between present and future, no two consecutive ages of a present evil and a future blessed. These two worlds are competing realities that stand in opposition to each other, but they are not condemned to eternal conflict. Rather, the apocalyptic worldview affirms that the way of God has already prevailed and continues to prevail over the way of evil. Apocalyptic faith envisions both "practices of liberation within and divine intervention from outside history." It recognizes that both God and human beings are involved in the struggle against the worldly power. In this sense, Revelation refers not to a sequential future but to the always co-present other reality in which God and the Lamb have already conquered worldly power. There is no surpassing of the "old" order by the "new heavens and new earth," but two coexist in human history as "good" and "evil," each with their own respective "pasts" and "futures."[1]

Revelation calls these realities "heaven" and "earth." In terms of the metaphorical tradition in the Bible and in the apocalyptic notion of bifurcation, "heaven" is holy while "earth" is evil. Earth is the perspective of worldly power. Heaven is the source of sustenance for those who would resist it. But revelation's worldview is not reducible to a world-hating polemic against the natural order or material universe. Rather, wherever the lies and injustices of imperial Rome are given currency - there is earth. Wherever the truth of God is believed and practiced - there is heaven. In other words, "heaven" is not a site in the galaxies any more than "hell" is located in the bowels of the earth. Rather it is that blessedness - to which every human and the whole of creation is called to live here in this world. Therefore, it is possible to realize New Jerusalem on earth, it comes down from heaven (21: 1-3), located at the center of human territory where evil still exists. Heaven was not a remote or inaccessible reality. It is not a place that awaited one after death, but an active participant in the fight against evil on earth.[2]

Such Time as This

Why did I introduce the bifurcated time in the Book of Revelation as suggested to our discussion today? How does it relate to us, to our time as such? With the very helpful insight into Revelation' understanding of time, I hope to introduce a more dynamic framework into an understanding of our time. Here I want to recall one comment in the General Secretary's Report.

Although I was not there when Dr. Carino presented his Report, I was given the privilege to read it beforehand and decided to begin with where he ended. At the end of Dr. Carino's very thoughtful and reflective report, he mentions the task of nation-building that the EACC/CCA Inaugural meeting called for is still not finished. The task of building "one nation," "one people," or "one community" among "many" remains a challenging, difficult and urgent one. He kindly reminds us that "in the new world and the new Asia that are emerging in our midst, what it takes to merge this task with 'being Church in Asia' constitutes the prime ecumenical challenge of our time."[3] I find this last comment of Dr. Carino very important not only because it reiterates the context of Asia as taken then, it also recalls how churches in Asia has seen itself as "being Church" in the new found region. For me, precisely, it is this context of Asia that we need to re-examine today.

In March 1957, the founding Conference of East Asian Churches (which eventually becomes CCA) was held at Prapat, Sumatra, Indonesia. Right before it, a Consultation sponsored by WCC Department of Church and Society was held at the Nommensen University, also in Sumatra. The Consultation was to define the goals that the newly independent nations should set for themselves as expressing the idea of a responsible society and the means to realize it and to spell out the Christian responsibility in relation to these objectives. The decision to organize the two meetings together at the same place was to bring the latter as an integral to Prapat conference. In M. M. Thomas words, it is to help "the Prapat participants to understand the Asian revolution within which the evangelistic and ecumenical mission of the Church was set."[4]

Indeed the two meetings took place in Indonesia at a time when regional revolts against Jakarta, President Sokarno's declaration of war and emergency, and military control and curfew were operating. These features, characteristic of many new nations of Asia then, invited the first-generation Asian ecumenical leaders to respond. For them the mission of their time was to call for Christians' full participation into the building of free, democratic nations in Asia. Being greatly excited about the prominence of national movements in different Asian countries, M. M. Thomas's address to the EACC Inaugural Assembly outlined for Asian churches the goals of nation-building to serve as their primary call to meet the challenges after Second World War. He contends that, nationalism and nation-building, seen from the angle of people's first time awareness of history as a consequence of freedom rather than fate, are "divine preparation for the Gospel."[5]

What early ecumenical leaders such as M. M. Thomas have tried to articulate is a theology that attempts to address the context of the beginning of a post-colonial Asia. National reconstruction, as M. M. Thomas outlines and theologizes is what they found the churches of a post-colonial Asia must participate in and contribute to. The need for an Asian theological agenda was clear. For what the post-colonial Church of Asia has inherited from its counterparts of the colonial West are: a history of Christianity organically associated with Western imperialism, a church bureaucracy which has taken more seriously the demands of the Western Church than that of the local congregations, a theological tradition that has assumed the cultural superiority of the West, and the subsequent alienation of its Christians at large from their cultural traditions and local communities. When EACC was found, its goal was to serve precisely as an instrument to bring about a common mission among the churches in the newly independent nations of Asia. For them, this would be the only way to shed the tinge of Western imperialism off the churches of Asia and allow Christians of the churches in Asia to be full participants of their societies.

Now the question is: Are the tasks laid down by the early leaders still valid for us? In what sense is it in Dr. Carino's comments, that the task is still largely unfinished? How do we understand the context of Asia today? Is nation-building or nationalism sufficient in describing our tasks today? What does Asia mean to us today?

Asia, as Joseph Kitagawa points out, was hitherto unknown until the latter half of the twentieth century.[6] The sub-region of Southeast Asia which today covers Burma, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam was in fact an invention dating back to World War II when Great Britain called its Asian headquarters just south of India the Southeast Asia Command. Moreover, many of the borderlines of these countries were drawn up arbitrarily according to the territorial boundaries of former colonial powers, dividing sometimes families and tribes living in the same area.[7] This in fact explains many of the problems Asian countries are facing today. Many of the ethnic rivalries, communal conflicts, and regional revolts are in fact problems created by the modern invention of nation-state. Many times these artificial borderlines drawn divided families and neighbours and forced them into enemies. In order to instigate loyalty toward the state and to legitimate its authority and power, there have been considerable efforts to bind people of entirely different languages, customs and religions into so-called one nation. For many countries in Asia, independence war against foreign aggressors soon turned into internal battles suppressing different ethnic, linguistic or religious sectors. Until today, we continue to witness how national governments in Asia would openly vow to use force against anyone who threatens to destroy "national unity."

We have certainly left the beginning stage where independence from colonial rule was urgently sought, that new nations were formed and needed each of their newly acquired citizens to participate in nation-building. At present, the legitimacy of nation-state in Asia is in question, that the whole question of whose nation and what form of nation is up for debate. In this vein, nation-building, even in the broadest sense of the term, is certainly not suffice to fill our tasks.

Recently, what have emerged as the watch words in Asian debate in place of "revolution" and "national liberation" are "modernization" and "globalization." While modernization is a much older term used even before WWII, it has returned with even stronger vigour, backed by the forces of globalization. In a sense, modernization now goes hand-in-hand with globalization and sweep across all countries in Asia. There is however one difference between modernization and globalization in that the former still presumes a degree of national autonomy. That is, individual national government is likely to determine to what degrees, at what pace and which specific Western programmes it would like to adopt. For instance, it can opt for economic reform but no democratization of political structure. As for globalization, it essentially bypasses both the will of individual national government or the people at large. It is steered only by the minds of a few World/Western entrepreneurs who are in control of global capital.

There are many great analyses of globalization in journals and books and I am not going to repeat the details. Here I would only like to highlight its specific effect on national governments. Apparently, the process of globalization is made possible by a world financial system which is stateless. A few global computer systems located in New York or London, allows money to flow freely around the world each day, independent of government regulation and control. Even national central bankers feel almost powerless in the face of massive financial power held in corporate hands. In addition, a series of trade agreements such as General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), its institutional expression, the World Trade Organization (WTO), and the more recent development, the Multilateral Agreement on Investments (MAI) have all acquired the power to restrain local governments and superseded national laws that impede foreign investments. In brief, by signing into these agreements, the local governments have forfeited much of its legal authority to global corporations. In the event of clash of interests between the national governments and the global corporations for instance in matters of environmental or labour concerns, the latter are empowered to sue the former for "unlawful" intervention. In short, the global corporations become the real controlling forces of local economies.

Such a picture seems fail to leave us much hope. If nation-building is no longer a noble task in that it puts in place a state authority which seeks continuous legitimacy by suppressing minorities and dissidents, and if globalization comes in to further dismantle whatever effort made by people on the country and local level, what then is left of us to achieve in an Asia of a new time? Here the bifurcated view of Revelation could shed some light.

Our Moment in God's Time

Very often theology starts with diagnosis of an evil time, or a transient time through which we could enter into an eternal time of God. This is how prophets made their forecasts. This is what Paul asks his followers to prepare for. This is also one of the essential messages of the New Testament where it says, "Time is Near." The urgency of this time is often placed in contrast to a time to come, that the time here is bad, and that the time to come is better. This is how modern theology starts when Karl Barth calls for the revelatory power of the Word. How do we want to understand our time? Do we want to put all of our human inflicted disaster together and named our time a time of sin and evil? Or, do we want to look into chances and possibilities where we can begin to identify kairos of our days?

If Revelation reveals a bifurcated universe in which "ordinary" life and "divine" life coexist at all times and places, we should be assured that whenever there is threat and crisis, there is also comfort and hope. If the apocalyptic worldview affirms that the way of God has already prevailed and continues to prevail over the way of evil, we should be assured that God is in our midst involved in the struggle against evil power on earth. Therefore, what we need to look for is not a sequential future that completely separates from this time and space but a divine reality within this reality, a New Jerusalem on earth. This is how I want to take a second look at nation reconstruction and globalization.

Ironically, when nationalism seems to be monopolized by state authorities, when Asian nations are having a hard time striking the balance between fragmentation and forced unity, globalization comes in as a new opportunity for peoples in Asia to re-understand our cultures and traditions and their relations to reforming our identities as people in different corners of the world. In contrast to some claim that globalization will only reduce all local cultures and traditions to folklore, it has in fact instigated increasing interests in local cultures and traditions around which communities of resistance against the totalizing forces of globalization began to take shape.

On the one hand, as a strategy, suggested that the local shall be more consciously in building such basis of resistance by always intentionally pass on a suspicion and a critique of "the whole". In fact, we have a tradition to trace. From the beginning, when the Asian identity was formed it was formed as an identity of resistance. K. M. Panikkar argues that "Asianness" was resulted from the newly formed countries' "determination to resist the foreigner who was pressing his attack in all directions."[8] In other words, Asia was "produced" out of Asians' reaction to the unified" aggression of the Europeans.[9] In this sense, although Asia and Asian nations were "invention" of recent history, they are nonetheless important birthmarks for the people in this part of the world. It is an identity that embeds a painful history as well as a determination to fight and resist domination. This is also true to the collective identification of different minority groups. They all form indispensable units in a possible Asian network of resistance.

On the other hand, globalization provides an opportunity to understand culture and tradition not so much as an assemblage of territorially definable entities, distinguishable from the "West." A new understanding involves an openness to admit hybridities rather than purity of traditions. It challenges one to seek identity formation in a process of struggle and conflict, on the borderlines between "worlds" that are in tension with each other. It means constantly engaging in intercultural and interreligious interaction and communication,[10] allowing the greatest inclusivity of the "others" into oneself, whether they are nationally, racially, ethnically, religiously, socio-economically, or sexually different.

On a much positive note, Bert Hoedemaker suggests that the hope for a true unity of humankind depends on the existence and the power of local traditions, on the strength of the wisdom that is stored in them, and on the possibility to express this wisdom that in ways relevant to the contemporary global situation. With a constant reminder of the need to be inclusive and open, these local traditions can be the places, the contexts, where a longing for a different, a deeper, a more complete unity of humankind is kept alive.[11]

Being Church in Asia

One of the challenges brought forth by one of our Indonesian friends in the current issue of CCA News[12] is how much have CCA been part of the Asian churches. This is a serious challenge. This is why Dr. Carino has emphasized very much on the question of "Being Church in Asia." What shall churches do if we take seriously the suspicion of nationalism, territorially defined cultural identities, and the dominating force of the global capital? There may be a thousand things we can do. But there is only one proposal I want to make here in line with what I outlined above. That is, the opening up and yet a strengthening of our variety of local traditions including particularly a variety of our Christian traditions in Asia.

At this point, I want to go back to John's visionary experiences in the Book of Revelation. Very often we ignore the strength of the imageries of John because of our rational perception of things. John's own language is more like a collection of verbal picture than like discursive speech; more like an impressionist painting than like a scientific treatise. But, if we can put aside our rationalistic lenses and try to see with the eyes of first-century people, we can interpret John's claims as no more and no less than what was claimed by Paul and Jesus himself. They all shared an experience of the divine that was received as an unexpected gift of the Spirit. In the end, this is the authoritative premise of all apocalyptic literature. That is, the narrator is revealed an aspect of reality not available to rational consciousness and is called to share what has been revealed to his or her circle of hearers or readers for their enlightenment. The gift of the spirit is something we have been given from the beginning.

One of the weaknesses of our established traditions today is trying to depend very much on our rational mind and seek for logical consistency. Our theology depends much on articulation of sound reasoning and logic. Sometimes I have a feeling that we are loosing the ability to discern God's presence and loosing the interests in pursuing vision and myth. We are afraid to admit conflicts and contradictions between our belief and cultural values and practices, we are scared to share "strange" ideas which come out from the synthesis of the two. Let me add an illustration here, I meet a woman whose husband was paralyzed during an industrial accident. She has been Christian for over ten years now. She goes to church every Sunday, participated in all sorts of activities, including family visits, prayer meeting. But one day as I visited her, I saw a statue of the Kuan Yin placed neatly on the side of her bed. She confessed to me whenever she had bad dreams at night, Kuan Yin came to her to console her unrestness and mysteries. I believe this is a strange story to tell in our churches, but it is not a strange story in the experience of many people in our countries and our cultures.

In the end, what we need is the courage to pursue vision, the power to share myths, and wisdom to walk the path of God. Digging deep into our experiences and our faith, I believe, will help to bring out a web of multiple traditions of Asian Christianity which only will provide a helpful counterbalance to the totalistic aspect of globalization and be able to shape true unity of humanity for a new generation.

Notes:

  1. Wes Howrd-Brook and Anthony Gwyther, Unveiling Empire: Reading Revelation Then and Now (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1999), 120-126
  2. Howard-Brook and Gwyter, 127-131.
  3. Feliciano Carino, "Report of the General Secretary," given at the 11th CCA General Assembly, Tomohon, Indonesia, May 31-June 6, 2000.
  4. MM Thomas, My Ecumenical Journey (Trivandrum: Ecumenical Publishing Center, 1990), 198f.
  5. MM Thomas, "Towards a Christian Interpretation of Nationalism in Asia," in Towards Theology of Contemporary Ecumenism (Madras: The Christian Literature Society, 1978), 40-43.
  6. Joseph Mitsuo Kitagawa, The Christian Tradition: Beyond Its European Captivity (Philadelphia: Trinity Press International, 1992), 29.
  7. Barbara and Leon Howell, Southeast Asian Speak Out (New york: Friendship Press, 1975), 29f.
  8. KM Panikkar, Asia and Western Dominance (London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd., 1959), 23.
  9. Panikkar, 322.
  10. Bert Boedemaker, "Mission and the Challenge of the New World of technology," in The People of God Among All God's Peoples: Frontiers in Christian Mission, ed. Philip L. Wicker (hong Kong: CCA & CWM, 2000), 128-129.
  11. Hoedemaker, 126.
  12. Eka Dermaputera quests for a serious reflection on the question of CCA's "church-liness" and "Asian-ness" in his article, "Ups and Downs," CCA News 35, 2 (june 2000):10.

 

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