M Thomas Thangaraj

The major thrust of this chapter is to discuss the theological themes and challenges raised by the encounter between Christianity and other religious traditions of Asia, and how Asian Christians have responded to those challenges.1 Asia is a vast geographical area covering many diverse nations and peoples. It is also an area that houses a variety of religious traditions and languages. These religions include Hinduism, Jainism, Christianity, Sikhism, several forms of Buddhism, Confucian traditions and Islam. A nation like India has its own rich diversity in terms of cultures, languages and religions. Thus this chapter's project is a formidable task in relation to the geographical vastness of Asia and the diversity of religious traditions within Asia. Therefore I have - purely out of my limited knowledge and for the sake of a sharper focus - decided to rely mostly on illustrative materials from India. One can easily draw similar examples from other parts of Asia.

Two introductory surveys are helpful to our task here. First our discussion is best introduced by offering a demographic and statistical portrait of religious pluralism in Asia. Though each of the nations within Asia may have a different dominant religion, all nations within Asia are multi-religious in their makeup. For example, in nations such as Indonesia, Bangladesh and Pakistan more than eighty per cent of the people belong to Islam. Yet, in each of these nations there are a significant number of Christians, Hindus, Buddhists and people who practice tribal religious traditions. In India and Nepal, more than eighty per cent of the population is Hindu and there again one notices a significant variety of religious traditions within these two nations. In Japan, Vietnam, Thailand, Myanmar and Sri Lanka, a

1 My initial research for this essay was carried out as the William Paton Fellow at Selly Oak College, Selly Oak, Birmingham, UK (autumn 2001), and was supported by the Lilly Theological Research Grant of the Association of Theological Schools in the United States for the year 2001-2.

great majority of the population belongs to one of the varied Buddhist traditions, while other religious traditions coexist along with Buddhism.

There is indeed a variety in terms of the composition of religious populations within each country. Yet, one thing common to all the nations of Asia is that Christians form only a very small minority within each nation; for example, less than three per cent in India, ten per cent in Indonesia, eight per cent in Sri Lanka, less than one per cent in Bangladesh and Japan. The Philippines is the only exception, since eighty-two per cent of the population of the Philippines are Roman Catholic. Another important fact to bear in mind is that the kind of religious plurality that exists in Asia is not a product of any recent demographic changes; it is unlike the way religious plurality has come about in some European nations and the United States of America through recent migrations of people. Furthermore, religious plurality in Asia has existed for many centuries. This means that the question of religious pluralism is not something new to Asian Christians. From their historical beginnings, Asian Christians lived with religious plurality around them and had to encounter questions — theological or otherwise — with regard to their role and place within such religiously pluralistic settings.

Secondly, even though Christians in Asia, for centuries, encountered on a day-to-day basis the fact of religious plurality, the types and forms of their encounter have had significant variations. A helpful way to expound this, I consider, is to outline a set ofmodels or typologies ofencounter. These models are theological models and not chronological or regional. The chronological and regional concerns go beyond the parameters of this essay because to bring in illustrative examples from both a variety of geographical areas and a variety of periods, to substantiate each model, is a Herculean task. The discussion of models will be followed by a pointed discussion of four theological themes raised by the encounter between Asian Christianity and the religious pluralism of Asia. These four do not exhaust the wide array of challenges; rather this list highlights some of the most important ones among them.

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