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Jesus in Asia by R. S. Sugirtharajah

03 August 2018

Leslie Nathaniel reviews a Christological study that takes on the West

JESUS IN ASIA by R. S. Sugitharajah is not just another addition to the accepted corpus of scholarship on the search for the historical Jesus: it is an apologetic work that states a clear agenda at the outset.

The author attributes to the scholars selected for study “an anti-colonial strategy” that sets out to right the imbalance in which Asian contributions were consistently found wanting. Whether or not the subjects of his study each set out on purpose to “correct . . . the West’s negative perception of indigenous culture”, Sugitharajah’s analyses and interpretations amount to a persuasive case for adopting this objective.

He pursues this strategy on the grounds that received research on the Jesus of history has been a one-sided Western and, therefore, “provincial” enterprise, but, even more, that, coming from an imperialist context, it has arrogantly and uncritically assumed the supremacy of Western scholarship over other situation-based and inculturating approaches.

These more accessible biographies of Jesus by “effective public intellectuals” have not been afforded the recognition due to them. Sugitharajah’s purpose is that they be “incorporated into mainstream history” to demonstrate that “Jesus is not the private property of Western scholarship or the institutional churches,” and that “Asian Christological thinking has engaged creatively both with its own past and with the intellectual and Christological thinking in the broader world.”

He brings into focus largely forgotten scholarship from a vast reach of historical, geographical, and religio-cultural contexts. Taoist, Confucian, Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim, and Jain environments and identities lend their particular forms of expression to work by Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Sri Lankan, and Indian thinkers between the seventh and 20th centuries.

Their research methodologies and personal responses range from propagandist denial of the historical Jesus, and over-sympathetic, impassioned, or even politicised accounts (some of which, seeking to appropriate Jesus to a Buddhist, Muslim, or Jain thought-world, divest him of his Jewish and Graeco-Roman traits), to critical or confessional engagement with Jesus in a given context.

The author summarily and inextricably links Western missions and missionaries to the imposition of the colonising culture on indigenous people. Yet not a few missionaries, at least on the Indian subcontinent, continue to be held in high esteem for their study of indigenous language and culture, and for the integrity of their lives.

Further, some of Sugitharajah’s thinkers were themselves converts who fervently received and interpreted Jesus in their respective situations. If, as he argues, the quest for the historical Jesus “seems in a way to be a futile enterprise”, and Asian Christology must be taken as seriously as Western Christology, this entails recognising a confessional approach to spreading the gospel. But he rightly rejects any willingness to employ religion and mission as handmaids of the imperial power and sectarian interests.

Sugitharajah’s selection of subjects is open to the criticism that it is unrepresentative. Christians from India will miss a discussion of the repositories of thinking about Jesus over many centuries on the west coast of India, in particular, and any attention to Jesus as he finds voice in Dalit theology. Discussion of the latter would bring to the fore the wide experience of Jesus as the divine liberator who casts aside untouchability.

In this erudite, engaging, and readable work, Sugitharajah throws down the gauntlet to Western scholarship, challenging it to give serious attention to Asian voices as “indispensable guides to post-canonical Christianity”, and contributing to a shared wisdom. It is a challenge that needs to be accepted.

Canon Leslie Nathaniel is Chaplain of St Thomas Becket’s, Hamburg, in Ger­many. Born in South India, he worked with the Archbishop of Canterbury from 2009 to 2016, ini­tially as the Deputy Secretary for Ecu­menical Affairs and European Secretary for the Church of England, and later as the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Ecumen­ical Secretary.

Jesus in Asia
R. S. Sugirtharajah
Harvard University Press £21.95

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