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Being Religious Interreligiously? PDF Print E-mail
Written by Sherry   
Wednesday, 12 September 2007 13:50
John Allen breaks this news:

Theologian Fr. Peter C. Phan of Georgetown is being investigated by both the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) and the US Bishops. At issue is his 2004 book, Being Religious Interreligiously, published by Orbis.

We have heard this all before. Per Allen:

According to sources who have seen the correspondence, the central issues flagged both by the Vatican and the U.S. bishops are:

* Christ as the unique and universal savior of the world;
* The role and function of the Catholic church in salvation;
* The saving value of non-Christian religions.

All three issues are core concerns of Benedict XVI, who led the doctrinal congregation when Dominus Iesus was published. Those concerns were also at the heart of previous censures of theologians such as the late Jesuit Fr. Jacques Dupuis of Belgium, as well as Jesuit Frs. Roger Haight of the United States and Jon Sobrino of El Salvador.

I must make it clear that I have not read the book in question. My interest in Phan's opinions was roused by his article Proclamation of the Reign of God as Mission of the Church: What for, to Whom, by Whom, with Whom and How?" which precipitated my 11 part series on The Challenge of Independent Christianity

Here are a couple excerpts from that series that specifically respond to things that Phan has written:

My missionary past and Catholic present collided when I came across Peter C. Phan’s article “Proclamation of the Reign of God as Mission of the Church: What for, to Whom, by Whom, with Whom, and How?” ( Phan’s title intrigued me and I started to read eagerly, only to be stunned by the first few paragraphs:

"But now things have changed, and changed utterly. The change from the enthusiasm and optimism of the World Missionary Conference that met in Edinburgh, Scotland, in 1910—whose catchy slogan was "The evangelization of the world in this generation"—to the discouragement and even pessimism in today’s missionary circles, Catholic and Protestant alike, is visible and palpable. . . .To the consternation of Western missionaries, the shout "Missionary, go home" was raised in the 1960s, to be followed a decade later by the demand for a moratorium on Christian missions from the West.

In addition to the political factors, the collapse of mission as we knew it was also caused by the unexpected resurgence of the so-called non-Christian religions, in particular Hinduism and Islam. The missionaries’ rosy predictions of their early demise were vastly premature. Concomitant with this phenomenon is an intense awareness of religious pluralism which advocates several distinct, independent, and equally valid ways to reach the Divine and therefore makes conversion from one religion to another, which was considered as the goal of mission, unnecessary."
[emphasis mine]

I was incredulous. I knew that the last word one could use of the Christian missionary enterprise at the beginning of the 21st century was “collapse”. Once more, I was standing on the edge of an unbridgeable chasm of experience that yawned between this prominent American theologian and the world I had known. I couldn’t help but wonder if Peter Phan inhabited the same planet as the evangelicals with whom I had lived and studied. Discouragement? Pessimism? Evangelical missionaries have faced the same historical and cultural realities as Catholics since 1960. But they believe that they have been privileged to be part of the greatest expansion of Christianity in history and are absolutely exuberant about the future of missions.

and regarding The Debate over Dominus Iesus & the Validity of Contemporary Missions

There is a chasm the size of the Grand Canyon between the Independent reading of Christian fortunes in Asia and that of theologians like Peter Phan. Phan asserted, in an article titled “The Next Christianity” (America, February 3, 2003), that at most Christians in Asia make up only 3% of the population after 500 years of evangelization and strongly implied that the missionary enterprise was a bust. Meanwhile, David Barrett gives a figure that is three times larger (9%), and which represents a fourfold growth in Asian Christianity since 1900. Indeed, Barrett estimates that Christians will outnumber Buddhists in Asia before 2025!

At first, I was flummoxed. How could two experts in the field come up with figures that were so far apart? The answer came when I discovered that both Barrett and Fides, the communication arm of the Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith, put the number of Asian Catholics in 2002 at 110 million or 2.9% of the total population. (Sherry’s note: David Barrett’s updated 2005 figures estimate that there are nearly 123 million Catholics in Asia.)

I realized that Phan must be using the word Christian as a synonym for Catholic. But there are twice as many non-Catholic Christians as Catholics in Asia. When I added in the numbers of Asian Protestants (57 million), the Orthodox (13.6 million), and the huge numbers of new independent Christians (179 million), the gap between 3% and 9% was easily bridged.

My initial concern with Phan's work was staggeringly bad history and worse statistics. Phan's ahistorical reading of contemporary Christian missions systemically ignored massively documented realities like the explosive growth of Christianity in the third world which a casual reader could uncover with a 60 second Google search.

I knew that it was almost certainly theology that was driving this strange obtuseness on Phan's part because "missionary failure" would enable him to portray his theological positions as "realism" - the stoic acceptance of the fact that Asians had voted with their feet and rejected Christianity en masse - rather than an ideology that he was asserting in the teeth of overwhelming evidence that Asia (especially China) is on the verge of becoming one of the evangelizing dynamos of the Christian world.

So I'm relieved that serious questions are being raised at the highest level about the theological issues behind the lousy missiology.

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