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Theologian: 'Refreshing Asian thinking' invigorating church

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CHENNAI, India -- The "refreshing thinking" generated by theological efforts in Asia is making "tremendous contributions" that renew Christianity around the globe, says a leading theologian.

"For the first time, Asians are thinking what Christianity is all about and what it means to Asian people and cultures," Father Felix Wilfred said. He shared this and other observations with UCA News on Aug. 18 at his base in Chennai, Tamil Nadu state, 2,095 kilometers south of New Delhi.

The priest, who recently turned 60, is a former secretary of the Theological Advisory Committee of the Federation of Asian Bishops Conferences' (FABC). A few years ago, the committee was given the higher status of an FABC office.

Father Wilfred said Asians are "absorbing Christianity in their own manner, based on their civilization and culture, and Asian theology is facilitating that process," thereby enabling a different understanding of Christianity.

Asians used to understand Christianity as missioners had described it, but they now understand it "from their experiential and cultural point of view."

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After years of travel all across Asia, Father Wilfred has concluded that two of the region's major civilizations, Chinese and Indian, approach Christianity differently from others. The resulting "good things" help the world, and lead to "a dynamic understanding of faith, Christ and Church," he said.

Another gift of Asian theology, he pointed out, is a new understanding about other faith traditions. The theological contributions spawned in Asia, he observed, have not only helped the Church see the Holy Spirit working in other religions, but also helped Christians "move from simply tolerating people to accepting other religions as part of God's saving grace."

Asian theology, he added, promotes the experience of mystery that envelopes the Asian religious ethos and helps Christians join the quest of humanity.

On reaching 60, Father Wilfred retired as a professor at the Department of Christian Studies at government-run University of Madras in Chennai. He has also served as a visiting professor in Nijmegan, Netherlands, and Muenster, Germany. Now, he is the new president of Concilium (Council), a leading theological journal published in seven European languages.

During his retirement, he added, he intends to focus on ethical problems "that are very important to humanity's existence."

He said he wants to bring together various disciplines to address those problems, and he plans to facilitate a dialogue of science, religion and the humanities in a way unlike that of traditional approaches.

As part of this dialogue, the Asian Centre for Cross Cultural Studies, which he founded in Chennai, will organize interactions among biotechnologists, philosophers and theologians.

Meanwhile, Indian Church leaders honored Father Wilfred by releasing a festschrift for him at a ceremony on July 22 in Chennai. A festschrift is a compilation of essays written by contemporaries in honor of a person who has contributed significantly in a particular field.

During the gathering, Salesian Archbishop Malayappan Chinnappa of Madras-Mylapore hailed the priest as "a courageous and perceptive theologian who interprets Christianity and its teaching in the local context of life in a meaningful and relevant way." According to the prelate, Father Wilfred has given Christian theology "a local integrity by removing its Western garb."

Reverend K. Rajarathnam, former head of the National Council of Churches of India (NCCI), commended Father Wilfred for taking Christian theology "beyond theoretical assertions about the truth of the Gospel." The Protestant leader told the assembly that the Catholic priest's writings are "outstanding contributions to a Christian Church." NCCI is the national association of Protestant and Orthodox Churches in India.

Father D. Alphonse, principal of a theological college in India, described Father Wilfred as "the forerunner of peoples' theology in India" and said Father Wilfred has "tremendously influenced" young theologians in India.

Father Cruz Hieronymus, a biblical scholar, credited Father Wilfred for placing Indian and Asian theology on the world theological map. Father Hieronymus said his writings and presence at theological commissions have influenced bishops around the world.

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