A refugee’s odyssey leads to theological peaks

NCR Staff

As a Vietnam War refugee, Fr. Peter C. Phan’s first job after coming to the United States in 1975 was collecting garbage in Plano, Texas. Today, he’s the Warren-Blanding Professor of Religion and Culture in the Department of Religion and Religious Education at The Catholic University of America.

Last June in Miami, Phan was elected by his peers to be vice-president of the Catholic Theological Society of America. Next June he will become its president-elect and in June 2001 he will follow Franciscan Fr. Kenneth R. Himes of Washington Theological Union as president. He will be the first non-Caucasian president in the society’s history.

Becoming a war refugee was but the most visible breach in a life that has been, in many ways, the life of a refugee from the very start.

Phan’s experience has been similar to that of millions in developing countries whose cultures have been altered by outside forces -- in this case by the French and traditional Western Catholicism in Vietnam. In order to succeed, the Vietnamese had to part somewhat from native ways and take on the languages and affectations of alien peoples. Only later, for Phan and many others, has life meant rediscovering roots and national identity.

In this context, becoming president of the theological society is far more loaded than the average academic award. It is a measure of the willingness of the Catholic Theological Society of America to grow in new directions and highlights the changes occurring in Catholic theology and the larger church.

Minutes after being elected, Phan sat at a table accepting congratulations. His mind, however, was elsewhere, he admitted later. “I was thinking how unbelievable it was that a Vietnamese refugee could be elected president of the CTSA.” His thoughts drifted to his late father, who had worked as an automobile driver for government officials during the war years in Saigon when it was the capital of South Vietnam.

“And then I began to think of my mother who lives in Southern California,” he said. His mother to this day has no idea what he does for a living, adding a twinge of sadness to his election. “She has no notion of what theology is about,” he said. “No way could I explain to her the prestige the society had bestowed on our family.”

The organization that he will head was founded in 1946 and serves as a professional association of more than 1,400 member theologians, mainly in the United States and Canada.

Speaking to NCR, he noted that he will be “the first CTSA president to eat rice each day” -- his way of saying that he claims his Asian heritage with pride. Each afternoon he returns from classes to his apartment where he sticks a bowl of rice in the microwave and dines simply. Despite much change in his life, some old habits, including cuisine preferences, never die.

Himes said Phan was chosen to lead the CTSA “because of the solid respect the society has for Phan’s work.” He added that the choice reflects one of the virtues of American Catholicism -- its ability to adapt to waves of immigration and draw upon the diverse gifts of new immigrants.

Asian theology

To understand Phan, the theologian, it helps to have a sense of what it means to have been a war refugee, living through the terror and chaos of the last days of the Vietnam War. Just three days before North Vietnamese soldiers marched triumphantly into Saigon, April 30, 1975, Phan’s father made the decision to evacuate his family from Vietnam.

The experience taught Phan that nothing should be taken for granted and that people who think they are in control live in a world of illusion. Phan’s refugee experience is a bond to tens of millions of uprooted and nomadic souls worldwide.

His work does not fit neatly into any single recognizable field. He and other Christian Asian theologians have been shaping the new field of Asian theology, which is about two decades old

Asian theologians admit that they have been heavily influenced by Latin American liberation theology. Both theologies were spawned in reaction to widespread oppression and poverty. Like their Latin American counterparts, Asian theologians insist that theology must express solidarity with the victims of poverty and oppression or it will fail to speak to the times.

However, unlike Latin American liberation theologians, Asian theologians frequently look to culture and religion to develop their theological models. This does not mean they necessarily abandon Western methods, including the study of scripture and church tradition. But they often find these paths, including the historical critical method, inadequate.

“Asian theologians try to bring the Word to life in the Asian context by rediscovering human dignity,” said Phan. They build on traditional stories passed down through the generations, often by women, by using sacred Asian texts, symbols and philosophies. Thus, Phan said, Asian theology has a distinctly interreligious component.

“The three pillars of Asian theology,” he explained, “are liberation, inculturation and interreligious dialogue.” It was no accident that these were the three most highlighted themes the Asian bishops brought to the Synod for Asia in April 1998.

Meanwhile, Phan is developing a theological niche within Asian theology called Asian-American theology. He is one of only about a dozen Asian-American theologians. Although they have been living and writing in the West, their roots are in Asia. According to Phan, they try to avoid reflections that are “so ethnic and contextual” that mainline theologians can ignore them, while working to develop theology that places no culture or theological system ahead of another. Their aim is the development of a new global “intercultural theology.”

With the churches of Asia becoming more prominent and the Asian-American communities in the United States growing, the need to understand “Asian” thinking becomes more pressing. (The 1990 census counted the population of Asians and Pacific Islanders as 7.3 million --more than double the 3.5 million for 1980 -- or 2.9 percent of the 250 million total U.S. population.) Speaking last year at Notre Dame University at a symposium on the pastoral concerns of Asian Pacific Catholics in the United States, Phan had this to say about the Asian way of looking at life.

“Two commonalities of most Asians, despite their many differences, are their religio-cultural heritage and their socio-economic context. The first is the religious, mainly Confucian, Taoist and Buddhist traditions, and the second is large scale poverty and oppression. Scratch the surface of every East Asian Catholic and you will find a Confucian, a Taoist or a Buddhist, or more often than not, an indistinguishable mixture of the three. … They are socialized into these values and norms not only through formal teaching but also, and primarily, through thousands and thousands of proverbs, folk sayings, songs and of course family rituals and cultural festivals.”

Phan says it is this way of looking at life, this rich and varied heritage, that Asian-American Catholics bring with them to the United States that “may be one of their most significant contributions to the American church.”

Being an Asian-American can also mean not quite fitting into the norm, at least as most Americans see that norm. Phan likes to say he lives and writes theology “betwixt-between.” It can be a marginal and often lonely place, lacking the comfort of a single traditional identity. “Betwixt-between” means, he says, not being fully integrated into any one culture; being bilingual, but not achieving a mastery of either one’s native or adoptive tongue; speaking with a distinct accent; and having an inordinate desire to belong.

Phan was born in 1946 in the coastal town of Nha Trang in Central Vietnam, the second of 13 children. He showed an early interest in the priesthood and entered a minor seminary run by the Salesian fathers. It was an education fraught with latent conflict. In elementary school he began to study in French, including French literature, history, geography, art -- all part of being raised as a cultured French youth. That’s when his native tongue, Vietnamese, became his second foreign language, after English. “I learned Vietnamese in French,” he recalled somewhat exasperated. Worse, he said, in this French colonial setting he was subtly brainwashed into looking upon anything Vietnamese as uncouth and barbarian.

At the age of 15, the Salesians sent Phan to Don Bosco College in Hong Kong to study philosophy in Latin, yet another new Western element in his young life. Those were the days, he said, when he was taught “absolute truths” -- and was told that Descartes, Leibniz, Locke, Hume, Kant, Hegel, Nietzsche and Marx had it all dead wrong.

Those were also the days when Western teachers encouraged young Asian seminarians to turn their backs on their Asian heritage. To become a priest it was necessary to give up Eastern thought. There was never an opportunity, he said, to study Chinese philosophy or the Chinese language. Eastern philosophies and cultures were not deemed worthy of study because they were judged to be void of any truth not already known through Christian revelation, Phan would later write.

At age 18, the Salesians told Phan he was to teach philosophy to first-year college students. He enrolled as an external student at the University of London, eventually earning bachelor of arts degrees in French, philosophy and Latin.

When Phan was 21, the Salesians sent him to Rome to study at the Salesian pontifical university. Not only was he caught between East and West, but he was also finding himself in settings torn between the dynamic energies of church renewal released by the Second Vatican Council and others trying to keep those energies in check. In a personal way, those were days of intense loneliness and deep introspection, he said.

Phan was feeling a growing urge to find his own path. No courses were offered in Asian theology or Asian history at his university at that time. For his licentiate degree in theology he chose to study German Protestant existentialist Paul Tillich. He found in Tillich’s writings a kinship that grew out of a shared sense of isolation, a longing for identity and an understanding of what it means to live on the margins of society.

Ministry and exodus

After earning his degree, Phan returned to Vietnam where he was ordained in 1972 and assigned to teach in a boys’ high school, serve as a chaplain in a woman’s prison and also as a chaplain in a police academy. Those were happy years. He especially enjoyed working with the young students.

Meanwhile, the war was dragging on as American soldiers were withdrawing. North Vietnamese intent to conquer the South stood firm. By April 1975, South Vietnam was collapsing as North Vietnamese troops advanced south.

Without Phan’s knowledge, his parents, who lived in central Vietnam, abandoned their home and escaped by taking to the sea. Eventually they ended up in Saigon.

One Sunday morning as his parents and brothers and sisters were attending Mass, one of his younger brothers entered the church to say they had to leave immediately. The family stood up -- 14 in all -- in the middle of a homily and walked out. They had nothing but one change of clothes and soon ended up on a military cargo plane.

Seared indelibly in his memory remains the image of his father in that transport plane, squatting. “His head was cradled between his hands and he was praying silently. My mother had the rosary beads in her hands, the source of her consolation and strength throughout her life.” The plane landed in Guam.

Phan recalled being in the refugee camp while hearing the announcement on the public address system that Saigon had just capitulated to the North. “As the national anthem was played, people, young and old, men and women, especially soldiers, shamelessly broke into loud weeping,” he said.

Weeks later, again with no advance warning, Phan’s family was told to get on a bus and head for the airport. This time it was a commercial plane. A flight attendant asked family members if they wanted food. Pham recalls that his family politely refused “because we thought we had to pay -- and we had no money.”

Phan and his family eventually landed in San Diego and were whisked to Camp Pendleton, where rows of canvas tents had been erected to receive tens of thousands of refugees. After two months, Phan’s family received word they were to be sponsored by the University of Plano, north of Dallas.

It was there Phan accepted his first job in the United States -- collecting garbage at an hourly wage of $2.10, the minimum wage in 1975. He held that job for two months while awaiting entrance into the University of Dallas, a Catholic liberal arts school. He was accepted into a graduate program in philosophy.

Because of his “special circumstances,” the Salesian University in Rome allowed him to complete course work in Dallas, where he taught theology part-time and wrote a dissertation under the direction of a professor in Rome. The subject of his dissertation was the theology of the Russian icon. He was especially interested in the works of Russian Orthodox theologian and mystic Paul Evdokimov. “Like Tillich and myself, he, too, was a refugee,” Phan said.

‘Accidental theologian’

Phan, who calls himself “an accidental theologian,” received his doctorate in theology in 1978.

In 1988, Phan left the University of Dallas to move to Washington to teach at The Catholic University of America, but not before earning a doctor of philosophy degree from the University of London after studying the works of Catholic German Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner.

Added to this mix was a growing interest in Fr. Gustavo Gutierrez, the father of liberation theology, and in Asian theology, specifically the writings of Aloysius Pieris, Samuel Ryan and Choan-Seng Song. Recently he earned yet another degree from the University of London, a doctorate in divinity.

Phan’s books reflect his trans-cultural theological journey. They include Culture and Eschatology: The Iconographical Vision of Paul Evdokimov; Social Thought; Eternity in Time: A Study of Karl Rahner’s Eschatology; Grace and the Human Condition; Death and Eternal Life; and Mission and Catechesis: Alexandre de Rhodes and Inculturation in Seventeenth-Century Vietnam. Most recently he finished co-editing a book on Asian theology called Journeys at the Margin: Toward an Autobiographical Theology in American-Asian Perspective, published by The Liturgical Press.

Fr. Charles Curran, a Catholic theologian at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, calls Phan a “bridge builder between East and West.” Curran credits Phan with expanding Western theological dialogue with Vietnamese culture.

Phan has helped found a Vietnamese institute of philosophy and religion in California and he is working to start a press that would publish Vietnamese philosophy and religion.

Fr. Joachim Hien, a Vietnamese pastor in Spokane, Wash., and a spiritual leader in the Vietnamese Catholic community in the United States, recalled the immense pride Vietnamese Catholics expressed after learning Phan had been chosen to lead the Catholic theological society. “The days of being refugees must be over,” Hien said. “The days of [Vietnamese] contributing to this great land has dawned.

“As I read Phan’s works and have come to know him more personally,” Hien continued, “I realized that some of his writings come not only from his academic research but are also embodied by his own personal experience among the Vietnamese people.”

Phan is another sign the Catholic Theological Society remains open to change. Himes noted that the organization initially was made up mostly of white, male cleric seminary professors but has grown to include laymen and women, women religious, and more recently Hispanic, African-American and Asian-American theologians.

The society’s acceptance of change has made it a kind of barometer within the church. By that measure the society’s decision to elect as a future president an Asian refugee to the United States may be saying that Catholic theology in the 21st century may lose some of its distinctly Western characteristics or at least accommodate itself to the East. Perhaps, like Phan himself, it could one day find itself somewhere between East and West -- and quite possibly beyond them both.

National Catholic Reporter, February 11, 2000