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Poverty, religiousness key to Sri Lankan’s theology

In the May 12 issue, Janina Gomes argued that Western Christians would benefit from greater familiarity with Eastern theological currents, offering the work of Jesuit Fr. Samuel Rayan as an example. This week she discusses another Asian Jesuit, Sri Lankan thinker Aloysius Pieris.


Liberation theology in Catholicism is readily associated with the culture where it originates: Latin America. Not many of us, however, have heard of an Asian theology of liberation pioneered by Aloysius Pieris, founder and director of the Tulana Research Centre in Kalaniya, Sri Lanka. A Jesuit priest, Pieris earned the first doctorate in Buddhist studies ever awarded to a non-Buddhist by the University of Sri Lanka.

As he reaches out into the Asian context from his study center in Gonawala, Sri Lanka, Pieris is met by two dominant realities, around which his theology is woven -- Asian poverty and Asian religiousness. He realizes that Christian theology must respond to both issues and both together. Christians will not adequately address the problem of Asian poverty unless they do so within the context of dialogue with Asian religions; and they will not carry out an authentic and successful interreligious encounter unless they base that dialogue on a concern for the poor.

Pieris bases his theological response to poverty on two Biblical axioms: the irreconcilable antagonism between God and wealth that is accumulated and not shared; and the irrevocable convenant between God and the poor, Jesus himself being this covenant. It is in Jesus, therefore, that Pieris says God and the poor have formed an alliance against their common enemy: Mammon. This is what justifies the conclusion that, for Jesus and his followers, spirituality is not merely a struggle to be poor but equally a struggle for the poor.

Pieris argues that liberation theology, though originating in the Western part of the Third World, carries a far greater relevance for Asia than classical theology does. It is important, he teaches, for Asians to insist upon the primacy of praxis over theory: “Spirituality, for instance, is not the practical conclusion of theology, but the radical involvement with the poor and the oppressed, and is what creates theology.”

Pieris believes that the growth of the world into God’s kingdom is not a progressive development, but a process punctuated by radical contradictions, violent transformations, and death and resurrection experiences. He also asserts that this method is not developmental theology, which would justify and perpetuate the values of an acquisitive culture, but a liberation theology, which demands the asceticism of renunciation and a voluntary poverty, rejecting acquisitiveness. These themes, as is obvious, are also strongly present in the other religious traditions of Asia.

In Pieris’ view, the encounter of God and humanity -- that is, the interplay of grace and liberty -- is translated as an obligation to use all human potentialities to anticipate the kingdom, which nevertheless remains God’s gift. This he believes explains the liberationists’ political choice of socialism. He strongly believes that the theology of power, domination and instrumentalization must give way to a theology of humility and participation.

Pieris talks of two versions of religious socialism prevalent in Asia. One, the more primitive form, is practiced by the clannic and quasi-clannic societies spread through the vast stretches of non-urbanized Asia. The second is the more sophisticated form embodied by the monastic communities of Buddhist, Hindu, Taoist and other origin. In the relations between these, Pieris finds anomalies and contradictions; often, though the monastic community may practice perfect communism within its own membership, in terms of the sharing of goods, it may act as a feudal lord toward the ambient clannic structures.

That is why Pieris warns spiritual enthusiasts against fostering a feudal and leisure-class mentality. That is why he also advises the indigenizers of theology (to be understood in the context of the “Western” image of Christianity in Asia) to become poor, and the inculturationists to get involved with the masses. He describes the tendency to create or perpetuate a “leisure class” through prayer centers and ashrams that attract the more affluent to short spells of mental tranquility rather than a life of renunciation as an abuse of Eastern spirituality.

Pieris also advocates the new method of theology that uses as its first step the building up of basic human communities where Christian and non-Christian members strive together for the dawn of a full humanity. He thus offers an alternative method of theologizing for Asians in search of a liberation theology that is distinct from the models of Western liberalism and from the Marxian liberation theology of Latin America.

At the heart of his concerns are the poverty of Asia’s people and the wealth of Asia’s religious traditions. From them he evolves a language that speaks to the Asian situation and the Asian church.

Janina Gomes is communications manager at the Indo-Italian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Mumbai, India. She contributes regularly to the “Speaking Tree” column of the Times of India, a column reserved for philosophy and religion.

National Catholic Reporter, May 19, 2000