Being Religious Interreligiously, the latest work to emerge from the pen of the prolific Vietnamese American Catholic theologian Peter C. Phan, is the eagerly anticipated third volume that not only completes his magnum opus on Asian theology, but also marks the crowning achievement of three decades of theological ruminations as, in his own words, "an 'accidental theologian'" (p. xi). The first volume, Christianity with an Asian Face (2003) [http://catholicbooksreview.org/2003/phan.htm ] explores the twin themes of liberation and inculturation as the "building blocks for an Asian American theology," while the second volume, In Our Own Tongues (2003) [http://catholicbooksreview.org/2003/phan2.htm] focuses on the issues of mission and inculturation in Asia. As a fitting conclusion to this trilogy, Being Religious Interreligiously wrestles with the complexities of religious pluralism and interreligious dialogue in a postmodern world. Of the fifteen chapters in this book, four (chapters seven, eight, nine and twelve) are unique to this volume, while the remaining chapters are revisions of essays previously published in monographs and various theological journals.
This book is divided into three parts. In the first part, consisting of the first four chapters, Phan investigates the challenges posed by postmodernism to the theological task. The first chapter proposes the path of "foolish wisdom" and the "wisdom of the holy fool" as remedy to the skeptical disenchantment of postmodernism. In the second chapter, Phan explores how the Trinity could provide the theological underpinnings for a unity of faith. The third chapter discusses the construction of the Catholic identity in the contemporary context of religious pluralism, while chapter four considers the opportunities and challenges of postmodern multiple religious belonging for Christian theology and the Church.
The second part comprises essays that deal with specific issues arising from Christianity's dialogue with other religions. In the fifth chapter, Phan grapples with the implications of Christianity's claim to uniqueness and universality. Although he agrees that such a claim "should not be bracketed in interreligious dialogue," nonetheless he contends that "such a claim may be made only for Jesus Christ, which is an affirmation of faith and cannot be validated on the rational level, and not for Christianity as a historical institution" (p. xxv). The sixth chapter considers possibilities for "God-equivalents" in other religions, while the seventh chapter, entitled "Talking of God in Many and Diverse Cultures and Religions: A God for Asia," puts forward distinctive Asian perspectives of God as "the God that takes the side of the poor," the "God of Universal Harmony," and the "All-Inclusive God." In chapter eight, Phan unpacks the image of Jesus as the "Enlightened One" (or Buddha), while the next three chapters introduce the readers to important contemporary aspects of Jewish-Christian dialogue, i.e., implications of the eternal validity of the Jewish covenant for Christianity's understanding of the unicity and uniqueness of Jesus' saviorhood (chapter nine), the Catechism of the Catholic Church's discussion on Jews and Judaism (chapter ten), and the challenges posed by the Shoah (Holocaust) for Asian liberation theology (chapter eleven). In chapter twelve, Phan invites us to consider the contributions of religions in general, and Buddhism and Confucianism in particular, toward reconciliation and peacebuilding among all people in an age that is marked by holy wars and religious violence.
In the third part of this book, Phan turns his attention to the practical implications of interreligious dialogue for Christian liturgy and worship. Chapter thirteen reflects on the contemporary state of liturgical inculturation and evaluates how the theological insights of Filipino liturgical theologian Anscar Chupungco, as well as the documents of the Federation of Asian Bishops' Conferences (FABC) could provide new insights to a renewed theology of liturgical inculturation. Chapter fourteen, provocatively titled "How Much Uniformity Can We Stand? How Much Unity Do We Want?" challenges its readers to differentiate between "uniformity" and "unity" in an effort to overcome the divisive polarization between traditionalists and progressives on the vexing issue of liturgical inculturation. In the final chapter, Phan reverses Sacrosanctum concilium's oft-quoted assertion that the liturgy is the source and summit of the Church's life and activities (SC, 14), arguing instead that the latter is the true source and summit of the former.
With its extensive footnotes, copious bibliographical references, and a detailed index, it is clear that this book is targeted toward professional theologians, academic scholars and graduate students. Nevertheless, Phan's clear and cogent writing style renders this book accessible even to a general audience. Elegantly written and well-researched, this book is a delightful read and a must-have, not only for those interested in Asian theology in particular, but also for anyone who is interested in the wider questions concerning the interplay between postmodernism, religious pluralism and interreligious dialogue in general. In my earlier review of In Our Own Tongues, I came to the conclusion that throughout that book, "Phan shows a general sense of balanced and informed discussion on the complex issues facing Asian Christianity which he articulates so well for his readers." After reading this book, I am more convinced than ever of Phan's critical insights and original thinking here, more so in view of the fact that issues of religious pluralism and interfaith dialogue are theological minefields that have challenged the navigational skills of even the most experienced theologians.