Poverty, Religiousness Key to Sri Lankan's Theology

By Gomes, Janina | National Catholic Reporter, May 19, 2000 | Go to article overview

Poverty, Religiousness Key to Sri Lankan's Theology


Gomes, Janina, National Catholic Reporter


God's reign built on violent tram formation, Pieris teaches

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 straggle 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.

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