Ordained a priest in Vietnam, fleeing to the U.S. in April '75 after the fall of Saigon, and finding a job in Texas as a garbage collector before becoming a theology professor art the University of Dallas--Peter Cho Phan is not your typical academic.
With about 70 people Ire had taken with him from Vietnam, Phan stayed for two and a half months in a refugee camp in Pendleton, California. He recalls, "When we moved to Dallas, we didn't even know where Texas or Dallas was, So we asked someone what the weather was like there, if it would he cold. He said no, so we said, 'OK.'"
By 1980 Phan chaired the theology department at Dallas and went on to do the same at the Catholic University of America. Three years ago he became the first nonwhite president of the Catholic Theological Society of America, and today he is the Ignacio Ellacuria Chair of Catholic Social Thought at Georgetown University.
Author of 11 books, his latest volumes comprise a series on Asian American theology from Orbis Books, including In Our Own Tongues (2003) and Christianity with an Asian Face (2003).
Many people are under the impression that Christianity is relatively new to Asia. Is this true?
Very often when you look at church history books they are written as if Jesus died and the apostles all picked up and moved to Rome. But there is a lot of history between the life of Jesus and the emergence of the Roman Catholic Church that is rarely mentioned, partly because we do not have many written records. But we do know for a fact that the first nation to declare itself Christian was the state of Oshroene at the end of the third century. The next state was Armenia, also way before Rome did.
The first Christians in Asia were Syrians. We now call them Nestorians, after Nestorius, a bishop in the fifth century. They went east through Asia, particularly to India. By the sixth or seventh century we know that some Nestorian Christians reached Xian, the ancient capital of China.
In the 13th century some Franciscans came to Asia, but the major missionary activity occurred in the 16th century. The Jesuits were first in this wave, then the Franciscans, Dominicans, Augustinians, and then in the late 17th century came members of the Society of Foreign Missions of Paris.
The Protestants came later, in the 19th century, mostly from America and Germany. So Christianity in Asia is both Catholic and Protestant, in addition to Orthodox and Pentecostal. However, statistics show the largest number of Asian Christians are Catholic, with about 130 million members.
What happened to the Asian Christianity of the past?
Most of the Syrian Christianity had disappeared by the 10th century--there were no traces of it. But we are now trying to recover these Asian roots of Christianity.
For example, in many of my writings I talk about different ways of interpreting the Bible. There is one Western way that has become dominant, almost normative, in the West. We call it the historical-critical method. But that is not the only way to interpret the Bible. In Asia we had many other methods--the Syriac Church's method, for example--and we need to recover those methods in order to be much more faithful to our Asian context.
Some churches of the early Asian Christians continue to this day, like the St. Thomas Christians who are in India and even have a small branch in the U.S. But most of the early Christian groups have disappeared.
In the 16th century, when Christianity came back to Asia, it came in European, Western garb, and it came with colonialism. So Christianity in Asia has this heavy burden of the past, of colonialism and imperialism.
One reason I think Syrian Christians who came to China in the seventh century disappeared is because they were very much associated with the T'ang Dynasty, which was the most glorious Chinese dynasty. When the T'ang Dynasty ended by the beginning of the 10th century, that branch of Asian Christianity disappeared as well. …