Boston Collaborative Encyclopedia of Western Theology

Song(,) Choan Seng (1929- )

Table of Contents
1. Background
2. Works (Selected List)
3. Themes
4. Outline of Major Works
5. Relation to Other Thinkers
6. Bibliography and Works Cited
7. Internet Resources
8. Related Topics

1. Background

Choan Seng Song currently serves as a professor of Theology and Asian Culture at the Pacific School of Religion and a regional professor of Theology at the South East Asia Graduate School of Theology in Singapore and Hong Kong. He received his Ph.D. from Union Theological Seminary, New York City, in 1965. Dr. Song was the Principle of the Tainan Theological College, Taiwan. In 1976-1977, he served as Visiting Professor at Princeton Theological Seminary. In addition, he has also served as Director of Study for the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, Secretary for Asian Ministries, the Reformed Church in America; and Associate Director of the Faith and Order Commission of the World Council of Churches, Geneva. Currently he serves as the chairman elect of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches.

2. Works (Selected List)

Asians and Blacks: Theological Challenge (1973); Christian Mission in Reconstruction: An Asian Analysis (1977); Third-Eye Theology: Theology in Formation in Asian Settings (1979); The Tears of Lady Meng: A Parable of People’s Political Theology (1981); The Compassionate God (1982); Tell Us Our Names: Story Theology from an Asian Perspective (1984); Theology from the Womb of Asia (1986); Jesus, the Crucified People (1990); Jesus and the Reign of God (1993); Jesus in the Power of the Spirit (1994).

3. Themes

The Task of Song’s Asian Theology

C. S. Song has been exerting himself to the utmost on awakening the task of the Asian Theology. Song believes that Asian theologians are obligatory to articulate an Asian Christian theology whose God should be comprehended with ease by the Asian people in the Asian context. Song argues that the western God is distant from the Asian people. Christianity, imported into Asia from the West, is shaped and packed by the Western philosophy and culture. Song has been struggling for the liberation from the dominant theology of the West even though he has been exposed in the Western theology throughout his entire theological training course. Hence, Song asserts that the Christian God should not only be a God of the West but also a God of the Asian people, just like a "black God of black Christians" (Song 1982, 12). This God, then, will be perceived as a personal and a relational God by the Asian people. It is apparent that Song’s theology is deeply indebted to Dr. Shoki Coe’s (Ng Chiong-Hui) idea of the "contextualization of theology." Dr. Coe had been ceaselessly advocating the "contextualization of theology" in Taiwan for decades. Song, however, picks up Dr. Coe’s idea and continues the task (Song 1982, xiii).

Another factor, which influences Song’s theology, is the Liberation Theology. By adopting Marx’s criticism on religion and capitalism as other liberation theologians have done, Song’s emphasis on human freedom and social justice are explicitly set in tone with his theological construction. For Song, the Asian people have been victimized by the Western industrialization and modernization. The technological and economic developments, imported by the Western colonialism, have brought the Western value system into Asia. Needless to say, this colonialism has transplanted the Western value system on the Asian soil, which in turn has substituted the original Asian value system (Song 1972, 34-43). Hence, the triumph of the Western culture over the Asian culture has created an identity crisis for Asian Christians. That is to say, Asian Christians may lose their cultural identity by immersing themselves in the Western values without awareness. For Song, loosing one’s cultural identity is loosing one’s "root of being." "Identity crisis . . . is a crisis related to the possibility of not being" (4). Thus, one of the tasks for Asian Christians is to gain a new identity for the Asian people. Song believes that the theological task as such enables Christians "to penetrate the facade of religions and cultures and discover their place in the common humanity of the Asians" (11). In short, Song’s tasks could be summarized into two phases: 1) to advocate the "contextualization" of the Christian theology; 2) to struggle for the liberation from the unjust circumstance in order to gain a new identity for the Asian people.

The Methodology of Song’s Theological Construction

Song’s theological construction is based on a synthesis of the liberation theology, the narrative theology, the biblical theology and the theology of culture. Although Song has been struggling for the liberation from the dominion of the Western theology, the Western theological views and values still underlie his theological construction. Song argues that the "Asian experience" should be the source for constructing an Asian Christian theology. In order to search for the existential meanings of the Asian people, Song penetrates and reinterprets the traditional Asian folk tales and the modern Asians’ living stories with his "third eye." The "third eye," a term derived from the Japanese Buddhism, is an eye seeing Christ with one’s cultural experience. Christians in Asia should be trained to see Christ with their own experiences. Seeing Christ through the Asian cultural experience invokes the spirituality of the Asian people. Thus, doing theology with an Asian spirituality is doing theology with a "Third Eye" (Song 1979, 10-11). In doing so Song juxtaposes Asian stories with biblical stories, and interpret the Asian stories in correspondence with Christian biblical messages. The juxtaposition as such is the methodology for implementing the "contextualization of theology."

For Song, the "contextualization of theology" explicitly proposes a theological method derived from the Asian experience. To construct a Christian theology out of the Asian context is to "transpose" the biblical faith directly into the Asian world, as though St. Paul had transposed that faith from Palestine to the Greco-Roman world and eventually to Europe and the West (Song 1982, 7). Song uses the word "transposition" to characterize the task of the "contextualization of theology." For Song, the current Asian theological values are the values transposed from the West, not from the biblical faith of Palestine. By transposing the biblical faith directly from Palestine into the Asian world, Song argues that the Christian theology will become a theology from the "womb" of Asia. For Song, this transposition makes the Christian theology become flesh in the reality of Asia. That is to say, God incarnates God-self among the Asian people and communicates with the Asian people in the Asian context. This vision, derived from Song’s theology, leads people to "the reign of God," to the "Messianic banquet," and to the "God of compassion" (Song 1986). God is so vivid to the Asian people from this theological perspective.

This theology, for Song, is able to decode the Asian life and to see God’s redemptive presence in Asian history and culture. Yet, theologians must use imagination to decode the Asian life and its reality because the theological imagination itself is able to cry out a powerful voice from the depth of the "Asian heart." And this powerful voice will liberate the people from the unjust circumstance. As Song states, "if we want to engage ourselves in theological decoding of those codes, signs, and symbols . . . we must deepen our theological imagination and strengthen the power of our theological imaging" (Song 1986,16). The theological imagination, in fact, is the power of theological imaging. For Song, "God images God’s own self in humanity . . . By imaging God’s own self in humankind, God imparts to us the ability to image all created things in relation to God. God has giving us the power of theo-logical imaging" (63). Thus, the Asian Christian theology must respond to people who suffer and render the hope for those people. This vision is well illustrated in The Tears of Lady Meng: A Parable of People’s Political Theology (1981), the most typical work of Song’s political theology.

Creation and Redemption

Song believes that creation and redemption should be treated as a whole. Song insists on the essential union of universal creation and redemption in Christ. For Song, there is an intrinsic relationship between creation and redemption. They are inseparable. God’s saving act in Christ is as universal as creation itself. God in Christ is creative and redemptive presence in all human history (Song 1979, 40). The Asian culture is one of the creatures which belongs to God’s universal creation. Thus, Song believes that God’s redemptive love must have revealed in the Asian culture as well. Song regards the salvation history of the Bible as a pattern, not a norm, that God manifests God’s love toward the human beings. That is to say, Christians in Asia may find that God manifest God’s love in God’s own way toward the Asian people by learning the pattern from the Bible (Song 1974, 57). Based on this holistic view of creation and redemption, Song’s theology becomes a theology of incarnation. That is to say, God becomes flesh in Asia. This theology of incarnation also can be identified as his theology of culture. For Song, Christ plays a role of the "fulfiller" of culture, not always the "transformer" of the culture as identified in H. Richard Niebuhr’s typology. Christ is implicitly present in every culture because God’s saving act in creation is established in relation to every culture. Song believes that the reality of revelation and salvation outside the Christian Church is possible. Yet, it is also true that this reality will be fulfilled in the universal presence of Christ in the Spirit. Song asserts that Jesus Christ is the "decisive" revelation of God. Song would not use the term the "absolute," the "unique," or the "final" to describe the revelation of God in Jesus Christ (Song 1972, 19-25). Hence, Song’s theology of religion can be categorized as religious inclusivism.

God, Jesus, and Suffering

For Song, God in Jesus is a God who suffers with people in suffering. "Jesus, in short, is the crucified people! Jesus means crucified people. To say Jesus is to say suffering people" (Song 1990, 216). For Song, the narrative, which describes Jesus’ suffering and death, reflects the living reality of the Asian people. Suffering under injustice is the living reality of the Asian people. It is not just the Asian people’s story, it is Jesus’ story as well as God’s story. God who suffers with people is the story of suffering. However, this God is not only a God of suffering but also a God of hope. The death of Jesus on the cross has been overcome by the power of Jesus’ resurrection. For Song, the powerlessness of Jesus has been transformed into the powerfulness of the Christ. Such a powerful God is able to liberate the people who suffer from the power of death. Having faith in this God reveals a hope for those people who suffer. God has the power to transform suffering into hope. It is God’s redemptive love, which manifests in the world through Jesus Christ, that turns suffering into hope. (Song 1979, 167-169). Thus, for Song, the resurrection of Jesus brings the hope to the people and liberates them from suffering. A new life is given to the suffering people by the resurrection of Jesus.

If we put this liberation into the political category, the liberation as such makes God a political God. Song believes that the political barbarism stands against God. Yet, how does Song define the political barbarism? For Song, "oppressing the powerless and the defenseless is political barbarism" (204). Needless to say, the oppression as such stands against God. The powerless and the defenseless are the people who suffer. Accordingly, God suffers with them, yet God also has the power to overcome the power of death. In other words, God has the power to liberate the people from oppression. Thus, to be a Christian is to be a vanguard who has the courage to struggle for justice and freedom. In terms of Song’s political theology, "both justice and freedom are political as well as spiritual in nature" (200-206). On the other hand, Jesus’ suffering and death reveals God’s redemptive love to the world. As Song puts it, this redemptive love without strings attached is called compassion. This God is a God of compassion, who loves the world without any strings attached (Song 1986, 166). Yet, for Song, compassion underlies a community. That is the reason why a community is called "community." Loving or suffering together denotes the true meaning of being a community. As Song puts it, "this togetherness makes a community a community" (141). This compassionate God heals the broken humanity of a community, helps the people to struggle for the wholeness of humanity in the community. For Song, "human community and divine communion are interdependent" (154). God’s redemptive presence in Jesus Christ provides people a chance to be communion with God.

Christian Mission

What, then, is the purpose of the Christian mission in the world? During the past two centuries, the Christian mission in the world has been driven by the idea of the Western theology of mission. The goal of this mission is to convert non-Christians into Christianity. Song urges Christians in Asia to discard such theology of mission (Song 1975, 8-9). The Christian mission is God’s mission. God initiates the mission, not the church. God’s mission to the world is to redeem the world through Jesus Christ. God’s creation devises God’s own mission toward the world. Song believes that creation may be deemed as God’s culture in its totality. Hence, this world is God’s mission field. Wherever God’s redemptive love is at work, there God takes on God’s mission (Song 1975, 25). God’s mission of redeeming the world in Jesus Christ is God’s "enfleshment" in mission. In other words, God incarnates God-self in the suffering and hope of the people. That was Jesus’ mission as well. Jesus carried the cross of suffering and also carried the hope of the resurrection. Accordingly, Christians, who participate in God’s mission, is to suffer with the people. The suffering as such can be regarded as a way of proclaiming the good news of God’s redemptive love toward the world. Participation in suffering brings the hope to the people. By giving this hope, the Christian mission, therefore, has the power of its own to liberate people from injustice. Basically, God’s mission is the mission of suffering (Song 1975, 13). It is apparent that Song does not set his goal of the Christian mission on converting non-Christian into Christianity. Rather, Song sets its goal on the political liberation.

In the previous discussion, God’s mission is the mission of suffering. Moreover, God suffering with people is the mission of God’s self-emptying. Song also believes that God emptying God-self to redeem the world enacts the sacrament of the Last Supper. This sacramental concept of the Christian mission makes the world holy. The broken body as well as the shed blood of Jesus reveals God’s redemptive presence in the world. More importantly, God’s redemptive presence in this emptying act has consecrated every culture of the world. It is apparent that Song’s theology of incarnation and the theology of mission join together in his political theology of the cross. The Christian mission is designated for Christians to suffer with the oppressed in struggling for justice and freedom. This vision of the mission grows out of the reality of the Asian people. In short, Song’s theology is a theology of political mission in Asian context.

4. Outline of Major Works

[Forthcoming]

5. Relation to Other Thinkers

[Forthcoming]

6. Bibliography and Cited Works

East Asia Christian Conference. 1972. Asians and blacks: theological challenges. Bangkok: East Asia Christian Conference.

Song, Choan Seng. 1974. New China and salvation history—a methodological inquiry. South-East Asia Journal of Theology. 15:2. 52-67.

________. 1975. Christian mission in reconstruction: an Asian analysis. New York: Orbis Books.

________, ed. 1976. Doing theology today. Mysore: The Christian Literature Society.

________. 1979. Third-Eye theology: theology in formation in Asian settings. New York: Orbis Books.

________. 1981. The tears of lady Meng: a parable of people’s political theology. New York: Orbis Books.

________. 1982. The compassionate God. New York: Orbis Books.

________. 1986. Theology from the womb of Asia. New York: Orbis Books.

________. 1990. Jesus the crucified people. Minneapolis: Fortress Press.

________. 1993. Jesus and the reign of God. Minneapolis: Fortress Press.

________. 1994. Jesus in the power of the spirit. Minneapolis: Fortress Press.

7. Internet Resources

Graduate Theological Union faculty profile for C. S. Song.

8. Related Topics

Liberation and Indigenous Theologies, East Asian

Karl Marx (1818-1883)

 

Editor: Derek Michaud, incorporating material by James Wu (1999)

 

The information on this page is copyright 1994 onwards, Wesley Wildman (basic information here), unless otherwise noted. If you want to use ideas that you find here, please be careful to acknowledge this site as your source, and remember also to credit the original author of what you use, where that is applicable. If you want to use text or stories from these pages, please contact me at the feedback address for permission.