Sunday, October 20, 2019

An Asian Theologian Worth Knowing

Most likely, many readers of this blog know of few, if any, Asian theologians. In this article, I am introducing one of my favorites, C.S. Song, the Taiwanese theologian who celebrated his 90th birthday yesterday. 
Introducing Song
Song Choan-Seng (宋 泉盛), generally known in the West as C.S. Song, was born on October 19, 1929, in the southwestern Taiwan city of Tainan. He earned the Ph.D. degree from Union Theological Seminary in 1965.
After years of being a theology professor and college/seminary administrator in Taiwan, Song taught for many years at the Pacific School of Religion in California and is now the Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Theology and Asian Cultures of that institution.
From 1997 to 2004, Song was also the president of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches.
Back in 1990, Song came to Japan and I was able to hear his lectures in Kyoto. Not only was I impressed by what he said, I was also impressed by what a warm and genuine human being he is.
I went to hear Song’s lectures because I had read several of his books; after that, I read and published reviews of a few more of his books.
Introducing Song’s Books
C.S. Song’s first major book was Christian Mission in Reconstruction: An Asian Analysis (1975). As a relatively young missionary, I read that work with considerable interest.
It was his next two books, though, that I found to be even more engaging: Third-Eye Theology: Theology in Formation in Asian Settings (1979) and The Compassionate God: An Exercise in the Theology of Transposition (1982).
Seeking a theological perspective from an East Asian rather than a Western viewpoint, I found Song’s books to be both challenging and rewarding.
In 1983 I wrote a lengthy two-part essay about Song’s theology that was published (in Japanese) in The Seinan Theological Review, the academic journal of the Department of Theology, Seinan Gakuin University.
After the publishing of his important 1986 work Theology from the Womb of Asia, Song wrote a trilogy on the person and message of Jesus: Jesus, the Crucified People (1990), Jesus and the Reign of God (1993), and Jesus in the Power of the Spirit (1994).
These are not the only books that Song has written, but they are the ones that were most important to me as I increasingly tried to think about theology in an Asian context.
Introducing Song’s Importance
In the early 1970s, the Taiwanese theologian known in the West as Shoki Coe (1914~88) began to emphasize contextualizing theology. That approach was forwarded by Song, his younger colleague whose early books especially emphasized the Asian context.
As an American seeking to teach Christian Studies and Christian theology to Japanese students and as a worker in Japanese churches, Song’s work became quite influential to my theological outlook.
Among other things, Song questioned the “Western” concept of “salvation history” (to which I referred in my 11/25/18 blog article). The appeal of the historical meaning of the Israelites in “Old Testament” times and later of Jesus Christ and the early church is much greater, to say the least, in the Western world than in Asia.
Song’s strong emphasis on God being known through Creation is another main idea that I encountered from reading his books. In his 2019 book The Universal Christ, Richard Rohr has, in a similar vein, significantly written about creation being the first Incarnation.
Whereas Western Christians emphasize God as being knowable only, or at least mainly, through Jesus Christ, as an East Asian Christian theologian Song emphasized God as also being knowable through the creation and by means of Asian spirituality.

Although he has now come to the end of his productive life as a theologian, C.S. Song is certainly an Asian theologian worth knowing.

Bonus:  Early on the morning of March 30, 1990, when I was in Kyoto for Dr. Song's lectures, I wrote the following poem at the foot of Mt. Hiei, the “holy mountain” near Kyoto.

Monk upon the mountain, high above the city,
Do you look, bewildered, down on us with pity?
What does your holy hill have to do with Kyoto?
Can we catch its splendor in our instant photo?
From your ancient mountain, filled with moldy glories,
Can we understand your past and present stories?
What has God been saying, what are His mighty works?
Can you share the story which on your mountain lurks?
Let us bring a vessel, dip it in the fountain,
And drink from the story of the monk upon the mountain.


  1. Other than a few emails just thanking me for this article, not many comments have been received to this point. But I appreciate the following words from Thinking Friend Ichwei Indra of Indonesia, who came to Japan in the early 1990s to do graduate student in the Asia Baptist Graduate Theological Seminary consortium.

    "Thank you for the blog that reminds me of my Asian theological study under your tutorship years ago in 1993, of which CS Song was one of my favorite Asian theologian."

  2. I could only gather quick peeks into Song’s theology from what you shared here, but it raised questions that have been pressing on my mind: Do we know God mainly through Jesus? How special are the Bible’s narratives and how critical are they to gain an understanding of God and God’s will for us? Does acceptance of the plurality of the world’s religious thinking require, in any sense, a diminishing of Jesus?

    These are real questions for me; though I might have leanings, I don’t yet have conclusions.

    1. Thanks for reading and for raising important questions, Fred. As we have talked about the "universal Christ," people of all the world (and of all religions) known God primarily through Christ and Jesus must always be seen as Jesus Christ. The life (and death/resurrection) of Jesus as well as the teaching by and about Jesus are of crucial importance, I believe, but, no, I don't think that acceptance of world's religions requires a diminishing of Jesus but a greater recognition of Jesus as the cosmic (universal) Christ.

    2. That’s the way I’ve been leaning, but it does make for more difficult conversations with my Buddhist and Sufi and atheist friends. I suppose we could find some common ground if they took my cosmic Christ, say, as their cosmic Buddha, or their cosmic Allah, or an embodiment of their Humanist Manifesto. But … in most cases, they won’t. And I’m unsure if this is exactly what I should be encouraging.

    3. Thanks for your follow-up comments Fred. I have a quite a different "take" on the matter of conversing/dialoguing with people of other religious faiths or of no religious faith. I do not think it is helpful to talk with such people about the universal or cosmic Christ. But I certainly think it is much more fruitful to see, and to relate to, them as having some (even though unrecognized to them) connection with the universal/cosmic Christ rather than being completely separated from Christ.

  3. Leory, thank you as always for the post. I always read with interest. I too encountered Song's work in Japan and appreciated and learned from the Asian perspective very much. Sometimes I wonder if I can still preach in English in the West! I was not aware of Jesus, the Crucified People, but when I finish James Cone's The Cross and the Lynching Tree, maybe I will revisit Song. Thank you sharing your poem also.

  4. I asked Facebook Friend Ron Winstead, who lived and taught at the Baptist seminary in Taiwan for many years, about Dr. Song. Here is his response:

    "Our leading Chinese theologian at the Taiwan Baptist Seminary, Chow Lian Hua, was a critic of Song. Chow considered Song’s theological orientation to be a bit too liberal. I have read some of Songs ideas and believe he has a contribution to make in our understanding of revelation. After 30 years of studying Chinese culture the hand of God is everywhere present in their history."

    1. I then posted this reply to Ron:

      "Ron, thanks for your comments. -- I am not surprised that Chow Lian Hua, whom I had the privilege of meeting and talking with once or twice and for whom I had great respect, was critical of Song. They probably had political differences as well as theological differences -- and Song had some theological ideas I didn't agree with either. But I appreciate, and agree with, your final sentence."

  5. Thinking Friend Dickson Yagi was my missionary colleague at Seinan Gakuin University for many years. Now retired in California, he sent me an essay he had written yesterday (Oct. 23), partly in response to this blog article, although he makes no reference to Dr. Song. It is titled "Christ for Asia."

    Dickson avers, "God is bigger than Christianity. God is bigger than all religions. God is bigger than the human heart can hope and the human mind can understand."

    He goes to say, "Surely Christ is meant for more than 1% of Japan’s population. Those with eyes to see can find the Spirit already in Japanese religions." Then, "Surely God did not come to Japan the first time with Francis Xavier, the first Catholic missionary in 1549! God was already deep in the soil, deep in the religions, and deep in the culture from the first movements of life, love, Spirit, and conscience in Japan. We need something wider than the Jewish-Christian salvation history of the Bible confined to less than 1% of the Japanese population. That tunnel vision has changed the Good News ('euangelion') of the Bible into Bad News for 99% of Japanese."

    1. Thanks, Dickson, for sharing your essay with me and for these comments I excerpted here. I think Dr. Song, and also Fr. Richard Rohr, would agree with your ideas.

  6. Here are comments received yesterday from Thinking Friend Ed Kang in New York. Ed was born in the 1930s in Pyongyang.

    “Leroy, thank you very much for introducing an Asian theologian and theology to the western world. Asians had a long history of profound ethical and philosophical background. I am glad you have encountered some aspects of Asian thinking and shared some to the western world.”