Joseph Kitagawa came to the United States just before the outbreak of World War II to further his studies in theology. He was a student at the University of California, Berkeley, when the government ordered the internment of Japanese and Japanese Americans in the United States. The experience of living in a concentration camp with others of Japanese descent provided Kitagawa with two spiritual insights he could never have gained had history allowed him a peaceful academic career at Berkeley. The first was into the essentially racist nature of Eurocentric culture, including the very Christianity he had embraced before his arrival in the country. The second was into the nature of suffering and the resilience of Asian spirituality as demonstrated by the daily heroism of incarcerated Japanese Americans.
These insights shaped much of Kitagawa’s distinguished academic career in theology at the University of Chicago, and they inform The Christian Tradition, perhaps the least known of his many publications. The very title invites readers to consider the European enculturation of Christianity as a sort of Babylonian captivity from which a release may be at hand. Kitagawa is never polemical in his treatment of church history; he is thoughtful and deliberate and always careful not to demean the many positive aspects of missionary activity in Asia. Yet this low-key academic approach makes the question he asks all the more tantalizing: What if Christianity had traveled not westward, where it was absorbed into the Greco-Roman civilization, but eastward, where it would have been absorbed into Asian culture? How different would it be?
Kitagawa looks back to the Renaissance and the Reformation, when the powerful new synthesis of culture and religion called modernity first raised its head. Individualism, capitalism, and colonialism were the children of this new synthesis; hand-in-hand with colonialism came the missionary effort. The discovery of Asian civilization at this time was as great a shock to the West as the discovery of the New World. For the rational, pigeonholing West, steeped in a philosophical tradition that systematically categorized human existence, the appearance of a spiritual tradition in which humans and nature were not conceived of as separate entities presented a great challenge. In just the same way that Native Americans were classified as pagans by the European explorers, Asians were seen as heathens who worshiped strange gods but were destined to be converted to the truth of Christianity. No less an envoy than the Spanish missionary Francis Xavier marveled that the people of Japan could have achieved such moral goodness without knowing the Christian God, but such recognition did not lessen his determination to bring the peoples of Asia into the Catholic Church.
In the centuries after such early missionary efforts, European powers colonized most of Asia, subjugating its people politically, economically, and culturally. Missionaries presented Christianity as the spiritual engine that motivated European civilization. The churches founded by missionaries in Asia tended to be slavish imitations of the mother institutions, and positions of ecclesiastical authority were not entrusted to native clergy or church members. Even more damaging, Kitagawa says, was the determination to exclude all native spiritual traditions, which were seen as polluting. The nineteenth century was the culmination of this spiritual colonialism and stands as a metaphor for such blind, subjective domination. In many ways, the legacy of this blindness remained strong until after World War II, when the West gradually became aware of Asia and its traditions as possible resources for its own weakening traditions.
According to Kitagawa, part of this appreciation for the spiritual heritage of Asians and Asian Americans has come from the realization on the part of Western philosophers that the dualistic thinking characteristic of Western Christianity is fatally...
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