Friday, February 02, 2007

Amos Yong Interview: Pneumatology, Hospitality and Religious Pluralism

Amos Yong is Associate Professor of Systematic Theology at Regent University. He is a prolific author, having contributed to a number of scholarly journals and published a number of books. Some of the more intriguing as it relates to new religions, alternative spiritualties, and missions in the post-modern, post-Christendom, and post-9/11 West include Beyond the Impasse: Toward a Pneumatological Theology of Religions (Baker Academic, 2003), and the forthcoming The Spirit of Hospitality: Pentecost and Christian Practices in a World of Many Faiths (Orbis Books, 2008). Amos is also involved in Buddhist-Christian dialogue, and his combined interests, background, and scholarly pursuits make for important contributions to theology, religious studies, and questions surrounding religious pluralism.

Amos has made some time in a busy schedule to participate in an interview in order to share some of his thoughts.

MoreheadsMusings: Amos, can you tell us a little about your background? I only discovered recently that you and I grew up in the same town and attended the same high school in northern California. Can you tell us more about where you grew up, and what influences, personal and theological, shaped your current perspectives and work in theology?

Amos Yong: I was born a PK [preacher's kid] into an Assemblies of God minister’s home in Taiping, W. Malaysia; we moved to California when I was ten, when my father was called to a pastorate among first generation Chinese-speaking immigrants, making me a MK (“missionary kid”) to the USA. I went to Bethany College (Assemblies of God liberal arts school in Santa Cruz, California), where I completed a BA in pastoral ministry, then went to Western Evangelical Seminary (WES), where courses in modern theology and church history rocked my preconceptions that modern pentecostalism fell “suddenly from heaven,” to use the phrase of a popular pentecostal history text written in the 1950s. From WES, I completed a second MA in history of philosophy at Portland State University (PSU), and then a PhD in religious studies at Boston University (BU). At PSU I studied for the first time Kant and Whitehead, felt attracted to process philosophy, but uncomfortable with process theology. I found in Robert Cummings Neville at BU a doctoral advisor who helped me work through process philosophy while gaining critical leverage on its theological aspects. The other part of the PhD program at BU which really shaped my work was its commitment to doing theology in the public context of the encounter between world religious traditions. We read core texts from the major world religions and had to develop Christian theological perspectives in dialogue with – not adopting, but not ignoring either – the major religious traditions of the world.

MM: The work you have done in pneumatology of religions first attracted my attention. At the risk of oversimplifying your thinking, can you summarize your ideas in this area?

Amos Yong: My work in this area can be seen as emerging out of a) the intuition that pneumatology is a neglected theological perspective, and that if pursued and given an opportunity, it might illuminate our theological reflections – thus it could be said that pneumatology is the frontier of theological reflection in the 21st century; b) the conviction that as a pentecostal Christian, pneumatology is a central experience, even a set of practices, which hence gives shape to a robust hermeneutical and methodological key that can be in principle applied to all theological questions, so why not this one – thus it could be said that a pneumatological theology may be one of pentecostal Christianity’s gifts to the wider church and academic conversation; and c) the sense that the question of the religions was one of the most important theological matters that we need to attend to in our time – thus it could be said, for me, that the intra-Christian ecumenical question opened up unavoidably to the inter-religious ecumenical question: if folk such as Catholics, Presbyterians, Lutherans, Episcopalians, etc., who I had been raised to think were non-Christians were now understood as possibly being saved, then where does one draw the line between who is and is not a Christian?

MM: Some of us in the Lausanne issue group addressing postmodern and alternative spiritualities have suggested that Western Protestantism's overemphasis on God's transcendance and a de-valuing of the work of the Spirit in creation may contribute to the growth and popularity of Neo-Pagan and nature-based spiritualities. Why do you think a fresh consideration of the Spirit in relation to creation is significant, particularly for our place historically and culturally in the West?

Amos Yong: As I have pursued this pneumatological research initiative, I have come to be convinced that there is nothing beyond the reach of the Holy Spirit – indeed, all creation is nurtured by the holy breath of God. At some level, I think that Neo-Pagan and nature-based spiritualities reflect both the hungering after an encounter with God that is both immanent and yet transcendental, and a sense that God is to be found in some significant way in such practices and within such arenas. However, since this has not been a distinct area of research of mine, I’m not sure what kinds of theological conclusions to draw yet about these matters. In these areas, I’m actually very much learning as I listen in on the discussions such as those you are having on this blog site and elsewhere. But I do think that pneumatological perspectives open up for us the tension between understanding the Spirit as in some ways intimately tied in with the work of the church of Jesus Christ on the one hand, and yet also being the Spirit of the wider created world on the other hand. I don’t think we can resolve this tension, although to collapse this tension to either side would be to deny the truth of the other side. Hence for me it is so important that Christians wrestle together among themselves, while remaining in engaging dialogue with others who are “outside” the (visible) church, on these things.

MM: You are involved in interreligious dialogue, particularly Buddhist-Christian dialogue. How did you get involved in this, and what you have learned as a result?

Amos Yong: I have been a member of the Society for Buddhist-Christian Studies for a number of years. I was first introduced to Buddhism during a graduate course at PSU on process philosophy, during which time my theological research curiosity led me to the work of Hartshorne, Cobb, Griffin, and others at the Claremont Center for East-West Studies, which involved a fair bit of Christian-Buddhist dialogue. When I first learned about Buddhism and Chinese religious traditions, there were a few “aha” moments when I recognized how simply being raised in a Chinese home imbibed Buddhist notions like the “moderation of the middle way” without calling such “maxims of the Buddha.” As I have continued to study the various Buddhist traditions, I’ve been challenged: of all the world religious traditions, arguably Buddhism is the most foreign to Christianity in terms of its agnosticism about God’s existence. But perhaps also for the same reason, its very radical differences from Christian faith make it an important dialogue partner to stretch, test, and open up other perspectives on my Christian self-understanding. I think the biggest challenge remains, as I’ve come recently to acknowledge, that of the interrelationship between beliefs and practices: if Christian beliefs are as interconnected with and even emergent from Christian practices, are not Buddhist beliefs similarly dependent on certain kinds of practices, and if so, what are the implications for my own ongoing engagement with the Christian-Buddhist dialogue? I’m not sure how to respond to this question – so I can only say, for those interested, “stay tuned…”

MM: Evangelical theologies tend to be strongly influenced by European and American perspectives. Is there something valuable to be learned by engaging a broader, global perspective on theology, particularly theological reflection from Asia and the Two-Thirds World?

Amos Yong: Of course; we can’t avoid globalization; we can’t be parochial; we can’t be in denial that we live in what I’ve called the “post-al age”: post-western, post-colonial, post-patriarchal, post-Enlightenment, post-Christendom (in terms of Christianity being at the center of political power as in the age of Constantine), etc. In this “post-al” time zone, then, to ignore the scholarship, etc., coming from the rest of the world is to be left behind the times and to become increasingly irrelevant. Of course, there is much out there that is immaterial – and we must be discerning about which voices and perspectives we engage – but that goes for whatever is being produced in the “western world” as well.

MM: Your forthcoming book deals with the issue of hospitality in a religiously plural world. Can you tell us a little more about this book and what it will discuss?

Amos Yong: I am trying to do three things in this book: 1) given the connection between beliefs and practices, I am proposing a pneumatological perspective that I think will further our reflection on this matter, centered on the maxim, “many tongues, many practices”; 2) from this, I am trying to tease out the interconnections between exclusivistic, inclusivistic, and pluralistic theologies of religions and their concomitant or correlative practices; and 3) I am trying to salvage what I feel are important practices across the exclusivist-inclusivist-pluralist spectrum – e.g., kerygmatic proclamation of Jesus Christ, reciprocal and mutual dialogue, and social engagement – without having to buy into all of their theological positions – and I think the best way to do so is via a theology of hospitality; so, I am proposing a pneumatological theology of guests and hosts by which I attempt to get “beyond the impasse” of exclusivism-inclusivism-pluralism toward a holistic posture of beliefs-virtues-practices that will allow us to engage people of other faiths in a dialogical manner, being open to being transformed by the Holy Spirit through such encounters, even while believing that these same encounters will be opportunities through which the same Spirit will work transformatively in the lives of our non-Christian friends. This is the double and paradoxical bet.

MM: Why do you think hospitality is important in our world of many faiths, and how can this compliment dialogue and other forms of religious engagement?

Amos Yong: The interesting thing about hospitality is that there are guests and hosts, and Christians sometimes find themselves as the former, other times as the latter, and on occasions, as both simultaneously. I argue in my book that Jesus is the paradigmatic exemplar of guest, journeying into the far country (to echo Barth), even while representing and offering the redemptive hospitality of God, and that Christians also follow in Jesus’ footsteps as aliens and strangers into far countries, being guests of those who might welcome them, even while embodying and representing the eschatological hospitality of God’s redemptive banquet. Hospitality thus opens up to dialogue, but also requires works of love and mercy (witness the parable of the Good Samaritan). And of course, hospitality also provides, at the right moments and occasions, for a sharing of the truth in love. There is give and take, but there is also honesty, compassion, and genuine interpersonal interaction. I think the notion of hospitality bursts the categories of exclusivism-inclusivism-pluralism because it registers affections, postures, and sensibilities so important to the chief virtues and practices of our contemporary world, instead of staying only at the level of doctrinal abstractions or moral projects (and this is not to say that we should neglect these).

MM: Some aspects of evangelicalism, particularly those associated with a counter-cult or heresy-rationalist approach to new religions as well as boundary definition and maintenance approaches to Christian theology have expressed concern about your theological views in regards to pluralism and inclusivism, even going so far as to label them "dangerous." What would you say in response, and how might we move our theological and missiological reflection further in positive ways in evangelicalism?

Amos Yong: Well I do hope that my new book will dispel any lingering doubts about my commitments as a follower of Jesus Christ the Messiah, about my convictions regarding the essential aspect of bearing witness to Jesus in the power of the Spirit, and about my views regarding the Great Commission as the church’s raison d’etre. But I am also convinced that any new theological ideas are in some sense “dangerous” since they are new and hence will always be resisted – so I expect disagreements with new ideas will continue to the end of time. I do learn from my detractors, to the point that this book itself has been written with some of these previous criticisms in mind. Without critics, the weaknesses of one’s position can be realized only with much greater difficulty – so in a sense, I am grateful for them. Yet I do feel strongly that not all of us are called to do similar things. And given that pentecostalism has in some ways always been relegated to the Christian margins, perhaps that may also be where my views remain for the time being, being effective, if at all, from that location. I’m OK with that, so long as my most immediate circle of dialogue partners – those of my colleagues in the Society of Pentecostal Studies – both encourage me on as well as engage with me in the common task of bearing witness to Christ in the power of the Spirit in the complex world we call “our time.”

For example, my colleague at Regent, Prof. Wolfgang Vondey, wrote a critical review of my book The Spirit Poured Out on All Flesh: Pentecostalism and the Possibility of Global Theology (Baker Academic, 2005) in one of the recent issues of PNEUMA: The Journal of the Society for Pentecostal Studies; but since then, he’s been motivated to the point that he’s now writing a book (which I hope will appear in the next two years) not at all refuting my work, but trying to do what I attempted there, although better! That is precisely what I had hoped my work would produce, so in that sense, I take that as confirmation that God is in what I do at least in some way.

MM: Amos, thanks for making time to share your thoughts with us. Your thinking provides a lot for us to interact with and reflect on carefully.

Amos Yong: Thanks for inviting my thoughts; I honored that you’ve paid enough attention to my work to invite this exchange, and can only say that if there is anything useful in what I’ve done, the credit belongs fully to God. Meanwhile, if criticisms must be lodged, I invite responses; know I pay attention to these, even if I might not be able to engage in a running discussion. Honestly, I am unsure how much interaction I can be involved in, if only because my work with the new PhD program in Renewal Studies at Regent University School of Divinity (where I teach) takes up much of my time now. Might I add that if any of you feel called to doing a PhD in this area – whether with a historical, theological, or biblical focus – please pray about coming to Regent to study with us. I have a wonderful set of colleagues and we are committed to the renewing work of the Spirit, in the church, the academy (essential for the PhD), and the whole world.


Anonymous said...

Fascinating conversation guys

Travis & Dawnetta Cooper said...

Excellent interview; great work. This was very helpful.