The Dragon and the Eagle: Towards a Vietnamese-American Theology

 

Living betwixt and between two cultures and two churches, Vietnamese-American Catholics experience the pain of leaving the past and often bafflement at what they meet in their new country. In their unique situation, says Phan, they can elaborate a theology that will bring into harmony the dragon and the eagle, the cross and the bamboo.


Roman Catholic church membership in the United States has been dramatically increased in recent years by the coming of Asian and Spanish speaking peoples. Among Asians, Vietnamese Catholics doubtless form a most significant group.

After a brief report on Vietnamese Catholics in the United States, I will delineate the social, cultural, and ecclesial condition of immigrants as the context in which a Vietnamese-American theology is to be constructed. I will conclude with suggestions as to how that theology can be formulated. In this way, perhaps the dragon, which, according to Vietnamese mythology, is the god from whom the Vietnamese descend, can live in harmony with the eagle, the symbol of the United States. Metaphors apart, these reflections are intended to contribute to the process of healing and reconciliation between the two peoples who for various reasons were caught for decades in a disastrous war against each other.2

Vietnamese in America

A quarter-century after their settlement on these shores, the number of Vietnamese living in the United States is estimated at slightly over one million—in contrast to pre-1975 figures of 18,000 (Rumbaut 1995:232-70). The arrival of the Vietnamese occurred in five waves: the first consisted of about 130,000 who arrived in the immediate aftermath of the collapse of South Vietnam in April 1975; the second, of ethnic Chinese who left in 1978-1979; the third, of “300,000 boat people” who came between 1978 and 1982 after being temporarily sheltered in various refugee camps; the fourth, of a much smaller number who were reunited with their families through various official programs between 1983 and 1989; and the fifth, of those who came after March 14, 1989 (Freeman 1995:29-41).

In terms of education and professional training, Vietnamese of the first wave were noticeably superior to those of the four latter groups, who consisted mostly of students, small-business owners, farmers, fishermen, craftsmen, unskilled laborers, young men fleeing the military draft for the war against Cambodia, and children sent out by their parents to have a better life. With much lower levels of education, fewer job skills, and practically no knowledge of English, these latter groups experienced much difficulty in adjusting to the new environment (see Montero 1979; Caplan, Whitmore, and Choy 1989; Rutledge1992:13-28).

In terms of religious affiliation, Vietnamese refugees and immigrants represent the whole spectrum of religious traditions in Vietnam, from the indigenous religion often called animism to the three ancient imported religions, i.e., Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taoism, to the native religion of Caodaism, and of course Christianity (for information on these religions see Phan 1998:13-28). Though Catholic Christianity constitutes only 8 percent of the total population in Vietnam, in the U. S. it makes up 30 percent of Vietnamese Americans. The reason for this high proportion is that many Viet­namese Americans are Catholics who fled North Vietnam to the South in 1954 to es­cape communism. Having experienced first‑hand the evils of communism, they had much greater incentive to emigrate in 1975.

As a whole, the Vietnamese have done well in the new country, as testified by economicsuccesses and the high educational achievement of their young.3

Vietnamese‑American Catholics

In general, Vietnamese Catholics are deeply attached to their Vietnamese churches and hold their pastors in high es­teem. They spare no resources to have their own churches and their own priests so as to be able to worship in their mother tongue and to preserve their religious and cultural customs. Most dioceses where there is a sizable number of Vietnamese Catholics have at least one, and in many cases several, Vietnamese parishes. Even where there are no Vietnamese parishes, Vietnamese Catholics often have the op­portunity to worship together, using the facilities of the American parishes.

Largely the relationship between Vietnamese‑American Catholics and the hierarchy of the Vietnamese-American Catholic Church has been marked by mutual re­spect and friendly collaboration. In the ex­tremely rare cases in which the relation­ship has been marred by controversies, the conflicts have been peacefully resolved.

Currently some 500 Vietnamese priests (diocesan and religious), some 20 permanent deacons, and several hundred sisters reside in the U. S. Even among the clergy, there are "success stories": a good number of Vietnamese priests are pastors, respon­sible for not only the Vietnamese but also American parishes; a few hold the office of vicar general, and some have even been made monsignors! Vietnamese vocations to the priesthood and religious life have been numerous. In some dioceses, Viet­namese priests constitute a significant per­centage of the clergy; and in some reli­gious societies, e.g., the Society of the Di­vine Word, a high percentage of the membership is Vietnamese.

Two of the several official organizations for Vietnamese Catholics in the Unit­ed States deserve mention: The Viet­namese Catholic Federation in the United States of America and The Community of Vietnamese Clergy and Religious in the United States of America. In addition, a Vietnamese Pastoral Center functions in collaboration with the United States Catholic Conference.

Like many other ethnic groups, Viet­namese Catholics are deeply concerned with preserving their language, culture, and religious traditions. To this end, they publish numerous newspapers, magazines, and journals, among which the most important are Dan Chua (People of God), Duc Me Hang Cuu Giup (Our Lady of Perpetual Help), Thoi Diem Cong Giao (Catholic Periodical), andHop Tuyen Than Hoc (Theological Selections). In addition, there is the Vietnamese Institute of Philos­ophy and Theology, founded in 1998, which holds a yearly conference; its jour­nal Triet Daopublishes scholarly essays on Vietnamese philosophy and theology. Other activities include Vietnamese language classes and catechetical instruction in Vietnamese. (A biannual national cate­chetical conference is well‑attended.) Occasions on which Vietnamese cultural traditions are solemnly celebrated are wed­dings and funerals. Other more public occa­sions include the lunar New Year (Tet), the commemoration of the fall of South Viet­nam (April 30), and the feast of the martyrs of Vietnam (November 24). Vietnamese-Amer­ican Catholics also contribute gener­ally to the church in Vietnam, especially the restoration of old churches or the building of new ones and for assistance to victims of natural disasters.

Because Vietnamese Catholicism de­veloped in dependence on 16th century missionary activity, it stands today be­tween a more conservative post‑Tridentine and more progressive Vatican II Catholicism. Which side Vietnamese‑American Catholics favor largely depends on their religions of origin—generally with those in the south being more open, those in the north more traditional. Despite these diffe­rences, there are common traits:

1) Vietnamese‑American Catholics tend to see the church primarily as a social institution with an exaggerated role for the hierarchy and for visible canonical structu­res. The model is buttressed by Confu­cian culture with its emphasis on deference for authority and tradition. The model also responds well to the Church's need to strengthen its identity and social cohesive­ness given its minority status in Asia.

2) Connected with an institutional emphasis is a relatively passive role for the laity. Lack of theological training may also account for their minimal role.

3) Another consequence of institutionalism is an excessive concern with the church’s internal problems and the neglect of dialogue with other believers. Vietnamese-American Catholics still look with suspicion on the followers of other religions.

4) Shaped by individualistic piety and with inadequate knowledge of the social teachings of the church, Vietnamese‑ American Catholics are reluctant to take on the challenges of social justice.

5) Vietnamese‑American Catholics have already visibly transformed the American Church in the number of priest­ly and religious vocations they have pro­duced. This large number can be attributed to the high respect in which priests and re­ligious are held among Vietnamese (which, of course, has its own negative side), but certainly those vocations have their roots in the devout faith of Viet­namese families.

6) While post‑Vatican II Catholics gen­erally downplay popular devotions, Vietnamese Catholics foster and are nourished by such devotions. If the tendency toward excessive sentimentalism and individual­ism of these devotions can be minimized, the potential for community‑building, lib­eration, and social justice can be retrieved.

7) Another major characteristic of Viet­namese‑American Catholic communities and parishes is the flourishing of communal activities, often in tandem with sacramental celebrations (especially baptism, marriage, and funerals), certain calendrical feasts (e.g., the New Year), and cultural customs (e.g., death anniversaries). The recent addi­tion of more modern associations, such as Bible study groups, charismatic prayer groups, RENEW, Cursillo, etc., indicates the vibrancy of Vietnamese communities.

8) Vietnamese faith has been tested in the crucible of suffering and persecution. The memory of the 117 Vietnamese martyrs canonized in 1988 and the suffering for the faith under communism might have rigidified political views of the Vietnamese, but it has also enriched and fortified their faith in a way not available to those who have always enjoyed religious freedom.

9) Scratch the surface of any Viet­namese Catholic, and you will find a Con­fucian, a Taoist, a Buddhist, or an indistin­guishable mixture of the three. Vietnamese have been socialized into the values and norms of these religions not only through formal teachings but also through thou­sands of proverbs, folk sayings, songs, family rituals, and cultural festivals. Many Vietnamese Catholics do not find it strange or difficult to inhabit different religious universes. This rich and varied religious heritage that they bring to the United States will be one of their most significant contributions to the American Church.

10) The socio‑economic deprivation that most first‑generation Vietnamese immigrants experienced before they came to the United States has made them sensitive to the suffering and needs of their fellow nationals and generous in financial support for the church and for their relatives back home. Their sense of solidarity with victims of poverty and of natural disasters should be fostered, since the struggle against poverty and oppression is an es­sential part of the inculturation of the gospel, especially in a society whose eco­nomic and military policies have caused suffering in many parts of the world and in Asia in particular.

Dwelling in the Interstice

As refugees forced to flee their country or as immigrants voluntarily seeking a bet­ter life in the United States, Vietnamese Catholics face a double challenge: to main­tain their cultural heritage in a foreign land and to forge a new Christian identity in a new ecclesial environment. In a very short time they have made a disconcerting jour­ney from their predominantly pre-modern society to the modern and postmodern cul­ture of America. As Catholics they have brought with them ecclesial experiences to a church that bears resemblances to their na­tive Catholicism but which most of the time baffles them. The remaining issue is how to envision the space Vietnamese‑American Catholics occupy both as citizens of American society and as members of the Ameri­can Catholic Church. From this space flow the tasks that are incumbent upon them as citizens and church members as well as those responsibilities of American society and the American Church toward them.

Betwixt and Between

Despite profound personal and spiritual differences, Vietnamese‑American Catholics share one common trait and fundamental predicament: immigrants they all are. And being immigrant means being at the margin, or being in‑between, or being betwixt and between (on understanding of being all immigrants, see Lee 1995 and Phan 1999a:113-33). To be betwixt and between is to be neither here nor there, to be neither this thing nor that completely. Spatially, it is to dwell at the periphery or at the boundaries. Politically, it means not re­siding at the centers of power of the two in­tersecting worlds but occupying the precar­ious and narrow margins where the two dominant groups meet and clash, and being denied the opportunity to wield power in matters of public interest and self‑determi­nation. Socially, to be in‑between is to be part of a minority, a member of a margin­al(ized) group. Culturally, it means not be­ing fully integrated into and accepted by ei­ther cultural system, being a mestizo, a per­son of mixed race. Linguistically, the be­twixt‑and‑between person is bilingual but may not achieve a mastery of both lan­guages and often speaks them with a dis­tinct accent. Psychologically and spiritual­ly, such a person does not possess a well-­defined and secure self‑identity and is often marked with excessive impressionable­ness, rootlessness, and an inordinate desire for belonging. In short, an American Vietnamese will never be American enough; because of his or her race and culture, "American" will function only as a qualifi­er for the noun "Vietnamese." On the other hand, a Vietnamese American is no longer regarded by his or her compatriots in Vietnam as authentically Vietnamese; she or he has "left" Vietnam and has become an American for whom "Vietnamese" func­tions only as a qualifier. In fact, Vietnamese Americans have been given a special name by the Vietnamese government, i.e.,Viet kieu (Vietnamese foreigners).

However, to be betwixt and between is not totally negative and need not cause cultural schizophrenia. Paradoxically, being neither this nor that allows one to be both this and that. An American Vietnamese or a Vietnamese American is American in a way no "pure" American can be, and he or she is Vietnamese in a way no "pure" Vietnamese can be, precisely because of being both Vietnamese and American.

Of course, the process of rapid and ex­tensive globalization and internationaliza­tion has compressed the geographical and cultural boundaries and made them exceed­ingly porous, so that today there is little con­nection between the passport one holds and the languages one speaks, the clothes one wears, the foods one eats, the music one listens to, the views one professes, and the re­ligion one practices. The constant flow of persons, technologies, finance, information, and ideology across continents and coun­tries has brought about de‑territorialization and multiple belongings and loyalties. While this is true of almost everyone in the modern world, only the immigrant experi­ences this "both‑and" situation of multiple identities and loyalties as a permanent, day­-to‑day, existential condition, which must be constantly negotiated, often without the benefit of clear guidelines and helpful mod­els. Furthermore, the believing immigrant must consciously accept this predicament as a providentially given mission and task, and must devise ways to create a space in which to live a fruitful life and to avoid falling between the two often conflicting and competing cultures. Belonging to both worlds and cultures, immigrants have the opportunity to fuse them together and, out of their resources, to fashion a new and dif­ferent world so that they stand not only between these two worlds and cultures but also beyond them. Thus, being betwixt and between can bring about personal and soci­etal transformation and enrichment.

 

THE DRAGON AND THE EAGLE: TOWARD A VIETNAMESE-AMERICAN THEOLOGY*

Living betwixt and between two cultures and two churches, Vietnamese-American Catholics experience the pain of leaving the past and often bafflement at what they meet in their new country. In their unique situation, says Phan, they can elaborate a theology that will bring into harmony the dragon and the eagle, the cross and the bamboo.

R

 

oman Catholic church membership in the United States has been dramatically increased in recent years by the coming of Asian and Spanish speaking peoples. Among Asians, Vietnamese Catholics doubtless form a most significant group.

After a brief report on Vietnamese Catholics in the United States, I will delineate the social, cultural, and ecclesial condition of immigrants as the context in which a Vietnamese-American theology is to be constructed. I will conclude with suggestions as to how that theology can be formulated. In this way, perhaps the dragon, which, according to Vietnamese mythology, is the god from whom the Vietnamese descend, can live in harmony with the eagle, the symbol of the United States. Metaphors apart, these reflections are intended to contribute to the process of healing and reconciliation between the two peoples who for various reasons were caught for decades in a disastrous war against each other.2

Vietnamese in America

A quarter-century after their settlement on these shores, the number of Vietnamese living in the United States is estimated at slightly over one million—in contrast to pre-1975 figures of 18,000 (Rumbaut 1995:232-70). The arrival of the Vietnamese occurred in five waves: the first consisted of about 130,000 who arrived in the immediate aftermath of the collapse of South Vietnam in April 1975; the second, of ethnic Chinese who left in 1978-1979; the third, of “300,000 boat people” who came between 1978 and 1982 after being temporarily sheltered in various refugee camps; the fourth, of a much smaller number who were reunited with their families through various official programs between 1983 and 1989; and the fifth, of those who came after March 14, 1989 (Freeman 1995:29-41).

In terms of education and professional training, Vietnamese of the first wave were noticeably superior to those of the four latter groups, who consisted mostly of students, small-business owners, farmers, fishermen, craftsmen, unskilled laborers, young men fleeing the military draft for the war against Cambodia, and children sent out by their parents to have a better life. With much lower levels of education, fewer job skills, and practically no knowledge of English, these latter groups experienced much difficulty in adjusting to the new environment (see Montero 1979; Caplan, Whitmore, and Choy 1989; Rutledge1992:13-28).

In terms of religious affiliation, Vietnamese refugees and immigrants represent the whole spectrum of religious traditions in Vietnam, from the indigenous religion often called animism to the three ancient imported religions, i.e., Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taoism, to the native religion of Caodaism, and of course Christianity (for information on these religions see Phan 1998:13-28). Though Catholic Christianity constitutes only 8 percent of the total population in Vietnam, in the U. S. it makes up 30 percent of Vietnamese Americans. The reason for this high proportion is that many Viet­namese Americans are Catholics who fled North Vietnam to the South in 1954 to es­cape communism. Having experienced first‑hand the evils of communism, they had much greater incentive to emigrate in 1975.

As a whole, the Vietnamese have done well in the new country, as testified by economicsuccesses and the high educational achievement of their young.3

Vietnamese‑American Catholics

In general, Vietnamese Catholics are deeply attached to their Vietnamese churches and hold their pastors in high es­teem. They spare no resources to have their own churches and their own priests so as to be able to worship in their mother tongue and to preserve their religious and cultural customs. Most dioceses where there is a sizable number of Vietnamese Catholics have at least one, and in many cases several, Vietnamese parishes. Even where there are no Vietnamese parishes, Vietnamese Catholics often have the op­portunity to worship together, using the facilities of the American parishes.

Largely the relationship between Vietnamese‑American Catholics and the hierarchy of the Vietnamese-American Catholic Church has been marked by mutual re­spect and friendly collaboration. In the ex­tremely rare cases in which the relation­ship has been marred by controversies, the conflicts have been peacefully resolved.

Currently some 500 Vietnamese priests (diocesan and religious), some 20 permanent deacons, and several hundred sisters reside in the U. S. Even among the clergy, there are "success stories": a good number of Vietnamese priests are pastors, respon­sible for not only the Vietnamese but also American parishes; a few hold the office of vicar general, and some have even been made monsignors! Vietnamese vocations to the priesthood and religious life have been numerous. In some dioceses, Viet­namese priests constitute a significant per­centage of the clergy; and in some reli­gious societies, e.g., the Society of the Di­vine Word, a high percentage of the membership is Vietnamese.

Two of the several official organizations for Vietnamese Catholics in the Unit­ed States deserve mention: The Viet­namese Catholic Federation in the United States of America and The Community of Vietnamese Clergy and Religious in the United States of America. In addition, a Vietnamese Pastoral Center functions in collaboration with the United States Catholic Conference.

Like many other ethnic groups, Viet­namese Catholics are deeply concerned with preserving their language, culture, and religious traditions. To this end, they publish numerous newspapers, magazines, and journals, among which the most important are Dan Chua (People of God), Duc Me Hang Cuu Giup (Our Lady of Perpetual Help), Thoi Diem Cong Giao (Catholic Periodical), andHop Tuyen Than Hoc (Theological Selections). In addition, there is the Vietnamese Institute of Philos­ophy and Theology, founded in 1998, which holds a yearly conference; its jour­nal Triet Daopublishes scholarly essays on Vietnamese philosophy and theology. Other activities include Vietnamese language classes and catechetical instruction in Vietnamese. (A biannual national cate­chetical conference is well‑attended.) Occasions on which Vietnamese cultural traditions are solemnly celebrated are wed­dings and funerals. Other more public occa­sions include the lunar New Year (Tet), the commemoration of the fall of South Viet­nam (April 30), and the feast of the martyrs of Vietnam (November 24). Vietnamese-Amer­ican Catholics also contribute gener­ally to the church in Vietnam, especially the restoration of old churches or the building of new ones and for assistance to victims of natural disasters.

Because Vietnamese Catholicism de­veloped in dependence on 16th century missionary activity, it stands today be­tween a more conservative post‑Tridentine and more progressive Vatican II Catholicism. Which side Vietnamese‑American Catholics favor largely depends on their religions of origin—generally with those in the south being more open, those in the north more traditional. Despite these diffe­rences, there are common traits:

1) Vietnamese‑American Catholics tend to see the church primarily as a social institution with an exaggerated role for the hierarchy and for visible canonical structu­res. The model is buttressed by Confu­cian culture with its emphasis on deference for authority and tradition. The model also responds well to the Church's need to strengthen its identity and social cohesive­ness given its minority status in Asia.

2) Connected with an institutional emphasis is a relatively passive role for the laity. Lack of theological training may also account for their minimal role.

3) Another consequence of institutionalism is an excessive concern with the church’s internal problems and the neglect of dialogue with other believers. Vietnamese-American Catholics still look with suspicion on the followers of other religions.

4) Shaped by individualistic piety and with inadequate knowledge of the social teachings of the church, Vietnamese‑ American Catholics are reluctant to take on the challenges of social justice.

5) Vietnamese‑American Catholics have already visibly transformed the American Church in the number of priest­ly and religious vocations they have pro­duced. This large number can be attributed to the high respect in which priests and re­ligious are held among Vietnamese (which, of course, has its own negative side), but certainly those vocations have their roots in the devout faith of Viet­namese families.

6) While post‑Vatican II Catholics gen­erally downplay popular devotions, Vietnamese Catholics foster and are nourished by such devotions. If the tendency toward excessive sentimentalism and individual­ism of these devotions can be minimized, the potential for community‑building, lib­eration, and social justice can be retrieved.

7) Another major characteristic of Viet­namese‑American Catholic communities and parishes is the flourishing of communal activities, often in tandem with sacramental celebrations (especially baptism, marriage, and funerals), certain calendrical feasts (e.g., the New Year), and cultural customs (e.g., death anniversaries). The recent addi­tion of more modern associations, such as Bible study groups, charismatic prayer groups, RENEW, Cursillo, etc., indicates the vibrancy of Vietnamese communities.

8) Vietnamese faith has been tested in the crucible of suffering and persecution. The memory of the 117 Vietnamese martyrs canonized in 1988 and the suffering for the faith under communism might have rigidified political views of the Vietnamese, but it has also enriched and fortified their faith in a way not available to those who have always enjoyed religious freedom.

9) Scratch the surface of any Viet­namese Catholic, and you will find a Con­fucian, a Taoist, a Buddhist, or an indistin­guishable mixture of the three. Vietnamese have been socialized into the values and norms of these religions not only through formal teachings but also through thou­sands of proverbs, folk sayings, songs, family rituals, and cultural festivals. Many Vietnamese Catholics do not find it strange or difficult to inhabit different religious universes. This rich and varied religious heritage that they bring to the United States will be one of their most significant contributions to the American Church.

10) The socio‑economic deprivation that most first‑generation Vietnamese immigrants experienced before they came to the United States has made them sensitive to the suffering and needs of their fellow nationals and generous in financial support for the church and for their relatives back home. Their sense of solidarity with victims of poverty and of natural disasters should be fostered, since the struggle against poverty and oppression is an es­sential part of the inculturation of the gospel, especially in a society whose eco­nomic and military policies have caused suffering in many parts of the world and in Asia in particular.

Dwelling in the Interstice

As refugees forced to flee their country or as immigrants voluntarily seeking a bet­ter life in the United States, Vietnamese Catholics face a double challenge: to main­tain their cultural heritage in a foreign land and to forge a new Christian identity in a new ecclesial environment. In a very short time they have made a disconcerting jour­ney from their predominantly pre-modern society to the modern and postmodern cul­ture of America. As Catholics they have brought with them ecclesial experiences to a church that bears resemblances to their na­tive Catholicism but which most of the time baffles them. The remaining issue is how to envision the space Vietnamese‑American Catholics occupy both as citizens of American society and as members of the Ameri­can Catholic Church. From this space flow the tasks that are incumbent upon them as citizens and church members as well as those responsibilities of American society and the American Church toward them.

Betwixt and Between

Despite profound personal and spiritual differences, Vietnamese‑American Catholics share one common trait and fundamental predicament: immigrants they all are. And being immigrant means being at the margin, or being in‑between, or being betwixt and between (on understanding of being all immigrants, see Lee 1995 and Phan 1999a:113-33). To be betwixt and between is to be neither here nor there, to be neither this thing nor that completely. Spatially, it is to dwell at the periphery or at the boundaries. Politically, it means not re­siding at the centers of power of the two in­tersecting worlds but occupying the precar­ious and narrow margins where the two dominant groups meet and clash, and being denied the opportunity to wield power in matters of public interest and self‑determi­nation. Socially, to be in‑between is to be part of a minority, a member of a margin­al(ized) group. Culturally, it means not be­ing fully integrated into and accepted by ei­ther cultural system, being a mestizo, a per­son of mixed race. Linguistically, the be­twixt‑and‑between person is bilingual but may not achieve a mastery of both lan­guages and often speaks them with a dis­tinct accent. Psychologically and spiritual­ly, such a person does not possess a well-­defined and secure self‑identity and is often marked with excessive impressionable­ness, rootlessness, and an inordinate desire for belonging. In short, an American Vietnamese will never be American enough; because of his or her race and culture, "American" will function only as a qualifi­er for the noun "Vietnamese." On the other hand, a Vietnamese American is no longer regarded by his or her compatriots in Vietnam as authentically Vietnamese; she or he has "left" Vietnam and has become an American for whom "Vietnamese" func­tions only as a qualifier. In fact, Vietnamese Americans have been given a special name by the Vietnamese government, i.e.,Viet kieu (Vietnamese foreigners).

However, to be betwixt and between is not totally negative and need not cause cultural schizophrenia. Paradoxically, being neither this nor that allows one to be both this and that. An American Vietnamese or a Vietnamese American is American in a way no "pure" American can be, and he or she is Vietnamese in a way no "pure" Vietnamese can be, precisely because of being both Vietnamese and American.

Of course, the process of rapid and ex­tensive globalization and internationaliza­tion has compressed the geographical and cultural boundaries and made them exceed­ingly porous, so that today there is little con­nection between the passport one holds and the languages one speaks, the clothes one wears, the foods one eats, the music one listens to, the views one professes, and the re­ligion one practices. The constant flow of persons, technologies, finance, information, and ideology across continents and coun­tries has brought about de‑territorialization and multiple belongings and loyalties. While this is true of almost everyone in the modern world, only the immigrant experi­ences this "both‑and" situation of multiple identities and loyalties as a permanent, day­-to‑day, existential condition, which must be constantly negotiated, often without the benefit of clear guidelines and helpful mod­els. Furthermore, the believing immigrant must consciously accept this predicament as a providentially given mission and task, and must devise ways to create a space in which to live a fruitful life and to avoid falling between the two often conflicting and competing cultures. Belonging to both worlds and cultures, immigrants have the opportunity to fuse them together and, out of their resources, to fashion a new and dif­ferent world so that they stand not only between these two worlds and cultures but also beyond them. Thus, being betwixt and between can bring about personal and soci­etal transformation and enrichment.

Between two Churches

What has been said of the destiny of im­migrants between the two cultures, applies equally to their ecclesial situation. Here too they stand in between two churches, at the boundary between the American Catholic Church and the churches of their native countries. Belonging fully to neither, they feel estranged in both and do not occupy positions of power in either. For most American Catholics, Vietnamese‑American Catholics' religious practices seem to be a throwback to their own Catholicism of the '50s, with clerical dominance and lay sub­missiveness, with colorful processions and pious devotions. On the other hand, Viet­namese‑American Catholics, both clerical and lay, do not fare much better when they return home for a visit. While welcoming, them, the local hierarchy often looks upon them (especially the clerics) with suspicion, fearing that they have been contaminated by the liberal and even heretical ideas and lax morality of the American Church.

Nevertheless, while belonging fully to neither the American Church nor the Vietnamese Church, Vietnamese‑American Catholics belong to both. They live a Catholic life in a way no "pure" American Catholic can because of their indelible Asian religious traditions, and they live a Catholic life in a way no "pure" Asian Catholic can because of the distinctly American Catholic ethos which they have willy‑nilly absorbed through sheer contiguity and symbiosis with the American society and Catholic Church. Here again their betwixt‑and‑between posi­tion should not be viewed only as a negative asset producing marginalization but also as an opportunity and a task to create a new way of being Catholic. Here lies their unique contribution to the church.

Between two Worlds

But in order to accomplish this mission, where should Vietnamese‑American Catholics stand? What is their social loca­tion, the specific space they occupy within American society and the American ChurchHow should they be part of the societal and ecclesial realities? In speaking of the inculturation of an immigrant into the modern and postmodern culture, scholars have outlined three possible strategies which Robert Schreiter, following Jonathan Friedman, terms antiglobalism, ethnifica­tion, and primitivism.4 Antiglobalism is a to­tal retreat from the ideals and values of globalization to defend and preserve one's cultural identity, either through a complete rejection of modernity as found in fundamentalism or through strategies of hierar­chical control as in revanchism.5 Ethnification is the attempt to  rediscover a forgotten cultural identity through a retrieval of real or imagined cultural traits, with the result that often a hybridized culture is constructed through the process of ethnogenesis.6 Primitivism is the attempt to select a period or an aspect of one's previous, premodern culture and use it as a framework for dealing with globalization.7

In light of what has been said about the existential condition of the immigrant, I would argue that these strategies are unsatisfactory because of their common presuppo­sition that an immigrant must be either completely inside or outside the American culture. Anything less than a com­plete opposition to or absorption into the American culture conceived as an integrative system is unacceptable. Antiglobalism favors the first option, while ethnification and primitivism implicitly favor the second. Whereas antiglobalism rejects inculturation altogether, acknowledging no common space whatso­ever between the American and Vietnamese cultures, ethnification and primitivism accept absorption into the American culture as an ideal by means of a retrieval either of an al­legedly lost culture or a forgotten normative cultural dimension or period.

In contrast to these three strategies, I pro­pose that we view the predicament of Viet­namese Americans as neither completely inside nor completely outside American so­ciety but as belonging to both—but not en­tirely, because they are beyond both (on the concept of the immigrant as being "in‑beyond," see Lee 1995:55-70). The same should be said about Vietnamese-­American Catholics. They are neither com­pletely outside the American Catholic Church and their native Asian churches nor completely inside them; they belong to both—but not completely, because they are also beyond both. In other words, they live and move and have their being in the interstice between the American culture and their own, between the American church and their Asian churches. Because of this inalienable interstice, there should be no at­tempt to incorporate Vietnamese Americans into the American society and Vietnamese­-American Catholics into the Catholic Church as if into a melting pot in such a way that they would lose their distinct iden­tity both as Vietnamese and Vietnamese Catholics. Nor should there be an attempt to keep them apart from the American society and the American Church in a kind of ghet­to in such a way that they would be margin­alized from church and society.

Furthermore, this space is not some pre­existing no man's land, peacefully and de­finitively agreed upon in advance by the powers‑  that‑be of the two cultures and the two churches. Rather, the interstice is to be carved out by the Vietnamese‑American Catholics themselves in everyday living, by trial and error, in creative freedom, over the course of a lifetime. Its boundaries, quite porous to be sure, are ever shifting and are subject to being redrawn and renegotiated as new circumstances and needs arise. What remains indisputable is that Vietnamese-­American Catholics have a right to this cul­tural and ecclesial interstitial space where they can fulfill their God‑given mission of being the bridge between East and West, be­tween the church of Asia and the church of North America.

Interculturation

This does not mean that inculturation or interculturation is an arbitrary and haphazard process bereft of theological and canon­ical guiding principles or without a super­vising authority. Indeed, in the process of interculturation all three dimensions (signs, messages, and codes)8 and the three levels of culture (the surface, the intermediate lev­el, and the mentality) [on the three levels of culture, see Luzbetak 1988] must be brought into play. Interculturation is the process whereby the American culture and the Vietnamese culture are brought into a reciprocal engagement in such a way that both are transformed from within. Essential to intercul­turation is their mutual criticism and enrichment. The expressions of the cultures are transformed as the result of this process.

Strictly, interculturation is a three‑step trajectory. In the first place, what Louis Luzbetak calls "individual building‑blocks of culture," (i.e., the signs and symbols) of one culture are assigned functional equiva­lents in another culture. Here, obviously, translation plays a predominant role.

Next comes the stage of acculturation, in which one culture (A) acquires certain elements of another culture (B) which, in its turn, adopts certain elements of the other culture (A). At best, however, such mutual borrowing often still operates at the intermediate level. Furthermore, because of the unequal power relations between the American culture and the immigrants' cultures, there is danger that the latter will be dominated and absorbed by the former. Also, in this exchange there are plenty of opportunities for mutual misunderstand­ing, since the codes through which the meaning of the signs of culture are carried may be hidden and different. Acculturation may often lead to either juxtaposition (ele­ments of both cultures are unassimilated and are allowed to operate side by side) or syncretism (the basic identity of both cul­tures is lost or diluted).

The third stage, the level of incultura­tion proper, engages the deepest level of the two cultures together, their world-views, their basic "message," as expressed in their philosophies and religions. Obvi­ously, this task requires that immigrants achieve a measure of intellectual sophisti­cation and institutional autonomy that would enable them to confront the Ameri­can culture as equals in a truly multi‑ethnic and pluralistic society.

A similar three‑stage process of intercul­turation takes place in the encounter be­tween the American Church and Vietnamese‑ American Catholics. The first and essential phase of translating significant re­ligious texts in English into Vietnamese and vice versa, is largely a work still to be done for and by Vietnamese‑American Catholics.9 Many classics of Asian philoso­phy are available in English, but very few Christian classics have been translated into Vietnamese. (I am thinking not only of the Bible but also of patristic and medieval clas­sics as well as works on spirituality.) As a result, many Vietnamese‑American Catholics are deprived of the theological, and spiritual heritage of Western Christiani­ty and therefore do not possess the neces­sary resources to enter into a fruitful dia­logue with the Western Church.

The second phase, acculturation, will mean finding the ways by which both the American Church and Vietnamese-American Catholic communities can critique and enrich each other. For example, from the perspective of the American Church, Vietnamese-American Catholics will be challenged to correct their pre-dominantly institutional model of ecclesiology by means of other models, in which the role of the laity is duly recognized and their active participation fostered, dialogue with followers of other religions undertaken, and social justice seriously pursued. On the other hand, through the experiences of Vietnamese-American Catholics, the American Church may discover the importance of priestly and religious vocations, popular devotions, pious associations, martyrdom, and solidarity with the poor and the oppressed. No less important, in a religiously pluralistic world, which the United States has become, the manifold non-Christian heritage of Vietnamese-American Catholics will be a springboard for the church to learn from the spiritual riches of other religions.

The mention of non-Christian religions brings us to the third and deepest level of interculturation, which is also the most difficult and challenging. Connected with this level are some of the most controversial themes in contemporary theology, such as religious pluralism, the salvific values of non-Christian religions, the uniqueness of Christ, the necessity of the church, praxis for liberation, and interfaith dialogue (for an excellent presentation of these issues, see Dupuis 1997). The presence of Vietnamese-American Catholics will bring those issues to the fore. Furthermore, Vietnamese-American Catholics are in a privileged position to help their fellow Catholics in Vietnam deal with such thorny issues, since Vietnamese-American Catholics have at their disposal, and hence are duty-bound to take advantage of opportunities for theological education that have been denied to Catholics in Vietnam for more than 50 years.

Three Theological Tasks

Theologically, Vietnamese-American Catholics have to perform the three tasks that Anselm Kyongsuk Min prescribes for Korean-American theology (Min 1999). The first is to retrieve both the Western and the Asian traditions for the needs of Asian communities in America, whose needs and circumstances are different from those of their fellow Asians in Asia.

The second task is to reflect on the theological significance of the Asian-American experiences itself. Such an experience, Min points out, has at least four dimensions: separation, ambiguity, diversity, and love of the stranger (xenophilia). The Asian-American experience is first of all that of separation from the old, familiar, ancestral ways of doing things:

For people so devoted to the tradition, living in America brings with it pain of radical separation, the repression of nostalgia for the old identities, dying to old self and being born again, born to the truth of human life as pilgrimage of the homo viator, the wayfaring human being (Min 149).

The experience of separation is also that of ambiguity.

It means no longer having the certainties of the home tradition available for every moment of decision and crisis, but rather meeting such a moment in a creative, inventive way, improvising, compromising, agonizing, and in any event learning to live with a large dose of ambiguity, the very ambiguity of life itself (Min 150).

The pain of diversity is a third aspect of Asian-American experience. Coming from a relatively homogeneous culture, Asian-Americans must learn to live with those who are different in ethnicity, lan­guage, religion, and culture. They must learn to overcome ethnic prejudices and narrow nationalism.

From this comes the fourth dimension of experience, that of learning to love the stranger. Min suggests that the event of 29 April 1992, in Los Angeles, in which Korean businesses were systematically looted and burned by African and Hispan­ic Americans, should teach Korean Amer­icans that they cannot live just for them­selves but must learn to live with others with some solidarity of interests.10

The third and last task is to elaborate a political theology appropriate to Asian Americans as U. S. citizens who have both domestic responsibilities toward the common good and international responsibilities as members of the sole surviving superpower in an increasingly globalizing world. Min warns against the danger of focusing on ethnic and cultural issues alone and for­getting the duty of prophetic criticism:

As citizen of a country with the historic burdens of colonialism, slav­ery, and imperialism, [Asian Ameri­cans] too need particular sensitization to this international dimension of U. S. power. They cannot simply disallow all political responsibility for what their political, military, and economic representatives do over­seas in their names.11

In line with Min's three suggestions, I would like to sketch the contours of a Vietnamese‑American theology. Such a theol­ogy has barely begun, and what follows is nothing more than a series of unsystemat­ic reflections on how Vietnamese Chris­tians must make full use of both American and Vietnamese cultural and religious resources to understand and express the Christian faith. In their both-and and be­yond social and religious situation, they cannot do otherwise.

Resources and Methodology

Vietnamese philosophical tradition has no writings that have achieved a canonical status (similar to that of the Chinese Five Classics and Four Books) with which a Vietnamese Christian theology could enter into dialogue or which it could use as a cultural resource. There is a substantial body of Vietnamese philosophy and philo­sophical writings,12 but these remain most­ly unknown and are not readily accessible, since they are not yet transcribed into the national script.

While recourse to these writings remains necessary, a Vietnamese‑American theology should not be limited to dialogue with these ancient philosophical texts but must bring into play other resources of Vietnamese culture. Among these, pride of place must be assigned to literally thou­sands of proverbs, sayings, and traditional songs. This body of Vietnamese popular or oral literature, which has been carefully collected and studied, is rightly regarded as the most authentic treasury of Vietnamese wisdom and the Vietnamese worldview.13 Among contemporary philosophers, the numerous works of Kim Dinh present a plethora of insights into the Vietnamese cultural heritage and can serve as a valuable basis for a Vietnamese‑American the­ology.14Vietnamese literature, past as well as contemporary, is also a fertile source for theological reflection. Among literary works, Nguyen Du’s epic, Doan Truong Tan Thanh, more popularly known as Truyen Kieu, remains an indispensable source of the Vietnamese worldview.15

But this chef-d'oeuvre should not be al­lowed to eclipse other literary works, espe­cially contemporary poetry and novels, which embody a different but no less important understanding of the Vietnamese ethos. In addition, life stories of ordinary Vietnamese, especially those who suffer from poverty and all forms of oppression, provide a rich lode for Vietnamese‑American theology. Finally, this theology must enter into dialogue with the sacred texts and ritual practices of Vietnamese Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism, and indigenous religion.16

A Vietnamese‑American theology, how­ever, must not confine itself to reiterating the past wisdom of the Vietnamese culture but must bring this wisdom into fruitful con­frontation with the experiences of Vietnamese immigrants in the United States. These experiences, unique to Vietnamese expatriates struggling to survive in the inter­stices between two cultures and churches, are unavailable to those living in the native country, even though western and American ideas and values have been exported to all corners of the world through the process of globalization. In this way, what is true, good, and beautiful in the Vietnamese culture can be enriched further, and what is defective in it can be corrected by the truths and values in the American culture. For example, the communitarian ethos, characteristic of the Vietnamese worldview, by which the indi­vidual is subordinated to the collective wel­fare of the family and society, can some­times lead to the suppression of the individ­ual's autonomy and dignity. Here, it should be corrected by the typically American re­spect for and promotion of the individual's inalienable rights. Thus, a Vietnamese-­American anthropology will be a dialectical fusion of communitarianism and individual­ism that is a genuinely new tertium  quid emerging from the encounter between two different cultures.

Theological Themes

It is of course impossible to develop at length here the various themes that a Viet­namese‑American theology must attend to. I would like simply to highlight a list of themes, by no means exhaustive, that I consider essential to a Vietnamese‑Amer­ican theology.

1) Basic to the Vietnamese worldview is the "three‑element philosophy" (triet ly tam tai).17 The three elements are Heaven, Earth, and Humanity,(thien, dia, nhan or troi, dat, nguoi), forming the three ultimates consti­tuting the whole of reality. "Heaven" refers to the firmament above humans as differen­tiated from the earth (the law of nature) and to the Creator, endowed with intellect and will. The firmament is the place where the Creator dwells; the law of nature is the Cre­ator's will and dispositions; and the Creator is the Supreme Being who is transcendent, omnipotent, and eternal. "Earth" refers to the material reality lying beneath humans, as opposed to heaven above; to that which gives rise to entities composed of the five constituents (ngu hanh) metalwood, water, fire, and earth; and to matter in general, which is essentially directed upward to Heaven. "Humanity" refers to human be­ings, "whose heads carry Heaven and whose feet trample upon Earth" (dau doi troi, chan dap dat)—that is, humans as the link or union between heaven and earth. Humans express the power of Heaven and Earth by being "the sage inside and the king outside" (noi thanh ngoai vuong), that is, by orienting upward to Heaven (tri tri) through knowing Heaven, trusting in Heaven, and acting out the will of Heaven on the one hand, and by orienting downward to Earth (cach vat) through the use of material things for the benefit of all. As the center connect­ing Heaven and Earth, the human micro­cosm unites the male and the female, the positive and the negative, light and dark­ness, spirit and matter (yin andyang) and the characteristics of the five constituents: subtlety (water), strength (fire), vitality (wood), constancy (metal), and generosity (earth). In this way humans practice the "human heart" (nhan tam) and the "human way" (nhan dao).

The most important principle of the tam tai philosophy is that all three consti­tutive elements of reality are intrinsically connected with one another and mutually dependent. Heaven without Earth and Hu­manity cannot produce or express anything. Earth without Heaven and Humanity would be an empty desert. Humanity without Heaven would he directionless and, without Earth, would have nowhere to exist and to act. Each of the three elements has a func­tion of its own: Heaven gives birth; Earth nurtures, and Humanity harmonizes (Thien sinh, dia duong, nhan hoa).Consequently, human action must be governed by three principles: it must be carried out in accord with Heaven (thien thoi), with the propitious favor of Earth (dia loi), and for the harmony of Humanity (nhan hoa).18

A Vietnamese‑American theology can and should make use of this tam tai philos­ophy to construct not only a theology of the Trinity but also an integral anthropology. First, with regard to the Trinity, it is possi­ble to correlate God the Father with Heav­en. God the Son with Humanity, and God the Spirit with Earth and to elaborate their roles in the history of salvation in the light of those of Heaven, Earth, and Humanity.19 The Father's role is to "give birth" through creation"; the Son's is to "harmonize" through redemption; and the Spirit's is to "nurture" through sanctifying grace. These roles are truly distinct from one another (hence trinitarian and not modalistic) but intimately linked with one another (hence one and not subordinationist or tritheistic). Like Heaven, Earth, and Humanity, the three divine persons are united in a peri­choresis or koinonia of life and activities. In this trinitarian theology, God's transcen­dence and immanence are intrinsically re­lated with each other. God, though transcendent, is conceived as internally con­nected with and dependent on Humanity and Earth to carry out divine activities in history. Indeed, the trinity is conceived as inscribed in the structure of reality itself.20

Second, a Christian anthropology con­structed in light of the tam tai philosophy will offer an integral understanding of human existence. In this anthropology, there is no opposition between theocentrism and anthropocentrism, nor between theocen­trism and geocentrism, nor between geo­centrism and anthropocentrism. Indeed, tam tai philosophy is opposed to any "ism" that is exclusive of any other perspective. The human is understood neither as subject nor object but as intrinsically related to the divine and the ecological, just as the divine is intrinsically related to the ecological and the human, and the ecological is intrinsical­ly related to the divine and the human. This anthropology will be an important correc­tive to the American culture, which, under the influence of modernity, tends to view God and humanity as competitors and humans as unrelated to their ecology.

2) In Vietnamese‑American theology, I would highlight two aspects of Christ. First, Jesus can be regarded as the immigrant par excellence, the Marginalized One living in the both‑and andbeyond situation.21 This in-­between, on‑the‑margin status is founda­tional to the Incarnation as well as to Jesus' entire ministry, including his death and res­urrection. But Jesus' being on the margin creates a new circle with a new center, not of power but of love, joining and reconciling the two worlds, human and divine. Viet­namese Americans can readily relate to this figure of Christ the Immigrant from their experiences, sometimes painful, of living as marginalized immigrants in the United States. But like Jesus, they are called to cre­ate a new circle, made up of both Ameri­cans and Vietnamese, with a new center, not in order to exclude anyone but to help both Americans and Vietnamese move beyond their ethnic identities and create a new real­ity that is bothVietnamese and American.

Second, from the Vietnamese religious perspective, Jesus can be regarded as the Eldest Brother and the paradigmatic An­cestor. The veneration of ancestors, one of the most sacred duties for Vietnamese, constituted a serious problem for mission­ary work in Asia.22 A christology that pre­sents Jesus as the Eldest Brother and the Ancestor has much to recommend it not only for missionary purposes but also for fostering Vietnamese ethics, especially familial values, at the center of which lies fil­ial piety. This latter aspect is all the more urgent for Vietnamese Americans who are encountering tremendous difficulties in preserving the rite of ancestor veneration, especially at weddings and funerals.23

3) The theology of the church in Asia, especially in the Roman Catholic Church, has long been characterized by an excessive focus on the church's institutional as­pects, in particular the hierarchy and its power. Asian ecclesiology, in other words, has been ecclesiocentric. In recent years, thanks to the work of the Federation of the Asian Bishops' Conferences (FABC), theological attention has been turned from intra‑eccle­sial issues to the mission of the church toward the world, especially the world of Asian peoples (FABC 1972 and 1997). Ecclesiology is now fo­cused on the reign of God as its goal: the church exists for the sake of the kingdom of God. The church's evangelizing mission is now understood in terms of the threefold task of inculturation, interreligious dia­logue, and liberation (see Phan 1998a:205-27; 1999:289-312).

Such a kingdom‑centered ecclesiology is called for in Vietnamese‑American theol­ogy. As Min has correctly pointed out, Asian immigrants cannot be oblivious to the fact that politically and economically, they, immigrants though they are, belong to the only surviving superpower exercising an enormous influence and not infrequently an unjust and oppressive control over the rest of the world through the process of globalization. The task of socio‑ political and economic liberation, which is a consti­tutive dimension of evangelization, be­comes all the more urgent for Vietnamese Americans. Furthermore, because Vietnamese Americans are religiously diverse, the need for interreligious dialogue, is no less pressing in the United States than in Asia. Finally, for Vietnamese Americans the inculturation of the Christian faith is no doubt a much more challenging and complex task in America since they are con­fronted with not only one, but at least two very diverse cultures. Of course, these tasks of inculturation, interreligious dialogue, and liberation cannot be separated from the oth­er aspects of evangelization such as procla­mation, personal witness, and worship (Phan 1998b:295-322).

4) Another area that Vietnamese‑­American theology must attend to is litur­gy and sacramental worship. In most Asian Roman Catholic churches, liturgical and sacramental celebrations are largely determined by officially approved books composed in Latin by the experts in Rome and then translated into the vernaculars. These translations in turn have to be ap­proved—again by Rome—before they can be used. Little input by the local churches has been made, though liturgical "adaptation" within prescribed limits is allowed. Recently some liturgical inculturation has been carried out in Vietnam. Noteworthy are the expanded prayers for the dead in the eucharistic prayers of the Mass to men­tion explicitly the ancestors, and the litur­gies for the lunar New Year (Tet) and for burial. Nevertheless, these adaptations re­main timid and pallid attempts to make worship culturally and religiously meaningful to the Vietnamese. A major task of liturgical inculturation has yet to be carried out by Vietnamese‑American theology by taking account, among other things, what has been described as Vietnamese popular religiosity (see Phan 1998c:194-210; 2000b:5-33).

5) A final aspect of Vietnamese‑American theology concerns ethics and spirituali­ty. Asians are often viewed as embodying such values as, love of silence and contem­plation, closeness to nature, simplicity, de­tachment, frugality, harmony, nonviolence, love for learning, respect for the elders, filial piety, compassion, and attachment to the family. While these characteristics may be exaggerated and even caricatured, there is a core of truth in this description of what has been called the "Asian soul." Vietnamese cultural observers have often pointed out how Vietnamese philosophy and literature, especially proverbs and popular songs, have prescribed as moral ideals total harmony with Heaven, Earth, and Humanity; equilib­rium and balance in mind and body, psy­chological wholeness and integrity; interior peace and calm; solidarity and sharing.

Obviously, these ideals are hard to prac­tice in an American culture, which prizes professional competition, material success, individual autonomy, democratic egalitarianism and personal self‑fulfillment. However, such ideals can correct excesses of the American way of life. On the other hand, challenged and enriched by American moral ideals, Vietnamese Americans can avoid the risk of yielding to leisurely qui­etism, political and social withdrawal, avoidance of public responsibilities, and spiritual escapism. Vietnamese‑American moral and spiritual theology is called to de­velop a way of uniting the best of the two cultural and moral traditions, while avoid­ing the excesses of either.

The Vietnamese have chosen the bam­boo tree as their national symbol. Viet­namese villages are typically surrounded by high rows of bamboos, bonding the vil­lagers with one another and shielding them from natural disasters and human invaders, Bamboo shoots provide poor people with nourishing food, the canes are used to build houses, and the leaves are used for roofing. Bamboo wood is woven into the most common utensils. Above all, bamboos are extremely resilient; they bend but cannot be easily broken, just like the Vietnamese spir­it during centuries of oppression and colonialism. For Christians, the cross is the symbol of God's unconditional love for humanity and final victory over evil. Vietnamese Americans, as Vietnamese and as Catholic, live in the shadow of the bamboo and the cross in a new country, now grate­fully adopted as their own. If they are faith­ful to both their cultural heritage and their Christian faith, if they offer a Vietnamese­-American theology as fertilizer, their cruci­form bamboo will flourish and prosper in the soil of the New World.


NOTES

1. The first two parts of this essay are adapted from my earlier essay, see Phan 2000: 19-35 and 1999: 151-74.

2. For reflections on the meaning of the so‑called American War in Vietnam and its aftermaths, see Phan 2000a: 12-4.

3. On the educational achievements of Vietnamese Americans, see Nathan Caplan, Whitmore and Choy 1991, and Freeman 69-86. Free­man writes, "The academic achievements of Vietnamese school children in America are al­most legendary: valedictorians of high schools and colleges, a Rhodes scholar, win­ners of science competitions, high grade point averages, high scores on the Scholastic Aptitude (now Assessment) Test" (69).

4. See Schreiter 1997: 21-5. The work of Jonathan Friedman re­ferred to is Cultural Identity and Global Process (London: Sage, 1994).

5. Fundamentalism is found of course in all religions, from Judaism to Islam to some Catholic and Protestant conservative groups. Revanchism is present in the restorationist policies of the post‑Vatican II era in the Catholic Church.

6. This strategy is proposed, for example, by some African‑American or Native‑American groups who attempt to recover their lost or suppressed cultural or tribal traditions in order to construct their cultural identity by means of some celebration, e.g., Kwanza.

7. This practice is found, for example, among Catholics who choose the patristic or medieval periods as benchmarks for the re­newal of the church and theology. Some Asians have made certain practices such as veneration of ancestors the defining trait of their cultures.

8. On the semiotic interpretation of culture as composed of sign, message, and code, see Schrieter 1985:49‑73.

9. For an account of how profoundly translation affects the work of inculturation, see Sanneh 1989.

10. The need for racial reconciliation and solidarity is impressively developed by Park 1996.

11. Min 1999:151. In this context Min develops his concept of "solidarity of others": "The model I propose, solidarity of others, is an inherently dialectical model and must be grasped in all its dialectic. Opposed to all particularism and tribalism, it is not opposed to particularity as such. It advocates solidar­ity of others, not unity of the same. This is crucial, especially in view of the fact that global interdependence and universalization have historically been purchased by making victims of individuals, but most often of groups, based on gender, ethnicity, status, culture, and religion, by excluding and marginalizing them as others whose otherness must be‑either repressed or reduced to the same" (155‑56).

12. For a list of writings belonging to the Vietnamese ju chia ("School of the Literati"), tradition (in Vietnamese, nho), see Trac1988. See also his two dissertations 1988a and 1993.

13. See the monumental, four‑volume study (a total of 2,360 pages) by Long and Canh 1969‑1970. Other useful works include Van Ngoc 1989; Vu Phan 1998 and Dan 2000. There is a slim volume of 95 pages by Te 1990.

14. Kim Dinh (1914‑1997) has published more than 30 books on Vietnamese ju chia and Vietnamese philosophy. More than any­one else, Kim Dinh was responsible for re­trieving the sources of the Vietnamese ju chic (which he terms "original ju chia") and constructing, a Vietnamese philosophy. An­other important contributor to the retrieval and elaboration of Vietnamese philosophy is Doan 1996:16‑22; 1997:41‑90; 1997a: 4‑43: and 1994: 69‑116. For Tran Van Doan, Vietnamese philosophy is humanistic (vi nhan) but not anthropocentric (duy nhan) insofar as humans are conceived as the center or the Archimedian point of re­ality and as self‑realizing (though not self­-creative); it champions the "human way" (dao nhan). In addition, Vietnamese philos­ophy advocates balance and harmony (trung dung) as well as self‑transcendence (sieu viet). In other words, the nature of Viet­namese philosophy is characterized by hu­manism (nhan), balanced harmony (trung), and self‑transcendence (viet). Finally, ac­cording to Tran Van Doan, the Vietnamese mode of thinking is relational (tuong quan), dialectical (vien viet), dynamic (dong tinh), holistic (toan the tinh),pragmatic (thuc tien), and symbolic (bieu tuong).

15. Nguyen Du (1765‑1820) is universally regarded as the greatest Vietnamese poet. For an English translation of this epic, see Du 1983.

16. One of the most important studies of Vietnamese Zen is by Tu Nguyen 1997.

17. For an elaboration of this tam tai phi­losophy, see in particular Vu Trac 1988:203‑213; and Du 1983:91‑144.

18. Tam tai philosophy is claimed to be rep­resented on the upper surface of the bronze drum, especially the one discovered at Ngoc Lu in 1901 and now preserved at the Center for Far‑Eastern Antiquities (Vien Dong Bac Co) in Hanoi. Dinh 1984 has elaborated this philosophy. See also Trac1996:23‑47. Vu Dinh Trac believes that traditional Vietnamese philoso­phy is constituted by tam tai philosophy, yin­ yang metaphysics, and agricultural philoso­phy. The three strands are illustrated by the various symbols on the upper surface of the Ngoc Lu bronze drum.

19. For an attempt to construct a trinitarian theology on the basis of Yin Yang meta­physics, see Lee 1996.

20. For an attempt at conceiving reality in trinitarian terms, see Panikkar 1993.

21. For an elaboration of Jesus as the Immi­grant par excellence, see Lee1996: 399‑430 and Phan 1996.

22. For an account of the so‑called "Rite Controversy," see Minamiki 1985.

23. For a Christology of Jesus as the Elder Brother and the Ancestor, see Phan 1996a: 35‑43 and 1996b: 25‑55.


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1995 “Vietnamese, Laotian, and Cambodian Americans” in Asian Americans: Contemporary Issues and Trends, ed. Pyong Gap Min (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications).

Rutledge, Paul James

1992 The Vietnamese Experience in America (Bloomington and Indianapolis: University of Indiana Press).

Sanneh, Lamin

1989 Translating the Message: The Missionary Impact on Culture (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books).

Schreiter, Robert

1985 Constructing Local Theologies (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books).

1997 The New Catholicity: Theology Between the Global and the Local (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books).

Te, Huynh Dinh

1990 Selected Vietnamese Proverbs (Oakland: Center for International Communication and Development).

Trac, Vu Dinh

1988 Viet Nam Trong Quy Dao The Gioi (Orange, CA: Lien Doan CGVN tai Hoa Ky, n.d.).

1988a Triet Ly Chap Sinh Nguyen Cong Tru (Orange, CA: Hoi Huu Publisher).

1993 Triet Ly Nhan Ban Nguyen Du (Orange, CA: Hoi Huu Publisher).

1996 “Triet ly truyen thong Viet Nam don duong cho Than Hoc Viet Nam,” Dinh Huong 11.

Tu Nguyen, Cuong

1997 Zen in Medieval Vietnam: A Study and Translation of the Thien Uyen Tap Anh (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press).

Vu Phan, Ngoc

1988 Tuc Ngu Cao Dao Dan Ca Viet Nam, 11th Ed. (Hanoi: Nha Xuat Ban Khoa Hoc Xa Hoi).


* Originally published in Theology Digest 43:3 (Fall 2001).



What has been said of the destiny of im­migrants between the two cultures, applies equally to their ecclesial situation. Here too they stand in between two churches, at the boundary between the American Catholic Church and the churches of their native countries. Belonging fully to neither, they feel estranged in both and do not occupy positions of power in either. For most American Catholics, Vietnamese‑American Catholics' religious practices seem to be a throwback to their own Catholicism of the '50s, with clerical dominance and lay sub­missiveness, with colorful processions and pious devotions. On the other hand, Viet­namese‑American Catholics, both clerical and lay, do not fare much better when they return home for a visit. While welcoming, them, the local hierarchy often looks upon them (especially the clerics) with suspicion, fearing that they have been contaminated by the liberal and even heretical ideas and lax morality of the American Church.

Nevertheless, while belonging fully to neither the American Church nor the Vietnamese Church, Vietnamese‑American Catholics belong to both. They live a Catholic life in a way no "pure" American Catholic can because of their indelible Asian religious traditions, and they live a Catholic life in a way no "pure" Asian Catholic can because of the distinctly American Catholic ethos which they have willy‑nilly absorbed through sheer contiguity and symbiosis with the American society and Catholic Church. Here again their betwixt‑and‑between posi­tion should not be viewed only as a negative asset producing marginalization but also as an opportunity and a task to create a new way of being Catholic. Here lies their unique contribution to the church.

Between two Worlds

But in order to accomplish this mission, where should Vietnamese‑American Catholics stand? What is their social loca­tion, the specific space they occupy within American society and the American ChurchHow should they be part of the societal and ecclesial realities? In speaking of the inculturation of an immigrant into the modern and postmodern culture, scholars have outlined three possible strategies which Robert Schreiter, following Jonathan Friedman, terms antiglobalism, ethnifica­tion, and primitivism.4 Antiglobalism is a to­tal retreat from the ideals and values of globalization to defend and preserve one's cultural identity, either through a complete rejection of modernity as found in fundamentalism or through strategies of hierar­chical control as in revanchism.5 Ethnification is the attempt to  rediscover a forgotten cultural identity through a retrieval of real or imagined cultural traits, with the result that often a hybridized culture is constructed through the process of ethnogenesis.6 Primitivism is the attempt to select a period or an aspect of one's previous, premodern culture and use it as a framework for dealing with globalization.7

In light of what has been said about the existential condition of the immigrant, I would argue that these strategies are unsatisfactory because of their common presuppo­sition that an immigrant must be either completely inside or outside the American culture. Anything less than a com­plete opposition to or absorption into the American culture conceived as an integrative system is unacceptable. Antiglobalism favors the first option, while ethnification and primitivism implicitly favor the second. Whereas antiglobalism rejects inculturation altogether, acknowledging no common space whatso­ever between the American and Vietnamese cultures, ethnification and primitivism accept absorption into the American culture as an ideal by means of a retrieval either of an al­legedly lost culture or a forgotten normative cultural dimension or period.

In contrast to these three strategies, I pro­pose that we view the predicament of Viet­namese Americans as neither completely inside nor completely outside American so­ciety but as belonging to both—but not en­tirely, because they are beyond both (on the concept of the immigrant as being "in‑beyond," see Lee 1995:55-70). The same should be said about Vietnamese-­American Catholics. They are neither com­pletely outside the American Catholic Church and their native Asian churches nor completely inside them; they belong to both—but not completely, because they are also beyond both. In other words, they live and move and have their being in the interstice between the American culture and their own, between the American church and their Asian churches. Because of this inalienable interstice, there should be no at­tempt to incorporate Vietnamese Americans into the American society and Vietnamese­-American Catholics into the Catholic Church as if into a melting pot in such a way that they would lose their distinct iden­tity both as Vietnamese and Vietnamese Catholics. Nor should there be an attempt to keep them apart from the American society and the American Church in a kind of ghet­to in such a way that they would be margin­alized from church and society.

Furthermore, this space is not some pre­existing no man's land, peacefully and de­finitively agreed upon in advance by the powers‑  that‑be of the two cultures and the two churches. Rather, the interstice is to be carved out by the Vietnamese‑American Catholics themselves in everyday living, by trial and error, in creative freedom, over the course of a lifetime. Its boundaries, quite porous to be sure, are ever shifting and are subject to being redrawn and renegotiated as new circumstances and needs arise. What remains indisputable is that Vietnamese-­American Catholics have a right to this cul­tural and ecclesial interstitial space where they can fulfill their God‑given mission of being the bridge between East and West, be­tween the church of Asia and the church of North America.

Interculturation

This does not mean that inculturation or interculturation is an arbitrary and haphazard process bereft of theological and canon­ical guiding principles or without a super­vising authority. Indeed, in the process of interculturation all three dimensions (signs, messages, and codes)8 and the three levels of culture (the surface, the intermediate lev­el, and the mentality) [on the three levels of culture, see Luzbetak 1988] must be brought into play. Interculturation is the process whereby the American culture and the Vietnamese culture are brought into a reciprocal engagement in such a way that both are transformed from within. Essential to intercul­turation is their mutual criticism and enrichment. The expressions of the cultures are transformed as the result of this process.

Strictly, interculturation is a three‑step trajectory. In the first place, what Louis Luzbetak calls "individual building‑blocks of culture," (i.e., the signs and symbols) of one culture are assigned functional equiva­lents in another culture. Here, obviously, translation plays a predominant role.

Next comes the stage of acculturation, in which one culture (A) acquires certain elements of another culture (B) which, in its turn, adopts certain elements of the other culture (A). At best, however, such mutual borrowing often still operates at the intermediate level. Furthermore, because of the unequal power relations between the American culture and the immigrants' cultures, there is danger that the latter will be dominated and absorbed by the former. Also, in this exchange there are plenty of opportunities for mutual misunderstand­ing, since the codes through which the meaning of the signs of culture are carried may be hidden and different. Acculturation may often lead to either juxtaposition (ele­ments of both cultures are unassimilated and are allowed to operate side by side) or syncretism (the basic identity of both cul­tures is lost or diluted).

The third stage, the level of incultura­tion proper, engages the deepest level of the two cultures together, their world-views, their basic "message," as expressed in their philosophies and religions. Obvi­ously, this task requires that immigrants achieve a measure of intellectual sophisti­cation and institutional autonomy that would enable them to confront the Ameri­can culture as equals in a truly multi‑ethnic and pluralistic society.

A similar three‑stage process of intercul­turation takes place in the encounter be­tween the American Church and Vietnamese‑ American Catholics. The first and essential phase of translating significant re­ligious texts in English into Vietnamese and vice versa, is largely a work still to be done for and by Vietnamese‑American Catholics.9 Many classics of Asian philoso­phy are available in English, but very few Christian classics have been translated into Vietnamese. (I am thinking not only of the Bible but also of patristic and medieval clas­sics as well as works on spirituality.) As a result, many Vietnamese‑American Catholics are deprived of the theological, and spiritual heritage of Western Christiani­ty and therefore do not possess the neces­sary resources to enter into a fruitful dia­logue with the Western Church.

The second phase, acculturation, will mean finding the ways by which both the American Church and Vietnamese-American Catholic communities can critique and enrich each other. For example, from the perspective of the American Church, Vietnamese-American Catholics will be challenged to correct their pre-dominantly institutional model of ecclesiology by means of other models, in which the role of the laity is duly recognized and their active participation fostered, dialogue with followers of other religions undertaken, and social justice seriously pursued. On the other hand, through the experiences of Vietnamese-American Catholics, the American Church may discover the importance of priestly and religious vocations, popular devotions, pious associations, martyrdom, and solidarity with the poor and the oppressed. No less important, in a religiously pluralistic world, which the United States has become, the manifold non-Christian heritage of Vietnamese-American Catholics will be a springboard for the church to learn from the spiritual riches of other religions.

The mention of non-Christian religions brings us to the third and deepest level of interculturation, which is also the most difficult and challenging. Connected with this level are some of the most controversial themes in contemporary theology, such as religious pluralism, the salvific values of non-Christian religions, the uniqueness of Christ, the necessity of the church, praxis for liberation, and interfaith dialogue (for an excellent presentation of these issues, see Dupuis 1997). The presence of Vietnamese-American Catholics will bring those issues to the fore. Furthermore, Vietnamese-American Catholics are in a privileged position to help their fellow Catholics in Vietnam deal with such thorny issues, since Vietnamese-American Catholics have at their disposal, and hence are duty-bound to take advantage of opportunities for theological education that have been denied to Catholics in Vietnam for more than 50 years.

Three Theological Tasks

Theologically, Vietnamese-American Catholics have to perform the three tasks that Anselm Kyongsuk Min prescribes for Korean-American theology (Min 1999). The first is to retrieve both the Western and the Asian traditions for the needs of Asian communities in America, whose needs and circumstances are different from those of their fellow Asians in Asia.

The second task is to reflect on the theological significance of the Asian-American experiences itself. Such an experience, Min points out, has at least four dimensions: separation, ambiguity, diversity, and love of the stranger (xenophilia). The Asian-American experience is first of all that of separation from the old, familiar, ancestral ways of doing things:

For people so devoted to the tradition, living in America brings with it pain of radical separation, the repression of nostalgia for the old identities, dying to old self and being born again, born to the truth of human life as pilgrimage of the homo viator, the wayfaring human being (Min 149).

The experience of separation is also that of ambiguity.

It means no longer having the certainties of the home tradition available for every moment of decision and crisis, but rather meeting such a moment in a creative, inventive way, improvising, compromising, agonizing, and in any event learning to live with a large dose of ambiguity, the very ambiguity of life itself (Min 150).

The pain of diversity is a third aspect of Asian-American experience. Coming from a relatively homogeneous culture, Asian-Americans must learn to live with those who are different in ethnicity, lan­guage, religion, and culture. They must learn to overcome ethnic prejudices and narrow nationalism.

From this comes the fourth dimension of experience, that of learning to love the stranger. Min suggests that the event of 29 April 1992, in Los Angeles, in which Korean businesses were systematically looted and burned by African and Hispan­ic Americans, should teach Korean Amer­icans that they cannot live just for them­selves but must learn to live with others with some solidarity of interests.10

The third and last task is to elaborate a political theology appropriate to Asian Americans as U. S. citizens who have both domestic responsibilities toward the common good and international responsibilities as members of the sole surviving superpower in an increasingly globalizing world. Min warns against the danger of focusing on ethnic and cultural issues alone and for­getting the duty of prophetic criticism:

As citizen of a country with the historic burdens of colonialism, slav­ery, and imperialism, [Asian Ameri­cans] too need particular sensitization to this international dimension of U. S. power. They cannot simply disallow all political responsibility for what their political, military, and economic representatives do over­seas in their names.11

In line with Min's three suggestions, I would like to sketch the contours of a Vietnamese‑American theology. Such a theol­ogy has barely begun, and what follows is nothing more than a series of unsystemat­ic reflections on how Vietnamese Chris­tians must make full use of both American and Vietnamese cultural and religious resources to understand and express the Christian faith. In their both-and and be­yond social and religious situation, they cannot do otherwise.

Resources and Methodology

Vietnamese philosophical tradition has no writings that have achieved a canonical status (similar to that of the Chinese Five Classics and Four Books) with which a Vietnamese Christian theology could enter into dialogue or which it could use as a cultural resource. There is a substantial body of Vietnamese philosophy and philo­sophical writings,12 but these remain most­ly unknown and are not readily accessible, since they are not yet transcribed into the national script.

While recourse to these writings remains necessary, a Vietnamese‑American theology should not be limited to dialogue with these ancient philosophical texts but must bring into play other resources of Vietnamese culture. Among these, pride of place must be assigned to literally thou­sands of proverbs, sayings, and traditional songs. This body of Vietnamese popular or oral literature, which has been carefully collected and studied, is rightly regarded as the most authentic treasury of Vietnamese wisdom and the Vietnamese worldview.13 Among contemporary philosophers, the numerous works of Kim Dinh present a plethora of insights into the Vietnamese cultural heritage and can serve as a valuable basis for a Vietnamese‑American the­ology.14Vietnamese literature, past as well as contemporary, is also a fertile source for theological reflection. Among literary works, Nguyen Du’s epic, Doan Truong Tan Thanh, more popularly known as Truyen Kieu, remains an indispensable source of the Vietnamese worldview.15

But this chef-d'oeuvre should not be al­lowed to eclipse other literary works, espe­cially contemporary poetry and novels, which embody a different but no less important understanding of the Vietnamese ethos. In addition, life stories of ordinary Vietnamese, especially those who suffer from poverty and all forms of oppression, provide a rich lode for Vietnamese‑American theology. Finally, this theology must enter into dialogue with the sacred texts and ritual practices of Vietnamese Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism, and indigenous religion.16

A Vietnamese‑American theology, how­ever, must not confine itself to reiterating the past wisdom of the Vietnamese culture but must bring this wisdom into fruitful con­frontation with the experiences of Vietnamese immigrants in the United States. These experiences, unique to Vietnamese expatriates struggling to survive in the inter­stices between two cultures and churches, are unavailable to those living in the native country, even though western and American ideas and values have been exported to all corners of the world through the process of globalization. In this way, what is true, good, and beautiful in the Vietnamese culture can be enriched further, and what is defective in it can be corrected by the truths and values in the American culture. For example, the communitarian ethos, characteristic of the Vietnamese worldview, by which the indi­vidual is subordinated to the collective wel­fare of the family and society, can some­times lead to the suppression of the individ­ual's autonomy and dignity. Here, it should be corrected by the typically American re­spect for and promotion of the individual's inalienable rights. Thus, a Vietnamese-­American anthropology will be a dialectical fusion of communitarianism and individual­ism that is a genuinely new tertium  quid emerging from the encounter between two different cultures.

Theological Themes

It is of course impossible to develop at length here the various themes that a Viet­namese‑American theology must attend to. I would like simply to highlight a list of themes, by no means exhaustive, that I consider essential to a Vietnamese‑Amer­ican theology.

1) Basic to the Vietnamese worldview is the "three‑element philosophy" (triet ly tam tai).17 The three elements are Heaven, Earth, and Humanity,(thien, dia, nhan or troi, dat, nguoi), forming the three ultimates consti­tuting the whole of reality. "Heaven" refers to the firmament above humans as differen­tiated from the earth (the law of nature) and to the Creator, endowed with intellect and will. The firmament is the place where the Creator dwells; the law of nature is the Cre­ator's will and dispositions; and the Creator is the Supreme Being who is transcendent, omnipotent, and eternal. "Earth" refers to the material reality lying beneath humans, as opposed to heaven above; to that which gives rise to entities composed of the five constituents (ngu hanh) metalwood, water, fire, and earth; and to matter in general, which is essentially directed upward to Heaven. "Humanity" refers to human be­ings, "whose heads carry Heaven and whose feet trample upon Earth" (dau doi troi, chan dap dat)—that is, humans as the link or union between heaven and earth. Humans express the power of Heaven and Earth by being "the sage inside and the king outside" (noi thanh ngoai vuong), that is, by orienting upward to Heaven (tri tri) through knowing Heaven, trusting in Heaven, and acting out the will of Heaven on the one hand, and by orienting downward to Earth (cach vat) through the use of material things for the benefit of all. As the center connect­ing Heaven and Earth, the human micro­cosm unites the male and the female, the positive and the negative, light and dark­ness, spirit and matter (yin andyang) and the characteristics of the five constituents: subtlety (water), strength (fire), vitality (wood), constancy (metal), and generosity (earth). In this way humans practice the "human heart" (nhan tam) and the "human way" (nhan dao).

The most important principle of the tam tai philosophy is that all three consti­tutive elements of reality are intrinsically connected with one another and mutually dependent. Heaven without Earth and Hu­manity cannot produce or express anything. Earth without Heaven and Humanity would be an empty desert. Humanity without Heaven would he directionless and, without Earth, would have nowhere to exist and to act. Each of the three elements has a func­tion of its own: Heaven gives birth; Earth nurtures, and Humanity harmonizes (Thien sinh, dia duong, nhan hoa).Consequently, human action must be governed by three principles: it must be carried out in accord with Heaven (thien thoi), with the propitious favor of Earth (dia loi), and for the harmony of Humanity (nhan hoa).18

A Vietnamese‑American theology can and should make use of this tam tai philos­ophy to construct not only a theology of the Trinity but also an integral anthropology. First, with regard to the Trinity, it is possi­ble to correlate God the Father with Heav­en. God the Son with Humanity, and God the Spirit with Earth and to elaborate their roles in the history of salvation in the light of those of Heaven, Earth, and Humanity.19 The Father's role is to "give birth" through creation"; the Son's is to "harmonize" through redemption; and the Spirit's is to "nurture" through sanctifying grace. These roles are truly distinct from one another (hence trinitarian and not modalistic) but intimately linked with one another (hence one and not subordinationist or tritheistic). Like Heaven, Earth, and Humanity, the three divine persons are united in a peri­choresis or koinonia of life and activities. In this trinitarian theology, God's transcen­dence and immanence are intrinsically re­lated with each other. God, though transcendent, is conceived as internally con­nected with and dependent on Humanity and Earth to carry out divine activities in history. Indeed, the trinity is conceived as inscribed in the structure of reality itself.20

Second, a Christian anthropology con­structed in light of the tam tai philosophy will offer an integral understanding of human existence. In this anthropology, there is no opposition between theocentrism and anthropocentrism, nor between theocen­trism and geocentrism, nor between geo­centrism and anthropocentrism. Indeed, tam tai philosophy is opposed to any "ism" that is exclusive of any other perspective. The human is understood neither as subject nor object but as intrinsically related to the divine and the ecological, just as the divine is intrinsically related to the ecological and the human, and the ecological is intrinsical­ly related to the divine and the human. This anthropology will be an important correc­tive to the American culture, which, under the influence of modernity, tends to view God and humanity as competitors and humans as unrelated to their ecology.

2) In Vietnamese‑American theology, I would highlight two aspects of Christ. First, Jesus can be regarded as the immigrant par excellence, the Marginalized One living in the both‑and andbeyond situation.21 This in-­between, on‑the‑margin status is founda­tional to the Incarnation as well as to Jesus' entire ministry, including his death and res­urrection. But Jesus' being on the margin creates a new circle with a new center, not of power but of love, joining and reconciling the two worlds, human and divine. Viet­namese Americans can readily relate to this figure of Christ the Immigrant from their experiences, sometimes painful, of living as marginalized immigrants in the United States. But like Jesus, they are called to cre­ate a new circle, made up of both Ameri­cans and Vietnamese, with a new center, not in order to exclude anyone but to help both Americans and Vietnamese move beyond their ethnic identities and create a new real­ity that is bothVietnamese and American.

Second, from the Vietnamese religious perspective, Jesus can be regarded as the Eldest Brother and the paradigmatic An­cestor. The veneration of ancestors, one of the most sacred duties for Vietnamese, constituted a serious problem for mission­ary work in Asia.22 A christology that pre­sents Jesus as the Eldest Brother and the Ancestor has much to recommend it not only for missionary purposes but also for fostering Vietnamese ethics, especially familial values, at the center of which lies fil­ial piety. This latter aspect is all the more urgent for Vietnamese Americans who are encountering tremendous difficulties in preserving the rite of ancestor veneration, especially at weddings and funerals.23

3) The theology of the church in Asia, especially in the Roman Catholic Church, has long been characterized by an excessive focus on the church's institutional as­pects, in particular the hierarchy and its power. Asian ecclesiology, in other words, has been ecclesiocentric. In recent years, thanks to the work of the Federation of the Asian Bishops' Conferences (FABC), theological attention has been turned from intra‑eccle­sial issues to the mission of the church toward the world, especially the world of Asian peoples (FABC 1972 and 1997). Ecclesiology is now fo­cused on the reign of God as its goal: the church exists for the sake of the kingdom of God. The church's evangelizing mission is now understood in terms of the threefold task of inculturation, interreligious dia­logue, and liberation (see Phan 1998a:205-27; 1999:289-312).

Such a kingdom‑centered ecclesiology is called for in Vietnamese‑American theol­ogy. As Min has correctly pointed out, Asian immigrants cannot be oblivious to the fact that politically and economically, they, immigrants though they are, belong to the only surviving superpower exercising an enormous influence and not infrequently an unjust and oppressive control over the rest of the world through the process of globalization. The task of socio‑ political and economic liberation, which is a consti­tutive dimension of evangelization, be­comes all the more urgent for Vietnamese Americans. Furthermore, because Vietnamese Americans are religiously diverse, the need for interreligious dialogue, is no less pressing in the United States than in Asia. Finally, for Vietnamese Americans the inculturation of the Christian faith is no doubt a much more challenging and complex task in America since they are con­fronted with not only one, but at least two very diverse cultures. Of course, these tasks of inculturation, interreligious dialogue, and liberation cannot be separated from the oth­er aspects of evangelization such as procla­mation, personal witness, and worship (Phan 1998b:295-322).

4) Another area that Vietnamese‑­American theology must attend to is litur­gy and sacramental worship. In most Asian Roman Catholic churches, liturgical and sacramental celebrations are largely determined by officially approved books composed in Latin by the experts in Rome and then translated into the vernaculars. These translations in turn have to be ap­proved—again by Rome—before they can be used. Little input by the local churches has been made, though liturgical "adaptation" within prescribed limits is allowed. Recently some liturgical inculturation has been carried out in Vietnam. Noteworthy are the expanded prayers for the dead in the eucharistic prayers of the Mass to men­tion explicitly the ancestors, and the litur­gies for the lunar New Year (Tet) and for burial. Nevertheless, these adaptations re­main timid and pallid attempts to make worship culturally and religiously meaningful to the Vietnamese. A major task of liturgical inculturation has yet to be carried out by Vietnamese‑American theology by taking account, among other things, what has been described as Vietnamese popular religiosity (see Phan 1998c:194-210; 2000b:5-33).

5) A final aspect of Vietnamese‑American theology concerns ethics and spirituali­ty. Asians are often viewed as embodying such values as, love of silence and contem­plation, closeness to nature, simplicity, de­tachment, frugality, harmony, nonviolence, love for learning, respect for the elders, filial piety, compassion, and attachment to the family. While these characteristics may be exaggerated and even caricatured, there is a core of truth in this description of what has been called the "Asian soul." Vietnamese cultural observers have often pointed out how Vietnamese philosophy and literature, especially proverbs and popular songs, have prescribed as moral ideals total harmony with Heaven, Earth, and Humanity; equilib­rium and balance in mind and body, psy­chological wholeness and integrity; interior peace and calm; solidarity and sharing.

Obviously, these ideals are hard to prac­tice in an American culture, which prizes professional competition, material success, individual autonomy, democratic egalitarianism and personal self‑fulfillment. However, such ideals can correct excesses of the American way of life. On the other hand, challenged and enriched by American moral ideals, Vietnamese Americans can avoid the risk of yielding to leisurely qui­etism, political and social withdrawal, avoidance of public responsibilities, and spiritual escapism. Vietnamese‑American moral and spiritual theology is called to de­velop a way of uniting the best of the two cultural and moral traditions, while avoid­ing the excesses of either.

The Vietnamese have chosen the bam­boo tree as their national symbol. Viet­namese villages are typically surrounded by high rows of bamboos, bonding the vil­lagers with one another and shielding them from natural disasters and human invaders, Bamboo shoots provide poor people with nourishing food, the canes are used to build houses, and the leaves are used for roofing. Bamboo wood is woven into the most common utensils. Above all, bamboos are extremely resilient; they bend but cannot be easily broken, just like the Vietnamese spir­it during centuries of oppression and colonialism. For Christians, the cross is the symbol of God's unconditional love for humanity and final victory over evil. Vietnamese Americans, as Vietnamese and as Catholic, live in the shadow of the bamboo and the cross in a new country, now grate­fully adopted as their own. If they are faith­ful to both their cultural heritage and their Christian faith, if they offer a Vietnamese­-American theology as fertilizer, their cruci­form bamboo will flourish and prosper in the soil of the New World.


NOTES

1. The first two parts of this essay are adapted from my earlier essay, see Phan 2000: 19-35 and 1999: 151-74.

2. For reflections on the meaning of the so‑called American War in Vietnam and its aftermaths, see Phan 2000a: 12-4.

3. On the educational achievements of Vietnamese Americans, see Nathan Caplan, Whitmore and Choy 1991, and Freeman 69-86. Free­man writes, "The academic achievements of Vietnamese school children in America are al­most legendary: valedictorians of high schools and colleges, a Rhodes scholar, win­ners of science competitions, high grade point averages, high scores on the Scholastic Aptitude (now Assessment) Test" (69).

4. See Schreiter 1997: 21-5. The work of Jonathan Friedman re­ferred to is Cultural Identity and Global Process (London: Sage, 1994).

5. Fundamentalism is found of course in all religions, from Judaism to Islam to some Catholic and Protestant conservative groups. Revanchism is present in the restorationist policies of the post‑Vatican II era in the Catholic Church.

6. This strategy is proposed, for example, by some African‑American or Native‑American groups who attempt to recover their lost or suppressed cultural or tribal traditions in order to construct their cultural identity by means of some celebration, e.g., Kwanza.

7. This practice is found, for example, among Catholics who choose the patristic or medieval periods as benchmarks for the re­newal of the church and theology. Some Asians have made certain practices such as veneration of ancestors the defining trait of their cultures.

8. On the semiotic interpretation of culture as composed of sign, message, and code, see Schrieter 1985:49‑73.

9. For an account of how profoundly translation affects the work of inculturation, see Sanneh 1989.

10. The need for racial reconciliation and solidarity is impressively developed by Park 1996.

11. Min 1999:151. In this context Min develops his concept of "solidarity of others": "The model I propose, solidarity of others, is an inherently dialectical model and must be grasped in all its dialectic. Opposed to all particularism and tribalism, it is not opposed to particularity as such. It advocates solidar­ity of others, not unity of the same. This is crucial, especially in view of the fact that global interdependence and universalization have historically been purchased by making victims of individuals, but most often of groups, based on gender, ethnicity, status, culture, and religion, by excluding and marginalizing them as others whose otherness must be‑either repressed or reduced to the same" (155‑56).

12. For a list of writings belonging to the Vietnamese ju chia ("School of the Literati"), tradition (in Vietnamese, nho), see Trac1988. See also his two dissertations 1988a and 1993.

13. See the monumental, four‑volume study (a total of 2,360 pages) by Long and Canh 1969‑1970. Other useful works include Van Ngoc 1989; Vu Phan 1998 and Dan 2000. There is a slim volume of 95 pages by Te 1990.

14. Kim Dinh (1914‑1997) has published more than 30 books on Vietnamese ju chia and Vietnamese philosophy. More than any­one else, Kim Dinh was responsible for re­trieving the sources of the Vietnamese ju chic (which he terms "original ju chia") and constructing, a Vietnamese philosophy. An­other important contributor to the retrieval and elaboration of Vietnamese philosophy is Doan 1996:16‑22; 1997:41‑90; 1997a: 4‑43: and 1994: 69‑116. For Tran Van Doan, Vietnamese philosophy is humanistic (vi nhan) but not anthropocentric (duy nhan) insofar as humans are conceived as the center or the Archimedian point of re­ality and as self‑realizing (though not self­-creative); it champions the "human way" (dao nhan). In addition, Vietnamese philos­ophy advocates balance and harmony (trung dung) as well as self‑transcendence (sieu viet). In other words, the nature of Viet­namese philosophy is characterized by hu­manism (nhan), balanced harmony (trung), and self‑transcendence (viet). Finally, ac­cording to Tran Van Doan, the Vietnamese mode of thinking is relational (tuong quan), dialectical (vien viet), dynamic (dong tinh), holistic (toan the tinh),pragmatic (thuc tien), and symbolic (bieu tuong).

15. Nguyen Du (1765‑1820) is universally regarded as the greatest Vietnamese poet. For an English translation of this epic, see Du 1983.

16. One of the most important studies of Vietnamese Zen is by Tu Nguyen 1997.

17. For an elaboration of this tam tai phi­losophy, see in particular Vu Trac 1988:203‑213; and Du 1983:91‑144.

18. Tam tai philosophy is claimed to be rep­resented on the upper surface of the bronze drum, especially the one discovered at Ngoc Lu in 1901 and now preserved at the Center for Far‑Eastern Antiquities (Vien Dong Bac Co) in Hanoi. Dinh 1984 has elaborated this philosophy. See also Trac1996:23‑47. Vu Dinh Trac believes that traditional Vietnamese philoso­phy is constituted by tam tai philosophy, yin­ yang metaphysics, and agricultural philoso­phy. The three strands are illustrated by the various symbols on the upper surface of the Ngoc Lu bronze drum.

19. For an attempt to construct a trinitarian theology on the basis of Yin Yang meta­physics, see Lee 1996.

20. For an attempt at conceiving reality in trinitarian terms, see Panikkar 1993.

21. For an elaboration of Jesus as the Immi­grant par excellence, see Lee1996: 399‑430 and Phan 1996.

22. For an account of the so‑called "Rite Controversy," see Minamiki 1985.

23. For a Christology of Jesus as the Elder Brother and the Ancestor, see Phan 1996a: 35‑43 and 1996b: 25‑55.


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* Originally published in Theology Digest 43:3 (Fall 2001).