doing asian american theology: a conversation with daniel d. lee
an invitation to build theologies rooted in particular experience
Growing up in evangelical spaces, I was explicitly told that my identity as an Indian American and identity as a Christian were irreconcilable. It wasn’t until I met other Indian and Asian American Christians that I learned how to embrace my own social location as a place where God could meet me. This lived theology opened me to an entire world of what Christian faith can look like in our society today.
Along the way, I’ve found many Asian American theologians, scholars, and practitioners doing this work of “Asian American Theology” –of seeking to faithfully navigate our world as embodied, particular, and contextual beings. Daniel D. Lee is one of these leaders. The Director of Fuller Seminary’s Center for Asian American Ministry, Daniel has spent much of his career interrogating the Christian faith through an Asian American identity, particularly focusing on Karl Barth. Through his public scholarship and work at Fuller, Daniel has helped countless Asian Americans find their place and bring the fullness of their Asianness into Christian community.
This November, Daniel released his latest book Doing Asian American Theology: A Contextual Framework for Faith and Practice (IVP Academic), which outlines a proposal for an “Asian American Quadrilateral” that he has constructed. Knowing Daniel and the need for a book like his, I was eager to get my hands on this text.
In the conversation below, Daniel and I talk about his constructive approach to Asian American theology and how pieces of his own story helped form this methodological proposal. We discuss the problems and benefits of the broad category “Asian American” and how this identity intersects with a complex religious landscape both outside of us and within us. Like the book, Daniel concludes with an invitation to join him in this work of building theologies rooted in particular Asian experiences.
Daniel D. Lee (PhD, Fuller Theological Seminary) is the academic dean of the Center for Asian American Theology and Ministry at Fuller Theological Seminary, where he also teaches and researches in the area of theology and Asian American studies. He is the author of Double Particularity: Karl Barth, Contextuality, and the Asian American Theology. He lives in Temple City, California with his wife, Judy, and their three daughters.
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The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Amar: Starting with the title of the book, How does one do Asian American theology? Is it simply that if you’re Asian and talking about God that you're doing this work? Or is it about certain cultural significations and symbols that define Asian American theology?
Daniel: One of the most significant and primary tasks of Asian American theology is to define what it means to be Asian American theologically. Like, defining it itself is a theological task. That is one of the most important things. If you don't do that, then you can't actually do anything else. Too many works that I've seen realize it's complicated—they realize it's hybrid and dynamic–but then they leave it at that.
I see two strategies. One strategy is to define it in an essentialist or stereotypical way—"Well, to some degree, all Asian Americans share some whatever…” and that's highly, highly problematic and, as I repeat multiple times in my book, defective. Often this ends up being an East Asian ethnic monopolizing of the whole conversation. “Oh, all of us share a similar racial experience! Well… except if you're brown.” Or there is the idea that all Asian Americans share some kind of Confucianist values. Well, a lot of Asians, especially in Southeast or South Asia, don't share Confucianist values, right? So that's one thing of defining the Asian American experience in some essentialistic way, which is very problematic and racist in the end.
The other route is to talk about hybridity and dynamism—that Asian American is a porous category. The only problem with that route, if you go too far, is that you’re left with nothing. In the end you have nothing to hold onto.
What I have discovered in my teaching and also in the foundation of the Asian American Center—because we couldn't start the Asian American Center at Fuller without this—is this theoretical core as an attempt to try to make sense of what it means to be Asian American. It is intersectional, it is hybrid. It is dynamic, but there are some key elements to this. And that's basically what the book is based on. These key elements empower people to own their Asian American identity, whatever that may be, and do theology.
Now, to the second part of your question, I don't think everybody who's Asian American doing theology is doing Asian American theology. I think Asian American discipleship requires Asian American theology because we are interacting with God in our embodied, encultured selves. So, thinking about faith in that way is going to require Asian American theological reflection. You have to have it.
You know, there’s the old adage, right? “Everybody's a theologian.” I think the better question is about how good of a theologian you are? How cautious of a theologian? How informed of a theologian are you? That's really what the question is.
Amar: You highlight in your Asian American Quadrilateral two places that I was familiar with in my own conceptual framing of Asian American identity: transpacific migration and the experience of racialization—that whether or not you identify as Asian American, if you phenotypically present in a certain way, you’ll be racialized as an Asian American and subject to the tropes, stereotypes, and even racism enacted upon those contained in this category.
But, you also highlight two other areas and I was wondering if you could touch on both of those, and also how you developed this framework.
Daniel: The Asian American Quadrilateral really developed out of a challenge. I was taking a class and the professor asked, “What is Asian Americanness? There really isn't anything particularly unique there.” And I was so frustrated, and I thought it is crazy to think that there actually isn't anything particular.
What I realized is that there are transethnic themes that we share. How we share them is unique, but we all share them somehow in some manner. Asian heritage is one of these. But a lot of people define Asian heritage as a core. If people want to essentialize Asian American identity, they will most often go to Asian heritage. And there are reasons for this, right? Because it's a matter of what makes us feel distinct, what makes our churches feel distinct? There's some merit to that. But, with just Asian heritage in and of itself, what distinguishes us from everybody in Asia? They have Asian heritage, too. Are we going to say that Asian American experience is the same as Asian experience?
I think because of the Black-White binary and how we think about racialization in American society overall, we don’t realize that Asian Americans have a racial experience, and because of that—because that racial experience is erased—we're only left with this Orientalism, this weird Asian-ness that supposedly makes us different. For example, Asian Americans supposedly aren't activists. We are politically quiet because of our culture and because we are taught to be compliant and quiet. This is absolute nonsense and is not really based on Asian history or Asian American history.
This is an Oriental myth that people, even in Asian and Asian American communities, propagate because they're misinformed. And they're absorbing the racial erasure of Asian America.
I think American culture is the most nebulous. I'm trying to make some sense of the fact that we are part of American culture. Whatever has happened in America, we all are sharing in it. Whether it be baseball or apple pie, that's part of who we are, too. And, of course, how America represents and sees us obviously forms how we think about ourselves as well.
With racialization, it is important to note the fact that there are multiple skin tones—there are different kinds of racial experiences. So, what does it mean to have this wide range of racial experiences?
So in that sense, the Quadrilateral is dynamic and intersectional. It gives people a lot of freedom to find their place. It’s simple enough for us to organize what it means to be Asian American.
We’ve tested this out for a decade just to make sure it works. Because it’s actually a conceptual framework that I’m offering. If it doesn’t work, then let’s revise it. If it doesn’t work, come up with something better. This is a challenge for everybody else, come up with something better because we have to define what it means to be Asian American. If we don’t do that, we can’t do the theological work.
Amar: I remember David Chao would always say in his Asian American theology class that “the struggle of defining Asian American theology is having to account for internal variation without external overlap.” That's really difficult to do.
Could you share, for people who may not know, the historical political and social significance of using Asian American as a term?
Daniel: I usually talk about the fact that the term Asian American can obviously work in two different ways. In one way, it just serves as an umbrella term for everybody who came from Asia carrying some kind of Asian heritage and found their way to the US. Secondly, in a particular sense, it comes out of the student protests of 1960s, the Third World Liberation Front, and Asian American students who used the term. These are second and third generation Asian Americans—Chinese Americans, Filipino Americans, and Japanese Americans—trying to make some sense of who we are. And they realize they're not white.
The first generation can understand the fact that they're not being treated as Americans. It makes sense to them. “We're not American. I'm an immigrant. I get it.” If you're second generation or third generation and you don't really get treated as an American, then you start wondering what this is all about? It turns out that people of that time, influenced by the Black Power Movement, tried to experiment with the idea of blackness. That's basically why they were actually considering calling themselves “yellows,” right? Because they saw the Black power movement using their Black identity positively and constructively, right? They were owning it for themselves. “Black is beautiful.”
Asians realized they needed to do something like this for political activism. That's basically how this activist racial term of “Asian American” develops—and it's constructed for a very specific purpose.
If you don't own the racial element of Asian American, you will still suffer the consequences of racialization, but you won't be are of your experience. I don't really care if people want to own the reality of racialization or not. You're going experience it either way. The question is, what is happening to you, and how does the world work, and how do you navigate that in a faithful way that seeks to be in the life of Christ?
That's what the question is. I'm not sure if, in my book, I really care that much about what people want to call themselves. It's just that this is the waters in which we swim. And the question is, what does it mean to be faithful to Christ in this context?
Amar: Yeah. I think you, earlier in the book you say something like, “it's less about identification and more about awareness.”
Daniel: Yeah, so there's this whole movement talking about finding your authentic self, your true self. And I'm thinking, “I don't think you realize what that really means and what kind of baggage comes with that idea.” What does this mean for me, as a second generation Korean American, to connect with my true and authentic self against white normative society? Does that mean I'm going eat kimchi every day? Am I going to speak Korean more? I think this can actually be a different kind of straight jacket.
Instead of thinking about it that way, the question I ask is this: what does it mean to bring God’s Shalom to all aspects of who I am? Because we are all on a journey of identity, trying to make sense of all these various aspects of ourselves . How I relate to my Asian Americanness, keeps on changing.
Amar: You highlight that one contribution Asian American theology brings to the church is a contextual familiarity with religious diversity—that folks with this transpacific migration experience often come from Asian countries where many faith traditions are contained in a single community.
I think this is something white Christians — specifically evangelicals — really struggle with. Because the West has been framed within a Christendom project where Christians are constantly in a struggle to reclaim power, they can’t fathom a world where Christianity thrives outside of being the cultural majority.
There’s also the historical reality that, because Christianity has been the dominant religion, there hasn’t been a situation that necessitates Christians to work across faith traditions, let alone denominations, to accomplish what they see as the ends of their faith.
There are a lot of conversations going on within evangelicalism today around religious pluralism. How do you think Asian American Theology (and Asian American Christians) can help guide the church in engaging with a nation that is exponentially growing religiously diverse?
Daniel: Well, I don't necessarily take that route in the book. For a lot of Asian American Christians, their concern is about what to do with Asian religious or philosophical roots. For example, it’s not so much about Buddhism because they have a Buddhist neighbor. Rather, they're actually just trying to be Christian but they realized they have Buddhist influences. They don’t know what to do with this.
My contribution here is to say that I don't think we should treat Asian religious heritage as religious heritage. I think we should treat them as cultural heritage.
The thing that I always share that often surprises people is the history of the early morning prayer practice in the Korean church as Daoist. We know who started it. It was a Daoist master who became a Christian.
I want to say that as a cultural heritage, this idea of Daoism might have a lot of wisdom. I don't know if I want to think of it as revelatory, but there's a lot of truth in it, right, not because I'm trying to subscribe to a way of thinking about Daoism as a spiritual identity? I just think I don't have a choice in owning it or not.
It's like racialization. I'm swimming in the water. The question is, again, “what do I do?” Saying, “I don't want it,” is not going to really help us. The reconciliation that I'm actually going for here is not so much an interpersonal or even societal, it's really intrapersonal.
I think it has to start here. It's within us, right? Michael Amaladoss, who's actually the Indian Jesuit theologian says, “I'm having a religious conversation within myself even when I'm not trying to have them.” Basically, what I want people to have and to know is that Asianness isn't some kind of a weird syncretistic compromise.
The struggle of theological reflection is to continually seek after what Darrell L. Guder called a “continual conversion”—a continual struggle, continual formation. That's what we're trying to do. We are going to interact with the context, our identity.
How do we, if we have Sikh or Hindu background culture, even remotely, how do we own that and say, “Okay, this is part of who I am.” I'm not saying this is all I am or even my affiliation or my identity, but it's in me somehow, and I want this to be fully under the Lordship of Christ. I want this to be, in some way, reconciled with Christ.
There is no pure, clean theology or clean Christianity. When I first realized that there was a lot of Daoism and Shamanism and Buddhism and Confucianism within myself as a Korean American, I said, “I will get rid of these syncretistic pollutions, corruptions of my faith.” But it's the immaturity of younger Christians to say, “oh, these are pagan things. Why don't we get rid of them?” Because we can't get rid of them. It's literally part of who we are.
The question is how do we transform them and allow them to be united with Christ in a deeper way, with Christ as Lord over them all, of course? I spent 10 years studying Confucianism. I actually had to know. And I hated it in the beginning, but I realized, okay, some of my prejudice weren’t really correct. There are definitely problems in Confucianism, but there are other aspects of it that I just misunderstood altogether. If I'm going to critique it, at least I can critique it in a more informed way.
I'm not trying to make people more Asian American with this book. I don't think Asian American Christians should become more “Asian American.” That's not what the goal is or how I would phrase it. Our goal is to make sure that all of who we are is in Christ; to do that we have to own all of who we are. If we're not doing that, then we can't start the journey where all of who we are is transformed and renewed and used for God's kingdom. Just copying white evangelical theology isn't going to benefit us. That is not our path, nor is it is that what Christ calls us to do.
Amar: That's really helpful. I know I’ve felt this too–especially as someone with an Islamic name who is a Christian.
I was talking with a friend last week and she was asking me about my Indian heritage and if I knew the religious background of my biological parents. I told her I didn’t know but that they were likely Muslim or Hindu because I was born in Delhi. But, I think I’ve begun to tie the pieces together in recent years around my own interest in these faith traditions. You know, I know more fellow Desis who are Sikh and Hindu and Muslim and Jain than I do South Asians who are Christian. The folks who relate to my lived experience, who look like me, who have names like me, they’re not Christian. This is an odd thing to try and reconcile.
Daniel: I would say it’s in you already. And the more you can be at peace with it, somehow and invite God to it, the better you'll be able to interact with other people as well.
Earlier on when I started teaching this, multiple multiracial Asian Americans said, “Oh, the Quadrilateral works because it's not just one definition. It’s not just ‘yes’ or ‘no,’ but ‘how’ or ‘in what way’” I'm interested in how you own, how you navigate, and how you experience the Asian American experience.
I'm not trying to say this is actually a “yes” or “no” kind of a thing. It's not a binary, right? It's a matter of wanting to make the Asian American umbrella as large and hospitable as possible because oftentimes we don’t fit into “Black” or “White.” And if we don't even fit into the Asian American space, I find that to be tragic.
So that's why in my work at Asian American Center, we work really hard to make sure that Southeast Asians and South Asians are included. I think the way that they're marginalized is criminal in the Asian American community. There's just no way that Southeast Asians and South Asians should be marginalized in such a way. We often center Korean Americans or Chinese Americans, but that's not all of Asian America, right?
In the book, I am trying to really make the space a lot more hospitable. And I also want to empower everybody. It's a methodology book because I want to ask “how do you do it?” I think we need multiple theologies. There are multiple theologies here that has to be written and I would not presume to write one for everyone. I think what we need is like a whole family of theologies because Asia is that big, and Asian America is that complex.
That's what I end the book with—not with a conclusion, but rather the invitation saying, “Hey, let's write this.” You have to do it. You have to reflect upon these things. If you don't do it, your people will suffer. You will suffer. Your family will suffer. You will not know what's happening. You will not know what it means to be faithful to Christ in your context. And that work can't be done by any individual person for everyone. All of us have to do it for our own context. Even if like an Indian American theology—how you do it in Texas, as opposed to how you do it in New York, as opposed to California, they would look different and sound different. How can it not? Our bodies, our locations, our cultures, and our particular context matter. Where we meet God, where we hear God's word actually matters to God and to ourselves.
That's really probably the most important thing that I'm trying to get across. Now, we need tools to do that, and I'm trying to offer some.