This reflection is written by Reese Grosfeld, a Th.M. student studying systematic theology at Princeton Theological Seminary. He was born in Bacolod City, Philippines, but moved to New York City at the age of 6. At the age of 13, he took an interest in theology and has been studying theology ever since. While Reese is fascinated by the social impact of Christian doctrine by studying theologians like Karl Barth and James Cone, he has taken a relatively recent interest in what it means to be both a Filipino-American and a faithful Christian. Apart from his studies, Reese loves to always be in touch with his Filipino roots by eating Filipino food, speaking the dialect with his mom, and (pre-COVID 19) visiting his grandmother (lola) in the Philippines.
The more I study theology, the more I realize how much theology is an embodied discipline as much as it is a contemplative discipline. While we indeed focus on God’s work in Jesus Christ by the power of the Spirit in Christian theology, we also ask (like Dietrich Bonhoeffer did) “Who is Jesus Christ for us today?” Many Christian theologians have attempted to answer this question over the years (in various contexts), from Karl Barth and the Church Struggle in Germany to James Cone and the preponderance of white supremacy in America. Being an Asian American is no different. As a Filipino American who follows Jesus of Nazareth, I find myself asking who this Jesus is for me, that is, for my lived hyphenated existence.
Thus a question I asked early on in my seminary journey was this: what does it mean to be Filipino American and Christian?
Early on in my seminary journey (at a previous institution), I would hear comments like “We have to remove ourselves from the world” or “We have to follow the Bible, not culture.” Comments like these made me feel I had to abandon my whole self in order to be a faithful disciple of Jesus Christ. It made me feel that somehow my Filipino Americanness was inherently in tension with my Christian identity. However, a major turning point in my thinking started when I was assigned to read the classic On the Incarnation by Athanasius. What really stood out for me in this text (and what would later become the groundwork for further coursework in Asian American Theology) was Athanasius’ King metaphor for the Incarnation. He explains, “As when a great king has entered some large city and made his dwelling in one of the houses in it, such a city is certainly made worthy of high honor…[and] it is…reckoned worthy of all care; so also does it happen with the King of all.” Because God became a human being, God deems all of humanity worthy of care. This, in turn, means that God, the One who has made me and my lived hyphenated existence, deems my life worthy of such care as well. Needless to say, this text was formative for me as I started to collect the tools to respond to those who have said that “true” Christians do not follow culture.
Reading On the Incarnation, though, was not enough. I needed something more to explain my social circumstances. If theologians like Gustavo Gutiérrez and James Cone can attend to their own particular contexts, then surely Asian Americans like me can attend to our own social contexts as well. This is why to this day I found it to be providential that, when I entered Princeton Seminary in 2020, one of the classes offered was “Asian American Theology.” This class was something I truly needed not only in my academic journey but also my spiritual journey. “Asian American Theology” specifically gave me the tools I needed to understand, first of all, that it is more than okay to bring my own racialized experiences to the table in Christian theology. In fact, it was encouraged in this class because theology has always been a contextual endeavor; I learned that theology (more specifically, Christian doctrine) should never float free from our material existence. Therefore, taking a class like “Asian American Theology” gave me the theological tools to help me understand my context and social circumstances as a Filipino American in light of the good news of Jesus Christ. Moreover, because “Asian American Theology” gave me the tools to speak about my experiences in light of the gospel, it gave me newfound confidence to engage in conversations about the impact of Christian doctrine. This confidence was especially helpful in light of the rise of anti-Asian racism during the height of COVID-19 in the US when many Asian/Asian American siblings were attacked simply because they were Asian. All of this anti-Asian hate culminated in the 2021 Atlanta Spa Shootings. There was hence, in my mind, a theological emergency that I needed to attend to in my thinking.
Another important takeaway from “Asian American Theology” was learning how there is a false choice at play when someone asks us to choose between the gospel and social justice. Before I even took this course, it always seemed strange to me that, on one hand, some folks want to say that social justice is detrimental to the gospel; one can see this sentiment, for example, in the relatively recent Statement on Social Justice and the Gospel led by people like John MacArthur. And on the other hand, it confused me (and still confuses me) when some say that the gospel can be detrimental to social justice. Both of these sentiments never made sense to me because the biblical witness attests consistently on the importance of “justice [rolling] down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5:24). Therefore, taking “Asian American Theology” and hearing that we do not have to choose between the gospel and social justice gave me the relief of not having to deal with this extreme split.
Not only, though, did “Asian American Theology” help me understand my social circumstances well, it also helped me build networks of solidarity with other Asians/Asian-Americans at Princeton Seminary. I dare say that, if I never took “Asian American Theology,” I would not have seen the importance of building coalitions with others in the fight against anti-Asian hate (and more broadly, systemic racism). This desire to build sustained networks of solidarity eventually led to me stepping out of my comfort zone—because in the past, I would normally not get super involved in school—by being a part of the Asian Association of Princeton Theological Seminary (AAPTS) student group. There is power in community organizing, and the foundation of a strong organized community is relationships. No doubt, this was a key practical takeaway for me.
I cannot emphasize enough the importance of Asian American Theology in my own formation. Studying Asian American Theology has given me a lot of support I never really had when I first started graduate school. It opened doors to opportunities that I never imagined would happen (such as participating in AAPTS), and it gave me the confidence to engage in questions of social justice. Asian American Theology has furthermore given me a sense of acceptance of who I am as a Filipino American and how I can (with other Asian Americans) contribute to the rich diversity of the body of Jesus Christ.