From Migrant to "Theologian"


Had there not been the Vietnam War and had Communist North Vietnam not defeated South Vietnam and had I not by a confluence of chance circumstances come to the United States of America as a refugee, I would not have taken up teaching theology as a profession. Teaching theology is for me a job to earn a living to support my family of eleven. I was extremely lucky to get a teaching position at the University of Dallas, Irving, Texas in 1975, through a quick phone call from the university registrar to the Chair of the Department of Theology, without having to go through the unnerving rigors of multiple interviews. Having sat on innumerable search committees since then, I am certain that in today very tight teaching job market I would not be able to even make the final list of applicants, let alone landing a tenure-trach position, with the meager qualifications I then had.

I freely admit that for me “theology” is little more than a job, in contrast to what has often been said about doing theology as a noble “ecclesial vocation” that is exercised in the name of and in service to the church.  If you are looking for a “journey of faith” in my theological career, you will be sorely disappointed. There was on my part no profound intellectual interest in matters divine, no life-changing conversion experience, no passionate quest for eternal verities, no soul-searching discernment, no prayerful deliberation, no agonizing search for God’s will when I took up theology. The simple fact is that I then badly needed a job, and I was lucky to get one in theology. It is as pedestrian as that. Hence, I would not arrogate to myself the title of “theologian.” (Note the scare quotes around the word theologian in the title.) That grand designation, in my vocabulary, is only appropriate for thinkers who by deliberate choice, life-long labor, wholehearted dedication, and virtuous living have contributed significantly to the understanding of the Christian faith. Most of us, even with a doctorate or two and an impressive body of publications, are at best teachers, or more grandiosely, professors of theology. 

That does not mean that faith, even in my case, has nothing to do with teaching theology. After all, Christian theology is an attempt to make sense of what Christian faith believes about God and all things related to God. But my life has been marked, existentially and intellectually, not by fides quaerens intellectumfaith seeking understandingbut by migration, and more precisely, the refugee status, since my migration from Vietnam to the U.S. was not voluntary but forced, not planned but accidental. In a real sense, my life is a permanent back-and-forth movement, from migrant to “theologian,” with all the above-mentioned qualifications attached to the latter, and back from “theologian” to migrant. Being a refugee/migrant is not simply a political status one can shed after a number of years in the host country. Of course, being granted asylum and eventually acquiring citizenship, a person ceases to be, politically speaking, a migrant. Furthermore, if one is educated, works hard, and is lucky (professional qualifications alone would not help much without, let’s admit it, a bit of luck, or preferential treatment), one can achieve the American Dream of social upward mobility, as I have done, at times as a token Asian, thanks to the institutional policy to achieve racial and ethnic diversity, and I am deeply grateful for the opportunity it afforded me professionally.

While all this is true, migrantness, to coin a word, is much more than a political label that can be changed. Rather it permanently and indelibly defines the identity of first-generation migrants and marks the way they live their lives in the host country. This is especially true of those who are racially, ethnically, linguistically, culturally, and religiously different from the native majority. Whereas second-and later generation migrants may be fully inculturated into the new society (and sometimes even better than the natives themselves), first-generation migrants, like myself, no matter the social and economic status they have achieved, remain a permanent outsider-insider. They dwell betwixt-and-between the two societies and cultures, those of the old and the new countries. “Dwell” may not be the appropriate word to describe this predicament as it suggests stability and rootedness. On the contrary, migrants are “people on the move.” Geographically, they long to go back to the old country of origin, the “mother-fatherland,” while they know full well they can never go home again, where they are not welcome as fellow paesani. Yet the new country remains a foreign, and in many ways strange land to which migrants constantly have to learn to adapt, and where they are often asked where they come from and whether they plan to return home. I do not however consider this neither-nor predicament a bane but a blessing, since being neither-this-nor-that, I am free to be either-this-or-that, and eventually to be beyond-this-and-that, and to fashion something new and different from this-and-that.

Theologically, this has been my intellectual, and even spiritual journey. I have always been attracted, almost unconsciously, to theologians who were refugees or migrants, such as Paul Tillich, the German ?migré to the U.S., whose Christology was the subject of my licentiate thesis, and  the Russian Orthodox Paul Evdokimov, a refugee to France, whose work was the subject of my first doctoral dissertation. When I did my second doctorate, I focused my thesis on Karl Rahner’s eschatology, the theological treatise that best expresses the migratory condition of human beings. When I submitted my publications for the third doctorate, I chose those that deal with Christian mission and missionaries since to my mind mission requires a migrant spirituality and missionaries are migrants par excellence.
If I have had a faith journey it was one of physical, intellectual and spiritual migration. In the last few decades migrations have become so global and immense that our age has been dubbed the “Age of Migration.” Recent floods of refugees from the Middle East and the Republican Presidential candidate Donald Trump’s lunatic rantings and ravings against migrants are a painful reminder that in solidarity with migrants worldwide we should all live migration as our existential condition, especially in the U.S., the land that has been built by migrants and, sadly, by forcing Native Americans into migration. Migration has radically transformed the face of contemporary Christianity, as theologians such as the Filipina Gemma Cruz and the Japanese Kanan Kitani have amply shown for Asia, and many others for all the other parts of the globe. It is a dramatic reality that Pope Francis has forcefully drawn our attention to and he has insistently demanded that we show effective solidarity with migrants everywhere.

In light of this impact of migration worldwide, I have tried to reconceptualize the various Christian doctrines from the perspective of migration. I have shown how creation is an act of God’s migration into the cosmos; the Incarnation the migration of the Son of God into the human family; the Holy Spirit the push and pull of migration; the church a reconciling and harmonizing community of migrants; the sacraments, especially the Eucharist, the sharing and celebration of our existential and spiritual migration; ethics the elaboration of our duty to remember our migrantness and to welcome the strangers among us; and spirituality the living of our eschatological orientation to the kingdom of God. Each of these themes deserves a book-length treatment, and I hope that there is still enough time left in the evening of my migratory journey to say something meaningful and true about each of them, to move from theology as job to theology as vocation, to transform myself into a migrant theologian and a theological migrant.  

Peter Phan,
Georgetown University