Joyce del Rosario: Did you eat? What Filipino/a/x American theology brings to the table

A Filipino meal including chicken adobo. iStock/ Rez-Art

The tradition of hospitality informs a theology of abundance and a deep understanding of the Trinity for Filipinos, writes a Filipino/a/x American scholar.

In pre-pandemic times, my extended Filipino family would often gather in a large group, perhaps 30 to 50 people, to share a meal and celebrate with one another. I consider these meals the foundation of my theological formation.

Growing up, my grandmother would call as I entered the house, “Did you eat?” This was gastronomic shorthand for, “Hello, I’m glad you’re home safe. Are you doing OK? I want to take care of you.”

Through the sharing of food, I learned about interdependence, stewardship, discipleship and of course communion. From a theological anthropology standpoint, food is not only a way in which we communicate and relate with one another; it is our way of understanding God’s presence among us.

Food is a way for us to signal a theology of abundance -- that God does and will continue to provide. But this is not an individualist, God-will-bless-me theology of abundance. This is a communal understanding that God’s blessing is in how we bless one another in community.

My uncle, the Rev. Dr. Romeo del Rosario, a United Methodist Church pastor and professor in the Philippines, reminds me that hospitality is the hallmark of Filipino culture. It is this hospitality that informs our relationship to one another, and our sharing of food is a way of communicating that hospitable affection.

Filipinos are the second-largest Asian American group, after Chinese Americans. And they are largely Christian; the Philippines is one of the most Christianized countries in Asia, with more than 80% of Filipinos identifying as Roman Catholic. Yet we have not seen much of Filipino/a/x theology in general theological discourse.

(I use “Filipino/a/x” here to embrace the fullness of our identity. This has been problematized, however, by colonial language; Tagalog, for instance, does not have gendered language the way Spanish does. The cumbersome nature of o/a/x amplifies the issues of colonization in even our name, so I also use “FilAm” and, sparingly, “Filipino.”)

We certainly have had great Filipino American (mostly male) theological scholars, such as Eleazar Fernandez, Faustino (Tito) Cruz, Lester Ruiz, Al Tizon, Neal Presa, Rolf Nolasco, Jordan Ryan and Gabriel Catanus.

There are fewer of my Filipina sisters and colleagues in theology, but I proudly count Rachel Bundang, Melissa Borja and Lisa Asedillo Pratt among them.

I have been doing my small part to raise our profile by working toward gathering a community of FilAm theological scholars. It has been a joy to find one another, since many of us have been working in isolation. As we talk and share our work with one another, it is clear that there are emerging FilAm theologies.

This gathering work is important for first- and second-generation FilAms so we can define our theology for the next generation, who can further build on our work.

So what is Filipino/a/x theology?

Given our almost 400 years of colonization by the Spanish and the United States, our varied immigration experiences as a people group, and our newly emerging community of scholars, FilAm theology is still emerging. In fact, I am in the midst of compiling a bibliography of FilAm resources.

So how does one categorize something so varied and still emerging? To answer this, I turn back to our culture’s love language: food.

One of our most common dishes, for example, is adobo. Adobo has basic ingredients, but it varies depending on the region and even the household in which it’s made.

Adobo usually has a base of vinegar, soy sauce, bay leaf, peppercorns and garlic. The protein can be chicken, pork or squid; vegetarian versions might even include eggplant. It’s then stewed, but again there are many cooking variations with vinegars, coconut milk and different ratios of ingredients.

There is no one way to cook adobo, but Filipinos know it when we taste it.

I liken emerging FilAm theology to adobo: it may be hard to define, but when we taste it, when we smell it, when we see it, we know it is ours.

Similarly, while FilAms may know our theology when we see it, it is still hard to define to non-Filipinos without prior knowledge of our history, culture and languages -- all the variant ingredients of FilAm theology.

That said, I think that, at its heart, FilAm theology is embedded in our communal awareness and commitments to one another.

FilAm psychologist and professor E.J.R. David writes about “kapwa,” a Tagalog word that refers to our sense of belonging to one another. Kapwa theology is one such emerging thought.

Our theology is not just about a theological rationale; it is embodied. Our belonging to one another informs the way we see not just God’s presence among us but also the perichoresis, the reciprocal relationship, of the Trinity.

We understand a relationship of three-in-one because we too are a community of many-but-one. Our existence is wrapped up in the existence of the other. When we gather and share with one another, we experience the dance of the Triune relationship.

There is a reciprocity of relationship that Western ideas of the Trinity cannot understand in the same way; this is a thought that I and others are developing more fully.

FilAm scholars are bringing our dishes to the theological table. Different ingredients. Different cooks. But we know our theology when we see it.

If I can speak to those of you who do not identify as Filipino/a/x, I encourage you the same way I encourage all my guests when they join me for a meal.

Try what we have to offer. It may inform your own palate. It may challenge what you are used to in wonderful ways. It may expand your experience of community and family.

When given the opportunity, I love to share my theology as a Filipina American, because I truly believe it contributes to a more robust theological conversation. I share my theology the way I share my cooking, from the heart and with my village.

I share my theology because I believe it may add to your perspective of Jesus, who invites us all to come to the table to partake in the abundant feast.