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Christianity in China

Christianity and Chinese Culture (3): Contemporary Context

The third installment of a three-part review of Christianity and Chinese Culture, edited by Miikka Ruokanen and Paulos Huang (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010). See also part one on Confucianism and part two on Chinese Religions.

T
he second section of this fine volume deals with Christianity in the context of modern Chinese society.

“Comprehensive Theology: An Attempt to Combine Christianity with Chinese culture,” by Zhuo Xinping, emphasizes the priority of “seeking similarity” as the “precondition and basis of constructing a comprehensive theology,” so that “real Chinese Christianity can be developed.” Zhou accordingly traces the past century of attempts to find contact points between Christianity and Confucianism, especially, of which he lists several.

He closes, however, by stating that “the more important and urgent issue is how to comprehend Christianity within the new cultural system that is being formed in contemporary China and how to make Christianity contribute more actively and positively to this construction of the new Chinese cultural system.” We see here the assumed priority of contemporary Chinese society: Christianity will be a handmaiden to its development.

In “Contextualization of Chinese Christian Theology and Its Main Concerns, Yang Huilin poses three areas “for the study of theology in the Chinese language.” First. the differences between the Chinese language and the languages of Western theology, Greek and Latin, must be noted. Yang believes that no language is adequate to express the truth of God, but Chinese might have some advantages. Second, the faith must be extended into the humanities in order to take root. That will involve investigation of theological hermeneutics; theological ethics, and theological aesthetics.

Finally, Yang calls for careful study of ways in which Christianity has related to modern Chinese culture and society, including popular religion, economic change, and political systems. He notes, for example, the influence of popular religion on at least rural churches and its important role in rural village society.

In his response, Thor Strandenaes agrees that academic scholars in the humanities in China will exert great influence on the contextualization of Christianity; he also calls for close attention to grass-roots Christianity, so that the spiritual needs of laypeople are kept in mind. Furthermore, he reminds us that Chinese Christians must not forget the church universal in their efforts to contextualize. Not only can they learn from others, but also teach Christians elsewhere.

Li Pingye asks “How do Social and Psychological Needs Impact Christianity in China?” The twin facts of the rapid growth of Christianity in China in recent decades, coupled with a much slower resurgence of “local religions such as Taoism and Buddhism,” Li Pingye asserts, “compel us to consider why Christianity has developed so rapidly in contemporary China from a viewpoint of the relationship between Chinese traditional customs and foreign culture.” Chinese culture is characterized by “humanist secularism,” she begins. Thus, any new religion must respect “Chinese traditional culture, folk customs, and Chinese authority.” Though “this worldly Confucianism” dominates the elite and forms the ethical basis for society, folk religion remains powerful among the people, whose spiritual needs continue to seek satisfaction in religion. For millennia, both Confucian rationalism and a collectivist, even autocratic, mentality have suppressed individual thought and feeling. Since the reforms began, people have seen that without some sort of faith, morality is impossible. Furthermore, extreme “pragmatic utilitarianism” permeates Chinese society and affects all religions.

Enter Protestant Christianity, which, unlike Roman Catholicism, puts more power into the hands of laypeople; values everyday occupations; and promotes modernization. Its identification with the more developed West is no longer a threat, since Christianity is now perceived as a Chinese religion. Rural folk, seeing it as more “useful” and spiritually satisfying, turn to Christianity in droves. Meanwhile, in the cities, intellectuals find in Christianity the answer to many questions and the peace of soul that they have been seeking.

Christianity in China faces problems, however, if it is to become truly Chinese. It must learn to live with the dominant Marxism, Confucianism, and resurgent Buddhism and Daoism of modern China; “unite with local culture and be accepted by local people psychologically”; and “modernize itself so as to fit the requirements of the time.” Errors, heresies, and pragmatic utilitarianism must be combated with better-educated clergy. Above all, it must not seek to dominate other religions or the nation.

Even if one does not fully agree with Li, I believe that this chapter is, as they say, “worth the price of the book.” But so are several others:

“Eliminating Five Misunderstandings about Christianity in Chinese Academic Circles” is still necessary, says Wang Xiaochao, in light of continuing ignorance and prejudice among Chinese scholars. 1. Jesus must be seen as an historical person whose career and teachings are fundamental to Christianity. 2. People must realize that, contrary to some interpretations of Edward Gibbon, Christianity did not cause the fall of the Roman Empire (and is thus not a threat to the renascent Chinese Empire). 3. Medieval Christian theology must be recognized as a dominant partner in conversation with Greco-Roman philosophy, not a passive victim. 4. Christianity did not produce the so-called “Dark Ages” of medieval Europe. New studies have shown that this was “a bright time for literatures, arts, religion, and philosophy.” 5. Christianity’s relationship to humanism must be clearly understood, lest it continue to be portrayed in China as an enemy of human dignity, reason, and values.

In his response, Choong Chee Pang agrees with Wang’s analysis, and emphasizes that Christianity is still largely misunderstood by Chinese scholars. To overcome this obstacle, more of them need to become acquainted with the Christian church; acquire knowledge of biblical Greek and Hebrew; and greatly increase their understanding of both the Bible and Christian theology.

“The Faith of Chinese Urban Christians” is examined insightfully by Gao Shining, in a case study of unregistered congregations in Beijing. Her surveys have highlighted key features of urban Protestantism, which differs markedly from rural Christianity. 1. It is pluralistic, with many kinds of meeting points, containing people from many professions and all ages. Teaching focuses on the Bible as a source for solving problems, especially those related to family life. 2. The structure has been changed, with more members who are young, educated, and male. 3. Church activities are “richer,” especially compared with the Three-Self church, featuring more meetings of different sorts; more lay participation; more varied meeting formats; a variety of activities outside of Sunday worship; and fervent love.

4. In contrast to the rural churches, where miracles attract most newcomers, the urban churches grow through (a) family influence, as parents transmit their faith to their children; (b) “suffering, unhappiness, and difficulties in life,” which drive them to find meaning and help in the Bible, Christian fellowship, and direct encounters with the Holy Spirit; (c) other people’s influence, as believers serve as “salt and light” in society, attracting others by words and deeds that possess a distinctive flavor and winsomeness in a very hard world. Furthermore, younger people, adrift in a dog-eat-dog society, are often engaged in (d) spiritual seeking. They are finding meaning, purpose, and hope for themselves and even their nation in Christianity.

5. Today’s urban Christians find that their faith brings a new and strong sense of identity. They are members of the family of God and of a local congregation of believers. As such, they possess a new power to handle difficulties; are happier; and evince better behavior than others. They are also very zealous to evangelize their family, friends, and neighbors.

6. Of course, they also live in tension, for they are members of a very non-Christian society. Those with strong faith stand firm, while others tend to compromise their faith and ethics under pressure from those around them. Overall, however, urban Christianity “has already become an important power in the reconstruction of Chinese social morality.”

In a brief but quite valuable response, Zhang Minghui makes several important observations: The proliferation of unregistered meeting points results partly from the ridiculously small number of authorized Protestant churches in Beijing. Their doctrine resembles that of the TSPM now, but might not later if rural Pentecostalism or the charismatic movement come to dominate the meeting points.
Most Christians “are not involved with politics and do not have strong links abroad; nor do they create problems. But that may not always be the case.” (One thinks of the imbroglio over the Shouwang Church in the past year; this essay was written in 2003.) The preaching at the meetings points tends to be better than that found in the official churches.

He believes that “Christianity can serve as an ethic for the new urban middle class; it gives a sense of respectability, plus it has an empowering capacity… Christianity also promotes the ethic of moderation… [and] a strict Christian lifestyle brings good health and appearance, and promotes hard work and good manners, all of which are an advantage in professional life.” In his opinion, Christianity “has been put into the place that was left empty by the decline of Confucianism.” He includes that we should remember that Chinese urban Christianity has grown without much input from Western missionaries. “Is is based on the initiative of individual Chinese Christians who want to spread the gospel.”

The final chapter in this section discusses “The Position of Religion in Chinese Society.” Li Quiling first examines “the basic attitude of the Chinese common people to religions,” and finds that popular religion is 1. Utilitarian. 2. A “nonpious faith” that is “like a commercial relationship of exchange,” in which the god is worshiped who can confer the greatest benefits. 3. Pluralist, and therefore tolerant and inclusive.

He then turns to the basic attitude of the dominant Chinese ideology - Confucianism – to religion, and finds that it assumes that religion plays a primarily social function of upholding order and the authority of the state.

Finally, Li looks at the attitude of Chinese Authority to religions. 1. Rulers stress the role of religion to educate people to be filial and loyal. 2. They are very cautious about the possibility that religions might harm kingship, ruling secretly. 3. Chinese authorities strictly control religions and have never allowed religions to override political power. Accordingly, former President Jiang Zemin promulgated a principle ”to actively lead religions to adjust to socialist society,” reflecting “basic state policy of 
china in dealing with religious issues.”

Responding, Frederick Fallman largely agrees. As long as religion is kept private, it is tolerated. The new studies of religion in China focus on its social function. Even “cultural Christians” talked of how Christian ethics could “save China.” Perhaps the Confucian Tian (Heaven) is not identical with the Christian God, however.

Finding one’s identity in a faith can be tricky, since the state demands total loyalty. Thus, persecution is always possible, if a religion is perceived as threatening to the state. On the other hand, Christianity could be seen as “a resource for constructing a new worldview for Chinese society.”

In his pithy and powerful response to Li, Birger Nygaard observes that Christian theology can easily be taken captive by zealous missionaries who don’t realize how much their message resonates with folk religion; intellectuals who see the faith as a “philosophical addition” to Confucianism or some other system; political rulers who want to use religion for their own ends.

He reminds us that Christianity sees no distinctions among classes, and could unite these three groups of people who are so often separate in Chinese society. He calls upon Western theologians to re-connect with the spirit world of the Bible in order to listen to and assist rural Chinese Christians. Echoing Diane Obenchain, he agrees that Christianity often brings healing; meaning; care for others; fairness in economic practice; and political safeguards that allow wholeness to flourish.

In conclusion, you can see why I think this book should be read by all those who want to understand Christianity in China and encourage its healthy growth.