The "Inscrutably Chinese" Church: How Narratives and Nationalism Continue to Divide Christianity
Lexington Books, 2010
310 pp., $105.00
Sino-Christian Studies in China
Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2006
341 pp., $67.95
David Lyle Jeffrey
A Critique of ALL Religions
I was privileged recently to attend a conference on Marxism and Christianity in China. The venue was Tiantan University, close to the birthplace of Mao Zedong in Hunan province. More than ninety papers were given by philosophers and comparative literature scholars from universities all over China; of the eight "keynote" speakers, four were Chinese academics, four Western. Strikingly, the Chinese intellectuals presented papers with a more distinctly favorable view of historically normative Christian theology than did some of the Westerners. There were a large number of similarly positive presentations also in the concurrent sessions. In the keynote sessions, I was struck not only by the clarity of theological command and crisp formal argument but also by the warmth and vigor of response engendered from the floor. Each of the Chinese speakers addressed Christianity as a comprehensive intellectual system, a body of knowledge grounded in theological convictions with inescapable metaphysical as well ethical entailments. Most presenters showed extensive familiarity with Christian intellectual works from the patristic period through to the present, often quoting from Chinese translations of works as ancient as those of Augustine and as current as Joseph Ratzinger (Benedict XVI), Hans Urs von Balthasar, John Paul II, John Macquarrie, Alister McGrath, and Charles Taylor. More frequently adduced were contemporary philosophical and theological writings of important Chinese intellectuals such as are represented in Yang Huilin and Daniel Yeung's Sino-Christian Studies in China. The Bible itself was clearly regarded as an important philosophical as well as theological resource in these papers, and engaged with respect and understanding reflected also in conference conversations both in and out of the formal sessions.
Our perspective on Christianity in China is typically shaped by reports such as this article, the refracted view of a particular Western observer, and divergences among such accounts tend to reflect attempts at characterizing the swiftly evolving culture of China from the stance of a particular set of narrative presuppositions. Yet the experiences such as are reported by weiguoren (non-Chinese anywhere) are liable to fragmentation and distortion overdetermined by their presuppositions. This is evident in a spate of books addressing the character of life in urban China that have appeared in the last year or so; among them are David Aikman's Here Comes China (2010), Jeffrey Wasserstrom's China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know (2010), and Martin Jacques, When China Rules the World: The End of the Western World and the Birth of the New Global Order (2009); all are pitched to an apprehensive Western readership and unavoidably charged with a weiguoren point of view.
One of the two books I review here, Nathan Faries' The "Inscrutably Chinese" Church: How Narratives and Nationalism Continue to Divide Christianity, provides a valuable guide to some of the current realities in the church life of China. Faries is an American, a Catholic convert from evangelicalism. He taught English in China between 1999 and 2004, including a year at Peking University; currently he teaches English at Dubuque University. His book is rich in illuminating detail, and it offers important correctives to typical characterizations by Western Christians with lesser experience and capability in spoken and written Chinese. His overriding theme is that our prevalent American Christian meta-narratives, both national and theological, govern the way we have been interpreting individual accounts which emerge from China, often distorting our perspective to the point of causing us to miss their point altogether.
The second book under review, Sino-Christian Studies in China, is a collection of academic essays by 22 mostly established Chinese intellectuals, published in English translation in order to provide Western scholars the opportunity to overhear internal philosophical reflection amongst Chinese intellectuals themselves on the emerging role of Christianity in Chinese culture. It provides a still more important corrective for the sort of popular misconceptions Faries addresses. Edited by Yang Huilin, academic vice-president of Renmin University, the most prominent Marxist institution in China, and Daniel H. N. Yeung, director of the Institute of Sino-Christian Studies in Hong Kong, this excellent book is intelligently conceived and intellectually rigorous. Directly reflecting internal debate among educated Christians in China today, it is indispensable reading, I would suggest, for anyone wanting to understand theological thought among the rapidly growing cohort of Christian intellectuals in China. Sadly, it has attracted surprisingly little attention in this country or Britain since its publication; ironically, given his own worthy purpose, Faries neither mentions it nor lists it in his generally excellent bibliography, inadvertently instancing one of his own more important themes, namely that we tend to get our impression of Chinese Christianity almost exclusively through one or another species of Western filtering.
Faries' book is nonetheless an excellent place for an interested Christian reader in America to begin to appreciate both the realities and their filtering. In ways that are corroborated by the research of others as well as by experience on the ground, he shows clearly how the tendency in America to focus primarily on stories of persecution tends to occlude a larger Chinese Christian reality. In fact, he argues, there is more toleration and even cooperation from the government than, on these accounts, we might imagine. While his strong thesis disposes Faries to appear inattentive to abuses and contradictions of the professed freedom of religion that are frequently in our news about China, it seems to me that he is also largely correct in his view that the missiological narratives of the late 19th and early 20th centuries—in which a combination of mythic heroism and conflation of the political gospel of American-style democracy with the good news of liberty in Christ is characteristic—have frequently caused misestimations of what is transpiring more generally. Amongst intellectual Chinese Christians in particular, Western preoccupation with highly visible individual cases of conflict with the Chinese government is typically thought to overlook the larger pattern of their principled witness and engagement of mainstream Chinese thought and practice. Sometimes our almost exclusive Western focus on cases of abuse inadvertently creates unhelpful pressures upon that most vital internal conversation, which, in the end, is likely to be more fruitful than foreign pressure in reducing the abuse.
Some perceptions of weiguoren observers afford a reliable index to Chinese Christian experience; some are misleading. Thus, what many foreign visitors have observed, namely that the quality of biblical preaching and teaching in the patriotic (registered) churches and in the study groups and house churches typically seems much higher than in evangelical churches here in America, is confirmable by anyone from the West who spends time with Chinese students and younger faculty converts; one may expect to find much higher levels of biblical literacy and theological clarity by three to five years post-conversion than amongst American counterparts after two or three decades in the church. In urban house churches, the teaching is often led by young women, professional university teachers (laoshe) with doctoral degrees in literature and philosophy. This teaching is learned, yet marked by an evangelical urgency and commitment to obedient practice rather than simply intellectual assent. Yet another common perception among Western visitors, that membership in both Catholic and Protestant patriotic (registered) churches suggests a worshipping Christian community in China predominantly female and aging, is fundamentally misleading. Chinese colleagues regularly tell us that in urban house churches since the beginning of the past decade, gender distribution is about even, and more than half of congregants are between the ages of 18 and 40. 
Faries reports on the widespread and longstanding Chinese view that historically the gospel moved west from Jerusalem, largely around the northern hemisphere, and that a special calling of the burgeoning Chinese church is to complete this heliotropic movement westward through Muslim lands until the church comes back again to Jerusalem. This sense of mission outward, with its eschatological consciousness, provides an important qualifier to another dimension of theology in the Chinese context less frequently discussed in the West. It also has a natural point of contact with Marxism. David J. Bosch has noted that Marxism is also "intrinsically missionary," having universal rather than merely local aspirations. A very large proportion of the intellectual Christians one meets in China today were once Marxist idealists; disappointment since the Cultural Revolution and the turn to market economy have created conditions in which the utopian eschatology of Marxism has in the end proven less compelling than the biblical ideals of justice, truth, and love. In this way, a substantially failed Marxist historiography has prepared the way for a growing sense of China's distinctive place in the historia humanae salvationis. That this should lead to important divergences from American Christian eschatology and historiography is hardly surprising, and it deserves a more thoughtful consideration.
The Chinese version of national calling is not unproblematic theologically. Faries does an admirable job of contextualizing the extremely rapid growth of Christian adherence within the reality of a rising Chinese nationalism in which there is a near consensus view that China in this century has a "manifest destiny" every bit as inevitable as that attributed to the United States in its earlier history. His analysis of Chinese fiction is particularly effective in this regard. One of the characters in novelist Li Ping's When Fade Away the Colors of Dusk describes the Chinese metanarrative (what we might call Chinese exceptionalism) as "the basic and unshakeable belief in the mind of every Chinese," stronger and more enduring than any form of government, a cultural bond which unites diaspora Chinese everywhere with their Chinese roots. Faries comments pertinently that, "If evangelical American Christians tend to be patriotic, Chinese Christians (evangelicals themselves, by a wide margin) also have strong ties to their homeland and are probably even more uniformly nationalistic than their American counterparts." The view advanced by some Westerners (David Aikman in Jesus in Beijing among them), that a more Christian China will almost automatically be an ally of the United States, is not well supported by this reality.
The essays in Yang and Yeung help greatly to qualify further some of the assumptions Americans are likely to make about the political implications of Christian theology. One of these pertains to the American conception of freedom so often advertised both commercially and even by our politicians. Zhang Xian, observing our general disposition to regard personal liberty of the more or less autonomous self as the highest political good, notes that in fact ,"Christianity has a very different understanding of freedom … [not] to seek to be excused from restriction, but to seek a freedom which can transcend the self, to be willing to forebear and to sacrifice, i.e., the freedom to love." His view carries with it a convincing biblical warrant. Among Chinese Christians generally, and Christian intellectuals particularly, democracy of the Western sort is seen neither as an entailment nor a primary goal.
It may be amongst intellectuals (academics, lawyers, physicians, and bureaucrats) in particular that the divergences from our own predilections become most interesting. For example, Faries surveys literary criticism of both Chinese and American literature on both sides of the Pacific and finds that in China, the Christian dimension of literary texts—novels, plays, poems—is paid much greater critical attention, and this amongst secular as well as Christian scholars. He does a good job, I think, of analyzing the intellectual engagement of the representations of Christianity one finds in non-believing writers such as Li Ping, Zhang Xiaotian, and Wang Anyi, and also in well-known Christian novelists Shi Tiesheng and Bei Cun, author of the celebrated novels River of Baptism and, more recently, Divine Covenant (2007). There are many more highly regarded Chinese Christian artists than he mentions now emerging—Bing Xin, Hu Shi, Lao She, Yu Jiu, Yu Dafu, Xu Dishan, the contemporary Catholic poet Jian Chua, among others—all of whose work is largely unknown in the West. Faries notes of Bei Cun something that, mutatis mutandis, more widely applies, namely that "his conversion has lost [him] foreign readers but has not apparently done any great harm to his reputation at home." Lack of interest among Western literary scholars in depictions of Chinese engagement with Christianity means that we shall probably wait awhile yet for English translations of many fine Chinese Christian literary works—unless, perhaps, Christian scholars and publishers in the West begin actively to seek out and translate them.
If we turn from Faries' overview of literary writers to reflect on the writings of Chinese Christian intellectuals in philosophy and theology, we also encounter the problem of a gap in translated work. That is what makes the collection of Yang and Yeung so valuable, for in its pages we find principled essays by some of the most formidable intellectuals in the larger Chinese Christian national dialogue. Many of these people would once have been called "cultural Christians," associated as such less with the worshiping church than with study of Christianity as a cultural vector. "Cultural Christian" as a term and concept has led to Westerners paying far too little attention to the evolving reality, and should now be used with caution, since many such intellectuals have become highly active in local congregations. In his essay in Yang and Yeung, one of the most prominent of such "cultural Christians," the Renmin University philosopher Liu Xiaofeng, sharply challenges this now clichéd conception:
The term "cultural Christians" does not refer to those involved in the historical and cultural studies of Christianity in the universities and academic institutions of China. Rather, it refers to intellectuals and culturalists [e.g., artists] who have experienced individual conversion in religious faith. It goes without saying that only one who believes in Christ, rather than one who is engaged in the cultural studies of Christianity, can be properly called a Christian.
Liu, himself having been described in the past as a "cultural Christian," goes on to insist that from the point of view of Christian confession there is no substantial difference between ordinary and intellectual Christians, and that while prominent intellectuals may not always identify with a local congregation, there can be reasons for that which impinge in no way on serious confessional belief.
Liu's point is crucially important, given one widespread popular misconception in the West. It now appears that some of the heaviest theological lifting in the Chinese church is being done by intellectuals in secular academic settings. This is reflected even in house church publications such as the online Chinese Beijing house church site Aiyan, which contains articles on theological and ecclesial matters of heft and substance to which more academic discussions directly contribute. As with much else in China, the reality is more complex, more fluid, and more characteristically Chinese than our impressions and familiar categories can adequately represent. This makes even the best-intended efforts of Western observers prone to misprision.
Perhaps the most famous historical instance of this shortcoming is the monumental work of Matteo Ricci, the 16th-century Jesuit. His "creative misreading" (as Sun Shangyang puts it) of Confucianism, intended to effect a Christian synthesis, led in the end to a cultural collision rather than an integration or even syncretism. For Liu Xiaofeng, one of the most prominent Chinese Christian intellectuals in our own time, the history of Christian missions in China is in fact characterized by versions of such well-intentioned error; the so-called "Nestorian" Christians of the 7th century, the Franciscans in their first incursions in the 13th century, and even some of the Protestant missionaries from the West in the 19th and 20th centuries saw in Confucianism or Daoism what they thought was similarity, and tried to adapt Christian theology accordingly, with disappointing results. Some syncretism is inevitable, Liu argues, but legitimate only in a first stage of engagement; it must be succeeded by "a second type of Sino-Christian theology" which seeks to apply Christian theological precepts from the scriptural sources directly to contemporary ethno-geographic realities without much mediation from previous efforts at synthesis, domestic or weiguoren in origin. "Integration" in the Chinese context, as You Xilin in part suggests, means something very like what it meant to Augustine in the 4th century, when he was writing about the "Egyptian Gold" principle by which the contemporary resources of Greek and Roman learning might be properly ordained to a fundamentally Christian worldview. As his sermons show, Augustine was forging this approach even whilst he was preaching to animists (and Donatists) who represented a still more venerable cultural paradigm. So in contemporary China: when a young intellectual tells you (as often happens) that she is striving for an effective integration of her Christian faith with her work as a Chinese scholar, she is likely to be talking both about the intellectual presuppositions of her discipline (often, whether Marxist or not, derivatively Western and secular) and the predispositional heritage of Confucian thought (Chinese and secular) in terms of which Christian theology can be seen as a fruitful dialogical partner.
As with Augustine, there is a candor in these intellectuals at almost every point at which Christian theology proves to be in contradiction to the secular culture in which it appears; for You Xilin, for example, Christianity most fruitfully both creates the conditions for the modernization into which China has so dramatically emerged and yet remains as a vital source of modern humanism that criticizes modernity. Zhuo Xinping's fascinating essay on this topic shows how in a way not anticipated by Confucianism, Christianity is characterized by its understanding of transcendence, a perspective which permits a "rising above politics" and "a dialogue of affirmation and negation in human conduct." The conventional Chinese notion, popular since the 19th century, that Christianity is a "Western religion" is rejected by these intellectuals not only on historical but on fundamentally theological grounds. (After all, many of them know far more about the West than do we about China.) Liu appropriates Karl Barth's appropriation of Karl Marx to say plainly that the Christ-event is in fact "a critique of all religions." Similarly, You Xilin insists that "Christianity thoroughly criticizes secular society when such a society does not allow a good person to live in a righteous way."
It should be unsurprising in this light that these essays offer a tacit critique not only of Marxism but of capitalism (Zhang Xian; Zhuo Xinping), the latter in terms of the immediate Chinese market economy as much or more than the Western version critiqued by African theologians. Indeed, all prevalent systems of thought in China, from Confucianism, with its own perdurable secularist ethics, to the dominant rival modern secularisms of Marxism and capitalism, East and West, fall under the theological scrutiny of the 22 writers gathered here.
The analysis in this volume is incisive and often brilliant, but certainly not monochromatic. In one essay, for example, Kwan Shui-man criticizes Liu Xiaofeng's Sino-Christian theology for a dependence on Barthian categories that Kwan considers both culturally askew and outdated. Moreover, these academics are quick to warn each other about the characteristic disposition of Christian intellectuals to an ineffectual élitism on the one hand and, on the other, a complacent failure to achieve a rigorous dialogue within the universities with "other disciplines" (Liu). Yang Huilin is emphatic that theological thought in philosophical dialogue cannot be effective as witness where the conversation is limited to confessional Christians: he cites Bonhoeffer to highlight what many see as a need to "be able to articulate continuously a non-religious interpretation of Christianity" in public discourse:
Of course, it is not a bad thing that the Christian faith has helped to normalize ethics and social order in today's environment, and has helped to regulate people's mentality or spiritual imbalances. In fact, this is probably the real reason various secular powers have been able to accept Christianity. However, the problem is that, if Christianity itself also acknowledges this as its main function and believes that filling up society's "structural gaps" can take the place of efforts to achieve "profound comprehension of life," it will not be able to escape the fate of the "results negating the premise," and will fail to achieve structural influence in terms of basic concepts.
What he means by this is that social witness and even social change, deprived of active conversation with a vital philosophical theology, is likely to run out of gas in China just as it has tended to in the West. A merely therapeutic Christianity is a Christianity doomed to demise.
The essays in this volume are indispensable reading for anyone who wishes to understand what is happening in Chinese Christian intellectual life today. There is no hint in them either of triumphalism or of condescension. Rather, as Guo Shining puts it, all of us who seek to follow Christ live under one marker for authentic delegation: "When people use the phrase, 'that person must be a Christian,' it highlights … behavior [that] conflicts with the main trend of profitable,worldly, self-centered, materialistic value-systems." To be a sign of contradiction, says Guo, is both natural and necessary to a Christian in any walk of life. Addressing the wider church of which he is a part, he notes the corollary: this requires all believers to "strengthen their faith," since "it is much harder to be a Christian in China." Well—yes. And perhaps that particular reality works to the advantage of our Chinese brothers and sisters.
David Lyle Jeffrey is Distinguished Professor of Literature and the Humanities at Baylor University and, since 1996, Guest Professor of Peking University.
1. See also Yang Fenggang, "Saved at McDonald's: Conversion to Christianity in Urban China," Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, Vol. 44, No. 4 (2005).
2. See Gerda Wielander, "Bridging the Gap? Intellectual House Church Activities in Beijing and Their Potential Role in China's Democratization," Journal of Contemporary China, Vol. 18, No. 62 (November 2009); also, Fredrik Fällman, Salvation and Modernity: Intellectuals and Faith in Contemporary China (Univ. Press of America, rev. ed, 2008).
Copyright © 2011 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.
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