The "Inscrutably Chinese" Church: How Narratives and Nationalism Continue to Divide Christianity
Lexington Books, 2010
310 pp., $110.00
Sino-Christian Studies in China
Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2006
341 pp., $67.95
David Lyle Jeffrey
A Critique of ALL Religions
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."