How western Christian understanding is
challenged by the Chinese experience

In the preface to his novel The Go-Between, L. P. Hartley famously commented that “the past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.”  But in this globalising era, when the accumulation of information takes moments rather than years, and travel takes hours rather than weeks, prosperous Westerners (in particular) are apt to slip into an alternate version of his epithet. If we are not careful we begin to think that the notion of “a foreign country” is a thing of the past. Sure, we know that there are substantial differences in the world today, but we are still lured into a sense of false security by the reassurance of apparent commonalities.

So perhaps it wasn’t surprising that, upon arriving in Beijing for the first time, what immediately attracted my attention was the relative prominence of English signs (a development of the last ten years, I am told), and the international language of ‘business architecture’. In other words, those appearances that fit the Chinese capital into my pre-conceived image of a modern metropolis. On that basis I began to notice features that looked ‘Chinese’ – not because I had any real idea of what ‘Chinese’ meant, but because their surfaces were less familiar.

In the course of ten busy but brief days as part of a British and Irish churches’ delegation, the equipment of my mental landscape began to take a real battering; but, in retrospect, usefully so. It isn’t that ‘surfaces’ like the ones that grabbed me are unimportant in China. On the contrary, they present themselves very invitingly, but in such a way that it is easier not to see beyond them. However, it is the structure of everything that builds up to the surface that really reveals what it is – in conversation, politics and church relations as much as in art, culture or personal interactions. And it is here that you begin to discover that you know and see remarkably little. China is a lifetime, not a lunchtime.

Freedom and captivity

China is also very, very big. It’s a terrible cliché, but no less true for that. Someone once observed to me that pretty much everything you hear about the place is likely to be true somewhere. But it is how things fit together in particular places that really counts, and that isn’t something you’re going to grasp on a first, second or even third encounter. This is a difficult truth for someone like me, who feels at home by fitting the disturbance of the immediate into the assurance of a pattern. In China I kept seeing things, but I didn’t really know what they were because I wasn’t sure what it was they were part of.

Take the churches, for instance. Are they free or are they constrained? Is their registration by the authorities a matter of granting them status within the homeland or exercising control on the part of the state?  Media stereotypes speak of an ‘open’ and an ‘underground’ church, both Protestant and Catholic (though in China Protestantism – often simply called ‘Christianity’ – and Catholicism are officially categorised as different religions, not subsets of one faith). Those polarities have some truth, but overall they won’t do. Nor will an equally uninformative ‘both’. The issue is, what constitutes freedom and what constitutes constraint within the wider Chinese reality?  It depends where and how you look and from what vantage point.

In some of the places we visited, people were clearly living with what seemed to me to be significant constraints: regulations about assembly, the need to notify the police about visitors, the difficulty of spontaneously asking or allowing a foreign guest to speak to the church assembly. And yet there was an unconstrained joy in Christian living and worship – again, something that came across as not simply bound up with the cultural forms in which it was expressed – which belied what, to the visitor, were significant limitations. By contrast, churches I have been associated within in Britain appear remarkably ‘free’ in governance and association, yet at the level of spiritual experience and expression remain everywhere in chains, struggling with a society that smothers them with indifference.

So the fact that the government in China takes religion seriously and seeks to ensure that it conforms to ‘good order’ may not always be a good thing, to put it mildly. Sometimes it makes life impossibly difficult for courageous and dedicated Christians. But in a certain way it also aids their growth and development. Whereas left to its own devices, as we see in Britain, faith often degenerates into a kind of petty squabbling which is not easily recalled to its true vocation, constraint can, strangely, be the ground for a more robust kind of freedom

On the other hand, in one conversation we had with some Christian students, it became clear that a growing ability to tap into information sources about the outside world doesn’t necessarily liberate thought, as the Western mind assumes it will. And while it is certainly a big mistake to think that Chinese ‘modernisation’ (extraordinary economic growth, huge construction programmes, structural and technological change) is synonymous with Westernisation, the lure of the West appears everywhere: a kind of alter ego to our ‘orientalism’. In the case I am thinking about, both these observations manifested themselves in the idea, rather disturbing to our British ecumenical sensibilities, that the election of George W. Bush as president of the US might be some measure that God was blessing America.

Not for the first time, our delegation didn’t quite know what to say. We were similarly flummoxed when asked, in the one rural church situation many of us encountered, when the Catholic Church had broken away from Christianity (meaning Protestantism)! The brief account one of us offered back about the opposite trajectory of the Reformation was a surprise and a puzzle, I think. And at one level the fact that “the country has another past” was beside the point for our interlocutors. The gulf between Catholics and Protestants is, apart from some leaders on both sides, very large indeed.

To many Protestants, the idea that Catholics might be Christian is something they have not really considered. The historical assumption follows quite naturally from that. It is a bit like trying to explain to Western Christians that what we take as normative expressions of the faith today are actually a relatively recent development within Christian history; and that our faith was for many years shaped by a phenomenon (Nestorianism) which most have never heard of these days.

Unity and diversity

This in turn raises the question about how the composition of our delegation was received and understood in China, where Protestant Christians are said officially to number around 17 million (though researchers suggest the real number is more likely to be around 50 – 70 million) and there are some 12 million Catholics.

In a meeting with the State Administration for Religious Affairs (SARA), the fact that the ‘two religions’ were able to work together was welcomed as a model of cordial relations for faith groups in China. Social cohesion and harmony is highly valued by the Chinese government, since it contributes towards the essential oneness of China which is a nationalistic priority central to both domestic and foreign policy, and to the survival and flourishing of the country consonant with the interests of the Communist Party.

On the other hand, not least in certain provinces where the rapid growth of Christianity is seen as something of a challenge, the idea of religions ‘getting together’ might be received rather differently. And as far as the national leaderships of the Protestants and Catholics are concerned, there seemed to us little comprehension and only polite interest in what we see as our great ecumenical experiment of being ‘churches together’. It isn’t just that they breathe different air and live with few connections. In the case of the Protestants it is also a matter of ecumenism being understood as a corollary of the denominationalism they claim to have transcended, rather than a bold and imaginative way of (say) benefiting from difference held in the unity of relationship.

Yet another universe, of course, consists of those unregistered and emergent churches of which we heard rumours, saw shadows, but only met (if at all) without really knowing it. If what is often said about the scale of this phenomenon is anything like true, then the true shape of Christianity in China is still, to a significant extent, composed of dark matter, as the cosmologists say. Again, this is a vital factor in looking at the future of our faith and its global mission. For whether it is offered in the evangelical apocalypticism of Philip Jenkins’ The Next Christendom, the reassertiveness of Pope Benedict XIV’s Catholicism or the struggle for fresh impetus in the conciliar ecumenical movement, currents in world Christianity mapped from the West (whatever their rhetorics about the demographic shift to the global South) constantly overlook the indeterminate shape of China’s faith – which includes the rapid growth not just of the churches, but of Buddhism too.

During my time as Secretary of CTBI’s Churches’ Commission on Mission, people often asked, ‘why do you have just one country desk’, referring to the China Forum and its co-ordinator. The answer, aside from historical precedent, is that China is not ‘just a country’, for goodness’ sake – it is nearly a quarter of humanity, and it is the engine room of tomorrow’s global economy. It even has significant suasion over the massive borrowings of the world’s largest debtor nation, the United States of America. The future is, indeed, a foreign country.

Character and vocation

So far I have talked about my brief exposure to China in terms of large themes and issues. I would like to draw things together in a more ‘domestic’ way, with reference to some relationships, impressions and customs which may also say something unexpected to us about how our global Christian understanding can be reshaped by the Chinese experience.

Western culture is increasingly instrumental in its reasoning and motives. If we see things, meet people and generate activities, we assume that the value of these things must, to a significant degree, lie beyond and outside them in some larger process of ‘actualisation’. Chinese pragmatism and organisation appear to us as analogues of this outlook, though I suspect that these actually have more to do with the operation of collectivity than the furtherance of individual goals – which is how we habitually perceive things.

By contrast, the inherent value of guanxi (relationships) and keqi (consideration and humility) in Chinese culture exists in tension with instrumentalisation, and provides a counterpoint to the often brutal pace of economic development. In the Christian churches we visited, perhaps more so than in the structures, there was a quality of gratuitous fellowship which was deeply humbling. Food and hospitality was offered with an overflowing generosity that puts to shame the sandwich lunches we proffer in return. Some of us Brits talked in worried terms about the time we spent talking and eating, conscious that upon return we would be asked to justify our visit – not in relation to people encountered and then left behind, but in terms of lasting ‘outcomes’ and measurable ‘added value’ from the trip. “We’re not paying you to eat”, we somehow heard our paymasters saying to us.

But at its deepest level the Gospel is not about our capacity to programme the future. It is about the developing quality of relations within a broken and raised Body overflowing as the love of Christ in the world, and mirroring our inhabitation in the uncontrollable, non-competitive, gifting ‘other’ we call God. As Archbishop Rowan Williams has put it, Christianity is about the sovereignty of pointless, groundless love. In China I saw plenty of that, in spite of the intrigues, tensions and constraints that inevitably impregnate many of the official structures of church life.

Two groups of Catholic nuns, shining with love, unconcerned with comfort, engaged with the pain of others, and filled with joy just to be with us produced in me a sense of humble gratitude for the profound simplicity of faith such as I have rarely experienced before. The same quality of Christlikeness was to be found in the female pastor of a Protestant church (and a number of local ‘meeting points’) in Anhui Province. Their mission was, in essence, to build the church as a community, to attract others, and to be agents of hope and Good News. Though I would want to say that mission is more than this, I couldn’t help sensing, in my encounters with these extra ordinary women, the truth in theologian Stanley Hauerwas’ observation that the church is Christianity’s primary social ethic.

This was interestingly reflected back to us in the observation of a senior figure in the State Administration for Religious Affairs. When we asked him about the role of religion in Chinese society, he talked about its capacity to inject back into China’s rapid process of modernisation a ‘heart’ and a moral sensibility which might not be easily available elsewhere. That raised in my mind all kinds of questions. Here was a member of the Chinese Communist Party praising the consoling powers of faith, which has been the past subject of scorn in narrow versions of Marxist ideology. And here was both an opportunity and a temptation for the Christian community to be the ‘heart of a heartless world’.

Church as private consolation and public comfort is not, it seems to me, the core calling of the church – which is, rather, about the transformation (rather than the amelioration) of the very fabric of our lives through the disturbance of Jesus Christ. But the liberating capacity of the Gospel is also built upon the development of communities of character, schools of virtue, practices of kindness, gestures of hospitality, foot washing, forgiveness, repentance, gift exchange, companionship, a disposition of thanksgiving, and the breaking and sharing of bread. Such things are truly revolutionary and cannot be contained. They are at the heart of the New Testament.

So while the explicit social service role of the Chinese churches is small (the Amity Foundation and the Catholic NGO Beifang Jinde being the most obvious manifestations), and their capacity to critique society is very limited indeed, their ability to model a different kind of sociality is large – and when, on my final night, I went for a walk in the centre of Shanghai, I received some understanding of the true significance of this.

Mission and hope

The Shanghai streets I walked down at around 10pm reminded me of London’s Piccadilly Circus refracted through a hall of mirrors. Bright, busy, commercial, buzzing. After half-an-hour or so the lights began to go out and people who had been treading the streets looking for company, a bargain, some food… all began to melt away. From nowhere, it seemed, an army of workers (many migrants from other parts of China) emerged to clean and construct, watched by the police on a number of street corners. It had the appearance of two societies that did not quite meet but depended upon each other. And yet there was also something quite painful about it. Consumerism and inequality to do build habitable communities for people to live and breathe.

By contrast, churches (in spite of their quirks and problems) seem like a level playing field and an opportunity for people to find out who they are, who others are, how we can live together, and how God’s love is to be discovered and reflected. In China they are also – for many among the 1.25 billion population – unknown, strange, ‘foreign’. The cynical disregard of the West for organised Christianity is not the issue for faith in China, though there are, of course, a multitude of other obstacles. Rather the church is growing through relationships, through invitation, through words reflected in example.

How the proliferation of Christianity at the base will be handled in relation to unsettled question of church order, the pressure of social development and the tension between top-down control and free-market diversification in China is extremely difficult to tell. Will the impulses of faith and fellowship be absorbed in a growing cult of prosperity and success, for example? Can internal and external church relations be developed not just through self-hood but through other-hood… the recognition that in the authenticity of the Body of Christ we need each other in a way that goes beyond both dependence and the fear of it?

The questions are endless. And they are not ours to answer. The best we can do is to relate in such a way that we can support, assist, listen and learn. Out of that can come a dialogue with the multiple contours of Chinese Christianity which will be of benefit to all concerned. At the end of my ten days I realised that China is a foreign country. It has an extraordinary past, and in so many ways it will shape the future. For that, if for no other reason, it is of great importance. But even more than that, and as we studiously seek to avoid merely incorporating each other into our respective fantasies and dreams (as in Edward Said’s ‘Orientalism’ and ‘occidentalism’), with China on our minds we can face our own part in the global future of Christianity with fresh eyes, fresh warnings and fresh hope.

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