Chinese Theological Review 13

The Church's Approach to Intellectuals

Chen Zemin

On the stage of human cultural history, intellectuals have always occupied a central position. "Cultured people" have synthesized folk culture with elite culture ("higher culture"), removing the dross and keeping the essence. They have provided the theories of culture, rationalized, systematized and preserved it for posterity. In short, the five thousand year history of China is itself a record of how intellectuals have synthesized the culture.

l. History in Retrospect:
The Posture of Chinese Intellectuals Toward Religion

Influence of Confucianism. Though it has not been formed as a religion in the metaphysical sense, the notion of respecting heaven (ghosts and gods) in Confucianism has been closely tied to religious ethics, with a time-honored influence that is deeply engrained in the hearts and minds of the people. Thus for Chinese Han culture, Confucianism has provided a broad but thin layer of religious foundation. In the Han dynasty, Dong Zhongshu spoke of the reciprocity between heaven and humans, imbuing Confucianism with a strong religious dimension. However, the fundamental basis of Confucianism is rationality, with a heavy emphasis on human relationships and pragmatic, concrete social matters. ("Respect spirits and gods, but distance oneself from them." "If one cannot serve humans adequately, why concern oneself with spirits; if we cannot fathom life, why focus on death?" "Humans will conquer heaven.") The attitude of most intellectuals toward religion was recognition and tolerance, perhaps a sense of mystery, but never tended toward extremes or over-zealousness. Confucianism has always interacted and mutually penetrated with Buddhism and Taoism, resulting in some form of incorporation of these into itself, such as the sense of mysticism which entered Confucianism during the Han and Wei dynasties and the synthesized neo-Confucianism of the Song and Ming, the "three religions in one." All of these have had great influence on Chinese intellectuals. Confirmed atheists among scholars (such as Wang Chong, Fan Zhen, Liu Zhongyuan and Huang Zhongxi) were in the minority. They were mainly opposed to the superstitious practices of the common people, but the influence of these scholars was minimal and never really penetrated to the lives of the masses.

Intellectuals and the Spread of the Major Religions in China.

Taoism arose in the mid Eastern Han dynasty, spreading among the people at the grassroots. After the Wei and Jin period, intellectuals augmented its spread. Kou Qianzhi and Ge Hong of the Eastern Jin and Tao Hongling in the Tang processed and elevated Taoism, introducing it into the upper stratum of Chinese society. Taoism flourished in the Tang and took center stage among the three religions (Taoism, Confucianism and Buddhism), spreading throughout China. During the Song dynasty, Zhang Junfang compiled a Tao Collection of more than five thousand volumes, but part of this has been lost. At the grassroots level, Taoism became a popular religion with an emphasis on health, wealth and longevity.

Buddhism came to China in the Han dynasty (1st c. CE). It attracted few followers at first, but after intellectuals translated the Buddhist scriptures during the Wei, Jin and Tang dynasties, Buddhism was successfully synthesized with Chinese culture. It rapidly became the common religion among the majority of the Chinese people and many different sects developed. The Tian Tai of Z.hi Yi, the San Lun of Ji Zang, the Fa Xiang sect of Xuan Zang, the Pure Land sect of Shan Dao and the Zen (Chan) of Shen Xiu and I lui Neng, as well as the Hua Yan sect off a Zhang, the Mi sect of Iiui Guo and the Lu sect of Dao Xuan-all are authentically Chinese (sinicized) Buddhism, widespread among both intellectuals and the common people of China. Their influence is no less than that of Confucianism. Contemporary thinkers such as Kang Youwei, Tan Zhidong, Zhang Taiyan and Liang Qichao were all influenced by Buddhism.

Islam came to China in the Kaiyuan era of the Tang (mid-7th c. CE). Its influence was not strong in the beginning, but by the Yuan dynasty (1271-1368) a saying had grown up that "The Islam of the Yuan is everywhere in China." It was to be found mainly in ten ethnic minority regions. In the late Ming and early Qing, some intellectuals such as Wang Tai and Ma Zhu (Muslim scholars) were using Confucian, Taoist and Buddhist culture to explain Islam. For example, they used the notion of "illustrious virtue" of Cheng Yi and Zhi Xi and the Buddha "nature" from Buddhism to supplement the concept of "Yi Ma Na" ("true gift"). They also made use of the Confucian "ti-yong" and "Thong-mao" (filiality) to supplement their Islamic doctrines. In this way, Islamic teachings incorporated Chinese traditions and took root in China.

Christianity entered China several times. Nestorianism was originally a "heretical" sect that flourished in 6th century Persia. In the 7th century (Tang dynasty) the Syrian missionary Alopen brought the religion to China along the Silk Road, arriving in Chang An [present-day Xian], the Tang imperial capital. Under Emperor Tai Zhong, the policy of openness and tolerance was widespread. Nestorian temples were established in "a hundred provinces" throughout north China. According to tile Nestorian Monument, erected 781 CE, and documents discovered in the Dunhuang caves, Nestorianism apparently made use of Buddhist terminology and spread among the people by "riding on the coattails" of Buddhism. Nestorianism, however, never established itself among China's intellectuals. When Emperor Wuzhong (845 CE) banned Buddhism, Nestorian Christianity fell with it and became almost extinct in central China.

Yelikewen is a general term that includes both a later entry of Nestorianism and European Christianity entering China during the Yuan dynasty. It came to the people with the support of the Yuan rulers, but was always regarded as a minor sect. However, when the Yuan dynasty met its demise, Yelikewen fell too. One of the main reasons why this religion never gained widespread influence in China was that it never gained the sympathy and support of Chinese intellectuals.

Catholicism arrived during the Ming and Qing dynasties. The Italian Jesuit Matteo Ricci made use of Western science to break through to China. He also made use of Confucianism to reach the intellectuals, people like Xu Guanggi, Li Zhizao, Wu Yusan, etc., and gained a foothold through them. Later, however, the Pope supported the Franciscan and Dominican missionaries who opposed what they perceived to the Jesuits' facile respect 'or and policy of over-accommodating themselves to Chinese vulture. In the Rites Controversy that followed, Emperor Kangxi banned the Catholic missionary enterprise in China and thus an opportunity to spread the gospel was lost.

Protestant Christianity came to China in the early 19th century (1807). At first it spread among the poor and common folk and no effort was made to attract intellectuals. It did not understand or respect Chinese culture and even rejected it. Christianity this time entered China through the use of force and unequal treaties. The results were minimal and growth slow, met with strong opposition and many "missionary incidents" suited. After mid-century, however, some missionaries did change their strategy. People such as Young John Allen, James Legge, W.A.P. Martin, Timothy Richard and Leighton Stuart published the Review of the Times (Wanguo gongbao), cultivated relationships with intellectuals, did research in the classics, translated Christian and Western literature for China and established Christian universities. Thus a coterie of Chinese intellectuals was produced for the church of China, able to dialogue with intellectuals outside the church during the May Fourth Movement (1919) and the anti-Christian movement of the 1920s. Possessing the ability of self-criticism, these intellectuals were able to bring new life to the church in China. Catholic intellectuals such as Ma Xiangbo and Wu Jingxiong also made important contributions toward the intellectualization of Christianity, but for historical reasons, Catholic and Protestant Christianity still suffer from their association with imperialism and being a "foreign" religion. They are still discriminated against, held in disdain and resisted by the vast majority of Chinese people. After the founding of new China, Christianity would have lost the space for its existence were it not for the religious policy of the people's government.

Buddhism, Islam and Christianity are imported religions, yet their past development and future prospects all differ. Various political, social and economic causes all figure in this, yet one of the most decisive factors will be the way these religions treat traditional Chinese culture and intellectuals. Christianity should summarize its historical experiences, both positive and negative, and learn from them.

2. Christianity and Intellectuals Since 1949

In order to remove the tarnish of "tool of Western imperialism" from its name and regain its selfhood, the church in China came under the Three-Self Patriotic Movement in the 1950s. It began to gain recognition and understanding from the people of China. After the 1960s and especially during the Cultural Revolution and attacks from ultra-leftism, Christianity and all other religions almost disappeared. Intellectuals were labeled "stinking number nine," a humiliating categorization hitherto unheard of. At that time, dialogue was out of the question. Being rejected by society, Christians and intellectuals became "partners in suffering." In the late 1970s as normality was restored from chaos and government religious policy reinstated, the churches began to grow rapidly.

But the educational level of Christians was on the whole, low. Also they were on the conservative side theologically. At the same time there arose in China a group of intellectuals who were critical of religion. Their general outlook was greatly influenced by the Marxist notion of religion as the "opiate of the people." Religion was prohibited as an area of academic research; it was only to be critiqued as a reactionary social force. Between 1979 and 1986, there was a "second opium war" in China, which involved many debates over whether or not religion and theology were topics worthy of intellectual study and research.

In recent years, more and more centers for research into religion and philosophy have been established, including those in the Chinese Academies of Social Sciences, Nanjing University, Shanghai University, Sichuan University, Fudan University, Shanghai) and Beijing University. Intellectuals have published articles and books of research findings on religion, and have undertaken translation of writings on religion and theology, thus treating a "fever" of religious interest. There has also emerged a new group of' religious scholars who are open, competent and interested in religion, although most are not religious believers themselves. They have broken out of the bondage of slavery to took learning and being dogmatically doctrinaire. They study and observe religion objectively and scientifically from the academic perspectives of sociology, psychology and history of religions. These intellectuals have published a large volume of religious books, including both translations and original work. As far as I know, more than five hundred publications have geared, the majority being studies of Christianity. Fifteen years ago, writers were critiquing Christianity as being "foreign" and an "opiate," but today such criticism is rare. Quite a few of these writers show deep understanding and sympathy with Christianity and their writing on theology is of high quality.

Publication is also going on within the church, but works comparable to those by intellectuals outside the church number less than thirty. This is a serious indictment and challenge to the church. It is also an excellent opportunity which we have never had before in the history of Christianity in China.

Looking at the church from within since restoration of' the government's religious policy and the start of the liberalization process, we see that Christianity has grown more than any other religion. The number of Protestant Christians is well over ten million, more than twelve times the total before Liberation. There are more than 50,000 churches and meetings points, the majority of which are in the countryside. Many of these Christians have a low educational level and lack Christian nurture and pastoral care. False teachings and heresies easily sway them. Their religion blends easily with popular religions and their practices, creating a negative influence in society. It is precisely this kind of religion that is despised by Chinese intellectuals.

The so-called "normal" churches in large and medium-sized cities and townships (those related to the China Christian Council and the Three-Self Patriotic Movement) have ministers and church members who have been greatly influenced by fundamentalism and evangelicalism. Their tendency is towards conservatism and narrow theological perspectives, with a strong, emphasis on "purity of faith and spirituality" (a preoccupation with personal "spiritual" experience and "salvation" for the next life) or a utilitarian use of Christian faith to obtain blessing and to avoid calamity. They are cut off from the realities of society and they are deeply suspicious of anything that is ethical, intellectual, modern and indigenously Chinese. Many sermons have been preached from the pulpits of the churches that feed into this type of backwardness, which abhors Chinese intellectuals. Occasionally, out of curiosity, some intellectuals set foot in the church, but after a few brief encounters, they seem to be repulsed and depart. The number of intellectuals lost to the churches far exceeds the number gained. In the last dozen years, the educational level of Christians may have been slightly raised, but it is still far from the level of such intellectuals.

From the two paragraphs above, it is clear that the relationship between the church and intellectuals outside the church is a delicate one. On the one hand some intellectuals have developed an interest in Christianity. They are seekers who want to understand and they have expressed approval, but the church is retreating toward conservatism, holding on to what is outmoded and obsolete, keeping intellectuals at arm's length, or being lukewarm toward them. It is worth noting, however, that in recent years, there has appeared in Chinese society a group of "culture" Christians. Through their academic research, these culture Christians have gained an understanding and sympathy and even an emotional identity with or conversion to Christian faith. Some have even received the rite of baptism, but show little interest in the activities or organized religion of the church. They remain "floaters" among the churches, but as individual Christians who claim to be "believers," they have made contributions to Christianity through their profession of faith, intellectual research and writing. Thus they broaden Christian influence among China's intellectuals. In reality they are the bridge between Christianity and the intellectuals of society.

Knowing the intellectuals of China is an important new task for the church. We have stated previously that Buddhism, Taoism and Islam have gone through a process of mutual interpenetration with Confucianism. They were synthesized with traditional Chinese culture and have become indigenous Chinese religions. Although their experience can serve as a paradigm, the situation is different today. China today is in a stage of reform and openness and our society is undergoing dramatic and rapid changes. After the traumas of the May Fourth Movement's slogan of "down with Confucius and company" and the Cultural Revolution's "down with Lin Biao and Confucius," Confucianism has lost its position as part of the Chinese orthodoxy. The influence of traditional culture on intellectuals is on the wane; it is perhaps barely recognizable. How big a market exists among intellectuals in China for the so-called neo-Confucianism is quite debatable. In the mighty torrent of reform and openness, contemporary Chinese intellectuals have been greatly influenced by the ever-changing pluralistic academic tides, which are far greater than those of traditional thought. This can be shown by the mere fact of the content of literature and writing on Christianity in the last decade and a half.

3. Theological Reflection

Changing Trends in Theology. There have always been two strands in Christian theology, one centered on salvation and the other on creation. The former frequently leads into exclusivity, while the latter is more open-ended, more easily inclusive of other progressive thinking. Chinese Christianity in the last century and more has been greatly influenced by the Western missionaries who brought it to China, placing more emphasis on human sin and fallenness. Using a substitutionary notion of atonement and redemption to explain Christ as savior and the claim that there is "no salvation outside the church," it separates believers and non-believers, the saved and the condemned, emphasizing the afterlife and eschatology while playing down this world of the here and now. Highlighting faith as primary while relegating virtue and action to secondary status, it also neglects human ethics, morality and good works. It treated Western culture as Christian gospel but excluded indigenous cultures as being man-made. All these narrowly religious tendencies have driven the Chinese Church into a type of self-imprisonment, leaving it enclosed in a very small secondary culture drifting further and further from the intellectual world.

The other strand interprets Christianity in a creation-centered manner. This is not really a departure from Scripture, creating something novel and unique, but is also based on the revelation of the Bible. In the history of theological thinking there are plenty of rich resources that we can draw upon in support of a creation-centric trend. For example, seeing love as the very nature of God who created haven and earth and who is the lord of all things, makes creation, perseverance, salvation and sanctification a continuous and unending process. The "Cosmic Christ" participates in this whole process to manifest the love of God. All the cultures of the world have their truth, goodness and beauty-all coming from God. The Holy Spirit is the wisdom and power that connects God the Father, Christ the Son and all created entities.

Human beings are created in the image of God, having free will and the power to gain knowledge. Though different from other created entities, human beings are not perfect. They are only "half-made." Human beings are co-workers with God in the entire creation process, participating in creation while being completed themselves. They are weak and full of inadequacies; they are in sin, which works against God's will. Therefore humans need salvation and sanctification by which to gradually become new beings in Christ, in the stature of His fullness. Thus is the boundary between belief and unbelief broken and the definition of faith given new meaning. All those who follow God's will, who practice love and justice, are accepted by God. Of course this is only a rough framework, not a completely systematized scheme and has still to be perfected. Its direction, however, is an open-ended one that has room for all the progressive and positive elements of various cultures. This kind of Christianity is more likely to be acceptable to intellectuals in China.

The Dialogue Between Modernism and Pluralism. The whole of China is caught up in this dialogue with intellectuals in the forefront of the modernization process. To resist modernization would be to put a wrench into the wheels of historical progress. I have pointed out elsewhere that we are not ready, in the church in China, to speak of the contribution of Chinese Christians to modernization. We need to learn from Vatican II in its call for aggiornamento in adjusting to the needs of the times.

Pluralism is an undeniable fact. Christianity, Protestant and Catholic, is the largest religion in the world. But in China the number of the believers is not yet 2% of the population. How we should treat the vast majority of those who believe in other religions or in no religion is an important theological task for us. Contemporary missiology has entered into a period of "paradigm shifts," from ecclesio-centered to Christ-centered, God-centered and entering into dialogue. But most people in the church here are afraid to "dilute" or to "lose" the uniqueness of Christianity. They are threatened by dialogue and they hesitate to move in this direction. This is another important reason why the church is alienated from the intellectual world.

Contextualization of Theology and the Construction of a Chinese Theology. Contextualization of theology (through indigenous language and nurture in the soil of culture) has become a hot topic in the last two decades. More than seventy years ago, there were intellectuals in China within the church who made a significant contribution by advocating the need for indigenization. They included Xie Honglai, Wang Zhixin, Xie Fuya and T.C. Chao (Zhao Zichen). Today the times are different. How is Chinese culture defined (including folk and elite forms)? In today's social context of reform and openness we need a new understanding. This will require time for research by intellectuals within and outside the church. We should not be over-anxious, demanding instant production of a systematized Chinese theology.

Renewal and Construction of the Church. In China today, Christianity has entered a period of "post-denominationalism." Ecclesiology is a weak link in the theological chain, whether in theory or practice. No system readily at hand, whether a hierarchical system with bishops, reformed representative, or congregational, is entirely suitable. The China Christian Council is not a church according to traditional ecclesiology. It may be only a temporary measure. In order to maintain unity and solidarity, we follow the principle of mutual respect in our faith, liturgy and church polity.

As the church grows and develops, many small groups are beginning to show increasing tendencies toward fragmentation. We need to have new policies and concepts. Are we going to liberalize our thinking to move away from a Western notion of the church and ecclesiastical system, make a bold and brave reformation? In fact, each of the three types of church order mentioned above has its own biblical basis, but none fell from heaven perfected in the beginning. They have developed in history within different social systems. The church is organized by communities of Christian people and the function of the church is to maintain faith and religious life, to give stability and continuity. Ecclesiology is a later addition.

If we look at the church as the ecclesia, the called and chosen, it is easy to conclude that we are meant to be separated from the outside world for self-perfection. But if we see it as koinonia, as fellowship, as communion of the saints (communio sanctorum) or as the body of Christ, then the emphasis is on harmony, cooperation and complementarity with one another. The Council of Nicea pointed out four characteristics of the Church: that it is one, holy, catholic and apostolic. This definition seems to be more flexible and more open to an inclusive interpretation. When it comes to church systems, the ministry, sacraments and liturgy, the church has been even more influenced by historical and cultural factors. These tend to put a halo and sense of mystery on their organization and activities, something not easily comprehended by intellectuals. The church should break out of this ecclesiological framework, which is predominately Western and suggest a new ecclesiology that is more suitable to the situation in China. This is what the church in the West did in the 16th and 17th centuries.

Fifty years ago, it was suggested that the church be a fellowship built on love. If we use a creation-centered theology, liberalize our thinking, broaden our horizons, be concerned about society and join the people in building a new China and a new world, then we will gain greater identification with and understanding from intellectuals.

Edited translation, with Don Snow.