The growth of “Cultural Christians” (CCs) in China is largely a cultural development and an encouraging sign. We believe that, whether in terms of culture or theology, CCs are highly significant and will exert a long-term impact.
In terms of theology, we must admit that the Chinese church (including the church in mainland China and among overseas Chinese) is rather narrow-minded. The narrowness of the overseas Chinese church consists of its limitation to the ecclesiastical and theological traditions inherited from the West. The church in mainland China, on the other hand, is limited by the contradistinction between the registered church and the house church communities. The registered churches follow the “Three Self” platform under the leadership of the state; the house churches take on characteristics of folk religion. The tensions between the two and resulting limitations are obvious.
These limitations result in the failure of Chinese theology to truly reflect China’s own traditions, culture, and contemporary context. The issues that the Chinese church reflects on are largely Western issues. Chinese theology has been highly irrelevant to Chinese traditional culture or the contemporary context. On the other hand, since the “Three Self” churches seek to “express the harmony with the authorities of the state,” they express the Christian faith in terms of an extreme version of the historic, rationalist, liberal school of theology. Over against this, the house churches have strenuously denied the meaning of history and culture for the Christian faith. They espouse an extreme form of fundamentalism that is highly intolerant, and they have sacrificed the openness of the Christian faith.
“Cultural Christians” are situated between these two polarities. If they can hold onto a biblical faith and can engage in theological reflection in the Chinese cultural context, they have the potential to reconcile between these two extremes and to forestall any crisis they may bring upon the church. This is our expectation concerning “Cultural Christians.”
On a more concrete practical level, “Scholars in Mainland China Studying Christianity” (SMSCs) and CCs have brought the newest currents of theological thought into the Chinese church. They will create a definite impact on the rather bland theological scene in the Chinese church. In a new competitive situation, they will prompt theological educators (or even the whole church) to re-prioritize their work, to produce more writing with depth. The Chinese theological scene will become more vibrant and will renew itself through discussion and interaction. This should be a blessing to the Chinese church. These new elements should stimulate the Chinese church to re-evaluate the scope of her vision (for example, her mission among intellectuals and to the world of culture), and help re-define the place of theology (including the re-evaluation of denominational mentality and theology). The church would be encouraged to make a more positive response to Mainland China and to make herself attractive to the Chinese people in other parts of the world.
We do not take the position that the “Cultural Christian” phenomenon constitutes a crisis for the Chinese church. We believe that this challenging phenomenon should be understood as a unique opportunity for the Chinese church at the dawn of a new millennium. At the same time, “Cultural Christians” should earn their right to play a significant role in the life of the church in China.
From the point of view of culture, CCs have the potential to help change the place of Christian thought in China’s cultural-academic circles, via the introduction of Christian thought to the Chinese masses through research and translation. We must concede at this point that the church in China and the overseas Chinese church, have taken a very conservative, or even skeptical, posture toward the relationship between the gospel and culture. This is an imbalance. As the Willowbank Report of the Lausanne Committee on World Evangelization pointed out, all theological exposition is affected and limited by its cultural context. Therefore, if we can take hold of the present opportunity and understand that the emergence of the “Cultural Christian” phenomenon is a sign that China’s intellectuals are seeking direction for Chinese culture, and if we can offer proposals which have a solid theoretical foundation and which can truly shape the future, we will be able to:
- Contribute to the transformation of Christianity from its present marginal place in Chinese culture, society and academic circles.
- Contribute to changing the traditional confrontational relationship between Christianity and Chinese culture.
- Make a real difference in China’s social structure and thought, and help bring about renewal in Chinese culture, which is undergoing rapid change at the present.
At the same time, we will contribute toward the development of Christianity in China. We must understand the background, life-context, academic and theological training of the “Cultural Christians” the limitations these impose on them, their keen pursuit of the indigenization and contextualization of Christianity in China, and the integration of culture into theology. We must also understand that they are not like some Christian scholars who can still “breathe the air” of Christianity while functioning outside church circles. Therefore, at this embryonic stage, there will be a greater likelihood of imbalance and confusion in the doctrinal and theological understanding of China’s CCs and their efforts to integrate culture into theology.
Christians outside the church should be keenly interested in the thought and writing of “Cultural Christians” and, in a spirit of learning together and from each other, offer timely reviews and revisions to some of their views. Or, Christians can point to the views on a particular issue, taken by the historic church, so that China’s masses, Christians inside the church and these intellectuals can all gain a true and comprehensive understanding and interpretation of the Christian faith.
More importantly, Chinese Christians ought to be encouraged by the fact of the incarnation of God the Son Jesus Christ, which shows that the Word of God has not lost its character because of a particular cultural context. If we can hold fast to the teaching of the Bible as a whole and take the Bible as our highest norm, we can effect an encounter between the gospel and Chinese culture without losing the entire essence of the gospel.
All theologizing should take the teachings of the Bible as the highest norm (even though we do not deny that the Bible itself was written against a particular cultural background). But the value of theology lies in its usefulness in and to a particular culture. The influence of the Christian tradition in Western culture is a well-known fact. In the realm of Chinese culture, theology must dialogue with culture; this is also inescapable. The “Cultural Christian” phenomenon has a very positive significance from the more profound perspective of Christianity’s dialogue with Chinese culture.
Image credit: 大钟塔（Bell Tower）by Patrick He via Flickr.
Edwin Hui, M.D., Ph.D., is professor of Bioethics and Christianity and Chinese Culture at Regent College (Vancouver, B.C.). This article is used with permission from “Part II: The “Cultural Christian” Phenomenon in Immediate Context, With Theological Reflections” by Edwin Hui and translated by Samuel Ling in Chinese Intellectuals and the... View Full Bio