In the spring of 2022, I was given the unique opportunity to present a lecture called “Chinese Christianity in the Modern Era.” This post is the beginning of a series that summarizes the different sections of that lecture with additional commentary and a curated list of articles and texts that provide the viewer and reader a deeper look at the history and themes I touched upon.
This first post reviews the theological prelude to the lecture, grounded in the question of what it means to see the whole of the Chinese church, contradictions and all, and what theological lenses are needed to make sense of what we are looking at.
For those unfamiliar with China, the Chinese church is often simplified into one of a few stock narratives, which Brent Fulton has skillfully articulated in his blog series “Our China Stories.” Behind each simplistic narrative are typically some basic theological assumptions about God’s character and God’s agency in and through the church.
The reality, however, is that all of these stories, and many more, exist side by side in a cacophony of tensions. This makes any attempt to articulate a theological account of what is happening difficult to sustain without cultural and spiritual humility.
Those who have spent significant time working among China’s Christian faithful in recent decades know that the Chinese church is a diverse and dynamic body. It has weathered and thrived under the widest range of possibilities and continues to surprise observers as Chinese society twists and turns.
Indeed, many long-time cross-cultural servants who have invested large parts of their lives in China are currently processing difficult experiences of displacement rendered by the Chinese authorities expanding restrictions on foreign workers of all kinds. For those seeking to make sense of a missional life cut short, a theological reading of the Chinese church’s modern pathways is important for understanding their own predicaments.
Whether you are curious and new to the context of the Chinese church or a longtime supporter and follower, the Chinese church’s contemporary landscape cannot be understood without some form of theological grounding. We all have beliefs that guide us in making sense of what we see, and, for the Christian, God’s presence must be accounted for in some way.
Before we even begin to consider the modern history of the Chinese church, we must ask ourselves: what theological lenses am I using to make sense of Chinese Christianity?
I consider myself a scholar of lived theology, a perspective that grounds the first movement of theologizing in the lived experiences of the faithful. It is a posture that begins with contemporary experience and assumes that the agency of the Holy Spirit is always present and discernable in everyday living.
Practical theologian Sabrina Müller defines lived theology in this way: “Lived theology is grounded in the world of experience and life reality of human beings. It becomes theology when it is expressed in reflection and resonates in the public sphere.”1
Framed by Müller’s definition, this lecture and series of posts is an attempt to communicate a theological reflection that emerges from my study of the Chinese church’s lived experiences. It is presented in the hope that what I have observed resonates with the faith lives of all those who live in relationship with China, the “public sphere” of those invested in the well-being and mission of Chinese Christianity. It is also an invitation to add, correct, and revise blind spots in my analysis in hope of developing a clearer picture of God’s work in China.
Undergirding this lived theology approach are three assumptions that are worth explicit explanation. These assumptions are (1) a faith in God’s sovereignty and providence, (2) attention to historical patterns and processes, and (3) an attitude of cultural and epistemic humility.
- God’s sovereignty and providence: This explicit theological conviction puts faith in the tenet that God knows and acts as God wills, and that God’s will is to provide what is best and needed for God’s creation. It is a kind of appreciative and positive outlook on every episode that poses the question “How is what is happening here a sign of God’s complete work to provide for the world?”
- Historical patterns and processes: This is a theological take on the importance of sociological observation. It assumes that the ways God has provided in the stories of scripture and church history contain patterns for discerning God’s providence in contemporary life. This means one must not only read contemporary society theologically but must also read history and scripture sociologically.
- Cultural and epistemic humility: Anyone endeavoring to do theology must adopt an attitude of humility. The assumption is that God’s ways are not our own and, therefore, any lived theological hypothesis must be held loosely and constantly open to new data. This humility ought to push us to expand our hypotheses with as large an audience as possible—seeking diverse sources of resonance within the body of Christ.
Collectively, these three assumptions frame how I read the modern story of the Chinese church from both a theological and sociological standpoint and undergird the analyses in these posts. If you want to know a bit more about how I understand these three assumptions, take some time to watch the video lecture excerpt above.
I end this section of the lecture with a follow-up question: How has your theology shaped your view of China and how has China perhaps changed your view of God?
This is a question I pose especially to those who have spent extensive time in China in service to the Chinese church. Lived theology assumes that we will never have the whole truth of God on this side of eternity, but also that extensive experiences with church communities outside our cultural norms can bring us closer. Indeed, it is within our experiences of cultural dissonance that God speaks anew. The Chinese church’s lived experiences have much to say about God that will challenge our best-intentioned theological assumptions. This lecture and series of posts is an invitation to dwell on these challenges.
Are you curious to learn more about how lived theology works as a theological approach and method? Check out the following texts and articles:
- Sabrina Müller, Lived Theology: Impulses for a Pastoral Theology of Empowerment (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2021).
I recommend this short volume as an accessible and yet academically informed synopsis of lived theology as an emerging discourse and its implications for a pastoral life that takes seriously the priesthood of all believers.
- Charles Marsh, Peter Slade, and Sarah Azaransky, Lived Theology: New Perspectives on Method, Style, and Pedagogy (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2016).
Since 2000, Charles Marsh has advocated a lived theology approach to history and society at the University of Virginia’s Project on Lived Theology. This book brings together the perspectives of theologians working out what they have learned through their participation in this endeavor.
- Pete Ward, Introducing Practical Theology: Mission, Ministry, and the Life of the Church (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2017).
In this introductory textbook to the field of practical theology as a whole, Pete Ward introduces the concept of lived theology in a chapter that helpfully positions this approach in relationship with adjacent work in ordinary theology, lived religion, and theological action research.
- Pete Ward and Knut Tveitereid, The Wiley-Blackwell Handbook on Theology and Qualitative Research (Hoboken, NJ: Wiley-Blackwell, 2022).
This new academic volume provides multiple perspectives on the state of theology’s use of qualitative research, including many points of contact with the concept of lived theology. Especially helpful are Knut Tveitereid’s essay, “Lived Theology and Theology of the Lived” and Bonnie J. Miller-McLemore’s essay, “Understanding Lived Theology: Is Qualitative Research the Best or Only Way?” I expand on my convictions for lived theology in the essay “Theology, Qualitative Research, and World Christianity” and Hong Kong Christian Ethicist Lap Yan Kung has an article on “Christian Ethics, Experience, and Qualitative Research.”
Easten Law is the Assistant Director for Academic Programs at the Overseas Ministries Study Center at Princeton Theological Seminary (OMSC@PTS). His research focuses on lived theology, public life, and religious pluralism in contemporary China. He completed his PhD at Georgetown University, an MDiv at Wesley Theological Seminary, and an MA …View Full Bio
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