Blog Entries

History as a Theological Laboratory


Following Andrew Kaiser’s webinar “Real Lives of Real Missionaries: Timothy Richard (1845-1919),” we had a robust Q&A time as participants sought to go deeper on the issues that Andrew addressed in his lecture. Time limitations did not permit Andrew to answer all of the questions submitted, but he very graciously committed to reply to each one in writing. The result is an 18-page document, which you can download.

Here are three excerpts from his replies to whet your appetite and (if you have not yet watched the lecture) give you an idea of the issues that he touched on:

On “history as a theological laboratory”

While Richard is forthright about how much he learned from the more experienced China workers he met during his first couple years in Yantai, his greatest period of identification occurred only after he left the larger foreign community and moved to inland Qingzhou. Moreover, the crises brought on by the North China Famine of 1876–1879 greatly deepened his sympathy for his Chinese neighbors, transforming the abstract notion of identification into a deeply felt emotional bond. In other words, while mentors are important and valuable, isolation and crises can allow for a level of shared experience that supercharges the identification process, enabling a real instinctual sympathy for local people and their priorities.

It is probably also worth remembering that Richard engaged in humanitarian aid for three reasons. First, he noted that Jesus fed the hungry and healed the sick, and so being like Jesus surely did not exclude those kinds of service. Second, his reading of the gospels convinced him that the Kingdom of God promised more than individual forgiveness of sins, with implications for redeeming all aspects of life. Finally, and seemingly for him personally most significantly, Richard was compelled by his love for his fellow human beings to care for those who were suffering. When we follow Jesus’s example in loving our neighbors, that love will compel us to undertake acts of service.

On nationalism

Today we have unprecedented opportunities to be exposed to other cultures, thanks to tremendous advances in communication technologies and transportation over the last 200 years. And yet the targeted audience fragmentation of the internet encourages us to live our lives in comfortable media bubbles that affirm our biases and feed our nationalistic impulses, telling us over and over again that our thoughts and habits are normal, that we are right and “they” are wrong/different. Crossing cultures is an exercise in breaking out of the bubble, and learning to reject nationalism. It is not a blind acceptance of all models of human flourishing, for it is modelled on the Incarnate One who was a king and a servant, a prophet and a priest—who both judged and fulfilled. It requires us to embrace the incarnation, and to seek the Spirit’s guidance for how best to faithfully translate and then express Christianity within each culture.

On the similarities/differences between Timothy Richard and Matteo Ricci

Richard knew of Ricci and shared some of Ricci’s ideas about contextualization and identification. Like Ricci, he strove to present the gospel in ways that made sense from within a Chinese context—in some cases using Catholic literature that reflected Ricci’s sympathetic engagement with Chinese culture. Like Ricci, Richard also published and gave demonstrations of western science and technological advances. While both men hoped to impress and to earn favor with Chinese officials, Richard held little hope that scholar officials steeped in Confucianism would accept Christianity (he believed they were for the most part blinded to truth and thus “unworthy”). He made use of modern science and geography in order to convince Chinese elites of the practical benefits of Christianity for their nation. If they could be convinced that Christianity was no threat to their society but a potential source of blessing, then Christianity might finally become welcome in Chinese society, allowing Chinese evangelists greater freedom to spread the gospel across their nation.

It seems that we may be experiencing one of those significant historical events that will turn out to be a laboratory. I wonder what new theological insights will emerge; it seems we have much to learn from Timothy Richard.

Joann Pittman

Joann Pittman

Joann Pittman is senior vice president of ChinaSource and editor of ZGBriefs. Prior to joining ChinaSource, Joann spent 28 years working in China, as an English teacher, language student, program director, and cross-cultural trainer for organizations and businesses engaged in China. She has also taught Chinese at the University of Northwestern-St. Paul …View Full Bio


Image credit: bdyczewski from Pixabay.

Are you enjoying a cup of good coffee or fragrant tea while reading the latest ChinaSource post? Consider donating the cost of that “cuppa” to support our content so we can continue to serve you with the latest on Christianity in China.

Donate