On June 10, our joint lecture series with the US-China Catholic Association and the China Academic Consortium continued with a lecture by Dr. Jesse Ciccotti titled, “Christian Theology in a Chinese Idiom.”
Drawing on the work of Andrew Walls, who said, “the theological agenda is culturally induced; and the cross-cultural diffusion of Christian faith invariably makes creative theological activity a necessity,” Ciccotti gave us a glimpse of what creative theological activity might look like in practice. He discussed theology as an “idiomatic activity” whereby Christian thought is expressed in ways that are natural to a cultural native, highlighting key Chinese cultural material in Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism in illustration. He closed with a discussion of the relevance of cross-cultural theological creativity, highlighting both the relevance and risks.
Knowing that many listeners might assume his lecture would be centered around traditional Chinese idioms, Ciccotti first clarified the definition of idiom, grounding it in the words of Lamin Sanneh, a Gambian Catholic historian of Islam and World Christianity and then explained further:
“Without a revealed language or even the language of its founder, Christianity staked itself on idioms and cultures that existed for purposes other than for Christianity, and to that extent Christianity came with a predisposition to embrace the marks of our primary identity. A mother-tongue response is in tune with the gospel. Accordingly, in its cultural aspects, the Christian movement provided the impetus for the flowering of a diverse and distinctive humanity by introducing the idea that no culture is inherently impermeable, nor is any one ultimately indispensable. To be grounded in your culture and to be a faithful Christian are complementary” (97).
The word “idiom” as Sanneh uses it here means a “characteristic mode of expression.” So, today I will be talking about Christian theology as expressed in ways that are characteristic of Chinese. I like to describe theology as an “idiomatic activity.” This is because theology is something we do, not merely something we know. (See lecture document)
In his concluding remarks, he asked whether it is possible for a cultural foreigner to do creative theological activity in a Chinese idiom. Ciccotti believes that it is possible, noting, however, that its “success” will be largely determined by the people for whom that culture is the water they swim in. Cultural foreigners also must be aware of their outside status and approach their giving of Christian answers (and asking questions) with an extra measure of humility. Otherwise, it may not hit the mark. And it very well may come off as “imperialist” or “colonialist.”
May we all approach our sharing of the gospel with an extra measure of humility.
Note: Two documents are available on the webinar page for downloading: the full text of the lecture, and a reading list of resources he referenced in his talk.
Image credit: Tao Fong Shan 道風山 by C K Leung via Flickr.
Joann Pittman is Vice President of Partnership and China Engagement 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 …View Full Bio
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