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Who Is Doing Public Theology in China?

A Book Review

Chinese Public Theology: Generational Shifts and Confucian Imagination in Chinese Christianity, by Alexander Chow (Oxford University Press, 2018).

It takes a vision to write a Chinese public theology.

The twentieth century saw a great reversal of Chinese Christianity from its most public appearance among intellectuals in the 1920s to a compressed and strictly managed public image under totalitarianism in the 1950s. Since then, the “public-ness” of the Christian faith may mean different things in each historical phase. Alexander Chow, the author of Chinese Public Theology: Generational Shifts and Confucian Imagination in Chinese Christianity, carefully traces a few generations of Christian writings since the 1950s to discuss “a Chinese Christian public consciousness” (p. 4).

That Christians have attempted “a strong public voice” in the “public space,” birthing a variety of “Chinese public discourse,” is a very important facet of Chinese Christianity that few scholars are able to capture and theorize concerning (p. 7). With a balanced perspective, the author also acknowledges that his thesis does not claim that “all Chinese Christians are developing a stronger public voice, given the tendency of the vast majority of Chinese Christians to still focus on personal piety and on an explicitly disengaged relationship with the sociopolitical context” (p. 9).

As the book shows, the social positions of these select doers of Chinese public theology have changed dramatically. In the 1950s, a group of Chinese intellectuals within the Three-Self establishment addressed public issues of how Christianity should adapt to the communist regime. In the 1980s, scholar-officials of the “two councils” (TSPM and CCC, or lianghui) were the main voices in the public arena. Since the late 1980s, Chinese academics in Sino-Christian studies reintroduced Christian thought to stir up a revived public interest. Since the late 1990s and especially the 2000s, there have been intellectuals outside the state establishment academy who embraced Calvinism and blogged their faith publicly. In 2013, the Christian sponsorship of inter-faith dialogues between China’s main streams of thought (New Left, liberalism, neo-Confucianism), known as the Oxford Consensus, marked another stage of public intellectual engagement (although it was largely unknown to people in mainland China due to censorship). Public discourses then took another turn since the de-crossing campaigns on Three-Self churches.

The book’s scope and conciseness in putting these important puzzle pieces in place is a commendable effort. The author succeeds in displaying the “fluidity” of the landscape of Christian public engagement, and his ingenious use of a sociological generational approach serves a starting point for locating the players of Chinese public theology.

Defining Chinese public theology, however, poses many difficulties. Does public theology in the Chinese context in anyway carry a different meaning? More generally defined, public theology refers to the ways in which Christian theology interacts with and responds to the public issues of a society. What then are the public issues of Chinese society? Where are the sites of public theologizing (or China’s public realms)? Are there doers of public theology besides intellectuals? What is the difference between doing public theology and public engagement? Does not the “publicness” of public theology requires a wider base of participation? The author could have addressed these questions in his definition more explicitly.

Maybe an alternative conceptualization of public theology in the Chinese context could be an issue-centered one. For example, in the 1920s, Christian intellectuals responded to a range of issues: Can Christianity reconcile with traditional Chinese culture? Is religion irrelevant to modern life? Does denominationalism discredit Christianity? Some of these themes remained to puzzle the Chinese mind, but there are also new and emerging public issues. By addressing what public issues are being discussed, one can trace other missing puzzle pieces of the whole picture.

The author rightly acknowledges that China has a divided public space with inherited rifts among streams of thought (such as New Leftists, political liberals and neo-Confucians). This is mainly seen by observing Chinese academia. The biggest reality of a divided public space in China, however, is state censorship, which has intensified in recent years. Censorship not only affected publishing and academic research (i.e. funded research projects have to echo Xi thought), it also limited the public space for Christians’ everyday interactions with society.

The way in which state censorship in China truncates the public connectedness of people and numbs their public spirit is complicated. Decades of state censorship has shaped the habits of the heart of the Chinese people to form a habitual amnesia towards public reality. Such an amnesia, coupled with fear of political persecution, is largely conducive to the lack of public spirit. In China, not every church leader is willing to challenge this systemic but invisible amnesia, and thus churches often miss opportunities to pastor professionals who have been placed in positions to publicly witness their faith.

Is state censorship to blame for the under-fulfillment of public theology in China? Has overseas Chinese Christianity, largely unaffected by the same censorship, been able to develop a public theology? Interestingly, Chinese Christianity inside mainland China and overseas can almost serve as two control groups. The fact that overseas Chinese Christianity has not produced their own public theologians is intriguing.

Going back to David Tracy’s three public realms (society, academy, and the church),[1] this book mainly focused on how intellectuals do public theology in academia (candidly termed “public intellectualism”), with a brief discussion about the public role of ministers in urban churches. Even within Chinese academia, there are now clusters of philosophers, historians, political scientists, and social scientists who are bringing Christian theology into conversation with these academic disciplines. For example, the works of Eric Voegelin, probably the world’s most important public theologian, have a wide readership in Chinese academia. Readership of other important public theologians, such as Dietritch Bonhoefffer, Reinhold Niebuhr, Nicolas Wolterstorff, Herman Dooyeeweerd, C. S. Lewis, also makes up important social realms where Chinese Christians engage with public issues. So it awaits further research to include academic players other than scholar-officials and religious studies scholars.

Are members of the Chinese society doing public theology? For Christians in professions such as journalism, NGO activism, and law, their actions are backed by a certain understanding of public theology. But a real challenge inhibiting a more public Christianity is that many of these Christian professionals find their public pursuits uneasy misfits even in their churches where piety and evangelism are stressed as the top Christian duties. On the other hand, another challenge is for Chinese Christians to avoid the tendency to move towards a social gospel type of public theology, which was a dominant approach in the Republic China among educated Christians.

Further thought about public theology in the Chinese context invites one to ask a fundamental question: what makes up the “public” in China? In a country where Christians numerically make up less than two percent of the population, and where censorship erased positive mention of Christianity (except in two news articles around 2009 and 2010), to what extent should one expect Chinese Christianity to be public? If the state takes up the biggest chunk of what is public in China, does the state have its “public theology”?

Considered from a different angle, the Chinese state has been doing a type of “public theology” that dominated the public space. As political philosopher Carl Schmitt says, all theories of statecraft are secularized theology.[2] Chinese Communism, post-Mao pragmatism, and resurging nationalistic rhetoric have always used theological concepts and ways of thinking and related them to politics, society, and economics. Is there potential for a Chinese Christian to engage with this form of public theology from a Christian perspective, as some German theologians used to theologize about their reality? It almost seems to me that one has to start with a political theology before doing public theology in the Chinese context.

Editor's Note: Our thanks to Oxford University Press for providing a complimentary copy of Chinese Public Theology: Generational Shifts and Confucian Imagination in Chinese Christianity for our reviewer.


  1. ^ David Tracy, The Analogical Imagination: Christian Theology and the Culture of Pluralism. New York: Crossroads, 1981.
  2. ^ Carl Schmitt, Political Theology. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006.
Mary Li Ma

Mary Li Ma

Mary Li Ma (MA Li) holds a PhD in sociology from Cornell University. Currently a research fellow at the Henry Institute of Christianity and Public Life at Calvin College, she and her husband Li Jin have coauthored articles, book chapters, and are the authors of Surviving the State, Remaking the Church:... View Full Bio

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