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Working out a Chinese Public Theology

Three Preliminary Guidelines, Part 2

From the series Working out a Chinese Public Theology


In my previous post, I suggested three guidelines for working out a public theology for today’s China and discussed the first of those guidelines. In this post we look at the second and third guidelines.

Responsive to Themes and Questions in Chinese Christian History

Conceptions of public theology are not new in China. It would be a mistake to imagine Christian followers throughout Chinese history had nothing to say on the matter. However, I suspect many of today’s Chinese Christians are either not particularly familiar with these perspectives or have not assessed Chinese Christian history itself through the lens of public theology. As such, new studies in scripture should be paired with new readings of Chinese Christian history, mindful of themes and questions that merit thought and application today. I believe this is another important means for working out Chinese public theology.

Earlier this summer, I had the opportunity to attend an academic conference on the contributions of indigenous Chinese Christians. A large number of papers presented were historical in nature, highlighting prominent Chinese Christians from the late Qing Dynasty on through the early years of the People’s Republic. Within many of these biographical sketches were echoes of public theologies at work.

Among those presented were Xi Shengmo (1836-1896), the Confucian scholar turned Christian pastor who trained up indigenous Christian leaders while setting up rehabilitation centers for opium addicts, Gao JiCheng (1886-1938), a medical missionary doctor who paradoxically is lifted up as a Communist hero today, and Li Guanfang (1896-1937), an elite Christian woman of the Republic era whose participation and leadership in the Christian Literature Society reflected dramatic shifts in her faith and theology based on her desire to contribute to China’s national salvation.

Within each of these person’s lives is a public theology at work, even if it is never formally articulated. Each of these Chinese Christians made decisions with tremendous implications for public life based on their faith commitments. Each made these decisions in contexts of tremendous political, social, and cultural change. As such, today’s Chinese Christians would do well to turn to the forefathers and mothers in the faith within their own country for wisdom on how to live out their faith in public ways.

The careful study of Chinese Christian history will not only provide persons of interest to learn from, but can also yield larger themes for critical reflection. Promise Hsu posted some preliminary thoughts on the role of public theology in China today, putting the issue of earthly and heavenly citizenship in China in such a historical context:

It was Western missionaries who built almost all the first, modern institutions of higher learning in China. Their most influential ideas turned out to be about how to modernize China. Some who could not fully agree with such ideas left, establishing theological seminaries where the death of Jesus Christ on the cross and his resurrection figured prominently. In a sense, the former helped shape the modernization drive in China since the late nineteenth century, and the latter helped shape the movement of the independent Chinese church and later the house church. The former was basically deprived of Christian eschatology which was replaced with the messianic promise virtually within this world. The latter stayed with biblical apocalypticism but seemed not to have much to say about its relevance in both the broader and more specific areas of life. In both, the relationship between the eternal and temporal worlds was much reduced.

All of the prominent Chinese Christians noted above lived and acted within the context Hsu notes. As such, this concise summary of the split between “this world” and “other worldly” Christianity within Chinese history makes for a significant theme that must be revisited in light of today’s new social-cultural context. I believe some of the work of Chinese public theologians in the upcoming years will require a reconciliation of this split. Thoughtful historical analysis can provide keys to building this new framework. In the end, a well-constructed public theology is not only the work of the present, but also the work of the past.

Engaging the Daily Life of Chinese Citizens

While church-state relations and historical awareness are important for working out public theology in China, the results must have real and concrete implications for public life en masse. To that end, I believe a mindful eye and a compassionate heart may be the best tools everyday Chinese Christians can utilize to shape a new Chinese public theology.

Chinese Christians must live their everyday lives in numerous public spaces like all other Chinese citizens: commuting to and from work, visiting with friends at restaurants, attending concerts or shows, taking walks in the park, shopping at the mall, etc. Within each and every one of these is an opportunity to put one’s faith on intentional display. In this sense public theology is simply “theology for the public,” not only about tense matters related to governance, but also mundane ones like ordering food and paying the bill. Does not our faith have as much to say concerning how we behave in the latter as the former?

In another recent Chinese Church Voices post, a Nanjing church was highlighted for its ministry of prayer for parents of children taking China’s university entrance examination (the “Gao Kao”). The church was deeply aware of the public context surrounding it, inviting worried parents to tea and adjusting Sunday worship so as to not disturb students taking tests nearby. This incident struck me as a prime example of a lived theology for the public, actions taken for the common good of all motivated by faith.

In this sense, public theology is not only for church leaders and scholars to work out, but every Chinese Christian. If the gospel is good news to all, it must be displayed in public ways that spotlight the character of God. ChinaSource’s Faith and Generosity in China Initiative is another example of the ways in which a robust public theology can shift culture, perhaps first within the church itself but ultimately outward into greater society. So while the work of articulating a public theology will be tense and messy on certain issues, it can also be a joyful and innovative process.

It has become a cliché to note China’s dramatic social and cultural transformation in recent years. Perhaps less common is the question of how the church’s theological convictions might develop alongside it, especially as it pertains to public theology. The Christian faith has always been one of intentional engagement with the world around it. It is this posture that has made it a global faith. So as Chinese society changes, Chinese Christians are faced with the challenge of working out a public theology that might position the church in transformative new ways.

In these two posts, I've suggested three guidelines for that work concerning the Chinese church’s relations with the state, its own history, and the rhythms of everyday life. I pray all three areas are constantly held up as resources and foils from which to grow. I am thankful for the many other scholars and practitioners that have posted their thoughts here on ChinaSource as a means of enriching my own engagement and I hope my thoughts provide others the same.

Image credit: Church of Tianjin City by廷 温 via Flickr.

Easten Law

Easten Law

Easten Law is a PhD student in theological and religious studies at Georgetown University in Washington, DC.  His research examines the dynamics of religious pluralism and public theology in Chinese society. View Full Bio