The Prophetic Task of Chinese Christianity Featured

by on Friday, 05 September 2014 Comments


Chinese Christianity is confronted to many challenges, some of them present from the start of its history, others fostered by current social and political conditions. There is however one challenge that I would like to point out, which is not proper to China but about which Chinese Christians could, I believe, make a difference that would, on the long term, hugely impact World Christianity.

As in other parts of the world, Chinese Christians inherited the divisions that came from the history of the West: the "Eastern {Syrian} Church" that modestly expanded in China around the 5th-9th centuries was already marked by the theological and cultural divisions agitating the Church during that period. Tridentine Catholicism firmly shaped the Chinese Church from the end of the 16th century onwards. The arrival of Protestant missionaries during the nineteenth century radically diversified China's religious landscapes. Cultural differences among the Catholic religious congregations that were in charge of the missionary endeavor also fostered different types of devotion and liturgical sensitivities. Even Orthodoxy has left some marks on Chinese Christianity.

Such diversity is not without merits. It offers various outlooks on Christian traditions and overall understanding. It opened up a variety of paths for the development of local communities. Still, Chinese Christianity taken as a whole has suffered from the hostility and misunderstandings that the various denominations have brought with them and that some of its leaders are stirring even today. If open hostility is usually avoided, indifference and self-centered development are the norm, to the extent that Protestant and Catholics often have difficulties to recognize each other as sharing the same creed and the same baptism. The ecumenical encounters that may happen are enforced by the state administration, and have no impact on grassroots communities. Each Church is mainly preoccupied with its endogenous growth, and even when religious groups are subjected to the same challenges (as is recently the case in Zhejiang province and, progressively, other places) they are at pains to identify a commonality of interests. 

Making China a beacon of ecumenical cooperation sounds like a far-away ideal, a dream without basis in reality. However, would not such cooperation be a road for the development of Chinese Christianity by healing past misunderstandings, and asserting a communion of faith conducive to a better appreciation of Christian ethos by Chinese society as a whole? Would it not be a "conversion within the conversion" that would give impetus and accrued reflexivity to Christian Churches experiencing the challenges associated with rapid, sometimes anarchic growth? Would it not give them accrued leverage upon the state? And, more importantly, would it not be a way to mobilize Chinese traditional resources of religious toleration by showing the world ways to pragmatically but purposefully overcome past divisions within Christianity?

It is precisely because Chinese Christianity is in a predicament that it needs to look for inventive ways of developing and asserting itself. And instead of being seen by other Churches as a "mission field" that permanently needs help and support from them, China's Churches could and should be making a decisive contribution to the future of Christianity. There is no better way for this than being at the frontline when it comes to the overcoming of the divisions that Western Churches brought with them along with the Gospel of reconciliation.

Photo by Liang Zhun

Benoit Vermander (魏明德)

Benoit Vermander lives in Shanghai. He teaches philosophy and religious anthropology at the University of Fudan.

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