Article—Issue 20 (August, 2016)
Senior Lecturer University of Leeds
I will always be grateful for the opportunity to teach modern western Church History at Divinity School of Chung Chi College from January to May 2015. Having spent 40 years teaching and writing about Christianity in Africa, this was, for me an exciting opportunity to learn about a new part of God’s world and about the place of Christianity in East Asia. My work in Leeds had been specifically about Africa. Coming to Chung Chi gave me a wonderful opportunity to re-engage with the classical curriculum of Church History, which I taught for many years in Uganda, at the Bishop Tucker Theological College, Mukono. The students in Mukono, like many at Chung Chi, were training for ordination: to be pastors, educationalists, pastoral workers, directly contributing to the life of the Church. Having been teaching for 20 years in a secular university in England, where few of my students were ministerial candidates, and where many had no Christian commitment, I enjoyed getting back to living and working in a Christian community, as I had done for 20 years in Africa. In Britain church history has often been squeezed out, even on theological programmes, in favour of more directly “relevant” contemporary subjects. It was heartening that the students were so positive about learning the history of Christianity, and were very keen to make connections between western church history and their own contexts and the life of their own churches. For me, it was also a great opportunity to look at the development of Christianity in China in the light of presenting material about Europe and America.
The course in 1648—the Peace of Westphalia, which ended the Thirty Years War. The religious conflict between Catholics and Protestants was at the centre of this dark period in European history. The settlement at the end marked a turning point. Thereafter it was recognised that neither Protestant nor Catholic could monopolise the religious landscape of Europe. There had to be a measure of mutual acceptance. But it was very limited, in that the ruler was the one who decided whether the state should be Catholic, Lutheran or Reformed. This was still not a guarantee of general religious toleration. If you were a minority community under a ruler of a different confession your freedoms would be curtailed. The attitude of the Qing rulers to religion was very different—the Kangxi Emperor and his successors had a broadly tolerant attitude to a wide variety of faith-expressions. Moreover Buddhism, Daoism, Confucian social ethics, were not seen as mutually exclusive or incompatible. Catholic missionaries, initially welcomed and valued (not least as astronomers and mathematicians) were increasingly seen as alien to Chinese cultural norms, and Chinese Christian were hard pressed.
One of the popular areas in the course for students was the topic of Enlightenment. As a movement within western Christian history the Enlightenment is often seen positively as a time when different religious perspectives could learn to tolerate each other, when Christians learnt to be less dogmatic about their faith. But, it is also seen as the end of the time when religious faith permeated culture as a whole. With enlightenment comes secularisation, and the increasing marginalisation of faith in the West. “Enlightenment” was an important concept for many Chinese intellectuals from the late 19th century. It motivated the Chinese Reform movement, which led to the creation of the Republic in 1912. There were positive gains for Chinese Christianity—it saw an upsurge in the popularity of Christian colleges and universities, offering an alternative to the classical education for the traditional civil service exams, in science and technology, foreign languages and literatures. But “Enlightenment” was also hostile or indifferent to religion generally, dubbing it “superstition”, something to be overcome in a modern society. Protestant Christianity sympathised with campaigns to overcome superstition. But in China the legacy of the “Unequal Treaties”, and the sense that western Christian nations were complicit in the undermining of Chinese civilisation, meant that Christianity in the early part of the twentieth century was often seen as a hindrance rather than a help in the regeneration of China. I recently met a Chinese PhD student in York. He is studying the culture and politics of Guangzhou in early Republican China and recommended to me an interesting book by Lu Yan entitled Re-Understanding Japan: Chinese Perspectives 1895-1945 (University of Hawaii Press, 2004). It describes how many of the intellectuals of the May 4th movement had looked to Japan for inspiration about how to modernise China without accepting western religious values. Their admiration of Japan was inexorably eroded as imperialism and militarism came to dominate Japan. During the HK Film Festival last year, I attended a number of great films produced in China, including one called The Golden Era, based on the life of the novelist Xiao Hong. She was a friend of the great writer Lu Xun. During the disturbances of the Japanese occupation of Shanghai she became a refugee, and ended up in Hong Kong, where she died of TB in 1942, in the chaotic conditions immediately after the Japanese invasion. Another great writer of this period, was Yu Dafu, whose short stories I love, for their humanity and simplicity of life. He died under mysterious circumstances towards the end of the war, possibly executed. A book which I bought in the CUHK bookshop is by Rana Mitter, A Bitter Revolution: China’s Struggle with the Modern World (Oxford 2004).
Christians played an important role in Japan in resisting the disastrous militaristic and expansionist forms of modernity. The Christian prophet Uchimura Kanzo rejected western forms of denominationalism, and established the “No-church movement”. He had risen to fame when he refused to bow sufficiently to the portrait of the Emperor, which became obligatory in all schools after 1890. His Christian pacifism led him to oppose the implicit idolatry of ultra-nationalism. Another admirable Japanese witness against militarism was the painter Matsumoto Shunsuke (1912-48). As a result of meningitis he became profoundly deaf as a teenager. He resisted attempts to make artists simply conform to state requirements, to stop painting their own themes, and only act as patriotic war artists:. “We do not stop painting even in the most difficult environment because the act of creating means for us our step-by-step, gradual growth as human beings.” Some of his most impressive pictures are self-portraits, in which he deliberately adopts a resolutely non-militaristic posture. I don’t think Matsumoto was a Christian, but he was a contemporary and friend of the Catholic sculptor, Yasutake Funakoshi (1912-2002), who created a moving monument in Nagasaki to the 26 Christian martyrs of Japan, who were crucified for their faith in 1597.
Another popular topic in the course was the themes of Christian revival in European and American history—pietism, evangelicalism, the holiness movement and Pentecostalism. For many of us these are living traditions, as they have shaped our own conversion experiences, and provide the bedrock of the spirituality of the churches to which we belong. This is “soul religion”, which speaks profoundly to our existential needs. It reiterates for us, in personal terms, the great themes of justification by faith, the infilling of the spirit, the sense of being loved by God, the desire to express that love in active service. While in Hong Kong, I read Lian Xi’s book Redeemed by Fire: The Rise of Popular Christianity in Modern China (Yale 2010), with its stories of how revivalist Christianity has been interpreted within a Chinese cultural context: the ‘Jesus family’, John Sung, Watchman Nee and the ‘Little Flock’, the indefatigable Wang Mingdao. At the Anglican Cathedral in Hong Kong I became friendly with someone whose was brought up in South Africa, where his dad ministers to a Chinese Cantonese Christian community in Johannesburg. We had a lot in common, having spent long periods of our lives in Africa. When I told him that a new edition of Wang Mingdao’s sermons and periodical articles had been published, he got excited: his dad was a great admirer.
The revivalist tradition is a strong, living tradition. It sometimes has a strong American cultural veneer, in terms of the hymns and theological controversies. Sometimes we can react negatively to its conservatism, its ethical rigidity, its narrow ways of interpreting the Bible. When I taught in Africa, often my best students were those who had come from a strong revivalist tradition, who were “serious” about their religion, and who knew their bible intimately. But they were often the ones, also, who refused simply to accept the superficial answers to difficult theological questions, nonwho felt reluctant to be overly dogmatic and wanted to engage in serious discussion with other points of view. I was glad that I felt that similar willingness to engage and discuss among the students at Chung Chi.
Contemporary Christian Life
There were many challenges for Christians in China. I experienced the aftermath of the Occupy Central movement, and saw the commitment of so many students to the values which it represents. I also learnt a lot about what it means to be a Christian in Haunzhou and Hangzhou, Shanghai or Beijing. I experienced the commitment of many to women’s rights, to gay issues, to the environment. It was inspiring to learn about the youth work, and evangelism, the inter-religious dialogue and work among migrants, the ministries for Philippine domestic workers, and African refugees. The Chung Chi chapel is a moving place to pray, and I appreciated the weekly communal worship there, as well as preaching at the Union Church in Kowloon, the Anglican St John’s cathedral, and the Blessed Minorities Community Church.
I loved exploring the varied landscape of HK—I went on a sponsored walk of 20 miles on HK Island, raising money for advocacy work among domestic workers. I enjoyed climbing Lion’s Rock and Lantau Peak, visiting the fishing village of Tai O, and the clan villages of Tai Po. I ascended the 400 steps from my flat to the grocery store most days, and enjoyed the company of friends at the various canteens and restaurants on campus. The musical life at the Cultural Centre in Tsim Sha Tsui (both Chinese and western classical) was superb. The art museums in Kowloon and at the university were inspiring. The book shop café at CUHK was a great place to meet friends, and the square outside the MTR was a great performance space for street music and dance.
The experience of being at Chung Chi was memorable and stimulating. I made many friends, and I am thankful to God for the experience. It helped me to reflect on Western Church History with new varifocal lenses: adding an Asian to my African perspective.