CATHOLIC NEWS OF THE WEEK . Saturday, 19 August 2017

Print Version    Email to Friend
Is Christianity a blight on the religious ecology of China?

HONG KONG (SE): A leading scholar in the study of religion within a framework of what is referred to as a Chinese religious ecology, Mou Zhongjian, credits what he calls the wrong-headed policies of Mao Zedong with setting the stage for the revival of Christianity in the 1980s after the country began to open up.
 
Mou contends that Mao, in his effort to kill off all religion, including indigenous religio-cultural expressions, the traditional religious ecology of China was put out of balance and, since there was nothing to replace it, bequeathed a vacuum of both values and ritual, both of which people thirsted for.
 
Mou notes that when China began its economic reforms in the 1980s, Christianity also saw a marked increase in many rural areas, but by the 2000s, its rapid spread was also becoming an increasingly urban phenomenon.
 
He notes that this has left many wondering how a religion so foreign to traditional Chinese spiritual sensibilities could experience so great an increase in so short a time.
 
Mou expresses an inclination to be critical of Christianity as being what he terms an exclusivist religion and quotes examples of Christian pastors in China condemning ritual practices common at Ghost Festivals and other such indigenous religious celebrations.
 
But by removing themselves from many indigenous practices, he says that Christian Churches often reinforced a view held by local people that Christianity was bringing bad luck to them and an article posted by ChinaSource quotes a study from Chen Xiaoyi relating how one Christian group was blamed for bringing disease into a village, because it refused to offer sacrifice to a deity.
 
For Mou, the opposition of Christianity towards the integration of Buddhist, Taoist and Confucian beliefs into popular practices is a sign that as a religion, it is incompatible with the traditional religious ecology of China.
 
However, he believes that the state persecution of all religions and efforts to eradicate or control them are counter-productive, and he is a strong advocate for state policies that promote popular belief systems, as the country’s distinctive sense of religious plurality can serve to enhance cultural competitiveness and soft power.
 
Mou describes one of the major goals of his work as demonstrating that this is necessary in order to bring back a degree of balance to the indigenous religious ecology and consequently, Chinese society as a whole.
 
Chen, who is also a scholar of religious ecology, lays the bulk of the blame for the disintegration of popular belief systems on elite groups in society, saying that even if they have not persecuted them, they have long ignored them, depriving religion itself of its appropriate role in the construction of a religious eco-system.
 
He notes that this creates a knowledge vacuum in China of one of the most fundamental dynamics in the lives of many people, leaving the state with a warped understanding of what makes people tick.
 
Mou maintains that it is necessary for the state to understand the relationship among religions, the relations between religions and their social environments and relations among believers within religions in order to be able to promote harmony in society.
 
He also goes into the relationship between religious believers and their social environment, as well as among religious elements within the individual psychological make up and between religious elements and the relationship between ideas that are not immediately obvious to the senses that religious believers possess with the individual environment.
 
However, he laments the decline of the traditional Chinese religious culture which promoted harmony and morality, and dialogue and peace.
 
He says that this culture is best expressed in the teaching of Confucianism, Buddhism and Taoism, which can blend and operate seamlessly in the everyday lives of people, something which he contends Christianity has failed to do.
 
In order to return an equilibrium to the religious cultural environment, Mou believes that the exclusivist teachings of both Marxism and Christianity must be opposed.
 
However, Chen also claims that 19th century colonialism has much to answer for, as he believes it inflicted an inferiority complex on those who lived by the dictums of popular belief systems, a process in which he points out Christianity played no small part.
 
ChinaSource notes, “Framed as an urgent need to recalibrate China’s religious eco-system, the study of popular beliefs and popular religion is thus set against both party line polemics of religion as superstition and exclusivist conceptions of the Christian religion as the only real truth.”
 
It adds, “Scholars like Mou and Chen believe this position’s support for popular forms of religious belief and practice stands against both Christian and Marxist exclusivism, arguing for a religious pluralism they believe to be more consistent with the lived reality of Chinese people.”
 
The theories of Mou and Chen issue both a challenge to and a warning for Christian Churches in China, as the theories on which they base their work do not coincide with the self-definition that the Christian Church would use in describing itself.
 
Mou perceives Christianity as an exclusivist religion birthed from a religious culture obsessed with social domination and unity of thought, something which it has in common with Marxism. 
 
He also regards all religion as not containing a distinctive essence so much as carrying within it the sociocultural goals and individual hopes and desires of believers.
 
While he laments the stupidity of the policies of Mao that contributed so much to the rebirth of Christianity in China, Mou recognises it as a reality that is not going to go away, so the challenge, he believes, is to help it become a positive force in society.
 
His message to Christians is that it is essential that it contribute to the task of creating a harmonious socio-religious environment, as this is essentially connected with the struggle for religious freedom.
 
He also sees the manner in which Churches present themselves before members of other faith traditions as vital, saying that posturing as a witness without being confrontational is essential, as Chinese Christians cannot argue for more openness for their own faith, while at the same time engaging in sustained polemics with others.
 
ChinaSource concludes that on the one hand, the theory put forward by Mou and Chen supports the positive role spirituality and religious life play in Chinese culture and society, especially by pushing against traditional Communist policies that label religions as superstitious.
 
But on the other hand, their position still views Christianity as a divisive and foreign presence that disturbs the pragmatic and harmonious orientation of popular beliefs and practices, implying that it is a blight on China’s religious ecology.

More from this section