Visit to China
I’ve been away from this blog during a week-long visit to China as an invited contributor to the First Nishan Forum on World Civilizations, held in Jining, 26-27 September. The event involved ca. 60 contributors and over 200 registered participants, mainly from China but a number of westerners as well. The focus was on Confucianism and Christianity.
As is widely known, China is exploding economically, and the cities are chockfull of impressive skyscrapers and other buildings, new cars, stores selling luxury goods, new highways, bullet-trains that go over 300 kph, and much more. Everything is big: e.g., I was told there are ca. 1 million university students in Nanjing alone! Jining, a lesser-known city in Shandong Province is 8.1 million population!
Among the many different impressions that I’m still trying to sort out is the somewhat uncomfortable sense that the event was heavily managed for propaganda purposes. That’s understandable, given that the Chinese govt funded the event. It’s understandable that the govt would want to spin things to promote China in the world.
But I found it slightly disturbing that in an event supposed to be a “dialogue” some of those chosen for the panel-discussions (specifically some representing a Confucianist stance) chose to engage in irrelevant and unnecessary comparisons of Confucianism and Christianity (always, of course, the latter portrayed in simplistically negative terms). To be sure, these were a minority, and there were also a number of respected Chinese scholars who took a much more balanced and generous stance. But I did wonder why such aggressiveness or defensiveness was displayed.
In a few cases these zealots tried to argue that Chinese people weren’t religious, didn’t need gods, that Christianity was simply a colonizer religion, etc. So, in this light are the 100+ million Chinese Christians not true Chinese? You see the danger.
It’s perfectly right that China and Chinese people should recognize Confucius as an important figure, a key figure in Chinese heritage and cultural identity. Christians and other “minorities” can acknowledge Confucius as a great sage and teacher. But the “ism” in “Confucianism” could be a problem unless the govt proceeds wisely. China’s comparatively greater moral stature in the world today is not the result of its remarkable economic development, but rather from the sense that the govt has granted the people a comparatively greater measure of freedom. To date, however, this is primarily a greater economic freedom. China’s aspiration for further growth in moral stature in the world will come as the govt grants the people still greater freedoms in thought, expression, belief, and in aspirations.
My own paper was a study of two second-century Christian texts, Epistle to Diognetus and Justin Martyr’s Apology, and I argued that these texts provide a case-study of Christians affirming their particularity while also seeking to play a positive role as good citizens in their non-Christian society. I propose that these texts provide a good model for Chinese Christians, and also perhaps for the Chinese govt in taking a flexible attitude toward religious diversity.