ORTHODOXY AND CHINESE PUBLIC THEOLOGY by Alexander Chow

chineseMany have noted the recent “Orthodox Renaissance” in Western studies of Christianity. Helpfully, an increasing number of Orthodox writers have produced theological primers for Western Christians. Furthermore, Western luminaries—from Aquinas to Calvin, from Barth to Torrance—have been “rediscovered” for being closet Orthodox Christians (okay, that may be a stretch) who offer their own versions of theosis. My own work has followed this latter trajectory in many senses, although it has focused on another “Eastern” Christianity—that is, the East Asian Christianity of mainland China.

My first monograph, previously reviewed on Orthodoxy in Dialogue by Michael Reardon, offers an examination into three major Protestant thinkers of 20th-century China: Watchman Nee, T.C. Chao, and K.H. Ting. Whilst representing three different theological persuasions, I show all three as having a tendency to speak about union with God—something I argue implicitly comes from the Chinese religio-philosophical teaching of the unity of Heaven and humanity (Tian ren heyi). To try to move this conversation forward, I engage Maximus the Confessor and Gregory Palamas to argue for the value of theosis and related theological themes for Chinese Protestantism.

In many ways my second work, Chinese Public Theology: Generational Shifts and Confucian Imagination in Chinese Christianity (Oxford University Press, 2018), is a sequel to this earlier work. First, it focuses on the most recent developments of Chinese Christianity in the late 20th century and into the first decades of the 21st century. Second, whilst my first book emphasizes matters related to soteriology—the doctrine of salvation, Chinese Public Theology asks questions about ecclesiology—that is, the nature of the church and its relationship with the broader state and society. Finally, my new study engages in dialogue with two more recent Orthodox thinkers, Aristotle Papanikolaou and John Zizioulas, to offer further constructive perspectives on Chinese Christianity.

China is one of the last communist-run countries in the world. Yet Christianity has defied waves of suppression and continues to grow at a phenomenal rate. Chinese Public Theology highlights an important development within Chinese Christianity which is not merely clandestine, but desires to articulate a public faith which is able to engage the state and society. Three generations have arisen since the 1980s: leaders of the two state-sanctioned national organizations of Protestantism (the Three-Self Patriotic Movement and the China Christian Council), intellectuals in the secular academy who have no faith backgrounds or ecclesial affiliations (often described as “Cultural Christians”), and a growing urban renaissance in Calvinism amongst so-called “house churches.” Chinese Public Theology shows how these recent expressions of Chinese public theology are connected with a much longer tradition, namely, a millennia-old “Confucian imagination” which teaches that a person seeks education not merely for intellectual gain, but also to be a scholar-official who could shape the running of the state and society.

The Confucian imagination offers certain peculiarities to the Chinese expression of public theology. First, there is the tendency for Chinese theologians to constantly push against the modern secular-sacred divide and, therefore, the public-private divide. I turn to Papanikolaou’s excellent work The Mystical as Political (University of Notre Dame Press, 2012) to suggest the importance of theosis as a theological basis for Chinese public and political engagement. Second, Chinese Public Theology shows that the church in China is seen as the primary vehicle for engaging in public discourse. This is explained through the metaphor of concentric circles formed by throwing a rock in a lake: what begins with an individual impacts others through marriage, having children, and growing outwards towards the broader community and society. This is an important contribution Chinese theologians have made for the broader discourse in public theology. Here, I employ the ecclesiological perspective in Zizioulas’ Being as Communion (SVS Press, 1985) to offer a more substantive reflection upon the ecclesiological challenges in Chinese Christianity and, therefore, its implications for public theology.

My hope is that Chinese Public Theology does honor to those it engages—many of whom are alive today and continue to struggle to provide a Christian public voice in an unpredictable context. Moreover, I would like to believe that the book offers some useful points of discussion and debate for scholars of Chinese studies (not limited to those in Chinese Christianity or religion) and to scholars of Christianity more broadly. It is without a doubt that the discourse around public theology—and Christian theology more generally—has much to gain from the rich theological formulations of the West, the East, and East Asia, as well as many other contexts around the globe.

Chinese Public Theology is available from Oxford University Press and Amazon.

Dr. Alexander Chow is Lecturer in Theology and World Christianity in the School of Divinity, University of Edinburgh. He is the author of Theosis, Sino-Christian Theology and the Second Chinese Enlightenment (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013) and an editor of the academic journal Studies in World Christianity (Edinburgh University Press). He maintains an academic blog at Alexander Chow and can be found on Twitter.

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