Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Theological Lessons From China

I spent 10 days last month doing research and a little bit of teaching at Nanjing Union Theological Seminary in China. This element of my sabbatical was made possible by UnitingWorld as part of the UCA’s ongoing relationship with the China Christian Council.  This was my fifth visit to the Seminary. As always, the experience of just being there is striking on multiple fronts: 300+ full-time students, the overwhelming majority of whom are under 30; generous hospitality from students and faculty (who are phenomenally busy combining academic and church responsibilities); insights into the remarkable growth of the Chinese church and the complex issues it faces; the deeply embedded place of theological education in the Chinese church.

The particular focus on this visit was to develop my understanding of the interest of Chinese theologians in cosmic Christology. In the context of my present writing project I am citing this as an example of doctrinal development in the churches of the global south. (Of course it is not absent from the global north, but there are issues in the global south which give it a particular edge in that context.) The prominent Bishop K.H. Ting (1915-2012) was well known for his interest in this doctrine. Another theologian whose work touched on this theme was Wang Weifan (1927-2015).

Weifan was a colleague of Ting at the Nanjing Union Theological Seminary of which he was Dean. But his academic work followed early years as a pastor. He also spent 20 years in forced farm labour after being identified as a 'rightist'. (It is worth us Western theologians pausing to take in that sentence.) Recently he has come to the attention of the international theological community through references to his work in the third edition of David Ford’s The Modern Theologians and a scholarly article on his work by Alexander Chow in a 2016 issue of the international journal Modern Theology. There is also an extended account of his theology in Brill's 2016 Yearbook of Chinese TheologyIt was Chow’s writing on Weifan which first directed me to taking up this interest.

Weifan was not quite as explicitly engaged with the discourse of ‘cosmic Christology’ as Ting, but like Ting he had little interest in the reductionist Christologies of the West’s modern liberal theology. Also like Ting, he was insistent on the universal Lordship of Christ in both creation and redemption. This led to something that overlapped strongly with more explicit‘cosmic Christologies’. He is interesting also for the way he appropriated earlier, but almost forgotten, Chinese Christian theologies from the Tang (618-907) and Yuan (1271-1368) dynasties. He draws attention to the uniqueness of the Chinese Christian experience in that it already has these ancient Chinese Christian sources, developed independently of Western theological trajectories, on which to draw.

A reconstructed image
 of a Chinese 

What the commentators on his work most usually mention is his development of the concept of shengsheng shen. It means something like ‘ever-generating God’ or even ‘life-birthing life’. He notes that the earlier Chinese Christians had drawn on this idea of ‘change’ (sheng) from the Book of Changes (I Ching) which had emerged in the Zhou dynasty (770-256 BCE)

I am still getting my head around these concepts and their history. Nevertheless, what has interested me most in the reading I have done (regrettably dependent, as I am, on the English translations) is what Weifan perceives to be at stake in the process of this sort of contextualization. What follows is a brief section on this theme from the first draft of what I trust will eventually emerge in the book.

Weifan is clear about what he understands is at issue in thus drawing on ancient Chinese concepts. He seeks to pursue “theological thinking which can be refined into a theology with Chinese characteristics [and thus allow] Chinese theology will guide the Chinese Church and Chinese believers through the process of modernization in China”. What is just as interesting, however, is what he says next: “...and make a fitting gift to the Church worldwide”.[1] The same point is made when he articulates the hope that such a theology “will be more easily appreciated and accepted by the sons and daughters of the yellow Emperor – and welcomed and treasured by the Church ecumenical”.[2] Clearly, this is not an attempt to develop a parochial Chinese theology. Indeed, Weifan was himself wary of some Chinese influences on Chinese Christian thought, notably the pressure of Confucianism to “lower the status of Christianity to that of an ordinary ethical system, ignoring its transcendent aspects.”[3]  Rather, he was attempting develop a Chinese theology that could take its place in the whole church. This raises an important issue with regard to the relationship between this proposal and received doctrine. Weifan is not an unqualified innovator. He draws explicitly on an earlier teaching of the Chinese church which had itself grown out of a Chinese interpretation of the biblical teaching of the lordship of Christ. Moreover, the reference to the Chinese concept is not part of any foundationalist project. His point about the earlier appropriation of this term is not that the God of Jesus Christ was pre-figured in the concept of sheng. [4] It is much more the case that this concept is used to illuminate an existing Christian belief. After all, in the Book of Changes (Zhou dynasty, 770-256 BCE) the concept of sheng was part of a process of divinization which “attempted to explore the hidden patterns of change in order to predict the future”.[5]  Manifestly, Weifan is not suggesting that either he himself or the earlier writers are wanting to appropriate divinization techniques of the Zhou dynasty into contemporary Chinese Christianity. Rather, the concept is given Christian meaning whilst aspects of its original meaning are being used to illuminate an existing Christian concept. By introducing it into Christian discourse he expands the range of resonances the confession of Jesus' lordship evokes.

I find this dynamic of his work fascinating and would welcome any comments or insights from those familiar with his theology.

[1] Weifan, “Chinese Theology and its Cultural Sources”, Chinese Theological Review 11 (1995), 45
[2] Weifan, “Chinese Theology ”, p.48.
[3] Wang Weifan, “The Word was here made flesh”, Chinese Theological Review 8 (1992), p 95.
[4] Certainly there are other Chinese theologians who do make foundationalist appeals to traditional Chinese religions and traditions. Wang Weifan is more subtle. For an overview of other Chinese developments of Comsic Christology see Tang, “The Cosmic Christ the search for a Chinese theology”, Studies in World Christianity 1 (1995): 131-142 (p. 132).
[5] Joachim Gentz, Understanding Chinese Religions (Edinburgh: Dunedin, 2013), 45.

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