Although the Christian faith is believed to have reached the shores of China back in the 8th century, it is still generally perceived as a foreign or Western religion by many cultural Chinese1 today. Some even consider the evangelization of cultural Chinese a form of cultural invasion.
‘One more Christian, one fewer Chinese’ was the chant of the 4 May 1919 movement in China that reinforced the misconception that when one chooses to follow Jesus, one has renounced one’s Chinese identity to go after a foreign or Western god and ideology. One of the greatest offenses a Chinese commits when he pledges allegiance to Jesus is that he has betrayed his ancestors and nation.
According to historian Wu XiaoXin, the propaganda that has impacted the Chinese the most is the claim that ‘Religion is the opium of the people.’ The fact that many of the Western missionaries to China in the mid-1800s rode on the coattails of the opium traders to bring the gospel to the locals means that this statement carries significant baggage.
Cultural Chinese worldview
The worldview of present-day cultural Chinese around the world has undeniably been shaped, in varying the degrees, by the ‘Three Religions’:
- the Religion of the Learned (Confucianism);
- the Religion of the Way (Taoism); and
- the Religion of Buddha.
Today, although Confucianism is not the formal ideology of many cultural Chinese, its influence on their worldview, culture, and social life remains powerful and undeniable due to its historical significance.
For example, the value placed on education and filial piety can be traced to Confucius’s teachings about how life ought to be ordered. While it is possible to detect the metaphysical footprints of Taoism and the existential projections of Buddhism in the cultural Chinese worldview, the philosophy that has most profoundly shaped the cultural Chinese conception of life and reality has been the Religion of the Learned.
Based on the philosophy and teachings of the ancient statesman, philosopher, and educator Kung Fu-tzu (551-479 BC), Confucianism’s pragmatic principles especially addressed the social dimension of human existence. Many labels have been given to what Confucianism really is, from humanism to a complex regimen of rituals, but essentially Confucianism is about how to better ourselves and society through self-cultivation and self-effort.
Confucius was especially concerned that men should develop as humans in the most moral sense:
- Thus, the central idea of Confucianism is that every normal person can aspire to be the Noble or Superior Man—superior to his fellows, if possible, but surely superior to his own past and present self.
- A moral code based on benevolence towards others and the development of self and society via proper education and practice of virtues are key ideals of Confucianism.
- These ideals would eventually lead towards the flourishing of humanity and the achievement of the Noble Man. In other words, the Noble Man is really what it means to be human.
Accordingly, the cultivation of the Noble Man would be impossible without a proper social environment that is conducive to inner harmony and the development of harmonious relationships with others. Confucius viewed the self as the center of a nexus of relationships: family, friends, society, and state. Hence, it is essential that the harmony of five cardinal relationships be maintained at all costs: ruler to ruled, father to son, husband to wife, brother to brother, and friend to friend.
Jesus, the path to human flourishing
In view of the historical disrepute of the Christian faith among the cultural Chinese, one persuasive way to present the gospel is by addressing what resonates with their aspirations and values, especially with regard to human flourishing as defined by the ideals of Confucianism.
Although most cultural Chinese hold to an optimistic view of humanity, the bitter experiences faced by China, particularly in the last century, have exposed the weakness of both the society and culture. Despite centuries of striving towards the ideal of the Noble Man and human flourishing, they are not making the kind of progress for which they had hoped.
Most cultural Chinese would concede that it does not take too much soul-searching to admit that humanity does seem to possess weaknesses that make it impossible for us to reach our aspiration of the Noble Man. Thus, this longing for human flourishing and the cultivation of a moral self present two great openings to express the relevance of the Christian faith for the Chinese culture:
1. The problem of sin
While the Christian belief in original sin and depravity has always been alien and even offensive to many cultural Chinese, they can certainly identify with sin in reality—in their own lives as much as in the lives of others. We can safely say that Confucius’s counsel of self-cultivation has not been able to bring about the human flourishing we hope to achieve. In fact, the basic human predicament seems to be the incapacity to realize such an ideal. As Christians we are not surprised by this common human failure—‘all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God’ (Rom 3:23).
2. The Good News for cultural Chinese
The aspiration of human flourishing and becoming a Noble Man may be unattainable on our own, but we do not have to do it on our own. The path towards that hope is open to us in Christ:
For I bear them witness that they have a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge. For, being ignorant of the righteousness of God, and seeking to establish their own, they did not submit to God’s righteousness. For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes (Rom 10:2-4).
Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me’ (Jn 14:6).
As we examine the gospel, we see it is about human flourishing. The Good News is that God has sent his own Son to restore the shalom that has been disrupted by sin. While it is easy for us to assume that shalom equals peace and harmony, biblical shalom encompasses much more than that:
- Shalom as expressed in Scripture incorporates not just peace but universal flourishing, wholeness, and delight—the way things ought to be.2
- It is a rich state of affairs where there is contentment, where humanity fulfils its vocation, and where humanity is in perfect fellowship with its Creator and Savior.
Theologian Cornelius Plantinga, Jr, cogently describes biblical shalom as a state in which the physical world, humanity, its cultures and ethnicities, families, married couples, friends, and individuals all exist in wholeness while enjoying edifying relations with each other and encouraging one another’s virtues.3
When viewed this way, Confucius’s ideal of human flourishing very much reflects the shalom that Jesus came to restore. In fact, as considered earlier, much of what is central to the cultural Chinese’s attainment of human flourishing is the preservation of relationships. Maintaining the goodwill of existing relationships and seeking reconciliation where necessary towards a harmonious society and an inner harmony are part of the notion of human flourishing. If that is the case, we can certainly relate biblical shalom to the Chinese idea of human flourishing.
Jesus, the Son of Heaven
While Confucius was right in his prognosis of humanity’s purpose, he was too optimistic about man’s ability to perfect himself. History and experience inform us that we will never be able to achieve biblical shalom (or human flourishing) on our own. As such, in Shangdi’s4 love and wisdom, he has sent the ultimate Son of Heaven, who humbled himself to enter into his creation as one of us to show us what it is like to live in the way he intended us to, according to the example set by him.
Jesus, the Son of Heaven, first atones for our sins so that we may be saved from them if we accept him. He also sends the Holy Spirit to help us live righteously and virtuously. In short, the gospel to the cultural Chinese is this: salvation from the penalty of sin and victory over its power in our lives, which consequently opens the way to flourishing and shalom. Instead of self-effort, Christ has already provided a way for us towards that end, which we may attain by trusting in him.
When the narrative of the gospel is presented this way, it avoids the common pitfall of being perceived as a foreign solution to the cultural Chinese’s existential problem. Rather, it seamlessly corresponds with Confucius’s ideals for humanity but with a realistic solution.
The realization that the Christian message is the missing piece to Confucius’s puzzle of the Noble Man could be extremely significant for a cultural Chinese person considering the claims of Jesus:
- This means that a cultural Chinese person can be a follower of Christ without having to shed his ethnic identity.
- In fact, by choosing the path of Jesus, the uniqueness of one’s culture and ethnicity is affirmed, as the Lord of Heaven is the Creator of all.
- There will be no identity dilemma—one can be Chinese and a Christian with honor.
Finally, articulating the gospel this way also avoids the common mistake of communicating the gospel as if it is solely about the salvation of our soul, or even more simplistically, that Jesus is merely our passport to heaven upon death. The gospel is not just about forgiveness of our sins and going to heaven when we die.
Ultimately the message of Christianity is about the acts of God in human time and space, and most significantly, the acts of God in Christ that took place in real time past. When we begin to consider our faith within the framework of the big narrative of humanity, we will see why it is compelling that we want to live out this truth, this good news of life as it is intended to be, and share it with those around us. The Apostle Paul clearly understood that the meaning, purpose, and satisfaction of his life came by aligning his life with God’s historical objectives.
God has been working out his plan for thousands of years, first through the nation of Israel and now through the body of Christ. If you are part of the body of Christ, then you too have a role in this big narrative. It is only when we see this relevance of the gospel to all peoples that we can proclaim along with Paul: ‘woe to me if I do not preach the gospel . . . ’ (1 Cor 9:16).
1 ‘Cultural Chinese’ is used in this article (as opposed to simply ‘Chinese’) to include all diaspora Chinese around the world—Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam, Philippines, etc—in addition to those from mainland China.
2 Cornelius Plantinga, Jr, Not The Way It’s Supposed To Be: A Breviary of Sin (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm B Eerdmans, 1995), 10.
3 Ibid, 100.
4 Shangdi is the title used to refer to the Supreme Lord or literally, ‘Lord of Heaven’.