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Nonchurch Movement and Sino-Christian Theology

At the end of 2013 I visited Tokyo and Kyoto and discussed Sino-Christian theology with Japanese academics. During the time I inquired about the influence of theology on Japanese academia. A few scholars mentioned the Nonchurch movement by Uchimura Kanzo (1861–1930), who had also affected some older Taiwanese pastors. During the discussion we found that Sino-Christian theology emerged in the era of “national transformation and social change in the face of modernity”, which was quite similar to that of Kanzo at the dawn of Meiji Reform (1860–1880). Kanzo initially did not like Christianity. Since his baptism at the age of 17, he had been considering the question of two Js: how to be loyal both to Jesus and Japan. Kanzo experienced two periods of Meiji Reform which held opposite attitudes to the west: open (1882–1889) and resistant (1890–1902).

During the open period, Kanzo took advantage of the opportunity to study theology in the USA (1884–1888). But it also let him realize that the so-called Christian state and institutional churches did not equal to the “church” in the Bible. Thus the idea of nonchurch movement later emerged. He rejected ecclesial organization (administrative structure, creed and liturgy), and insisted on practicing church life with fellowship and Bible study. At the same time he thought that the Japanese traditions (Confucianism, Buddhism, Shinto, Bushido) were not contradictory to Christianity but could be “transplanted”.

In the resistant period, Kanzo reconsidered the relationship between Christianity and Japanese culture. During the first Sino-Japanese War (1894), he wore Representative Men of Japan in English, in which he emphasized that his religious thought was not derived from western missionaries but the spirit of Confucianism and Shinto honoured by Japanese sages. In the epilogue Kanzo even claimed that though all Christians might regard him as untimely, he would resist to the end with the indomitable spirit of Bushido and in the name of Christian sumurai conferred by God. In face of the rising patriotism, especially when he saw the trend of colonialism invoked by the western world, Kanzo emphasized that there could not be any compromise between nonchurch movement and nationalism, and spoke up for pacifism and cosmopolitanism. From the perspective of the development of Japanese theology, Uchimura Kanzo is often listed among the founding members.

Sino-Christian theology emerged in the 1990s from the context of Mainland Chinese academia. From the very beginning we emphasized that this movement did not come from the church and for evangelization. It is a self-initiated exploration of Christianity by Chinese intellectuals. The aim of establishing ISCS is to construct an effective public platform for gathering Chinese scholars studying Christianity and respective resources. Christian academics can thus dialogue and cooperate with other Chinese traditions (Confucianism, Daoism, Buddhism, contemporary thoughts and Marxism) and the pluralistic forms of Christianity (Catholicism, Orthodoxy, Protestantism and others). Mutual benefits and enrichment are expected to be obtained inside and outside of the church. There are of course differences between our time and Uchimura Kanzo. Nevertheless, Sino-Christian theologians can learn from his perseverance and the sacrificial spirit. His attitude towards nationalism, pacifism and cosmopolitanism are also topics to be further studied, especially as we are also living in a time of “national transformation and social change in the face of modernity”.