Who Am I? Reflection After 20 Years

June, 20 years ago, was a memorable time in the history of ISCS. It was then that we moved, one step at a time, from the main office of Tao Fong Shan Christian Centre (TFSCC) to a separate building called “Thelle House”. But that was no routine office move, for it signified the birth of a new organization, a new mission, which was to launch a new academic discipline, called Sino-Christian Theology, and to form a new organization to cultivate it, called the Institute of Sino-Christian Studies.

This is a story full of twists and turns and happenstances. It started with me being hired as the Director of Ministries of TFSCC, in June 1992, with the main responsibility of assisting the Nordic Dean to define and implement programs and tasks that would work towards fulfilling the traditional goals and purposes of Tao Fong Shan. In doing so I came upon some documents in the office, written by the previous Nordic Dean. Inspired by his writings, I set out four aspects of work for TFSCC, including (1) Christian Theology in China; (2) Christian Spirituality in China; (3) Christian art in China; (4) Dialogue between Churches and Faiths. For Christian Theology in China, Dr. LIU Xiaofeng, freshly graduated from Switzerland, took up the task. He soon established contact with Mainland scholars well known in Christian studies, and started working with them in furthering Christian studies in Mainland.

From 1992 to 1994, we set out a strategy with three fields of work: publishing, training and exchange. The programs and tasks were: translating Christian classics into Chinese, publishing Chinese theology journals, publishing Sino-Christian studies original series, inviting Chinese scholars to be resident scholars at ISCS, and in cooperation with renowned Mainland universities running Christian studies summer camps in Mainland. Within a year, we received very positive and enthusiastic response from many well-known Mainland universities to the programs we initiated. We and our Mainland counterparts saw the tremendous value and prospect in this
pioneering and ground-breaking work.

In 1990s, some Mainland scholars, perhaps due to an urge to understand and incorporate broader western thinking, took the initiative to study Christianity, as an academic discipline. This was no doubt ground-breaking in the long history of cultural interaction between China and the West. However, in working with TFSCC, these scholars did not expect that it could be a sustainable co-operation, because they were from Mainland academic institutions, while TFSCC was a church organization. The two sides might not share a common agenda and purposes. In pondering on this matter and the way forward, I reflected on the life of Rev. Karl Ludvig Reichelt, the founder of Tao Fong Shan, because he at one time also faced a similar dilemma, in his ministry to the Chinese. Rev. Reichelt arrived in Hunan, China in 1903, and in 1905, he got a special calling: “I have a different flock”. In 1920, he established the Christian Fraternity of Chinese Buddhists and in 1925, he was asked to leave his missionary organization, because what he set out to do was not on the agenda and did not fit the purposes of that organization.

Having reflected on this long and hard, we decided to explore the option of setting up a bona-fide academic research institute that would truly stand alone and be separate from any church organizations. We first deliberated on the nature and composition of the Board of Directors, considering that members should in fact represent themselves individually on the Board, not any organization they might be associated with, so as to avoid the research institute being influenced or dominated by certain church groups, faiths or traditions. Meanwhile, since members would come from different churches, faith, or academic backgrounds, while they would agree on most matters, they would disagree on some, but they would respect each other and be tolerant to allow the research institute to meet its goals. We conceived that after it had been established, the research institute would start to have its own office, finance and personnel, so that it could operate on its own in publishing, training and academic exchanges. The research institute was not expected to make financial gain through its work.

We spent a whole year deliberating on this matter, and held numerous meetings, at home and abroad. As a result, at the end of 1994 and March 1995, the Board of Directors of TFSCC and the Nordic Board of Directors agreed to register a non-profit organization in Hong Kong called the Institute of Sino-Christian Studies (ISCS). I then resigned from TFSCC as Associate Dean and Program Director, and was appointed as the Executive Director of ISCS. This was how ISCS began. It aims to promote academic exchanges between religions and cultures and to establish Sino-Christian theology, without excluding interaction and co-operation with church groups. In the last 20 years, our work has been operating smoothly, experiencing no hindrance on either political or church levels. Instead, we have received plenty of recognition and encouragement.

Since its start, ISCS has been financed mainly from the fund set up after a land sale for real estate development. This financial source, however, is dwindling due to economic down-turns in recent years. Over the last twenty years, ISCS has been shouldering alone the Sinicization of Christianity, serving traditions such as the Judaeo-Christian tradition, the Church of the East, the Catholic Church, the Eastern Orthodox Church, and Protestant churches. We have accomplished a lot, and benefited many. However, the present global financial situation will not permit us to continue to shoulder this task alone. We would like to call upon all those in academic and church communities, at home and abroad, to walk with us on this journey. You might have asked us 20 years ago, “What is your vision?” Now, 20 years later, we can state boldly that, our vision is “to promote study of Sino-Christian theology in China’s academic communities, build Sino-Christian theology, enrich Chinese culture, and make Christian studies part of China’s academic disciplines.”