The Sinicization of Christianity, Dr. Karl Ludvig Reichelt and Sino-Christian Theology

In 2012, the academia put the topic “Sinicization of Christianity” on the agenda for discussion. Since then the church community and people involved in politics have shown interest and responded. Thus within the last few years the topic has got unprecedented attention and is now hot. Some scholars would point out that this topic actually goes all the way back to Jingjiao of Tang Dynasty, and has been around ever since, for 1300 years, in the Yuan, Ming and Qing Dynasties, during the Republic, and as recent as the 1990’s. We can therefore understand why Prof. Wang Xiaochao of Tsinghua University, Adviser of the Academic Committee of ISCS, says that viewed from the history of philosophical development in China, Christianity will never be Sinicized. In the academia, various terms have arisen in the last one hundred years and they have aroused discussions, such as localization, indigenization, contextualization, etc. In recent years, national security and religious security have been brought into the discussion as well. These are new points of view and how they would involve worth our attention.

To Dr. Reichelt, founder of Tao Fong Shan, Sinicization of Christianity is not a question of “whether we should do it”, but “how should we do it”. When he was bringing the gospel to the Buddhists in 1905, in a Buddhist temple in Wei Shan (溈山) of Hunan, he used an “incarnation” model, by which he would require himself to first become a Buddhist: through learning Chinese, studying Buddhism and living in Buddhist monasteries, he became one of them. It is not difficult to understand, therefore, that his way of working was regarded by both the missionary organization and the Buddhist community as too far from orthodoxy, and harsh criticism was inevitable. As a result, he left the missionary organization in 1926, and started on his own. With critics from all sides, he persisted in his way, insisting on expounding the gospel of Jesus in the language and religious experience of the Buddhists. He held that the Word of God had first to become flesh, and the Word incarnate was the ultimate one – God. This God is also wind, blowing according to His own will, incomprehensive to man. Dr. Reichelt’s Trinitarian theology is based on the Gospel of John, and today, this theology is engraved, in Chinese, on the wood banners in the Holy Temple: with “Word in Flesh” hanged high in the middle, “Word with God” on the right, “Wind in Own-Course” on the left.

Dr. Reichelt came to China in 1903, and was buried in Tao Fong Shan in 1953. One thing really interesting was that in this half-a-century, he went through many major historical events in China, such as the end of Qing Dynasty in 1912, Sun Yat-sen becoming the Provisional President the same year, Yuan Shikai becoming President in 1913, warlords taking control of various parts of China in 1916 to 1930, a movement to eliminate Christianity in 1927, and Hong Kong falling to Japanese rule in 1941 to 1945. Yet, despite all these earth-shattering events, he never talked about them in his works. He put his mind only in the classics, and no matter being in Jing Feng Shan (景風山) of Nanjing, Tian Feng Shan (天風山) of Hangzhou, Ling Feng Shan (靈風山) of Shanghai, and Tao Fong Shan of Hong Kong, he concentrated only on how to practice “Word becoming flesh” in China. Similar to other western missionaries, he studied Chinese classics extensively. In his old age, he translated Tao Te Ching to Norwegian, becoming one of the first to introduce Chinese culture to Northern Europeans. When we wrote about topics such as religious security, the efforts that Dr. Reichelt and other missionaries made in the Sinicization of Christianity are worth our appreciation.

To ISCS and Sino-Christian theology, Sinicization of Christianity is also not a question of “whether we should do it”, but “how should we do it”. From its inception, ISCS is grounded in the discipline of humanities studies. We therefore do not belong to any particular religious group or denomination. Our motivation is to seek knowledge, and we respect the religious freedom of individual scholars. We emphasize using Chinese as the vehicle, to explore its inherent resources as manifested in culture, history and experiences, and to interpret the thoughts of Christianity; at the same time we emphasize that the religious resources of theological traditions of Christianity are originated in Judaism, and they were extended to Judeo-Christianity, eastern churches, the Catholic Church, the Eastern Orthodox, and the Protestants. Therefore, Christianity is multi-faceted, is both east and west, is both Chinese and foreign, and is universal. When the multi-faceted Christianity meets the multi-faceted Chinese traditions – Confucianism, Marxism and contemporary thoughts, within the language of humanities, this Word needs to become part of Chinese learnings. Therefore, Sino-Christian theology has to be Sinicized, though it will be also universal and international.

The first example is the dialogue initiated by the Jesuit Matteo Ricci. Confucian scholars, who were also government officials, were important partners.  For example, the Global Ethic suggested by Hans Küng also attracted Confucian participants. Cf. Liu Shuxian, Global Ethic and Religious Dialogue (Shijiazhuang: Hebei People’s Publishing House, 2006)