“Yes” and “No” of Sino-Christian Theology

In 2010 I was invited to some universities introducing the relationship between “ISCS, Sino-Christian theology, Sino-Christian theology movement, and contemporary Chinese academia”. During the discussions there were sharp and inspiring questions. They let me explicate clearly the “yes” and “no” of Sino-Christian theology. Here let me share some of those questions and answers.

Q1: Sino-Christian theology was introduced by ISCS. In the last ten or more years it has translated more than 100 western Christian classics. Does it imply that it aims at selling western theology to Chinese academia?

A: Christianity has been in western history for 2000 years. If Chinese people want to study it, translation is unavoidable. But the important thing of ISCS translation project is that all themes are selected by Chinese scholars. We are also researching into the resources of non-western and Chinese Christianity from the very beginning, e.g. Russian Orthodoxy and Christianity since the Ming Dynasty. During the establishing period of ISCS we have studied the earliest form of Chinese Christianity – Jingjiao, and the result was published as our second title of the “Christian Academic Library of Christian Thought” in 1995. At the same time contextual interpretation of theological classics is one of our major concerns, such that genuine dialogue can be made with Chinese academics. Up to date we have published more than 40 volumes of theological works written by Chinese scholars in the “ISCS Monograph Series”. In all our works participants in translation and research projects are mainly Chinese scholars. Western scholars are usually involved in offering professional suggestions.

Q2: Is ISCS an undercover missionary organization set up by the western world, doing cultural mission under the name of academic research?

A: We are not a missionary organization, but we are a group of Chinese scholars with a special mission. We all pay great effort in studying Christianity and making it a constituent of Chinese academia, so that the Chinese academic tradition can be enriched to encounter the challenge of modernity. Therefore ISCS was registered in 1995 in Hong Kong as an academic institute. Its governing body is not directly related to any religious organization; all directors participate individually as professionals.

As “Sino-Christian studies/theology” started from the humanities of Mainland China, its soil of growing also belongs to it. Different communities have their own professional languages, habitats, ways of thinking, common beliefs, working principles and values. Similarly, the language, way of thinking, academic principle and problematics of Sino-Christian theology coincide with the academic community. Therefore from the very beginning we have emphasized that whether the participants of Sino-Christian theology are believers is not a problem. We are only concerned with the academic quality of the research.

Concerning the relationship between Sino-Christian theology and theology of different religious communities, they do not belong to or interfere with each other, but it does not mean that they are unrelated or have no communication. On the contrary, since they have the same research area, communication is natural and necessary. But it is crucial that they have equal positions and respect and complement each other.

Q3: There is no divinity school of the western type in the Mainland China university system. How is it possible to establish Sino-Christian theology in the humanities?

A: Christian studies has an important and recognized position in the university system of the west, whereas in Mainland China there is no department of theology or divinity school in the university. Therefore Chinese scholars must do Christian studies in different disciplines. In this way the result of their works on Christianity would be absorbed in the academia and have dialogue with other disciplines. Thus Sino-Christian studies/theology must take an inter-disciplinary approach with literary studies, history, philosophy, social sciences, politics, anthropology, psychology, art, music, architecture and so on.

We have never worried about this inter-disciplinary study colonizing Chinese academics, as some Chinese scholars have already suggested a so-called “creative transformation” is taking place. Prof. Liu Zaifu (劉再復) said in an interview in 2010, “The emphasis of creative transformation is not ‘turning to other form’, not to the west or somewhere distant. Nor is it turning ‘back to the old form’, to the ancestors, to Mao Zedong, or to somewhere thousand years ago. It is ‘creating its own form’, a social form based on the existential condition of modern Chinese, confirming and absorbing the universal values but not some preset western paradigm. It must retrieve the ancient resources of China but deny any preset Chinese model. ‘Creative transformation’ means to explore its own way for modern China.”

This “creative transformation” coincides with the inter-disciplinary study suggested in western academic frontiers. This is also good for Chinese scholars to bridge the gap with the west. For western scholars, they would be surprised to find that Christian studies initiated by Chinese scholars share something similar to their thoughts and even something to learn. It is because Sino-Christian studies/theology integrates Chinese resources, including traditional culture (Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism) and modern culture (Marxism and contemporary thoughts).