Chinese Theology
A Reflection on the Transformation of the Western Culture through Modernisation

Prof. ZHAO Lin 
Department of Philosophy, Wuhan University 
Visiting Scholar at the Institute of Sino-Christian Studies, 2004


With regard to the transformation of the Western Culture through modernisation, the Reformation in the Sixteenth Century should be seen as the real beginning.  During the Middle Ages, the Western European society was under the absolute control of Roman Catholic Church.  Besides, the impact of Roman Catholicism on the social life in the West was not limited to the spiritual realms; it also extended to economy, politics and everyday living.  It was precisely the absolutist reign of the Roman Catholic Church that resulted in various kinds of corruption in the mediaeval society.  As such, the Western society was severely weakened.  Under those circumstances, any realistic reformation of the Western society must begin from the religious life.  Therefore, only the Reformation can both logically and historically be the real beginning of the transformation of the Western Culture through modernisation. 

The historical impact of the Reformation on the transformation of the Western society and on the change in the political, economic, and cultural settings of Modern Europe remains a theoretical discussion of enormous significance, in relation to the historical preconditions of the emergence, development and modernisation of Capitalism in Western Europe.  During the course of the modernisation of Europe, a series of important transformations occurred, among which are the formation and development of modern "nation-states", the rise and growth of a capitalist economy, the emergence of religious tolerance and freedom, and the beginning of major political revolutions, such as the Dutch Revolt and the "Bloodless English Revolution".  There is a link between all these transformations and the Reformation.  Thus, the Reformation not only marked the watershed between the Middle Age and the Modern Age in Europe, but also played a key role in the complete reversal in the balance of powers between Northern Europe and Southern Europe.

The most important cultural significance of the Reformation consists in the disavowal of the dualism of mind and body, Heaven and earth, ideals and reality, resulted from the understanding of mediaeval Christianity; the rejection of the false doctrines and a hypocritical morality resulted from such a dualism; and the harmonious integration of Christian religious ideals and real life.  Lutheranism affirms the unity between  divine and human natures, and has released human spirit from bondage.  Anglicanism sees the compatibility between God and "Caesar", setting the interests of the state above all.  Calvinism stresses the continuity betwen the sacred and secular spheres of life, making the mundane holy.  In the seventeenth century, as the Reformation had dissolved the antithesis between the sacred and the secular, it was then possible for various newly developed worldviews, both religious and secular, to seek consonance in science and religion, knowledge and faith, empirical rationality and theological normativity.

The Reformation in the sixteenth century left two important cultural consequences in the seventeenth century: the "Peace of Westphalla" and Deism.  The Peace of Westphalla ended the religious confrontations and religious wars (especially the Thirty Years War) years that had lasted more than 100 years since the Lutheran Reformation.  Nevertheless, the principle of "cuius regio, eius religio" (lit. "he who rules, his religion", i.e., the ruler of the territory chooses the religion that the subjects are bound to follow) recognised and emphasised by that peace treaty marked the end of religious absolutism and the emergence of religious tolerance.  It was religious tolerance that makes the development of modern science and democracy possible.  Deism, as a form of religious belief originated in England, had an enormous impact on almost all intellectuals of the Western society in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, including well-known philosophers such as J. Locke of England, W. Dilthey of France and G. E. Lessing of Germany, and prominent natural scientists at the time such as I. Newton and C. Huygens.  If the Reformation in the Sixteenth Century is characterised by the substitution of the authority of the Bible for that of the Roman Catholic Church, the characteristic of Deism is the substitution of the authority of reason for that of revelation. 

Deism establishes natural reason as the foundation of religious belief, regards Nature as a product of harmony and wisdom, and conceives God as a creator or designer with inexhaustible rational power.  According to deism, the laws and order of the natural world abound with manifestations of the unique, supreme wisdom of God.  The world is left to its own devices, governed only by the law of gravitation and Newton's three laws of motion, without any further involvement of or intervention by God after his once-and-for-all creation of the world.  As such Deism tactfully handled the problem of the relationship between religious faith and scientific knowledge, turning their relationship from conflict to complementarity.  Kant's moral theology and Schleiermacher's theology of feelings (Gefuhl) both arose from the criticism and rejection of deism, and have redrawn the boundaries between science and religion as well as knowledge and faith, and brought them into harmony.  This outlook has exerted a profound impact on the modern Western world.  It links them to Nature and inner life with both scientific understanding and religious faith as their fundamental attitude.

A review of the Reformation and the changes in Western religious thoughts is significant and enlightening for the Chinese in their understanding of the basic features of modern Western culture, and in the reflection on the transformation of Chinese culture through modernisation.  On the transformation of the Chinese culture through modernisation, there have been a variety of viewpoints within the academia.  First, there is a theory of "Western Initiation", according to which the transformation of the Chinese culture through modernisation is the consequence of cultural impact or challenges brought by the modern Western culture.  Second, there is a neo-Confucian viewpoint, according to which the Confucian thought in the traditional Chinese culture - especially in the Sung and Ming Dynasties - already implies within itself the demand for and capacity of modernisation.  Third, there is a theory of "Ming-Qing Enlightenment", according to which there has already been an "Enlightenment movement" in Chinese culture since the mid-Ming Dynasty which has been challenging the traditional Confucian thought.  This is one of the factors that has led up to the transformation of Chinese culture through modernisation.  While the second and third positions may well be substantiated empirically by historical facts, they need to answer two essential questions in the first place.  (1) During the Sung-Ming period, were there any real needs and historical necessity for the essential transformation of the Chinese culture?  (2) Can cultural transformation succeed with critiques by intellectual elites only without a change in the values of the popular culture?  Concerning the first question, Chinese culture was at its peak during the Sung-Ming period, and thus there was no desperate need for transformation as in the West during the time of the Reformation.  As for the second question, it is impossible for critiques by intellectual elites to change the essential features of a culture successfully.  Only a universal change of values, as in the Reformation, will bring forth an essential transformat-ion in culture.

Unquestionably, one can discover many elements of the modern culture, like commodity economy, democracy, and the scientific spirit, at their germinal states in the Sung-Ming period.  However, these modern elements at their germinal states did not grow into a strong, real power in the Chinese culture before the arrival and the impact of the modern Western culture.  In the Sung-Ming period, although several intellectuals - whether they appreciated or rejected Confucian thought - had proposed some new, enlightening thoughts, these thoughts, owing to the absence of a historical opportunity, did not enter into the society and bring forth substantial impact, and remained within the academic circles only.  In other words, there was only inspiration among the elites in China during the Sung-Ming period.  There was no revolutionary movement in the popular culture.  This is why the modernisation of Chinese culture could not have taken place.

Nevertheless, the theory of "Western Initiation" does not mean that the course of the modernisation of Chinese culture must take place under the shadow of Western culture.  Be it in the West or in the East, a genuine enlightenment will always take place in two steps, the first being the enlightenment of one's own culture by foreign cultures, the second being the elimination of all darkness and ignorance in the worship of authorities and idols by the independent use of one's own reason.  In this sense, the insights of the Reformation and the resultant cultural transformation in the West consist mainly in the reflection on the logical and historical beginnings of modernisat-ion, not in a simple analogy between the modernisation of the East and that of the West.  Its significance for us consists in our understanding of the diversity between the Eastern and Western cultures, not in imitation without any regard to real differences.