Foreign Policy has a fascinating article on why many Chinese students who come to America to study become Christians. It weaves together several interesting anecdotes with an analysis of some of the factors that contribute to the phenomenon. The whole thing is certainly worth a read. But I want to hone in on one of the anecdotes and consider what underlies it:

Leah Yuan, a Shenyang native now living in the United States, converted to Christianity while enrolled at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts after listening to a sermon by Feng, the biologist-turned pastor. “I thought that to believe or not to believe was like tea and coffee,” meaning a matter of free choice, said Yuan, who now studies actuarial science. She explained her conversion in terms of percentages: it started with 10 percent belief and 90 percent choice; four years later, it has become 70 percent belief and 30 percent choice. “If you think that belief can make you better, you can choose to believe, which rationally opens the door for you.”

I must confess that I’ve never quite thought of faith in the terms that Yuan employs. (Maybe it’s the actuarial science talking.) But I find it revealing, because I think her experience is fairly typical among Chinese who become Christians. Let me explain what I mean.

I’d describe the typical Chinese student’s approach to religion as pragmatism with a dash of postmodernism on top. Pragmatism as a theory emphasizes an experimental orientation toward life, in which the validity of a given proposition or belief is evaluated on the basis of the success or failure of its practical application. Truth isn’t to be considered in the abstract, but rather, the truth of a particular theory is evaluated by whether it works. Pragmatism is America’s own homegrown philosophy, but it certainly isn’t unique to America. In fact, while pragmatism seems to be languishing here, it is experiencing something of a renaissance in China. Deng Xiaoping’s famous saying in reference to the Chinese economy epitomizes Chinese pragmatism: “It doesn’t matter whether the cat is black or white, as long as it catches mice.”

Chinese pragmatism didn’t begin with Deng Xiaoping, though. Scholars have noted certain resonances with a much earlier school of thought—Confucianism. The Analects records this very pragmatic-sounding pearl: “The Master said, If a man can recite from memory the three hundred odes of the Poetry but, when you entrust him with governance, he is unable to express his meaning, or, when you send him to the four quarters on diplomatic missions, he is unable to make replies on his own initiative, though he may have learned much, of what use is he?” (13.5). In other words, you can know all sorts of theory, but it’s pretty useless unless you can actually put it into practice. If indeed Confucianism does share certain emphases with pragmatism, the strength of Chinese pragmatism today is perhaps not so surprising.

The Master said, If a man can recite from memory the three hundred odes of the Poetry but, when you entrust him with governance, he is unable to express his meaning, or, when you send him to the four quarters on diplomatic missions, he is unable to make replies on his own initiative, though he may have learned much, of what use is he?

The Analects of Confucius

To this pragmatism, add a dash of postmodernism. As in the West, postmodern thought has influenced significantly the academy in China, and has subsequently filtered down from the ivory tower. Chinese students have largely adopted the postmodern skepticism toward metanarratives and any such claim to absolute, universal truths in favor of a more pluralistic outlook. I vividly remember being a part of a large group discussion in China during which one of the students flatly proclaimed, “We all know there’s no such thing as absolute truth.” The lack of response is what stood out to me. I was tempted to ask, “Absolutely?” but everyone else apparently found his statement too uncontroversial to warrant a response.

When applied to religion, Chinese pragmatism with a dash of postmodernism results in a perspective like Yuan said she used to have. Religion is a choice, like coffee or tea. You choose what you like and what works for you. Do you need a pick-me-up? Coffee is for you. Do you want to boost your antioxidants? Go with green tea. The question at the forefront isn’t necessarily whether a particular religion is true (especially if there isn’t any absolute truth). Rather, the question is what religion can do for me. By way of anecdotal evidence, of all the Chinese testimonies that I’ve heard (quite a few), only a very small number of those people initially professed faith as a result of weighing the truth claims of Christianity and finally deciding it was true.

I suspect that any Christian who has spent a significant amount of time in China has heard the oft-repeated refrain that faith is a good thing. Even Chinese President Xi Jinping has voiced that same sentiment, as the article in Foreign Policy notes: “When people have belief, our people have hope, and our nation has power.” The notion that faith is a good thing is rooted in pragmatism. Forget about which faith or whether it’s true; faith itself has benefits, so it’s good. When you see the benefits, you choose the religion. Yet for many Chinese Christians, or at least those I know, making the decision to believe in search of the practical benefits of faith then leads to an embrace of the truth of Christianity. As Yuan put it, “If you think that belief can make you better, you can choose to believe, which rationally opens the door for you.”

So what are the practical implications of this Chinese pragmatism for ministry? We’ll examine that in the next post. Share your thoughts in the comments below.

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