Monday, August 30, 2010

Chinese Christianity and pragmatism

Whenever "Google Alerts" brings up results for science and religion, almost always there is an interesting blog post on the Huffington Post that catches my attention. Who knew?

This week it's an article by Jonathan D. Fitzgerald, relating his own experience with Chinese students at Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, NJ. A great many of these students, he has found, with some surprise, are Christians. He asks the question,
But, how is it that these students, brilliant scientists in the making from a country that has a tumultuous history with religion, live at such relative ease with what many of us in the West might call their "two selves"?
In the course of his article he identifies three interesting features of Chinese culture that might explain this ability to easily reconcile science with faith.

One is that the traditions of Chinese culture cause Chinese people to more readily embrace many different ideas. Fitzgerald puts it this way:
ne explanation actually comes from religion itself, though not the Christian faith. Unlike Christianity or Islam, neither Taoism nor Buddhism, the traditional religions of China, preaches exclusivity. For this reason many faiths can and do grow alongside one another in China.
The second feature is related to this: pragmatism. This is elaborated by Tim Sigman, a director of a Christian ministry mentioned in the article.
"Asian culture is generally pragmatic," he says. "It is also circular in reasoning whereas we in the West think more linearly." He suggests that the Chinese students "can embrace things that may seem contrary, if they are pragmatic."
The third feature is perhaps the least surprising to me. It is that science is a tool, not a philosophy. This is explained by one of Sigman's students:
In China, he says, "Science is a tool to change one's condition, to fix a problem, or make a living." It is not held in as high esteem as religion is. As to any potential conflict between scientific theories in his field and his beliefs, he explains, "They are not on the same level of understanding about the world."
This doesn't surprise me, given my experience with Chinese mathematicians and scientists. They tend to gravitate more to the applications of science than its theoretical aspects. American students (I'm not sure about European students) tend toward the theoretical, possibly because we still have vestiges of the old Platonism embedded in Western mathematics, but more probably because American students are more likely to have been taught a sense of entitlement that frees us to study whatever we find interesting.

What makes Christian beliefs "pragmatic" to a new Chinese believer, I wonder? This is addressed in the article, as well, using the words of one "Dr. Z,"
a Christian Chinese scientist and professor who, like many of his colleagues, according to the recent book Science vs. Religion by Elaine Howard Ecklund, prefers anonymity when it comes to matters of religion and asked that I not use his real name. He explains that the age at which a person converts is very important, as the tenets of Christianity and what it teaches about the world add depth and fill in the spaces in one's prior education, explaining things that the sciences do not. In this way, the two work as partners, as opposed to antagonists, to create a cohesive worldview.
Fitzgerald ends his article with this thought:
If being more open allows for seemingly disparate ideas to co-mingle, and if understanding the value of a comprehensive worldview that comes from merging religion and science gives rest to the debate, perhaps it is time we follow our Chinese colleagues into these spaces in between our "two selves."
His implicit assumption is that religion is about satisfying very pragmatic needs. If religious beliefs fill in the gaps or create better harmony in a person's worldview, then so much the better. I used to think this kind of assumption was shallow and very misleading. It always seemed to me that the truth was more important than pragmatic concerns. Just because something "works" doesn't make it right.

But lately I've been thinking that this assumption has more merit than I initially gave it credit for. It's not that I now favor Fitzgerald's approach of trying to convince everyone to just be more open to new ideas (is this really a Chinese way of thinking, or a Western postmodern way of thinking?). What I'm really saying is that I think our epistemology should be more life-giving. Rather than being consumed with the hope of ascending to transcendent Ideas, perhaps the real point of learning is (at least in part) to better our relationship with the world around us. From what little I know of Chinese thought, perhaps this is more in line with their thought-process: wisdom is about living in harmony with our surroundings. If this is the approach taken, then religious faith must be approached in a way that may appear more "pragmatic" to the Western rationalist who believes that truth precedes harmony.

Christian thought has the potential to get the best of both worlds. On the one hand, wisdom begins with "the fear of the Lord," i.e. having a proper understanding of ourselves in relation to him within his creation. So wisdom is, in a sense, about harmony. It is not primarily about ascending to abstract truths, but about understanding our role in God's creation. On the other hand, the Christian can make a powerful critique of the world around him. Because he understands the world as fallen, he will not be content to live in harmony without appealing to a vision of the world as it should be. Thus he doesn't rid his thought of transcendent ideals entirely; but rather than attempting to transcend the created order himself, he simply calls on the transcendent to purify the created order of its evils.

In other words, Christianity is practical for those people who want not only to explain the world, but to transform it.

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