Tuesday, May 26, 2009

The Future of Catholicism is in...China?

What do the Chinese know that the average secularist Westerner doesn't?

First Things:

Far less predictable is the unprecented sympathy that China has shown toward Christianity. The leadership views Christianity in a fundamentally different way from how it sees the religions rooted in traditional China. Christianity is inherently open to the modern world and a scientific outlook. Just as China imported science and Western methods of industrial organization, so it could import what Beijing understood to be the spiritual counterpart of Western science. In the view of the party, the naturalization of Christianity in China is not essentially different from the importation of socialist ideology two generations earlier. Christianity, like socialism, can be translated into Chinese characters.

Once it seemed to be sanctioned by the government, Christianity redoubled its rate of expansion. It is now fashionable to wear a cross, hanging from a small chain at the neck, fully exposed on the chest. Asked about the meaning of the cross, the wearer will answer proudly and clearly: “Yes, I am a Christian”—though few of them can give a clear explanation of what they believe. Most Chinese Christians do not know the difference between being Protestant (jidujiao) and being Catholic (tianzhujiao).

Many of these new Chinese Christians are converts to modernity and Western culture as much as they are converts to a religion that, in China, is associated with Westernization and the American way of life. Attending Christian services forms part of a new embrace of Western culture, including everything from classical music to Kentucky Fried Chicken (the fastest-growing field of study and restaurant chain in China, respectively). In the same way that they add soy sauce or rice vinegar to American-style food, Chinese frequently spice their evangelical faith with belief in feng shui (“wind and water,” traditional Chinese geomancy) and the Yijing (an ancient soothsayers’ manual).

While these qualifications make it difficult to assess the depth of Christian conversion in China, the breadth is astonishing. China’s government is still trying to assemble a comprehensive picture of the Chinese who profess faith in Christ, but it has not succeeded in doing so. Catholics—including those registered with the official Patriotic Association and those officially considered “still underground”—number between 12 and 14 million. The rest are Protestants, with a smattering of Russian Orthodox, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Mormons.