Monday, June 10, 2002

China-Christianity-Democracy-Science Send this entry to: Spurl Ma.gnolia Digg Newsvine Reddit

China & Christianity I just finished reading Ian Buruma's Bad Elements:Chinese Rebels from Los Angeles to Beijing. It's a pretty good read-similar to some of Robert Kaplan's stuff, though Buruma doesn't synthesize his travels with his historical knowledge to the same extent (perhaps for the good). The basic theme of the book is the interrelationship between the centre and periphery-China proper and the Chinese Diaspora. Buruma delves very nicely into the paradoxes of the anti-Communist exiles, their loves and hates, their passions and apathy. A fair amount of the book discusses the fact that much of the exiled mainland community has converted to Christianity. Buruma is quite clearly a religious skeptic who can't fathom why rebels against Marxist dogma would succumb to Christian dogma. I myself felt the same way through a fair portion of the book-especially when "intellectuals" talk about how the Chinese people have no soul and need Jesus Christ to save them (I put the quotes because these statements are not reasoned, not the end product of intellectual discourse, but a feeling, an intuition, shaped by their own religious epiphanies). Don't get me wrong, I see modern China as a pagan barbarity, an arrow aimed at the heart of modern liberalism. All the nightmares that the neo-Luddites and religious reactionaries hold about the libertarian & libertine post-Socialist & post-religious future may well come to fruition in quasi-Communist China. But is Christianity a precondition for democracy or science (as clearly implied by many of those interviewed in Buruma's book)? As an atheist from a non-Christian (Muslim) background I have an aversion to this answer. As an admirer of the pre-Christian classical Greco-Roman civilization I also am wary about Christianity's supposed propensity toward fostering openness and pluralism. But I am a believer in the Western project-and I grant Christianity its place of prominence. And yet just as the West does not define Christianity (a melange of eastern and western, Greek and Roman, Hebrew and gentile), so Christianity should not define the West. In fact, it is better to say Christianities. The Byzantine Christian tradition, which before 1000 A.D. was the dominant one, did not foster democracy or science. Byzantium was in fact an oriental despotism where transmission of classical and early Christian ideas took precedence over innovation. The democratic (the Things) traditions of Scandinavia and the decentralized tendencies of the Celts (the elective monarchy and tribal structure) pre-date Christianity. When science began to surface in Europe during the Renaissance, it sprang to life in the Italian city-states first (Galileo), and then migrated north to Protestant Europe (Newton). The great Christian regions of Europe to the east or the south did not participate in the awakening, though one could protest that the Balkans was under Ottoman hegemony, Russia was not-and had been Christian for nearly 500 years in 1500. Those who assert that Christianity fosters science and reason simply cannot ignore that 1,000 pious years of their faith's hegemony passed before western Europe became the intellectual force that it is today. Yes, perhaps Christianity was an incubator of some sort-but we'll never know, since history is just not reproducible. One could argue that white people have natures congenial with science, or that Europe's mild climate helped. One could argue that the multiplicity of nation-states fostered by the fragmented peninsular geography also produced the competitive structure of modern science. The Chinese intellectuals who wish to convert their people wholesale to the Christian faith also forget that the West converted over a period of centuries-not a generation. Christian tradition was the usually the province of the ruling elite and men of letters, and only later percolated down to the masses (the Catholic Church was still finding and burning down groves dedicated to snake worship in Lithuania in the late 1700s). During the Reformation the democratization of the faith did not result in political power being devolved to the people (Thomas Muntzer tried and failed-). Instead, revolution and chaos ensued and the unraveling of the ancien regime took centuries to recrystallize into the liberal democratic order. Perhaps one could argue that one has to start somewhere, and that from the ashes of pagan China will emerge of the phoenix of Christian China. So will China become Christian? South Korea is 25% Christian after 50 years of proselytizing. The past two South Korean presidents and the last dictator were Christians. Taiwan, though its only 5%-10% Christian, has a powerful Christianized elite. Singapore is 15% Christian. Japan of course is the great exception, with its Christian minority not getting much above 1%. You can check the stats at're pretty variable. I don't think in the end that the wholesale Christianization that the exiled intellectuals foresee will occur. China is not pagan Rome-and I don't suspect a latter day Constantine will appear on the horizon. But Christianity will be an important-and progressive-part of China's scene in the decades to come. But just as it is not the crutch and scourge of reason that we secularists like to think-neither will be it bring with the panoply of modernization that some eager eastern converts imagine (look at Latin American or Africa). In the end, only time will tell. But please note-some historians attribute the survival of Imperial China in contrast to the permanent collapse of Imperial Rome to the former's reliance on personal rule by civilian bureaucrats while the latter's militarized elite that ruled via impersonal law could not transmit their traditions to their barbaric Germanic heirs. It maybe that the Chinese intellectuals that found Christ had holes in their souls-but they shouldn't presume that their culture, and all Chinese, are as soulless as they were. Update (Razib): Just to show that Christianity doesn't bring a golden age of Anglo-American tolerance, see this site to find documentation of fundamentalist Christian attacks on Buddhist religious sites and institutions (reminds me a lot of the early post-Constantinian Christians tearing down temples and attacking pagans).

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