Chinese Christian Thought

Taiwan Seminary has a “Center for the Study of Christian Thought” 基督教思想研究中心 which holds several seminars or symposia a year on different topics. This weekend there was one on theological thought and formation 神學人學思──心路歷程. Several fairly recent PhD grads shared about how they came to the point they are at. It was an interesting group, with several mainland and several overseas (Malaysia, Singapore) scholars, as well as a mix of faculty from my seminary, China Evangelical Seminary, Taiwan Baptist Seminary, and Zhongtai Seminary. It was probably 70% Reformed and of the 17 PhD/ThDs I counted today, 100% male (which I think is very unfortunate but tends to be the norm in this group). That said, I am grateful for ecumenism in all its forms, and this particular conversation (1) is relatively new, (2) reflects friendships and collaborations between traditions that have often been challenging (China, Taiwan, SE Asia; Taiwanese and Mandarin churches; evangelical and mainline denominations), and (3) invites conversations that are probably good for the broader church.

A mainland pastor-scholar talked about the Chinese church as a “tradition-rejecting church” and also on his own search for a theological genealogy 家譜. In his personal pantheon of traditions, he included a pastiche of the great early 20th century Christian scholars (Song Shangjie, Wang Mingdao), the broader tradition (reflected through a study of Pelikan and others and an affinity for some periods, such as the pilgrim movements), and some appeal to modern translated scholars (from Calvin early on to Barth more recently). I found him very thoughtful and helpful to the overall conversation.

There was a also a recent Oxford grad who talked about his path via music and science into theology. He referenced Karl Barth a lot and I found his dissertation online, also on Barth. One of the things that has sort of surprised me is how popular Barth is among the under-40 crowd. My only contribution to the discussion today was to say that when I first came to Taiwan 10 years ago, I rarely heard about Barth, and after studying at PTS (where I think at one point 7 of the theologians were Barthians or had written on Barth for their dissertations), I was sort of grateful for a reprieve from him. In the last few months, when I’ve encountered Barth, he’s often been used how as I remember him, which is to say as a weapon. In Taiwan recently I’ve seen him used (1) to reject theological pluralism, (2) to repudiate contextual theology, and (3) as a safe all-purpose answer to various contemporary concerns (the guy today mentioned Barth’s usefulness for scripture). I understand that Barth is a major figure, but I still often feel like his total emphasis on revelation and rejection of natural theology means that he more or less ignores culture and has almost nothing to say to human-human (as opposed to divine-human) interaction. This is probably unfair of me, so I’ll try to read more in this area.


One of the side conversations during the conference was over Confucianism and Christianity. When theologians discuss Confucianism they bring great nuance to their Christian theology, but then offer a fairly simple “teachings of Confucius” approach to Confucianism (it would be as if you compared 100 scholars from 2500 years of Chinese teaching to the words of Moses). In Taiwan, a compounding problem is that there’s a strong emphasis on Chinese classics in education and a sense that people have a grounding in traditional Chinese culture, but then there are not the public conversations over Confucianism as in Singapore. People feel like they *own* the tradition, but then often haven’t really thought through how Confucianism acts like a religion (or doesn’t), contributes to the broader cultural system, or is applicable (or not) to education, government, and so on. One of the things about conferences like this that drive me nuts is that we can lose so much time just trying to get on the same page (what do we mean by “worldview,” “Confucianism,” “Reformed,” “Chinese,” etc.). There is sometimes a core of theological shared texts within one or two traditions, but when we get beyond this (into other cultures, religions, disciplines) we lack even the basic ability to understand each other.

December is here!

December always keeps us busy. Sunday I took the twins to Sunday School while Emily led the baby class (and Sam now goes to the regular English worship service at Suanglian).


Eva and Eli at 主日學

We also did a belated family Thanksgiving (with home-cooked mash potatoes and stuffing carried back from the US, but KFC in place of turkey).


Two weeks late but still tasty!

Sam was part of a dance competition at his school. They don’t do a holiday performance (the twins will at their school on the 19th), but this served a similar function. There were something like 20 groups. Sam’s did a German style number with fairly complex choreography (I think his homeroom teacher also teaches dance). Sam is a surprisingly enthusiastic performer. Next up is a violin performance of “O Come, Little Children” as part of a Christmas service in about ten days.


He’s got rhythm…

This has been a good semester for him. He’s taken to writing little stories on his own and we continue to read a lot of fiction at bedtime (this fall we’ve done some more Roald Dahl, a couple of Lemony Snicket novels, the Silver Chair, and some Goosebumps). His Chinese is pretty good but he’s not taking the full midterm Chinese exams (which often include matching 成語proverbs, sometimes memorizing poetry, and also doing word problems). He’s kept up on vocab. He’s a bit behind on math now, but seems to be getting the concepts.

The twins are also going strong. 5 is pretty intense, but they both seem happy and healthy. Their main loves are the pre-K trinity of drawing, playing in the park, and fighting with each other. They’re working on the alphabet and the bopomofo phonetic system.

Our main family news is that we’re planning to head back to the US in February for at least a semester. We realized it was a good time at the Seminary to take a semester, there’s a house open we can use in Cincinnati, and it would save us doing an intense move mid-semester with the kids around. It’s also a good chance for us to reconnect to congregations and family. So far so good…

Chinese Christianities Panel

This year was also the launch of the Chinese Christianities Seminar. Within AAR there were other papers on Chinese Christianities within the Chinese religions group, Society for the Study of Chinese religions, and world Christianity group, but it is nice to have a dedicated space. This year the panel was:

1. Christopher D Sneller, King’s College London

The Role of Union Theological Seminary (New York) in Indigenizing Christianity in Twentieth-Century China

2. Stephanie Wong, Georgetown University

Towards A Responsive Urbanizing Church: Chinese Catholics Crossing the Rural-Urban Boundary

3. Mu-tien Chiou, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School

Pluralism and Christian Ecumenism: A Theological Reflection on Post-Sunflower Movement Taiwan

4. Di Kang, Lutheran School of Theology, Chicago

Historiography and Community Identity: Hong Kong Christians and the Recording of the 2014 Pro-Democracy Protest

5. Justin Tse, University of Washington

A Tale of Three Bishops: Chineseness and the Global City in Vancouver’s Anglican Realignment


I had about ten minutes to give a response, and I tried to highlight several of the major themes in our discussion. An emphasis we have is “border crossing,” and here some papers looked at border crossing within China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan, and others highlighted movement between different areas (Vancouver’s three Anglican bishops, borrowing between protest movements, historical flows between the US theological academy and diaspora groups). I said that I think the field has really grown in the last ten or twenty years. It used to be that there were still a few foundational figures that were always cited, but that’s not really the case any more. Social sciences are also more critical than in the past, and almost ever paper dealt substantively with theory pulled from soc/anthro or another field. “Chinese Christianity” used to really be “Christianity in the service of China,” and that’s clearly not the case.


Someone asked me again about using “Chinese Christianities.” Why not use “ethnic Chinese,” as in the Ethnic Chinese Biblical Colloquium, which meets at SBL? I actually prefer Chinese Christianities, where Chinese is an adjective, to Ethnic Chinese, where Chinese is the noun. When we talked about this a couple of years ago there were real questions about how we understand China and Chinese. I often cite Henrietta Harrison’s description of China as empire, nation, and civilization. Here there’s not a single, changeless China. Instead Chinese-ness has been spread through the state, through empire, and through culture. China is still a nation, it acts or often has acted as a multicultural empire, and it is also something like a broad-reaching culture with shared aspects of worldview, written language, and history. So, in Taiwan, where I live, a good chunk of the Christians are aborigines and predate the arrival of Han/Chinese peoples. Chinese culture influences everyone here, but Taiwan has been de facto separate from Taiwan for more than a century, after having been part of it for three centuries. “Chinese” is hotly contested here. I have a colleague who really doesn’t like using the word “Han” to describe Taiwanese people, but most Taiwanese casually will still call themselves Chinese or Han. In Taiwan, citizenship is still related to blood ancestry, but there’s also an increasing sense of difference from China, and a broader range of meanings for Chinese. The plural “Christianities” also highlights the real disagreements about what it means to be Christian.

Other Discussions

Being in AAR situates us between theology and religious studies. At the same time, I came to this discussion first through Asian studies (Association for Asian Studies long had an informal group that discussed Chinese Christianity) and the Yale-Edinburgh group (which usually has a few papers). There are also theological discussions–Mark Toulouse sent us the invite for a conference on Christianity in China in the 21st Century that included many three self leaders. In Taiwan there’s a Jonathan Chao archives that has hosted some public discussions on Christianity in China and many of the seminaries here have daughter seminaries that run in Taiwan. In Taiwan Chung-Yuan University has a Sino-Christian studies program, and there are similar departments in Hong Kong and Sinagapore. As an academic field, Chinese Christianity is often part of philosophy or history departments in China (in 2004 I attended a conference on missionaries and translation). There is a broader and broader range of academic networks, including schools in Hong Kong and Taiwan, and among interested researchers in North American and Europe. I feel grateful that I got to be part of the tail end of an earlier wave of scholars but am now watching a rising generation that is truly interdisciplinary, interconfessional, and international.

American Academy of Religions / Society for Biblical Literature 2015

The largest conference in the US–perhaps the world?–for scholars of religion is the American Academy of Religions. It’s held at the same time as the Society for Biblical Literature. Taken together there are something like 10,000 scholars from a range of backgrounds. I really like AAR and do my best to go, especially if I can stay with family for part of the trip back. This time AAR was in Atlanta so I was able to stay with family in Birmingham.


I spent Friday with the Society for Buddhist-Christian Studies, where I’m the newsletter editor. SBCS is a fun group, very eclectic, and probably still skewed towards senior scholars with a long history of interfaith work. This gathering came a few weeks after the death of Professor Rita Gross, a senior scholar, founding member of the Society, and mentor to a lot of the members of the group. We spent most of the morning and afternoon in meetings and then visited the Atlanta Shambhala Center in the evening. I also attended a panel on Merton on Monday that was quite excellent. For Christians today, a key conundrum is pluralism. To be honest, I often feel like Protestants have fewer resources for making sense of pluralism, and that there is more built in opposition to inter-religious work. This has been a really helpful group in learning about how to relate across religious traditions.


At Shambhala Atlanta

Traditionally at AAR, I also spend some time with the world Christianity group (although less this time), then also visit Chinese religions panels and Reformed History and Theology. At this conference I also went to a panel where George Hunsinger was a respondent on war and terrorism (pretty interesting).

Chinese religions


For Chinese religions, the challenge is just that the field is so vast. This time I attended a short session on Holmes Welch, a prominent mid-century sinologist and scholar of Buddhism, a session on academic legacies in Chinese religions (this included a Legge paper by one of the other scholars who studies early 19th century China missions, Christopher Daly). Finally, I attended a “Buddho-Daoist” panel that debated how to make sense of communities, rituals or texts that sit between the two traditions.

Reformed history and theology

For Reformed History and Theology, there was a panel on Gerrish’s new dogmatic theology in outline. One of the most interesting comments came in the discussion, where a panelist said that Gerrish was somewhat concerned with the possibilities that his theology would be dated by the time of publication. The commentator mentioned several specific concerns, including the rise of contextual theology and world Christianity, and the challenge of pluralism. Dogmatics have rarely tackled these subjects, so I was interested to see these raised as questions. Gerrish seems to situate his work as an extension of Calvin and Schleiermacher, and as a Presbyterian pastor and teacher I have been really interested in this particular question. I’m still not sure how dogmatics bridges the gap to questions like pluralism or contextual theology.

I’ll offer another post on the Chinese Christianities panel, which was a highlight.

Indigenous Christianity in the Asia Pacific Region

Today I’m at a conference at Academia Sinica, “Indigenous Christianity in the Asia Pacific Region” 亞太地區本土基督教國際學術研究討會 organized by Professor Shu-Yuan Yang at Academia Sinica. I was asked to respond to a paper on the evangelization of the Karen people in what is now Myanmar. The paper to which I am responding is Yoko Hayami 速水洋子 “Traveling Karen Preachers and the Culture of Evangelism: The Founding of Modern Missions in Nineteenth-Century Burma,” and it was quite good. The presenter was from Kyoto University. This was a historical paper, and grappled with some of the same questions I have had in using partial historical records.

In responding to the paper, my main questions relate to challenges that I face in my own work: what do we do when there are simply no materials by local people? And, how do we capture insider views about indigenous authority? (Here understood as what ordination meant to missionaries and locals, especially when we have limited discussions by these two parties.) In this paper as in a lot of the works I read on early Christian communities, the main or sometimes only sources are missionary accounts in English. There are other ways, however, to get at insider voices (tracts, catechisms, original hymns, letters, local news sources, etc.). One of my classmates in PhD was a Kachin scholar, La Seng Dingrin, so as I listened to other papers I went back to his thesis, which got at Kachin identity in a variety of ways (using lexica and dictionaries, Burmese and Kachin translations, and so on).

Other papers treated a wide range of groups: the Bukalot of Northern Luzon, Philippines; Lahu Christians in Thailand; Bunun, Amis Catholics, and Protestant Rukai in Taiwan; Trobriands; Ahmao Millenarians in SW China; and Kachin and Karen from Myanmar. There were two papers on early 20th century China, one on minority peoples and their continued affiliation to different traditions (CIM, charismatic, Methodist) and another on the rise of charismatics as a third stream in Chinese Christianity, with particular reference to class and education (i.e. unlike the denominationalists or the independent churches, charismatics tended to have had little interaction with missionary institutions).

One of the most interesting insights was from Mark Mosko, responding to Shu-Yuan Yang on the continuity/discontinuity question. Mosko says that if one goes to study Christianity the default response is often discontinuity, but if one goes to study social change, the default response is often continuity. Another discussion involved vernacularization versus literacy, which, honestly, I have often treated as interchangeable (although vernacularization often involves a different language than literacy). I took an anthro theory class in undergrad and have been influenced a lot by several priest-anthropologists, as well as mission literature on Christianity. The conference in general, one participant told me, partly comes from a realization during the last thirty years that many of the cultures anthropologists study are now Christian (or Muslim, or Buddhist, or something that they were not during the early golden era of anthropology).

There were also several interesting ecclesiastical discussions. I met one anthropologist who became a Christian as part of her work with aborigines, and heard of another who was baptized in a minority church in SE Asia. The conversion of anthropologists (and missionaries) is something I always find very interesting, so I was grateful for these discussions.

Presbyterian Church of Taiwan 150th, Tainan

Last week was the Tainan edition of PCT’s 150th anniversary. I took Sam down on Sunday for the last day. There were two long worship services and a parade in between. It was a (hot), great day. The main focus this time was on the aborigine churches, and the first service ended with the longest dance line I’ve ever seen.


There were several PCUSA visitors–Heath Rada, his wife Peggy, a former mission worker, presbytery exec Bobbi White, and Tom Taylor from the Presbyterian Foundation. It means a lot to the church here to have visitors from abroad. For us, it was nice to talk to former missionaries who had lived in Taiwan 15, 25, or 40 years ago. Several came up to me and asked about Sam and several, somewhat guiltily, shared that they wish their children had been able to do Chinese. One started out in Hakka and then moved to Mandarin but didn’t retain either. Another had kids who learned Mandarin but they were learning Taiwanese. One home-schooled using a UK curriculum. A persistent back story on this blog has been kids and schooling, and it is always interesting for me to see how others have handled things. Sam did great and even made a new friend from Kansas (also in 2nd grade).



Rada preached at our seminary on Sunday. He’s been connecting with PSCE grads (I told him my parents both did degrees at Union Seminary). I’m grateful for the connections between our two denominations. Truly a fun time.

Second languages

On my (mostly) daily commute, I often listen to podcasts. On NPR I listen to This American Life, which I can download. Last week they had a story about a Chinese-American boy, Larry, raised in the US by parents from Fujian. The mother spoke to Larry in English and apparently the father (who didn’t speak English at all) didn’t talk to the son much when he was small and he never learned Chinese. The hook for the story was that the father and son had literally never had a direct conversation. (The transcript is here, but you have to scroll down about 2/3rds of the way.) It was an interesting dynamic to me. I know a lot of families where the parents speak primarily Chinese, Taiwanese, or Korean, and the kids answer in English, but in this case the divide is even larger. I felt a lot of sympathy here for both Larry and his father. In this case, the language split was probably compounded by the father’s hard work schedule and perhaps that the father also spoke two different languages at home.

I’ve been thinking about this because lately I’ve started speaking to our kids occasionally in Mandarin. Partly it’s because I’d like them to be able to keep the language up. It’s a dilemma–it’s never totally ideal for parents to converse with children in a 2nd or 3rd language for both of them, at the same time some of the kids I know in Taiwan have a parent or parents that speak to them exclusively (or regularly, says Tuesdays) in English.

School Days…

Sam’s now near the end of his fourth week of school. It has been fast. I can’t believe quite how much they study. He’s more than 30 pages into a math book (he has two other math books too, so it’s not like this is all there is) and then there’s also been Chinese and English and some extra subjects. There are no tears this year but it’s still a negotiation to figure out what to do and how. Last year the English seemed a bit more urgent, but in the mean time math and Chinese have sped off, so now they get the attention. In math they’re doing double digit addition and subtraction with carrying, which seems pretty advanced to me for the first month of second grade. He likes his teachers (Ms. Lee, Mr. Nick) and is grudgingly continuing a once-a-week wushu class (“long fist” style–he’d hoped to switch to pottery). He still loves to draw and is doing scouts and violin also.

My students are also pretty interesting. My religion class this year is different than ones I’ve taught in the past. The entering class this year is older, and almost none of them come out of humanities or social science backgrounds (it tends instead to mix of a music/arts, teaching, business, engineering, etc.). In Taiwan, in high school study is more memorization (so think classical Chinese rather than great US/Western/World literature) and in college you only study one subject. I like the students a lot. About half are first generation Christians and they all had really interesting stories: one came from a family that did fortune telling, another was originally a candidate to be a prophet medium, several were part of whole-family conversations, and some are still the only Christians in their family. In some ways I’m glad I get to teach the religion class, because for most of them I really probably come out of left field. The semester will be a mix of folk religions, three teachings (Buddhism, Daoism, Confucianism), new religions, aborigine religions, and some add-on topics. My main goal is exposure and to help them think about Christian identity in a pluralistic culture. I also hope they’ll stretch a little in how they look at the world. How does Christian faith sit with different cultural views? How do they make sense of aspects of tradition that are troubling? The first class I give them a survey that looks at ideas like qi, ghosts and spirits, salvation, interfaith marriage and so on. I hope that talking about things now will help them later.

Second Grade has begun….

DSC_1329 After the second day of second grade, with Harry Potter drawing.

Samuel’s back in school, now in the second grade. It has been a smoother transition in general this year. Last year he was looking at a new place, new school, new teachers, new classmates, homework for the first time really. The teacher-student relationship also changed. Sam had attended a large kindergarten in Tianmu where he was in a large class with several teachers. The head teacher had really looked out for him, and it was still a pretty relaxed atmosphere.

This year Samuel seems fairly happy at school. There’s a group of other kids with international experience—Claire, Chloe, Kaylin, Akuma, Adeeb, and Émile. He likes the group of them. He has Mr. Nick for the first time as his English teacher and likes the class. His Chinese teacher, Li Laoshi, is the same for the second year, which is nice, and she’s been willing to work with us.

I’m admittedly a kind of Goldilocks parent: I don’t want Sam to have too much homework or feel too stressed out or scolded, but I also don’t want him to think school’s unimportant or to drift off in studies. The “just right” education is hard to find. This week he wasn’t bringing home his Chinese homework, so Saturday I went over to the school with him and made him go get it. Here’s the photo of words he was to copy out:DSC_1336I don’t know some of these characters! Hang in there Sam!

He was a bit grouchy about doing it, and I think his original plan was to just do CSL homework at a relaxed pace. I’d checked in with his teacher last week and she said that students who do CSL usually just do their Chinese there, but I’m a little afraid Sam may not keep up with the main class. Last year he pretty much could take the tests with the other students and stay close to where they are. I am glad, however, that his English seems on track and that he seems like he’s tracking everything in Chinese. I’m also really glad he seems to have a group of buddies he enjoys seeing every day. Yesterday he seemed really happy that he’d gotten positive feedback to his English sentences and characters, so I think we’re on track.

There are other things that took me a while to figure out. Sam started to demand that we make him lunch instead of having him get it at school (in the first two years, normally kids just have lunch at school). I think partly this was a desire to be like other kids, whose parents have opted them out of the meals for various reasons. But it also turned out that if he brought a snack he could share it with other kids and get friendship points. So we’ve agreed to improve his snacks. Apparently, students are normally required to finish their whole meal also, although it sounds like Sam’s teacher doesn’t make a big deal out of it.

Emily relates how when she asks kids here how they like school they often say things like: “it’s okay” or “I’m used to it now.” I know that different cultures describe schooling, childhood, and parenting very differently. In Taiwan, schooling is generally seen as hard work but necessary. It’s definitely an interesting system. My guess is fewer kids fall through the cracks here, but also that there’s a surplus of work and advice.

Acting Library Director

This semester I’ve been named the acting library director for Taiwan Theological Seminary. I’m following several longtime directors, including the outgoing director (Chang Hsien-Shu, a professional librarian), and Kao Chin-t’ien (a theologian at our school who retired in 2006). The library’s in good shape right now and as I understand it my main work will be to sign forms a couple of hours a week and encourage the librarians.

Librarians are fun to work with because they are so incredibly organized. I inherited the director’s system, which a series of 20+ binders neatly arranged on a shelf and a set of numbered folders on her computer organized by topic and updated regularly. In fact, there are computer records dating back to the mid 1960s, including scanned copies of old reports.

1968 minutesThis note mentions library members: Sutherland, Loh, Thornberry, MacLeod, and Allen, several of whom are famous at our Seminary. P0038_1960年代基督教教育館正面The Library c. 1960. It still looks pretty much the same.

I’m excited to be in the library, even if it’s short-lived. I have a healthy respect for how much it takes to add a collection, switch software, or up patron outreach. Since my training was primarily historical, I also geek-out over a good catalog or a nice set of archives. Highlights of my academic life include archival work at the British Museum, the LOC, and the big mission-focused archives (Yale, Union, Wheaton, Princeton).

Our library is already quite strong. With around 70,000 volumes, it’s a concentrated Taiwanese theological library. There are three full-time librarians; two have been here 20+ years and the other for around ten (which is very impressive at our campus). We have good access (electronic, building, etc.). If you can’t find something at our library, you can often find it at other seminary libraries or in national or university libraries. There’s a separate historical center on campus, and in the Presbyterian world here there are several other big libraries and repositories (each high school, hospital, college, and our General Assembly all have libraries or small museums).

I’m treating this as primarily a learning opportunity. If I get really ambitious I’ll try some grant applications or efforts to add to solicit small collections or build in new directions. Since they haven’t had a native English speaker here for a while, there may be ways I could help expand the collection or build networks. For now, it’s a nice chance to learn more about theological education librarianship and hopefully to get a bit deeper into our collections.