Interview With American Scholar of Religion Naomi Thurston: Studying the Diversity of Christianity in China

Naomi Thurston, assistant professor of the Divinity School of Chung Chi College
Naomi Thurston, assistant professor of the Divinity School of Chung Chi College
By Karen LuoAugust 22nd, 2023

Editor's note: Naomi Thurston, assistant professor of the Divinity School of Chung Chi College/Cultural and Religious Studies, The Chinese University of Hong Kong and director of the China Christianity Studies Group (CCSG), talks about the diverse studies of Christianity in China, the related emerging academic field, and the sinicization of Christianity in an exclusive interview with China Christian Daily. She urges Christians in different countries to pay more attention to Asian theologians, who are often underrepresented in the seminary curricula, and to have more conversations with one another. 

China Christian Daily: Can you please introduce yourself and your research field?

Naomi Thurston: I'm a scholar of Christianity based at the Divinity School of Chung Chi College, which belongs to The Chinese University of Hong Kong. I teach courses in the History of Christianity in China and World Christianity. My current research concentrations are comparative religious ethnography and theological reception history, particularly the reception of Jürgen Moltmann's theology in Chinese scholarship.

China Christian Daily: What is the current landscape of the study of Christianity in China?

Naomi Thurston: First, Christianity in China is a diverse field. There is, as is commonly stated, not one Christianity; there are many Christianities (多种基督宗教) in China. This is complicated by the official division between Catholicism (天主教) and “Christianity,” i.e., Protestant denominations, as separate religions. The diversity across Chinese Christian faith communities extends beyond the often-cited division between officially operating, registered churches and those that, for various reasons, are not registered. These include vestiges of old missionary denominations but also newly arising differences in theological commitments, denominational affiliations, and stances on social issues. That said, many believers in China, whether members of or attending TSPM or other congregations, seem to subscribe to a generally evangelical set of doctrines and practices. Progressive or “liberal” theological views (自由神学) are often, though not as a rule, eschewed. Christians can be found in almost all sectors of society and walks of life. Christian growth and indigenization have been documented among several of China’s ethnic minorities, including different Miao groups or the Lisu (傈僳) of southwest China. What is important to stress is that, as a scholar of “Christianity in China,” a person might study any of these contemporary phenomena, but a scholar of Christianity in China might also be a Sinologist specializing in Christian texts composed during the Tang dynasty (618–690 CE; 705–907 CE): this is how ancient Chinese Christianity is. The field is immense, with much fruitful ground for research.

Secondly, the “study of Christianity in China”—if we are talking about a research interest among scholars of various backgrounds (中国基督教研究, let’s say)—is a complex field of inquiry that touches on and is grounded in several different disciplines and fields that may or may not overlap: history, China/Asian studies, Sinology, translation studies, study of religion, Word Christianity, theology, etc.

If we are talking about the “study of Christianity” as a field of research driven by Chinese or China-based scholars (Sino-Christian studies 汉語基督教研究), we can see that the field is far more diverse, less centered in the discipline of history, and pioneered initially by philosophers and philosophers of religion in mainland academia in the 1980s and 1990s. Today, the field has diversified into different ideological alignments and academic disciplines, from anthropology and history to literature and comparative religion.

China Christian Daily: Can you share with us your book, Studying Christianity in China:  Constructions of an Emerging Discourse? In your opinion, how will this emerging academic trend impact the development of Chinese churches?

Naomi Thurston: In the wake of Deng Xiaoping's economic reforms (改革开放), Chinese intellectuals began researching Christianity as a means of tracing the origins of Western culture and modernity so as to reconstruct its historical influence and philosophical claims, as well as to probe its relationship to Chinese modernity. Today, for example, scholars in Mainland China of diverse backgrounds study Augustine’s writings in order to formulate a specific critique of Western modernity. Such discourses, while not impacting theological developments in Chinese churches in a direct way, demonstrate the vibrancy and potential of intellectual cross-cultural inquiry. If this kind of inquiry remains open, critical, engaged beyond its own borders, and prudently sympathetic to faith concerns and theological reasoning, such discourses and the wider theological dialogue they enable might become a kind of resource for Chinese churches.

Studying Christianity in China is based on my doctoral research, conducted in cities across China between 2011 and 2015. I interviewed nearly fifty scholars related to Sino-Christian studies. Their work covers a spectrum of methodologies, positions, and humanistic concerns. Most scholars who study some aspect of Christianity at Chinese universities are not confessing Christians; they are secularists, often sympathetic to religion but committed first and foremost to academic projects. The shared commitments within this field fascinated me, and I tried to explain what these were, reconstruct the discourse, and understand its contextual meaning.

China Christian Daily: What do you think of the notion of “the sinicization of Christianity”? How should the Bible apply to Christians in the Chinese context?

Naomi Thurston: Any version of Christianity is contextualized; cultural, societal, and political contextualizations are inevitable and natural, but perhaps we can talk about the manipulation of this inevitability, which is something like an ongoing negotiation.

I would like to quote the German theologian Jürgen Moltmann. An admirer of traditional Chinese culture, Moltmann has written about his Western-Christian reading of the Taoist classic Dao De Jing (道德经) while trying to avoid subordinating the text to the full weight of Western interpretive scrutiny. Professor Moltmann has visited China on numerous occasions since the mid-1980s and has maintained academic exchanges and friendships with scholars from Beijing and Nanjing to Taipei, while his works are also well-received across Asia. At a 2018 forum in Hong Kong, Moltmann responded to one of the papers presented, stressing the universality of Christianity in contradistinction to an over-insistence on national identity or the establishment of a “state Christianity”:

“Christianity can never be a tribal religion—a Stammesreligion, as we say in German. The Karlowitz Synod of 1856 forbade the epithets “Serbian,” “Rumanian,” or “Bulgarian” for the Orthodox Church, maintaining that there was only one Church shared between these countries. Likewise, the term “Russian Orthodox Church” is a product of the early twentieth century. In 1964, I argued in favor of an “Exodus Church” over a German state church or “people’s church” (Volkskirche) and other forms of culturally adapted Christianity.”¹

If Sinicization means acknowledging the full agency of Chinese culture, Chinese Christians, and Chinese institutions in setting the agenda for the development of Chinese Christianity, then Sinicization has already largely been achieved. If Sinicization is about going a step further and digging much deeper into the meanings of culturally contextualizing Christian ideas and practices, this is an ongoing effort that will never be completed because cultures are in flux all the time. This is always an important task—a task that belongs to the church—and it begins with cultural translation. If Sinicization means adapting Christian communities to national agendas, this notion has nothing to do with Christianity as such. In addition, the ambiguity of the terminology further complicates the situation. The term “Sinicization” is not necessarily the best rendering of 中国化, which means “Chinafication.” Should the religious practices of China’s ethnic minorities be Sinicized? If so, what does this mean since their cultures are distinct from contemporary mainstream Han culture? Yet contextualization is natural, important, and inevitable. It cannot be avoided. How should the Bible apply to Christians in the Chinese context? I think this is a question for Chinese Christians to answer.

China Christian Daily: What does the study of Chinese Christianity contribute to world Christianity? 

Naomi Thurston: I'd say that the study of Chinese Christianity today is integral to the study of World Christianity. This is not only due to the sheer size of the Chinese Christian populations taken together but also because the history of Christianity in China is instructive on so many levels. The diverse Christian groups that developed independently—not just the indigenous Protestant sects of the early 20th century but much earlier Catholic congregations who formed their own unique communities when foreign priests were absent—their struggles for survival as well as their contributions to the Christian faith and religious culture warrant our attention as scholars and Christians. Chinese theologians, as others have already called for, should be on the reading lists of any World Christianity course and should, ideally, play some role in systematic theological education in other parts of the world. As far as I know, even in Asia, Asian theologians are underrepresented in the seminary curricula.

China Christian Daily: During your teaching period in Hong Kong and mainland China, can you share with us your experience of interacting with Chinese students? Is there any way to promote cooperation between academics in China and other countries?

Naomi Thurston: Like many westerners teaching in China, my experiences have been overwhelmingly positive. I learn so much from my students, and this is the aspect of teaching I find most rewarding. I don’t like giving grades, but students in Asia tend to be very focused on high marks, especially here in Hong Kong, so you are always asked to give precise instructions and offer ever more advice on how students can improve their grades. Otherwise, I’ve enjoyed my interactions with our students here at CUHK considerably. The only drawback is that I don’t speak Cantonese. Although my Mandarin is not great, I can hold a conversation, which tends to break the ice much quicker when I talk to students on the Chinese mainland.

How can we improve cooperation? We need to talk and listen to each other—especially listen. We might start by reading each other’s works when we have the time. This is one reason I’ve helped translate articles by contemporary Chinese scholars into English. I find translation extremely time-consuming work, but it is important and should not be treated as a banal technical job. Translation is important and can bring people closer together. We should make fewer assumptions about each other and spend more time sharing meals and interesting conversations with each other.

China Christian Daily: Do you have any words for the Chinese church?

Naomi Thurston: The western church has too long exported its theology to the majority of the world. I would love to be involved in facilitating translations of Chinese theology into English or German if I have the chance. Chloë Starr, Professor of Asian Christianity and Theology at Yale University, has just published a wonderful work based on the two-volume Chinese Theology Reader (汉语神学读本) by He Guanghu and Yeung Hee Nam (Daniel Yeung): A Reader in Chinese Theology (Baylor, 2023). This text is an invaluable resource for western Christians and theologians who want to know more about Chinese theology. What I would like to say is that the western church has already greatly benefited and will continue to benefit from the ideas and life stories of Chinese theologians and Chinese lay Christians. I hope that the Chinese church will be ever more actively involved in the export of its theology abroad.

China Christian Daily: Do you expect any help from China to benefit your research work?

Naomi Thurston: I have lived in this part of the world for nearly a decade. I have learned and been given so much. I have no expectations but am always curious to learn more.

[1] Jürgen Moltmann, “Response to ‘The Chinese Church,’” in Jürgen Moltmann in China: Theological Encounters from Hong Kong to Beijing, edited by Jason Lam and Naomi Thurston (Leiden: Brill, 2023), 87.

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