Review: From Christ to Confucius

This review was originally posted here.

Recent historical scholarship on modern Christian missions to China, as to the non-European world as a whole, has been bedeviled by two weaknesses. First, historians have written about Protestant missions to China, or less frequently about Catholic ones, but very rarely about the two together within a single monograph. Second, Anglo-American scholars have tended for obvious linguistic reasons to confine themselves to the study of British or American missions, to the general neglect of those from continental Europe. Not the least of the virtues of Albert Monshan Wu’s book is that it transcends both of these limitations at once. By selecting as his two case studies in missions to China the Protestant Berlin Missionary Society (BMS) and the Catholic Society of the Divine Word (SVD) Wu is able to illuminate both commonalties and dissimilarities across the confessional divide. By focusing on a German Protestant mission Wu is able to view the nationalistic (and in part theological) gulf in the Protestant missionary movement that opened up after 1914 from the German rather than the Anglo-American side—something that is all too rare in Anglophone scholarship. He can also demonstrate the exceptional impact that the economic and political aftermath of the First World War had on the financing of German missions through to the Nazi era. By selecting the SVD he is able to show how a German Catholic mission that became internationalized was in a better position to weather the storms of the 1920s and 1930s than its nationally-confined Protestant counterparts, though he also highlights the extent to which Catholic missionaries in China were consistently more reluctant to advance Chinese leadership than was either Benedict XV or Pius XI.

Wu has also performed a valuable service to scholarship by charting the considerable transformation in attitudes to the Confucian heritage that is evident in both the BMS and the SVD in the inter-war period. The anti-Christian movements of the 1920s, and the emergence of the Chinese Communist Party, transformed missionary evaluations of Confucianism, so that what was once dismissed as superstition now appealed as the potential foundation of a Sinicized form of Christianity that could deflect the attacks of Nationalists and Communists. An interesting footnote that could be added to Wu’s story is that since the end of the Cultural Revolution the CCP itself has gone through a similar and no less remarkable metamorphosis in its attitudes to Confucian values, which once were disregarded as premodern superstition but are today hailed as China’s distinctive cultural contribution to the construction of a harmonious world order.

These virtues of Wu’s book are indeed substantial, and must be set in the balance against the two main criticisms that I shall offer of his work.

The first is that Wu tends to allow rather too much weight to the particularities of the German domestic context in explaining the stances taken by German missionaries in China. Thus he maintains (159) that the obdurate resistance of both Protestant and Catholic missionaries to taking measurable steps to devolve power to Chinese leadership—despite the noble aspirations to indigenization of missionary leaders in Berlin and Rome—can be explained by “the unprecedented challenges” of funding and political stability that the missionary movement faced in inter-war Germany. These challenges were indeed significant and to some extent distinctive to Germany, such as the severe restrictions placed on the export of foreign currency by the Nazi regime. But financial difficulties in the supporting constituency in Europe were much more likely to advance than to retard the process of devolution to the indigenous churches of Asia. In the case of British and American mainline missions, that was undoubtedly the case when the Depression of the 1930s brought the massive territorial expansion and investment in institution building of the first twenty-five years of the century to a shuddering halt, provoking emergency programs of rapid devolution to indigenous churches. More broadly, Wu seems at times to assume that missionary paternalism is a problem that demands particular context-specific explanation. I would myself suggest—and this is not an anti-missionary point—that missionaries are by the very nature of their vocation inclined to adopt a paternalistic relationship to their converts. Missionaries tend to regard themselves, and perhaps even more to be regarded by their converts, as fathers and mothers in the faith. Wu himself recognizes this on p. 217 and rightly notes that Chinese Christian leaders during the Second Sino-Japanese War strongly resisted the withdrawal of funding and missionary personnel from Germany. That tends to suggest that paternalism is not so much a regrettable aberration that requires specific explanation but rather the default setting to which both foreign mission agencies and indigenous Christian leadership continually gravitate. Current debates about the continued and generally willing indebtedness of African Christianity to foreign aid reinforce the point, as Paul Gifford’s work suggests.

A second and related weakness in Wu’s analysis is his tendency to extrapolate too widely and confidently from his two German case studies to the missionary movement as a whole, or even to the modern history of Christianity itself. Thus he assures us on p. 252 that “Christian missionaries altered their beliefs when they encountered other religions and civilizations.” Well, some did, but many more did not. Although Wu’s book adds weight to the evidence adduced by scholars such as Lian Xi that China could convert missionaries as well as the other way round, it is far from clear that this was the majority trend. China in the 1920s and the 1930s was the home of a confident and expansive fundamentalist movement that rivaled that in the United States in the extent of its influence and volubility. The missionaries who led that movement did not react to the Chinese “other” in the way that Wu implies. He goes on to draw a similarly sweeping conclusion on the next page when he affirms that when faced with “challenges from diverse religions, cultures, and social norms, European missionaries relinquished the hierarchical control over their own congregations” (253). His own evidence suggests that on the contrary, most of them maintained a rearguard action until they were left with no alternative but to hand over power. That was precisely what the Communists alleged when they took control in 1951, and is indeed the telling accusation at the heart of the Christian Manifesto of September 1950 (220–21).

In a similar vein, Wu makes the bold claim (257) that “the German case reveals that it was not the Europeans themselves who first embraced liberalism,” but rather “Chinese Christians in the 1920s who pushed German missionaries to become more liberal.” However, in his next sentence he notes that the Chinese Christians he has in mind were in fact influenced by an American-derived liberal form of Social Gospel theology. But the ideological roots of Social Gospel liberalism are themselves to be located in German idealism and the Kingdom of God theologies of such theologians as Albrecht Ritschl. Wu makes no mention of the theological revolution in nineteenth-century German Protestantism that laid the foundations of modern higher criticism of the Bible and of the modern theology of religions. There is a complex relationship between metropolitan theological influence and the impact of the non-Western context in explaining the processes of fundamental reassessment that some missionaries underwent in the first half of the twentieth century. What Wu has shown with admirable clarity is that the German Pietists who staffed the BMS and the ultramontane sympathizers who staffed the SVD significantly moderated their theological conservatism in the face of the enormous challenges posed to their work by the political upheavals of Republican China. That conclusion is itself valid and important, but it should not be lost by being absorbed into unsubstantiated generalizations about the course of the missionary movement as a whole.

A final question that needs to be posed to Wu’s conclusions from his data is his attempt to relate his narrative to general theories about the nature of secularization. The general thesis of the book is that, by adopting more open stances to other religions, missionaries in the inter-war period somehow anticipated the trend of Europeans from the 1960s to reject the exclusive truth claims of Christianity, thereby advancing secularization. But hardly any of those missionaries who in the 1920s reconceived the relationship between Christianity and other religions abandoned their belief in the fundamental superiority of Christianity—they simply revised their previously pessimistic views of how far indigenous cultures and religions might be a stepping stone towards the truth of Christ. Wu rightly points out that missionaries “exposed their European audience to religious alternatives to Christianity” (252), but they had been doing so since the seventeenth century. What this has to do with the decline in religious attendance in post-1960s Europe is far from clear. Furthermore, his attempt to connect the theme of secularization to the devolution of power to indigenous church leaders in China does not add up. It is commonplace to posit that secularization is a process in which religious figures, institutions, and ideas experience a decline in their social authority, but precisely what is meant by the claim that by relinquishing power within their churches in China missionaries were thereby unintentionally contributing to “their own secularization” (253)? What took place in China was an internal transfer of religious authority within a set of ecclesiastical institutions from an external to an indigenous source, but that does not amount to secularization. The attempt to enforce secularization on Chinese society came during the Cultural Revolution, and of course it signally failed, provoking in its wake a revival both of Confucian values and of popular revivalist Christianity.

I would not wish to end this response on such a critical note. The research that undergirds this book is first class, and much of its analysis is highly stimulating. Wu has skillfully integrated a China narrative with a German narrative in a fashion that is still sadly unusual, and for that we are in his debt.

For Albert Wu’s response and Brian Stanley’s rejoinder, see here and here.
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About Brian Stanley

Brian Stanley read history at Emmanuel College, Cambridge, and stayed on in Cambridge for his PhD on the place of missionary enthusiasm in Victorian religion. He has taught in theological colleges and universities in London, Bristol, and Cambridge, and from 1996 to 2001 was Director of the Currents in World Christianity Project in the University of Cambridge. He was a Fellow of St Edmund’s Collge, Cambridge, from 1996 to 2008, and joined the University of Edinburgh in January 2009.

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