Understanding the Chinese Worldview – by David Baldwin

Scenario from 2019 Forum:

Chinese worldview –     My non-Christian parents have always struggled with the fact that I am going into Christian ministry. On a recent family visit to an auntie’s house, the auntie mentioned that she’s practiced in Chinese numerology; fortune telling by birthdays. She offered to do me and before I could object my parents had already given her my birthday. After 10 minutes, the auntie confirmed by numerology that I should head into a serving profession. Going into ministry, then, came out as the best job given her reading. How should I respond?

 

When people become Christians from Chinese backgrounds there is nearly always family disappointment and opposition. There is a complex web of reasons why parents and extended family members may be so unhappy. To understand this unhappiness we first need to understand the underlying assumptions in peoples’ minds – the Chinese religious worldview.

Essentially, Chinese religions are pragmatic; belief and practice working hand in hand to pursue peace and prosperity. If a family member becomes a Christian, it will not be the new beliefs that upset the family, but a fear of being neglected, in this life and the next. If the old ways are neglected, then the old people will also be neglected and the ancestors forgotten.

Whereas Christian faith is inherently exclusive, the three main religions/philosophies behind the Chinese worldview are perfectly comfortable with amalgamation. Like an eastern gastronomic fusion, the teachings of Confucius meld subtly with strong interconnected essences emanating from the Tao and are blended perfectly by the wheel-turning stirrings of the Buddha. Throw in a little spicy fortune telling, a pinch of Feng Shui and a couple of horoscopes to taste, and that comprises the ‘hot soup’ your young convert has stepped into!

‘Does this mean that after I die you’re not going to send any food to me?’ demanded Joey Tan’s irate mother when he told her about his new Christian faith. [1] Joey’s challenge was to demonstrate the truth and power of the gospel to his mother by both confronting and connecting with her Chinese worldview. [2]

Confronting wrong religious ideas needs to be done sensitively and with compassion. In the Hungry Ghost Festival, Chinese people leave out food for their departed ancestors. Joey’s mum was angry because she was afraid of going hungry in the afterlife. The Bible clearly teaches that it is God, not other people, who attend to our fate in the afterlife, and Joey will not be able to dodge this.

But while gently confronting, Joey also needed to connect the gospel meaningfully to his mum’s life in ways that made sense to her. So telling her about God’s promises in his word, the “nows” and “not yets” of eternal life, eternal security and the joys of heaven, as described in the Bible, would certainly scratch where his mother was itching.

Clear and obvious points at which the gospel subverts and fulfils[3] the longings expressed in Chinese religious expression (with all its wrong answers) would include the following:

  1. Filial piety – Confucian teaching about the need to respect and look after our family members, especially our elders, finds natural echoes in the pages of scripture (Exodus 20:12, 1 Timothy 5:8). This joyful allegiance must be shown in its proper place as stemming from an even greater allegiance – to the giver of families; God himself (Matthew 6:33). Primary allegiance must always be to the creator, not the created.
  2. Ancestral veneration – Christians can confront and connect with this Chinese expectation, which builds on filial piety, by showing from scripture that God created us to live in families and remember those who go before us with love and respect (Genesis 2, Psalm 127:3-5, 1 Timothy 5:1-2, Hebrews 11) but not try to connect with them (1 Samuel 28, Hebrews 9:27).
  3. Festivals – Believers in Christ may politely have to decline participation in festivals of the dead, based on wrong assumptions about the connectedness of the living and the dead, but may wholeheartedly throw themselves into many aspects of festivals of the living, explaining that the things being celebrated find their ultimate fulfilment in the kingdom of God (John 2, John 7, Acts 2).

For a detailed treatment of these themes, please get hold of a copy of Daniel Tong’s Biblical Approach to Chinese Tradition and Beliefs.[4] Note Tong’s title places ‘tradition’ before ‘beliefs,’ which reminds us that Chinese religions are focused on pragmatic concerns.

So what of the scenario we started with? What of the parents’ concerns and the aunt’s numerology? How should I respond?

A good place to start, without mentioning the fortune telling activity at all, would be to gratefully affirm family concern for your best interests generally and any support for going into a serving profession in particular. Not only are you grateful for your family’s interest and concern but you want to assure them that ‘helping others’ will certainly start with your own family. The Bible teaches us much about respecting our elders and caring for our own family first, before seeing to the needs of others.

Even better news, the God of the Bible is a loving heavenly father, who takes care of all our needs if we turn from our sins and trust in him. Having become his adopted children (John 1:12-13), he promises to take care of us in both this world and the next. He also warns us that we will be separated from all things good, including the love of our family, if we do not turn from our sins to follow him in this life (John 3:16-21).

At some point the family’s misguided religious practices will need to be confronted, as numerology is clearly forbidden (Deuteronomy 18:9-14) but rather than doing this coldly and dispassionately, this should be done within the broader context of active engagement in the positive aspects of Chinese culture, such as Chun Jie (Chinese New Year). What better context to gain a hearing about the all-embracing shalom peace promised in the Bible than throwing yourself wholeheartedly into a festival emphasising harmony?

David Baldwin, March 2020 (with thanks to Dan Strange and former Oak Hill student, Song Tsai, who provided the scenario from his own experience)

 

[1] Dr Hann Tzuu Joey Tan in interview with Kay Carter, “Making a cultural connection” (THink, Winter 2019, Issue 4). Online: https://tyndalehouse.com/storage/files/ink/4/think04-full-issue.pdf

[2] Dan Strange, Plugged In (The Good Book Company, 2019, Chapters 5&6)

[3] Subversive fulfilment is a term resurrected by Dan Strange in his readings of Dutch Reformed missionary thinkers. Dan Strange, For Their Rock is not as Our Rock (Nottingham: Apollos, 2014, Chapters 7&8).

[4] Daniel Tong, A Biblical Approach to Chinese Tradition and Beliefs (Singapore: Genesis, 2003).