Sometimes I get asked what I would do if I was not a priest. In all likelihood there are two options – the first is an academic path in which I imagine teaching modern Chinese history – teaching post-Mao Marxist ideology or the like. The second option might be for Karrie and me to run a bed and breakfast or hostel in the foothills of the Himalayas, Yunnan province, in China. We’d serve a range of staple backpacker foods and meet folks from all over the world through the day. Having spent a good bit of time over the last decade or so visiting, studying, and traveling in China and talking with experts and cab-drivers alike I have developed a sense of what living in a post-something society looks like.
In China, there is a palpable sense of the desire for more. For some it is more money, for others more stability, for others it is more connection. Yet, across the country more is longed for. The old spiritual and philosophical infrastructure was torn apart by the Great Leap and the Cultural Revolution and the ascendancy of the economic pragmatism of Deng Xiaoping. A century or more of instability, starvation, and humiliation led to a country that was ready for a little pragmatism after the paroxysms of revolution, war, and more.
The Cultural Revolution, in particular, laid waste to much of the essence of Chinese culture. Old thought, old ways, old architecture, and more were destroyed, purged, and burned in a decade of psychosocial and political upheaval. It’s difficult for us to imagine the costs of the Cultural Revolution. The Chinese economy and education ground to a standstill and countless cultural artifacts, religious sites, and historical treasures were destroyed.
It was a complicated period but perhaps no more complicated than McCarthyism or the Draft Riots or other points in our own history when we needed to find enemies and conspiracies.
Yet, as Deng Xiaoping came to power after Mao’s death, he came with a simple premise. The government would maintain order and provide economic growth. Its legitimacy would rest on results not ideology. What happened next was an almost unbelievable economic miracle that continues to change China from day to day. Each year I go back and it feels as if another decade of economic change has gone by. Yet each year something else happens too – I talk with young people who wonder aloud, more and more frequently, “Is this all there is?”
When Mao purged Confucianism, Buddhism, and Christianity from the public consciousness it primed a reinvention of Chinese identity. As material progress unfolds and the emerging generations are further and further removed from the political chaos of their parents’ generation and the mass starvation of their grandparents’ there is a desire to reconnect with what is most essential to human identity and specifically Chinese identity.
Temples and churches are full of young people asking the most basic questions and even Chinese propagandists are talking of the Chinese Dream – something deeper than ideology or practical economic gain.
Christian history in China is bound up with particularly cruel violence and conflict: the Opium Wars, the Boxer Rebellion, and the Taiping Rebellion all shaped the way Christians are viewed in China. After the second Opium War, the Summer Palace was burned and looted. Cultural treasures were hauled off from across Beijing by a force of British and French troops. The great French novelist Victor Hugo, writing to a friend, was unsparing in his report: “All the treasures of all our cathedrals put together could not equal this formidable and splendid museum of the Orient. It contained not only masterpieces of art, but masses of jewelry. What a great exploit, what a windfall! One plundered, the other burned. And back they came to Europe, arm in arm, laughing away. Such is the story of the two bandits—before history, one of the two bandits will be called France; the other will be called England. ”
The complex feelings many Americans have toward Islam now because of 9/11 resemble the emotions that some Chinese have about Christians. For the Chinese, the events of the 1860s are present in their collective memory in much the way that Americans recall the Civil War.
Yet Christianity thrives in China. “By my calculations,” writes one Chinese scholar of religion, “China is destined to become the largest Christian country in the world very soon” (Fenggang Yang, Religion in China: Survival and Revival under Communist Rule). “It is going to be less than a generation,” Yang writes, “Not many people are prepared for this dramatic change.”
I truly believe that a similar, if less ideologically orchestrated, shift is underway in the United States. We are witnessing in a generation the erasure of a host of assumptions about what is or is not essential to our identity. Assumptions about racial and gender identity are superficial manifestations of the unseating of cultural norms and conventions. The place of religion in our society is changing as well – its norms and conventions are being undone. Fundamental shifts are happening at a pace that is jarring because it is happening at the new speed of communication – change is happening at the pace of rapid-fire text messaging rather than that of lovingly crafted letters.
A cultural revolution is underway here that is being powered not by a centralized authority but by our collective acquiescence to technological and consumerist desires. The impact, however, will be long felt and devastating. There are pockets of resistance and a general sense of unease yet I suspect that the harm will be done before we realize it has happened. Look at the way education is being treated now as a commodity and students as consuming customers for some insight into what is happening broadly in our culture.
In some ways the change is barbaric in its pace and intensity. When the walls of Rome fell I wonder if those watching saw it as simply one more incursion in a series of them? I doubt there was there a decisive moment when they said, “Oh, we’re in the Dark Ages now.” I tend to think that little by little dramatic changes in succession are lost in a wave of significance and insignificance alike. There’s a shifting of the terrain and you look about and realize that the world moved as you glanced away.
The world is moving around us. There is no shortage of blog posts, books, and essays on what manner of post-something society in which we now find ourselves. Yet the fundamental search for truth and identity remains fixed. We are a people who seek pattern and meaning even as our sources of stable authority and measures of validity change. We still search for fixed points though even as we distrust meta-narratives.
One noticeable thing in Buddhist temples in China is the discomfort with proper ways to show respect in religious places. Some Chinese enter them knowing exactly what to do – they bow and offer incense and prostrate in precisely the right ways. These are older folks who learned these things in a way that was deeper than memory and outlasted the petty virulence of the Red Guards of the 60s. Custom and meaning are inhabited in a way that lasts beyond change and revolution.
Younger Chinese come in with less certainty but more earnestness – they arrive hoping to find something there. They are not sure what to do, they bow and look out of the corner of their eyes and wonder if they’re doing it right. They offer incense but aren’t sure how much to offer. They prostrate but can’t quite figure out how many times is the right number of times. Yet they are coming. They are coming because they know there is more in a culture that longs for more. It’s counter-cultural and it’s counter-intuitive and yet it’s happening across China.
Unfolding around us in the United States is a great leveling – a cultural revolution. Things which had been raised up are being cast down and yet I truly believe that all things are being brought to their perfection. We are being called to offer something ancient to a culture that is losing its accumulated and inherited sense of depth, beauty, and meaning. Fascination with self, celebrity, and status are going to wear thin though and we are going to look up from screens. We are going to look into the mirror and ask, “Is this all there is?”
It’s happening now – it’s happening all around us. People are nervously coming into our churches, unsure how to act, uncertain as to why they are there, and yet they know there is more. In so many places we are a Church built for the generations of the certain – built for those who know the stories yet who disagree on the moral or the authorship or the details.
Many of our churches are places that reinforce the story as we like to tell it – massaging details for those who found the story lacking punch or promise at another purveyor. Yet the generation that is coming will not have heard it at all. They won’t come with preconceptions or the like – they’ll come with faint stirrings or with dreadful certainty that there is more. Are we equipped and ready to tell the story wholly anew?
Can we be the place that stands with faith and hope in the desert as the oasis when the thirst sets in? What looks like collapse now for the Church is not really collapse – it is a return to nomadic faith – a faith that preaches to those outside the walls who find that living within them comes at too great a price. We are being given the chance to drink and offer living water as hosts at the well.
The Church’s stability of the last fifty years has been bought at a high price as we have too often leased integrity for political collusion and social comfort. Our home won’t be the security of civilization much longer for the civilized world will have little use for us. An empire of distraction can’t really abide a source of truth.
As surely though as young Chinese are finding their way back after the leveling of Maoist excess and the apparent triumph of economic determinism – so too will we be asked to explain who we are and why we exist. We will be asked about our great promise – and we can really only have one answer.
We are the Body of Christ living, loving, and learning in such a way that people see more in us. I believe that is the moment for which we are being readied. We are being prepared for a time of wandering, a time of gathering, a time of story telling when we will gather not reflecting on where we were, where we once called home, but relishing the journey together as Jerusalem beckons again.
Along the way, people will come. They will hear songs of faith and see acts of compassion and they will come. They will see miracles and simple signs of love that will be remarkable for they will be real and not cropped on screens and filtered. They’ll see our imperfection and our hurt and our questioning and they’ll come because they will hurt, and question, and be tired of Instagrammed perfection.
They’ll be sure there’s more and we will be wise, in our camps outside the walls, to receive them with open arms for they will change us and they will be our future and hope for they will call us to share Christ anew.