February 14, 2016 Chinese New Year

~Sermon by Art McDonald

As we celebrate with Qui and family, as well as our new members, the young Murphy women, the two week long Chinese New Year celebration, I am aware of the enormous presence the nation of China has on the world stage. Maybe we all need to learn Chinese, especially since China casts this deep shadow on the world with its huge population and economy. And besides the significant presence of Chinese folks in the congregation, I’m also aware of how several members, Clint, the Parlees, most recently Maryanne Askwyth’s husband, Dave, Gordon and Amy travel to China for business and other reasons. Don’t we all need to know more and learn more about China if we are to understand what is going on in our modern world?  I certainly do. But, also, as religious people and spiritual seekers, I am very curious about Chinese religion, both how it functions in China but also how various traditions emanating from China have influenced the West, as so many of us have incorporated Chinese religious ideas into our practices.

When in graduate school in the 1980s at the U. of Pittsburgh, pursuing a PhD in the scientific study of Religion, I became very familiar with a theory very predominant in scholarly circles called “modernization” or “secularization” theory. In order to study religion objectively, i.e., social-scientifically, one had to become familiar with this idea that dominated the study of all human behavior, including culture and religion. According to this theory, a product of the Enlightenment with its turn to reason and intellect and away from religion, and solidified in the 19th and 20th centuries with the rise of the field of sociology and the “scientific” materialism of Karl Marx and his friend Frederick Engels, faith and religion will fade away as remnants of the past ages in which people lived by their superstitions and believed in the powers of God or gods; modern persons will slowly realize that there is no supernatural or spiritual world and that religion, as Marx and Engels suggested, was merely an opiate, a drug, which created a world of illusions. Mature people, rational people, will no longer have need of such escapes; so goes the thinking and theory. In order to get my degree I had to put together a 5 person committee, one or two theologians from the theology school and a philosopher, a sociologist and historian from the University, all of whom, most especially the University professors, were part of and deeply influenced by this very foundation of modern social scientific study, the theory of secularization/modernization. Reason trumps faith and religion, religion will become increasingly insignificant, and eventually disappear. It’s an illusion which leads to “false consciousness.”

20th century China is a laboratory of how this modern theory influenced an entire culture and its politics. In 1911 China had a revolution which ended the last of its “imperial dynasties” and helped pave the way for a society without religion, despite the deep and rich religious past of the last 2500 years, in which China produced the great religious traditions of Taoism, Confucianism and, and later, Buddhism which arrived from India around the first century CE. According to writer Ian Johnson, in an article a few years back in the New York Review of Books, analyzing recent scholarship on China and religion, “Chinese are often described as pragmatic people with little interest in faith. The prominent Chinese intellectual Hu Shih (1891-1962) declared that ‘China is a country without religion.’ In fact, (Johnson goes on) this is how early twentieth-century Chinese intellectuals wished to see their nation-as free from what they presumed to be the backward and superstitious beliefs of their ancestors.”

“At the end of the 19th century it was estimated that China had a million temples,” but after the revolution in 1911 the push was to “destroy temples and build schools” thus “setting into place the fundamental claim of subsequent eras: that religion was antithetical to modernization.” This governmental strategy was so predominant and effective that a visiting Western scholar reported in 1974: “I was overwhelmed by the total secularization of a society and culture that once placed high value on religious shrines, festivals and symbols. During our visit we saw almost no evidence of surviving religious practice.” It seems that the 1911 revolution, followed by the “cultural revolution” of 1949 and the rise of the Chinese Communist Party with its pretty militant form of atheism had transformed this ancient culture for good.

However, that doesn’t seem to be the end of the story regarding China and religion. As Chinese-American scholar Fenggang Yang wrote in 2005, “Merely three decades ago, China appeared to be the most secularized country in the world. Not a single Temple or Church was open for public religious service, and people appeared to believe wholeheartedly in atheism…At the turn of the twenty-first century, however, China may have become one of the most religious countries in the world. All kinds of religion, old or new, conventional or eccentric, are thriving.” It seems that religious practices never really fully waned, they merely went underground. And as Chinese governments softened their hard-line stands on religion in the 1980s and 90s, and became more pragmatic about such things, public religion re-appeared and began to prosper. Nevertheless, the Government is still officially atheist and still adheres to the theory of secularization, still imagining religion is destined to slowly disappear, and it exercises very cautious control over what religions are officially recognized: Taoism, Buddhism, Islam, Catholicism and Protestantism, and all reports are that all these traditions, as well as more ancient folk expressions, are growing (some reports suggest 60-80 million Chinese attend Sunday church). Actually, some scholars believe that there is even more religious practice going on and that the officially-controlled Government news organizations intentionally under-report the extent of religious participation. And while the Government is now more tolerant of religion, and, in some cases, even sees its worth as teaching good values and providing social services to needy populations, it (the Government) still suppresses any newer religious expressions, such as Falun Gong, which it outlawed in 1999, as this movement began to be critical of Government corruption and was seen as a threat to social order. The Chinese Government will not allow any political agitation for change on the part of religious practitioners. Prejudice and suspicion still rule.

In a fascinating suggestion, one scholar of China and the role of religion in Chinese society actually thinks that going forward religion can actually help transform China morally, and possibly, even be a force for democratization. There are indications that religion is prospering and growing not just among the wider populace and the poor, but among many in the scholarly community, some of whom are now practicing Buddhists or Christians. On the moral front or regarding the role of values and how religion could revive some forgotten principles, according to Ian Johnson, “…China lacks a Good Samaritan law to protect people who do good deeds from being sued if something goes wrong. Ever since a court ruled in 2006 that a man had to pay some of the medical costs for a person he rescued, many Chinese have shied away from helping others” beyond family and close friends. But, despite the use of the expression lifted from the Christian tradition of the “Good Samaritan,” subtly suggesting that it might be Christian values that will rescue Chinese morals, which may well be true in part, there are indications that Confucianism, not really recognized as a specific religious tradition but more a deep part of traditional Chinese culture, is also making a comeback. And the greatest value of that, or at least one of the values of that possibility, is that Confucianism has profound teachings about morality and character and public service, a perspective indigenous to Chinese culture, unlike Christianity which is still seen as a foreign import, with imperialist overtones for some. Focusing on the role of leaders and politicians, Confucius cared deeply that leaders become “upright gentlemen,” full of benevolence, virtue, and ethical principle. In a quote seemingly right on point for us in our current moment on the verge of electing a new President, Confucius suggested: “Whereas the superior person comprehends righteousness, the small person only comprehends profit.” Confucius believed that leaders must be of high quality and high character; we need leaders of integrity and dignity, political, business and religious leaders. Such leaders were essential for societal cohesion, he thought. And people must have trust and confidence in them. For Confucius, leadership should be not about power and wealth but moral example. Leadership can never be about private gain. He once wrote: “Only those are worthy to govern who would rather be excused.” For Confucius, writes religious scholar Huston Smith: “…goodness becomes embodied in society neither through might nor through law, but through the impress of persons we admire.” Talk about morality and high purpose! I’m rooting for a Confucian comeback in this ancient culture. I wouldn’t mind seeing some Confucian influence in our own political realm.

China bears watching, not only because of its huge population and its economy, its military and its influence across the world, but perhaps because of its growing religious movement whose existence and growth seems to be slowly countering the modern theory of secularization, that is, China seems to be “desecularizing” after nearly a century of Government attempts to stamp out religious practices. Even under extreme political and cultural pressure and propaganda, it seemed that faith and religion couldn’t be exterminated.

For ourselves, on the one hand we seem to be going through a kind of secularization process in this country, much like Western Europe has been going through over the last many decades. Surveys on religion report that there is significant growth in the so-called “nones” category, i.e.’ those with no religious affiliation, and the younger generations are not following their parents into the traditions they grew up with, meanwhile lots of mainline churches are experiencing deep declines, all signs of the lessening impact of religion. On the other hand, some churches are thriving, not only evangelical but certain more liberal churches like some of our UU congregations; many are slowly dying, others are thriving. At the same time, Islam is growing, so is Mormonism, and many individuals are practicing various expressions of Buddhism. So the picture is mixed and unclear, a slow process of secularization like Western Europe or a recalculating and re-energizing of faith and religion in new and different expressions?  Fortunately for this wee Universalist congregation, energy abounds and interest continues as we celebrate today not only Chinese New Year but the welcoming in of new members, both older and younger; a great cause for celebration. Seems to me there is something in the human experience that speaks of a longing, an intuition and some sense that there is more going on than meets the eye. Attempts to declare that the spiritual and religious sense is ultimately illusory or an example of “false consciousness,” the apparent conviction of so many modern scholars and other educated people seems to be constantly challenged by the experiences and beliefs of many human beings who hold on to traditions with long, profound histories, or create new ones that speak to spiritual and religious concerns. You can attempt to deny it or suppress it, but it only goes into remission and keeps re-appearing.

Writing my dissertation on the role of faith and religion in Peru, South America, specifically a Christian religious movement begun in that hemisphere as liberation theology, I had to satisfy, and in a way educate, at least three of my dissertation committee’s members, who were all schooled in the social-scientific scholarly perspective of modernization or secularization theory, that religion is on the wane and insignificant in attempting to understand society. In fact two of the committee members, though they had written serious scholarly books on society in Latin America and elsewhere, had almost no orientation or understanding of how religion, in certain societies, can have a major impact. In fact my dissertation was suggesting exactly that in the case of Peru. I was very aware of this and worried about it, as I could imagine them trashing my whole thesis as irrelevant and erroneous. Fortunately, they were very kind and broad-minded enough to give a serious consideration to my findings, which involved several lengthy trips to Peru and lots of on the ground observation. In fact, one of the highlights of the process was a phone call I received three days before I had to meet with the committee and defend my thesis. One committee member, a very well regarded sociologist at the University, called me on the phone and said he was ½ way though reading my thesis and he was very excited about my research and couldn’t wait to read the second half. Since we hadn’t talked much about my work leading up to the defense, he just wanted me to know ahead of time that he thought it was terrific. I was stunned. This was atypical. Most dissertation committees I had heard of from friends made life difficult for students, questioning findings and theories, demanding more research or rewriting. This reputable scholar, thoroughly schooled in modernization theory, was excited about my findings on religion and its relevance in the modern world. He thanked me for teaching him so much about the role of religion in one modern context. Believe me Melanie and I celebrated with a few pints that night! What a gift.

Thanks Qui and all our friends whose ancestry goes back to China; Happy Chinese New Year. What a rich spiritual and cultural tradition to have come from. May it help transform the modern world with teachings and values that might bring us all together in cooperation and peace.