Christianity in China: Secularization, Diversity, and Social Harmony

By Wickeri, Philip L. | The Ecumenical Review, March 2015 | Go to article overview

Christianity in China: Secularization, Diversity, and Social Harmony


Wickeri, Philip L., The Ecumenical Review


Christianity is not necessarily a religion that promotes social harmony. (1) Jesus said, "I did not come to bring peace, but a sword" (Matt. 10:34). From the time of the early church, right up to the present, Christianity has been as much a source of rebellion, dissent, and disharmony as it has been a source for societal harmony and peace. There are ample examples from the Bible (the book of Revelation), church history (the Taiping Rebellion), and contemporary life to show the disharmonious effects of Christianity.

At the same time, Christianity can also be a source of peace, reconciliation, and social unity. St Paul has written, "God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men's sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation" (2 Cor. 5:19). In situations of church hegemony (the high Middle Ages in Western Europe) or proposed hegemony (the view of the Christian Right in the United States), Christian "harmony" becomes an oppressive social value. In other situations, Christian communities, if not the church as a whole, have been active in movements to promote peace, dialogue, and reconciliation. This is especially so when the church is relatively weak and/or powerless, and when Christians are in a minority situation.

The question, therefore, lies in the social conditions under which Christianity can help promote social harmony, and the Christian message it needs to proclaim in such situations. This is the question 1 will address in this paper. What kind of Christianity can help to promote a harmonious society in China today? This has to do with the context in which Christianity now finds itself, and the social and theological outlook of Christians themselves.

Secularization and Religious Diversity

We live in a secular age, the great proliferation, diversity, and growth of religions notwithstanding. The distinctive feature of secularism in our time is "a move from a society where belief in God is unchallenged ... to one in which it is understood to be one option among others, and frequently not the easiest to embrace." Here, I am following the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (2007). The secular, in this sense, describes the diversity of belief and non-belief in modern society all over the world. One may say that the diversity of religion has become the condition of belief or non-belief. Religious belief and religious practice, in this sense, are aspects of culture, forms of cultural choice, and expressions of social existence.

Secularization and religious diversity are global phenomena. Secularization and religion are sometimes seen as representing opposing sides of the modern or post-modern divide, but this is not necessarily the case. In Europe and North America, secularization has sometimes been identified with an Enlightenment understanding of modernity, and religion associated with a residual or even "outdated" sense of the spiritual or the divine. The debate over the public role of religion in "secular" Europe has been more pronounced than in "religious" America. In India, China, Turkey, and many other parts of the world, secularism has been upheld against the influence of religion in the public sphere, in particular in government and education. By contrast, resurgent religious communities, whether Christian, Muslim, or Hindu, have sometimes criticized secularism, or they have identified it with religious, cultural, and moral decline. Discussions and debates over secularization and religion are particular to individual cultures, but at the same time, these debates are global in nature; they are inevitably related to one another.

Religious diversity can lead to heightened tension and even conflict over the possibilities of religious life in the modern world. However, the acceptance of religious diversity can also promote the enrichment of cultural life and social harmony. A key consideration in this regard is how religious practice is lived out, how it shapes human behaviour, and how it relates to secularity. …

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