Guest Editorial Special Issue: “Public Theology in the Chinese Context”

In: International Journal of Public Theology
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Writing on “The Scope of Public Theology”, Duncan B. Forrester declared that

Public theology is necessarily always contextual. It responds to situations, theories and issues which change over time, while endeavouring to hold fast to a tradition which has a constant core. Through wrestling with particular situations, public theology hopes, at least from time to time, to come up with theological insights which are recognised as ‘public truth’ not just in the situation or context in which they were conceived, but more generally as well.1

This regional special issue on public theology in the Chinese context (which here includes mainland China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan) sets out to represent a contextual and inter-contextual response to a number of different public issues. It is our hope that these contextual reflections will inspire the praxis of other public theologies around the world.

This discipline of a public theology has become progressively more familiar to many Chinese Christians and scholars; they are currently studying and putting it into practice. It has been observed that Christians are also becoming more public in their concerns;2 Christian studies are being done from interdisciplinary perspectives and with a public concern;3 and the topic of public theology has been receiving increasing attention and debate among the academia as well as the church within the Chinese context. It is now time to review the development and achievements of a Christian public theology being done in the Chinese context while also identifying the problems it faces. It is also time to consider its particular contributions to the global discussion that surrounds public theology. This special issue of the journal is seeking to present a series of theological responses to the emerging social, economic, ecological, and political issues current in the Chinese-speaking world.

There are a number of themes that are reflected in the following articles. The most obvious is the distinctive nature of state intervention in economic and social life that is bound to a state ideology. It pervades the whole of public life and discourse. The principle of contextuality that Forrester alludes to means that a Chinese Christian public theology must be mindful of the Chinese context(s). The sheer diversity of China situates a public theology at the intersection of a politically driven nationalism and matters of identity that can always fragment due to particular ethnic, social and political conditions. These are issues which a Christian theological engagement cannot but help encounter if the life of Christian faith and witness wishes to enter a public space beyond its immediate personal and ecclesial setting.

Zhibin Xie’s article examines first the problem of how is the public domain understood and constituted in a Chinese context. What indeed has been the traditional Chinese understanding of ‘the public’? Has there been, in effect, a tradition of public theology in China in the past and, if so, what might be its legacy? In what ways might it assist in seeking to address the specific issues now being raised in and through a public theology in this current Chinese context? These questions must be posed against a background of a government-dominated public and a consideration of how a diversity of emerging civil and social organizations can be true to their identity. Xie also tackles the way in which the terms public and theology can be in a degree of tension—and how that tension then has been played out in a Chinese context. His article mediates and responds to those who argue that the public is not the first and primary audience for theology and, indeed, can threaten to compromise the ‘purity’ of theology.

Xie’s opening article is followed by three further ones which provide case studies of a public theology in the Chinese context. Two have to do with the relationship of Taiwan and Hong Kong to mainland China respectively. The issue at stake is not only a political issue. It is also a religious issue in a way that is likely to surprise those from outside the Chinese-speaking world. Within the churches there are differing understandings of how the church should engage and respond to matters to do with Hongkongese and Taiwanese identity.

The article by Cheng-tian Kuo examines the competing discourses arising out of mainland China and Taiwan. What ought to be the function of a public theology? On the one hand, there is the overtly nationalistic theology coming out of mainland China advocating unification. The context out of which it comes is represented by The Christian Textbook of Patriotism. On the other hand is the independence theology to be found in Taiwan. It is best exemplified by three relevant public statements issued by the Taiwanese Presbyterian Church Kuo’s constructive proposal is a public theology that is aligned with what he designates as one of democratic integration. It is a type of theology that is derived from an holistic understanding of biblical nationalism, liberal nationalism, and real politics. Kuo has effectively analyzed how Christians in both mainland China and Taiwan respond to the institutional design of ‘One China, Two Republics, Democratic Union’ rather than the current ‘One China’ or ‘Two States’ solutions. Such an institutional design is deemed to be desirable morally and politically practicable.

Similar in intent is Lap-yan Kung’s article on a different kind of nationalism. His focus is on the clash of identities between those who are Chinese and those who see themselves as Hongkongese. The spark which lit this fuse was the Umbrella Movement that broke out in Hong Kong. Kung draws out clearly, among diverse dynamics, a clash of values between the younger and older generations—as well as tensions within the relationship between the Chinese authorities and their counterparts in Hong Kong. Kung also explores the potential for a Hongkongese identity arising out of a theological ecumenism rather than a political localism. Kung argues in favour of an ecumenism established as a ministry of reconciliation that is particular to its social and political context. It is the kind of theological ecumenism that can take a step from less conciliatory aspects of political localism in Hong Kong. The spirit of unity in ecumenism challenges the tendency to a confrontational approach to Chinese authorities favoured by many Hong Kong people. This latter approach leads to an oppositional stance that lacks a self-critical and dialogic spirit.

The article by Zhe Gao turns to Catholic theological principles in order to examine the gains and losses brought about by China’s economic reform. What immediately hove into sight are the problems of social inequity and fractured social structures. Based on Catholic social teachings, especially those based on the principles of subsidiarity and solidarity, Gao questions the kind of excessive state intervention in the market that stymies the vitality of the market economy. He draws upon Catholic social teaching because, fundamentally, it appeals to the value of the human person (made in the image of God) and the principle of the common good. The latter can permeate political life and release more sensitive and just economic activities and social policy. His theo-economic analysis demonstrates the distinctive nature of what a public theology and its rich social traditions must negotiate in the unique setting of an economic reform deal informed ‘with Chinese characteristics.’

The fifth and final article is by Pan-chiu Lai. In terms of a contemporary public theology how we care for God’s creation in the dawning Anthropocene is a major issue. The consequences are great not simply for theology, but for life itself. Lai’s article represents a turn away from social, economic and political issues to those which are ecological in nature. In so doing he is able to exemplify a methodology of public theology performed within the Chinese context. One of the critical issues has to do with the contribution and applicability of a western ecological theology. It is one thing to receive theological insights from the west and draw upon ideas taken from such in order to identify the problem. It is an altogether different matter for such theologies from an alien culture to address a Chinese audience. The public sphere in this context speaks another language and is the heir of its own long intellectual and religious history. It is also an audience that does not live in a western liberal democracy. Lai shows how and why a Chinese ecological theology must take into consideration the prevalent ideology of the state; it must also seek ways of integration with the major religious traditions of China. When Chinese Christians attempt to address ecological issues, they may have to respond to the divergent voices in the public sphere and reflect in a more critical way the adequacy of their discourses in the public sphere.

These five articles taken together present a picture of theological engagement with various public issues in the Chinese-speaking world today. While they refer from time to time to the ecumenical resources of a public theology, they also adopt an interdisciplinary approach and demonstrate an awareness of their own religious/theological heritage. In this public discursive act Christian voices will be received against a religiously pluralistic background in the Chinese-speaking world. It is a particular mix and differs from the multicultural societies to be found in the west. The task of a Chinese public theology is to be understandable both within and outside its own tradition. It must be true to its religious tradition but a suitably informed and endowed theology may make an effort to finds way of integrating some insights from those indigenous Chinese traditions. In this way, Christian churches and theologies present distinctive and constructive perspectives in responding to the emerging social, political, economic, and ecological issues. The Chinese context of rapid economic-social-political change and radical religious diversity (where Christianity remains a minority) constitutes a serious challenge to public theology. These experimental attempts at a public theology in the Chinese-speaking world will hopefully contribute in the quest to establish an appropriate method and model in this regional setting. We hope that they may also provide valuable case studies for an international readership committed to public theology.

Style Notes

When mentioning the Chinese persons, the pinyin transliteration of their Chinese names will be used and the family name will be put first according to the Chinese custom. For the names of persons from Hong Kong and Taiwan, their official or conventional names in English, if any, will be added. When making reference to Chinese publication—with the exception of journal articles in Chinese with abstract in English, the family name of the author will be put before the personal name, and the English translation of the title will be put in square-brackets after the pinyin transliteration. If available, the official English name of the publisher of Chinese publications will be used. Otherwise, transliteration of the publisher’s Chinese name will be provided.

About the Guest Editors

Pan-chiu Lai received his Ph.D. from King’s College London in 1991. He is currently Associate Dean of the Arts Faculty and Professor of Department of Cultural & Religious Studies, The Chinese University of Hong Kong. He has authored Towards a Trinitarian Theology of Religions: A Study of Paul Tillich’s Thought (1994); Confucian-Christian Dialogue and Ecological Concern (2006, in Chinese, co-authored with Lin Hongxing); Mahayana Christian Theology: Thought-Experiments of Sino-Christian Theology (in Chinese, 2011), Sino-Christian Theology in the Public Square (in Chinese, 2014), and a number of books as well as articles in the areas of inter-religious dialogue, Chinese Christian theology, ecological theology, etc.

Zhibin Xie received his Ph.D. from the University of Hong Kong. He is Professor of Philosophy at Tongji University, Shanghai. He is a research fellow of Institute of Sino-Christian Studies (Hong Kong), an honorary research associate of the Centre for Christian Studies at The Chinese University of Hong Kong, and a member at the Center of Theological Inquiry in Princeton. His research interests include Christian philosophy and ethics, public theology and its implications in the Chinese context. His major publications include Religious Diversity and Public Religion in China (in English, Ashgate, 2006), Public Theology and Globalization: A Study in Max L. Stackhouse’s Christian Ethics (in Chinese, 2008) and How Public? Why Theological: A Review and Prospect of Sino-Christian Public Theology (in Chinese, 2016). He serves as one of the general editors for “Public Theology Series” published by the Institute of Sino-Christian Studies.


Duncan B. Forrester, “The Scope of Public Theology,” Studies in Christian Ethics 17: 2 (2004), pp. 5–19 at p. 6.


A case of study on Christian public intellectuals in China can be found in Alexander Chow, ‘Calvinist Public Theology in Urban China Today’, International Journal of Public Theology 8 (2014), pp. 158–175.


See: Zhibin Xie, ‘From Multidisciplinary Studies to Interdisciplinary Studies: An Overview and Prospect for “Across Disciples” Character of Sino-Christian Studies,” Logos & Pneuma: Chinese Journal of Theology, No. 41 (Autumn 2014), pp. 103–126 (in Chinese with English Abstract).

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