Hilary White

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Disillusioned Chinese suffering from empty materialism: Chinese philosopher

Hilary White
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RIMINI, Aug. 23, 2013 (LifeSiteNews.com) – Chinese Christians must push back against the growth of aggressive secularism that has left the country without a functioning ethical or moral basis, a Chinese Catholic philosopher told an audience in Rimini this week. 

In moving terms, Tianyue Wu spoke earlier this week at the international Meeting in Rimini about what he said was the “mismatch” between the growth of the economy and the decline of spiritual life has led to “an emergency of humanity in China”. 

“Many people cannot find a way to regain human dignity in this secular world,” he said.

After having rejected traditional Chinese Confucian and Taoist philosophies, socialism and Christianity, the Chinese people, he said, “have now taken a cynical and utilitarian attitude,” that surpasses even that of the official Communist ideology, and are suffering from an empty, materialistic social ethic. “‘Carpe diem’ has become their motto,” said Wu.

The extreme secularity of China’s general society, however, gives Christians a “unique opportunity” to evangelise to a culture that has lost any moral guidance, he added.

According to recent government estimates, including both officially registered and underground churches, the population of Chinese Christians is around 30 million, of which about 6 million are Catholics. 

The “challenges for being a Christian in contemporary China” include coping with the long tradition of secularisation, atheist ideology and materialism with “blind economic growth,” said Wu. He advised that the “Chinese believer needs to take a critical view of their own cultural background and to cut off those elements that are incompatible with Christian belief.” 

“This means that she has to face the danger of being singled out in a highly secularised society. Moreover, she should demonstrate the superiority of Christian life by her own thoughts, words and deeds. 

“Yet, one does not live in a vacuum. But rather one is born to be a social animal. A Christian believer cannot and should not entirely detach herself from secular society. Otherwise her witness will remain completely invisible, and have little effect on those who do not yet have any interest in transcendent realities. 

“In other words, she has to open herself to the secular world, without falling prey to its zeitgeist.” 

He criticised some Catholic believers who he described as often adopting “rather conservative attitudes” towards the secular world, and making “little effort to actively defend themselves in front of the challenges imposed by their cultural circumstances”. 

“Their silence and retreat from the world merely makes the Church invisible to outsiders.” 

The first missionaries to China, he said, found it difficult “to introduce the idea of a transcendent God among people convinced that there is only life on Earth and nothing more”. This situation has been worsened by the Communist government that has  started with atheism as the foundation of its ideology, and expelled Christian missionaries, closed churches and suppressed the functioning of the native Chinese church. 

“Even with the change which occurred after the death of Mao and the reopening of churches,” he said, the social climate has remained hostile to religion. 

Wu is a Catholic philosopher and serves as Associate Professor of Ancient and Medieval Philosophy and vice director of the Centre for Classical Studies at Peking University, China. He is the author of “Voluntas et Libertas: A Philosophical Account of Augustine’s Conception of the Will in the Domain of Moral Psychology” and has published a series of articles on St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas in western academic journals. 

In a general historical overview, Wu said that at the end of the 19th century, Chinese nationalists rejected both traditional Chinese, Confucian culture, and adopted western, post-Christian secularist ideologies. “What followed was an anti-Christian movement in the 1920s, which rejected Christianity as outdated superstition,” he said. 

“In other words, after stepping out of the highly secularised traditional society, most Chinese intellectuals immediately embraced the goals and values of Western secularisation.” 

“All religions,” he said, suffered suppression during the Communist Cultural Revolution, “but it was more serious in the case of Christianity, because it had long been considered a foreign religion.’ 

Wu went on to describe his own upbringing in a family that had been Catholic for generations. He said his grandfather had considered becoming a priest, and that he received his religious education from his grandmother. He noted that because of the separation of Chinese Catholics from the outside world, including the Vatican, the practices of the Chinese Catholic Church did not change in the 1960s, and that their sacraments were conducted in Latin until the 1990s. 

He said that in school, “we had all grown up with the song of the l’Internationale” the anthem of the global socialist movement, and as a believer, he was “often singled out as a liar or a monster” holding outdated beliefs “belonging to a dead past”. “I still remember well the reactions of my classmates when I wore a cross.” 

But the pressure against his faith eventually had a positive effect: “The secular circumstances forced me to seek a clearer understanding of my faith. I did not want to assume it just because it had been a part of my family.” 

“The Chinese people hold scientists and their words in greatest respect, with deep belief in their capacity to improve life in this world.” When his local priest gave the young Wu pamphlets quoting Albert Einstein favourably about religious belief, he said he was “not fully convinced by the citations” but they did “enkindle my curiosity about how a scientific approach to the world could be compatible with a sincere belief in a transcendent being.” 

His own conversion to a more “personal” faith came when he heard the ancient Latin prayers for the soul of his grandfather, a doctor: “The obscure phrases of prayer suddenly became accessible to me, ‘de profudis clamavi ad te, Domine.’ “Out of the depths have I cried unto thee, O Lord... The peace of mind I felt in those days, helped to transform the inherited family tradition into my own faith”. 

The Meeting in Rimini was founded in 1980 and bills itself as “encounters” founded by people who share a yearning for “what is true, good, and beautiful”. The annual meetings are organised by a coalition of Italian cultural associations, the Associazione Italiana Centri Culturali (Italian Association of Cultural Centres), Compagnia delle Opere (Company of Works) and the Fondazione per la Sussidiarietà (The Subsidiarity Foundation). The meetings have attracted over 700,000 participants since their founding. 

This year’s theme is the “state of emergency of the human person”.

Talks, performances and exhibits this year were on topics such as the works and life of G.K. Chesterton, a recital of selections of the Confessions of St. Augustine and the struggles of the Russian Orthodox Church during the Soviet years. Among the presenters and speakers were Paul Bhatti, Pakistani Minister for National Harmony; Giorgio Buccellati, Director of the Mesopotamian Lab at Cotsen Institute of Archaeology, at UCLA; Josè Ignacio Latorre, Professor of Theoretical Physics at the University of Barcelona and Lev Dodin, Artistic Director of the Maly Drama Theatre in St. Petersburg.

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