Modalities of Doing Religion

Religious Diversity in Chinese ThoughtQuite recently, I attended the book launch of my colleague Joachim Gentz from the University of Edinburgh’s department of Chinese studies.  He and several colleagues were promoting a new publication of theirs, Religious Diversity in Chinese Thought, which I very much appreciated.  Coming from a theological background, I am always encouraged to hear different perspectives on similar or related subjects (namely Chinese religion).

There has historically been a lot of discussions about how one is to understand the relationship between various Chinese religions (or, as I often say, ‘religiosities’ or ‘religions and philosophies’).  This is probably due to a Western context that, for a long time, has really only known of one major religious tradition.  C. K. Yang famously described two types of religions in China, from a structural-functional perspective: diffused and institutional.1  But this is a bit outdated – especially in the post-Cultural Revolution era when anything is ‘institutional’ (e.g., religion, communism, etc.) is quite problematic.  Yang Fenggang (of no relation to the first Yang) argues instead that we should think about a religious market where there are legal, illegal, and grey religions that try to survive in communist China.2  Though interesting, this is only useful as a description of survival and doesn’t say much about the religions themselves.

At the book launch, I was introduced to a new theory by Adam Yuet Chau, an anthropologist of Chinese religion, who in Chapter 10 of the book, talks about ‘modalities of doing religion’ (this is partly based on previous research of his).  They are as follows:

  1. Discursive/scriptural.  Involving mostly the composition and use of texts or engaging in religious debates.
  2. Personal-cultivational.  Involving a long-term interest in cultivating and transforming oneself.
  3. Liturgical.  Involving elaborate ritual procedures conducted by ritual specialists.
  4. Immediate-practical.  Aiming at quick results using simple ritual or magical techniques.
  5. Relational.  Emphasising the relationship between humans and deities (or ancestors) as well as among humans in religious practices.

The modalities of doing religion are quite fascinating to me – and I like them.  They help us move away simplistic structural-functional understandings and alien mappings of Abrahamic (or Western) notions of ‘religion’ on the Chinese context.  It also helps to clarify why East Asian contexts are much more willing to be associated with more than one religious tradition (that which is often described as multi-religious belonging).  It provides an objective, anthropological view on the Chinese religious ecosystem by way of how things are practiced.

Yet at the same time, we must recognise that present-day China has an increasing adoption of ‘foreign religions’ like Christianity and Islam.  After all, Protestantism is the fastest growing religion in China today – and the introduction of these other ideologies also includes the introduction of other modalities.  Particularly, I would critique the focus on modalities of doing religion.  Religiosity also includes notions of belief, thought, feelings, will, and being (or non-being).  They include ontological, epistemological, existential, etc., as well as the praxis.  While this theoretical framework is useful to understand what it means to be doing religion (anthropologically), it doesn’t seem to help in understanding what it means to have or experience or be affected by religions (theologically, philosophically, morally, etc.).  To put it in a very Christian way, religions have aspects of both orthodoxy and orthopraxy (and other orthos–).

I guess, that’s the thing. Every theoretical framework has its own, specific uses. But a lot of the questions I have are more theological than praxis-oriented.


  1.  C. K. Yang, Religion in Chinese Society (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1961), 294-340. 
  2.  Yang Fenggang, Religion in China: Survival and Revival Under Communist Rule (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012).