Re-envisioning Theology in New Contexts

Chinese Character for 'Sin'Last week, I was giving a paper at a theological conference and was surprised that I was the only theologian who was presenting on something that was ‘non-Western’, if you will.  That is, with the exception of the Black postcolonial theologian who gave one of the plenary sessions, in which a large majority of the audience was visibly not interested.

The more I think about it, the more I recognise that to do theology as a scholar of ‘World Christianity’, you often have to think outside of the box.  Take for instance a paper I published last year on the doctrine of sin in East Asia (I’m told, BTW, that for a limited time, it is available for download for free from the publisher here).1  One of the things I point out in this article is that many missionaries debated how to best translate the word ‘sin’ into Chinese, but ultimately settled for the character zui 罪.  As illustrated in the picture, but also discussed more carefully in the article, the character itself is an ideogram of a net capturing that which is wrong.  Specifically, the character is often paired with another character to describe something as a crime.  A 罪人, or a ‘sinner’, then, can be understood as a criminal who has been caught, tried, and convicted.  While this is clearly an interesting metaphor for the doctrine of sin, it is fundamentally different from the Hebrew or the Greek notions that convey more of an idea of ‘missing the mark’, which encompasses a slightly different lexical domain.

In any case, the more important point is that we often think the task of understanding theology in another context is to simply translate the idea.  You see this throughout China where there’s tons of books by James Dobson and Tim Keller translated into Chinese for mass consumption.  But when you take a theological concept like sin and try to engage a society like China with no concept (or even terminology) which comes close to the same understanding, you are faced with an interesting dilemma.2  You need to speak about ‘good’ and ‘evil’, or the balance of cosmic forces or the spiritual world that is operational within the physical domain, here and now.  Another example can be found in a paper I’m working on for the Yale-Edinburgh conference coming up in June dealing with the notion of the family in a Confucian context, which historically conflicted greatly when it came into contact with Catholic missionaries who were celibate, or Protestant and Catholic missionaries who told them not to venerate their ancestors, and a host of other issues, but has more recently been reshaped in the church as a surrogate family.

The point is that to get at ‘theological’ understandings, one must often utilise anthropological, sociological, linguistic, etc., methods to flesh out those understandings.  We must explore non-traditional sources of theology – whether that be from sermons, hymns, poetry, art, or a host of other sources.  After all, that is what scholars of ‘biblical theology’ often do (you don’t think Paul meant to write a theological treatise to the church in Rome instead of writing a letter, do you?).

To use the very prevalent metaphor of this Easter weekend, all that we know and love must constantly go through a process of purgation, through the cross, before it can see new life, resurrected in a new context.  This is precisely what also needs to happen with our theological thinking.

  1.  ‘The East Asian Rediscovery of “Sin”’. Studies in World Christianity 19.2 (Aug 2013): 126-140. DOI  10.3366/swc.2013.0048
  2. You can see this point, for example, in this report about how the Pew Research organisation used bad translations as part of a survey in China, which effectively (wrongly) concluded that 75% of Chinese were atheists.  Ian Johnson, ‘Chinese Atheists? What the Pew Survey Gets Wrong’, The New York Review of Books, 24 March 2014, available online

2 thoughts on “Re-envisioning Theology in New Contexts

  1. Hi Alex. Apologies if I have mentioned this before, but have you come across the book ‘How Buddhism Acquired a Soul on the way to China’ by Jungnok Park? He talks about how the Buddhist notion of non-self was problematic for Chinese translators, as it couldn’t map conceptually onto existing notions of selfhood. It sounds like a similar process to the invention of sin in Chinese Christianity. Naomi

    1. Hi Naomi,

      Yes, I recall you mentioning the book, though have not had a close look. I am not surprised that translating the Buddhist notion of ‘non-self’ was problematic, as were conflicting ideas of causation or even the role of ‘scriptures’ vs. ‘commentaries’. It is actually because of the import and the strength of Buddhism that forced Confucianism to develop a more rigid metaphysics and engage cosmological questions – all in what is now termed ‘Neo-Confucianism’. So yes, Chinese Christianity (and Western Christianity) has much to learn from Chinese Buddhism and other religions.


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