Friday, September 14, 2012

Christianity, China and Capitalism

In preparation for a trip to China last spring I read David Aikman's book, Jesus in Beijing: How Christianity is Transforming China and Changing the Global Balance of Power (2006). It's a fascinating book, based on Aikman's first hand journalistic travel and work in China and his study of christianity in China over several years.

On the very first page of the first chapter, Aikman quotes a scholar from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS) in Beijing who essentially says that Chinese academics are convinced that the principle reason for the success of the West is not a more powerful military, nor a superior political system, or even a more robust economic system. Rather, the conclusion that these scholars has drawn from their study is that the pre-eminence of the West - the key thing that underlies the emergence of capitalism and democratic politics - is the Christian moral foundation of social and cultural life. This is remarkable and profound. In other words, the best minds in China are convinced that what has made countries like Canada strong and prosperous is our adherence to Christian faith and practice. Interesting...

Max Weber (1864-1920), a German sociologist, philosopher and political economist, wrote an essay entitled "The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism", in which he argued that Protestantism prepared the way for the development of capitalism by creating a culture that promoted hard work and austerity. In order for capitalism to develop as an economic system, it needed to legitimate the rational pursuit of economic gain. The Protestant ethic (rooted in Calvinism) encouraged believers to work hard and to reinvest their profits in the development of their businesses, rather than spend money on frivolous pursuits. Weber noted that those countries in which this ethic was practiced were quickly gaining power through the development of capitalist economies. And what's more, Weber even anticipated that this ethic, though necessary for the initial development of a capitalist economy, would not be needed once a capitalist economy was firmly embedded. Indeed, we might say that presently, much effort goes into legitimizing and promoting a "buy now - pay later" consumer culture in order to keep the wheels of capitalism turning.

One might argue that obscene amounts of capital have funded the very "frivolous pursuits" that the Protestant ethic once warned against. What happened to austerity, we might ask? Has a more "mature" form of Protestantism loosened the purse strings and turned us into compliant (greedy) consumers?

If the Chinese scholars are correct in their assessment of the role that religious culture has played in the prosperity of the West, is the shift in public policy in China towards Christianity essentially a strategic effort to re-create conditions of prosperity within a Chinese context? And if so, can it work? In other words, will the growth of Christianity within China create the conditions for economic (capitalist) growth? And what kind of Christianity is needed?

It occurs to me that there is a danger that the form of Christianity that is embraced may be the form that is currently practiced in the West, rather than the form which Weber identified as the "Protestant ethic". It occurs to me that in an effort to give their citizens the "good life", the Chinese government may inadvertently create a culture of consumption that could precipitate a sudden plunge into ecological nihilism.

Just as the West is beginning to realize that we have been living beyond our means and perhaps putting the planet at risk (through our mis-use and over-use of natural resources), what might happen if China - currently representing about one-sixth of the planet's population - embraces a deviant form of Protestantism (a "prosperity gospel")?

Maybe this is an alarmist view and perhaps it doesn't fully credit the authentic movement of God's Spirit in China. And who knows what the future holds given that economic and political and ecological and spiritual predictions and trajectories are always based on incomplete information. But as the theologians in China develop a uniquely Chinese theology, maybe they can learn from our mistakes. And maybe the church in China will help us to adjust/correct our theological understanding so that we can work fruitfully together to promote the revelation of the kingdom of God on earth. I hope so!

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