President Xi has initiated a campaign of national renewal based on a return to China’s traditional values. But at the same time, an astonishingly large number of ordinary Chinese people are turning to Christianity.
In a recent essay for the Catholic Thing, Mary Eberstadt focuses on reasons for hope and cheerfulness in the midst of America’s decaying materialist culture. In an article appropriately titled “The Phoenix in the Ashes of the Culture Wars,” she sees as “reason for hope” the “rising up… of men and women who rebel against today’s anthropological error, who are turning to Christianity for refuge and fellowship and a home—because they can’t find refuge and fellowship and a home anywhere else.” And then she writes this beautiful sentence which gets to the paradoxical and ironical heart of the situation in which we find ourselves: “It is truly shocking, but shockingly true: the overbearing, secularist culture increasingly averse to Christianity is itself sowing the seeds of a religious revival.”
This is a truly delightful paradox which would no doubt have set G.K. Chesterton chuckling. The secularism that is the worst enemy of Christianity is also its own worst enemy. In trying to destroy all that is truly good and beautiful, secularism ends up destroying itself. Its very decay provides the spiritual compost for the resurrection of the Faith! This is how Mrs. Eberstadt puts it:
So as befits the moment just after Lent’s end, it feels like winter and spring in America at the same time. Yes, … the idea of an earlier generation of believers—that Christianity would find salvation through politics—lies cold in the ground, done in by decades of the so-called culture wars. Yet as is barely understood as yet, that same interment is sending forth prodigious shoots, undreamed of in earlier times that took the Christian foundation of America for granted.
Referring to recent books which signify this budding revival, Mrs. Eberstadt concludes that they “may read not so much as epitaphs, but as birth announcements for an emerging moral and cultural renaissance.”
Mrs. Eberstadt offers a litany of hopeful signs to buttress the hopefulness inherent in her reasoning, from a new wave of Christian intellectuals critiquing the culture to a new wave of Christian initiatives which are impacting the culture with a spirit of renewal, all of which bodes well for the future of the Faith in the United States, and all of which dovetails with similar Christian revivals in other western countries, such as that in France highlighted in my own recent essay here at The Imaginative Conservative.
And yet if the Son can be said to be rising in the West, He is also very much in the ascendant in the East.
China, the most populous country in the world, its 1.3 billion people outnumbering the population of the United States by four to one, is turning and returning to the practice of religion. After the communists had done their best to wipe all traces of religion from the culture, believing that such “superstition” was inimical to progress and was a cause of poverty, China might be said to have become the first post-religious culture. Having practiced “freedom from religion” for more than half a century, the results have, however, been less than satisfactory. Apart from the millions of people killed by the communist State under the tyrannous rule of Mao, the endemic corruption of the communist party has led to a deep disillusionment with China’s “progressive” experiment. A recent poll indicated that eighty-eight percent of people believed modern Chinese society to be characterized by moral decay and a lack of trust, the consequence of what a recent writer has called a combination of “a corrupt party state and a brutal, wild west capitalism.”* “In a society without universal rules,” the writer continued, “many yearn for a new, or reconstituted, moral order.”
It is in this context of social confusion that Xi Jinpeng, China’s President, on what can only be called a pilgrimage in 2013 to the birthplace of Confucius, paraphrased the ancient sage in his assertion that “a state without virtue cannot flourish; a person without virtue cannot succeed.” Seeming to understand the harmful political ramifications of a society lacking virtue, President Xi has initiated a campaign of national renewal based on a return to China’s traditional values, the very values that the Communist Party had spent sixty years trying to eradicate. Abandoning the preposterous progressivism that has animated Chinese politics since the Revolution, President Xi appears to have embraced the decidedly conservative idea that ancient beliefs hold the key to China’s salvation.
If, however, the ancient beliefs of China are being embraced by China’s political leaders, an astonishingly large number of ordinary Chinese people, especially the young urban middle-class, are turning to Christianity. There are now as many as eighty million Christians in China, a powerful spiritual presence which is very much in the ascendant. Ian Johnson, in his new book The Souls of China: The Return of Religion after Mao, likens this Chinese religious revival to the Great Awakenings in the United States in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, during which a period of rapid growth in the number of believing Christians led to major socio-political change and cultural renewal. Already China’s Christians are campaigning against the government’s policy of forced abortions, indicating the tension between the “virtue” being advocated by the politicians and that being practiced by the nation’s burgeoning army of Christians.
As Christian doom-mongers wring their hands in despair at the prospect of a “post-Christian” future, and as presumptuous progressives wave theirs in triumph at the same prospect, it seems that we are a long way from the “freedom from religion” that Marx, Stalin, Mao and the neo-atheists prophesied. Far from a future characterized by a world that is “free from religion” we might see a future characterized by a return to the freedom that true religion brings.
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* Johnson, Ian “A Resurgence of Religious Faith Is Changing China” (The Economist, March 2017)