Chinese Christians: Leading the Way in Reconciling Our Religious and Scientific Selves

So much of the way we talk about religion and science in the West is about reconciliation. Some great injustice has torn the two asunder, and the debate rages on between those who think they should meet again on a level playing field, and those who say they should remain in their own dugouts, each eyeing the other suspiciously. This debate results in individuals who are also torn, divided between their religious and scientific selves.

Many great words have been issued here to bring understanding between the two "sides"; scientists and religious scholars both have illuminated the darkest corners of this ongoing conversation. But recently I have found that there are, in fact, people out there for whom this debate is non-existent, or at least unnecessary.

Since January, I have been working in the Writing and Communications Center (WCC) at Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, NJ. Many of the students I see on a daily basis are international students; a great number of whom hail from China. These students come to the WCC seeking editing assistance for technical documents they have written in English, a language they are still learning. They also come for conversation practice, tips on pronunciation, or sometimes just to listen to native English speakers talk.

In my interactions with the Chinese students, I have been surprised to learn that many of them possess strong Christian faiths. I learn this about them in a variety of ways. In some cases, it comes out in conversation practice as we search for a topic we can discuss with relative ease. Other times I learn about a student's faith when I ask if he or she does any reading for fun. On more than one occasion I've learned that the only book a student reads in English outside of her field is the Bible. On another occasion a student bristled at my suggestion that he listen to talk radio to familiarize himself with American accents, but jumped at the alternative, audio books. You can guess what book he wanted to listen to.

Perhaps this should not have surprised me, as some estimates say there could be as many as 100 million Chinese Protestants or, as a recent NPR story pointed out, more Christians than Communist Party members. But, how is it that these students, brilliant scientists in the making from a country that has a tumultuous history with religion, live at such relative ease with what many of us in the West might call their "two selves"?

One explanation actually comes from religion itself, though not the Christian faith. Unlike Christianity or Islam, neither Taoism nor Buddhism, the traditional religions of China, preaches exclusivity. For this reason many faiths can and do grow alongside one another in China.

This ability to live in harmony with other religions may also allow for seemingly disparate ideas to coexist, says Tim Sigman, the New York Metro Area Director of International Students Inc., a Christian ministry that reaches out to international students studying in the United States. Sigman meets regularly with several of the Chinese students whom I work with in the writing center.

"Asian culture is generally pragmatic," he says. "It is also circular in reasoning whereas we in the West think more linearly." He suggests that the Chinese students "can embrace things that may seem contrary, if they are pragmatic."

Sigman also noted that in his experience Chinese students who convert to Christianity "deal with many of these issues on the front-end." He explains that before they make the decision to become Christians, they have already thought through much of what that decision might entail.

One of Sigman's students, Wenlin, a Ph.D. candidate at Stevens conducting research in the field of Automatic Control has been trying on Christianity for some time. He agrees with Sigman's assessment that Chinese people tend to be more open to differing viewpoints, but goes on to say that in the West, science seems to be on equal ground with religion. In China, he says, "Science is a tool to change one's condition, to fix a problem, or make a living." It is not held in as high esteem as religion is. As to any potential conflict between scientific theories in his field and his beliefs, he explains, "They are not on the same level of understanding about the world."

Wenlin says that his first encounter with Christianity came on a college campus in China when he met some very charismatic new converts. Indeed, many Chinese Christians come to the faith in their twenties, often because they meet an evangelist at a university, either in China like Wenlin, or abroad. This was the case for Dr. Z, a Christian Chinese scientist and professor who, like many of his colleagues, according to the recent book Science vs. Religion by Elaine Howard Ecklund, prefers anonymity when it comes to matters of religion and asked that I not use his real name. He explains that the age at which a person converts is very important, as the tenets of Christianity and what it teaches about the world add depth and fill in the spaces in one's prior education, explaining things that the sciences do not. In this way, the two work as partners, as opposed to antagonists, to create a cohesive worldview.

Whatever the reasons, there are certainly lessons to be learned by those of us in the West. If being more open allows for seemingly disparate ideas to co-mingle, and if understanding the value of a comprehensive worldview that comes from merging religion and science gives rest to the debate, perhaps it is time we follow our Chinese colleagues into these spaces in between our "two selves."