I’m just another Chinese Christian: Eastern Catholic reflections for the secular New Year 2019

I’m just another Chinese Christian: Eastern Catholic reflections for the secular New Year 2019 January 1, 2019

My sister Joanna, the one actually born of the same mother in the flesh as me, has a YouTube channel that she calls JustAnotherFlutist. I was there when she started it. The idea she had in music school was that she was never going to be one of those superstar flutists who would land the dream orchestra job for which every seat had some three hundred competitors. She began making videos instead, showing the ordinariness of the background of a musician’s life and offering lessons on technique, cleaning, and just life itself. It soon ballooned into what it is today, with her offering music lessons online, Internet tutorials, product promotions, and more everyday life stuff. Of the two of us siblings, clearly she is the more popular one, and she has worked for it and earned it. Also, she has a small orchestra gig now.

I clearly recognize that I have been outdone now, but when it was all getting started, I did not. I too went on the interwebz and, taking her moniker, proclaimed that I was just another Chinese Christian. It was cute, mostly because I ran down all the Protestant groups that I’d had the good fortune of moving through in my short life and thought that that therefore made me diverse. I did not mention, of course, my growing flirtation with the Latin Church or my reading of Orthodox theology through the Anglican writers I was reading as a self-proclaimed ‘Chinglican,’ and in this sense, I fell into the all-too-easy trap of writing about Chinese Christianity as if Christian was equivalent to Protestant.

It’s a facile move, mostly because it’s the missionaries’ fault. Colloquially at least, you’ll never see a Chinese person thinking Catholics are Christian. That’s because in the early seventeenth century, an order came down from Rome after the Dominicans and Franciscans tattled on the Jesuits for venerating ancestors during the mass and referring to God simply as tian, the Sky. In an episode known as the Chinese Rites Controversy, both Clement IX and his successor Benedict XIV shut that down, insisting that the proper reference to God was ‘Lord in the Sky,’ which is how Catholicism became literally known as the Skylord Teaching. What that meant, in turn, was that when Protestant missionaries got to China in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the term Christ Teaching, or Christian, was open for the taking. The joke, really, is that as more missionaries got to China, the more they got to lay claim to their favourite terms to describe themselves, which all make themselves sound like the only kind of Christianity. Anglicans, for example, got holy public community. Lutherans got faith righteousness association. I suppose the worst is what we use for ‘Eastern Orthodox,’ which is eastern correct teaching. It makes us sound like Mr. Panos on Greek supremacism – we are the right, correct church, but only if we’re eastern, I guess.

Fortunately, the missionaries don’t have exclusive rights to the word Christian, which is what the followers of Jesus were first called in Antioch: Χριστιανούς. It’s actually nice that Antioch is where it all started because if I wanted to get technical, I could say that Antioch is Orthodox five ways – Syriac, Eastern Orthodox, Syriac Catholic, Melkite, and Maronite – which means that there is a bit of agnosticism with regards to the successors of the see as to whether they are Chalcedonian or not and whether communion with Rome is a deal-breaker. It’s also founded by the Holy Apostle Peter and therefore viably the Chair of Peter in a Catholic sense. So too, it’s the site of fantasy for Protestants imagining themselves to be recovering the practices of the early church. Of course, Antioch is not nearly as eastern as the Church of the East, which had its own metropolitan see in China in the Tang Dynasty and called themselves the jingjiao, the Bright Teaching. But all I am saying is that if the word Christian is an Antiochene term, my conversion to Eastern Catholicism really doesn’t do much in terms of changing my status as a Christian. In fact, I’d say that I’m more of a Christian now than before. Also, I can do some Melkite chants now. My favourite is the Polyeleos, the Many-Mercies Psalm, at Matins.

In this third year of mystagogical reflection on this blog, I am finally coming to terms that for all that so many people have told me and all that I’ve tried to do in terms of sundering myself from my Protestant past, I remain a Chinese Christian and am in fact growing as one in this Kyivan Church. It is becoming a little more serious than me joking that it is natural to be Chinese and Eastern Catholic because of the word Eastern. In fact, this is the year that I’ve started getting unfriended by folks who are unconvinced about my conversion to Catholicism. One noted as he pulled the plug that my reflections were anti-Latin (which is funny, because some might think that the leftovers of my flirtations with the Latin Church still smell strongly in my writing) and that there was a perverse joy in me declaring what he took to be my insubordination to Rome. Others do not like how I refer to Rome as a sister church, even though that is really what she is, because they think that the only Catholics are Roman. Still others find it strange that my Orthodox mystagogy is laced with psychoanalysis, a probing of my Protestant past, and a commitment to politics as opposed to the post-political. One person who likes my blog said from the beginning that it was fascinating to read someone whose tone of writing was so obviously evangelical but talking about the practices of the Kyivan Church in such a real way. I too have observed this phenomenon: recently, our Chicago mission posted videos of our readers’ services, and as I watched myself chant, I realized that I still sounded very much like an Asian American evangelical singing praise-and-worship, except that I was chanting Galician, Kyivan, and Greek melodies.

I am not sure that any of that has to change. As I wrote in my piece for Patriyarkhat, the journal of record for our Greek-Catholic Church, the contribution that becoming Eastern Catholic has brought into my Chinese Christian life is the theorization of uniatism. As I understand our theologians, uniatism as far as we are concerned is not so much about being in a church that is in communion with Rome via the Union of Brest, especially as some of us go as far as to consider that document our own ‘Tomos of autocephaly.’ Instead, it refers to an inferiority complex that leads people to alter their practices of prayer and worship, as well as political allegiance, to hegemonic powers as a forced act of compliance. Certainly, I have joined a church that has visceral experiences of such a phenomenon, whether it is the controversy about the Union of Brest during the times of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, our categorization as Greek Catholic by the Hapsburgs during the Austro-Hungarian Empire, or the times when the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union have tried to liquidate us and claim that we split from Moscow when our mother church is actually Constantinople. But my personal history as a Chinese Christian means that these experiences then get refracted back onto my own life in an exploration of unexpected uniate tendencies in my past. As the Kyivan Church rediscovers who she is apart from the colonizations of uniatism, I too return to my original formation within this church. In this way, the Kyivan Church does not form me to become an honorary ethnic Ukrainian. She is making me more Chinese Christian.

To acknowledge my Chinese Christianity, however, is not to double down on my ethnic identity. For one, Chinese is not an ethnicity; the real problem is that nobody really knows what it is. My favourite description of Chinese people is from Sun Yatsen, who acknowledges his critics calling us a sheet of scattered sand, with everybody doing their own thing because our fundamental loyalties are not to the nation or to an overarching hegemon, but to the everyday personal relations of family, clan, and community. It is, as Sam Rocha puts it, a kind of folk phenomenology, the experience of the world as only ordinary folks can tell it.

As I reflect on my Chinese Christian past, the crucible in which my prayer has been formed is the backdrop of modern Chinese history, the constant ideological changes from the late nineteenth century to the present as to what China is according to its intellectuals and ideologues. There is a reason that my scholarly interests revolve around the critique of ideology: China has been a kind of ideological playground as an experiment for modernization. Christianity, and with this I mean to include Catholicism and Orthodoxy, has been a kind of football tossed around in this political game, especially in what it might contribute to economic development in a kind of Weberian way of generating a work ethic and what it might inhibit in the imaginations of some who fantasize that progress must also require secularization. To be Christian means to become involved in this ideological and intellectual debate, and yet, the paradox is that practices of prayer are not of the order of ideology, but of the sheet of scattered sand, the relations of intimacy that are formed with the Lord among the people among whom one is praying. My favourite term of address in a Chinese church is when a speaker opens a talk with 弟兄姐妹, dai hing zi muidi xiong jie meisisters and brothers. In fact, I love listening to the Apostol readings in our Kyivan Church in Chinese because that is also how our church begins them: брати! Brethren! Sisters and brothersIt speaks to the way that our spirituality is about tracking the movements of the heart, to pay attention to how our affections are being moved and to follow the paths these feelings open up to the divine. The word, as I have said before, is gandong, or gumdong in Cantonese, how what we feel is moved and reflecting on that movement in prayer is how theology is done by Chinese Christians.

When I say that I remain a Chinese Christian, what I am saying is that I am continuing to reflect on my practice as a Christian against this modern backdrop, with China in the shadows. It is also what I mean when I say that for my entire scholarly career, which is linked to my prayer because the practice of the intellectual life is part and parcel of my spirituality, Hong Kong has been in the background, even though I am not from there. After the Chinese Communist Revolution, Hong Kong became a hub for Chinese Christianity, as it is where a number of people and their institutions fled, and still remains so to this day. I may not have been able to visit that city until my mid-twenties, but I am finally acknowledging that I was formed since my childhood by it as part of its trans-Pacific social field, through its music, its movies, its food, its sensibilities about everyday life, its people’s propensities to appropriate from its colonizers and turn material into their own offering of love, such as in its local variant of borscht. I even owe my conversion to Eastern Catholicism to Hong Kong and its transnational ties to cities all over the world. I would not have encountered this church without joining in solidarity with the Umbrella Movement protests in Vancouver, and in this way, the Kyivan Church has not sundered my ties to this city, but in fact made it stronger.

There is, of course, nothing particularly Chinese about any of this reflection. If it is a folk phenomenology, it is in fact universal. All I am saying, in fact, is that being Chinese Christian is my entry point into the universal because it is the crucible in which I was formed as a child. It is, to use Anna Freud’s reflections on infantile sexuality, the situation in which my sense of the intimate and the pleasurable became quilted together. Others will have other entry points, especially most other folks in this Kyivan Church of ours who find their sensibilities coming together in the history of Ukraine. In some ways, Kyivan historical consciousness has become my own as well, but that only speaks to the catholicity, the universality, of this particular Eastern Catholic church, that I as a Chinese Christian can find myself in her midst.

In sum, I find as this secular new year begins and as I continue my mystagogical reflections, I am still just another Chinese Christian in this Eastern Catholic church. I was telling a friend that it is easy for me to forget that some of the practices that I have are foreign to my Protestant past, such as my love for the Theotokos, my invocation of the prayers of the holy women and men who stand before the face of G-d, my veneration of icons, and my frequent appearance at the Mystery of Repentance to confess my sins. I suppose in this sense, a conversion has happened, but that I do not really feel it suggests that it has probably has been organic — or at least not uniate. In fact, I was conversing with some friends of mine about how it happened, and suddenly, the moment that I was praying with a Filipina nun when I was still an evangelical Anglican and she said, Justin, I see the Blessed Virgin standing next to you, came back in a powerful way into my consciousness, such that I felt that it was a conversionary moment.

I had very few tools to understand that moment at the time, and I’ve written about how I stumbled around trying to comprehend my newfound Marian devotion as a Protestant. But I realize now that the Kyivan Church gives me a working vocabulary. For her to stand next to me is indicative of her role as Pokrova, she who spreads her mantle over me in protection. She prays with me as the Oranta, the Immovable Wall whose hands are upraised in prayer. This is possible because of her Dormition, her entry into new life in heaven upon her falling asleep in the flesh. And these elements I find in the Mother of Sheshan, who holds aloft her Son to the world atop her basilica in Shanghai, revealing the intimacy of prayer as that which opposes the ideological conformity that uniatism of any sort – religious or secular, left or right, ancient or modern – demands. Beneath her compassion, I take refuge. Here it is that I find rest, and in this shelter I am able to track the movements of my heart, to feel how I am being moved and follow it to the divine amidst a people upon whose praises the Lord is enthroned as king, robed in majesty. In this way, I am just another Chinese Christian, just another person whose life in this world of ideological madness requires me to double down on the intimacies of the everyday in order to rediscover how to love, how to feel, and how to simply be.

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