Zhibin Xie is a professor of philosophy at Tongji University in Shanghai, China, as well as a research fellow at the Institute of Sino-Christian Studies in Hong Hong. His research interests include Christian philosophy and ethics, as well as the relevance of public theology in the context of mainland China.
Josh Mauldin: You have recently returned to your home in Shanghai, having spent the past six months in Princeton at CTI as a research fellow. What is the research project you were working on at CTI?
Zhibin Xie: My CTI project examines the problem of religious freedom in China from a Chinese theological perspective, with attention to questions of public religious engagement through a collaborative relationship between religious groups and the state. This model is a realistic and contextual approach with respect to Chinese cultural/religious traditions and political order, in dialogue with an international understanding of religious freedom. It emphasizes social and public space for religious engagement, operated under the state’s guiding framework of religious activities. Its purpose is twofold: to strengthen religious and theological practice in their public dimension, and to transform the traditional subordination of religion to political dominance through promoting religious vitality in public life, so as to foster religious freedom in China. It calls for the state’s constructive role in regulating social institutions, with its affirmation of religion as a societal force and willingness to become more open and allow more space for religious engagement. At the core of this project, I am concerned with the structural problem of religious freedom in China (the role of the state towards religious practice as well as religious interaction with the state and society) and I attempt to give an interpretation of this problem by combining Confucian and Christian resources.
JM: How did the dialogue at CTI between legal scholars and theologians influence your work?
ZX: A few years ago I was impressed by a quote from legal historian John Witte: “Legal scholars cannot continue to discuss religious rights statutes and cases in insolation from the profound theological implications of their inquiries; theologians cannot continue to profound abstract theological statements and confessions on rights without attention to their practical implementation and effect.”[John Witte, Jr., and Johan D. van der Vyver, eds., Religious Human Rights in Global Perspectives: Religious Perspectives (Boston: Nijhoff Publishers, 1996), xxxiv-xxxv.] I realized that the right to religious freedom can and should be examined from different disciplines, such as philosophy, theology, law, and political science. But I had not yet imagined what it would be like for scholars of different disciples to work together on this common topic. By participating in CTI’s Inquiry on Law and Religious Freedom I have come to see the incredible value of interdisciplinary work for shedding light on these seemingly intractable issues. CTI’s vision of “fresh thinking” comes to my mind.
Through regular colloquia, consultations, seminars, and symposia, the open interactions among the team from theological, legal and political perspectives inspired me to rethink such issues as universal human rights, religious pluralism, religion in public political discourse, the state’s role in regulating religious affairs, constitutionalism, and democracy. I have also learned much from case studies on religious practice in post-communist Russia, Western Europe, Egypt, Israel, and America. What strikes me most is the issue of how to understand the state’s role in determining what religion is and constructing a space for religious freedom from legal theory. To this end, I am particular interested in the resources of Christian social theory. As I see it, the state plays a central role with regard to the issue of religious freedom, though its role may vary under different social and political circumstances. This aspect deepens my understanding of the nature of legal and social order with special attention to religious practice. Naturally I focus on how the state has been doing and should do with regard to the problem of religious freedom in China.
JM: How did you come to be interested in philosophical and theological questions?
ZX: Probably due to my inherently inquisitive nature, I became interested during high school in philosophical questions such as the meaning of life, which led to my studies in philosophy both at the undergraduate and graduate levels. Some occasions guide and strengthen my understanding of these questions from theological perspectives, for personal reasons as well as for wider public concern, which teach me to think through those questions in a more comprehensive way. My context also impels me, as a Christian scholar, to touch and reflect on the issues of moral, social, and political order in Chinese society today from a theological perspective; this aspect has been integrated into my Christian convictions. This consideration, I think, serves to enrich the public discourse in the Chinese academy.
JM: You’ve written a book on public theology in China. What do you see as the primary tasks of public theology?
ZX: There are various approaches to public theology: prescriptive, descriptive, methodological, constructive, and so on. For me, a basic assumption of public theology is that the gospel, church and theology point to the whole of creation, all humanity, and reality, and not only to Christians or those within the Church. As a Chinese scholar, I attempt to understand and develop public theology from the Chinese context and see how this may contribute to global discourse.
As I see it, public theology is not primarily for the individual, nor is it limited to political affairs. Some Christians in China have mistakenly seen public theology as too much confined to either an individual concern or to broader political issues. Instead, it should be seen as a field that encompasses all facets of human life.
JM: What intellectual projects are you working on in the near future?
ZX: I feel Christian scholars in China have a responsibility to articulate the fullness of Christian faith in its public moral relevance, providing theological foundations for Christian social and cultural engagement, with an eye toward the common good of the whole society in China. This includes thinking through issues of social ethics, such as understanding the poor and the marginalized through the lens of Christian ethics, and interpreting the structures of society from the perspective of Christian theology. The public significance of Christianity in China today lies in its moral resources in various spheres of life as well as its spiritual resources for broader social issues. The road ahead for Christians in China will be demanding. But the work that must be done bears great promise, both for the church and for society as a whole.
Bearing this vision, I shall concentrate my study on the Christian tradition and resources for public theology (including key figures and concepts), mindful of the global implications of public theology in various contexts. I shall also promote and develop public theology in a distinctively Chinese key; for example, the Chinese tradition has a distinctive conception of the “public,” evident in the traditional Chinese concept of “all under heaven.”
JM: How has your time at CTI influenced the trajectory of your research?
ZX: What strikes me most is CTI’s interdisciplinary approach to a common topic, including legal experts and theologians from various global contexts. My experience at CTI inspires me to develop similar interdisciplinary approaches in the field of Sino-Christian studies. In China, there is increasing interest in dialogue with theologians among scholars in fields such as law, political science, and economics, both for reasons of scholarly interest but also because of Christian commitment. One of my friends who teaches in a law department desires to study the questions of natural law and human rights from a theological perspective. I am now working with a Christian institute in Hong Kong to organize an interdisciplinary workshop on the topic of the religion-state relationship in China, which will invite scholars from theology, history, law, political science, and sociology to collaborate on this common topic, in the hope of enriching Sino-Christian studies by integrating theology with other scholarly disciplines.