My Kingdom is Not of This World: Adaptations and Conflicts between Religion, State Authority, and Cultural Imperative in the History of Christianity in China

Dirk Kuhlmann

„Mein Reich ist nicht von dieser Welt: Adaptionen und Konflikte zwischen Religion, Herrschaft und kultureller Imperativ am Beispiel der Geschichte des Christentums in China“

Lecture presented on 15 September 2020 at the Hermann Stieglecker-Gedächtnistagung III Monotheismus – interreligiöse Gespräche im Umfeld moderner Gottesfragen „Die Wolke des Nichtwissens als Quelle von Erleuchtung und Offenbarung – Zur Bedeutung der negativen Theologie“ (Third Conference in Memory of Hermann Stieglecker: Monotheism – Interreligious Dialogue on Modern Questions of God “The Cloud of Unknowing as a Source of Awakening and Revelation – On the Relevance of Negative Theology”), Stift St. Florian (Linz, Austria), 13–15 September, 2020.

Organizers: Forum für Weltreligionen (Vienna), Institut für Orientalistik (Vienna University), Stift St. Florian (Linz)


A mystic Christianity based on a negative theology as exemplified by the late 14th century work The Cloud of Unknowing never really took roots in China. However, some aspects of the spread of Christianity in China tie in very well with this conference’s theme. As a monotheistic revealed religion, Christianity, like the other Abrahamitic religions of Judaism and Islam, has and had the potential to become a source of irritation and even a disruptive factor towards claims by the state and society. From the perspective of God as an absolute transcendent and unknowable entity, all man-made institutions appear to be of a merely temporary and provisional nature. In particular, this stance clashed with certain notions of state and worldviews in China which constitute a “cultural imperative” (a term coined by the Dutch Sinologist Erik Zürcher). In this presentation, I offer some further insight into this topic based on the discourses from the 17th–18th centuries and the late 20th century and follow the keen observation made by Fr. Roman Malek, S.V.D. (1951–2019) of an “astonishing continuity” between this two historic periods in terms of the attitude of the state towards religions.

On an abstract level, the “cultural imperative” can be summed up as acknowledging the supreme authority of a ruling elite, the normative power of this elite’s ideology, and a view of a “world immanent transcendence” that indeed permeated traditional Chinese religiosity: According to this worldview, the phenomenal world arose from the interaction between the primordial energy (qi), the ordering principle(s) (li), and the complementary forces yin and yang in a timeless process of transformation. At the same time, tian (heaven) was guiding this process which gave rise to li, qi, yin, and yang as well as embodying it. As tianzi (Son of Heaven), the emperor was the central authority of the worldly order as well as the sole mediator between men and tian. Religious groups had to accept the ruler as supreme authority in spiritual matters, the normative power of the ruling elite’s Confucian philosophy in all discourses, and the concept of “world immanent transcendence,” if these groups wanted to survive in China. As this lecture will show, a modified version of this “cultural imperative” can be observed in modern China as well, focusing on the prevalence of the Chinese Communist Party, a Sino-Marxist and culturally essentialist ideology, and a secularized historical-materialist view on human progress. In historical perspective, the encounter between the concepts of absolute transcendence postulated in Christianity and the views of “world immanent transcendence” unfolded in complex exchanges from outright confrontations and conflicts to new cultural syntheses. Far from being only a history of confrontation these exchanges could also have the positive impact of opening up perspectives beyond prevalent systems of thought.