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Gateway to Faith: Inclusive or Exclusive? Gateway to Faith: Inclusive or Exclusive?
by Valerie Sartor
2022-12-03 10:08:09
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Long ago, my mother taught me never to argue politics or religion, but she also did not condemn my healthy interest in these subjects. Learning to respect other people’s beliefs was part of my emotional education and maturity process. Now that I have lived and worked in China and various parts of Asia for some years, my exposure to many new beliefs has increased. Here in China, I have noted that the Eastern and the Western points of view regarding faith are not only fundamentally different, but also this subject causes consternation, and even anger, among many foreigners.

fai0001_400_02This bone of contention, I feel, traces back to another fundamental difference between Western and Eastern cultures: the tendency of the Western mind to be directed at the individual, and the proclivity of the Eastern mind toward the group. In short, Chinese society, past and present, views human relationships in an inclusive fashion, in groups, especially families. In contrast, Western societies, especially Americans, generally perceive relationships as bonds that are exclusive between individuals. Regarding the issue of faith, these inclusive/exclusive thought patterns are projected onto belief and worship systems that all humans need in order to evoke and profess their selves to the divine.

Let’s examine this assertion more carefully: What does religion have to do with the Western view toward the individual and the Eastern view toward the group? Well, in China, Taoism, Buddhism, and ancient tenets of ancestor worship represent a communal religious practice. This Chinese outlook is tolerant: it promotes the co-existence of supernatural beings, and often places them in a setting that is a large supernatural family unit. This in turn reflects the traditional way Chinese people practice their spiritual beliefs: together, as a family. Many of my Chinese friends have an altar in their homes to remember their ancestors and to practice their faith. Everyone in the family can participate in honoring deceased ancestors. In fact, around China, today (April 4) is Qing Ming, a holiday devoted to honoring ancestors. In some areas of China, hearth gods, deceased relatives, and memories are worshipped together; they provide comfort not only because they are rituals, but because the rituals are shared and personalized. In different provinces around China, you’ll find different beliefs, customs, gods, and rituals associated with spiritual practices – but all of them are inclusive oriented. Believers, within their groups, seek to establish a satisfactory relationship with the divine, often via a multitude of spiritual sources, in order to gain positive results.

Many of my American friends, however, are often not so flexible, so tolerant, or so lenient. Religion in the US is a group activity only in the sense that one joins a church or a synagogue. Moreover, if different family members choose different types of religious beliefs (something unknown to most Chinese), then conflict and even shunning may occur. Religious differences in Judeo-Christianity are also intolerant. Members of a Baptist church may accuse members of the Catholic or Jewish faiths as being heathen, infidels, or even damned. In the fundamental Christian religion in particular, either you’re in my special clique or you’re in hell.

The Judeo Christian God is also known as a jealous God. He (note the male gender) also demands that His worshippers declare Him as the “one and only.” There is no room for minor deities, household gods, and personalized spirits. Catholics have their saints, certainly, but this offends the Protestants mightily. In fact, Protestant missionaries I know here in China hold the assumption that their faith is more normal, more valid, than that of a person who is Catholic, or someone without any faith, or of those who adhere to a non-Christian belief system. This could be because the United States has a pledge that states the USA is “one nation under God” - with the assumption that this God is a Christian, i.e., Protestant God.

Chinese religion is much more accommodating.  Many Chinese friends tell me they are Taoists, Buddhists and Christians. They claim no particular religion as the “only true path,” but seem to feel that all religions benefit man in one way or another, so they’re all essentially benevolent. Philosophically, Buddhists may seek the negation of the ego, but their basic credo is “Everything is good.” This provides a welcome relief from the Christian burden of original sin and hellfire.

The end result of these philosophical differences between the Eastern and the Western spiritual bent is that the Chinese generally perceive good and evil as relative. In contrast, Westerners feel that good and evil are absolutes. Clearly, religious feeling and ethics are intertwined not just in Judeo-Christianity, but also in Taoism and Buddhism. The monotheist Westerner is literally battling against evil, whereas the polytheist Chinese simply wants to keep things in perspective and in balance. Both parties may misunderstand the other because their perspectives are so different. Chinese may perceive Christians as aggressive; Christians may view the Buddhist as indecisive.

In this day and age of terrorism and weapons of mass destruction, we need more than ever to seek the gentler, tolerant path. Respecting cultural differences is imperative to peaceful relationships. Aiming toward harmony instead of asserting personal ideologies seems not only kind but wise. Chinese spiritual practices work on the basis of attraction, not promotion and force. Missionary zeal is not the Chinese Way.

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