Progressive Religion… Is Not an Oxymoron

Progressive Religion… Is Not an Oxymoron
David Roy

China’s Clash of Religions

By David Roy

On my recent trip to China, I was struck over and over by the extreme contrasts between the newly emerging and highly commercialized China and the steeped-in-history China that proudly honors its millennia-old traditions.

This trip was occasioned by an unexpected invitation to deliver a paper at the 12th Chinese Congress on Psychology. The event drew upwards of 3,000 Chinese students and scholars in early November 2009. My son, Dylan, joined me on the journey. (More on father-son bonding at another time).

Initial Impression: The New is Swallowing the Old

My initial impression of the contest between the two modes of China is that the new appears to be almost completely swallowing up the old. One example we saw first hand is the commercialization of the very sites devoted to preserving and honoring the ancient ways.

In the relatively small town of Qufu (small by Chinese standards), Confucius is the hometown hero and an enormous draw. Our hotel had a huge statue of him outside and an even bigger one in the lobby.

The city contains the Temple of Confucius, a large (2.5 acre) estate that includes many buildings and ceremonial gates. The grounds are beautiful and peaceful.

The Cacophony in the Temple of Confucius

By contrast, while we were attempting to wander in quiet rapture with our soft-spoken guide, we were swamped by the sounds and commotion generated by a dozen different tour groups. Each of the group’s leaders was equipped with a microphone and a bullhorn loudspeaker. If two or three groups overlapped at a particular scenic location, the guides seemed intent on drowning out the competition. (The word “cacophony” kept springing to mind.)

Whether or not the cause of Confucianism is furthered by a tour of this temple was not clear to me. While there were no Confucius bobble heads, the experience did not seem to honor the deeply interior and long-lasting wisdom that ties its origins to Confucius.

On another day, Dylan and I took a tour of select sites in one of the most ancient of China’s cities, Xi’an. This city, under a variety of names, traces itself back more than 3,000 years to one of the earliest Chinese dynasties (Zhou) when it served as the dynasty’s capital.

A Buddhist Temple with Electronic Billboards

Our first stop in Xi’an was at an enormous Buddhist temple, known as the Giant Wild Goose Pagoda. It was originally constructed more than 1,400 years ago. The grounds are beautiful, relaxing, meditative. In walking up to the main entrance, however, we were confronted with two billboard-size LED displays, one on each side of the stone steps leading up to the entrance.

Now, I know that the commercialism in the US exceeds anything we experienced in China. China really is just getting warmed up while our media conglomerates are asking how many messages can be delivered simultaneously before the human nervous system explodes.

Commercially, China is Catching Up

At the pace that China is moving, however, it may not take long before it equals or even exceeds the US commercially. The fact that they are moving at an extraordinary rate is broadly evident.

Everywhere we went, we saw countless construction cranes, horribly polluted air, mobs of cars (whose drivers make Mexico City drivers look staid), and an increasingly visible yuppie-like middle-class.

The Amazing Rise of the Chinese Middle Class

It is the rapid rise of a middle class that is perhaps the most striking contrast between the old and the new China. Upon returning to Beijing before heading home, Dylan and I stayed at a hotel close to the East Entrance to the Forbidden City.

A few blocks away, the financial interests have created a commercial zone with dozens of expensive stores all accessible from a street filled with only people, no cars. This is an opulent shopping street that replicates on a grand scale what can be found in many cities in the commercialized West. Amazingly, considering China’s pride in everything Chinese, the imitation extended to the huge electronic billboards that often featured western (white) models, not Chinese men and women.

China: Now Buying Locally

Around the time of my trip, I read news stories about two critical shifts in the Chinese financial development story. One simply announced that the number of cars being sold in China had surpassed US car sales. (“Help, I can’t breathe!”)

The other was the radical change that is occurring in the Chinese economy: Instead of exporting virtually everything, the Chinese are intentionally starting to market goods to themselves at a rate that is making the economy expand even more rapidly and that will protect them a bit more when faced with an economic slowdown elsewhere in the world.

The Economy Emerging as the New National Religion?

Yes, I am saying that the development of the financial system in China is modeling itself after the US in big and small ways. Whatever we have become, they are seeking to be this as well.

To take this analysis a step deeper and closer to the topic of religion, one can make the case, as some theologians and ethicists have, that our economic practices have come to function as our national religion.

And China, for all its professed disregard, if not outright disdain, for formal religion, is moving rapidly in the direction of making their economy the religion that it has become in the US. So far, it appears that commercial interests take functional and unconditional priority over the health of the physical environment and the humane organization of communities.

These interests obviously are serving a higher power, one that says go as fast as you are able, even if you have to annihilate entire ancient towns and cities, even if the pollution from the progress sickens and kills hundreds of thousands of people.

Will China’s Traditions Modify and Humanize Their Growth?

We certainly know what that is like here. We’ve done it repeatedly and are continuing to do it. Yet, unlike the US, China has these rich traditions that call for the care of others in ways that are basically similar to the values upheld in the world’s great religions.

Mao, in his single-minded efforts to bring China into something approximating the 20th Century, attempted to banish and destroy all connections to these ancient traditions, particularly Confucianism and Buddhism. Though this tragic move has long been repudiated, there may be still some deep-seated reluctance, rooted in fear, to open up fully to these sources of wisdom about human to human and human to world relationships.

Neuroscience on the Brain and Greed vs. Compassion

Another fundamental issue that has to be included in this analysis is the fact that this drive for more and more, quicker and quicker, is deeply rooted in how our brain and mind work.

Research today suggests that for us to be fully and uniquely human, we must capitalize on the most recently evolved portion of the primate brain, namely the frontal lobes that host the prefrontal cortex. Neuroscientists believe these areas of the brain augment and support such features as long-range planning, outcome assessment, even empathy and compassion.

An important part of the work of these higher cortical regions is to modulate the activity of the more primitive parts of our brain, including what has been traditionally called the limbic system (in a sense, our emotional brain).

If we are operating at the level of the limbic system, it is easy to get carried away with greed – I want it all and I want it now, as Freddie Mercury said.

Inclusiveness Leads to Compassion

If on the other hand, we have been able to transcend that, then we can place priorities on making our economy one that is sustainable and one that supports is in the service of, the human community as well as the natural world.

This, I believe, is something that is desired when people have come by one means or another to see and feel the larger perspective, beyond themselves, beyond their kin, even beyond the human population. This inclusive perspective can be arrived at rationally, as with humanism, but also through the deepest core of many religious traditions.

Which Values Will Guide Development in China—and the United States?

We must hope (and, if so inclined, pray) for the ability to encourage today’s leaders in China to turn to their ancient traditions for guidance about how that nation moves forward with its efforts to build a strong and capable nation.

Doubtless, the best way we can do this is if we as a nation adhere to similar principles to guide our actions. Our economy must be transformed into a force that supports human communities and enables the natural world to flourish instead of the other way around as it is today. This means ending the alter calls to $god$.

As Confucius, the Buddha, and Jesus, among many other religious leaders, would say, compassion is good and greed is not good.


Ordained in the United Church of Christ, David Roy is a pastoral counselor and a California licensed Marriage and Family Therapist who directs the Center for Creative Transformation. He has a Ph.D. in theology and personality from the Claremont (California) School of Theology. Send comments to him at or 5475 N. Fresno St., Ste. 109, Fresno, CA 93711.


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