Learning lessons about religion in China

As I write this column, I am a passenger on United Airlines Flight 850, cruising at 30,000 feet with a minimal tail wind, returning from 10 days in China and Vietnam.

This is one of many trips I have taken to build the Benedictine University presence in Asia. The university offers complete master's degree programs in China and Vietnam (students complete their entire program in their home country) and to date has successfully graduated close to 1,000 students in Asia.

While surrounded by many erstwhile travelers in the tubular compartment of this Boeing 777, the aloneness is palpable. I have time for my thoughts to run, and run they do.

On my last several journeys to Asia, I have begun to wonder about the status of religion in China. I am a child of the Cold War and have many daunting memories of the threat from China. We were told many things about a godless society that suppressed religion.

Yet in 2010, Benedictine University, a Catholic institution, has received approval from the Chinese Ministry of Education to offer degree programs in that country. In fact, many of our graduates mentioned above are Communist Party members.

How does a country that is supposedly closed to religion allow a Catholic and Benedictine university to operate in its domain and even educate its officials?

To alleviate my sense of wonder regarding the status of religion in China, I set a personal goal to conduct a more thorough investigation during journeys to come. I have now finished several of those journeys and share with you my findings.

Beware, this is not an academic study to be presented at a scholarly conference or even an attempt at a somewhat definitive statement. It is simply what I, an untrained observer, have observed.

As I continued my journeys to this marvelous land, I wondered whether religion was dead in China or present before my eyes. Was China the godless country as taught to me as a child, or was it something very different? I set as my goal to answer these questions for myself, and so opened my eyes to the possibility of religion in China.

As a result, I am embarrassed by what I found. Religion is not only alive and well, it is all over the place.

I am sure that you have, on occasion, gone through the local hotel guide on things to do in the area. In the many Chinese cities I have visited, I spent some time looking at these local “things to do” directories. Interesting, many of them list when and where the local religious services will be held.

In Beijing, I had dinner with a woman who was attending an English Mass on Sunday. I visited the libraries of our partner universities and perused the theology section. I found the various scriptures of the world's religions and even some copies of Gary Will's “Why I am a Catholic.”

In one meeting, I sneezed and my Chinese president friend responded “God bless you.” Walking on the streets, I see Catholic priests and sisters, Buddhist monks, women in full Islamic dress, Hindus, and in short, I see the religious world in all its diversity. Temples with frequent visitors dot the landscape.

During the Christmas season, religious carols can be heard on the streets being played from shops. I even saw a young coed walking across a campus with a T-shirt that read, “Jesus Loves Me.” In many stores, I see religious symbols for sale.

Perhaps my most humbling moment was when I mentioned at one university that Benedictine prides itself in offering Halal food to its Muslim students. My Chinese counterpart smiled and said that his university had so many Muslim students it had its own Halal restaurant on campus.

What has happened here? Why does my adult interaction with China not equal my childhood perception? Was my schooling incorrect, or have I and many others not kept up with developments in China?

I suspect that what happens in our way of knowing is that we compartmentalize an item and are slow to let it go. In fact, many childhood notions can only be displaced when reality shows them no longer to be accurate.

For example, the idea that the sun revolves around the earth is dislodged when we realize it is no longer a sufficient notion to explain our world and its interaction with the cosmos. Likewise, my childhood notion that there was no religion in China has been displaced by my own experience in China.

Perhaps the larger lesson here is that a snapshot in time is just that: a minute frame of what was happening at a particular time in a particular place. All things grow and change, even countries.

Our media, our teachers all of us need to do a better job of keeping abreast of what is happening. My little exploration into religion in China is just that little. Yet, it may have extensive consequences regarding many other matters.

We all compartmentalize our knowledge. The danger is putting that “knowledge” on the shelf and not allowing it to grow. This is how stereotypes and prejudices arise. This is how growth and development between countries can stall and become dormant, if not dangerous.

• William J. Carroll is president of Benedictine University.