‘Involution’ is a current hot word on the Web. Its popularity is constantly expanding and is applied to all sectors. Beneath its popularity, the concept is actually used to explain the predicament emerged within a society itself in the process of its development. The only way to solve involution may be accomplished by continuous innovation. Paradoxically, however, involution prevents innovation.
The word ‘involution’ was originally used in the field of agricultural development. Clifford Geerds published a book on Indonesia in 1963: Agricultural Involution - The Processes of Ecological Change in Indonesia. It describes how the residents of Java Island can not introduce more advanced production equipment because of the lack of capital. When the colonists of the outer islands are blessed by advanced technology and their production is continuously intensive and capitalized, the people of Java turn to labor-intensive industries, and employees constantly increase in the rice planting industry with limited land. This phenomenon is involution. The earlier user of this concept was the American anthropologist Alexander Goldenweiser, who used this word to describe a kind of cultural pattern, that is, after reaching a certain final state, there is no way to further develop or stabilize a society itself, but instead, the society keeps complicating its own internals.
I think that in today’s Christianity, there is definitely serious involution.
Since Christianity entered China, it has experienced more than 200 years of development, with a long history and far-reaching influence. However, this kind of profound influence is now history, and the depth of its social influence can not match that of the past. Although the number of followers and scale of today’s Christianity have already surpassed that of history, the extent of its involution is already in play to affect the development of Christianity.
The kind of involution has the following aspects.
First of all, the church over emphasizes the strict observance of gatherings. The church often warns everyone about the importance of gatherings and stresses what will happen if they do not come to the service. These gatherings include Sunday worship, weekly Bible study and testimony, and daily repentance.
Secondly, it is the excessive dogma of the Bible. Reading the Bible every day, the number of times one reads it, and even reciting the Bible, are used to measure the relationship between a person and God. I once participated in a church that often held Bible contests. In one Bible contest, there was even such a question, “Who has the loudest prayer voice in the Bible?”
Thirdly, it is the argument between different theological positions. What theological position the church originally held should be a matter of free choice, because no position is absolutely correct. However, in its own theological position, the church judges other churches that hold different opinions and even attacks other churches. When the church can not break through its own theological understanding, it chooses to attack other churches in order to pose as being well represented.
Fourthly, there is the emphasis on legalism. Although the church criticizes the laws of the Pharisees, it emphasizes the observance of legalism and even the adherence to it in daily life. In life, we have made rules and regulations that restrict people, for example, forbidding keeping chayote (the plant’s name is literally ‘Buddha’s hand’ in Chinese, translator’s note) and drinking Guanyin tea (The Chinese word ‘Guanyin’ refers to the goddess of mercy in Buddhism). The food and daily necessities that contain pagan names are excluded, and we think that these will violate the faith in God.
Fifthly, it is the pursuit of all kinds of superficial glory. Pastoral staff pursue academic qualifications in a secular way and even take shortcuts to get fake academic qualifications and certificates. They hire people to take their exams for them. In terms of developing believers, they boast of converting celebrities or baptizing famous people. In terms of church buildings, they take pride in constructing cathedrals, big projects of decoration, and putting up big crosses. These superficial pursuits of glory are constantly consuming Christian resources.
Analyzing the reasons behind Christianity’s involution, I would ask: Is today’s Christianity in its final state? After thousands of years of development, can Christianity no longer break through its own bottleneck? It is obviously not so.
The reasons behind involution are the pursuits of interest of various kinds. Just like agricultural involution, within the limited arable land, people are constantly rushing in to plant the same crops without considering the introduction of advanced technology and capital.
First of all, the involution of Christianity is caused by the pastors. It is inevitable that a certain proportion of ministers will join Christianity, who become pastors or leaders not out of the gospel, but out of employment considerations, or out of economic interest. Many pastors, due to their limited educational level, find it difficult to further improve their Christian theology and education. This causes the church to stand still, which can only be refined by imposing legalism and ceremony.
Secondly, it is the limitation of the church and the influx of pastors. Churches are like the limited land in agriculture, and pastors are like people who are engaged in the industry. Twenty years ago, there was a craze for pastors in China, and underground training institutions boomed everywhere. For instance, some old Christian areas such as Wenzhou, Anhui, Henan, provided many theological classes to train pastors. At that time, the slogan of the training was “plenty harvest but fewer hands”. However, after these pastors entered the church, they could only do more repetitive work due to the circumstances of their own and the church.
If the church is likened to limited land, how can we increase the output in this limited land?
Obviously, there are two ways to increase the output. One is to improve the efficiency, that is, to reduce the labor cost per unit area. If the output is constant, the economic benefits per unit of land will increase. Another is to increase the actual output of land, but this requires increasing investment in technology and capital. Obviously, neither of these two schemes is the best choice. With the increasing number of people and the lack of technical capital, the way of land cultivation can not be further broken. The involution of Christianity makes the church focus not on the gospel, but on the control of the church, which includes preventing other pastors and constantly increasing the tension between the church and the society, so as to restrict the free flow of members and maintain the stability of the church.
To break through the involution of agriculture, efforts should be made in technology and capital, and the same is true for breaking through the involution of Christianity.
First of all, I suggest we break through the tendency of ignoring the gospel. The core of the church is the gospel, not legalism, or the pastors. The church should consider how to practice the gospel, but not how to reduce the member mobility and maintain stability.
Secondly, it is suggested that we break through interest orientation. The church is not an economic unit, but a witness of the gospel, which cannot be measured by the economy. The church belongs to God, but not a private group of pastors.
The third suggestion is that we break through dualism. Only when the church enters the society can it serve the society and testify the glory of God instead of staying away from the society and becoming complicated in its own church circle.
Fourthly, we should break through the tendency of uniformity and dogmatism while improving ourselves. No matter whether pastors or believers are in the church, they should create a learning atmosphere. Not only should the Bible be studied but also the Christian history and culture instead of staying on the tedious and dogmatic understanding of the Bible.
Fifthly, we should break through the tendency of pastor-centeredness. In the church’s system of obedience, the pastor is at the top, which limits the possibility of further development and breakthrough of the church. Then, breaking through the pastor-centeredness mechanism, allowing free association of believers into groups, free exploration, and restoration of the atmosphere of the laity movement during the church revival in the 1980s and 1990s can bring fresh blood to the development of Christianity.
Only by breaking through the traditional church system can Christianity stop its involution and enter the society so that the gospel can glorify God in the society, and we can discover a new world.
- Translated by Charlie Li