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Where science meets theology and duality

UBC researcher compares Christian theology with Chinese philosophy
Yonghua Ge
Yonghua Ge converted to Christianity as an adult and now studies the links between Chinese philosophy – primarily Daoism – with Christian theology. Photo Dan Toulgoet

Vancouverites, like most Canadians, were once predominantly Christian. A few decades ago, a large majority of Vancouverites identified as Christian, even if that didn’t mean weekly church attendance. As the number of people self-identifying as Christian declined for a range of reasons, the number of Chinese-Canadians living in Vancouver increased substantially. Much has been written – and perhaps much more spoken in quiet voices – about real or perceived conflicts caused by these changes.

Someone who has given a great deal of thought to the similarities and differences between these two cultures is Yonghua Ge, a post-doctoral fellow at Regent College on the UBC campus. Part of his research is comparing Christian theology with Chinese philosophy, a pursuit he says makes Vancouver an ideal place for his work.

Not every Vancouverite of Chinese descent is interested in Chinese philosophy, just as not every Vancouverites with a Christian family history is interested in Christian theology. But our cultures – and we – are influenced by these factors and in recent papers and lectures Ge has explored some of the ways these two world views collide and coexist. This duality exists in his own life, as someone raised in China, educated in North America and who came to Christianity as an adult.

First of all, he says, it is notable that almost everyone everywhere has asked very similar existential questions.

“It is amazing that all people asked the same questions from different cultures and even across different times,” says Ge. “As human beings, you have to face these fundamental questions about existence, about our lives, about the universe and why we're here, what we’re supposed to do — these are questions that all the people across the globe and across history try to wrestle and try to answer.”

Ge first sought answers through science. He has undergraduate and master’s degrees in physics and for several years taught science and math in China.

“The reason I studied physics was that I was asking about the fundamental existential questions, about the meaning of life, and if there's anything that's eternal,” he says. “When I observed the world, I realized that the world is continually changing, people die and things perish. I was a little bit anguished because I was trying to find something that is unchanging, something that is permanent. That's why I decided to study physics because I realize that the laws of nature are always constant.”

But science could not answer what Ge calls the “human questions” – how we face the reality of people dying, of human suffering.

“Science is impersonal,” he says. “Science to me is silent on these things, the human questions.”

While studying in Ohio, he met some Christians and began discussing theology and reading the Bible.

“What was really attractive to me was the phrase ‘the word became flesh,’ that the word became human,” he says, referring to the Christian concept of the embodiment of God’s promise in the figure of Jesus. “Science was not adequate to answer human questions. I realized it is there [in Christianity] that I can find my human answers.”

When comparing Chinese philosophy – primarily Daoism – with Christian theology, Ge does not offer a revolutionary thesis that blows the lid off either the idea that the two are incompatible or, conversely, that they are completely simpatico. On the contrary, he falls quite in the middle.

“I'm trying to argue against two kinds of extreme positions,” he says. “There is at least some possibility to have a meaningful dialogue between Christian theology and Chinese philosophy. I want to argue that there are some similarities but there are profound differences between the two.”

While Ge is content to accept that there are similarities and difference between these two world views, and that these represent an invitation for discussion, he is emphatic on what some other people perceive as a conflict. As both a scientist and a theologian, Ge rejects the suggestion that there is any conflict between these two disciplines.

“It's a deep misconception that I think has been propagandized,” he says. “For me, there is no such thing as a conflict between the two. The two really are addressing different realms of reality. For my PhD thesis, my research focused on the Christian doctrine of creatio ex nihilo, creation from nothing, [it’s] really a fundamentally metaphysical statement about the existence of the world. It is not about a scientific description of how the world began. … I think it's an unfortunate misunderstanding that there is a conflict between the two.”

Ge’s research is intensely thoughtful and complex, but ultimately he is making a fairly simple case about the relationship between Chinese philosophy and Christian theology – and, by extension, the cultures they helped create.

“With a clear understanding of each one, we can have more meaningful dialogue instead of conflating different traditions into one,” he says.

As for location, as any realtor will tell you, Vancouver is where it’s at.

“Vancouver is really where the East meets the West,” Ge says. “It makes Vancouver a more relevant place for us to discuss this topic.”

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