Hannah Nation serves as the Communications and Content Director for China Partnership. She is studying Church History at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and works part-time doing international outreach for her local church, Christ the King Presbyterian, in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Though I have been trying to engage Chinese students for a decade, I still find myself learning about the world from which they come. Recently, I’ve been conducting a number of interviews with students I’m particularly close to. None of these students are professed Christians, though they are all in various stages of spiritual seeking. All are interested in the Bible and the Christian God and have been variously committed to Bible studies while in the United States.
Sometimes in my interviews with these students, their answers are so familiar – the words they speak echo the scores of similar answers I’ve heard over the years. But at other times, their answers are truly surprising, reminding me that what I as an American can learn and study about China, the Chinese worldview, and the experiences of Chinese people will still never fully prepare me for the individuals I face. Everyone’s story is unique, even given the cultural similarities and traits I recognize.
For this third interview (you can read the first and second here), I spent time with a dear friend I’ll call Keith. Keith is an idealist through and through, and he is on a deep and convoluted search for answers concerning the true nature of government authority, democracy, and the structure of society. Of course all of this is rooted in Keith’s own personal search for meaning, even though he is slow to bring his heady and intellectual conversation down to the personal level. Yet in his countless conversations with my husband and myself, this is often precisely where his searching begins – understanding the needs and challenges of China according to the mysteries of the human heart.
How would you describe your attitude toward life?
My attitude toward life… Since my childhood, I think I keep fighting with life. The first couple of challenges were in school. You know I passed the entrance exam for college and for graduate school and then on to a PhD – those were a lot of challenges. And also my doctoral thesis is a very big challenge.
Actually, I don’t like a peaceful life. I like to have challenges in life. So I’m always looking for new things in life that can make me excited. I like to take on challenges, to conquer. So my attitude toward life is to always find something new and take on more challenges.
How did you become interested in studying Christianity?
Yeah, since you asked me to do this interview I have been thinking about this question. I think there are three reasons.
The first reason is that since I came here to Boston, to America, I have been very curious about the difference between Chinese culture and American culture. Christianity is said to be the main feature of Western culture, so at first, I was very curious about what Christianity is. Because China is a secular country there is no culture of any religion. A lot of Chinese people believe in Buddhism, but I don’t think they are very faithful in it. So at first I was very curious about Christianity. I wanted to figure out how the Western people think. Some Chinese scholars even say that the core of Western culture is Christianity and that democracy is founded on Christianity – although I doubt it right now. But it’s true that this is what a lot of Chinese scholars say. So I wanted to touch Christianity in person and find out what it is. This is the first reason.
The second reason has to do with my research. My research is about democracy and liberalism, so I as I said, some Chinese scholars believe that Western democracy is founded on Christianity. So I am interested in the relationship between democratic politics and Christianity and also other religions. So the academic interest is my second reason.
The third reason is my own. I can describe myself as always having believed there is an ultimate God, an ultimate existence, being. But I am not sure what it is. Actually, honestly, if I said this in China people would think I was weird. It’s true. They think all religious people are weird. So I want to know how Christians touch God. Even though I am not very sure about what God is, I want to learn how Christians touch God. So this is my personal reason. I want to look at God from the Christian perspective.
Do you feel like you have found the answers to those three reasons?
For the first reason – the difference between Chinese and American culture – actually now I don’t think the difference is as big as I thought. I think the American people are very similar to the Chinese people in little ways. I think the Chinese scholars who have emphasized Christians’ role in Western culture have exaggerated their importance. Actually I don’t think democracy was established on Christianity. For some practical reasons and for some theoretical reasons I disagree with that argument.
For the third reason, it’s hard to say. As you know, I’ve discussed it a lot with my Christian friends these two years. During those discussions I was always trying to touch God in the Christian way. It made a lot sense and gave me a lot of inspiration. But I also found some very difficult problems that exist in Christianity. So the third reason is still unsolved.
What do you find difficult to accept about the Christian faith?
For a long time I’ve discussed this question with my Christian friends. I’ve found that in Christianity there are a lot of paradoxes about a lot of things. One of my friends used to tell me that you have to believe first and then accept those paradoxes. I think those paradoxes are the most difficult thing for me to accept about the Christian faith.
What are the paradoxes you struggle with?
If God is beyond us and is living in another world above us, how can we get to know him? How can we understand him? And if we have really understood him and really know what he is, then that means he exists in the world and we are understanding him empirically. This is one of the paradoxes.
Another paradox is about prayer. If God determines all of the things that happen in the world and we can ask for help from God through prayer, why should we still work hard to strive for what we want? This is another paradox.
What do you find attractive about the Christian faith?
I think the thing that most attracts me is Christians’ warmth and friendliness and that they are nice to people. At first this was very impressive to me. One time I chatted with another American online and I told her that I just came to Boston and that I knew some very friendly Christians. She said that was very interesting and laughed. I didn’t know why she laughed. I’m still confused by her laughter! Maybe it didn’t make sense to her. But during the first month that I came here I was really impressed when I met Christians who were so nice and friendly to me. One friend volunteered to talk with me weekly for two years! I am so grateful for what he has done. This is the most attractive thing.
Ok, last question. If you believed in Jesus what do you think would change about your life?
I think my personality would be changed completely. Actually I think the difference between a secular person and a person of faith is their personality. If one person decides to believe in a religion, any kind of religion, that means he is going to change his personality. If I don’t believe in any religion that means my autonomy is undefined. I can do anything I want. For example, maybe I have sex with a woman and then later I try sex with a man. It’s just a random decision. But if I decide to be a Christian, it means there are some things I should never do because I should control my autonomy and personality, because that is the meaning of my life. My personality would really change.
Does it feel like that would be a scary thing or a good thing?
It’s hard to say. I would say it feels like a very big decision, but a decision that is made by chance. I know some Chinese Christians who have made this decision. They underwent some very big changes in their lives and then made this decision. So I think chance is very important for this decision. It’s hard to say whether it is right or wrong. I can only say that it is a big decision.