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Book: The Insider/Outsider Debate

Chapter: Chapter 10: Imported Insider/Outsider Boundaries: The Case of Contemporary Chinese Christianity Researchers

DOI: 10.1558/equinox.27459


In the 1990s, a network of Chinese academics began developing what they termed Chinese-language theology (mediated in the Chinese language), born out of and addressing the contemporary “Chinese life experience.” These scholars, though mostly not confessing Christians, became known as “Cultural Christians” for their emphasis on the study of Christian culture, researchers who aligned themselves with theological discourse that was purposefully anchored outside the church and who largely published their philosophical reflections on theology from atheist or agnostic interpretive positions: not, as might be assumed, to promote Marxist or other ideological readings but because their own intellectual pursuits and, in several cases, their personal existential searches had led them to theological inquiry. For a time the label stuck, and traditional theologians in the Chinese-speaking world, many of them in Hong Kong, voiced their opinions on doing theology “extra ecclesiam.”

Although much of the confessional “insider-outsider” debate was imported into academic settings, the discussion resurfaces even today: Will a theology be rejected by believers if its proponents deliberately position themselves outside Christian faith traditions? Can theology be constructed by scholars whose personal attitudes toward faith are “neutral,” unsettled or simply unknown?

This chapter is based on qualitative fieldwork among “Sino-Christian scholars,” whom the author began interviewing in 2011, explores the nexus between scholarly inquiry, cross-disciplinary negotiation and religious belonging. Finding that insider-outsider categorizations are generally understood to exist with regard to religious belonging even among those within one intellectual field of discourse, Thurston examines how, when and why these are being reinterpreted, upheld or wholly called into question.

Chapter Contributors

  • Naomi Thurston ( - nthurston) 'Renmin University, China, and University of Wales'