I was reminded again about the difference between China and everything else I have ever known. The topic came up during the chit chat that normally happens between expats and locals that I was a Mormon and that I don’t drink and don’t smoke. This always seems to bring some astonishment to those that know I have to attend dinner parties and outings related to work and the typical drinking that occurs during these things.
Normally I don’t have much to say about religion here in China because it is actually against the law to teach religion here even in a passive setting and all too often the questions get specific and those need specific answers. The ability to avoid and deflect those kinds of questions has become a skill and talent to stay within the requirements that exist in this country. However, sometimes the questions are generic and I can really just explain ideas and general information.
I was asked a question that reminded me that the way that I think is not how Chinese think. The way we talk is not the way that they talk. I do not mean that English is not Chinese, that is rather obvious; I mean something different completely. The persons listening wondered why the words that I said seem so much longer (more words) than what the Chinese translation was. It reminded me that I decided a while ago that English is an Explicit Language and Chinese is an Implicit Language. In English I can really use the necessary adverbs and adjectives to get to the exact meaning for an idea that is intended. In Chinese that is not necessarily the case, the idea is presented and the description to get more detail is not necessary or is not easily done without a detailed knowledge of the subject. Much of this is because the characters of Chinese, especially the written symbol or character, can imply an entire thought or concept where in English I would have to describe the detail using several words or even sentences.
The questions were really quite basic and simple as I am the only Mormon that any of them have ever met. The people in the conversation really don’t know much of Christianity at all and much of what they do know is not even correct by any Christian’s definition or explanation. The most challenging question asked to me was the following:
What advantages are there to being a member of the Church (implied meaning, the Mormon Church or The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints)?
Until that moment I had never really thought about “advantages” of church membership because that just doesn’t seem like something a “western” mind would contemplate. It reminded me of something that a missionary in Hong Kong told me about when I was in the Mission Office last year said to a question I had posed. My question was something like what is the greatest challenge or problem that missionaries have in process of teaching and preparing Chinese people for making the covenant of baptism. During my mission it was either something to do with the Word of Wisdom or something to do with the Law of Chastity that caused the greatest challenges for the people I was teaching. His answer was similar to the question I received. Why religion at all? What is there in religion that provides any advantage to me? What do I get from this experience with Religion? In business we would think of this as the cost to benefit ratio. I had forgotten that this was a challenge for the missionaries until I was asked what the benefits of religion are.
I have never really tried to define the benefits of religion because I have always had it in my life and have seen others without it and felt blessed to know having a religion was advantage. I have friends that would argue that religion is a crutch and flaw in my character that I would feel this way. I feel sorrow and compassion that they would feel that way about it. But I have never had to explain what it is and why there is an advantage to it.
That question has given me an opportunity to think about why I feel like I do. It has given me a chance to see if I can quantify and list things about religion that are advantages I have because of it. I admit that the list is not short. That is right I have a list of things now that I believe are advantages to religion.
The real problem is that not a single one of the items on the list is a “sound bite” kind of answer. Each one is something that requires a thoughtful discussion that talks about things that are more than just words but feelings and even inspirations. So while I have a list of the advantages of religion, at least my take of Mormonism, I can’t share those legally with my Chinese friends. I can’t even make a very good discussion over the written medium that is the internet. It takes more than that to convey the meaning and understanding to know why there is an advantage to religion.
I think that someday the chance to talk and teach openly in China about western religions and the advantages of being part of them will happen. I don’t know if I will be in China when that time comes. I think that the expats and outsiders will not really be able to have great success without being able to answer the question about the advantage of religion. Until the teacher of religion can help them understand the “cost vs benefit of religion” it is going to be a long and frustrating discussion.