Chinese religious studies delegation visits BYU-Hawaii

[Story and photo by Mike Foley: Published originally in the BYU-Hawaii online “Newsroom,” October 8, 2004]

A delegation of 10 faculty and staff from the China Academy of Social Sciences’ Institute of World Religions in Beijing spent October 7-8, 2004, at BYU-Hawaii where they toured the campus, experienced the Polynesian Cultural Center, and held a roundtable discussion with faculty members.

The group stopped over on their way home from BYU in Provo where they participated in an academic exchange and attended the J. Reuben Clark Law School’s 11th annual international symposium on law and religion.

Asian history professor, Dr. Michael Allen, who is also Associate Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, welcomed the group to the roundtable discussion in the BYU-Hawaii Student Stake Center cultural hall, explaining it was “a chance to have a dialog with you to promote mutual understanding, and to help you understand what BYU-Hawaii and all LDS educational institutions are about.”

To do so, he asked four people to share brief remarks:

Dr. Jin zeSpeaking through BYU-Hawaii student Heather Zheng, a senior accounting major from Henan, China, who acted as interpreter, Dr. Jin ze [pictured at right], Vice Director of the Institute of World Religions, explained their academy of 80 staff members was founded in 1964 and currently has eight research groups focusing on Buddhism, Islam, Taoism, Confucianism, religious art, comparative religion, contemporary religion and Christianity.

“In the past 40 years we have educated a lot of well-known researchers,” he said. “We have also finished about 500 government assignments, and we’re working on another 200 projects. We also report our research results to the government, and have the duty of promoting religion to the people.”

Next, Religion profession Dr. Marcus Martins, Chair of the BYU-Hawaii Department of Religious Education, told how as a youth in his native Brazil, “I was always taught that religion and science were not compatible,” but later he learned LDS Scriptures encourage members to seek learning by study by faith.

“These words inspired and amazed me,” he said. “When I go to the classroom, I don’t see my function as proselyting or as being a missionary, but being one who clarifies and instructs, but not [one] trying to make converts particularly.”

BYUH history professor Dr. Jennifer Lane, who is interested in the history of Christianity in China, explained she and her husband, who teaches the philosophy of religion, “chose to come and teach at BYU-Hawaii because we feel we can both study and teach as scholars, and also as people of faith as well.”

She added while she teaches historical aspects of the New Testament as she would at any university, “here I can also share my feelings and thoughts as a believer. I feel that adds to the experience.”

BYU professor of Japanese literature, Dr. Van Gessel, told of serving his mission in Japan and then earning his Ph.D. from Columbia University, working at “Notre Dame, the most famous Catholic University in America,” and then at the University of California-Berkeley, “one of the most famous public schools.”

“At Berkeley, they believe they are the center of the academic freedom of the world. Interestingly enough, I was not able to have the freedom to teach my subject the way I wanted to teach it,” he said. “My field is Japanese Christian writers, but I could only teach them from the literary and historical perspective. At that free university, I was not free to teach Christian literature from a religious perspective.”

“I left the freest university in order to have more at BYU,” he continued. “I came to BYU to increase my academic and my religious freedom. It is also a wonderful privilege to teach wonderful students who are interested in the life of the mind and the life of the spirit.”

Turning to a question-and-answer format, Dr. Martins asked the Chinese delegation what they felt about Mormons. Sociology of religion professor Dr. Gao Shining replied, “Dr. Jin ze was the first one to come to the states to study about Mormonism, about 10 years ago. After he got back, he published an article.”

“Personally, I heard about Mormonism in 1992,” she continued. “My focus question is why is Mormonism developing so fast.”

ICS professor Dr. Chad Compton asked how the Institute managed to get through the Cultural Revolution. Dr. Jin ze responded that in its earlier years, “our focus was on studying religious ideology. We took a more negative approach to religion. We were not looking at the whole picture of religion.”

“After 1980 we started focusing on studying religion from all perspectives. We started to realize the influence of religion in society. In the 80s, a lot of professors studied the major religions. In this process, we integrated all religions. Now we not only look at religion as a science or study, we look at it as a culture.”

He explained the Institute’s publications have influenced “how people look at religion and also how the government has promoted the freedom of religion.”

More recently, he added they are expanding their studies to include Professor Gao’s new religious movements. “We are open to all religious studies,” he said. Coming to visit BYU-Hawaii is another of our projects. We would like to have more exchange of ideas during this meeting, and we welcome you to come to Beijing at some time.”

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