I’ve had some fun conversations lately that I think are worth recalling. (Be warned--slightly longer post.)
I had a rich discussion with a group of twelve or so students at “English Corner” the other day. The conversation meandered from “what our parents do” to “what jobs are desirable among young people in China” to “why we want the jobs we do.” One student commented that, in China, people seek out jobs based on what will gain the most wealth and prestige. One girl in particular wants to be a “primary school headmaster.” I asked her why; she said it was because it is well-paying and would gain her great respect.
I countered the general viewpoint of the group by sharing my belief that, ideally, people should pursue a line of work that fits their personality, their passions, their wiring, that makes them come alive. I told one student that while he was interested in computer engineering, I would not be happy with such a job. One girl didn’t quite get this, thinking I was criticizing the job itself—“why not?” (Essentially, what’s wrong with computer engineering?).
I explained that while the job might satisfy some, it wouldn’t fit my personality, wouldn’t satisfy me. I admitted that often other factors can make finding such ideal jobs difficult (lack of opportunities, immediate need for income), but that we should always consider calling and what we are “designed for.” This really is “foreign” to many of these students, who are convinced that wealth and prestige are the motivators behind career pursuits. But I tried to explain my point of view—that such “rewards” are never enough. One never has enough money, one never has enough praise from others; these can be futile ambitions.
I eventually asked Sarah (one of my students and a very good English speaker) why she wants to be a nurse. She shared her desire to be with people who suffer, to help them, understand them, make a difference; she expressed special interest in working with mentally ill people. WOW. I was so moved by the sweetness and compassion and sincerity behind what she said, in part because there will always be a place in my heart for the disabled in light of my two years of part-time work with this community. But it’s also not every day that I hear such compassion articulated by someone here. I told her I would try to get a hold of a book either by Jean Vanier or Henri Nouwen to give her to both practice her English and read the work of those who have extensively worked with the developmentally disabled.
So I turned back to the money/respect/headmaster girl (Jordan) and asked her if that was really all she wanted. I asked her what made her choose that job instead of another high-paying job. She told me she had no choice in the matter; it was her parents’ will. They chose her major—English Education—which she does not like. This is a common occurrence that is a bit sad and unsettling to me—careers forced on students by parents because of their own ideas of what is best for their children and/or what will be most lucrative for the parents, as children are expected to financially give back. It's a different world over here, where family obligation reigns.
Trying to encourage Jordan in some way, I asked her if she likes “leading”—if she feels she is a natural leader. She responded in affirmation, and I told her something like: “There it is! Primary school headmaster will be a good job for you because you are a leader and you will have the opportunity to lead others!” Maybe it won’t really be the best job for her, but I at least felt it appropriate to subvert the reigning beliefs about vocation by encouraging her to consider her gifts and strengths and seek joy in her job not simply in the potential financial returns or influx of praise, but in knowing she’s doing what’s she’s uniquely created to do.
That topic ended rather abruptly when someone asked me “what’s your sign?” Pisces, I said, followed by several students sharing theirs. Then, another abrupt subject change came when Jordan asked: “do you believe in predestination?” Man, did that come out of nowhere! Maybe in her mind it was a logical next question. So, like a good counselor or postmodern pastor, I answered her question with a question, asking her, “do YOU believe in predestination” and “what do you mean by ‘predestination?’” “That our life is written, written in(by?) the sky,” she said. She then started talking about how Libras and Scorpios are destined to be together (romantically) or something like that; I guess that’s where her question came from.
But I seized the moment and kept it going. I asked several of the students if they shared Jordan’s beliefs; a few “yeses” and one “no”—the “no” being a girl who said she believed in “Buddha.” After illustrating what “opposites” are (black/white, happy/sad) and explaining that predestination and Buddha are not really opposites, I elicited from students the primary alternative to “your life is written.” “I write my life,” several of them said. Good, they got it. (I did tell the “Buddha believer” that I’m intrigued to know more of this religion and would love to go to the local temple with her sometime.)
So then I asked “do you know which I believe?” The anticipation was great, as students got really silent waiting for my answer. “Both,” I said. Several of them either laughed or looked at me like I was crazy. But I insisted that I believed both to be true; that as a person of faith, I believe in God, but believe that I am a co-creator with God, partnering with God to shape my destiny; that God (and circumstances beyond my control) has significant influence over my life in shaping who I am and what I do, but that God has given me a certain level of autonomy and choice; that I am intentional in seeking God’s desires for my life while recognizing that I cannot passively expect God to do things for me. (It took several repeats and some translation help from the stronger English speakers to get the point across, but they got it.) One of the students, after a bit of contemplation, said: “oh, like co-workers with God.” “YES!” I said, “that’s it!”
I tried to explain that sometimes in life things don’t have to be one or the other, but can be both. I worked at this point for a while with a couple of illustrations. But in retrospect, they probably got it pretty quickly, in light of the Eastern values of harmony and balance, of “yin and yang.” I would think both/ands would come more naturally to them, more so than to us in the West. Then again, students here are generally disinterested in religion and have little access even to their own rich religious traditions (though I'm told this is slowly changing in China, as government is apparently encouraging the rediscovery of its ancient traditions, traditions once feared as threats to a country built on communism and subsequent controls and restrictions).
The group conversation closed with a discussion of Christmas, for which they surprisingly have a tradition here: they give apples to their friends as presents. The Chinese world for “apple” is apparently very similar to the word for “be well” or “get well.” So it’s a sign of goodwill to give apples to others. (One student warned me to stock up on apples, because the price will climb immensely in the days leading up to Christmas.)
They asked me what I do for Christmas. I told of my family tradition (which I will sadly miss this year): going to my Grandma’s house, having dinner with extended family, exchanging gifts, then going to a gathering at my childhood church, where we sing, pray, and remember the story behind Christmas, when we believe God became human; and of course, my mother’s traditional pancake breakfast on Christmas morning (might miss that most of all). The incarnation reference produced a couple chuckles, though I can’t really blame them. After all, it is a pretty absurd and fantastical idea to suggest God became human. I can’t argue with that.
I walked Sarah home after English Corner. I was joking with her about the heavy topics we had just discussed, which prompted some more discussion with her. She asked some great questions, sincerely trying to understand me and my beliefs. One comment she made was that many people here are more concerned about moving upward economically (both individually and as a nation) and so have little interest in religion. We talked a little about the richness of the yin and yang concept in Chinese philosophy and religion as well.
Then she asked me for clarity about my previous comments about partnering with God, asking if I was saying that I 50% believe in God and 50% in myself. I clarified the point, saying that it wasn’t a matter of belief I was getting at, but of how God does or doesn’t work in our lives. I told her I believe fully in God, but recognize that (my illustration) if a stranger falls down and hurts themselves, it’s not simply a matter of expecting God to pick that person up; I must do the picking up, though God may have inspired the compassion and thoughtfulness that led me to extend a helping hand. She understood my meaning.
She also explained that Buddhism believes that humans are good, and that life is spent emptying yourself so that “when you die you are nothing.” I didn’t question the accuracy of her assessments of Buddhism, but told her in a half-serious half-joking tone: “nothing? That sounds sad!” While I told her the thought of “nothingness” was unsettling, I do think there is much about Buddhism that is honorable and good. She also juxtaposed Buddhism with Christianity, asking me to confirm that “Christianity believes humans are bad and need God’s help.”
I responded with an answer that again had much in common with traditional Chinese thinking: “are humans good or evil? Well…yes.” I explained the diversity of viewpoints within Christianity and how Christians are historically divided on this question. But I told her that I usually try to take a more pragmatic approach to theology and not only consider ideals but how things actually seem to be. My point being: humans appear to be a mix of both good and bad, so I guess that’s what they are.
I told Sarah that I think of us as being made in the image of God (or as I put it, made to be like God in some ways, or to be like little mirrors that reflect God), but that we have indeed fallen down and need help getting up, that we are lost and need help finding our way again. So are we innately good? I guess pinpointing our nature doesn’t matter as much to me as responding to what's before us—celebrating and replicating the good, eradicating the bad. At least as much as it is in our power to do either.
And actually—I think Buddhism is not all that interested in whether we are good or evil. If anything, Buddhism does lean more toward innate goodness than evil, though I think it also stresses the inseparability of the two. However, good and evil are worldly concerns, and since the goal of Buddhism is not good but transcendence and liberation, good and evil are ultimately irrelevant (an admittedly rudimentary summary).
Finally, Sarah asked me if I believed that “people who do good are blessed by God” and “people who do bad aren’t.” I asked her what she meant by “blessed by God,” to which she cited things like “be kept out of jail” and “have lots of success.” I asked her what she thought; she considered it for a moment, then said, “I think that’s how it SHOULD be.” I agreed with her innate sense of justice, but suggested I didn’t really believe it to be true, at least in this life. I suggested that often bad people are very successful, often cheating or hurting others on their way toward success (I cited Bernie Madoff as an example, which, not surprisingly, she did not recognize…although I suppose his judgment has come with his imprisonment, so maybe he’s not a good example of a “successful bad person” anymore).
I also cited others who have often stood up for good causes, and either been imprisoned for their godly actions (like Nelson Mandela) or have simply had their godly lives go unnoticed because of steady, unflashy faithfulness. However, I did suggest that many religions believe that people face some sort of judgment in the afterlife, where even if they succeeded as bad people or went unrewarded here for their goodness, God or the universe or who/whatever would give them their proper reward “according to what they’ve done.” That seemed to satisfy her. I told her that above all, I personally believe that God is fair, and that God deeply loves every human being that ever lived. That also seemed to satisfy her.
One other related conversation to recall. I was recently at lunch with my friend Thomas, discussing what I intend to do when I return to the States. I told him one thing I am interested in is finding a church where I can serve as a pastor in some form. He was a bit perplexed, asking what kind of jobs there are in churches. I explained that most churches have staff, often a lead pastor and one or more assistant pastors. He was surprised, and confused about where the money comes from. I further explained that a church is essentially a non-profit and funded by people within the church, who pay the salaries of the pastors. Funny…I felt a bit sheepish as I was explaining this. Namely, why would people in the church give money to pay salaries (usually a sizeable portion of a church’s budget) instead of just using that money to more directly meet needs in the community? Well…I guess I better get over this if I want to be a paid pastor, eh? :)
Thomas seemed really intrigued that the religious realm was my hoped-for line of work. I asked him if he knew much about his own country’s religious traditions; “very little” he said. He explained how difficult it is to learn even about their own religions here, as information is so restricted. (Which by the way, hail to Obama, who is currently in China and has been advocating for less restrictions by Chinese officials on the flow of information, especially via the internet with its brutal firewall. This is a human rights issue, but it’s also a “benefit-Matt” issue—meaning, I’d be able to catch up on all the episodes of 30 Rock and The Office I’ve missed because of blocked websites.)
Anyway, Thomas also said it’s hard to learn about Christianity because of such restrictions. So I asked him if he’d be interested in a Bible, if I could track one down. He enthusiastically said yes, saying it would be a great way to learn about western culture and Christianity. I told him I’d buy him one. I’m not sure what is more exciting: the “Bible distribution” and religious interest, or the relational aspect of it—that he’s so interested in what’s important to me. All of the above, I guess.