A New Spirituality for China?

By Rev. Dr. Ronald Ryan

  • A person is free to believe responsibly.
  • We do not have to think alike nor believe alike in order to love and respect each other and to have compassion for each other.
  • The person, the individual, is always the purpose, always the focus.
  • Ethics constitutes the highest good.

To  Chinese people, my best friends:

I spent three wonderful years in China and was granted permanent residency. I grew to love China and the Chinese people, and I grew to respect Chinese culture and history. Even before I went to China for the first time, I had already developed some small understanding of the historical religions of China, namely Buddhism, Confucianism, and Daoism. I was also interested in what was happening respecting new developments in religion in China.

During my time in China, I developed many close and mutually respectful relationships. With some of my Chinese friends I was able to engage in extensive and extended discussions about religion. What I discovered was that many highly educated Chinese felt uncomfortable with the daily practice of the traditional religions even while retaining a deep respect for the philosophy of these religions.

In general, however, these highly educated people were uncomfortable with religion even while acknowledging that there was some essential element missing from their lives. In English we tend to call that element, “spirituality,” but, as with all terms, something is always lost in translation. So, for the moment, I think it is better if we did not focus on terminology, certainly not English terminology. I think it would be better if we gave ourselves some time to let a term emerge from within Chinese culture and language. That might be an old term, or it may be a term that can be formulated. If there is a Chinese term that can combine “self-respect” and “personal responsibility,’ then we may come close to having a term that can encompass the system of thought that is at issue here.

I have read a great deal about Chinese philosophy and the Chinese search for meaning. I have read some of the words of Confucious, LaoZhe, the Blessed Buddha, Mencius, Hsun Tzu, Shang Yang。 They were all seeking to articulate systems of thought that had meaning for the individual and for the society as a whole, with the desire to engender a cohesive harmony.But, as you know, as the generations came and went, that magic state of bliss and harmony was not to be found.

Some of my well-educated Chinese friends had ventured to try to understand, and if possible, to adopt aspects of Christianity, as practiced and preached in China, but they found that that was no more satisfying than the religious doctrines and philosophies and practices that they had grown up with.

Every single one of my Chinese friends, eventually, asked me about my “religion” especially when they learned that I was an ordained “priest.” They were all surprised that I made no effort to inflict my beliefs, whatever they were, on them, but that I exhibited nothing but respect for their religious positions and even more respect for their thirst for what they felt that they were missing, and for their seekings. Neither did I criticise nor stand in judgment of them, nor any of the other religious groups, neither the traditional ones nor the contemporary ones.

They asked me if my religion had a name, and I quickly found out that the name that I associated with my system of thought did not translate well to Chinese. There are even problems with translating that term to make it meaningful to various groups whose mother culture is English.

As they pressed me, however, to explain my “spirituality”, my system of thought, they became more and more interested, and more and more comfortable with talking about it because at no time did I criticise their quest and at no time did I ever say that I had found the one and only right way, only a way that was right for me, a way that had many similarities with the traditional Chinese philosophies of Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism, while still having essential differences.

I emphasized to my Chinese friends, as I will emphasize to you, now, that I believe that no system of spirituality or of religious practice can be translated directly from one cultural paradigm to another cultural paradigm. In particular, just as Buddhism does not translate well from Chinese to North American culture, neither does a system of western philosophy translate well directly to Chinese. Whatever is considered important, maybe essential, in one culture must, if at all possible, be retained, otherwise I believe that psychological trauma will eventually develop.

I continue to be deeply concerned when I see people who come to Canada, for example, from other cultures and try to fit into the Canadian culture by adopting one or the other of the fundamentalist religions, here. People are being persuaded to accept dogma and doctrine without analysis, convinced by their new religionists that theirs is the one true way to eternal bliss.

I would like to explain that my system of religious thought, my system of spirituality, has roots going back maybe as much as 10,000 years, maybe the same roots as Daoism and Confucianism and Buddhism. These roots are in Sumer and Ur and Ancient Egypt.

For example, I can easily find that my system of religious thought echoes much that I understand were the foundations of the ancient “Mystery” religions, a system of philosophy that required prospective members to engage in at least three to five years of study before they were admitted to the “mysteries.” Whether they were right or not, I am not about to judge, but they believed that one system of super-naturalism was probably needed for the vast majority of people, but that educated people would never be happy with any system of philosophy that did not engage an individual’s rationality and intelligence.

I find that that may be where I am today. I, long ago, abandoned super-naturalism as meaningless to me, while I recognize that many people, maybe the vast majority, are quite contented, maybe even need, a religious practice that is rooted in magic of one kind or another, and of gods of one kind or another, and rituals of one kind or another, and shamanic priests of one kind or another, and of sacrifices of one kind or another, and rites of passage of one kind or another. However, that is not where I am and, actually, that is not where I ever was.

I call my system of spirituality, of philosophy, of thought, by the name, “Unitarianism.” But, I recognize that term does not translate meaningfully to Chinese.

Indeed, there are many groups in the English world who refer to themselves as “Unitarian” – and for some of them the meaning is exactly as it is when translated into Chinese. For other groups, the word has taken on wholly new meanings, as is the case with me. In fact, because of confusion, some groups have adopted other words, such as “oneness” which means the same thing, strictly, but allows that group to apply their own meanings.

Some of you, no doubt, are familiar with Shakespeare’s play, Romeo and Juliette, and one of the most readily recognizable statements in the English. Romeo, in his soliloquie, plaintively asks, “What’s in a name? A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”

It is important, then, that we not get lost in the terminology.

I have been Unitarian for all of my life.My Unitarianism is a system of spirituality which encourages people to develop their own spiritual path according to their own rationality. Unitarians will walk by each other’s side without attempting to impose one’s belief or perceptions on another. That is, a person is free to believe responsibly.

One form of Unitarianism is within Christianity if that is the system of belief that one is most comfortably with. Other forms of Unitarianism can be founded in any other freely chosen belief system.Within Christianity we use the Bible as one book of many possible, recognizing that like any other book it has to be used wisely. No book should ever take the place of an individual’s own rationality.

People who call themselves Unitarian Christians focus, in general, on the teachings of the ethical and moral system as articulated by Jesus in the Bible. However, that person may have never been a real personality and may have had no existence outside of the Bible. Even if Jesus were a real person, he was no more than human. Jesus was not and is not a God.

The whole idea of my Unitarianism is to free people from any kind of religious hegemony. The intent is genuine and complete spiritual emancipation.

We do not have to think alike nor believe alike in order to love and respect each other and to have compassion for each other.The person, the individual, is always the purpose, always the focus.Ethics constitutes the highest good.

I recognize that there are two major issues, here: One is that my culture is a Christian one, however vague and generalized, and my allusions and references, necessarily will come out of that culture. I do not have the benefit of being fluent with the Chinese culture any more than I am with the Chinese language, of which I can say meaningfully ten or so words.

The other major issue is the matter of books. My references will be from the Bible, not because I want to advocate the Bible, but because that is the scripture that I know and know how to use. That may be seen as my attempt at hegemony, but I assure you that is not my intent.

In fact I want to draw your attention to an absolutely wonderful book, called, simply, “The Good Book” by that absolutely brilliant British philosopher, A. C. Grayling. It is my opinion, that from an ethical perspective, maybe from an inspirational perspective, also, this latter book is vastly superior to the Bible.

The associated difficulty is that, as I understand, there are few or no good translations of the Holy Bible into Chinese and that the Chinese renditions of the Christian scriptures are woefully inadequate for my intellectual purposes.

I hope that you are intrigued and I anticipate an enjoyable and meaningful dialogue with you.

Blessings to all of you!

   November 24, 2019



Dr. Ronald Lloyd Ryan , attended university in Canada and the United States and earned academic degrees as follows: B.Sc., B.Ed., M.Ed., Ph.D. He also earned a Doctor of Arts in Applied Theology.

Dr. Ryan is a published author of Educational articles in professional journals as well as a book, The Complete Inservice Staff Development Program (1989). He also writes on theological topics within the general ethos of Unitarian Christianity.

Since 2017 until today, Dr.Ryan always supports Mr. Miles Guo sincerely .He deeply believes that Mr. Guo has the real ability to change China for better.

——-  Ping Ryan 瑞安平 20200502

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