Deputy Minister, accompanied by 22-member delegation, speaks at this significant event
Dialogue attendees, with Dr. Mouw, Dr. Schuller, and Mr. Zhang at center front
What is the role of religious groups in society? Mr. Zhang Lebin, Deputy Minister of China’s State Administration for Religious Affairs (SARA), joined President Richard J. Mouw in a well-attended discussion on “Religion and Its Benefits to Social Services” at Fuller Seminary on Thursday, August 4. As part of their visit to the United States, Mr. Zhang and 22 other delegates from SARA were hosted by Fuller in Pasadena, deepening the seminary’s longtime relationship with China.
“In China there is much collaboration between religion and social services, and we have a lot to learn from them,” Dr. Mouw explained as he welcomed the SARA delegates to the dialogue. He also recognized several distinguished guests in attendance at the event: acclaimed Christian leader Robert H. Schuller, founder of Southern California’s Crystal Cathedral; a number of notable leaders from local religious groups and educational institutions; and several community officials, including Pasadena Mayor Bill Bogaard.
Dr. Mouw expressed the value of discussion among different peoples, and Mayor Bogaard, who also offered brief comments, spoke of the significance of the relationship between local cities and overseas nations. “Local institutions have global roles, in addition to their role within individual communities,” Bogaard stated.
Mr. Zhang, featured speaker for the dialogue, emphasized global responsibility in his presentation. “Religion is a member of society and, therefore, must serve society,” Mr. Zhang asserted, speaking through a translator. Regardless of theological differences, all religions come from society and so share the responsibility of helping it, he believes. In fact, the increasing prevalence of social problems today makes religious contributions both crucial and relevant.
Serving society is “a voluntary choice” of religious groups, Mr. Zhang noted. The core values shared by many religions—loving God and loving people—lead each group to contribute toward a collective and global movement of social service that inspires others to do the same and helps build a better world.
Dr. Mouw added to this call for unity by challenging religious groups to compete not in hatred and strife, but in good works—and, drawing upon Mr. Zhang’s discussion of shared values among religions, he called attention to the overlapping ideals evidenced in both the Hebrew term shalom and the Confucius idea of harmony. To elucidate religion’s potential effect on the global society, Mr. Zhang quoted an old Chinese saying: “If you practice virtue, the world will become virtuous.”
To close, Mr. Zhang offered practical recommendations to begin developing these ideals. First, he urged, “It is important to mobilize all important forces, particularly religious groups.” Society needs more than one faith community; it needs everyone working together. “Religious groups have a global responsibility to serve society,” Mr. Zhang explained. “The future of mankind is the responsibility of everyone.” Furthermore, he stated, governments need to allow space for religious groups to play a larger role in society.
During a question-and-answer period, one member from the audience asked Mr. Zhang to share the political mechanisms by which the Chinese government and religious groups work together in a harmonious and mutually uplifting relationship. The Deputy Minister explained that SARA facilitates the interactions of religious organizations in Chinese society and maximizes their role by “creating a foundation for them to interact and provide social charities.”
As Dr. Mouw closed the discussion, he reflected on what people of faith in America can learn from our Chinese friends. We need to ensure that, through our actions, religion works for the common good, not against it. This requires, in part, cooperation, and China offers an excellent example of interfaith cooperation and discussion from which we can learn.
Following the dialogue, attendees were invited to join Dr. Mouw and the SARA delegation over lunch in a time of further conversation and cultural exchange. Dr. Schuller offered a prayer for the meal as well as expressing his affection for Fuller’s visitors: “The country I feel closest to outside of America,” he shared, “is China.”
The luncheon provided a space for deepening China-U.S. relations among religious and community leaders from both nations. In the words of Dr. Mouw, “This is a historic occasion when we can gather around tables, speaking together and learning from each other, with our Chinese friends.”See a photo gallery from the dialogue and luncheon here.