the faith of his parents.
To Dr Lin the terms "pagan" and "Christian" are not pejorative. In his earlier work written in 1937, The Importance of Living (Cultured Lotus edition, p.400), he speaks of himself as "an honest soul struggling with religious problems." He was "a man who has passed through a very gradual evolution, step by step, away from Christianity, during which he clung desperately, with love and piety, to a series of tenets which against his will were slipping away from him." He explained: "As I was born in a pastor's family and at one time prepared for the Christian ministry, my natural emotions were on the side of religion during the entire struggle rather than against it." For him 'to be a pagan' is no more than a phrase, like 'to be a Christian.' It is no more a negative statement, for to the average reader, to be a pagan means only that one is not a Christian; and, since 'being a Christian' is a very broad and ambiguous term, the meaning of 'not being a Christian' is equally ill-defined."
That last statement is fairly significant. So if he has returned to Christianity, I mused, what kind of Christianity might that be? In From Pagan to Christian (p.236), he gives us a hint. He wrote: "I once fought past the Scylla of damning hell-fire and the Charybdis of Pharisaism and called myself a pagan. I made my stand upon rationalism and humanism." "I was deterred by the theology of the churches. I was repelled by things that are coldly intellectual, haughtily deductive, and even uncharitable toward God.... I must say that, during the period of my paganism, my casual attempts to attend church services had always resulted in discouragement.... My wife always read the Bible in bed and attended church services whenever she could. I admired and secretly envied the true spirit of piety in her, the essence of which I believe is humility. Once in a while, I would accompany her, but usually returned discouraged. With the best will in the world, I could not bear a second-rate sermon. Seeing me squirm in my seat, she thought it just as well for her to go alone." What irked Lin Yutang were the sermons about sin and eternal damnation. "The divine nature in all men is so rarely mentioned and damnation so often resisted upon.... Church worship still very largely consists in an angry minister preaching damnation in angry words about an angry God. Sin is almost essential to ministers as disease and death are to doctors."
Dr Lin eventually found a church that was congenial to him: the Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church under the leadership of its minister, Dr David Read. "As for the doctrinal differences," he quips, "I am willing to take Christ and leave all the sinners to Calvin.... In the case of Christianity, the content [of faith] was given by Jesus in all its plenitude, but the form was added by man. Jesus founded His church without dogmas, solely upon the basis of the majestic force of love.... every man believes in God in his own way, with relative points of emphasis conditioned upon his past experiences.... And as long as man worships God in spirit and in truth, the forms are only means, different for different individuals, to reach the same sauna end."
I have given you enough of an idea of the kind of Christianity to which Dr Lin returned. How then do we assess not only the book, From Pagan to Christian, but also the sentiments he represents?
First, I am grateful for the poignant pictures drawn of life in China in the first half of the last century. I could empathise with him on the sad fact that, whether by design or by default, often a westernised education robs one of the rich cultural heritage that exerts such a powerful moulding effect on one's mind. It is regrettable that some of us can be conversant with Thales and Democritus but are self-confessed ignoramuses in Chinese literature and philosophy.
Second, for all his learning, Dr Lin showed a serious lack of grasp of the Bible when he disparages theological undergirding, confusing Christian dogma, which is a good things, with being dogmatic on secondary, non-perspicuous issues. In this matter he was not helped when his teachers at the Theological School of St John failed both to answer the swelling doubts in the young man's mind, and they were no match to the stature of academicians such as Ku Hung-ming whose compelling and convincing analysis of the inconsistency of Christian missionaries during the Boxer Rebellion succeeded in throwing off the restless young man from his biblical moorings.
Third, Dr Lin's disenchantment with Taoism strikes me as a mirror image of the young Augustine of Hippo, who flirted with Manichaenism and eventually rejected it when he
grew tired of it: its original mystic allure turned out to be nothing more than a degenerate form of occultism, magic and frightful spirits, so characteristic of the popular form of Manichaenism and as well as Taoism.
Fourth, whether he is talking about philosophical reasoning or the challenge of materialism within an empty, and at times, evil secularism, it is evident that his earlier grounding in Christianity was not all wasted. The superior strength of Christianity were haunting and disturbing as Dr Lin made his grand spiritual detour back to Christianity.
Fifth, it seems his return to 'Christianity' lacked the essential ingredients of a biblical faith. Therein lies my disappointment with the book. On the one hand it is useful to have a book which surveys in so masterly a fashion the whole range of eastern and western thought. But, despite the euphoric description of "the majesty of love" there is a hollowness and shallowness of thinking. It is no wonder that this book has now been relegated to the category of "out of print" and there is no call to it to be reprinted during the current revival of the late Dr Lin's books.
(Review by Dr Quek Swee Hwa)