- Understanding Watchman Nee: Spirituality, Knowledge, and Formation by Dongsheng John Wu
The work of indigenous Chinese Christian leader Watchman Nee (Ni Tuosheng, 1903–1972) has spawned a number of doctoral dissertations written at a wide range of theological schools in the last few decades, but this Ph.D. thesis produced at the Graduate Theological Union (GTU) appears to be the only one so far to have seen the light of day in publication. The aims of the author, an ordained Free Church minister who has taught spiritual formation at Regent College in Vancouver, British Columbia, seem to be apologetic: to rescue the heritage of Nee from charges leveled over the years especially by more conservative Protestant critics. While locating Nee squarely within developments in twentieth-century Chinese Christianity and its interfaces with Western sources, Wu’s strategy is also innovative. The effort to salvage Nee’s reputation and theology proceeds by situating his beliefs and practices within the historic Christian mystical tradition in conversation with one of the leading contemporary theologians of Christian spirituality, Mark McIntosh.
In brief, the apologetic argument unfolds in three steps. First, Nee’s theology of revelation and illumination is clarified as standing within the broad tradition of Augustinian illuminationism and thus is uninfected by any (alleged) Gnostic corruptions. Second, rather than promoting an anti-intellectualist spirituality, Nee’s cautions about the incapacity of the fallen human mind to engage in the spiritual [End Page 154] journey is consistent with both the desert and apophatic tradition’s emphasis on noetic weakness and pathology. Last but not least, rather than an imbalanced view of the role of the human will in the formation and transformation of the soul, Nee’s urged practice of the spiritual disciplines within a liturgical, devotional, and ecclesial context is quite in line with both Ignatian spirituality and the Wesleyan quest for perfect love, among other models. In sum, and understood within the scope of the Christian mystical tradition as framed by McIntosh, Nee’s achievements can be received more as an expression of Chinese indigenization than as exaggerations of certain myopic or parochial tendencies.
Other reviewers more familiar with Nee’s corpus and the English language material on the spiritual tradition can weigh in on the interpretations offered here, though Wu appears to have done his homework with regard to both primary and secondary Chinese sources. Readers of Spiritus, however, may wonder about the neglect of certain themes that one would have thought a GTU Ph.D. might have addressed. I raise two issues in particular. First, Nee’s tripartite theological anthropology–of human beings consisting of body, soul, and spirit, drawn from select Christian testament texts referencing these three aspects—is developed in part to suggest how the human spirit is a distinct faculty capable of receiving and responding to divine revelation. Within the Chinese historical context, however, the question emerges about how this spiritual dimension of human lives is engaged prior to the arrival of the gospel. Is the human spirit dormant until the arrival of missionaries and their kerygmatic proclamation? Or is it possible that Chinese philosophical, religious, and even cultural traditions provide portals for engaging with the divine apart from encounter with Christian missionaries?
The second question follows from the first, deepening the question of inter-religious relation amidst Evangelical sympathies, commitments, and concerns. At various places in the book, Wu portrays (and defends) Nee’s religious and spiritual illuminationism as more cosmological (creation as context) and communal than individualized and particular; as more directed toward nurturing love and trust in God than as propositionally informative; as thoroughly historical, embodied, and social (in the ecclesial sense) rather than as speculative, abstract, or merely noetic. In fact, it is precisely the fallen human self and mind that has to be put to death, broken, or redeemed/renewed so that the heart can be reoriented toward God, that the will can be redirected in obedience to the divine commandments, and that human persons can be reformed as a holy people of God.
Such themes of...