Bowling from East to West

Bear with me for a moment of introductory rambling.

Someone told me a thing, and while I loved the thing I was told of I didn’t realise I had misheard the name of the thing I was told.  Oblivious to this I went hunting on the internet for the thing and after some fruitless searching, for remember the name I had was incorrect, I found a book, which wasn’t about the thing I thought I was told about, but was associated to the thing and it created a spark.  Are you lost yet?  Later when talking with the person who had originally told me about the thing, I discovered that what I had found wasn’t the thing, however, what I had discovered was at least as good if not better than the original thing.  There is also a big chance the original thing, had I heard correctly, looked for and found it, might not have sparked.  Confused?  Let me try and unravel that confusion.

The book I found was ‘The Chinese Christology of T C Chao’ by Yongtao Chen.  Now it might surprise you, but I had never come across this book before, however it soon fascinated me.  It tells how Christianity in China had been influenced by Western ideas and ideals brought by Western missionaries; no surprise really once you think about it.

As early as 1582 when the Jesuit Matteo Ricci tried to convert the emperor and the upper classes, with the hopes that they in turn would win over the common people, by presenting Christianity through traditional Chinese learning.  While Ricci was unsuccessful, the Chinese were more interested in the clocks than they were God, this approach was to return as the 20th century arrived and all western ideas and culture was frowned upon.  T C Chao was one of the leading Christian theologians of the early 20th century and during the Anti-Christian movement of the 1920’s he urged Christians in China to de-westernise Christianity.  Chao wasn’t alone, Jingxiong, another theologian of the period argued that, a Western view of Christianity could not meet the needs of Chinese people.  China, they said needed to look at Christ through Chinese thought and culture and so Dao Christology, a Chinese theology, came into being.  Yongtao Chen writes:

The purpose of a Chinese Dao Christology is not innovation, but the development of a relevant understanding of Jesus Christ in the Chinese context.  Therefore, the task of constructing a Dao Christology is a matter not on innovation, but of interpretation, a process of hermeneutics that really matters.

The Chinese Christology of TC Chao by Yongtao Chen p332

One of the three metaphors that Yongtao Chen goes on to advocate in his book is that of an empty bowl linking Christ’s incarnation to the Chinese concept of Dao.

Dao, sometimes referred to as the Way, is understood in Toasim as a philosophy for living in harmony with the world.  Dao has no beginning and no end, it can be empty, it can also contain all things.  It is open to the outside and so can become a vessel for anything be it humble or grand, the same vessel is used.  The nature of Dao is humility giving to all and containing all, being more like a servant than a lord.  Lao Tze, said to be the founder of Taoism, wrote of Dao:

Which in being used can never be filled up.
Fathomless, it seems to be the origins of all things.
it blunts all sharp edges,
it unites all tangles,
it harmonizes all lights,
it unites the world into one whole.

I was well and truly captivated, this idea of the empty bowl flitted around my head for a week or so, it then came more to the fore.  Kenosis, Christ emptying himself, Philippians became a return to Epistle, even though it has never been a particular favorite of mine.  Christ emptied himself, therefore we who are called to be Christ-like, should also empty ourselves.  Yet we are not left empty, we are filled, not with the old replacing like for like, but with the new.  Of course this wasn’t new to me, but I was seeing it in a new light.

I started moving things in and out of a bowl I have near my desk, it turned into part of my prayers.  I developed wrinkled fingers as I pondered with water beads, I now started referring to my Kenotic Bowl.  Metaphorically taking out things that muffled the sound of God or clouded the sight of God.  Then with those things removed allowing God to re-filling the bowl, not with my stuff but with the riches God provides.

Then one morning I awoke with the notion that I should be able to make a bowl somehow.  By 7.30, I couldn’t answer a phone call from my daughter as I was in an arty mess.  (She was totally unphased when I got back to her apologising that I had been making a bowl, such is the shock proofing of a Rectory childhood.)  Those first bowls weren’t quite right, but I persisted and soon felt an importance that the bowl was prayed into being.  I also, despite not being fully certain as to how and when I might use them, knew I wanted to make a batch for using at church.

Making bowls became part of prayer along with filling spare 15 mins, here, there and everywhere.  There were several attempts since that morning phone call, using a variety of materials, changing, refining, discarding.  Air dry clay which had been my initial thought had been quickly abandoned, it had seemed a good idea, but wasn’t.  Tissue paper stuck around for a long time before becoming decoration and then also abandoned.   Finally I settled on a method and materials for the bowl that I felt it encompassed the processed reading, pondering and praying of the previous month and, more importantly, was within my capabilities – The Kenotic Bowl was born, no it didn’t grow on a tree, I was trying to be all arty with the photograph.  This is one of the early bowls of the final process I settled on and it is larger and lumpier than subsequent ones, like those piled below.


  • The bowl is not perfect, for neither are we.
  • The bowl is precious on the inside (gold, silver, copper), for we are precious.
  • There is the rim without end, but no straight rim, this rim is wavy reflecting when our faith waxes and wanes.
  • The outside is lumpy and bumpy echoing the scars of life and love.
  • It is solid yet it also needs to be treated with care, for it can be damaged just as we can.
  • It is colourful to remind us that our lives shouldn’t be monochrome.

Once I had reached the final construction process I spent an enjoyable morning making some bowls together with the friend who sowed the first seed, he is now making them too.

I have a thought or two as to how they might be used but that, dear reader, is for another post.


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