Monday, October 25, 2021

Asia's Greatness, Tragedy, and Hope

My ongoing East Asian Studies Project research has led me to a deeper appreciation of the historical and social forms of various non-Christian (often existentially “pre-Christian”) societies. 

So much can be said about the millennia of history journeyed through by countless peoples with their great efforts, ardent questions, and intrepid search for truth. Above all, we know that ultimately we will marvel at the many secret ways of grace by which the Mystery of God has guided a significant portion of the human race in the Divine plan of redemption and made possible their salvation, even though these great peoples were for a long time distant in earthly space from the historical witness of the Church. Even now, there are so many who have not yet encountered Jesus Christ in a way that they can recognize consciously or articulate clearly. But God in His wisdom still works through the Spirit in their hearts, calling them, drawing them, and opening up for them in the hidden, inscrutable workings of His mercy vital and mysterious ways for them to accept Jesus and belong to Him ("invisibly," as it were, and therefore not yet in accordance with the fullness of the meaning of the Incarnation). 

There are multitudes of people who can attain eternal life (always, in reality, through Christ and the Church) even if they don't have the possibility of encountering a compelling external witness to the Gospel, and learning about Christ's love for them in an explicit way that they can recognize or express to themselves or others. Even if they "know" the terms used in Christianity, and some theories that they think Christians hold, they may still - through no fault of their own - not really know (or nor yet know) that they themselves are destined to be God's children through His Son Jesus Christ. God who is our loving Father wills all people to be saved. He never tires of reaching out to all those whom He has created for Himself and who seek Him on the journey of this life. His mercy is able to work in their hearts and associate them too with the events of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, who is the only Savior of the world and of each person.

Regarding the salvation of the nations, Christians can have great confidence in God's infinite power and infinite mercy, while not losing any of our ardor for evangelization and our sense of responsibility to witness to Jesus and His Church in every place, because (as John Paul II said in his first encyclical) every human person "has the right" to know the One for whom they have been made, the One who has redeemed them and who loves them and gives ultimate meaning to their lives.

Having said this, we must note with gratitude the stunning beauty and great human achievements, splendid poetry, literature, wisdom, and many beautiful religious traditions in Asian cultures that for so long were virtually inaccessible to the civilizations of those places commonly known as "the West" and "the Near East" (and vice versa). The advent of the global epoch has engendered global encounters, but thus far they have been more belligerent than fruitful, involving too much the imposition of the modern West's colonial and technocratic power. It is time for the whole world to be enriched by the great ancient human heritages of Asia (which we Westerners still know too little about).

This is one reason why I feel the need to pursue this study, even now in "the autumn" of my own life. It is important for the future of humanity that we continue to build strong bridges of understanding and compassion between West and East. Nevertheless, it is also important to try to understand the problems and ambivalence that have grown from within East Asian cultures themselves (because, like all human cultures, they are flawed and profoundly strained by the mysterious incoherence of the human condition in this world).

From what I am learning, it seems that Asia's rich achievements and insights still coexist with - and are often partly tangled up with - other deeply entrenched, centuries-old violent structures and attitudes of oppression, intractable ethnic conflicts, methodical atrocities, harmful superstitions, and numerous forms of depersonalization that have been accepted for longer than anyone can remember. Certain modes of human existential impoverishment have been integrated into life, even resigned to with a poignant sense of the inescapable tragedy of life, but accepted (with sorrow) as inevitable and impossible to change. East Asian societies are paralyzed in some of these ways, sometimes with ruthless consequences, and other times with a sense of tragic nobility, restraint, and inner coherence that has elements of great courage and a powerful sense of moral responsibility - but also an often desperate longing for an apparently elusive forgiveness

Sometimes Asian cultures seem to have less awareness of the dignity of the individual human person, or are considered to be "fatalistic" in the face of human suffering. This is an oversimplification, of course. A blog post, however, must paint in broad strokes, remembering that pondering these issues here is always very provisional. What occurs to me, however, is that Asian societies have a keen sense of the fragility of all things, and of a world so easily broken by human weakness, vanity, failure, and stubbornness. Experience and reflection on human life has long taken place there in a context where the possibility for forgiveness has appeared distant, if not indeed "beyond the horizon" of hope.

This points to a way that a genuine inculturated evangelization may well transfigure Asia's precious heritages, healing wounds and bringing to a new level all of the great goods therein so that they might shine with a fresh brightness of light such as we all need now and in times to come. East Asia needs to experience (within the real personal and social lives of its peoples) the kind of transforming forgiveness that Jesus brings through the Gospel and the sacraments (even though - we must never forget - He is already at work in their hearts, in who-knows-what mysterious ways, to draw them into His merciful heart for their eternal salvation).

I'm talking about a real encounter with Jesus Christ among peoples and cultures. I'm not talking about an extrinsic imposition of a "Christian worldview" such as Westerners once aspired to cultivate. It will rightly be pointed out that many Christians have perpetrated even greater wars, hatred, and atrocities (even with institutional complicity), but we must remember that in so doing they have not represented Jesus Christ. Rather they have betrayed Him. 

Whereas the power of the real Gospel - wherever it is proposed with genuine love and witness - always initiates and fosters great positive changes in the human attitudes and practices of the overall society (even if these developments are still far from perfect, still partial, or take time to mature in application, or are frequently violated - but with these violations also frequently, or at least eventually, denounced and reformed). The Gospel puts forth an ideal of what it means to be human that is continually renewed and keeps “pulling upward” on humanity even in the temporal history of this world. 

I'm not engaging here in partisan religious flag-waving: Christians have a lot to be ashamed of, and a greater responsibility because they ought to know better in light of the great gift of explicit awareness of the Gospel. We need to repent, and remember that the Gospel has power not only to save us for eternity but also to “humanize” us more in this life, including the freeing up and fulfillment of our roots in diverse human cultures and traditions.

I have seen the beginning of this for East Asia through writing the stories of Asian converts from different times and places including China, Japan, Vietnam, and India. For example Takashi Nagai, in becoming Catholic, became more profoundly Japanese, and even attained the status of a symbol of his people's suffering - as he endured during his illness the devastation visited upon so many ordinary civilians by atomic (and conventional) aerial bombing at the end of the Second World War. I think also of Chinese converts like the late John C. H. Wu - so dynamically and “interiorly” Chinese and also so deeply Catholic. Wu could find analogies between the Tao and Saint Therese of Lisieux, discourse on Confucius, or on the poetry of the Tang dynasty, translate the Psalms into verse in classical Chinese style, and have a childlike intimacy with the saints of the Church.

Western colonialism was such a mess because even many of the missionaries weren’t adequately focused on true and vital conversions to Christianity; they also thought it necessary to make everyone into Western-style people (and “second class” Western-style people at that). We Christians have failed our Asian brothers and sisters in varying degrees, but it remains our fault. It is not the fault of “Christianity.” Chesterton was right: Christianity as the inspiration for a social ideal “hasn’t been ‘tried’ yet" - its boundless human resources have scarcely been tapped in terms of its capacity to make life in this present world more true, more beautiful, more fraternal. What I call “Christendom 1.0” was a deeply flawed piece of “software” (forgive the analogy) that eventually corrupted, yet a lot got accomplished insofar as it freed the Gospel to touch society. 

Dare we hope, someday, for a “Christendom 2.0” that is drawn together by Jesus Christ in human solidarity, respect for freedom, human dignity, love for the poor and works of mercy? It would be personalist and communitarian, and founded on Christ’s presence through evangelical love - agape, caritas, especially “fraternal charity” (such as Jacques Maritain envisioned and tried to outline, in works such as Integral Humanism that profoundly influenced the vision of Vatican II). Perhaps rather than calling it “a New Christendom” we need another “less loaded” term, which won't encourage the powers of this world to make the same mistake as before, and think that evangelization is a tool for increasing and consolidating their grip on things and making themselves rich. (Though in the 21st century, one doubts that the powers of the world would care about or even comprehend such terms or the ideal they try to express. In any case, let us remember to care about these possibilities and pray for their realization.)

Anyway, I have lots of thoughts here, painted with a broad brush, and perhaps with no little foolishness.🙂 But my East Asian Studies Project continues, and I hope and pray that it will be fruitful in more ways than I will ever know in what's left of my own earthly life. If I can prompt other people to consider these realities more attentively, that alone would make my labors worthwhile.