Monday, October 2, 2023

A Note on “Grace” and Ancient Chinese Wisdom

[The Chinese text pictured is the title of Matteo Ricci’s book, “The True Meaning of the Lord of Heaven,” written in Chinese by the great Jesuit missionary, and first published in Beijing in 1603.]

One aspect of my East Asian Studies Project involves reading and trying to appreciate more deeply the Chinese Classics and other ancient texts (in English translation, since I don’t know Chinese). In so doing, I cannot engage them otherwise than as a Catholic Christian, thus participating in some small way in a dialogue of great importance. 

From time to time, I record some “notes” here, especially on points that have arisen in discussion and efforts of clarification. I have only begun to study these things, so I don’t speak from any personal expertise. I have “impressions” that I am trying to verify as best as I can. Let me therefore present this question in the form of a NOTE: The Confucian emphasis on virtue as self-cultivation seems isolated from any awareness of the need for a relationship with God. How does the Confucian “superior person” resemble and/or differ from the Christian who lives by the Spirit and who “grows in virtue” by cooperating with the grace of God?

This seems like a huge question that involves other related questions. Some may think it’s comparing apples and oranges, but the question arises nevertheless for me as I read these texts, and I want to look at its various aspects, and hope to find at least a more firm orientation for my understanding.

There are many valuable insights in Confucian exhortations to live a humane life, but the realization of such a life seems to be entirely within the reach of human possibilities (and, indeed, restricted to a human scale). I’m far from certain that this is accurate, however. It may be more indicative of a presentation that calls for a full and explicitly developed context for considering human action. Having said that, I think perhaps the lack of a sense of the need for God’s grace may be one of the limitations of the Confucian ethical tradition—there was a similar “absence” in Ancient Greek philosophical ethics, which is why the Greeks had so little hope for the vast majority of ordinary humans to attain virtue.

The Chinese may have been more “optimistic” (Mencius especially) about human nature. They focused on that part of ethics that involves social order, though it extends deeper than “politics.” The Confucian ideal of the sage, the “superior person,” does seem to be self-cultivated(?), but there is also a pervasive emphasis on “the will of Heaven” that I would like to understand more fully. 

“The superior person will never suffer calamity, because he realizes that nothing is a calamity” (Mencius). I think Mencius is trying to say that everything has meaning—even that which we experience as suffering—when we are conformed (?) to the “will of Heaven” which orders all things. What does that mean? What is the intuition here, and what are its possibilities? There’s a lot of emphasis in ancient Confucian tradition to adherence to what has been “given” (to the point that, as the tradition develops, the “roles” in society become rigid and the place of interpersonal dialogue in the service of benevolence and harmony gets minimized). I don’t know if it goes any further than that, or what might be suggested in the aphorisms and dialogue format which convey these teachings.

I am trying to appreciate the inherent “openness” of some of these classical Chinese philosophers who didn’t have the ambition to “explain everything” (the systematizing came later) and left transcendent truth in the mode of an “open question.” This was a quality that deeply impressed Matteo Ricci and the early Jesuits, and it appears also in their Mandarin followers (especially in the converts who are known as the “Three Pillars” of the Catholic Church in “modern” [i.e. post 1600] China: Xu Guangqi, Li Zhizao, and Yang Tingyun). It also appears in the remarkable “founders” of the Church in Korea. It was Korean scholar-officials of the Confucian tradition who first encountered Christ through the Jesuits they met during diplomatic visits to Beijing. A few were baptized, and they returned to Korea and brought others to conversion so that there were 4000 baptized Christians by the time the first European missionaries came. 

I think perhaps the traditional wisdoms in East Asia were “open to grace” in ways we haven’t appreciated (or were in part efforts to articulate the movement of grace already at work within them, as it was among “the Gentiles” before the coming of Christ, and presumably continues to be [according to the mysterious working of the Holy Spirit] among those after Christ who have not yet had a decisive encounter with Him). 

After initial missionary efforts and sometimes striking success, the Church in East Asia has been hindered and persecuted mostly for political reasons (modern European colonial ambitions didn’t help). Otherwise, the Church might have grown much more widely in the 17th-18th centuries. God willing, it will grow now and in the future wherever it has the freedom to do so. Great 20th century Chinese Catholic converts like John C. H. Wu challenge us to appreciate the ways that Jesus will transform, revivify, and fulfill East Asian traditions. (I have written about Dr. Wu elsewhere; see this LINK.)