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On Being at Once Catholic & Chinese

Chinese Humanism and Christian Spirituality

By John C.H. Wu

Publisher: Angelico Press

Pages: 244

Price: $17.95

Review Author: Jason M. Morgan

Jason M. Morgan teaches history, language, and philosophy at Reitaku University in Japan.

The Church has been a multicultural institution from the very beginning. As the vehicle for mankind’s salvation, the Church is, by her very nature, a mission to the unconverted, a long errand into the wilderness of foreign languages, foreign customs, and foreign lands. St. Peter struggled with how best to navigate cultural expectations when interacting with people whose upbringing was different from that of the Jews. Our Lord defied social conventions by conversing with the woman at the well and advancing a hated Samaritan as a paragon of selfless charity. St. Paul preached to the Greeks in a way they would understand. And the very earliest Church welcomed Cornelius, a Roman centurion whose comrades in another detachment had done the unthinkable in crucifying the Son of God.

But for every evangelical success in overcoming cultural differences, there have been at least as many failures. The early Christians were most certainly not accepted by the Roman elites who ran the empire. Crucifixions and every other form of sadistic torture imaginable were entertainment for the Roman masses, and their leaders were only too happy to initiate the despised Christian sect into this cult of ritualized violence that was, sadly, very much a part of Roman society.

Farther afield, Christian missionaries have had to disabuse pagan populations of their more offensive practices even while striving to preserve those cultural features that stood to be reconciled to the worship of the living God. St. Boniface found it necessary to fell Donar’s Oak, which the Germanic tribes worshiped, and he built a church with the timber. But the Christmas tree in your living room may be a distant cousin of similar pre-Christian practices that ascribed spiritual power to evergreens. The Easter Bunny, too, along with its improbable eggs, was a pagan fertility symbol before it was taken into the Catholic fold. In the New World, it took a miracle by Our Lady to convert the Aztecs (whose brutal “religion” of human sacrifice was surely the work of the Devil himself), and St. Isaac Jogues’s missing fingers attest to the terrors of being the first to go into unknown territory. Likewise, while St. Kateri Tekakwitha’s iconography includes feathers, turquoise, and moccasins — she is fully Mohawk-Algonquin, even in Heaven — conversion to the faith meant giving up many of the superstitions of her tribe. She was roundly shunned by her own people, and the men who received her into the Church did so at the risk of their own lives.

With the possible exception of Muslim countries, where an entirely different set of considerations applies, perhaps the most difficult country to evangelize has been China. On the one hand, China’s extraordinarily advanced literary culture and high level of philosophical sophistication make it seem amenable to St. Paul’s approach, whereby the Gospel message is couched in cultural-specific terms, and the native population figures out on its own that the wisdom, power, and compassion of which their ancestors spoke were of none other than the Holy Trinity. On the other hand, the very height of Chinese cultural achievement has itself been a barrier to mission work there. Our ancestors have already summited the peaks of knowledge, a Chinese person could easily say, and there is nothing more that needs to be said.

Then there is the question of cultural equivalence. How much of Chinese daily and intellectual life, so utterly foreign to men from both Athens and Jerusalem, can be carried over into communion with Rome? When Jesuit missionaries first went to China in 1582 following St. Francis Xavier’s failed attempt 30 years earlier, many of them, most famously Matteo Ricci (1552-1610), adopted the dress, comportment, and even language of the ruling elite. Playing the very long game, Ricci spent nearly three decades in China, mastering classical Chinese and acquiring a deep erudition in Confucius, Mencius, and other Chinese sages, in the hope of working his way up the bureaucratic ranks, so to speak, and ultimately converting the Chinese emperor to Catholicism. After that, Ricci and his companions believed, the whole country would follow suit, and the Far East would be won for Christ.

But it did not happen that way. Ricci and his fellow Jesuits knew that the key to converting China was to Catholicize, as much as possible, the pre-existing rituals and philosophies they found there. They thought that rejecting Confucianism and ancestor veneration tout court would be a disaster for missionary work. Take away the very fabric of Chinese life, they argued, and what will be left for conversion to be effected in a Chinese person’s heart? Other Catholic orders, notably the Dominicans and Franciscans, disagreed. The Confucian rites that typified Chinese observances were religious, they argued, and Catholicism must reject them as pagan falsehoods with no redeeming value. The Chinese would have to choose, the Dominicans and Franciscans essentially argued, between being Catholic and being Chinese.

In 1704 Pope Clement XI decided against the Jesuits. Tian and shangdi — two Chinese terms the meanings of which are disputed to this day — could not be used as translations for Deus, Clement XI decreed. Whatever words the Chinese used for “Heaven” and “God,” they were not convertible into Catholic coin. The divide between East and West was culturally insurmountable. It was only in the 1930s that Pope Pius XII modified Clement XI’s hardline stand in allowing for limited accommodation of Confucianism as a philosophy.

For many today, that is where the matter stands — in ambiguity. The People’s Republic of China in 2019 is still as far from being a Christian nation as it was in the 16th century, if not farther. Indeed, it could be argued that there is nobody on earth more hostile to Christianity, or to religion in general, than the government in Beijing. Not even a classroom at Marquette University or Providence College can compare with the rabid anti-clericalism of the Chinese Communist Party. And yet, the Chinese faithful are among the most heroic in all of Christian history. They have been betrayed at every turn, not least by Pope Francis’s “provisional agreement” with the Chinese government last year, and still they hold fast. There must be something in Chinese culture that sustains these men and women in their practice of the true faith, something that keeps them Chinese and Catholic in abundant harmony. If so, then might it not be possible to bring the entire country to Christ by judiciously embracing those things that lay open to integration into a higher truth? We face precisely the same dilemma as did the missionaries of more than 400 years ago. To state the question very simply: Do Christians view Chinese culture as a Donar’s Oak or as a Christmas tree?

It is at precisely such a moment that one is grateful to find anything that can shed light on how much of Chinese tradition and philosophy, if any of it, is compatible with Catholicism. In a new collection of essays by John C.H. Wu, a Chinese legal scholar who spent much of his career in the U.S., Angelico Press has given us just that. Chinese Humanism and Christian Spirituality is a collection of 11 beautifully written essays on how Catholics should think about Chinese cultural history, and vice versa. This book is a treasure, both for the introduction it provides to the thought of a careful and highly learned scholar who spent his life studying the subjects listed in the title, and also for the light it shines in the darkness, the hope it reveals that grace really will complete nature, that the culture that baffled even the hardiest of Jesuits will one day return the embrace of the Church and be fully one with Christendom.

“Grace completes nature” is the motif of this delightful volume. Without such confidence, it is doubtful that Wu — who was born in Ningbo, China, and later converted to Catholicism — would have been able to jump so boldly into both cultures in the assurance that, despite all their apparent differences, they were both destined to be reconciled to God and made whole in the fullness of time.

The book is arranged thematically, with Wu tackling the ideas of Confucius and then moving to Mencius, Zhuangzi, and Laozi, as well as some minor thinkers and poets. Throughout, Wu brings his remarkable literacy in both traditions to bear on his fundamental argument, which is essentially that of St. Augustine: All truth is God’s truth. Before Pope St. John Paul II advised us to “cast out into the deep” as part of the new evangelization, Wu was heeding the original admonition in just such a way. He ranges widely but never strays from his belief that Chinese culture is a kind of John the Baptist, preparing the way for the Messiah to come.

One of Wu’s most insistent beliefs is that the T’ien (tian, 天) of which the Chinese sages wrote was “Heaven,” capitalized.* In the book’s opening essay, Wu argues that Confucius “had a lively faith in T’ien and that faith was the ultimate source of his greatness.” Earlier in the essay, Wu posits that the “central idea of Confucianism [is] humanity,” but for Wu this humanity is drawn up to, and given final significance by, the workings of “Heaven.” This is grace completing nature in a radical way.

Wu inches closer to finding aspects of Catholicism in Chinese tradition when he argues that Mencius promoted a kind of natural law, which Wu sees as encompassing “four cardinal virtues: Humanity, Justice, Propriety, and Prudence,” all of which begin in “nature.” In an endnote, Wu acknowledges that Mencius uses the term “four incipient beginnings or tendencies,” which is different from the virtues advanced by Aristotle. Nevertheless, Wu argues that Mencius’s “virtues” are more complete than Aristotle’s, “because Humanity, or fellow-feeling, or sympathy,” is “fundamental.” Whatever its connection with Aristotle or the natural law, Wu calls Mencius’s philosophy “ontological humanism,” which for Wu means that “all laws and policies are to be ordained to the end of the fullest realization of the God-conferred nature of man. For Mencius, to be faithful to this God-conferred nature and realize it fully is the only way of serving God.”

This is a bold assertion, and it turns on the answer to the question Pope Clement XI considered in the early 18th century — namely, whether tian or shangdi (上帝 glossed variously as “deity,” “supreme deity,” and even “emperor”) means Deus, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Wu thinks the terms are compatible:

“Heaven,” as used by Mencius, is just another name for “God.” This will be clear from the following remark: “When Heaven is about to bestow a great mission or charge upon some one, It invariably begins by exercising his mind with suffering, toughening his sinews and bones with toil, exposing his body to hunger, subjecting him to extreme poverty, and frustrating all his plans. All these methods are meant to stimulate his mind, strengthen his nature, and increase his abilities.” Thus, Heaven possesses supreme wisdom and long-range purpose, in other words, Intellect and Will, which are the two components of Personality.

Identifying tian with Deus has been contentious from the very beginning of Chinese/Catholic interaction. Wu admits on the sidelines that this is so, but in the field of play he proceeds with great confidence that the words all work out to mean the same thing.

This might seem too ambitious even for someone as thoroughly versed in Chinese and Catholic traditions as Wu, but the missing part of the equation comes later in his book. In considering Zhuangzi and Laozi, two Daoist luminaries, Wu takes the definitive leap from Chinese humanism to Christian spirituality. “In speaking of the Creator,” Wu says of Zhuangzi, “he usually referred to Heaven, which is equivalent to God.” Again, in an endnote, Wu acknowledges that t’ien does not always mean “God,” but he still insists on seeing a broad confluence of Chinese and Catholic understandings of divinity.

Here, St. Paul’s line that “the letter kills, but the spirit gives life,” quoted approvingly by Wu in the context of understanding “the Tao,” is key, for Wu must rely in many places on a heavy dose of mysticism in order to reconcile the ways of the Chinese sages to the teachings of the Church in Rome. Wu’s devotion to St. Thérèse of Lisieux grows in part from his desire to leave to the inscrutable workings of T’ien the synergy of East and West. If there is to be a rendezvous, it will be because everyone everywhere is in the same predicament: We long for our heavenly Father but cannot see Him. For example, Zhuangzi and Laozi “were haunted by the Infinite,” Wu writes, “but at the same time, they saw clearly the impossibility of fathoming the Infinite with finite intelligence. They would have seen eye to eye with St. Thomas Aquinas when he said, ‘This is the final knowledge of God: To know that we do not know God.’”

Thomists may quail, however, at seeing the Angelic Doctor invoked in support of a cross-reading of Deus and T’ien brokered by a multicultural mysticism. Though it is true that St. Thomas did not claim to know God entirely, it is also true that this did not lead him to fatalism, quietism, or even a controlling mysticism. Thomas’s works are models for all time of careful, patient, methodical, ordered, eminently reasoned philosophy. God gave us an intellect, Thomas taught, so that we could use it to know Him, love Him, and serve Him. To be sure, Thomas’s reliance on Aristotle and the Arabs shows the same faith in the goodness of God’s creation and the ability of human nature to cleave to its Creator from various cultures as does Wu’s heartening embrace of the Chinese sages. And yet, it must be admitted that there is more in the Greeks and in Averroes that lends itself to a Thomistic Catholicism than there is in, say, Zhuangzi. The latter was famously indifferent, at best, to reason, and so the question is to what extent mysticism can fill in the gaps.

Moreover, Wu’s acrobatic multiculturalism may be dizzying for those who have had to keep the faith among foreign practices. We humans are easily led astray. Someone of Wu’s conviction can draw Chinese humanism into Christian spirituality — someone of the caliber of Matteo Ricci or Isaac Jogues can keep his eye on the Gospel even while surrounded by hostile forces — but there are countless other examples, even (especially) among the Jesuits, of apostates and waterer-downers who seek an accord among cultural diversity in something other than God. Wu’s exuberant ecumenism is inspiring, but such a high-wire act comes with great peril. One could be John Wu, akin to St. Boniface among the Germanic tribes, but one could also be a Unitarian.

The greatest lesson Wu teaches us, then, is that we must be anchored to Christ wherever we go. For his part, Wu is unequivocal in placing the Incarnation at the very heart of the hoped-for mystical synthesis between China and Rome, and only Jesus can rescue the Chinese from the endless wheel-spinning engendered by realizing that there is more to life but not being able to name it, the source of their mysticism and also the perpetual motion engine of their despair. Wu writes:

There is a schism, an unhealing wound, in the soul of every Chinese. Instead of achieving a true detachment [as Taoists and, later, Buddhists recommended], we have landed in a certain dichotomy inevitable in such a dual view of life [i.e., between the via excellentiae of Confucius and the via remotionis of Buddhism and Taoism]. Only the Christian saints have really synthesized the via excellentiae and the via remotionis…. What is the secret of this marvelous achievement? The Incarnation of the Word of God, and their union with Him. The Incarnation is the central event of the universe; human destiny hinges on this one event. This alone makes it possible for us to live in the world and yet have our being in God. This alone unites the Transcendent and the Immanent, and clothes every thought, action and word of ours with an eternal significance. The Incarnation is the only Bridge between the via excellentiae and via remotionis. In His earthly life, Christ has taught us by example and precept the way of perfection. This way contains eminently all the best qualities of the East and the West.

There is much in Wu’s experiment in cross-cultural faithfulness that could have gone very wrong. That his insights stand today as guides and not warnings is a testament to the fact that grace completed his nature. He was born in the land of Confucius and blossomed from within his Chinese heart into a creature in love with his Creator. Chinese Humanism and Christian Spirituality is, thus, the fruit of a faithful mind in loving action. And it is, above all, a hymn of praise for Jesus Christ, Deus from Tian, the very Author of mankind called to return to Him.



*footnote:  T’ien or tian appears here in various ways; this is intended. T’ien is Wu’s transliteration, using the old transliteration style (now used mainly in Taiwan). The style used everywhere else, including most academic works in the U.S., is pinyin. In pinyin, t’ien is tian. Regarding capitalization, Wu capitalizes t’ien when he wants the word to mean “God.” Sometimes he translates T’ien as “Heaven,” with a capital H. This is Wu’s own distinctive rendering. The Chinese term is ambiguous and can mean sky, heaven (as in the firmament), and also Heaven (as in the moral force), or even god or, as Wu insists, God.


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