With the arrogance of youth, I determined to do no less than to transform the world with Beauty. If I have succeeded in some small way, if only in one small corner of the world, amongst the men and women I love, then I shall count myself blessed, and blessed, and blessed, and the work goes on. -- William Morris

Saturday, September 02, 2006

Inculturation Through the Ages III: The Jesuits in China

Perhaps the most sophisticated and exotic cultures Christians encountered in their missionary activities were in India, China, Japan and the rest of the Asian landscape. This provided for unique challenges to Christians, making them reconsider their own cultural prejudices. Previously, it was easy to equate the way Christianity had developed in Europe as establishing what it meant to be Christian. Thanks to the Christian influence, European civilization advanced to new heights, and missionaries impressed indigenous peoples with their cultural refinements.

This changed when Europeans began serious missionary activity in Asia. While they had much to offer Asian nations, the Asian nations also had much to offer Christians in return. St Francis Xavier (1506 - 1552) in his travels across Asia came to understand that Christianity would only be accepted by Asians if Christianity was willing to adapt itself to their own cultural standards. Christianity could not succeed in Asia if it tried to turn Asians into Europeans before making them Christian. According to Joseph Sebes, this necessity occurred to St Francis Xavier only after his disputed with Buddhists in Japan:

The Japanese response helped Xavier realize that for Christianity to succeed in Asia, missionaries had to reach the natives on their own terms: speak, read, and write the native languages; become an integral part of a particular civilization and behave like the natives of that country – or, as will be said later, “Become Chinese to win China for Christ.” -- Joseph Sebes, S.J. “The Precursors of Ricci” in East Meets West: The Jesuits in China, 1582 – 1773. Ed. Charles E. Ronan, S.J. and Bonnie B. C. OH (Chicago: Loyola University Press, 1988), p. 23.

From his travels across Asia, St Francis Xavier realized that (outside of India) the central focal point of Asian civilization was in China. Its influence was felt throughout his travels, and the people he encountered often wondered why, if Christianity were the true religion, China with its ancient cultural heritage knew nothing of it. In order to reach the rest of Asia, Christians had to impress the Chinese.

While the Franciscans had already sent missionaries into China, Christianity would receive wider acclaim and acceptance in that land only after the missionary work of the Jesuit priest Matteo Ricci (1552 – 1610). Understanding the ideal established by St Francis Xavier, Ricci took to heart that Christianity must adapt itself to the Asian sphere if it is to be accepted by the Chinese. His first idea was to have his band of Christian missionaries come into China looking and acting like Buddhist monks. Interestingly enough, while this allowed the Jesuits to achieve limited success in China, they impressed the Chinese more by their technical, scientific lore than with their attempt to act as Buddhist monks. The Chinese came to see them as exemplars of a Western scholarly tradition. One early Chinese convert suggested that the Jesuits should take this seriously, and that instead of coming across as other-worldly Buddhists, they should try to equate themselves with the Confucian elite. Following this advice, Ricci developed a rather intricate foundation for Christianity based upon the Confucian classics.

Through Ricci’s efforts, the Chinese believed Christianity contained the same moral and cultural tradition as was prescribed in their literary classics. Christianity helped provide new justification for traditional morality in a society which beginning to question itself. The emperor respected Ricci and his Jesuit companions because he saw them as helping him in his desire to keep the empire together.

Ricci certainly desired the Chinese to equate Christianity with their cultural tradition. Not only did he study and learn it, but he wrote catechetical material using the ideas found within the Chinese classics as a way to preach the Christian faith. He changed his outward appearance so as to appear as a Confucian sage, but the Chinese took the transformation to be more than an external gloss, and they respected him as being as competent as any of their own sages. He knew that this respect was only honorary.

In China, there was an imperial examination system set up to determine one’s competency within the classics, and the rare individual who passed a rigorous series of examinations would be given a governmental post. Ricci, seeing that the respect he had earned as an individual could not be passed down to others, made sure he would have literati among the converts, and they would continue to study the classics until they passed the imperial exams.

Ricci’s success lay not only with his willingness to outwardly adapt himself to the Chinese norms, but that he also looked within the Chinese cultural tradition, respected them for their own inherent strengths, and tried to show where they could be united with and strengthened by the Christian message.

We must understand, however, this instance of inculturation was not without controversy. It was an innovation. As their mission in China developed, the Jesuits were willing to accept many traditional Chinese practices, such as ancestor worship, as something a convert can continue to practice, with a few caveats in place. They developed a Chinese form of Christianity, with its own rites and practices, but this form of Christianity became challenged in Europe. Supporters of the Chinese Rites, as they were to be called, were found throughout Christendom. Leibniz, for example, supported the ideal established by Ricci, calling him a wise man following the example of Paul (cf.. Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz. Writings on China. Trans. and ed. by Daniel J. Cook and Henry Rosemont, Jr. (Chicago: Open Court, 1994), p. 67 – 74).

Dissenters were found throughout Christendom as well, and they would eventually win the upper hand. The early success of the Jesuit mission in China failed in part because of the efforts of rival Dominican and Franciscan missionaries in China. They could not accept the method established by the Jesuits, and eventually were able to get it stopped. The Chinese, seeing the Christians squabble among themselves, believed that the moral superiority presented to them by the Jesuits were undermined by the rest of the Christians, and so came to believe that there was nothing special about Christianity in itself. Their interest in the faith diminished as the Christians stopped trying to acculturate themselves to the Chinese

While this history of inculturation presents us a mixed message, the work established by Ricci, following the example of St Francis Xavier, became one the historical ideals that missionaries used when they entered new cultures. The success of the Jesuits among the Native Americans was, in part, because they continued to follow the precedence established by their order in China, a tradition that can trace itself not only to the work of Ricci, but to St Francis Xavier, one of the founding fathers of the Jesuits.

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