I have recently finished reading "Matteo Ricci- Le Sage Venu de L'Occident" by Vincent Cronin (a title that would sound even better in English- 'Wiseman from the West'!), which is, I suppose, appropriate given that I will be visiting China a fortnight from now. Its subject is the first Western Christian missionary to China. Not quite the first Christian missionary, but he might as well have been- the Nestorians briefly set up shop there at one point but had died out centuries before.
The book has given me a lot of food for thought.
The (very nearly successful) experiment that Ricci set out upon in his missionary work was governed by this question: Can a people be Christianised without being Westernised? Can the leaven of the Gospel be planted in an alien culture and grow without bringing with it the excrescences of the culture planting it? If one thinks about it, such a thing has almost never happened in Christian history. Certainly, as time goes on, cultures and peoples that convert to Christianity take on their own particular character. But it never begins that way. English Christianity was, from the start, unquestionably Roman. The Slavs, though able to worship in their own language thanks to the work of Cyril and Methodius, took on a very recognisably Greek Christianity.
Is there another way?
Matteo Ricci and his superior Alexander Valignano thought there was. And they were given a unique opportunity. Before them they found a culture whose essence was not fundamentally opposed to anything in Christianity. Sure, there were some questionable practices around. No Christian could countenance the widespread practice of concubinage or foot-binding. But at the heart of Chinese culture were duty, filial piety and the whole magnificent ethic of Confucius. In some ways, Chinese culture presented an even greater opportunity than that facing the first Christians who evangelised and converted the Greeks for, whereas the latter had to contend with a typically pagan pantheon whose morals were repugnant and the characteristic suspicion of the body in Greek philosophy, all of these were absent in China. It was an almost unprecedented thing. A sophisticated civilisation with a high ethic. No Dark Age barbarians who would kill you as soon as look at you here. No nomadic tribes as in South America. Nor even a high civilisation built on blood, as in Mexico. No, here was an ancient and highly civilised culture with its own Plato.
The danger of course was that unscrupulous missionaries would come in and treat the Chinese and their culture like other groups they would evangelise, either as an uncivilised group that would need to receive the equal gifts of civilisation and Christianity from the hands of the missionaries, or as a pagan civilisation that must be fought and destroyed so that a Christian civilisation might take root. This, alas, is the route most missionaries eventually took, but it was not taken by Matteo Ricci nor by his immediate Jesuit successors.
Here is a pertinent excerpt, from towards the end of Ricci's life when he has to consider the future of the mission (translated from the French as best I can):
Ricci could see from his own experience eight reasons for hope. Firstly, the miraculous progress accomplished in spite of immense difficulties seemed to prove that God looked on the development of the [Chinese] mission with a favourable eye. Secondly, since the Chinese regarded reason as the highest of all things, Christianity, a religion supported by reason, would satisfy them as much intellectually as mystically. Thirdly, books, which circulated freely in China, would permit the diffusion of an important apostolic literature. Fourthly, the Chinese, an intelligent people, were prepared to admit the superiority of Westerners in metaphysics and theology, as well as in the domains of mathematics and astronomy. Fifthly, Ricci had become convinced, thanks in large part to his study of their ancient beliefs, that the Chinese, a people pious by nature, had created for themselves a philosophy which conformed in almost every point to natural law. Sixthly, the peace which reigned in this country would permit Christianity, once established, to be maintained in a more or less permanent fashion. Seventhly, by adapting themselves to the Chinese mindset and etiquette, missionaries would certainly be known as wise and holy men. Eighthly, the doctrine of Confucius would be for them a most precious ally in their struggle against idolatrous sects [i.e. Buddhism and, to a much lesser extent, Taoism].
One of the really interesting things about all of this is the quite fundamental question, which we never find it necessary to think about: What really is of the substance of Christianity, and what are its accidents? Another book I've been reading on and off for a while is "The Origins of the Christian Mystical Tradition: From Plato to Denys" by Andrew Louth, which has brought home to me in new and surprising ways to what extent our doctrines and our whole spiritual approach, in both East and West, depend upon Plato and those who came after him (I had hitherto no idea, for example, how vital were the foundations laid in Philo's ideas about the logos to later Christology). In Confucius, Matteo Ricci had a fascinating possibility open to him. Could he do with Confucius what the early Christian theologians had done with Plato? Could Christianity be built as solidly and fruitfully on the Chinese ethical tradition as it had been on the Greek philosophical tradition?
During his lifetime, the approach that Ricci took worked, even if it had slow beginnings. By the end of his life, he had been granted permission to live permanently in Beijing and was being inundated by Confucian mandarins, the cultural elite, and other government officials impressed and intrigued by his scholarship, ideas, skills (he was an adept clockmaker and cartographer) and religion. He had published several books, including a catechism which drew heavily on Confucius to demonstrate Christian truths.
Of course, since his death things have not turned out so well. There has been a lot of water under the bridge. The Rites Controversy, when the Church foolishly and ignorantly forbade the Chinese Christians from revering Confucius or venerating their ancestors during Qingming (thankfully rescinded, though far too late, in 1939); the whole wretchedness of colonialism, the Opium Wars and the Boxer Rebellion; the Taiping Tianguo*; and then the unmitigated disaster that was the twentieth century, whose low point was the induced national brain-death that was the Cultural Revolution, when China's leaders sought to destroy utterly the great ethical tradition that had been the foundation of the Chinese people's culture for 2500 years.
Where to from here, for Christianity in China, or indeed for China itself?
I don't know. But I recall something that Finn Torjesen (whose organisation 'Evergreen' is carrying on a work not entirely dissimilar to Ricci's) said to me when I and some other Evangelicals visited him in China in 2003; that China is heir, as the Chinese love to boast, to a 4000 year old continuous culture and, though the last hundred years have been years of terrible upheaval, that is just a blip in their history and we don't as yet know where things will eventually settle or how the pieces will fall.
I don't know to what extent the approach or ideas of Matteo Ricci are still relevant or appropriate in modern China. Maybe there is no way to recapture the opportunities he saw, now irrevocably lost. Or maybe his ideas are the key to the future of the gospel in China. In any case, I have no doubt that he has not ceased to pray for China and the Chinese, his adopted country and people, especially over the past hundred grievous years, and will continue to do so.
*Warren Carroll, my favourite historian, is very sympathetic to the Taiping Tianguo.I find that remarkable. To me, the Taiping Tianguo epitomises the wrong-headedness of a quintessentially Western and usually Protestant approach to missions that shares, I believe, a similar error with the approach to relief practiced by too many celebrity charity workers and organisations (I'm looking at you, Bono). In the same way such organisations delight in throwing money at Africa, exacerbating the problem of poverty but enjoying the catharsis philanthropy brings, there have been and are plenty of Western missionaries and missionary organisations who delight in throwing Bibles at foreign countries and those who hail from them. I remember well as a child being invited to give money or do fundraising work to help buy Bibles for China, PNG or other such places. Imagine my shock when I eventually went to China and saw that Bibles were plentiful and easy to come by. Come to that, I find the idea that you can give a book to someone who shares almost no common cultural knowledge with you and expect him to come up with full-fledged orthodox Western Nicene Augustinian Protestant Evangelical Christianity on his own simply by reading it a laughably absurd notion. But the Taiping Tianguo shows a darker side to this approach. You may endanger someone's soul by a) not bothering to explain anything about Christianity to him first, b) not bothering to explain or try to approach agreement on the basic philosophical premises necessary to accept Christianity eg. the law of non-contradiction (not accepted by Buddhism), c) not bothering to find out even the first thing about his culture and beliefs. Endangering someone's soul in this way is bad enough. Or it could, on the other hand, lead to the deaths of millions of people (most sources say about 20 million) as when Hong Xiuquan was given a Bible out of the blue, read it and went on to carry out the biggest and bloodiest civil war of the nineteenth century. There are better ways to bear witness to the gospel than this.