14 January 2014

Sacral space: a Confucian option

Cross-posted from Solidarity Hall,
based on a discussion at the Hopkins-Nanjing Centre hosted by Dr Adam Webb

We Christians of the West live now in a time of cross-pressures and divided sympathies, but arguably we have always been doing so. Our current crisis is that we inhabit a space which both the states and the markets we live under and within have done their hardest to desacralise, but it would be a grave error to say or to think that this is the first or only time we, historically, have ever faced such hardship, or worse. It would be an even graver error to pretend that this hardship is not of our own collective making.

The urge to delimit, to categorise, to define, to grasp the reality of and thus master both man and nature – the temptation of Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor – goes very deep within Western culture, and very arguably it comes out of the effort expended to grasp the reality of and thus master the nature of God. One of the big factors in my conversion to Eastern Orthodoxy was its emphasis on apophatic (or ‘negative’) theology. In Orthodoxy, even though one may declare something positive about God (like the fact that God exists, or that God is good, or that God is knowing), one must be careful to hedge that positive statement about with qualifiers. God does not exist as we exist, because he is uncreated and contingent upon nothing – but at the same time we are never to say that he does not exist. God is not good in the same manner that we are good, since his very nature creates goodness – but at the same time, it is blasphemy to declare God to be in any way evil. God does not know in the same way we know, for our knowledge is bound to experience and the ordering through experience of time and space, whereas God is limited by neither – yet to say God is ignorant would be utterly wrong. It is we who exist in ignorance, yet fancy ourselves knowledgeable. The insights of Johnson, Swift, Chesterton and Lewis, which came to me from my immersion in the Anglican faith, were the most true when they most humbly pointed to the mystery at the centre, the wellspring from which they drew their authority when speaking at the peripheries of economy and politics, science and culture.

The cataphatic (or ‘positive’) style of God-talk in the Franco-Latin Church has eclipsed the apophatic, as it did not in the Slavo-Hellene. We can discern that historically, this tendency became most pronounced with the filioque controversy, the feudal papacy and the rise of Scholasticism. As George Parkin Grant identified it, the filioque – this first positive delimitation of the oikoumene of God at the hands of purely human reason, of the doctrine of the double procession of the Holy Spirit – had some very drastic unforeseen consequences. The period of reform in the Franco-Latin Church which coincided with and heavily influenced the filioque controversy, also restructured the Church to a hitherto-unprecedented degree along the lines of ‘secular’ feudal kingship. The attempt to ‘define down’ the workings of the Holy Spirit in the world depended on and reinforced in turn the idea that the leadership of the Franco-Latin Church must have greater spiritual and political mastery over man and nature. We can see this conviction at work also in the perennial political struggles between the Franco-Latin Church and the Emperor of the Germans over investiture, as well as the breakdown of symphoneia which that struggle demonstrated.

But the feudal structure would not last in the areas where the Franco-Latin Church had adopted it. Canon law subsequently began to evolve, as well as the structure of monastic life. John Milbank points out in his opus Theology and Social Theory, citing sociologist Randall Collins, that the Cistercian Order, founded in 1096 with the blessing of the reformist Papacy, took as part of its modus operandi in society an assumption that a new sort of property-régime in which the order owned the land outright without necessary reference to their feudal lords. Milbank cites the basis for Cistercian-style usus in a canon-legal innovation in the interpretation of the Roman legal category of dominium. The Cistercians, as Weber himself noted, were forerunners of capitalism in several important senses – one sees in their preference for hired labour over tenancy a progressive whiff of the money economy; in their consolidation of what had traditionally been shared-use land and commons an ominous foreshadowing of the enclosures; in their practice of discrete divisions of labour among the brothers the beginnings of corporate specialisation.

The governance style needed to police this new property-régime heralded by the Cistercians demanded institutional structures highly different both from the Church and from government by traditional feudal privilege. This opened the doorway to theological innovations of an even greater and more drastic sort than the filioque, including a growing Scholastic transition between the intellectualism of Aquinas to the relative voluntarism of Duns Scotus – driven by this need to explain and open a space for a governance structure separate from the authority-claims of Holy Church and feudal tradition.

The rest, as they say, is history. The ‘opening up’ of, and the systematic disenchanting of, this supposedly-neutral space occupied by a governance structure which could regulate and direct private dominium, ushered in a wide variety of rebellions by ideology and interest against the ‘sacred circle’ – including the Renaissance, the Protestant Reformation, the ideologies of ‘exploration’ and conquest, the Thirty Years’ War and the birth of the nation-state, the Enlightenment and the Twin Revolutions of Modernity – which have ushered in the supremacy of the modern liberal-capitalist secular order. The question now facing Christianity both Western and Eastern now is, how do we navigate this order? To the extent to which it is possible (not to mention necessary), how do we go about re-enchanting the public sphere? Do we have any allies in other faith traditions to call upon and make common cause with? What sort of depth is there in such alliances?

One such possible ally, in China, is the Confucian gentleman and scholar of renown, Jiang Qing of the Yangming Academy in Guizhou. In his book, A Confucian Constitutional Order (translated and foreworded by Canadian political philosopher Daniel A. Bell) he makes a careful and thoughtful critique of the Western path of governance and its supporting theology, very similar to that of Milbank. He notes also the Scholastic roots of secular accounts of the public sphere, and calls for a more textured and three-dimensional understanding of political legitimacy than that which underwrites most Western-influenced (and indeed the Chinese!) constitutions, one which encompasses the voice of the sacred and that of the abiding, historical and local as well as the democratic. A Confucian Constitutional Order is a very intriguing and promising piece of political and legal philosophy – there is a great deal for us to admire in its attempts to operationalise certain core concerns which we distributist and agrarian social critics want to see expressed in ways that current electoral politics simply doesn’t do. But there are several specific problems, and one very broad one, in the way it is presented.

Firstly, Jiang introduces his project, a constitutional application of the “Confucian Way of Humane Authority”, as one with a basically outward-looking and cosmopolitan orientation. In the introduction to A Confucian Constitutional Order, he writes:
‘Even though we have not yet been able to create a satisfactory system of implementation —it requires a long period of hard thinking and also the right historical conditions— we can categorically affirm that political development of China today must tend toward the Way of the Humane Authority. This will not only solve China’s political problems but also give humanity a new ideal and open a new way ahead. This is a test of the creative wisdom and creative ability of the Chinese people and also a contribution that Chinese civilization has to offer to human civilization.’ (italics mine)
At the same time, in his responses to critiques of his project (and to some degree within the Confucian Constitutional Order itself), Jiang tends to retreat to a position of Chinese particularism, that there is something in the structure of his project which orients itself toward, not China-as-civilisation, but rather China-as-extant-nation-state and only China thus considered. In my reading not only does it jar harshly with the rest of his thought and shape his political concept in ways which bring it dangerously close to a post-Confucian nationalism, but also it particularly jars with the mission he has set out. It also somewhat precludes the possibility of meaningful dialogue and shared social action with the other great faith traditions, given that Jiang accepts a hypothesis that different cultures (which he sees as coterminous and synonymous with religious values and religious faith) are in a state of perpetual and inevitable competition and conflict. While he may be right in a sense in that not all expressed values are compatible, he is wrong to conflate culture with faith. A Christian is a Christian whether or not she is Armenian or Yakut or Amharic. Yet it would be the height of sophistry, not to mention insulting, to advance the claim that all of us are ‘Western’.

On some level, I do sympathise with Jiang, and find his stance both understandable and needed. There is something in Jiang’s reluctance to accede to such possibilities which is reminiscent of the recent Orthodox reluctance to engage in ecumenical dialogue except in a missionary capacity. On the one hand, there is at work here a very grounded concern of compromising or watering down transcendental truths. But on the other hand, there is a pressing need to cooperate with Western traditions in works of justice and mercy, and also to confront the Western tradition on where it has gone wrong – why is it that can we no longer adequately look after the poor and the hungry and the homeless? Why is it that so many of us shrug our shoulders at grave and poisonous disparities in wealth and power? How is it that the self-serving logic of those who have both in superabundance and want to justify having it at the expense of others is so readily accepted without question? These are questions on which Jiang and those of like mind can be both authoritative and helpful, if they choose to engage.

Part of the problem that is evident, particularly with Jiang’s engagement of Christianity, is that he seeks to sacralise space in a different way than Christians do, and thus sees the Christian mission as being at odds with the Confucian one. The Christian worldview is a revelatory one, and takes as central the intrusion of God in the person of Christ into the cosmos, into history and into the embedded life of each person. This was accomplished first through the mystery of the Incarnation, the Christmas we have just celebrated, and through the mystery of the Resurrection whereby the power of death was vanquished. But we reconsecrate the world to these mysteries by receiving the Eucharist – a holy thing outside secular space, delivered in a holy place by priests who bear the Great Commission through apostolic succession – and then carrying it out into the world in our words and deeds.

The Confucian worldview, by contrast, is not revelatory but is based in the naturalistic and moralistic teachings of the Liji, the Shijing and the Yijing. It would be wrong to insist, following the misinterpretations of Voltaire which still shape the mainstream Western view of Confucian teachings, that Confucianism is wholly unconcerned with the transcendental. Quite the contrary! One quickly discovers on reading the Liji, for instance, that all space is potentially already sacred space, and all vocations are capable of being sanctified by properly respecting heaven, earth and other people. The rites are already in the family, in the ancestral line, in the lord-vassal relationship and in the student-pupil one. In short, the full range of cultural activity is always already coterminous and identical with the full scope of the Confucian rites.

Seen thus, we can already tell tell that Jiang has a Sisyphean task ahead of him. Christians have it relatively easy by comparison – we attempt to re-sacralise the public sphere by bringing the Eucharist into it as an ‘enactment of the politics of Jesus’ from discrete ‘spaces of peace, charity and just economic exchange’ (Cavanaugh); Confucianism attempts to order to transcendental awareness what is already there in the space claimed as saeculum through the use of rites. This brings it into a much more direct conflict with the dominant liberal ideology which seeks to police the sacred. We can see this conflict in the opprobrium which Jiang’s New York Times op-ed with Daniel A. Bell aroused, from both scholarly and less-scholarly China-watchers; we can also see it in the improbability that a critical mass of Chinese people and businesses and civil-society groups will begin again adopting the Liji as their ruling guidelines for public comportment. Perhaps more worryingly, apart from a few isolated figures like Tang Dynasty poet Du Fu, there is not really a valid ‘cenobitic option’ in Confucianism. (Confucians who become hermits have historically ended up adopting Daoism.)

I think we Christians of a (radical-)orthodox bent can with ease and sincerity wish Jiang well in his Confucian-constitutional project and seek to open to him the resources of our social and political thought in so doing. But we should also in a fraternal and caring spirit correct his characterisation of our own project as well as ask for his clarification on the identification of religion with culture.

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