09 April 2019

Eastern folk religion and Western political theology

Chinese traditional ancestral altar

There’s an interesting op-ed in the Korea Times by Dr Mark Peterson about ritual ancestor veneration in Korea. There are a couple of very interesting aspects to this article – one of which being that the attitudes of Roman Catholics and Protestants to the latreía-douleía distinction seem to be very neatly inverted when they are exposed to a non-Christian East Asian cultural environment.

Given the polemics between the Western communities over these two specific terms – two modest examples of which I have linked above for convenience – one would expect that the Catholics, who are normally (and rightly) so heavily-invested in the distinction between latreía λατρεία and douleía δουλεία when defending the practice of honouring the saints and the Theotokos, would come readily to the defence of the practice of ancestor worship among the Rujia 儒家. Likewise, one would expect to find the Protestants, who make no such distinction or else minimise its importance in their exchanges with the Catholics, would be the ones to most fervently attack the practice as, in Dr White’s words, ‘rank idolatry’. And yet, this didn’t happen. In Korea, it seems, historically the Roman Catholics were the ones who attacked the veneration of ancestors as idolatrous; whereas the Protestants were much more lenient. Dr Peterson, though he is clearly coming at this from a certain perspective and clearly has a favoured ‘side’, leaves open the question of why this turned out to be the case.

I am a bit more familiar with the Roman Catholic side of this argument, having done a bit of study on it. The debate over whether Ru ancestral rites are considered ‘veneration’ or ‘worship’ goes back to the Rites Controversy of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. To make a long story rather shorter, the controversy went like this. The early Jesuit missions into China during the late Ming Dynasty, led by Matteo Ricci, observed the Confucian ancestral rites and concluded that they were a form of douleía, not latreía. Proceeding accordingly, they began importing Christian doctrine and attempting to accommodate existing ritual practices by using ‘Confucian’ and ‘Buddhist’-sounding language. The Jesuits were supported, at first, by the Kangxi Emperor 康熙帝. When word of these efforts reached Rome, however, thanks to the efforts of the Franciscans and Dominicans, Pope Clement XI put the kibosh on these efforts by declaring the ancestral rites to be latreía and therefore idolatry. Subsequent Jesuit missions to China were banned from the throne of Peter.

I have written before about how the Jesuit missions in China unfortunately helped to promote a disfigured and distorted Orientalist view of the country and its intellectual and political heritage in the West. This was something only partially corrected by the unsupported and incomplete attempts of Russian Orthodox clerical Sinologists to rectify this view – Sinologists who were informed, by the way, by long experience, understanding of and in some cases even sympathy with the Turkic, Tungusic and Mongolian cultures on China’s western and northern borders. The Jesuits may have had some correct ideas in sorting latreía from douleía in the ancestral rites, but unfortunately their influence did not stop there. They overstepped their mark, as the scholastic hieromonks Bichurin and Kamensky clearly identified. The early, rosy and optimistic Jesuit approach to China that was later vulgarised into chinoiserie in Western Europe was certainly damaging; but even more so was the later reaction – the jaded, racist view of China as an inscrutable and faceless heathen menace – which was encouraged particularly by the Franciscans and Dominicans who came after Clement XI’s decree. These mendicant orders, which did so much to destroy the indigenous cultures of the Americas as accessories to Spanish and Portuguese conquest and colonialism, sought with papal blessing to do the very same thing on the same grounds and by the same methods to the Chinese civilisation. The Rites Controversy would not be revisited by the Vatican until 1939, by which time most of the missionary societies in China had already been well-established.

I offer my apologies to my Catholic readers if I appear to be a bit harsh and polemical in my assessment here. But the unfortunate truth is that the Jesuit missionaries in China were being more than a bit unfair and dishonest to their European compatriots when they portrayed the veneration of ancestors as merely a ‘civil rite’ with a merely social significance. In so doing they built up a false, one-sided image of traditional piety and Chinese folk observances as a kind of ‘rationalist humanism’ and a ‘social ethic’ that could be baptised as-is, and this would only pave the way for future disappointment and misunderstanding. It might have gone far better for them if they had openly acknowledged the metaphysical-theological dimension within these rites and presented it honestly to their superiors. A more fruitful attempt at engaging the deeper body of teachings might then have taken place, without the equally-unfortunate reaction from the Pope and the mendicant orders. I don’t think it’s an accident, either, that the explicitly metaphysical and religious ‘turn’ in the Changzhou School 常州學派, with its emphases on calendar reform and the reassertion of a Sinocentric political cosmology, occurred in the wake of the Jesuit missions. The Qing scholars were by no means a tabula rasa (and neither were the indigenous peoples of America, for that matter!); they were studying the West even as the West was studying them.

But what really baffles me is the experience of Protestant lenience toward ancestral veneration. This experience particularly contrasts with the historical fact that the colonial Protestants in the New World were more brutal and callous and genocidal to the Natives they found there than the Catholics were. However, the attitude seems to have changed with the time and the place. According to Anglican scholar James Addison, it appears that almost the exact same controversy as for the Catholics played out among the Protestant missionaries in China between 1877 and 1907. In the end, it seems, the issue was resolved not by a considered discourse on the fundamental meaning or orientation of the rites, but by the triumph by default of a kind of liberal œcumenism which was content to ignore or downplay the issue entirely.

This history is particularly fascinating to me, in part because it has never really gone away. In fact, the attitudes which have had the most historical purchase among the Western confessions – the diplomatic accommodationism of the Jesuits; the confrontational assimilationism of the mendicant orders; the sæcular œcumenism of the Protestant missionaries – are still pretty much the default options the Western confessions avail themselves of in dealing not only with the traditional Chinese popular devotions but with the Chinese state as well, whether under Kangxi or under Xi. This is doubtless an oversimplification, but we have seen this most recently in the (deeply-Jesuit) accommodationist attitudes of the reigning Pope to the Chinese state, as well as in the quasi-Franciscan (in fact, Salesian) critique of Pope Francis in that political stance from Cardinal Emeritus Joseph Zen. In practice, despite the occasional outburst of evangelical activism against Chinese state persecution, the Protestant confessions seem to have taken on a broad variety of political tactics ranging from subservience to negotiation to confrontation.

Now that I think about it, it seems blindingly obvious to say. But from the beginning the Rites Controversy was not really so much about Ru or about ancestor veneration, per se, as it was about political theology. (I should be clear here: this is not to downplay the importance of the content of the rites themselves, and still less to make a Daniel Bell-style case that mainland China is actually a crypto-Confucian meritocracy, but instead to draw attention to the various Western political hermeneutics they have historically been subject to.) The fact that the ancestral rites stood or fell from a Catholic perspective based on their ‘civil’ status should have tipped me off, but I guess I’m just thick that way.

The corresponding punchline to this realisation is that we Orthodox Christians can be satisfied with none of the above approaches. The accommodations of Pope Francis do troublingly seem to bespeak a preference for diplomatic Westphalianism that subordinates religious concerns to temporal ones. On the other hand, all the democracy and human-rights talk of Cardinal Zen may be seen to conceal a dark, deadly Falangist-intégriste mentality, particularly if it proceeds from the same blank-slate and zero-sum assumptions about culture that guided the earlier Franciscan missions to China. This bespeaks a spiritual fascism, an ecclesiastical totalitarian envy, a religion of Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor. Unlike Cardinal Zen’s apologists, in this light I can no longer think it either accidental or innocent that he plays to the most militantly-reactionary wing of American Catholicism. And the scattershot responses of the Chinese Protestants to a hostile and controlling government unfortunately reveal but one commonality: a sæcular alienation from political theology as a whole. The degree to which the Protestant missionaries in Korea, who would otherwise scoff at prayer to the saints, embraced ancestral and civil douleía; and the degree to which Catholic missionaries rejected both despite their normally-careful distinction between worship and veneration; may therefore be considered a function of this divergence in political theologies.

So it may indeed be time for Christians in general to look at the Rites Controversy and Christian-Ru relations with both a critical and humble eye, and at this particular instance of ironic rôle-reversal in particular. It will almost certainly be necessary – on the part of us Orthodox Christians – to revisit the careful, scholarly, but admittedly-fragmentary writings of Hieromonks Hyacinth and Peter on the subject, and of course the Irkutsk model of evangelism that for a time was so effective on China’s northern frontiers.

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