Friday, February 18, 2011

Thomas Merton on Confucianism

    The foundation of the Confucian system is first of all the human person and then his relations with other persons in the society[.] Confucianism is therefore a humanist and personalist doctrine, and this humanism is religious and sacred... Confucianism is not just a set of formalistic devotions which have been loosely dismissed as ‘ancestor worship.’ The Confucian system of rites was meant to give full expression to that natural and humane love which is the only guarantee of peace and security in society.
The above is quoted by Wm. Theodore de Bary, whose article, despite thje correctness of all written above, explains "[w]hy the contemplative never got the religion quite right" — Thomas Merton and Confucianism.

Also of interest in the article is the section on how "Merton credit[ed] the early Jesuit missionaries to China in the late-sixteenth, early-seventeenth centuries with a remarkable accommodation to Chinese culture, including most notably the sympathetic efforts of Matteo Ricci to achieve a genuine understanding of Confucianism," quoted here:
    Merton’s title, “The Jesuits in China,” rightly draws attention to the large contributions of the Jesuits as a group, including other Jesuits in China like Adam Schall von Bell (1592–1669) as well as those who performed similar adaptive missions elsewhere: Roberto DeNobile (1577–1656) in India and Andro Valignano (1539–1606) in Japan.

    Spectacular as these cases were in their own settings, they should also be seen as an outgrowth of a fundamental impulse present from the founding of the Jesuit order. In the wake of the European Renaissance, the Society of Jesus from the start sought to harmonize Judeo-Christian piety with the classical culture of Greece and Rome then being revived. Among the Jesuits this embrace of the new humanism involved an essentially religious effort to draw the best out of the pagan wisdom of the culture in which Christianity originally flourished. It was not surprising, therefore, that the Jesuits in Asia produced distinctive results. They were not just adapting Christianity to native cultures but also contributed in creative ways to the revival of some of the essential elements in native philosophy and religion itself.

    Ricci’s story is especially compelling. As the eminent German sinologist Wolfgang Franke put it: “Looking back with our present understanding of Chinese civilization of the late Ming period, we find it almost incredible that a foreigner—however well educated and intelligent he might be—without any previous knowledge of the Chinese language and civilization was able within less than twenty years to take up residence in the capital, become a prominent member of this society, make friends with a number of the most eminent scholar-officials of the time, and even convert some of them to his Christian faith.” Franke thought that Ricci’s cross-cultural virtuosity reflected an underlying humanism. “Ricci’s ingenious, gentle, and kindly nature conformed to the highest Chinese standards,” he writes. “It inclined him to appreciate and value the essence of Chinese culture. All in all Ricci may be considered the most outstanding cultural mediator of all times.”

    It is strange that Ricci’s achievement did not give Merton pause. Ricci made an extraordinary and successful effort to learn and master classical Chinese. Simply as a missionary he would have had plenty to do just by learning vernacular Chinese so as to communicate with and convert ordinary people. But Ricci recognized the importance of educated Chinese leadership; he did not just dismiss or sidestep them. Yet this is exactly what Merton tends to do when he denigrates Confucian scholars: “All China, at least all the ruling class of China, was supposed in theory to be educated along Confucian lines, but many and not the least successful of Chinese statesmen were men who with the outward facade of Confucianism were inwardly either pedants, rigid and heartless conformists, or unprincipled crooks.”

    Ricci himself could easily have taken Confucianism at this low level and used it to his own advantage in converting people from debased forms of Confucianism to an unsullied Christianity. As a Renaissance man, however, he was disposed to take the classical Chinese tradition at its best and attempt to reconcile Confucianism with Christianity at the highest level.

    That Ricci succeeded can be attributed not only to his native generosity and openness of mind but also to a similar openness among the many Confucian scholars whom he sought to engage in active dialogue. Reciprocity was at work, not just solitary genius impressing itself on credulous others. And this openness on the part of Ricci’s Chinese partners (so much in contrast to Merton’s characterization of the Confucians as “rigid heartless pedants”) undoubtedly reflected something in the Confucians’ own background, which suggests to us that Merton’s routine characterizations of them are historically inaccurate. And not just inaccurate, but blind as well to the ways in which religion brings a humane dignity to everyday life.
[link via The New Beginning]

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Blogger Mark in Spokane said...

Not the first error that the later Merton made, I am afraid. Mystics and Zen Masters has some interesting essays in it, but his essay on the Jesuits in China isn't one of them, unfortunately.

2:43 AM  
Blogger The Western Confucian said...

Are they essays in The New Man? It wasn't quite clear in the article. I haven't read it.

The Seeds of Contemplation was one of the first books that got me interested in Catholicism, and The Seven Storey Mountain was one of the last books I read as a Protestant.

7:21 AM  
Blogger Mark in Spokane said...

Early Merton is very good -- the Sign of Jonas made me want to be a monk! But his later stuff, not so good. His Ascent to Truth is one of the best studies of St. John of Cross I've ever read -- that was another one of his early books...

12:31 PM  

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