I recently read an interesting book titled “Building a Bridge” written by Fr. Ari C. Dy S.J. a Chinese -Filipino priest. The book is Fr. Dy’s masteral thesis covering the history of the Chinese apostolate in the Philippines, Chinese Christology, grace in Chinese Buddhism, and the communion of saints as a theological basis for ancestor veneration. There are also homilies with Chinese themes and some pastoral suggestions for integrating Chinese customs with Catholic life and practice. I am posting excerpts from the book.
Christology in the Chinese Context
Nestorian Christians arrived in China c. 632 C.E.
The Franciscan John of Montecorvino arrived in 1294 during the Yuan dynasty (1280-1368) and was quite successful in his missionary work. In 1368, the establishment of the Ming dynasty, all foreign elements allowed by the Yuan dynasty was expelled from China. Both Nestorianism and Catholicism disappeared. In 1582 the Jesuits arrived. The Jesuit mission to China is well documented, unlike the Nestorian and the Franciscan missions.
The Buddhist Christ of the Nestorians.
The Nestorian missionary Alopen reformulated Christian soteriology within Buddhist worldview. A “Buddhist Christology” was modeled on the story of Avalokitesvara, a male bodhisattva who took on female form and became known to the Chinese as Guan Yin, the goddess of mercy. The incarnation was explained along this line, and it is an example of cultural intertext at work. Jesus is like a bodhisattva in his mission to save others.
Matteo Ricci’s “Lord of the Heaven”
Ricci, who labored in China from 1582-1610, first presented Christ as a teacher and performer of miracles. The miracles indicated his divinity. Ricci compared Christ to China’s great teacher, Confucius (another intertext), but insisted that Christ was greater than any king or teacher. Hoping that the Chinese would see and understand Christ not as a foreigner but someone already “mysteriously present in the noble Chinese civilization,” Ricci’s method had Christ as the conclusion rather than the starting point.
Aleni belongs to the generation of missionaries that came after Matteo Ricci. Aleni presented the mystery of Christ in a doctrinally straight forward way, using a Trinitarian and biblical perspective. He linked the incarnation to the mystery of redemption, saying that the incarnation is not simply the self revelation of God’s power and glory but the working of God’s salvific plan for humanity. The human person is being redeemed from sin by the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus.
Asked why God had to suffer, Aleni alluded to an ancient Chinese legend. Cheng Tang, the first emperor of the Shang dynasty (1766-1753 BCE), was known for his wisdom and virtue. During his reign, the country suffered a terrible famine due to a prolonged drought. The people became convinced that Heaven or God was angry and could only be appeased by a human sacrifice. Cheng Tang offered himself as the human sacrifice. After fasting and cutting his hair, he sat by a mulberry grove, confessed his sins and offered himself as the victim to God.
To pray and intercede for the people was part of the emperor’s duties as the Son of Heaven. The Chinese believed in the semi-divinity of the emperor such that only the emperor could make the annual sacrifice to heaven. Aleni used this idea to state that Cheng Tang prefigured Jesus Christ, who offered himself to the Lord of the heaven to save humankind. We see here the Christological satisfaction and ransom theories at work and also the Christian idea of embracing suffering to express virtue and love.
Like Ricci, Aleni also compared Jesus to the wisdom figures in Chinese culture. But unlike Ricci, Aleni focused on Confucius’ belief in a Lord of Heaven, Aleni shifted his focus to the mystery of the incarnation and redemption in Jesus, all the while affirming Jesus’ superiority over Chinese Philosophers.
Aleni’s contribution is in providing Chinese Christians with the tools necessary to develop a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.. He passed on his devotions to the eucharist and to the passion and helped people to center their lives on the person of Jesus. By doing this, Aleni was laying the “conditions of possibility” for the Chinese to do their own theological reflection.
In developing a Christology in the Chinese context, Jose de Mesa’s method is helpful in the exploration:
1.Soteriology precedes and leads to Christology. The first step is to look for a cultural notion of “salvation” that expresses the experience of human well-being in a particular cultural context. Thematic cultural exegesis is then applied to these notions in order to make implicit meanings explicit.
2.Projection. The salvific significance of Jesus is expressed in a way that is intelligible to the culture.
3.Regauging. The projections made on Jesus are reassessed against the words and deeds of Jesus in the New Testament. The names, titles, and images that have been projected on to Jesus are valid only if they are compatible with the jesus of the gospels.
The first step, is to define soteriology in Chinese context. Kwok Pui Lan, like many scholars, has pointed out that Christianity insists on the need of all human beings for salvation because of an innate depravity, but in classical Chinese culture there is no equivalent notion of religious depravity or sin. The Chinese understands “shame” and “guilt” but there is not even a Chinese word for “sin”. Missionaries have used the word crime (zui) to refer to “sin” and many Chinese find this unacceptable.
Further, the Chinese have difficulty understanding how Jesus died for all. Both satisfaction and ransom theories are alien to the Chinese. Kwok Pui-Lan attributes the ransom theory to the Roman penal system and the satisfaction theory to the sacrificial rituals of the Jews.
The incarnation is another stumbling block for the Chinese. The Chinese cannot accept the idea that the Master of the heaven consented to become human and be nailed to the cross.
In Aleni’s analogy of the emperor there was no God-human in the story.
Hans Kung, speaking of a “Chinese theology for the postmodern age,” says that such a theology must have a “clear orientation to the original, biblical faith and not to some confessional, Western-ecclesiastical doctrine such as has caused so much division in Chinese Christianity over the centuries.” Jesus Christ needs a Chinese garb that is more than external.
Soteriology in the Chinese context cannot simply borrow Christological answers formulated in another culture. As Kwok Pui-Lan says, it will be “worthwhile understanding more sympathetically the non-Christian (Chinese) perception of Christ.”
Any projections made onto Jesus will then be regauged according to the Jesus of the gospels. One such attempt at a Chimnese soteriology belongs to a Taiwanese theologian Hu Tasan Yun. For him, Jesus is the Human being who has become one with God. This echoes the Confucian idea that heaven and the human being are essentially the same.
The author proposed that if Christologies were to be outlined for mainland China notwithstanding other theological questions, it is still the suffering Jesus that will speak to the Chinese—Aleni’s suffering Christ would still be relevant. The Chinese needs a Jesus who will give them hope and liberation—a Christology for the masses.
Another possibility for an inculturated Chinese Christology has to do with the place of words in Chinese culture. In Chinese culture, gazing on a calligraphy is also a meditative act that can affect one’s character and way of life. For Christians, is not the relationship with the word of God similar? Frequent exposure to God’s word in Jesus and in the scriptures is one of the Christian’s way of absorbing God’s ways and the values of his kingdom. Presenting Christ as the Word, then, may be a rich and dynamic way of addressing Chinese culture. This could lead to one among many Chinese Christologies