The Mystic East

Shows like “Kung Fu” and various other (Western) portrayals of the Awesome Badass Eastern guy who is always centered, cool, highly intellectual, and totally focused (in contrast to the barbarous western bigot) have been a favorite form of self-flagellation for post-Christians, embarrassed by the western tradition and ready to credit anything which tells them that eastern religion is cool and kind of Vulcan while Christianity is nothing but snake handling wahoos and toothless trailer park dwellers speaking in tongues and casting demons out of their vacuum cleaners. There is a deep eagerness among a lot of Westerners to believe that the grass is greener on the other side of the International Dateline.

Then, you read headlines like this:

Rumors of Demon Child Abduction Spark Run on Peaches in China
A rumor that spirits were seeking revenge for a damaged temple prompted a frenzy for peaches and firecrackers in northern Chinese cities

and it starts to dawn on you that there’s as much ridiculous superstition in the East as there is in the West. Of course, there’s also good stuff in the East’s religious traditions. But then there’s also some mighty good stuff in the West too, which is why so many Chinese are becoming Christian. It turns out the truth that God became Man is as shocking and wonderful to the Chinese as it used to be to us. However, for them it’s still news. For us, it *should* be news but… well, Chesterton says it best:

Now the best relation to our spiritual home is to be near enough to love it. But the next best is to be far enough away not to hate it. It is the
contention of these pages that while the best judge of Christianity is a
Christian, the next best judge would be something more like a Confucian.
The worst judge of all is the man now most ready with his judgements;
the ill-educated Christian turning gradually into the ill-tempered
agnostic, entangled in the end of a feud of which he never understood
the beginning, blighted with a sort of hereditary boredom with he knows
not what, and already weary of hearing what he has never heard. He does
not judge Christianity calmly as a Confucian would; he does not judge it
as he would judge Confucianism. He cannot by an effort of fancy set the
Catholic Church thousands of miles away in strange skies of morning and
judge it as impartially as a Chinese pagoda. It is said that the great
St. Francis Xavier, who very nearly succeeded in setting up the Church
there as a tower overtopping all pagodas, failed partly because his
followers were accused by their fellow missionaries of representing the
Twelve Apostles with the garb or attributes of Chinamen. But it would be
far better to see them as Chinamen, and judge them fairly as Chinamen,
than to see them as featureless idols merely made to be battered by
iconoclasts; or rather as cockshies to be pelted by empty-handed
cockneys. It would be better to see the whole thing as a remote Asiatic
cult; the mitres of its bishops as the towering head dresses of
mysterious bonzes; its pastoral staffs as the sticks twisted like
serpents carried in some Asiatic procession; to see the prayer book as
fantastic as the prayer-wheel and the Cross as crooked as the Swastika.
Then at least we should not lose our temper as some of the sceptical
critics seem to lose their temper, not to mention their wits. Their
anti-clericalism has become an atmosphere, an atmosphere of negation and
hostility from which they cannot escape. Compared with that, it would be
better to see the whole thing as something belonging to another
continent, or to another planet. It would be more philosophical to stare
indifferently at bonzes than to be perpetually and pointlessly grumbling
at bishops. It would be better to walk past a church as if it were a
pagoda than to stand permanently in the porch, impotent either to go
inside and help or to go outside and forget. For those in whom a mere
reaction has thus become an obsession, I do seriously recommend the
imaginative effort of conceiving the Twelve Apostles as Chinamen. In
other words, I recommend these critics to try to do as much justice to
Christian saints as if they were Pagan sages.

  • http://irishpapist.blogspot.com/ Maolsheachlann O Ceallaigh

    I saw an episode of the Journey Home on EWTN featuring an English nun who used to be a sixties (or maybe seventies) radical. On her search for Enlightenment, she was ready to try every spiritual guru and avenue that was going, except Christianity. Unfortunately Christianity kept cropping up with irritating regularity. Eventually this lady and her friend went to a Hindu holy man they both admired and asked to be made his disciples. The Hindu holy man said, “Everything you are seeking can be found in Jesus Christ” (or some such words). Interesting but raises some questions about the holy man!

  • Zzedar

    When I was in Japan some time ago, I was surprised at the number of teenagers I saw wearing crosses. It was explained to me that this wasn’t due to any actual belief in Christianity — indeed, many of these teenagers probably didn’t even know the significance of the cross — it was just trendy and spiritual. That is, they wanted to show that they were in touch with the mystic traditions of the exotic and mysterious West. Also they probably wanted to annoy their parents.

    • kenneth

      There was/is a thing in the states too with kids wearing rosaries, apparently for reasons mostly other than devotion. Supposedly it’s a quasi hip-hop thing or even gang affiliation in some instances.

      • Ted Seeber

        It has also, among a certain subculture of GenX and GenY Catholics, replaced the St. Christopher’s medal as a blessing for a car (you’ll often see them dangling from rear view mirrors- I did it myself until I ripped one too many crucifixes off while trying to shift).

    • Rachel K

      My husband read a book about anime recently that had a chapter on how weird the Christian imagery is in anime. Apparently, wearing crosses in Japan isn’t just trendy and mystical, it’s kind of Goth-y. Your average Japanese person knows that graves in the West have crosses on them, and that Christians worship a dead guy, so crosses are associated with death.

      • Ted Seeber

        There is also an old saying in Japan that once, back in the 1890s, a western Journalist asked the Emperor Mej (Hirohito’s father, Akihito’s grandfather) why there were more Buddhists, Shintos, and Catholics in the country than people. The answer was disturbingly equivocal and a bit Zen: There are many roads up Mt. Fuji. It does not matter which you take, or even if you take many of them, the point is to get to the top.

        (Why Catholic? Because long before the Americans rediscovered Japan, the Portuguese had a 500 year old trading post in Nagasaki during the time of the Shoguns, and Christianity was actually pretty widespread due to that by the time Commodore Perry showed up with his steamships).

      • Zzedar

        See http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/CreepyCoolCrosses .

        On the other hand, if you want to see an educated Japanese take on Christianity, I highly recommend Tezuka’s “Ode to Kirihito”. Tezuka’s always great, of course, but this one is particularly interesting precisely because he wasn’t Christian, but seems to have found the idea of Christianity very attractive. As a master storyteller himself, he recognized the power of the story of the Gospels, and the whole book is basically a Christian allegory. The main character, Dr. Kirihito (“Kirihito” is very close to the Japanese pronunciation of “Christ”), is the analogue to Jesus, though not a direct analogue — Kirihito is in many ways a deeply flawed character, so this isn’t a C.S. Lewis-style one-to-one correspondence.

  • http://irishpapist.blogspot.com/ Maolsheachlann O Ceallaigh

    Having said that, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with either romanticizing or being amused by foreigners. It seems a very normal and healthy response. I know that the former is called “orientalism” in the academy, and considered racist. But then again, everything is considered racist there.
    And the Irish are especially at fault for getting all indignant and oversensitive when other cultures (especially Americans) pay us the compliment of romanticizing our culture.

  • John

    To continue this theme, here’s a quote from John C. H. Wu (once called the “Chinese Chesterton”:
    (if any readers would like to read an introduction to Wu’s thought, please invite them to email me: lindblom07@gmail.com, or contact through the John C. H. Wu facebook page)

    It is no small wonder that these men of exceptional wisdom [Confucius, Plato, Laozi, etc.]
    whose influences on human minds are still alive today,
    should all have been born and flourished within six centuries
    immediately preceding the Birth of Christ. Their doctrines, it
    is true, are not unmixed with errors, and even where they
    were not erroneous they were inadequate and left the human
    mind at an impasse. But this very impasse underlined the necessity
    of the Revelation; while the grains of truth that they contained
    and shared in common were faint imitations of the
    Gospel, in whose light alone we can perceive their real significance.
    In other words, what the pagan philosophers had
    uttered as desiderata are seen as reality in the Person of
    Christ.

  • kenneth

    We all take solace in peaches and fireworks at some point in our lives! :)

  • http://www.2catholicmen.blogspot.com Ben of Two Men

    Some are intrigued with religions of the East, but would ignore the contemplative side of Catholicism.
    Some are fascinated with science, but would ignore Catholicism’s contribution to science.
    Some are absorbed by logic & reason, but would ignore the compatibly of Faith & Reason.
    We don’t see the universality of Catholicism right in our own backyard.
    Why is that?

    • Chris M

      Pride, Lust, Greed, Sloth, Gluttony, Wrath, Envy.. or some combination thereof (pelvic issues being the current hotbutton). Oftentimes because the known representative(s) of Catholicism are very much un-Catholic themselves. Sadly, we are oftentimes our own worst enemies and poor ambassadors for Christ.

    • kenneth

      The same reasons people always look for the exotic. Familiarity breeds contempt. Who doesn’t get stir crazy on their home turf at some point? I find a big part of the allure with Eastern religions is that we can see in it what we want to see – timeless wisdom, technologies for enlightenment etc. In additions, teaching traditions which involve gurus are custom made for the American self-help mentality. I have nothing against learning and borrowing from foreign spiritual traditions. My own religion is heavily infused with eastern concepts despite its ambitions to recreate pre-Christian European practices. Of course there was a lot of cultural and religious cross-pollination going on in the ancient world as well and even within Christianity and Catholicism over many centuries. The trick is to resist romanticizing the exotic. Those few Westerners who go on to practice say Hinduism or Buddhism deeply and organically know that the religions and the associated cultures have all the warts and complexities of any human endeavor. This habit of romanticizing the exotic should also sound a cautionary note for those who see China and Africa as The Next Big Thing for Catholicism. It’s quite likely that many of those folks are coming at it from the same direction as the American soccer moms who head off to the McYoga Ashram every week or the starry eyed folk who follow the Dalai Lama like Grateful Dead fans.

      • Mark Shea

        This would make sense if I saw China and Africa making the faith exotic instead of, as I do, the Faith making China and Africa Christian. The proposition that God became man is far more exotic than the proposition that Mass is celebrated in Timbuktu.

        • kenneth

          Assimilation is a complex business and almost always works in two directions. I’ve seen this play out at every level of life. When bacteria of one species kills another, they often incorporate strands of the foreign DNA into themselves, a main reason why we hear so much about drug-resistant infections.

          At the level of global/civilization politics, we see every day that we are becoming the authoritarian enemies we vanquished. The overlay of Christianity, or really any religion, onto a host culture is much the same. Over thousands of years, we’ve seen that the collision of Christianity with pagan cultures produces some real Christians who break cleanly with their cultural past, some who Christianize and retain non-religious parts of their heritage, and many who remain pagan but adopt Christianity as their new (and not always only) pantheon. We see that to this day in Latin America, where the people are often said to be 90% Catholic and 100% pagan. They’re sincere in their devotions, to be sure, and the Church loves them because they tend to be loyal folk, but it’s a real stretch to call them Catholic in the small “o” orthodox sense of the word. They are both as Catholic as anyone you ever deal with and twice the pagan I could ever hope to be.

          In Africa especially, my sense is that we’re seeing the full range of extremes right now. No doubt some sincere conversions, but there’s also plenty of clear instances where Christian belief becomes an extension of witchcraft. There’s been plenty of cases in recent years where people, even young kids, were killed in bizarre “exorcism” rituals. The Rwandan genocide also revealed the limitations of grafting. There were some very righteous priests who did everything they could to shelter their countrymen from slaughter. There were also more than a few priests and ministers (Catholic and protestant), who saw no contradiction at all in helping exterminate the other side. Clearly these dudes hadn’t downloaded the entire authorized version of Christianity despite their otherwise devout posture.

      • Rosemarie

        +J.M.J+

        The same thing can happen when Western Christians romanticize Eastern Catholicism or Orthodoxy.

      • Ted Seeber

        When in college, I resembled that remark. Then I realized that the parables of Jesus Christ were far more Zen than the Koans of the Platform Sutra.

    • http://ecben.wordpress.com Will

      Because the grass is always greener on the other side of the world.

      Years ago Robert M. Price (yes, the Jesus Seminar Price, who in his other identity edits CRYPT OF CTHULHU) wrote a piece on “If You Hate Christianity, You’ll Loathe Buddhism”. (http://www.robertmprice.mindvendor.com/art_buddi.htm)

      He points out that comparing lowest-common-denominator Christianity with “pure” Buddhism as packaged by exponents in the west is apples-and-oranges.

      “Surely, I ventured, she could not be unaware of the fact that the very doctrinal features she despised in their Christian avatars were not only present in but absolutely central to historic mainstream Buddhism! I’m not sure what she took Buddhism to mean, but it’s a safe bet all the Buddhist faithful in China, Mongolia, Tibet, Sikkim, Bhutan, Nepal, Korea, and Japan (to say nothing of that ancient stronghold of Oriental mysticism, Colorado) would not agree with her.”

  • Ted Seeber

    I understand the basic theology behind the firecrackers, that’s no difference from our All Hallows Eve traditions. But what’s up with the peaches?

    • kenneth

      “According to Chinese tradition, setting off firecrackers drives away evil spirits, while taozi, the Chinese word for peaches, sounds the same as “boy escaping” in Chinese.

      Got this from Shanghai Daily. I would have guessed the peaches were intended as an offering to propitiate spirits, but apparently not.

      • Ted Seeber

        Given how I hear the weird way in how Chinese is written in Roman letters, I’m not sure if I’m more amazed that a fruit called “boy escaping” would have something to do with this, or that I’d pronounce the Chinese word for Peaches as “Zowee”, which is something a boy escaping might actually say!


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