In 1950, before the late Bishop Aloysius Jin Luxian (1916-2013) returned to China from Europe, he visited Pompeii. Facing the ruins of the collective calamity, he wondered how a benevolent God could have permitted such a total destruction: the entire population, rich or poor, pets and livestock. How could there not have been any righteous people? How come God did not protect them? He briefly considered a saying from Tao Te Ching (Daodejing), in which immutable heaven and earth treat all things without any special considerations. He took a long time to ponder, before submitting himself to the marvelous arrangement of God in His wisdom. He expressed his gratitude for being chosen and prayed for the salvation of more people.
Placed on the eve of his fateful return to China where he was soon to live twenty-seven years in imprisonment and detention, followed by attacks and suspicion when he accepted to be the founding rector of Shanghai’s Sheshan Seminary in 1982 and later the bishop of Shanghai diocese, his reflections on divine Providence acquire an extra layer of poignancy. It is remarkable that, five decades later when he wrote his memoirs, he still remembered so much of his moment of struggle, submission and renewed faith. How to reconcile God’s omniscience, omnipotence and benevolence with the existence of evil and suffering in the world? Such an old question, or theodicy, as Leibniz termed it (1710), remains forever new to each person who experiences it for the first time and retains its currency in the world where we live.
Apparently indiscriminate destructions often bring about painful reflections on God’s justice, especially natural disasters such as earthquakes or volcano eruptions for which we cannot easily attribute the causes to human free will. On the other hand, for innocent bystanders who are maimed or killed in acts of violence, hearing that their misfortune comes from (other people’s) free will may not bring much consolation.
Opposing views on theodicy sealed the well-known animosity between Rousseau and Voltaire when the latter published his Poem on the Lisbon Disaster (1756). While my mind admired Rousseau’s ingenuity when he justifies Providence by denying innocence to all victims of the earthquakes including children, or asserting that a sudden unexpected death may be less agonizing than an ordinary life with its prolonged anguish about death, my heart was only sensitive when he professed Providence as his sole consolation, in another word, not when he acted like Job’s friends with his sophisticated argumentation but when I heard the cry from his heart about our need for Providence, malgré tout.
Even though Voltaire’s moral outrage was explicitly directed, not at Providence itself, but at philosophers who attempted to deny or rationalize the existence of evil and the prosperous who lacked the empathy to feel another person’s suffering, the overwhelming accumulation of his vividly palpable description of human agonies can nevertheless constitute a painful outcry if not an open protest. Like Job he claimed that his lamentation was just. In a quixotic way he spoke on behalf of the suffering humanity as well as all the sentient beings. Contrary to what he claims in the poem, Voltaire’s preoccupation with evil and divine justice was not an effect of old age, but was already evident in his first tragedy Oedipus (1718), despite his momentary and somewhat disingenuous stance against Pascal (1734). By announcing “the failure of all philosophical essays in theodicy” (1791), Kant would have sided with Voltaire rather than Rousseau.
Much has been said about Voltaire’s religion, or his lack of, but he was not an atheist. You only protest against or cry out for someone that you think exist, or at least, might plausibly exist. During the twenty-five years that I spent in China, the question of theodicy had never crossed my mind, to the best of my recollection. In the face of injustice I was outraged at those who caused it but never questioned the Old Lord of the Sky (lao tian ye), which had become mostly a figure of speech after Mao’s regime, especially the Cultural Revolution, uprooted the Chinese from their own spiritual tradition, and before the religious revival post 1989. Strangely enough though, I chose to write my undergraduate thesis on Camus’ Plague, from an entirely secular humanist perspective.
At Boston College, while reading Pascal’s Pensées in French, I was awed by the power of his eloquence, for the first time allowed myself to think that it is not crazy to desire that God exist. Without this prior experience with Pascal, the problem of theodicy in Voltaire’s poem would not have resonated with me with such intensity over the years, as I read and reread it at various occasions. The Book of Job has also preoccupied me endlessly: What if Job had died before God appeared to him, like countless people who suffered atrocities? What would have been his last thought in this world? Job ended up having twice as many new children, but how about his first children? What is the meaning of their suffering and death? What did they do to deserve their fate?
Readers familiar with Job’s story may find it interesting to contrast it with a tale in Zhuangzi (Chuang Tzu) Chapter 6. Zi Qi and Zi Yu were likeminded friends who had attained great insight on life and death through the timeless and mysterious Tao (Dao), the origin of all things which transcends linguistic definition and human reasoning. When Zi Yu became sick and suffered excruciating pain, Zi Qi went to see him. His body completely deformed and crippled but his heart entirely at peace, Zi Yu praised the Creator (Zaowu Zhe 造物者) for making him so totally hunched over. Zi Qi asked a question: “Do you loathe it?” Then like a true friend he listened, while Zi Yu declared his perfect submission to the Creator: If HE changes his left arm into a rooster, he would use it to crow; if HE turns his right arm into a pellet, he would use it to kill a bird and roast it; if HE makes his bottom into a wheel and his mind into a horse, he would ride on it, with no need for any other vehicle!
It does not surprise me that facing the ruins of Pompeii, Bishop Aloysius Jin Luxian’s mind briefly returned to Tao Te Ching. If Matteo Ricci chose Confucianism as point of encounter between Christianity and Chinese culture, twentieth-century Chinese Catholic intellectuals, among them Lu Zhengxiang (Pierre-Célestin Lou Tseng-Tsiang, 1871-1949), Wu Jingxiong(John C.H. Wu, 1899-1986), Wang Changzhi (Joseph Wang Tch’ang-Tche, 1899-1960), Huang Jiacheng (François Houang Kiatcheng, 1911-1991), and Jin luxian, expanded it by drawing abundantly from the more mystic and contemplative Taoism. For them, Tao, as imperfectly as the Greek word logos, or any word from a human language, can point to the same divine reality which is Christ himself. Etymologically, Tao, which literally means the way, has a radical that means walking, and the other part means head, origin, which reminds me of a hopeful message from Pope Francis: “God is encountered walking, along the path.”
Illustration by Bendu