Opinions, Dreams & Videos

Opinions, Dreams & Videos

Tuesday, 01 August 2017


Hi, Hello, How are you?

Hi, Hello, How are you?

I am fine.

I am fine.

I speak Chinese.

You speak English.

I speak English.

You speak Chinese.

How wonderful is the world.

Yes, it’s a wonderful world.

I like words. You like words.

Let’s talk about the whole world.

The world is full of beautiful warm words.

I am here. You are there.

I am there. You are here.

I like your world.

You like my world.

Let’s dance. Let’s dance.

Let’s be good friends.

From now on. From now on.

Forever. Forever. Never say goodbye.


Illustration by Paulo Oliveira Santos

Tuesday, 24 May 2016

It’s All Your Fault

It’s all your fault.

We returned to the café where

Armstrong still singing,

“What a wonderful world.”

The song sounded ironic, bitter than sweet,

When the promise turned sour

With a lovely child’s death,

So cruel, thrilling and bloody.

Why? What went wrong?

Wonder became terror, when people said:

“Surprise!” and then bombed a whole street

Into ashes.

Mind your own business.

The ancient Chinese said it more gracefully:

“Sweep away the snow before your own doorway, and

Never mind the frost on other people’s roofs.”

But now, the snow is so deep.

It blocks the entrance of every house, and the sounds of

Roofs crushed are heard everywhere.

Isn’t it all your fault?

“Don’t believe in strangers.”

That’s the start; and then

You don’t believe in anyone.

Don’t believe in God, either.

He is such a liar.

Just as I saw the eyes of a blind man opened,

Seeing light for the first time;

A born paralyzed man jumped up,

Taking his mattress with him, and walked away;

I thought, “Brave new world!”

All of a sudden, so dramatically,

The cross upon the hill cast a long deep shadow

Into my heart, made my nights endless torture.

Your voice was muffled, sunk beneath a sea

Of noisy crowd. They wanted your blood.

They wanted our blood. I hid myself,

Sealed all the windows, locked every door.

I lived in a big coffin, afraid of light, because

My eyes became used to darkness.

I dreamed of you, still, with blood

Running from the wounds. Terrible.

Shame, on you. How could you allow them to

Crush you like that?

How could you walk away, leaving us

Abandoned, living like rats?

So, don’t you fool me again.

“We see him! He is alive!”

Is that some joke? Come on,

Sell it to others. Not me.

I had enough. Don’t waste time on trying

To break my iron heart.

Iron and stone are better,

Safer. They are good for defense as well as

For attack. I’m no loser,

Nor victim or fool.

I don’t know why I still come here.

This house is full of mad men, who want to

Trick me into dreaming again.

Hum, I’m wide awake.

Awake until I see this strange,

Strange stranger. He looks a bit familiar

When he comes closer, but I can’t remember

Where I saw him.

The whole room quiets down.

It’s so silent.

He walks toward me, as I back into the corner,

My head feels dizzy.

He squats down, looking into my eyes.

“Come. Give me your hand.”

Almost unconsciously, I reach out an arm.

He takes my hand and leads it to

Touch his chest, where I feel a mark slightly rough,

Like a cocoon.

Something falls down along my cheeks.

It becomes day again, though the windows stay closed.

It’s you, Oh my God.

It’s all your fault. See,

You make me cry.

Illustration by Raining (陳雨君)Kew Garden, United Kingdom

Friday, 08 April 2016

The Day I met a Priest and a Pastor

On an early spring day, before the season when tourists would start to come in droves, inside the basilica perched on top of the sacred hill that towers over this southern French city, something unexpected caught my eyes: a poster from the parish’s chaplain for the Chinese, with a giant character (love) placed in the middle, each of its strokes filled with its famous definition from 1 Corinthians 13. Beneath it, among various brochures, was displayed a row of little red books with the title Bible in Chinese on their cover. I marveled at their small size until I saw the subtitle: New Testament. When I picked up one to read, I realized that, named Chinese Contemporary Bible (Dangdai yiben), it was different from the official Catholic translation and the Union Version commonly used by Chinese Protestants.

Father Sander met me in his office next to the basilica. He explained to me that the copies of the Bible were from an American Protestant pastor, who had been a missionary in France for many years. The Chinese Father Sander serve prefer this version because they find it easier to understand compared to other translations.

-          I am glad he is helping me. I need the books. He gives them for free.

It is hard to decide who is helping whom, the Pastor who provides the books, or Father Sander who shares the space without questioning the “orthodoxy” of the non-Catholic translation. Let’s say they are both generous. I can imagine it can be a little tough to be a Protestant missionary in France. In a way, Father Sander “hosted” him. But then, it is probably not so easy to be a Catholic priest in France either. Father Sander felt comfortable around Chinese people, and found them highly receptive and spiritually open-minded, in much larger measure than his own countrymen.

-          Did the Pastor try to convert you?

I was half joking, but Father Sander responded earnestly:

-           He wouldn’t have done that. He is a friend.

I was not sure it was the French or the Catholic in him that thought friends should not try to convert each other.

-          What I like about the Protestants is they really love God’s words.

Moderate and conciliatory, Father Sander gave the impression that he saw the best in you. He wanted to let Chinese know about Christ while respecting their cultural traditions.

It so happened that the Pastor also stopped by that afternoon to drop off something. It turned out that there were some connections between our geographical paths: he was sent out by a church in Chicago, and he had also lived in Boston. Within a few minutes he showed me pictures of his smiling grandchildren. I could not help wondering who would make more converts, Father Sander with his attentive and thoughtful presence, or the American pastor with his exuberant energy.

It was almost surreal that somehow they started to chat about the differences between Catholicism and Protestantism. Father Sander thought the most important distinction resides in the ways they are organized, while for the Pastor, it is the Tradition, which matters to Catholicism but Protestantism does not recognize.

Those are all well-known points, and it was just fascinating to me that the Priest and the Pastor chose to focus on different aspects. On the other hand, for what matters to me, there are so many kinds of Protestantism that the difference is huge, between mainline Protestant Churches such as the UCC, which have an official agreement with the US Roman Catholic Church to recognize each other’s baptismal rites, and some ultra-conservative Protestant Churches that consider most if not all of the other denominations heretic.

-          Are Catholics saved?

My question might seem a bit blunt, but was fair for someone who was preaching in France, and it was meant to allow me to tell what kind of Protestant he was.

-          Look, whoever is not against us is for us, Mark 9:40.

I liked it better than “whoever is not with me is against me”, but did not remember that it was also somewhere in the Bible. I fancied that living in France as a missionary probably made the Pastor more appreciative of people who were not against him.

-          People are not saved by belonging to a religion, he said.

Just when I was nodding approvingly, he added:

-          To be saved you have to be born again.

I started to see better where he came from, but he seemed so intelligent and engaging that I wanted to chat a little further with him.

-          Is it possible for people to have a profoundly transformative faith experience, but do not conceptualize it with the vocabulary of “born again”? I pleaded.

He was not giving an inch:

-          No, you have to be born again. Read John 3:3: “No one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again.

I was so distressed that I countered with the Parable of the Good Samaritan, even though it is a lot harder to act like the Good Samaritan than to believe that one is born again.

-          The Good Samaritan story is about the neighbor, he said to my dismay.

-          But the definition of neighbor is included as part of the discussion on how one can be saved! I protested while regretting that I did not have the Bible verses with their numbers memorized as he did.

Realizing that it was quixotic to debate salvation with such a well-trained pastor, I decided to instead ask him to help me solve a real life puzzle.

A while ago, a visitor told a story that divided a small group of Chinese Christians: A businessman was engaged in an unethical and deceitful trade.  Knowing that it was a sin to deceive other people, he prayed every morning, asking God’s forgiveness, and then went out to do his “job”, day after day, and year after year. Some believed that the businessman could not have been sincere in his prayer if it did nothing to improve his action, while others, based on the dogma of “Justification by faith alone”, thought that none of us are better than the businessman, because we are all depraved sinners that can only be saved by grace. Was he using prayer to exonerate himself? Or was he comparable to the tax collector who truly knew how to pray (Luke 18: 9-14)?

I thought it was a theologically tricky case for a Protestant, but the Pastor responded without missing a beat:

-          He was wrong not to trust God. He did not trust that God would let him make a living with an honest line of work.

That was a brilliant angle that had not occurred to me. By questioning the businessman’s faith, the Pastor successfully adhered to the doctrine of sola fide while avoiding a demoralizing moral equivalence. Even though he downplayed the importance of the Parable of the Good Samaritan, he seemed to have incorporated some of its meanings in his understanding of faith/trust in God that would imply at least an ethical dimension. I liked his answer because it confirmed the intuition of my inner conscience. Without a “Tradition”, what else can we rely on to interpret the Bible?

On the other hand, can we honestly say that we follow no tradition? Isn’t our inner conscience shaped in part by the path we have taken? Don’t Protestants have their own Traditions, more or less recent, more or less articulated or acknowledged?  For the Parable of the Good Samaritan, for instance, the Pastor, typical of American conservative Christians, did not adopt an allegorical interpretation by Augustine, proclaimed to be the only correct/orthodox one by some Chinese pastors who may or may not acknowledge him, as it allows them to pivot right back to “Justification by faith alone” while condemning “Justification by love”: the Good Samaritan is Jesus who save us while we are all sinners beaten half dead by Satan. The twist: Since Jesus is the Good Samaritan/the Neighbor, therefore “love your neighbor” becomes “accept the mercy of Jesus Christ our neighbor/savior” (See as examples Christian Life Quarterly, December 2015, No. 76 or ChurchChina May 2008, No.11 )…

In her landmark study of religion in everyday life in the USA (2014), Nancy Tatom Ammerman finds that American Christians and Jews “enthusiastically embrace” as “the core of their faith” the commandment to “love God” and “love your neighbor” which actually does mean helping others (what she terms the “Golden Rule ethical sensibility”). Studies on how ordinary Chinese believers live their faith, even on much smaller scales, are urgently needed, especially since their number has been dramatically increasing: what does it mean for them to be a believer of their faith? How does it affect their behavior in society? How do they relate to other people, including those who do not share the same beliefs?

On the day I met a priest and a born again pastor, the best thing I learned was they were friends. 

Tuesday, 23 February 2016

Doing Theology in Asia

A focus on the future of interreligious dialogue in Asia, in the context of a marked increase in secularization and the potential for new conflicts gathered theologians from across Asia in mid February in India.

Loyola College (University of Madras) organized a conference on “Religions and Society in Asia Today.” Organized by two Jesuit theologians, Michael Amaladoss and Vincent Sekhar, participants came from all over India as well as from China, Indonesia, Malaysia, Sri Lanka, the Philippines, France and the USA.

Amalados and Sekhar together direct the ‘Institute of Dialogue with Culture and Religion” (IDCR) at Loyola College. IDCR is a close partner of the Xu-Ricci Dialogue Center at Fudan University (Shanghai), led together by the author (Benoit Vermander) with Prof. Li Tiangang.

Central to the discussion were approaches to social and cosmic “harmony” found in different Asian traditions, exploring the possibilities that such approaches provide for fostering creative peace-building.

What struck me most during the conference is that doing theology in Asian context is less about content than style. In Asia, this is actually how it should be: an authentic theological discourse is grounded in an experience of the way the Word of God has been received and made flesh in the midst of a community, an experience that it precisely endeavors to translate into the syntax, stylistic turns and metaphors proper to any language.

The development of an Asian theological style is intimately linked to the ambitions of the Federation of Asian Bishops' Conferences (FABC), a body created in 1970 of 22 national conferences stretching from Pakistan in the west to the Philippines in the east, from Korea in the north of Asia to Indonesia at the south of Asia.

The “FABC papers” series comprise more than 145 documents, which can be read as a patient search for in-depth sharing and consensus-building among nations who experience a dizzying variety of social, political and cultural challenges. If some theologians contributed decisively to the endeavor, no name can encapsulate it. Asian theology belongs to no one. In that respect, its construction process reflects the values and methods it defends.

Built on dialogue and consensus building, Asian theology promotes these same values. The FABC has consistently emphasized its preference for the dialogue as explained in Nostra Aetate, the Declaration on the Relation of the Church with Non-Christian Religions of the Second Vatican Council.

According to the Indian theologian Felix Wilfred: “In our context, dialogue must come first. In Asia, Christians are only a small minority. We dialogue through life situations with people of other faiths. Theology of harmony is part of the discussion and reflection on theology of dialogue.”

There are many approaches to dialogue, and an Asian way of entering into dialogue differs from the argumentative style that other civilizations prefer. What another Asian theologian, Raimon Panikkar, defined dialogue as “the optimism of the heart” suggests an openness beyond dialectical argument.

More than any specific topic, “optimism of the heart” offers a basis for present-day Asian theological endeavors. While exploring the interconnectedness of all sentient beings, Asian theology re-asserts that all human beings are “capable of God” as long as they experience and nurture the solidarity that links them with their fellow travelers and the whole of creation. Because it is dia-logical – a piercing of the logos – the Asian interreligious quest is truly theo-logical: an opening towards the perpetual novelty of God.

Tuesday, 19 January 2016

Facing the Ruins: Theodicy between East and West

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

Monday, 07 September 2015

Becoming Asian

About twenty years ago, I had become a vegetarian and occasionally went to the potluck gatherings of the Boston Vegetarian Society. It was a small group where I felt reasonably welcome. Only in retrospect did I realize that its members were almost entirely white. The president was personable and always chatted with me every time I was there. When I left Boston for an academic position near Chicago, he gave me the phone number of a friend of his, who happened to be active in Chicago Vegetarian Society.

I met her at the Society's vegetarian Thanksgiving dinner, held in a huge banquet hall in a fancy Chicago hotel. After so many years I have forgotten what we talked about, except for one thing. Knowing that I was new in town, she suggested that I join the Asian American Association. I do not remember what I said in response, but for a long time I was thinking: What for?
That watershed moment marked the beginning of the end of my "pre-racial" self. Of course China was part of Asia, therefore I am Asian, but Asia being huge and diverse, I did not know any more about India than Canada. There have always been many Chinese friends in my social life, which occurred most naturally, as I had spent twenty-five years of my life in China, but it had never occurred to me to feel a special bond with anyone simply because he or she was Asian.

On the contrary, during the short amount of time when I roamed the world more or less unattached, I tended to choose where I went based on what I wanted to do, which sometimes landed me with groups in which almost no one else looked like me. During my last year in Boston while finishing my dissertation, I joined an international folk dance group. It was a friendly group welcoming to new members. I ran into them a sunny summer day when they danced at Copley Square during a summer festival, after which I regularly danced with them on weekend nights.

The group had mostly East-European village dances, easy to follow on the fly. I had never been to East Europe or known any real villages, but the idea of village dances appealed to me, much more than night clubs with loud music where everyone seems so perplexingly excited. I nostalgically imagined a village square where people who danced together belonged to the same community. The group boasted a large repertoire of dances, so I was never bored. I also made friends who invited me to some other folk dance venues. My favorite place was a small historic town hall for square and contra dances. I found square dance dazzlingly beautiful, while contra dance made me feel exhilaratingly happy and free, perhaps because as dancers move from one end of the room to the other, they get to dance with other people's partners.

I never joined the Asian American Society as I did not know what I would do there if all we held in common was the fact that we came from somewhere in Asia, not to say that whatever shared history we may have does not necessarily unite us. I considered "Asian American", with or without a hyphen, a politically constructed identity: it combines vastly different racial and ethnic groups which otherwise would be, even more, statistically overlooked. I did not go back to the Chicago Vegetarian Society either. As I put down roots in America's heartland where I originally knew nobody else, I realized that vegetarianism was just a small piece of my life's puzzle and could not compete with more powerful forces that formed its web.

My pre-racial self was partly shaped by my first few years in the U.S. in a PhD program specialized in the French Enlightenment, "living and breathing in French literature", as one of my fellow students jokingly remarked. I was selected to participate in the exchange program with the Ecole Normale Supérieure in Paris, after being assured by my professors that their choice would be made solely based on academic merit, "regardless of students' nationality or ethnic background." When against all odds, I landed a tenure-track position in French close to Chicago, I gratefully and sincerely believed myself to be an embodiment of American dream.

Leaving the high-minded academics in my PhD program to settle in the larger society has not always been easy, but I had an ample supply of meek resilience. Born in a small city in the remote Sichuan province in China, I completed my first grade in an elementary school in a rural town where my mother was "sent down" to teach. As I gradually moved to better schools and finally entered Peking University, I had learned to tune out subtle or not so subtle messages from those who looked down upon "outsiders from small places." Along with many people in similar situations, I had been used to living in the margins and learned to shrug off the unpleasant to focus on the positive. One of the few times when I felt outraged was when horrible things happened to other people: when I read about Danny Chen's suicide, I was so overwhelmed with grief that I cried, in a crowded airport.

As a mother I tried to raise my daughter in an intercultural environment, with an earnest post-racial mindset. Before she started high school and became too busy to travel with me, we spent roughly the same number of summers in France as in China, immersed in the languages and cultures. In fact, for three summers, she had month-long stays in three different host families in Blois, France, the first time with me, and twice by herself, while I directed my university's study abroad program. In middle school, she opted to study Spanish instead of French, because she wanted to learn one more language. She chose to celebrate two of her birthdays in her favorite Chinese restaurant, which happened to be a Sichuanese restaurant with mostly spicy food. Watching her joyfully interacting with her friends of various races, I felt relieved and grateful thinking that my daughter was, literally and figuratively, comfortable in her skin, and well integrated.

The spring of her junior year, however, she applied for and got a summer internship with Asian American Advancing Justice, a not-for-profit organization that helps disadvantaged Asian Americans, including refuges. How come a "post-racial" mother did not raise a "post-racial" child? Was it because when she was seven, a girl in her dance class asked her how she could be American since she was Chinese? Was it because when she was in second grade, a white girl refused to sit by her in the bus during a school excursion? Was it because she had to deal with derogatory jokes about Asians by some of her schoolmates? Was it because in middle school, her friends were all encouraging her to date a Korean-American boy because they were oh so similar, except she did not think they were? Was it because she ended up making friends with many Asian-American teens and realized that they do share similar challenges?

Those who complained about "hyphenated Americanism" would do well to remember that it is derived as much, if not more sometimes, from other people's perception than from self-identification. It may be the experience of growing up being perceived as others that makes Asian American children acutely realize their hyphenated identity – deleting the hyphen does not make a substantial difference. They became Asian not because of what happened in that immense continent where their parents or ancestors came from, but because of their shared experience in the country they call home. Their moral outrage about racial inequality is also deeply rooted in American egalitarianism. They are not born Asian, but paradoxically, it is by becoming Asian that they become more American.

(Drawing by Bendu)

Monday, 25 May 2015

The Colors of God

Every two years, Misereor, a German Catholic development agency, sponsors and sells a "Lenten Veil" produced by an artist from a non-Western country. The Veil it promotes in 2015-2016 has been painted by the Chinese artist Dao Zi. Benoit Vermander comments here on the theological meaning of the artwork.

For more information on the Veil: http://www.misereor.de/service/service-gemeinden/misereor-hungertuch.html

When confronted by an artwork, the viewer may legitimately "feel' and "read' it in a way that is different from the one suggested by its creator. Inspiring artworks open up a space of possibilities and interpretations that go beyond the intentions of the one who created it – like the life children that go far beyond the projects and wishes of their parents. I feel entitled to read Dao Zi's Lent Veil by starting from directions and insights that differ from the ones he had explicitly in mind. And such "deviant reading" is after all a way to pay homage to the depth and evocative power of a most intriguing work.

In the gold and ink that predominate in the Veil, I perceive the colors of God... The golden color speaks to me of the Godhead, of the eternal surge of the divinity out of his own self, of his explosion and yet of his perpetual gathering into One. Gold sings the source of life and light at her most original and at her purest. To put it another way, the island of golden light that stands at the center of this painting speaks to me of an inexhaustible treasure: the heart of the Father from whom the Word always flows and to which He also comes back. This explosion of light - that yet remains united and compact - tells me of "one thing that God has said, and two that I have heard" (Psalm 62:12): the Father gives everything to His Son, and, in His Son, God gives everything to us; at the same time (and this is the second thing that I hear out of the single Word that God eternally offers), God remains One in the loving embrace of the divine persons.

And yet, dots of gold are scattered around the original island of light... These dots tell me that God makes a dwelling within our very being, that when we obey the Word we are visited and invested by the Spirit who unites the Father and the Son. Each of the dots of gold shares in the Source of Light. Apparently, each dot is separated from the Source, but in truth it exists only within the Source and thanks to her. "God un ich sind dann eins – God and I are one then" (Meister Eckhart)

I can glance at the shape of the central glittering of gold for a long time... As I said, I see first an island of light standing in the darkness, something that speaks of an eternal beginning, a star maybe - or the sun in the morning. But in this shape I can also distinguish a head: the face of God as revealed suddenly on the cross. Sometimes, I see it also as a nail, as an opening in the flesh from which the ultimate mystery is revealed and hidden again. And at other moments it irresistibly suggests to me the cutting edge of the godhead: nothing and nobody can define the Source of all things but she ineffably penetrates all reality.

And now... the black or dark blue of the ink... I do not truly "see" it – I rather "feel" it. I feel a flux in it, the perpetual movement of a river, something that cannot be stopped, because it is the rhythm of life. It tells me that no analogy can adequately grasp the mystery of God, not even the one provided by the word "Light." God is the ultimate secret that one just cannot penetrate. God is the secret hidden behind time, behind space, behind all beginnings. God has no name, no face, no shape, no color, no time, God has no form out of which we could fathom an idea or an image. And it is only when we have meditated upon this radical "cloud of unknowing" that we can hear in truth the words whispered by John: "No one has ever seen God. The unique God, who is close to the Father's side, has revealed him." (John 1:18)

For sure, in this painting black and gold taken together are drawing the shape of a cross. It does speak of the cross of Christ that both hides God and ultimately reveals God's secret. Black and golden, the cross stands over the grisaille of our world and illuminates it. And the tears, blood and water that flow from the suffering flesh of Christ are changed into these seven dots of pure, radiant light. But I also see this crossing of lines as a sign meant to forbid us to enclose God in a representation, a concept or a definition. It speaks of the meeting of opposites: God is light and yet is hidden in the deepest darkness; God is both love and justice; God speaks to us through gold and black. God is beyond all time and space, and is revealed in the frailty of our history, the evanescence of our memories.

Also, I see in the crossing of these black and golden shapes the search of a balance between immobility and movement. Again, the dark flux of the horizontal line speaks to me of water, of a divine secret working throughout times and spaces like the river carves its bed. Earth and mountains glitter over the waters, stable as an immutable heart. God is an inexhaustible dynamism and an eternal quiescence. And Christ on the cross is both passively offered to human violence and actively accomplishes the loving will of the Father. This painting does not offer to the viewer a cross to contemplate from a distance. It rather invites us to enter into its movement and its rhythm, so that the Spirit may dispel our certainties and mental images. The cross that this painting draws is not a place to stay. It is an opening and a threshold.

And it is in the "mobility" of the work that I can sense the cultural background of the artist. The seals used by Dao Zi are mostly adorned by the characters for "One" and for "Three." Besides the obvious references to the Triune God and also to the nails of the cross, the paintings and the seals reminded me immediately of the chapter 42 of the Daodejing – the seminal Classic of the Daoist School:

"The Way begets the one
The one begets the two
The two beget the three
The three beget the myriad beings.
The myriad beings carry the shadow and embrace the light,
Blending their breaths into harmony."

The cosmology suggested by this famous mystical text speaks of a process of birth and generation that operates through gift and loss: the unfathomable Way – the Principle that is before all forms and things. It lets itself be numbered and divided. The Principle, once it is manifested as Triune, gives life to all beings. And life sustains itself through the balance of light and obscurity in which breathings are blended and harmonized. In such a perspective, the cross of Christ accomplishes the process through which God gives to the world not only some measure of life, but also the very principle of life, the essence of life and light that God is. And this gift is manifested in a blending of light and darkness: God exhausts the light that He is throughout the radiant breath He communicates to His Son and, through His Son, to all of us. God shares the fullness of His breath with His Son and receives it anew from His Son. The myriad beings blend their breaths into divine life as they originate themselves from such inexpressible exchange.

Coming again at the painting, I then read it as a meditation on the chapter 14 of the Daodejing:

"Looked at, but cannot be seen -That is called the Invisible.
Listened to, but cannot be heard -That is called the Inaudible.
Grasped at, but cannot be touched -That is called the Intangible.
These three elude our inquiries - And hence blend and become One."

And this makes me also listen differently to the question that goes with the artwork: " Wie viel is genug? How much is enough?"

Is such question merely about our needs, about how much "gold" we truly need in our life? For sure, assessing our real needs in the light of Jesus' teaching as well as of current world challenges is a discernment to be made – to be made at all cost one may say. But I also hear the question as being asked about God: how much is enough for God? And the implied answer would be: God never tires of giving Himself, of losing, sharing, exhausting His very being, God never gives enough of His breath and His light, He gives the whole of Himself to His Son, and then, by surrendering His Son to us, He exhausts and communicates everything He has and He is. When it comes to giving, there is never a "genug" – enough - for God. The question asked by the painting becomes the dynamic though which we surrender ourselves to God and our brothers and sisters. By both veiling and unveiling God's ultimate mystery, Dao Zi's painting open us the space where God's life and our daily life blend into the one and the same circulation of light, breathing and love.

(Edited by Michael Kelly)

Friday, 03 April 2015

Is Confucius in hell? – Why Answers to the Question Matter

Is Confucius in hell? Post Vatican II Catholics may think that we have definitely moved beyond such a question after the promulgation of Lumen Gentium (1964) which no longer excludes from salvation those "who through no fault of their own do not know the Gospel of Christ or His Church, yet sincerely seek God and moved by grace strive by their deeds to do His will as it is known to them through the dictates of conscience" (Article 16). But the case is far from settled and can still lead to passionate debates among Chinese Protestants of different stripes.

Oversea Chinese Protestant churches and Protestant "house churches" in China are generally considered evangelical or fundamentalist. The morphology itself can present myriad challenges. It is not easy to theoretically distinguish those two terms in the Chinese context, as both groups may appear to be fundamentalist in terms of doctrine, and ordinary believers, who simply consider themselves Christians, may not even recognize such labels. One major difference is evangelicals tend to hold increasingly more assertive political and social agendas following the American religious conservative model. However, a strong fundamentalist tendency exists overall among Chinese Protestants, to the point that the word "fundamentalism" has two translations: when referring to Islamic fundamentalism, it is usually translated as yuanjiaozhi zhuyi (原教旨主义), which has a strong negative connotation; when used with Protestants, it is commonly translated as jiyao zhuyi (基要主义), a more neutral or even laudatory term for self-proclaimed fundamentalists who equate it with steadfast adherence to biblical truths. Theologically speaking, Chinese Protestants tend to be more conservative than American evangelicals such as Billy Graham, whom some consider a heretic due to his interfaith initiatives.

Those who declare that Confucius is in hell base their belief on biblical passages. Among the most frequently cited are John 14: 6 (Jesus answered, "I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me"), and Acts Chapter 4: 12 (Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved). The bar for salvation for Confucius is thus set very high, requiring the chronologically impossible explicit belief in Jesus. For those who think that it is not fair to damn righteous people who were prevented from knowing Jesus by chronology, the answer is that humans are all sinners and none of us deserves God's grace anyway, Confucius no more than anybody else, because "there is no one righteous, not even one" (Roman 3:10). The most critical of them think it is a heresy even to claim that one is not sure whether or not Confucius is in hell, because it is so clear that he is, based on the correct reading of the Bible.

Some Chinese Protestants have managed to find other biblical passages that make it possible for Confucius to be saved, especially Peter 4:6 (For this is the reason the Gospel was preached even to those who are now dead), or John 5:25 (I tell you the truth, a time is coming and has now come when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God and those who hear will live). The hopeful interpretation is that since the Gospel can be preached to the dead, Confucius would have had a chance to be saved. Given that he so eagerly sought truth during his lifetime, he would have undoubtedly accepted Jesus' teachings. This view was refuted because Gandhi, a virtuous man who knew about Jesus, did not become a believer. Among people who think that Confucius has been saved, some are pious fundamentalists who adhere to the doctrine of biblical inerrancy like their detractors, but they tend to be older and culturally more attached to Confucianism. Some Protestants, especially some but not all "cultural Christians", agree with the way Matteo Ricci and his fellow Jesuits in late Ming and early Qing dynasties read the Chinese classics: Confucius and ancient Chinese, as descendants of Noah, knew the true God; they were neither idolatrous nor atheist. But the church-going Protestants mostly either do not know or do not care about what Catholic missionaries have written, when they do not view it with suspicion.

More cautious people refrain from judging, leaving it to God's grace and wisdom. They even allow that Confucius might be saved, but the lesson to take home is since the only sure way to salvation is through Jesus, we should preach the Gospel to as many people as possible. Why would such a question even matter? They ask. Well, it is not just about Confucius. The question translates a deep unease among Chinese non-believers or religious seekers, who find it unfair that, righteous people born before Jesus lived or was known in their locality, should be condemned to hell, while faith constitutes the sole requirement for salvation, regardless of any other personal merits. Chinese Protestants agree on the inerrancy of the Bible, but in regard to its specific interpretations, those who accuse others of heresy have not come up with coherent criteria. Some refer to the principles of five "Solas": by Scripture alone, by faith alone, by grace alone, through Christ alone, and glory to God alone. But how do those principles apply to specific cases, such as whether or not Confucius is saved? Who is to decide?

For the Chinese, whether or not Confucius is in hell is not an obscure theological question. On one hand, many Protestants aim to play a more assertive role in the public sphere. Some of them declare unsatisfactory Taiwan's model of religious freedom because Protestants there have failed to become a formidable political force in its democratic process. They also deem European democratic model too secular, and aspire instead to American political ideal as defined by American religious conservatives who believe that the country was founded on Protestant Christian idea. On the other hand, even though a significant number of Chinese have become indifferent to Confucius as a result of the May 4th Movement and especially the Cultural Revolution, most people still revere him and consider Confucianism an important part of Chinese cultural heritage. In such a context, what people think about Confucius' salvation status rightfully belongs to the public sphere.

Illustration by Bendu

Thursday, 19 February 2015

Memory and Small Town China: 'Hometown Boy' Review 《金城小子》影評


This is a slow-brewing documentary and Taiwanese director, Yao Hung-yi (姚宏易) clearly shares a love of long but poignant camera shots with executive director Hou Hsiao-hsien (候孝賢). The documentary is about Chinese artist and actor Liu Xiaodong (劉小東) going back to his hometown of Jincheng in China's north-western Liaoning province to paint his childhood friends. Liu was a producer on Devils On the Doorstep, which I reviewed here, and starred in the film The Days (《冬春的日子》), which I haven't yet seen.

Thursday, 08 January 2015

A Curious Puzzle: Americans’ Chilly to Lukewarm Perceptions of Buddhists

When Robert D. Putnam and David E. Campbell discuss how Americans view various religious groups in their critically acclaimed book, American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us (2010), they reported that the three most "unpopular" groups are Mormons, Buddhists, and Muslims. Based on a "feeling thermometer" from 0 (coldest) to 100 (warmest), all three were ranked in the 40s, below the overall mean of 55 degree and the neutral point of 50. One may wonder how Buddhists could have received such a chilly reception in the US in absence of any typical factors that make a religion unpopular to others, such as negative media attention, social behaviors that run counter to laws or ethic codes of the larger society, historical or ongoing conflicts, and proselytizing competition for converts.

The number puzzles me, especially in comparison with the positive way Buddhists are perceived in France. As reported in a Figaro article in 2013, Buddhism is ranked by Tilder et l'Institut Montaigne as the religion most favorably viewed by the French: 87% of them have a good image of Buddhism, followed by 76% for Protestantism, 69% for Catholicism, 64% for Judaism, and 26% for Islam. Even if we take the exact numbers with a grain of salt, the "warm" feeling the French have for Buddhism can be corroborated by numerous other studies, surveys and newspaper or magazine articles.

It is certainly not the first time the French and Americans so sharply disagree, but the contrast makes it obvious that Americans' negative view of Buddhism may not have much to do with its place outside of Judeo-Christian framework. Putnam and Campbell believe that Americans' religious tolerance stems mainly from the fact that most of them "are intimately acquainted with people of other faiths." As a result, since there are so few Buddhists and Muslims, most Americans are not closely acquainted with anyone of them, preventing "religious bridging". The thesis makes a lot of sense in many regards, but it does not explain, for instance, why American Jews gave Buddhists a warm score of 64, the highest of what they gave to any religious groups other than themselves (Catholics received the same score).

If the condition for Buddhists to be viewed warmly in the US is for a large number of other Americans to be "intimately acquainted" with them, we may wait for a very long time. In a well-researched book, My Freshman Year (2005), anthropologist Rebekah Nathan (pseudonym) observes that college students, whom we might expect to be most dynamic and open-minded, tend to socialize in homogenous groups with those who resemble themselves in appearances and backgrounds. Yes, they are usually polite and civil, but display a surprising level of indifference towards unfamiliar cultures, bitterly felt by international students. Perhaps one of the deepest problems in the US is a pervasive lack of curiosity for difference or unfamiliarity, which is reflected in an overwhelming need to feel comfortable, and to find others "relatable" before willing to be associated with them. Living in the same neighborhood does not mean genuine friendship would result from such proximity, because neighbors seldom socialize with each other. Robert Putnam's bestselling Bowling Alone (2000) depicts precisely an America where people became increasingly disconnected from one another.

It is well-noted that divisions tend to run along racial lines, even in places of worship. In a fascinating article in Huffington Post, "Buddhism's Race Problem: Buddhist 'People of Color Sanghas'", Jaweed Kaleem reports on emerging exclusive Buddhist meditation groups where whites are not allowed, because minority practitioners feel judged and unwelcome in established meditation centers where members are almost entirely white. It may seem odd that Buddhism, a religion that teaches detachment from the self and appearances, cannot bridge the believers' racial division, but we need to take into account America's long history of racial segregation. It was only in 1967 that the US Supreme Court outlawed the so-called "anti-miscegenation laws".

Putnam and Campbell's book was based on Faith Matters Surveys conducted in 2006 and 2007. When Pew Research Center conducted a new survey in July 2014, Americans' "feeling temperature" for Buddhism has increased to 53 degree, still lukewarm but a noticeable improvement, warmer than 48 for Mormons and 40 for Muslims. What has changed? The survey offers various clues. Younger Americans give Buddhist significantly higher marks than older ones: 18 to 29 year-olds, a significant proportion of whom were too young to be included in the previous surveys, rate them at 58 degree, while those 65 and older give them a tepid 47. In addition, there seems to be a correlation with politics: Democrats view Buddhists much more favorably than Mormons (57 versus 44), while Republicans rate them slightly lower (49 versus 52). Does knowing someone from a religious group result in a more positive view? It definitely does, but not to the same degree. Buddhists receive the largest boost, from 48 to 70, the highest mark, but only 23% of Americans know anyone of them.

How do we interpret such statistics? How come Buddhists benefit so much more from familiarity than other religions? For what reasons some religious groups view Buddhists much more favorably than others do? Why do Democrats have a significantly more positive view of Buddhists than Republicans? To what extent those diverse perceptions are related to the specific teachings of Buddhism? Numbers do not lie, as the saying goes, but neither do they tell the whole story.

Photo By Aaron Logan (from http://www.lightmatter.net/gallery/albums.php) [CC BY 1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/1.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Monday, 05 January 2015

Things are seldom what they seem in China: Religions and China’s Creative Power

There are many Chinas – from isolated, struggling mountain communities to the communities of connected urbanites who live in futuristic landscapes. But there might be only two ways of looking at China, and both are right on their own terms.

On the one hand, engaging with Chinese realities sometimes overwhelms an observer who is struck most forcefully by the apparent homogeneity of the country. Unequal levels of regional economic development hardly mask an impression of sameness to life across China. The systematic formatting of modes of thought, urban planning and consumer habits necessarily leads one to lament the fact that sustainability and cultural diversity have been sacrificed as the price of quantitative growth and state-sponsored values and discourse. The gloom generated by looking at uniform skylines may then lead the observer to nurture a deep pessimism about the human future of China.

On the other hand, immersed into day-to-day Chinese life as I am, I often marvel at the ingenuity of a society that continuously renews the "practices of everyday life" as Michel de Certeau famously called them. Starting and maintaining social networks (both real and virtual) so as to build supportive communities, nurturing local art scenes, supplementing the state's deficiencies when it comes to take care of older people or bettering one's neighborhood, taking advantage of every educational opportunity... Such endeavors and many others translate into personal and collective tactics in which ordinary people engage with seemingly endless energy and creativity.

Gloomy skylines belie what happens at ground level. The more I enter into China, the more I feel impressed by the way Chinese people and the society they make renew themselves through ever evolving grassroots endeavors.

Religious vitality is far from being the sole expression and motor of a burgeoning society. But one should not underestimate how much it contributes to it. Its expressions are manifold: volunteers regroup in the compounds of Buddhist temples both for organizing workshops and charity events; in Shantou (Guangdong Province), a popular religion fellowship is revived for taking care of funerals in a way more sensitive to the grieving than the ones provided by state-sanctioned rituals; in various cities, mosques have become centers for professional training; and as Protestant and Catholic networks proliferate beyond control, they can come to define the full reach of the social life of their most devoted members.

As long as such vitality remains limited in numbers and in public expression, the State remains neutral. It may even start to favor these developments when the goals of local communities are congruent with official strategies, as it is most often the case.

Problems occur when social movements become far too conspicuous and autonomous. Such is the case in Zhejiang province, and especially in Wenzhou city, where the growth of Christianity has taken Korea-like proportions. The campaign to demolish crosses and sometimes even entire churches that occurred in 2014 needs this context for its interpretation: limits had to be enforced in a way that left no place for ambiguity about who is in charge.

However, in 2014, Christmas celebrations have supplied even more testimonies to both the popular appeal and organizational strength of Christianity. Far more than in preceding years, crowds at services, concerts and other events testify to its popularity – even if the reasons for such popularity remain debated, with the spiritual, the exotic and the taste for all things fun and fashionable mixing in varying degrees.

Not surprisingly, adverse reactions came from various sectors, especially in the Ministry of Education that is anxious to see that youth Chinese do not to embrace "foreign" festivals, but also from intellectuals advocating cultural nationalism. However, these sorts of reactions were not as common or notable as sometimes reported in the Western medias.

The directions in which Chinese society and culture are presently moving remain hard to assess. What is certain is that, from now on, their very creativity make them both unpredictable and, ultimately, uncontrollable.

Photo by Liang Zhun

Monday, 15 December 2014

A pantomime of a war film: 'Devils on the Doorstep' Review

In a phrase: A pantomime until the end, at which point it rushes to satisfy nationalistic appetites.

(Spoilers below)

This film is set in a small Chinese town called Guajia (hang up armor) under Japanese occupation during the second world war.

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