Benoit Vermander (魏明德)

Benoit Vermander (魏明德)

Benoit Vermander lives in Shanghai. He teaches philosophy and religious anthropology at the University of Fudan.

Tuesday, 23 February 2016 10:34

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.

Monday, 12 October 2015 13:32

Michel de Certeau: The Unity of an Itinerary

Nathalie Zemon Davis has given a very effective description of Certeau’s underlying intellectual and existential focus:

          “Whether writing about madness and mysticism in the seventeenth century, South American resistance movements in the past and present, or the practice of everyday life in the twentieth century, Certeau developed a distinctive way of interpreting social and personal relations. … Certeau wanted to identify the creative and disruptive presence of "the other"—the outsider, the stranger, the alien, the subversive, the radically different—in systems of power and thought. … To be sure, notions of ‘otherness’ were cropping up in literature, philosophy, and psychoanalysis in the 1960s and 1970s, when Certeau was gaining prominence, but he was original in the multiple ways he conceived figures of the ‘other’ and how they functioned in many settings. He coined the term "heterologies" to describe disciplines in which we examine ourselves in relation to otherness; history and ethnography, for instance, could be ‘sciences of the other’ if they confront the often disfiguring assumptions we bring to our understanding of different times and places.”[1]

Reflecting on the forms, expressions and meaning of “Experience” was at the core of Certeau’s research: what language do men shape and develop to give an account of what is impossible to express and yet cannot but be said, sung or cried out? How does “experience” coalesce into “institutions” that want to make it perennial and yet are prone to disfigure the initial intuition of the founder? How does our creativity in everyday life, regardless of the constraints to which we are submitted, flow from the roots of our inner experience and create new social configurations? As Marcel Mauss had done before him, Certeau was somehow looking for “total social facts” (fait social total), the study of which reconciles and transcends sociology, psychology and anthropology. Certeau’s quest has a strong epistemological dimension: it wants to restore the unity of all knowledge presently divided into different social sciences and humanities according to the way separate fields of study or “disciplines” are defined and organized by the academic world.

As it had been partly the case for Marcel Mauss some forty years before, Certeau entered the “linguistic turn” because of such epistemological concerns: paying attention to the logic of language was the key for reconciling the study of the individual and the collective into one. “Mystical” language was Certeau’s special topic. He studied mysticism not only as an individual phenomenon, but also as a collective adventure. He did it through the deciphering of the Mystical School which flourished in the sixteenth and the seventeenth centuries, especially in Spain and in southwest France. His encounter on  the one hand  with Jacques Lacan and a certain type of psychoanalysis, on the other hand with Wittgenstein and his philosophy of language helped Certeau to center his thought on the formal linguistic study of speech and writing. That study provided him with an organizing thread which was instrumental in linking his  investigations through many disciplines. No wonder that Certeau was so quick to produce an insightful analysis of the 1968 movement: right on the spot he understood it as a major event concerning people’s language and speech.

 

Making Sense of Everyday Life

In L'Invention du quotidien (The Practice of Everyday Life) of 1980, Certeau brought attention to all kinds of daily practices. For instance, the way people are walking into the city according to their own whims creates a  "walking rhetoric”; we read books in ways we are not supposed to do it, somehow reshaping and giving new meaning to the material at hand. In the same way, cooking rituals organize our own space and ways of living together, with families and friends. Somehow, the “trajectories” developed by ordinary people can be seen as “tactics” they devise to build up their own markers, paths and spaces across settings to which they have to get adapted. By so doing,  they “poach upon” the territories controlled by political and social powers. Paying special attention to the “ways of proceeding” of the silent majority therefore leads to a “polemological analysis of culture.” Culture articulates conflicts and develops in an atmosphere of tensions, and often of violence, for which it provides temporary balances, contracts and compromises. “The tactics of consumption, the ingenious ways in which the weak make use of the strong, thus lend a political dimension to everyday practices” concludes Certeau.

As developed by Certeau, the notion of “trajectory” or “wandering line” is especially thought-provoking: “In the technocratically constructed, written, and functionalized space in which the consumers move about, their trajectories form unforeseeable sentences, partly unreadable paths across a space. Although they are composed with the vocabularies of established languages (those of television, newspapers, supermarkets, or museum sequences) … the trajectories trace out the ruses of other interests and desires that are neither determined nor captured by the systems in which they develop.” Note here the way the tactics of everyday life are compared to sentences, in which we use as we deem it best specific sets of vocabulary and grammatical resources.

Certeau’s line of analysis has been developed well beyond its original setting. The concepts developed in The Practice of Everyday Life have been used for explaining how people “create” ancestors for instance through representations and stories.[2] In modern megalopolises, urban-dwellers’ inventiveness is now taken into account by the ethnographic literature when describing how they make use of the places designed for mass consumption or how they carve out places for religious or recreational purposes.

 

History, Practices and Writing

Certeau’s epistemological acuteness took shape through his study of the mystical and spiritual literature of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. It made him aware that believers had been continuously adapting their faith to new social contexts and giving new meanings to words, ideas and rituals coming from the past. Even for a 20th century historian who is a Catholic believer, any 16th century Catholic was really a “Stranger.”

According to Certeau, we cannot just project on the past our current vision and languages – and, at the same time, we cannot content ourselves with a learned, “objective” accumulation of data. There is an “absence”, a “lack”, a tension that truly opens up a way towards “historical knowledge.” It is the “otherness” of the one we first thought was “close” to us that gives birth to the risk of writing history. Certeau says that he started to write really about Jean-Joseph Surin, when he discovered how far away he was from this 17th  century French Jesuit  whose texts he was studying.

The reflection led by Certeau on the status of the historical text was inspired by his own historical practice, and at the same time it was  influencing his historical practice. His own research style has been well characterized by Roger Chartier: “’All of Certeau’s work as a historian was centered on the precise, careful analysis of the practices by which men and women of past times, appropriated, each in his or her own way, the codes and the places that were imposed on them, or else subverted the accepted rules to create new formalities.”[3]

  

Belief and Weakness: Entering the Mystic Path

As his historical research leads him to reflect on the nature of “belief’, Certeau also renews  Christian theology. He sees Christ as the figure of the Other, of the “Stranger’, he describes “belief” as a way of experiencing one’s weakness (La Faiblesse de croire, 1987 – English translation in preparation in London, Spanish translation available in Buenos Aires). Such existential weakness, he noted, needs also to mark the institution that conveys and gives social expression to faith. A “weak Church” is the only institutional model that can be fully loyal to the particular nature of Christian faith. Only in weakness can spiritual fecundity be experienced. Christianity had to be “scattered” (Le Christianisme éclaté, Paris, Seuil, 1974) in order to be reborn. “One can say that the mystical is a reaction against the appropriation of truth by the clerics, who started to become professionalized in the thirteenth century. It favored the illumination of the illiterate, the experience of women, the wisdom of fools, the silence of the child: it opted for the vernacular languages against the Latin of the schools. It maintained that the ignorant have competence in matter of faith. … The mystical is the authority of the crowd, a figure of the anonymous.”[4]

Chartier has said that, for Michel de Certeau, “History was a place of experimentation.”[5] The same can be asserted of all intellectual practices to which Certeau dedicated his thought and time. For him, a field of research was never actually defined and limited by its subject matter. His careful exploration of any issue, in any field of study, would rather turn it into a place, a laboratory : there he would  link together insights, hypotheses and methodologies into an ever-evolving intellectual synthesis. The discovery of the “Stranger” – located in us or outside of us –  was the driving force which inspired his insatiable curiosity. In a special way, Certeau tells us that mysticism and its study allow us to explore the very “strangeness” which always is within and outside our own being, such exploration will draw us farther away from our familiar ground.

Maybe when we embark into any research of our own, do we similarly need to nurture a “mystical drive” that brings us away from our comfort zone. Thirty years after his death,  Certeau’s works still challenge our intellectual habits and bring us towards grounds where we may be reluctant to be involved. As he would say so often, to fully live one’s life, everyone has to take some major risk.


[1] “The Quest of Michel de Certeau”, The New York Review of Books, 55 (8), May 15 2008.

[2] See Grégory Deleplace, 2009, L’invention des morts, sépultures, fantômes et photographie en Mongolie contemporaine, Paris, Centre d’Etudes Mongoles et Sibériennes- Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes, « Nord-Asie I ».

[3] Roger Chartier, op. cit., pp.45-46.

[4] Interview in Le Nouvel Observateur, 25 September 1982, pp.118-121; quoted in Chartier, op. cit., p.46.

[5] Op. cit., p.47.

 

Illustration by Bendu

Monday, 22 June 2015 16:13

'The Mass on the World' by Teilhard de Chardin

It was in the desert of Ordos that Teilhard wrote one of his great mystical texts: 'The Mass on the World' (La Messe sur le monde). Without bread and wine, he couldn't celebrate mass everyday, as he was accustomed to doing. So it was the high plateau which became his altar, and all the matter in the universe that became his offering to God:

It is done.

Once again the Fire has penetrated the earth.

Not with sudden crash of thunderbolt, riving the mountain-tops: does the Master break down doors to enter his own home? Without earthquake, or thunderclap: the flame has lit up the whole world from within. All things individually and collectively are penetrated and flooded by it, from the inmost core of the tiniest atom to the mighty sweep of the most universal laws of being: so naturally has it flooded every element, every energy, every connecting-link in the unity of our cosmos; that one might suppose the cosmos to have burst spontaneously into flame.

In the new humanity which is begotten today the Word prolongs the unending act of his own birth; and by virtue of his immersion in the world's womb the great waters of the kingdom of matter have, without even a ripple, been endued with life. No visible tremor marks this inexpressible transformation; and yet, mysteriously and in very truth, at the touch of the supersubstantial Word the immense host which is the universe is made flesh. Through your own incarnation, my God, all matter is henceforth incarnate.

Through our thoughts and our human experiences, we long ago became aware of the strange properties which make the universe so like our flesh:

like the flesh it attracts us by the charm which lies in the mystery of its curves and folds and in the depths of its eyes;

like the flesh it disintegrates and eludes us when submitted to our analyses or to our failings off and in the process of its own perdurance;

as with the flesh, it can only be embraced in the endless reaching out to attain what lies beyond the confines of what has been given to us.

Watch an excerpt of the documentary Teilhard and China, produced by the Taipei Ricci Institute and the Xu-Ricci Dialogue Institute at Fudan University (more info here).

Monday, 25 May 2015 10:16

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)

Monday, 05 January 2015 22:15

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

Tuesday, 28 October 2014 00:00

As China changes, Teilhard de Chardin reappears

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin was all the rage in Catholic circles and beyond them thirty to fifty years ago. He is credited with having had a major impact on Vatican II (1962 – 1965). As a scientist, he was at the forefront in his chosen field – paleontology.

Now the thought of the influential but no longer popular French Jesuit is making a comeback and from an unlikely place – China.

The relationship between Teilhard and China was much deeper and more decisive than most of his readers realize. Teilhard was based in China for 23 years (1923-1946), and wrote his two most influential books there. They included several of the writings that would later be gathered under the title "The Divine Milieu", and, most importantly, "The Phenomenon of Man."

The Jesuit scientist was already 42 years old when he went to Hebei Province in northern China on archeological digs. And he he had come to China not entirely by choice: an article on original sin saw a question mark put over him in "orthodox" circles, and he was directed by his religious superiors to concentrate on scientific research in the Chinese hinterland rather than tackling tricky theological subjects.

Teilhard was not a new Ricci in his adaptation to Chinese culture and more. Nor was he at ease with traditional missionary methods. And he felt himself often to be in exile. Still, it is in China that he made his most exciting discoveries, identifying in 1930 "Beijing Man' as a "Homo Faber", and conducting extensive geological surveys across China.

As the text of his "Mass on the World" eloquently testifies, it is primarily the Chinese earth, replete with early testimonies to the development of life, which inspired Teilhard and provided him with the basis for the full development of his thought.

But such exploration came from a choice he made early on after arriving in China: he had left the private museum of natural history created in China by his colleague Emile Licent, choosing instead to join the Geological Survey Bureau created by the Chinese government.

He is remembered as one of the three founding fathers of Chinese paleontology. When leaving China, Teilhard eloquently spoke of his "enormous gratitude" for the country in which he made so many friends, conducted so many exploratory missions, and was able to reflect in new ways on humankind's and cosmic destiny.

After his death in 1955, Teilhard's thought exercised an enormous influence on the Catholic Church and beyond, before somehow waning towards the end of the 1970s. During the same period, Teilhard was of course never mentioned in China.

Today, the situation seems to be reversing. During the 1990s, the Chinese Institute of Paleontology was the first to rehabilitate his name and scientific contribution.

What about his cosmological and theological thought? Professor Wang Hayan of Beijing's Language and Culture University wrote her doctoral thesis in Paris on Teilhard. She was the first to popularize his concepts in Chinese context, publishing an Anthology of his works based on his Complete Works.

As well, "The Phenomenon of Man" and many other his seminal works have been translated, sometimes twice. Older Chinese Jesuits published early translations in Taiwan from the 1960s, and some of them now available in the PRC. And the process continues with a short book by Teilhard, "The Place of Man in Nature", published by Beijing University Press in October 2014.

The translator of this last work, Alex Wang, is a Chinese-born senior manager of a French firm. He was awarded two doctorates in Paris - one in engineering and the other in philosophy. Wang has enthralled with Teilhard's vision for many years and was the main organizer of a colloquium entitled "Teilhard and the Future of Humankind" which was held in Beijing on October 19, 2014.

This was the first event dealing with the entirety of Teilhard's thought, not only his scientific writings, to take place in the Chinese language and in Mainland China. It attracted a galaxy of talent:
• Professor Huang Huiwen, from the Chinese Institute of Paleontology, recalled Teilhard's contribution to Chinese Geology;
• Professor Li Tiangang (Fudan University) spoke of Teilhard as a "global man", helping us all to put our various levels of relationship into a broader context, challenging the common time-space continuum in which we move and think;
• The Mongolian writer Yang Dorje eloquently recalled the travels of Teilhard in the remote Ordos region and quoted the Chinese translation of "The Mass on the World." Evoking the physical relationship that still links humankind to matter and the earth, Yang Dorje highlighted Teilhard as a cosmic poet and thinker, anchoring us deeper in our origins and destiny.
• Liu Feng, the creator of XLab in China which specializes in training students to collaborate in their work, spoke of the concept of "Noosphere' and "Omega Point" in relationship with the insights provided by contemporary cybernetics.
• Thierry Meynard, a Jesuit teaching in China, reminded the audience of the way Teilhard was envisioning the future of humankind beyond national and ethnic barriers and the way such vision was congruent with the United Nations ideals developed at the same time.

The colloquium drew 100 participants, mainly university professors and doctoral students. It concluded by deciding to launch the Chinese association of the friends of Teilhard and on a program of promotional activities for 2015, the year of the sixtieth anniversary of the death of Teilhard.

At the colloquium, a 45 minute documentary entitled "Teilhard and China" premiered. It was co-produced by the Xu-Ricci Institute at Fudan University and the Taipei Ricci Institute. The work, directed by Benoit Vermander, SJ and Cerise Phiv, was filmed in Auvergne (where Teilhard was born), Paris, Shanghai, Beijing, Ningxia and Inner Mongolia. It also includes testimonies by Henri du Passage, a nephew of Teilhard, who recalls how much his uncle suffered from the rejection he often experienced in Catholic circles, especially after his travel to Rome in 1947.

Besides recalling the Chinese adventures of Teilhard, the film documents an intercultural workshop on Teilhard's thought conducted in the Ordos desert in August 2013. In the place where Teilhard wrote "The Mass on the World", young intellectuals from Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences, Fudan University and the "Shanghai Culture" journal read and discuss excerpts from "The Mass on the World' and "The Phenomenon of Man." They felt moved by the "radical optimism" that such works engender in the reader, helping one to go beyond failure and limited life-span so as to insert one's work and life into a process of cosmic and spiritual evolution.

Teilhard may not have secured a place in China's intellectual landscape just yet. But the Jesuit thinker is definitely reaching a new public, and several MA theses dealing with him have been or are presently being written in several Chinese universities.

There are several reasons that explain for such developments:
(a) Teilhard provides resources for thinking one's human condition beyond cultural and national determinisms;
(b) his own life illustrates how the presence of a priest-scientist in China was challenging the traditional missionary model;
(c) Globalization gives new relevance to the way Teilhard was envisioning evolution and the management of increasing complexity.
(d) Finally, Teilhard's life experience offers a touching resonance with his own choice of "radical optimism" when set in the context of the future of humankind.

It is not impossible that some of basic intuitions of the Jesuit scientist will bounce back to the West from Chinese experience and interpretations.

Monday, 27 October 2014 00:00

The Second Life of the “Grand Ricci”


At the end of August 2014, Beijing Commercial Press (or Shangwu, one of the biggest Chinese publishing house, owner of the Xinhua Dictionary, the world's most popular reference work) launched a volume more than 2,000 pages: The Ricci-Shangwu Chinese-French Dictionary, a revised and shortened edition of the "Grand Ricci", the seven-volume dictionary published in 2001 by the Ricci Institutes of Taipei and Paris. (Since then, the two Institutes have entrusted the Ricci Association with moral and financial rights over the work.)

Thursday, 02 October 2014 00:00

eRenlai announces an exciting new partnership

Dear readers,

First and foremost, I’d like to thank you for your association with eRenlai.

You can be assured, of course, that we will continue to do all we can to bring you the same excellent standards of intelligent, insightful journalism that eRenlai is known for.

But I’m writing in particular to tell you that we’re also broadening our horizons, as we’ve become partners in the launch of an exciting new project: Global Pulse.

This is a major initiative which we are very happy to be part of. We believe it to be unique, because it brings together five of the world’s leading Catholic publishers to give you a truly global view.

With constantly updated fresh content that will appeal to a predominantly Catholic international readership, Global Pulse will be offered ultimately on a subscription basis.  But it will be free throughout October so you can get a good feel for what it has to offer.

Global Pulse will not be a ‘Church publication’ as such, but one that looks at events and people of global significance from a discerning, intelligent, Catholic perspective.

With news briefs, features, analysis, opinion, reviews and reflections, its ever-changing content will be drawn from five global partners, each with an acknowledged reputation for quality Catholic journalism.

As well as contributions from eRenlai, you will see articles from all these participants in this exciting project:

  • Commonweal Magazine, New York City
  • La Croix, Paris
  • Eureka Street, Melbourne
  • ucanews.com, Bangkok

In addition, we’re delighted to announce that Robert Mickens, the acclaimed Rome-based reporter and commentator, will be editor in chief of Global Pulse.  He will contribute his celebrated ‘Letter from Rome’ each week and will also bring you exclusive letters and essays from correspondents of the highest caliber, based in all parts of the world.

It all adds up to a truly global selection of incisive, informative and thought-provoking writing which I’m sure you will find engaging and enjoyable.

As an introductory offer, for a limited period only, Global Pulse will be available for just US$22 for a full year’s access. That’s the same price as a few cups of coffee – yet I hope you will agree it will prove a great deal more stimulating.

Subscribing will be quick and easy, but you don’t have to make your mind up yet. Because access will be completely free of charge throughout October, you’re more than welcome to take a good look around Global Pulse right now, and see what it has to offer you.

Best wishes,

Benoit Vermander, S.J.

Wednesday, 17 September 2014 00:00

La seconde vie du Grand Ricci


Fin août 2014, les Presses Commerciales de Pékin (l'une des plus grandes maisons d'édition chinoise, éditrice, entre autres, du Dictionnaire Xinhua - le dictionnaire le plus vendu au monde) ont sorti un volume de plus de 2000 pages, le « Dictionnaire Ricci Chinois-Français », une édition révisée et raccourcie du Grand Ricci , le dictionnaire publié en 2001 par les Instituts Ricci de Taipei et Paris, dont les droits ont depuis été confiés à « l'Association Ricci pour le grand dictionnaire français de la langue chinoise » . L'ouvrage devrait atteindre les librairies de Chine début octobre.

Depuis les premiers contacts entre les Instituts Ricci et les Presses commerciales (Shangwu), il aura fallu attendre quinze ans... Mais le délai était largement justifié : les Presses commerciales ont effectué un travail d'exception, qui fait de ce dictionnaire – et pour très longtemps – l'outil de référence lexicographique entre le chinois et le français. Le choix des expressions a été fait avec scrupule, les expressions douteuses ou fautives ont été corrigées, un choix éclairé de nouvelles expressions venues du chinois contemporain a été introduit sans pour autant affadir l'ancrage du Ricci dans l'histoire de la langue et de la pensée chinoises. Les traditions lexicographiques combinées des Presses Commerciales et des Ricci ont livré ensemble ce qu'elles avaient de meilleur... Ouvrant le dictionnaire, je me remémorais avec joie ma première visite dans le « temple » intimidant des Presses Commerciales en 1999 : Zhang Wenying, l'éditrice qui m'accueillait alors a finalement coordonné jusqu'au bout le projet. Entre tous les partenaires impliqués, la confiance et l'estime n'ont fait que croître au long des années.

L'origine du grand Ricci remonte au « Bureau d'étude sinologique » de Zikawei, à Shanghai, dans les années 1880, et au travail accompli par les sinologues jésuites français Léon Wieger et Séraphin Couvreur dans le Hebei à partir de la même époque. Il avait été repris notamment par les pères Eugen Zsamar, Yves Raguin, Jean Lefeuvre et Claude Larre après qu'ils avaient quitté la Chine. Il était grand temps que ce fruit de la sinologie jésuite « rentre » en Chine, et qu'il le fasse corrigé, mûri, porté à fruition par la meilleure institution lexicographique chinoise. La parution du « Ricci-Shangwu » n'est pas seulement un événement éditorial. Ancrée dans une longue histoire, elle est un signe fort de fidélité et d'espérance.

Friday, 05 September 2014 00:00

Locating Utopia on the Map


In August 2014, while traveling through Scotland, I was taken to New Lanark, a village located some 40 km southeast of Glasgow. Under the leadership of Robert Owen (1771-1858), a social reformer, New Lanark became an oasis of utopian socialism as well as a successful business venture, with waterpower for the mill afforded by the falls of the River Clyde. Cooperative shops, education ventures and new labor legislation all trace part of their origins to the New Lanark experiment. Nowadays, having become a UNESCO World Heritage Sites, New Lanark is also an Anchor Point of The European Route of Industrial Heritage.

Where are located the Utopias on our maps today? Have we lost the ability to start experiments in social and humane engineering? Have the currents of globalization definitely discouraged our capacity to start local ventures that would design new models for social justice and peaceful cooperation? If it were the case, we certainly would have lost a skill vital for social and political development. Even if Utopias often meet with all kinds of disappointments, on the long-term they are rich with discoveries and implications that foster overall human progress.

No village, no community is an island... But we are empowered with the capacity to start communal ventures on a voluntary basis, deciding on specific, innovative models of “social contract’ as to the way of living together, sharing our resources and relating to adjacent communities. Religious faith, reinterpretation of ancient traditions as well as political idealism can inspire and direct such experiments. Let us hope that, in Taiwan, China or elsewhere, there are still people able to create “communes” gathering like-minded fellow-beings so as to experiment new ways of living and interacting among ourselves and within our environment.

Picture by Bendu

Friday, 05 September 2014 00:00

The Prophetic Task of Chinese Christianity


Chinese Christianity is confronted to many challenges, some of them present from the start of its history, others fostered by current social and political conditions. There is however one challenge that I would like to point out, which is not proper to China but about which Chinese Christians could, I believe, make a difference that would, on the long term, hugely impact World Christianity.

As in other parts of the world, Chinese Christians inherited the divisions that came from the history of the West: the "Eastern {Syrian} Church" that modestly expanded in China around the 5th-9th centuries was already marked by the theological and cultural divisions agitating the Church during that period. Tridentine Catholicism firmly shaped the Chinese Church from the end of the 16th century onwards. The arrival of Protestant missionaries during the nineteenth century radically diversified China's religious landscapes. Cultural differences among the Catholic religious congregations that were in charge of the missionary endeavor also fostered different types of devotion and liturgical sensitivities. Even Orthodoxy has left some marks on Chinese Christianity.

Such diversity is not without merits. It offers various outlooks on Christian traditions and overall understanding. It opened up a variety of paths for the development of local communities. Still, Chinese Christianity taken as a whole has suffered from the hostility and misunderstandings that the various denominations have brought with them and that some of its leaders are stirring even today. If open hostility is usually avoided, indifference and self-centered development are the norm, to the extent that Protestant and Catholics often have difficulties to recognize each other as sharing the same creed and the same baptism. The ecumenical encounters that may happen are enforced by the state administration, and have no impact on grassroots communities. Each Church is mainly preoccupied with its endogenous growth, and even when religious groups are subjected to the same challenges (as is recently the case in Zhejiang province and, progressively, other places) they are at pains to identify a commonality of interests. 

Making China a beacon of ecumenical cooperation sounds like a far-away ideal, a dream without basis in reality. However, would not such cooperation be a road for the development of Chinese Christianity by healing past misunderstandings, and asserting a communion of faith conducive to a better appreciation of Christian ethos by Chinese society as a whole? Would it not be a "conversion within the conversion" that would give impetus and accrued reflexivity to Christian Churches experiencing the challenges associated with rapid, sometimes anarchic growth? Would it not give them accrued leverage upon the state? And, more importantly, would it not be a way to mobilize Chinese traditional resources of religious toleration by showing the world ways to pragmatically but purposefully overcome past divisions within Christianity?

It is precisely because Chinese Christianity is in a predicament that it needs to look for inventive ways of developing and asserting itself. And instead of being seen by other Churches as a "mission field" that permanently needs help and support from them, China's Churches could and should be making a decisive contribution to the future of Christianity. There is no better way for this than being at the frontline when it comes to the overcoming of the divisions that Western Churches brought with them along with the Gospel of reconciliation.

Photo by Liang Zhun

Thursday, 08 May 2014 00:00

China: The Hidden Cost of Migration

In today's China, there might be around 150 million "migrant workers', having left the place of their household registration and working in cities for varying lengths of time. The numbers remain debated and fluctuating. Migrant workers' situations vary tremendously, from stable insertion into the urban setting to utmost precariousness. Even when taking into account the great diversity that characterizes inner migrations in China, what remains undisputed is the severity of the social, affective and educational cost paid by migrant workers' children.

Here, two categories of children need to be distinguished: children having migrated together with their parents, and so called 'left-behind" children. The number of migrant children in cities (the first category) is difficult to estimate. Their number has probably reached 20 million. When considering children within the compulsory education age, according to the Ministry of Education, in 2011, 12.6 million of them moved with their parents, 938 000 more than in 2010. Over 60 % of migrant workers in Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou have their kids with them. One third of migrant children are born in their current city of residence and one third have stayed there for at least 5 years. However, they remain second-class citizens in cities, where they face institutional barriers to school and healthcare as well as social discrimination. Still, their overall situation may be progressively improving, as their fate has now been debated for years, and administrative discriminations are removed step by step, with different speed and targets from city to city.

Comparatively, children "left behind" in the countryside by parents who migrate for work constitute a group that has drawn less attention, though they are more numerous. Their number was estimated to 58 million by a 2008 report authored by the All-China Women's Federation, thus accounting for 21.72 percent of rural children aged 17 or less. Administrative statistics are more conservative; according to the Ministry of Education, in 2011 there were 22 million "left-behind" children of school age - 712 000 less than the year before..

A recent study trip to Sichuan has made me more conscious of the continuing seriousness of the situation, and of the psychological costs it entails. In the rural county we visited, a very large number of young people are working in the cities, scattered all around China. Even when they work in Chengdu (a 2 to 3 hours drive away) they very rarely visit back. From a list of around sixty students considered as living in a precarious situation, we paid a home visit to seven of them, who were all aged 7 to 11. Among them, only one child lived with his foster parents. Four of them were living with both grandparents, one with her grandmother alone, and one with her grandfather. None of them, it seemed, had seen their parents for at least one year. All parents had separated, except for one case where the father had died already. In several cases, the grandparents were trying to encourage the children to phone their parents, but the children were refusing to do so.

We were struck also by the dignity and resilience of the grandparents - Sichuanese peasants who had gone already through lots of hardship in their life, the most unexpected of them having probably been to lose their children because of the lure of city and money, and now all starting anew with the younger generation. The parents' generation was also obviously among the victims: the economic boom had been creating expectations to which they were not psychologically ready to respond in a sustainable way. Marital relationships had been shattered by conditions imposed upon them for staying in the urban job market.

The real concern and the sound assessment of the situation expressed by the teachers who guided us was also reason for comfort. So was the development of local volunteers' associations trying to deal with the plight of rural women and children. They were one more testimony to the building-up of China's civil society. In other words, today's China is more equipped than before for dealing with the social and psychological traumas that its developmental model has engineered. However, the extent to which children are still paying the price of social imbalance needs to be more openly recognized and prioritized. The future of China lies in its children, and a very large number of them remain collateral victims of the drive to prosperity.

Photo by Chialin Huang for the TRI

 

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