Wednesday, October 6, 2010

On Ricci and Taylor

Today marks the 458th birthday of Matteo Ricci (1552-1610), a key, founding missionary to China.  Arriving in Macau in 1582, he began to learn the Chinese language and adopted those customs that he thought did not conflict with Roman Catholic faith or practice. An important aspect of his missionary activity included his work as a mathematician and cartographer (providing the first map of Europe to Chinese people in 1584). He also helped to develop the first Portuguese-Chinese dictionary (the first in any European language). His approach of "accommodation" led him to utilize native Chinese concepts, especially those arising from Confucianism, to explain central ideas in the Christian faith. He adopted the traditional Chinese attire, spoke the language, "went native," so to speak, in order to witness to Christ in this "foreign" culture.

The day before yesterday I was privileged once again to participate in the weekly Lilly-Fellow Colloquium that involves our five current Lilly Fellows, their mentors, and the Lilly program staff. For the next two years I am serving as the mentor to Piotr Malysz, who is completing his Ph.D. at Harvard.

(For info on him and our other fellows, see  

This semester we've been discussing several issues that cluster around the topics of "church and academy" or "Christianity and culture." The focus of Monday's 90-min. discussion was Charles Taylor's Marianist Award Lecture from 1996, "A Catholic Modernity?"

In this path-breaking work, Taylor, who is perhaps the most significant Christian philosopher living today, recalls the approach of Ricci. Taylor seeks the middle road that Ricci took, one that holds on to the central affirmations of the faith and yet acknowledges the abiding truths that emerge from the culture in which he lived, moved, and undertook his mission. In other words, Taylor wants to affirm the kind of accommodation that Ricci embraced. In our time this means affirming universal human rights, human life, and human flourishing, all positive developments of modernity, AND at the same time adopting a posture of humility and freedom, that is, the freedom to humbly acknowledge the Christian Church's mixed record regarding the rise of modernity and modern values.

Taylor notes the challenge of adopting the Ricci model. On the one hand, we still live within a broadly "Christian" culture in North America, and thus the culture is not that distant and "foreign" to us as Chinese culture was to Ricci. Think of how modern "mega" church buildings look like corporate America, of how many Americans equate Christianity and modern American values, etc. On the other hand, so many aspects of modern thought and culture define Christianity as "the other," as something that "needs to be overcome and set firmly in the past."

Many in the Lilly colloquium noted that this posture, if followed, makes one an "outsider" in both the church and the academy. The Christian accommodationist is a threat to the traditionalist in the church who can only see negative in the surrounding culture. God forbid if the Riccian-like theologian should adapt himself or herself to the culture in ways that others deem "heretical" or "idolatrous." Many accommodationist theologians have been accused of fostering heresy (as Ricci himself experienced) and not a few have been attacked. But the Christian accommodationist is also an "outsider" in the academy, precisely because he or she affirms and confesses the First Commandment and desires to relate the Christian faith to the natural sciences (as just one example) or to other matters in an academy where many have jettisoned the Christian faith altogether or see no abiding importance to it (save as perhaps an historic relic).

To quote Taylor: "On the one hand, we feel already at home here, in this civilization which has issued from Christendom, so what do we need to strive further to understand? On the other hand, whatever is foreign to Christianity seems to involve a rejection of it, so how can we envisage accommodating? Put in other terms, the Ricci project involves the difficult task of making new discriminations: what in the culture represents a valid human difference, and what is incompatible with Christian faith? The celebrated debate about Chinese rites turned on this issue. But it seems that, for modernity, things are already neatly sorted out: whatever is in continuity with our past is legitimate Christian culture, and the novel, secularist twist to things is simply incompatible. No further inquiry seems necessary" (Charles Taylor, "A Catholic Modernity?," in A Catholic Modernity? ed. James L. Heft [New York: Oxford University Press, 1999], 16).

Taylor thinks this is a false dilemma. He argues that "in modern, secularist culture there are mingled together both authentic developments of the gospel, of an incarnational mode of life, and also a closing off to God that negates the gospel. The notion is that modern culture, in breaking with the structures and beliefs of Christendom, also carried certain facets of Christian life further than they ever were taken or could have been taken within Christendom" (ibid.). Think human rights. Think the end of slavery as an institution in America. Think women's rights. Think child labor laws, and the list goes on. Or, to stay with the academy, instead of Ricci's Chinese clothing and practices, how about envisioning the Christian missionary who puts on the scientist's lab coat and seeks to relate concepts in the natural sciences to affirmations of Christian faith? The sciences would not be where they are today had they not broke away from Christendom, but now is there not the need for at least some Christian missionaries to reengage the sciences from within the perspective of Christian faith?

Taylor gives one pause in traversing the path between Christ and culture. The "crossing" here is not easy to make. I would suggest that what he really is arguing for is a version of H. Richard Niebuhr's fourth type, "Christ and culture in paradox" (the one wherein Luther figures so prominently), since some elements on both sides of the "Christ and culture" divide need to be affirmed and some elements on both sides need to be criticized and/or qualified by modern developments and by a vigorous application of the First Commandment. The examples that Niebuhr used in that chapter on paradox could have included Ricci, whose model involves at least some relative distance from the culture in which one lives, some "bewilderment" (to use Taylor's language) about it, to avoid the notion that we "have it all figured out from the start and know what to affirm and what to deny " (Taylor, "A Catholic Modernity?," 36).

Given the discussions we've had so far in the colloquium, I'm not sure I share Taylor's apparent optimism that the entrance into the debate about the relative value of modernity will be all that smooth for the Christian scholar. I do agree that those of us who live at the same time within the church, the academy, and society, "would gradually find our voice from within the achievements of modernity, measure the humbling degree to which some of the most impressive extensions of the gospel ethic depended on a breakaway from Christendom, and from within these gains try to make clearer to ourselves and others the tremendous dangers that arise in them" (ibid., 37).

Happy birthday, Fr. Ricci.

Matthew L. Becker

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