In this post, I’ll blog about Chapter 2 of David Marshall’s True Son of Heaven: How Jesus Fulfills the Chinese Culture. This chapter is entitled “The Sun Rise from Mount Tai”. I’ll use as my starting-point something that Marshall says on page 19:
“Throughout history, China has felt the Presence of One whose nature images carved in wood or even words carved in stone seemed inadequate to express. He wasn’t like ‘gods’ and ‘goddesses’ of popular legend. I doubt China took most of its myths much more seriously than we take soap operas. As Frena Bloomfield said, the Chinese gods ‘Are there to be fooled, and the Chinese are there to fool them.’”
In a similar vein, Marshall on page 17 refers to a monument on Mount Tai that is blank because an emperor was dissatisfied with all of the inscriptions that his scholars proposed. On page 19, Marshall states that the emperor was left without words when it came to the Supreme God, and that there are no idols for Tian (heaven), as exist for other gods.
On pages 19-20, Marshall elaborates on the Supreme God of China. He quotes passages from Chinese literature warning against trifling with heaven and affirming that heaven hears all that is secret and cannot be deceived. Contra those who believe that Tian is an impersonal force or “An abstract concept of universal harmony”, Marshall quotes passages in Chinese writings that present Tian as intelligent, loving, and actively interested in humanity. He also refers to Chinese creation stories.
The passage with which I opened this item, the one on page 19, appeared to downplay the importance of gods and goddesses in China, as if the Chinese people have not taken them seriously. Elsewhere in this book, however, Marshall seems to grant that they are quite important to many Chinese people. On page 45, he states:
“In regard to the occult, the example China’s First Teacher [Confucius] set was incomplete. He steered clear of both gods and human demagogues—-both sensible policies. But China as a whole has seldom been able to avoid either entirely. Mt. Tai became cluttered with idols, and the minds of the people with demeaning superstitions. Why? Because China knew her ‘Heavenly Parent’ only from a far distance. Her wisest teacher, who felt an ideal father was distant from his son, also sensed no special closeness to God. He did not know how to bridge the gap between Heaven and earth, or fully understand why it needed to be bridged.”
Here, Marshall is saying that idolatry exists in China as an attempt to bridge the gap that many Chinese people feel between humans and the Supreme God, who is considered to be distant.
On page 53, Marshall says:
“But in the grain of Jewish Scripture were hidden germs of revolution, too. ‘Do not make for yourselves any carved image, of animals below, of stars above…’ Some may think the idea of a Jealous God to be outdated or provincial. But the hostility of the Jewish prophets to ‘idolatry’ was the most subversive concept in the ancient world. It sounded radical to Israel’s neighbors, and when these teachings reached a China that had accustomed itself to lesser gods than Huang Dian Shuang Di, it sounded just as radical. ‘Pluck the tablets of the family altar and throw them in the fire. Take a sledge hammer to all the gods on Mount Tai but one. Leave your idols of stick and stone and worship the One True God who made Heaven and Earth.”
Here, Marshall appears to be saying that idolatry is so endemic to China that the anti-idolatry message of the Hebrew Bible is revolutionary to the nation. That differs somewhat from what I take to be Marshall’s usual argument in this book: that Christianity fits Chinese culture because Chinese culture has prominent elements that are similar to Christianity.
Now I’ll do a little “fact check” on what I read in Marshall, though, as I’ve said before, I am open to correction, and I do not consider anything I write here to be the final word. I also can’t vouch for how good my sources are, but I’m consulting them to see if there is an alternative to the picture that Marshall presents.
Marshall’s presentation to Tian as personal appears to check out. The wikipedia article on Tian quotes primary sources (i.e., Confucius) that acknowledge a personal dimension to Tian, as Tian is one who makes decrees, has a will, can reject, etc. And yet, there is also a sense in which the Supreme Being, Shangdi, is regarded to be transcendent rather than imminent, and so he rules through lesser beings (see here). But there may be diversity or nuance in how the Chinese conceptualize Tian, for some members on the China History Forum maintain that prominent Chinese philosophers regarded Tian as impersonal rather than personal (see here).
A while back, I wrote a post that discussed an essay in Understanding Poets and Prophets: Essays in Honour of George Wishart Anderson by A.C.C. Lee, entitled “Genesis 1 from the Perspective of a Chinese Creation Myth”. I’ll quote something that I say there, since Marshall talks about Chinese creation stories:
“The myth of P’an-ku states that P’an-ku came from primordial chaos, and that he separated the yin (earth, female, darkness, coolness) and the yang (heaven, maleness, brightness, warmth), which entailed the separation of the heaven from the earth. When P’an-ku died, his body became the things on the earth—mountains, rivers, etc. People were transformed from the parasites on his body—from ‘the finest essence of breath which becomes the human spirit’ (page 194). Notwithstanding their lowly origin, however, humans are still ‘invited to unite with heaven and earth’ (page 195). Lee sees similar themes in Genesis 1: separation, humans having a lowly origin while containing a noble sort of breath within them, etc. But Lee also acknowledges differences: the Chinese myth does not have a god who is from outside of nature, plus it lacks creation ex-nihilo. (Lee may believe that creation ex-nihilo is the teaching of Genesis 1, but I am not certain if that is Lee’s stance. But there are many scholars who argue otherwise, maintaining that, in Genesis 1, God is organizing chaos into cosmos, rather than creating material out of nothing.)”
There appear to be strong differences between the creator P’an-ku and the God of Genesis 1, for P’an-ku comes from primordial chaos and dies, and his body becomes things on the earth, such as rivers and mountains. But there are some Chinese stories about Shangdi and Taiyi preceding P’an-ku (see here). The story of P’an-ku reminds me of Purusha in the Indian Rig Veda (see here). I’d like to use that point as a launch-pad to ask a question. There are different kinds of creation stories throughout the world: creation ex-nihilo, creation from chaos, creation from a cosmic egg, creation from the body parts of a primordial being, etc. See here and here for details. Marshall has often implied that the appearance of Christian-like themes in different cultures supports the truth of Christianity. My question is this: Why can’t the cross-cultural appearance of un-Christian-like themes support the truth of non-Christian-like accounts of creation? Perhaps commonalities across cultures have a sociological or an anthropological explanation, rather than being evidence that the truth of Christianity is written on people’s hearts.
Regarding Mount Tai, perhaps Chinese people do revere Shangdi or Tian when ascending it. I do not know. But the wikipedia article on Mount Tai says that the supreme god on that mountain is the Emperor Lord of Mount Tai, and that some traditions say he is a descendant of Pangu (whether he was from one of the parasites on Pangu, like other human beings, I do not know). On the blank monument, all the wikipedia article says is this: “The Wordless Stela stands in front of the Jade Emperor Temple. Legend has it that the emperor who commissioned the stela was dissatisfied with the planned inscription and decided to leave it blank instead.” It does not say why the stela was left blank, but there could very well be more to the issue than wikipedia tells us.
Overall, Chinese religion appears to be complex. Marshall probably acknowledges that, but he believes that there are salient elements of it that prepare the Chinese people for Christianity. Sure, there are elements that overlap with Christianity, and I’m sure that those elements prepare certain Chinese people to embrace the Christian religion. But Marshall acknowledges that there are also elements that repulse people from Christianity, and that there are many Chinese people who do not believe that Chinese religion is consistent or compatible with the Christian belief system. Can we truly say that the Chinese religion is a tutor to Christ, when the Chinese religion is so complex and far from monolithic?