Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Contextualization of the 1700's

Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz "Discourse on the Natural Theology of the Chinese" was originally written in French and had not been translated into English until the 1960's. Leibniz was a brilliant man whose influence is still felt today in numerous scientific disciplines. He was a firm believer in the power of reason and believed that reason, "would eventually bring everyone to the true faith, i.e., Christianity." (Leibniz pg. 15) Since the original text was translated from French, and had existed in a German translation, the translators of the English version provide a lengthy introduction to the text in order to lay a proper foundation for the discourse. The introduction provides context for Leibniz's work on the natural theology of the Chinese and illuminates the difficulty that surround the translation of a work that has ambiguous references to Chinese terminology. Although Leibniz never traveled to China himself, he had detailed correspondence with five different Catholic priests that were living and serving in China.  

The dilemma that he faced was that two of the priests he was corresponding with saw value in the Chinese culture and exhorted the papacy to allow some of these customs to be retained within the local church and to not require the renunciation of Chinese customs in order to be saved and a part of the Church.  He believed that the ancient Chinese had a conception of God that was similar to the Catholic Church and the missionaries and priests should be using Chinese forms and terms in conveying the gospel message.  

The ancient Chinese equivalent to God, according to Leibniz, was the "Li."  According to his interpretation of the ancient writings he interacted with the Li "is the prime mover and ground of all other things." (Leibniz pg. 57)  The Li is the basis for all reason and the foundation of nature.  Father de S. Marie, one of the three priests who opposed the retention of Chinese culture in the church, understood the Li as the "Law and universal Order."  It is what sustains the natural order and reproduction of animals, however, it does not reside within creation.  Leibniz saw a direct correlation between the "Natura Naturans" of Western thought and "the Nature" of the Chinese thought.  He goes on to argue that his understanding passive "prime matter" is consistent with the active powers that are attributed to the Li.  

The culmination of Leibniz's thought and emotions surrounding the relevance of Chinese thought and the revelatory extent of the natural theology of the Chinese is found well before the end of this essay.  He believes that many Christian writers have made claims that are striking similar to those of the Chinese yet have not been condemned as non-Christian.  "Thus I find that everything that has been said against the ancient Chinese to be only groundless suspicions." (Leibniz pg. 133)  This is not to express that he believes all ancient Chinese thought should be accepted whole hog without correction or revision within a Christian worldview.  Since Leibniz is an accomplished scientist and mathematician, he understands the advancements in these two fields that have led to a better understanding of nature and the God who is responsible for creating the natural world.  He argues that the Chinese need to be introduced to the validity of "the Macrocosm and the Microcosm" in order to have a fuller understanding of God (Li). 

Leibniz recognized and appreciated the morality that he saw within the Chinese culture and a natural theology that had been established for nearly thirty centuries.  When speaking of the condemnation of their natural theology he said, "It would be highly foolish and presumptuous on our part, having newly arrived compared with them, and scarcely out of barbarianism, to want to condemn such an ancient doctrine because it does not appear to agree at first glance with our ordinary scholastic notions." (Leibniz pg. 59)  This thesis is at the core of the comparative theology, pluralistic discussions, and the contextualization efforts in missiology/theology.  What are we to do with doctrine and the practice of doctrine that mirrors our understanding of Christianity, but does not play our language games?  An appropriate understanding of natural theology allows for the fruitful conversation and understanding that Leibniz advocated nearly three centuries ago.   

Since this is a brief overview of Leibniz's "Discourse on the Natural Theology of the Chinese," I was forced to leave out some intriguing aspects of his argument and some crucial parallels that need far more space than allotted in this essay.  One of the key parallels that I would encourage readers to examine, that I have not unpacked, is Leibniz's interaction with Confucius' teachings.  He believes that some disciples of Confucius have distorted the great thinkers true thoughts and the relationship between Confucius and Christianity is much closer than the Catholic Church has led Christians to believe.  The thoughts of Leibniz are as applicable today as they were in the 1700's.  Christians must lend their ear to wise teachers like Leibniz in understanding how we can dialogue with other belief systems and find common ground that will allow us to have a greater understanding of who God is and how he is working throughout the world, and in particular, in the realm of natural theology.  God's revelation does not reside solely within the west and we must seek to cultivate the fruitful dialogue that Leibniz had in the early 1700's.  It is quite clear, God has revealed himself to the Chinese, and all nations, through the natural order, now the question becomes, to what extent? 

Monday, October 6, 2008

The agony of the edge.

ABC's Wide World of Sports coined the phrase, "The thrill of victory and the agony of defeat."  Yesterday I finished my second marathon and experienced the agony of the edge.  I had my eyes set on running a 3:45 marathon and trained all summer with that goal in mind.  When the gun sounded at the start of the race my ego took over and I was convinced that I could catch up and run with the 3:40 group.  I mean really, what is five minutes faster over 26.2 miles?  A LOT!  I caught up to the group at mile five and felt amazing.  Here I was running out of my mind and feeling like a champ.  The rain had started to move in and began to pick up over the next few miles.  By mile eight we were running in the middle of a Minnesota monsoon with small rivers gushing down the gutters of the Parkway.  The rain really was an afterthought to the blistering pace 
that I had was maintaining.  

The superstar running bubble that I was living in began to deflate as the 3:40 pace group slowly inched away from me.  At the halfway mark I had turned in my fastest half marathon by over four minutes, but came face to face with the consequences from my previous actions.  If you have ever been driving too fast on a snowy/icy road and began to slide you experience the "UH OH" of terror.  You know you are going into the ditch, and there is nothing you can do but hold on and hope you are not injured.  I knew I had gone out WAY too fast and had pushed beyond my lactic threshold with 13 miles left to run.  As I reached the 19 mile mark and crossed over the Mississippi river, I was still on my 3:45 pace, but was running on fumes.  

The train derailed at mile 20 when my right quad knotted up tighter than a fishing line on a Bass Masters pole.  I had no choice but to pull over and try to massage/stretch out the cramp.  As I raised my leg to stretch my quad my hamstring balled up like a frightened armadillo.  In order to stretch my quads I had to stretch my hamstrings.  This process continued over the next six miles of the race.  Every half a mile I couldn't bear the pain any longer and was forced to stop and massage/stretch if I wanted to continue moving forward.  Spectators would try to encourage me as I stopped, but what they did not realize was that no amount of encouragement could overcome my cramping muscles.  Physiologically I was SPENT.  All I could think about was the eighteen months of getting up before the sun to log miles was all for naught.  I had wasted all of my training by allowing my ego to get me out of my race plan.  In the words of Napolean Dynamite, "You IDIOT!"

My pace had decreased from 8 minute miles to a 16 minute mile and I was broken.  Quit?  NEVER!  There was no way I was ever going to quit this race.  I had just watched "Touching the Void," a documentary about a European climber who broke his leg atop a peak in Peru, fell into a cravass and was left for dead by his partner.  He didn't quit.  He spent four days sliding himself down this mountain with a broken leg back to his camp so that he could live.  I was NOT going to quit.  As I crossed the finish line I was wrecked physically and emotionally.  All I wanted to do was curl up in a ball along the grass, but I knew I had to eat and keep moving.

  Once I saw Nikki and the kids I was brought back to reality.  I had just ran a marathon!  Nikki wanted to hug me, and the kids, in their costumes, just wanted their daddy to hold them.  They could have cared less if I had ran a 2:30 marathon of a 5:30 marathon.  They love me for who I am and are proud of what I had just accomplished, and that is what it is all about.  I tell people all the time that the marathon experience is far more about the journey than the destination.  It is about getting up at 4:30 to go run 24 miles on your day off.  It is about soaking in 55 degree ice baths to try to recover so you can run more tomorrow.  It is about doing something that you want to do and have to earn.  So I sit here one day removed from my train wreck and ask myself one thing, what marathon will I run next?