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?