Pages

Sunday, January 31, 2016

Answering a critic of True Son of Heaven

Isn't it fun to get shot at from both sides?  I find myself criticized, from time to time, by both atheists and "fundamentalists," by which I mean not people who believe in the central truths of Christianity, but Christians who embrace a fundamentally hostile view of other religious traditions.  (My perspective is more nuanced.)

A year or so ago, a "fundamentalist" reader calling himself Slim Jim posted a highly critical review of my first book, True Son of Heaven: How Jesus Fulfills the Chinese Culture on Amazon and on his blog.   He accused me of poor history, sloppy theology, border-line syncretism, and typos.   I responded to his critique on Amazon some time ago.  But I just discovered the same uncharitable and error-plagued critique on his blog.  Pity: I like some of the blogs he follows: we may have mutual friends, and might find some common ground, if he were to read my book with caution and charity.  (He links Alvin Plantinga, for instance, who is friendly to my views about God outside of the Christian tradition.)

I have been complaining about how poorly skeptics like Bart Ehrman, Matthew Ferguson, and Richard Carrier often read.  Let this post serve as an admission that this failing is not limited to atheists, or to non-Christians.

Here is the substantive parts of his Amazon review, and then my twin responses:

This book has far too many problems that can’t be ignored. I will begin looking at the problems first and then what’s good with the book; but the weakness far outweighs its strength and I hesitate suggesting this work to anyone else . . . 

The book’s thesis is that “many important symbols and ideas within Chinese culture points to Jesus” (7). Some of his evidences of how Chinese culture points towards Jesus and Christianity does not seem to logically follow. For instance, on page five Marshall talked about how Beijing’s Temple of Heaven had twelve red outer pillars and that the number twelve and the color red pointed to the apostles. I don’t know how the color red necessitate that it is the apostles’ blood in view. We must also not forget that the Apostle John was not martyred so it is hard to see 12 red pillars. Later in the book Marshall would argue that the Forbidden Palace’s three layer roof is proof of the Trinity but this seems somewhat of a stretch.


Another of his evidence that Chinese culture points towards Christianity is Confucius. For instance on page 9-10 Marshall claims about Confucius that he “did more than anyone in China to point people to this way.” I would say that is a bold claim. I have reservation with Marshall’s claim about Confucius when Marshall in the book also admitted that Confucius “did not know how to approach heaven” on page 41, that “one thing Confucius lacked: closeness to Heaven” on page 56 and also how “he did not know how to bridge the gap between heaven and earth, or fully understand why it needed to be bridged” on page 57. How can one point to the way when he is ignorant of all the essentials of the Way? Marshall also believed that Confucius’ talk about Sheng Ren (Holy Man) anticipates the Messiah and one of his defense of this is that “Confucius never said the Sheng Ren would be Chinese” (42). But Marshall here is making a fallacious argument from silence. There are so much question begging assertions that the book makes about Confucius and Jesus that it is hard to keep track of them; for instance on page 68 the author claims that both Jesus and Confucius and Jesus “are going the same direction” except Jesus makes it “a dangerous adventure” (68).


Marshall also tried to argue that in the past Chinese thinkers did know the God of Christianity. I think he failed to interact with the strongest arguments of those who disagreed and instead Marshall engaged in a defense the Chinese concept of God is personal. While I do believe that Chinese does have some conception of a personal God that hardly makes it the Christian God. He also failed to account for the silence of Chinese intellectual figureheads with the concept of the Trinity, something that is distinctively Christian. Marshall’s discussion about God’s transcendence and imminence is misplaced in the debate. Added to his confusion is Marshall’s statement that “there are passages in the Bible where the boundary between God and man appear a bit fudged, too, such as Paul’s famous ‘In Him we live and move and have our being’” (24). When one look up Acts 17, we do see the passages affirm God’s transcendence and immanence but it does not present it as being muddled. God is indeed transcendent but also His presence is everywhere though that does not mean God is His creature or creation.


It does not help Marshall’s cause when he is theologically weak that affects his discernment and presentation. For instance, he talks about Nestorians as “the first Christians in China” (25) without acknowledging their heretical status. There is the danger of syncretism in Marshall’s theology. He claims on page 68 that “Jesus and Lao Zi were ‘spiritual brothers.’” I wished the book was more pronounce and clear concerning sin, Jesus’ death and salvation. Even when he does talk about those subject towards the end of the book, he doesn’t connect the relationship of sin to justification and Jesus’ work on the cross which I see as essential for one’s Gospel presentation.
His methodology is problematic because everything points to Jesus Christ, even Mao’s rebellion is something Jesus took to make part of His Way (64-65). Marshall thinks Jesus was speaking about Mao’s regime when He said brothers will be against brothers, etc (168). It is a bit of a stretch. It must also be said that the same method the author use can also be used to demonstrate how Chinese culture points to say Marxism, Islam, etc. It is a flawed and speculative method. Plus, I don’t think Mao is a good “bridge” to Chinese culture for Christianity, given how he is a tyrant and also someone who is not necessarily held in high regards among everyone in the Chinese community.


I thought it was ironic that the author could point out “Chinese Buddhism” is “very Chinese, but not very Buddhist” (81). At times I felt Marshall’s work ended up being more Chinese than Christian.
I think any reference to historical and political realities that the book make must be double checked. For instance, on page 82-83 the book claims “A symbol of both Mao’s success and his failure is that under socialism, the poor learned to waste this precious grain,” with the grain referring to rice. Supposedly, “the communists alleviated China’s chronic food shortage” (83). I had a hard time with this personally since it goes against what history tells us of the man made famine that Mao’s economic policies produced. In fact, Mao’s policies followed that of Stalin and Mao didn’t change it even with the Russians warning him that it wasn’t going to work since they have done it already themselves. Given the historical inaccuracy of the statement we must ask what is the basis for Marshall to assert such a horrendous claim and he tells us following the above quote when he go on to say “When I walked by student dorms in China in the mid 1980s, I learned to keep an eye out for uneaten rice thrown through a window” (83). Assuming this to be true, we must remember that the author’s experience in the mid-1980s was the reign of Deng Xiao Ping and not Chairman Mao. Chairman Mao has been dead for a decade so the basis for his evidence of Mao’s economic success does not support his conclusion . . . 


As I said before the bad outweighs the good in the book. What I did appreciate from the book is his chapter on how Buddhism cannot fulfill the expectation and longing of Chinese culture. Of course, one might ask why must Chinese Culture be the standard to judge one’s religion in the first place and if consistent it is also detrimental to the Christian cause since not everything in Chinese culture is right and compatible with Christianity. It seems as if this didn’t occur to the author giving his silence on the issue.

I also enjoyed it whenever the author discussed Chinese character and how it points to some profound truth or confirm Biblical truths and this is probably the strongest evidence he presents in the book. Sadly when it comes to the characters pointing to Genesis he shares in the appendix that he is skeptical of it; but if he is skeptical of the strongest evidence in his book, that doesn’t speak a whole lot for the rest of his superficial look at how Chinese culture points towards Christ.


 
I. Of course I don't say the three layers of the Temple of Heaven "prove" the Trinity, as you claim. Having demonstrated that the Chinese worshiped the Supreme God there, I ask, "From a Christian perspective, what better way to represent the God of Heaven, who is three persons in one?"  So there is no talk of "proof" or even "evidence" in this passage, at all.  It is a hint, a foreshadowing or type in traditional Christian language.  You are simply inventing a position for me, and putting it in my mouth.  Such hostile "rephrasing" suggests that you did not read this book with a very open mind. 

The answer to your question about Confucius is equally simple: READ THE TEXT. Here's what I say immediately before the bit you quote: 

"China long believed in a God who judges mankind. Chinese believed God's love or anger depended on how we followed the tao, the way of right living in harmony with the true nature of things.  A man who lived two thousand years ago in what is now Shandong Province did more than anyone to point people to this way."

So I make it clear what "this way" refers to, and it is not "Christianity," as you (again) carelessly claim. It is truth that I think anticipates Christianity, within Chinese culture.  And that resolves the "difficulty" you raise in that paragraph completely. 

Nor does "fudged" mean "muddled."  My point is obviously just what you admit to be true: the Christian God is not purely transcendent, and the Chinese God is not purely imminent.  Why do you work so hard to misunderstand? 

It is hardly a "stretch" to relate Jesus' warning that brother would rise against brother, to this very prophecy coming true under Mao (as it also did under other tyrants): why should it be?  I am, after all, a Christian, who thinks Jesus was the Son of God and knew the future.  The fact that he depicted it so accurately certainly tells in His favor.  Jesus warned us that this would happen, and it has. 

Of course Mao was a tyrant!  Isn't that obvious from what I say about him?  My very first voluntary published writing, in 1976, was a letter to the editor on the death of Mao, denouncing journalists who were going too easy on the mass-murderer!  I didn't say Mao was a fulfillment of Jesus, for heaven's sake! How could you miss the point so spectacularly? 

Yes, grain production did massively increase under the communists.  Here's the data from Wikipedia: 

"In its first fifty years, the People's Republic of China greatly increased agricultural production through organizational and technological improvements.

Crop[27] 1949 Output (tons) 1978 Output (tons) 1999 Output (tons)
1. Grain 113,180,000 304,770,000 508,390,000
2. Cotton 444,000 2,167,000 3,831,000
3. Oil-bearing crops 2,564,000 5,218,000 26,012,000
4. Sugarcane 2,642,000 21,116,000 74,700,000
5. Sugarbeet 191,000 2,702,000 8,640,000
6. Flue-cured tobacco 43,000 1,052,000 2,185,000
7. Tea 41,000 268,000 676,000
8. Fruit 1,200,000 6,570,000 62,376,000
9. Meat 2,200,000 8,563,000 59,609,000
10. Aquatic products 450,000 4,660,000 41,220,000

Sorry if your history teachers didn't fill you in on that fact.  Partly communist success in increasing agricultural production came about simply because the World War and endless civil wars, which the communists had themselves helped to fuel in the latter case, had come to an end.  But in part, such increases are easy to achieve through concentration of labor and infrastructure projects, whether under tyrannical emperors or under the communist party. In China, they are famously associated with the agricultural scientist, Yuan Longping. 

No, this in no way conflicts with the fact that mass starvation also occurred under the communists at times -- which I also talk about, and also terrible poverty, as on page 89. 

And I said "under socialism," not "under Mao," which further disarms your criticism there.  What Mao accomplished was mainly to unite and pacify the country.  Those benefits allowed other benefits, under more reasonable leadership, to acrue. 

I despise communism with all my heart, and see Mao as one of the most evil tyrants of modern times.  But if you are an historian, which I am (and you obviously are not), even the devil must be given his due. 

Throughout your review, you seem determined to find fault, and often misread my arguments badly, always in a negative direction. Why did you read this book? Your hostility could not be clearer. 

There is nothing "superficial" about the arguments in this book.  They represent the popular version of serious arguments that I also made in my doctoral dissertation, which passed scrutiny from leading theologians and informed China scholars.  That is, admittedly, more rigorous, but even rigor cannot stand against an excess of hostility. 

Sorry you (also) don't like the pictures: I think they add a lot to the book, and many readers have agreed. (Though the next printing will update and modernize all the graphics, which is overdue.) I am not forcing readers to believe something here in a strident or "rigorous" way, I am introducing them to China, and to Jesus, as friends.  But there is rigorous scholarship behind my arguments, of which I do give the reader a peek, from time to time.  I don't believe, however, that a overly hostile reader can be convinced of anything against his or her will. 

My dissertation will probably also be published later this year.  It demonstrates both the theological foundations of my position, and (in detail) the historical evolution of the ideas that I highlight here in the context of classical Chinese thought, responding carefully to contrary arguments from other scholars. But frankly, as hostile as you seem to my thesis, and as careless as you certainly are in reading this book, I'm not sure I would recommend it to you.

You argue: 

What I did appreciate from the book is his chapter on how Buddhism cannot fulfill the expectation and longing of Chinese culture.  Of course, one might ask why must Chinese Culture be the standard to judge one’s religion in the first place and if consistent it is also detrimental to the Christian cause since not everything in Chinese culture is right and compatible with Christianity.  It seems as if this didn’t occur to the author giving his silence on the issue.

My "silence" on the issue?  Slim Jim seems to be smoking something more powerful that Slim Jims, to make such an asinine statement.  

Who said "everything in Chinese culture is right and compatible with Christianity?"  Slim Jim again shows that he is not reading at all attentively.  I talk about forced prostitution, idolatry, human sacrifice, abuse of women, and mass murder, among other things!  

This sort of comment makes clear that Slim Jim has probably not asked many Asians what they think about Christianity.  Were he to do so, as I have, he would discover that tens of millions see Christianity as a "foreign religion," and that that perception has effectively blocked the spread of the Gospel among two billion or more people in Asia.  

I wrote this book as a missionary.  I wrote it because of course we judge new ideas according to what we know or feel to be true already.  

St. Paul understood this.  That is why when he arrived in Athens, the cultural center of the Mediterranean world, he appealed to Greek philosophers and to the "altars to the unknown God," to preach Christ.  

But notice that what Slim Jim appreciates is when I criticize other religions.  Odd, since he didn't seem to notice earlier that I did that.  This reflects the apparently lack of balance he brings to evaluating other faiths -- he just doesn't like it when I say positive things, apparently.

I also enjoyed it whenever the author discussed Chinese character and how it points to some profound truth or confirm Biblical truths and this is probably the strongest evidence he presents in the book. Sadly when it comes to the characters pointing to Genesis he shares in the appendix that he is skeptical of it; but if he is skeptical of the strongest evidence in his book, that doesn’t speak a whole lot for the rest of his superficial look at how Chinese culture points towards Christ.

Jim again shows that he misunderstands my argument.  What I am skeptical of is a particular set of historical arguments claiming that the Chinese consciously inscribed themes from Genesis into the Chinese written language.  I recently wrote the forward for a book that relates Chinese characters to Christianity more carefully, however.  So I'm actually pretty positive about the general argument.  

But it's only Jim who thinks the few Chinese characters I relate to Christianity are the "strongest evidence in (my) book."  

Who is Jim, anyway, to say my analysis of Christianity and Chinese culture is "superficial?"  Does he have BA, MA, and PhDs in the subject?  Does the atheist anthropology professor of the world's 16th most important university, a specialist in Chinese religion, still praise his field research on a Chinese sect of Buddhism 20 years ago?  Has his dissertation in Theology of Religions been read and tested by an eminent Professor of Christian Thought popular with the Vatican, at one of Britain's leading universities?  


II. What your review really calls into question at times is your own reading ability.  For instance:

"I don’t know how the color red necessitate that it is the apostles’ blood in view."

Where did you get the idea that that's what I was saying?  I explain my actual point clearly and directly:

"I looked at those twelve pillars and immediately thought of the twelve apostles, red AS IF SPRINKLED WITH THE BLOOD OF CHRIST."

Christ, not the apostles.

Nor do I say the three-layer roof of the Temple of Heaven is "proof" of the trinity.  Don't misrepresent my argument, please.  

You ask, "How can one point to the way when he is ignorant of all the essentials of the Way?"

That's an easy question to answer.  Did John the Baptist know all the details of  Jesus' work?  Did King David?  Did Abraham?  Yet they all pointed to "the Way" (the Logos).  If you understand how the gospels related Jesus to the Old Testament, this should not be a difficult question.

You also complain:

"Marshall also believed that Confucius’ talk about Sheng Ren (Holy Man) anticipates the Messiah and one of his defense of this is that “Confucius never said the Sheng Ren would be Chinese” (42).  But Marshall here is making a fallacious argument from silence."

Do you know what an Argument From Silence is? I gather that you do not.  Nor are you reading fairly.  All I am doing with this parenthetical comment, a lead-in to the next chapter, is pointing out that for all Confucius said about him, the Sage need not be Chinese.  That minor point is not itself not my argument that the Sheng Ren does anticipate Jesus.  I go into this in more detail in my dissertation, and show that Jesus fits the description of the Sheng Ren in Confucius better than any other commonly-cited figure.

I do, in fact, interact with the strongest arguments of those who deny that God in the Classics should be identified with God in Christian tradition.  Do you really claim to know what those are?  But there is only so much room for that discussion in this book.  Read with a modicum of fairness -- which you don't seem to have brought to the book -- and I think most people will find the facts I point to convincing.

Indeed, reviewers who know Chinese culture well have found my argument in this book quite successful:

James Hudson Taylor III: "An amazing piece of writing."

Tony Lambert: "Showing deep, original thought, the author challenges the assumption that God and Christ are totally alien to the Chinese tradition, and writes a modern book on Christian apologetics in the process . . . Stimulating and provocative."

Wright Doyle, Global China Center: "It seems to me that Marshall has followed in the footsteps of C.S. Lewis, who told us that are desires are to weak, not too strong; and of Blaise Pascal, who urged Christians to show how lovely, how utterly delightful, is the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The True Son of Heaven presents us with effective contextualization of the Christian message without dilution of its essence . . . Marshall’s style, both poetic and colloquial, requires a translator of the very highest skill in both English and Chinese to render the beauty and subtleties of this fine work." 

So far as I know, no knowledgeable theologian has found any "syncretism" in my book.  You seem to have read it a real chip on your shoulder, frankly.



No comments: