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12. The World’s Rejection of Early Modern Western Christianity

The Portuguese and Spaniards, who were the first wave of Western conquerors of the World, were impelled, not only by a quest for wealth and power, but also by an eagerness to propagate the conquerors’ ancestral Western form of Christianity. Their zeal for the propagation of Christianity was fanatical, in the sense of being hostile—or perhaps, rather, blind—to those elements in the essence of the other living higher religions that were either identical with, or complementary to, the essence of the religion of Western Christendom. Resemblances to Western Christian practice that were too striking to be ignored—as, for example, the similarity of the Mahayanian Buddhist to the Western Christian liturgy—were credited to the foresight and resourcefulness of the Devil. Foreseeing the eventual advent of Western Christian missionaries to give light to them that sit in darkness,1 he had sought to render the heathen immune against salvation by inoculating them in advance, on homeopathic principles, with a counterfeit likeness of the true religion. The Portuguese and Spanish pioneers’ minds were closed, but their missionary zeal was sincere and disinterested—as they demonstrated by continuing to proselytize even when this was manifestly detrimental to their economic and political interests. In this point the Portuguese and Spanish first wave of Western conquerors presents a contrast to the Dutch and British contingents in the second wave, which did not impinge forcefully upon the living non-Western civilizations of the Old World until after the secularizing revolution in the West in the seventeenth century of the Christian Era. The Protestant Christian Western empire-builders of the second wave deliberately subordinated religious missionary work to commercial and political considerations. They discouraged and discountenanced their own missionaries when these created embarrassments for the Western trader and the Western administrator.

On the other hand the Early Modern Roman Catholic Western Christian missionaries gave a further proof of their sincerity in the lengths to which they went in translating Christianity into terms of their prospective converts’ art, philosophy, and ethos. They recognized that, in coming on to these prospective converts’ ground, they would be improving the chances of success for their own mission, and, in this cause they showed themselves ready to waive their natural human prejudice in favour of their ancestral Western manners and customs and to discard anything in Western Christianity that, as they saw it, was merely one of Christianity’s accidental Western trappings and was not of the essence of Christianity itself.

This was not, of course, the first occasion on which Christian missionaries had been moved to practise a discriminating liberalism by their single-minded pursuit of their aim of preaching the Gospel to every creature.2 In converting the Graeco-Roman Society in the course of the first five centuries of the Christian Era, the Early Christian Church had smoothed the convert’s path by transferring local cults and festivals from pagan gods to Christian saints and by translating Christian beliefs into terms of Greek philosophy.3 The sixteenth-century Jesuit Western Christian missionaries in India and Eastern Asia were following in Clement of Alexandria’s footsteps, and were not striking out a new line without precedent in the Church’s history. At the same time, their liberal attitude was not characteristic of the contemporary Roman Church as a whole, and was not even consistently maintained by the Jesuits themselves in all their mission-fields. Opposition on the part of the Franciscans and Dominicans finally ruined the Jesuits’ work, and, with it, Christianity’s prospects, first in Japan and then in China; and, in their dealings with non-Western Christians who were members of other churches—for example, the Monophysites in Abyssinia and the Nestorians in Southern India—the Jesuits were as intransigent as any of their fellow Roman Catholic missionaries in trying to coerce independent heterodox Christians into union with the Roman Church. Nevertheless, the vein of liberalism in the Early Modern Western Roman Catholic missionaries’ outlook and policy is noteworthy, both in itself and for its bearing on the future; for the shipwreck of this promising endeavour in the seventeenth century does not rule out the possibility that it might be repeated in the twentieth century with better success in the light of chastening experience.

In the realm of language, this liberal spirit declared itself in the Spanish dominions in the Americas and in the Philippines. The Roman Catholic Christian missionaries here disregarded the Spanish secular authorities’ injunction to impose the Castilian language on the Indians as the medium of religious instruction. In their single-minded concern to preach the Gospel, the missionaries refused to be diverted by reason d’état from taking the shortest way to reach the Indians’ hearts. Even in the Philippines, where there was no pre-Castilian lingua franca, they learnt, and preached in, the local languages; and they went much farther in the Viceroyalty of Peru, where a native lingua franca had already been put into currency by the Spanish conquerors’ Inca predecessors. The missionaries in Peru reduced this Quichua lingua franca to writing in the Latin Alphabet; in A.D. 1576 a chair of Quichua was founded at the University of Lima, where it was maintained until A.D. 1770; and in 1680 a knowledge of Quichua was made an obligatory qualification for any candidate for ordination in Peru to the Roman Catholic Christian priesthood.

In the realm of Art, Christian iconography was translated into the Hindu style in India and into the East Asian style in China and Japan, while in Mexico the spirit of a benignant vein in Meso-American visual art that had always been subordinate and had latterly been almost entirely submerged under the savagery of an Aztec ascendancy was reproduced, and given predominance, in a cheerfully extravagant version of the Early Modern Western baroque style. In the ultra-Baroque village churches of the Puebla district the writer found himself in the presence of the aesthetic and emotional equivalent of a pre-Columbian fresco, depicting the merry paradise of the usually grim Mexican rain-god Tlaloc, which he had seen a few days before at Teotihuacán; and the sixteenth-century missionaries’ success in divining and meeting their Indian peasant converts’ spiritual needs was attested in A.D. 1953 by the loving care that the converts’ descendants were still lavishing on these magnificent works of an exotic architecture and art that had been bequeathed to them by the Spanish friars who had arrived in the wake of the conquistadores.

In the realm of philosophy, the sixteenth-century Roman Catholic missionaries had translated Christian doctrine into Hindu and Confucian terms, as it had been translated into Hellenic terms by the second-century Alexandrian fathers; and there were Western philosopher-missionaries who had schooled themselves to write, dress, eat, and live like Hindu sanyasis or like Confucian litterati. A symbol of this liberalism, and an earnest of the success that it promised to achieve, was to be seen in the shrine of the Virgin of Guadalupe, on the outskirts of Mexico City, which has been mentioned in a previous context.4

It is all the more significant that even this liberally adapted version of Western Christianity was rejected wherever the non-Western party to the encounter had the power. It was perhaps not surprising that in Abyssinia, where a long-established Monophysite Christianity was not treated by the Roman Catholic missionaries with the considerateness that they showed to non-Christian philosophies in Eastern Asia and India, both the missionaries and all other Portuguese nationals should have been ejected within less than 100 years after they had been welcomed as providential liberators of Abyssinia from her Somali Muslim invaders. But it is remarkable that, in the same decade, and after just about the same number of years of probation, the Roman Catholic missionaries and their lay fellow-Westerners should have been ejected likewise from Japan, and eventually have been ejected also from China and from Independent India, and should have held their ground only in Portuguese India and in the Spanish Empire, where the missionaries had the backing of irresistible political and, in the last resort, military force.

The ostensible reason for this rejection of Western Christianity by non-Western peoples in the seventeenth century was the association of the missionaries’ work with Western military and political aggression. Hideyoshi and his Tokugawa successors proscribed Roman Catholic Western Christianity in Japan because they feared that the Japanese converts to it might be made to serve as ‘a fifth column’ whose support would enable the United Kingdom of Portugal and Spain to conquer Japan, while they felt confident that Japan would be impregnable against the assaults of even the most formidable concentration of Western power if the assailants had no collaborators inside Japan’s defences. Thereafter the Bakufu tolerated the presence in Japan of Dutch Protestant Western Christians only on the two conditions that they should submit to being interned on an islet and that they should refrain from attempting to win any Japanese converts for their own version of Christianity. Roman Catholic Western Christianity was subsequently proscribed in China because the Pope and his representatives in Eastern Asia, in their anxiety to make sure that the Jesuits’ liberalism should not compromise the Church’s theism, had been so tactless as to lay down the law to the Emperor in regard to the meaning of some hallowed terms in the classical Chinese vocabulary. A deeper reason for the rejection of Western Christianity was the intrinsic difficulty and painfullness of any conversion from one way of life to another. It remained painful and difficult even when the missionaries had met the converts nearly half way by translating as much of Christianity as possible into the converts’ own terms.

Nevertheless, the wholeheartedness of the conversion of at least a nucleus of the converts to Roman Catholic Christianity in Japan was attested by the survival of a ‘faithful remnant’ underground for 231 years (A.D. 1637–1868) during which the penalty for detection was death. In Mexico, again, the Indians, though they had been converted to Christianity by force and had never been given freedom to reject it, displayed their voluntary attachment to it, 300 years later, in their resistance to the militant anti-clericalism which was in the ascendant during one stage of the long revolution that started in Mexico in A.D. 1910. In A.D. 1953 the Indian peasants were once more free to show their pride in their village churches and their zest for the Roman Catholic Christian liturgy. In the same year, however, the writer found a different spirit prevailing among the Chamulas—a highland people on the remote Las Casas plateau, in the south-western corner of the Mexican Republic, where Spanish military and political power had been so near to the end of their tether that the local tribesmen had been able to hold their own.

Even in 1953 the city of Las Casas, inhabited by Ladino descendants of sixteenth-century Spanish and Tlascalec colonists, felt like an island of Western Civilization set in an alien sea; and the short drive from this insulated Western city to the village capital of the unassimilated Chamula tribe carried the visitor into another world. Among the buildings round the village green, the most prominent was a fine Baroque church; but there was no tabernacle on the altar; the priest from Las Casas ventured to come to officiate there on sufferance not more than once or twice a year, so it was said; and the church was in the hands of shamans who, for decency’s sake, were called ‘sacristans’. The effigies of the Christian saints on their litters had been transfigured into representations of pre-Christian gods in the eyes of their Chamula worshippers, who, squatting on the rush-covered floor, were making weird music on outlandish-looking instruments. The crosses planted in the open had turned into living presences that were aniconic embodiments of the rain-god. In short, in Chamula the West’s sixteenth-century assault in the form of a Roman Catholic Christian mission had been successfully repelled, and it remained to be seen what would be the outcome of the West’s twentieth-century return to the charge. This post-Christian Western assault upon the Chamula had been mounted in the brand-new co-operative store and brand-new clinic by which the de-Christianized church was now flanked. Would Western medicine and Western business organization prove more effective than Western religion as engines for capturing this obstinately pagan fastness?

In the Hispanicized regions of Asia and the New World, such stubborn pockets of resistance as Chamula were rare by the year A.D. 1956; and, wherever Spanish and Portuguese rule had been made effective, as it had been at Goa as well as in most parts of the Spanish Empire of the Indies, the Indians had not been given the option of rejecting either Roman Catholic Christianity or the secular elements in the Early Modern version of the Western Civilization. They had been compelled to take them both, and to take them at one bite; and the difference in the sequel here and elsewhere suggests that, if one is going to have to receive an alien civilization at all, it is less damaging to receive it all at once than to be dosed with it in successive instalments. The forcibly and abruptly converted Asian and American subjects of the Portuguese and Spanish crowns took their compulsory new religion to their hearts and made something of their own out of it; and one consequence was that the original barrier between conquerors and conquered was overcome. Community of religion opened the way for inter-marriage, and the two societies merged into one, in which the social and cultural framework was Western, but in which a good deal of Indian wine had been poured into the Western bottles.

The sequel was different, and less happy, as we shall see, in those non-Western societies that came under French, Dutch, and British rule or influence after the secularization of Western life in the seventeenth century. Here there was no attempt either to impart or to receive any more of the Western Civilization than its secular side, and, even of this, the recipients usually sought, at the outset, to take no more than the military technique. This half-heartedness condemned the partial converts to a post-Christian Western Civilization to go through a protracted involuntary revolution in which they found themselves compelled to follow up their initial reception of the West’s military technique by adopting one more element of a secularized Western Civilization after another—and this without its leading to a union between the two societies. The recipients gradually became estranged from their own ancestral culture without ever coming to feel that the progressively adopted Western culture had become wholly theirs. The results were a schism in Society and a schism in the Soul that have remained unhealed so far.

12 Annexe: Two Seventeenth—Century Western Observers’ Views of Western Christianity as An Instrument of Western Imperialism

The extent to which Locke and Bayle had detached themselves from the religious fanaticism that had been common to Protestant and Catholic Western Christians in the Early Modern Age of Western history is revealed in their ability to place themselves imaginatively in the position of the contemporary non—Western societies and governments and to look through their eyes at the West’s impact upon them.

Without taking the liberty of researching into the reasons that may actuate God, in His wisdom, in permitting at one time what He does not permit at another, it can be said that the Christianity of the sixteenth century had no right to hope for the same favour or the same protection from God as the Christianity of the first three centuries. This was a benign, gentle, patient religion that recommended subjects to be submissive to their princes and that did not aspire to raise itself to the throne by means of rebellions. But the Christianity that was preached to the Infidels in the sixteenth century was no longer like that: it was a sanguinary, murderous religion, which had been hardened to the shedding of blood for some five or six centuries past. It had contracted a very long—ingrained habit of maintaining itself, and of seeking aggrandisement, by putting to the sword anything that offered to resist it. Faggots, executioners, the frightful tribunal of the Inquisition, the Crusades, papal bulls inciting subjects to rebel, seditious preachers, conspiracies, assassinations of princes—these were the regular means that this sixteenth—century Christianity employed against all who would not submit to its orders. Had it, then, any right to count on receiving the blessing that Heaven had granted to the Primitive Church, to the Gospel of peace, patience, and gentleness?

No doubt, the best course that the Japanese could have followed would have been to become converts to the true God; but, since they had not sufficient spiritual lights to lead them to renounce their own false religion, there was no alternative left to them but the choice between either persecuting or else being persecuted. They could not preserve their established government or their established religious cult unless they could get rid of the Christians; for, sooner or later, the Christians would have brought both the one and the other to ruin. They would have armed all their neophytes; they would have introduced into the country the armed assistance and the inhuman principles of the Spaniards; and, by main force of killing and hanging, as they had done in America, they would have brought the whole of Japan under their yoke. So, when one looks at the situation from a purely political point of view, one has to admit that the persecution which the Christians suffered in that country was a legitimate application of the means enjoined by prudence for forestalling the overthrow of the monarchy and the rape of a commonwealth.5

An inconsiderable and weak number of Christians, destitute of everything, arrive in a Pagan country; these foreigners beseech the inhabitants, by the bowels of humanity, that they would succour them with the necessaries of life; those necessaries are given them, habitations are granted, and they all join together and grow up into one body of people. The Christian religion by this means takes root in that country and spreads itself, but does not suddenly grow the strongest. While things are in this condition, peace, friendship, faith, and equal justice are preserved amongst them. At length the magistrate becomes a Christian, and by that means their party becomes the most powerful. Then immediately all compacts are to be broken, all civil rights to be violated, that idolatry may be extirpated; and, unless these innocent Pagans, strict observers of the rules of equity and the law of Nature, and no ways offending against the laws of the society—I say, unless they will forsake their ancient religion and embrace a new and strange one, they are to be turned out of the lands and possessions of their forefathers, and perhaps deprived of life itself. Then, at last, it appears what zeal for the Church, joined with the desire of dominion, is capable to produce, and how easily the pretence of religion, and of the care of souls, serves for a cloak to covetousness, rapine, and ambition.6

What could be better calculated to make the Christian religion odious in the eyes of all the peoples of the World than the spectacle of Christians first insinuating themselves on the footing of people who ask for nothing beyond the liberty to propound their doctrine and then having the hardihood to pull down the temples of the native religion of the country and to refuse to rebuild them when the Government gives the order. Will not this give the Infidels ground for saying: ‘At the beginning, these people ask for nothing except bare toleration; but, in a little while, they will be wanting to participate with us in public office and employment, and then to become our masters. At the beginning, they consider themselves very happy if we do not burn them alive, then very ill—used if they enjoy fewer privileges than other people, and then, again, very ill—used if they do not enjoy a monopoly of dominion. For a time they are like Caesar, who wanted merely to be under no master; and then they become like Pompey, who wanted to have no equals’.… These are the inevitable inconveniences to which people expose themselves when they hotly maintain that the power of the secular arm ought to be used for the establishment of orthodoxy.7

The most extreme advocates of toleration… do not know how to reconcile the Emperor of China’s edict with the sagacity with which the Emperor is credited. I am speaking of the Edict of Toleration which the Emperor has made for the benefit of the Christians and of which so good an account has been given by one of the Jesuit fathers. The advocates of toleration believe that a sagacious prince would not have granted to the Pope’s missionaries and to their neophytes a title to enjoy freedom of conscience without having first informed himself about their principles of conversion and about the way in which these principles have been applied by their predecessors. If, on this point, he had taken steps to obtain all the clarifications that were demanded by sound policy, he would never have allowed to the missionaries what he has granted to them in fact; he would have known that these are gentry who maintain that Jesus Christ commands them to ‘compel to come in’—that is to say, to banish, imprison, torture, kill, and dragoon all who refuse to become converts to the Gospel, and to dethrone princes who oppose their progress. It is impossible to see how the Emperor of China could have cleared himself of the charge of having shown an inexcusable imprudence if, knowing this, he had granted the Edict all the same. So we must save his honour by supposing that he knew nothing about it—though even this defence leaves him culpable for having so signally failed to inform himself sufficiently of something that it was very necessary for him to know. As far as can be seen, he will not live long enough to have occasion to rue his negligence; but it would be rash to guarantee that his descendants will not execrate his memory, for possibly they may find themselves obliged, unexpectedly soon, to resist dangerous seditions stirred up by the adherents of the new religion, and to cut their throats as the only alternative to having their own throats cut by them. Possibly it will be a case of playing the game of Greek meeting Greek (jouer au plus Jin), as it was the other day in Japan.8

  • 1.

    Mark xvi. 15.

  • 2.

    See Chapter 9, pp. 116–18, above.

  • 3.

    Luke i. 79.

  • 4.

    See Chapter 4, pp. 52–3, above.

  • 5.

    Bayle, P., Dictionaire, 3rd ed., ii. 1533 a and b, s.v. Japon.

  • 6.

    Locke, John, A Letter concerning Toleration (first published in A.D. 1689).

  • 7.

    Bayle, op. cit., i. 10 b, s.v. Abdas.

  • 8.

    Bayle, op. cit., iii. 1991 a and b, s.v. Milton.