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God and His absence in China.


I WAS BROUGHT up in a Christian household in the West. My uncle was devout and I went to religious camps as a boy where we were encouraged to ask Jesus into our hearts. Jesus seemed unenthusiastic about coming at my call, nevertheless I never really questioned my Christian faith through the ten years of my schooling where, each week we would study the bible, go to the Sunday services and say our prayers. I assumed that there was one God, who had created the world, was the source of all morality, was all powerful and all seeing, and who would be waiting for us in heaven when we died.

It was therefore a considerable shock to go to a Himalayan village and find this monotheistic system totally absent. There was a Sanskrit word for God, ‘devta’, but I soon discovered that a better translation of this would be ‘godling’. For there were many godlings, they were both male and female, they shared the spiritual world with many other spirits, including witches and the souls of dead ancestors, and they had neither created the world, nor were they the source of morality. They were as far as possible from my childhood God.

My world would disintegrate without God, even if I don’t believe in Him.

Brought up in a world where much of my culture has been derived from a belief in a single God, I find it almost impossible to enter into a world where this whole foundation is missing. Much of the art, poetry, literature, philosophy, ethics and even language I have been surrounded with are absent. My world would disintegrate without God, even if I don’t believe in Him.

It is God who unites the different parts of my life, my social, moral and even economic and political life is pinned onto him. For example, the Queen rules under God, the morality of the economic market is founded on Christian ethics, the way I behave and all my social life is influenced by the residue of the idea that God is like our parents. He cares for us, listens to us, guides us, punishes us for our failures, rewards us for our meritorious acts, watches our every move. He is always there, as He was for Robinson Crusoe on his desert island. We are never alone because He is always at our side. We are filled with guilt when we fail Him and we strive constantly through our life to please Him and to ascend to heaven to reside with him for ever. How can one live without this steady anchor, I sometimes wonder?

Yet it is clearly possible to do so, and indeed much of the world lives outside the monotheistic belt of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. And they seem perfectly happy without Him.

None of the three major philosophies in China individually, or even when put together, constitute a ‘Religion’ as an autonomous and separate sphere.

IN THE WEST, we think of ‘Religion’ as being an institution where all of the major parts of a bundle are present — a Creator God, a dogma and set of beliefs about heaven, hell, sin, salvation, an ethical code, and a set of rituals by which we can approach and influence spiritual powers. If this total package is what we mean by ‘religion’, then none of the three major philosophies in China individually, or even when put together, constitute a ‘Religion’ as an autonomous and separate sphere.

Confucianism provides some ethics and social rituals, but no God or dogma about a spiritual world. Taoism has some rituals but no ethics or God. Buddhism has some rituals, ethics and some dogma but there is no creator God.

Another approach would be to argue that a phenomenon like ‘religion’ should be understood by setting up a set of possible features, and then seeing whether most of them (if not all) are present. If we do this, and include not only those noted above but also others, such as a belief in ghosts, the reverence due to ancestors, the power of certain sacred places or people, the sacredness of certain texts, then the Chinese have a ‘family resemblance’ to what we feel is ‘religion’ in the West.

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Any visitor who has been to Shangri-La or the minority areas, or to the Confucian or Buddhist temples which are springing up in all their red and gold glory over China, will feel a sense of ‘otherness’. We sense that some things are set apart from normal life, that people are aware of something larger than the individual, a power like electricity which runs through everything and hence requires geomancers to determine propitious days and directions.

So let us agree that, even before we allow for the now considerable presence of real religious sentiments in the minority areas (Tibetan Buddhism, Uighur Muslims) and now many Christians, China has many elements which seem roughly like certain aspects of religion in the West.

What it did not have was a dominant evangelical, proselytizing, monotheistic creed with its attendant vast corpus of priests, except for a short period in the Tang dynasty with Buddhism. Religion played little part in education, unlike in the West, and the religious did not form a separate order, like the Brahmins or clergy elsewhere.

There were no religious legal courts and apart from social ethics, religion was not a separate force in the economy or politics. The Emperor was heaven’s representative and to be revered just as the father or husband was to be revered, but he was not a God.

What strikes a Westerner about China is how this-worldly and rational the Chinese are and have long been. To them, as with the Japanese, the huge influence of Judaism, Christianity or Islam in Western thought – in our philosophies, social life, even our economics and politics – is extraordinary. To them we seem very superstitious, God-soaked people. It is not surprising that, until recently, there has been no word for ‘religion’ in China. Even now, the word used, stresses veneration and obeying the rules of one’s ancestors, rather than believing in a God. For many who live in the western world of fundamentalist conflicts, the heir to the Crusades and missionary endeavours, this can all seem refreshing, yet it has pervasive effects on China in many spheres.

ONE PARTICULAR ASPECT of this, concerns our concepts of the afterlife.

From my childhood onwards, I was brought up in the belief that when we die we go to some other world. There was no chance that we would return to this world, reborn as an animal or human. Our ancestors were dead and gone. As for what that other world was like, we were given a sketch in our Bible readings and in poetry and painting.

Heaven was vague, nebulous, a place above the earth and therefore above the clouds. There, on a throne, a smiling, bearded, God would be sitting surrounded by a heavenly host of angels and arch-angels. They would all be sitting playing musical instruments and adoring God. The entrance to this place was a gate where St Peter greeted the souls of the departed and interrogated them before they were allowed into heaven. It was not specified in any detail as to whether we would meet our family and friends in Heaven. Nor was it clear what we would look like or how we would spend all eternity, except in supposed bliss.

Hell was described much more carefully. There were numerous paintings and descriptions of the burning fires, the tortures, the frightful demons leaping about and Satan rejoicing in our everlasting miseries. Again, it was not clear whether we would meet people we knew or what, apart from being tortured, would occupy our days and nights.

I had always assumed that this frightful binary choice of Heaven and Hell was to be found in the same form in all of the monotheistic religions. Only much later did I find that all in the Jewish and Islamic world who were practising their ritual duties would go to Heaven. The only ones who went to Hell were unbelievers or those who had abandoned their faith.

Later in life I came to see Christianity as a harsh and cruel religion in this respect. Especially as a Protestant, without the last-minute absolution of the Catholic church, you could never be certain that you would avoid perpetual torture for some sin or other. The thought that the majority of mankind was condemned to Hell, even if they had not heard of Christianity, seemed arrogant at best, and at worst horrific.

In China there is a thing called heaven, ‘Tien’, but it is very far from the Christian heaven. It just means some place high up and beyond human reach, a sky kingdom, where certain powers dwell. It is not crowded with the souls of the dead, there is no God there, nor angels.

Likewise, one of the four places a Buddhist soul may go is a kind of Hell which, in the painting to be found in Buddhist monasteries, looks rather like the Christian Hell, with devils cavorting, fire and torture. Yet most souls are either reborn into this world, or escape to a vague nothingness or erasure of all pain in Nirvana. Neither Daoism nor Confucianism has any idea of Heaven and Hell. It is all very different and the pressure towards moral behaviour to escape the infernal fires is much less. To me, nowadays, it appears to be a more humane view of human destiny after death.

Alan Macfarlane is an anthropologist and historian and a Professor Emeritus of King’s College, Cambridge. He is the co-editor of The Fortnightly Review, the author or editor of 20 books and numerous articles on the anthropology and history of England, Nepal, Japan and China. Much of his work has focused on comparative study of the origins and nature of the modern world. In recent years he has become increasingly interested in the use of visual material in teaching and research. He is a Fellow of the British Academy and the Royal Historical Society. His essay, “Concepts of Time and the World We Live In” was published the The Fortnightly Review in 2010, and his book The Invention of the Modern World appeared in serial form in The Fortnightly Review in 2012. This essay is an excerpt from Understanding the Chinese: A Personal A-Z. A free ebook version is available here.

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