Tuesday, February 12, 2008

What's in a name?   posted by Razib @ 2/12/2008 12:39:00 AM

A few weeks I read a The Great Encounter of China and the West, 1500-1800. A fair proportion of the book discussed the introduction of Roman Catholicism into China during the late Ming period (early 17th century) down to the denouement of the rites controversy. Because China and the West had developed on different intellectual tracks for 2,000 years before this meeting of the minds, so to speak, the Jesuits had to grapple with the fact that details of translation were of great import. For example, they introduced the neologism Lord of Heaven to distinguish their monotheistic god from the traditional Chinese concepts of Lord on High and Heaven (the personal and impersonal forms of the divine respectively). The missionaries were worried about conflations within the Chinese mind between the new religion and their preexistent supernatural beliefs; an issue emphasized by the repeated lack of distinction by locals between the exoteric aspects of Roman Catholicism and Pure Land Buddhism. Speaking of which, the Jesuits regularly utilized realistic European paintings of religious scenes, individuals and events, in their attempt to impress & imprint upon the natives the sensory pageantry of Counter-Reformation Catholicism. But they had to cease displays of the Madonna with the infant Jesus because Mary was often assumed to be a rendering of Guan Yin, a bodhisattva of compassion. Now reading T'ang China I stumble upon a passage where the author points to scholars who suggest that the evolution of the male bodhisattva Avalokitesvara into Guan Yin and the associated imagery was influenced by Nestorian Christianity's depiction of Mary! It is not surprising that crypto-Christians in Japan cloaked their Mary veneration within devotions to the Japanese variant of Guan Yin.

The possibility that Guan Yin might be phylogenetically related to Mary mother of Jesus is only that, a possibility. Alternatively, it seems plausible that both serve as a specific focus for relatively universal cognitive reflexes easily evoked in most contexts. Nevertheless, it would be richly ironic if the Jesuits turned away from excessive attention to Mary because of a confusion with Guan Yin because the latter had integrated aspects of Mary into her persona and presentation in the first place! From the outside as an irreligious person the often vacuous assertions of religious liberals that all faiths manifest the same truths actually makes some sense; but whereas the religious would interpret the truth as a transcendent supernatural one the materialist would simply give the nod to universal human psychological propensities intersecting with generic exogenous inputs (e.g., you look upon the star filled sky and feel a sense of awe). All that being said, to many religious people the specific name given to these cognitive constructs is very, very, important. In the days of yore when religion was simply an extension of tribal custom & tradition adherence to the name of a god was a cultural marker. All men are fundamentally human, variations upon the theme, but in a patrilineage which specific man you are descended from (at least notionally) determine all aspects of your social relations. Similarly, which god to which you bend the knee is critical in determining your circle of kin and fictive kin. The basic building blocks are psychologically universal, but the specific twists are socially functional, leveraging other cognitive tendencies in the process (conformity and xenophobia). Remember, the last of the pagan philosophers quipped that the Christians of the time were killing each other over one letter, i, whether one adhered to the doctrine of homoiousia or homoousia. Though to be fair, the difference was over the weighty matter of whether the three aspects of the Trinity were of similar or same substance...whatever that means.