Friday, February 13, 2015

Caught a scent II

Yesterday I mentioned the little steeple-chase I went through around Yang Huilin's essay "The Contemporary Significance of Theological Ethics: The True Problems Elicited by Auschwitz and the Cultural Revolution." After working out some editorial mistakes in various places I thought I'd found the real story and Chinese original. An esssay on this subject in China in 1999, long before it appeared in English - wouldn't it be great to reconstruct its setting and reception?

Well, it turns out I guessed wrong. I followed up with Yang's editor, who asked the author himself, and it seems it may all have begun in English, and was in any case written for a western audience. Yang was on research leave at Leuven; the paper was his contribution to a conference there, making use of the work of young Leuven faculty member Didier Pollefeyt. (Now both Yang and Pollefeyt are leaders at their respective schools.) As for the Chinese version my friend found, well, it was published in simplified Chinese, yes, but not in China. Regent, an evangelical college in British Columbia, was the publisher.

But all this just makes it interesting in other ways. Let's start with the fact that Yang Huilin, a visitor at the Catholic theological faculty at Leuven and published in an evangelical journal, isn't a Christian. Well, that may be saying too much or too little. Yang is sort of a "cultural Christian" (文化基督徒 wenhuajidutu), a Chinese university scholar drawn to the study of Christian tradition as a way to understand cultural rather than religious questions. Several "cultural Christians" have had careers defined not only by the study of Christian history and theology but themselves do a kind of academic theology, discussion about important philosophical and ethical matters in a Chinese Christian idiom but tethered neither to individual faith nor to some denominational membership. (It might not be that different from my rhapsodies in a Buddhist mode: I'm not a Buddhist but find Buddhist categories and arguments compelling ways of making valuable arguments.)

So in the article in question, we have a non-Christian making a pitch for "The Contemporary Significance of Theological Ethics." What is Yang's argument in it? Auschwitz and the Cultural Revolution are two traumatic events which demonstrate the need to reexamine earlier ethics. Like Auschwitz, the Cultural Revolution typically manifested a kind of combined historical force of collective unconsciousness, and also typically exposed the one-sidedness and limitations of ideals and values in the earthly world. (70) These claims aren't really explained ("collective unconsciousness," "ideals and values," "earthly world"?); Yang's main concern is to use Pollefeyt's typology of inadequate post-Holocaust views of evil to show that post-CR China, too, may need to move towards something like "theological ethics" to rebuild its moral culture.

What Pollefeyt calls "diabolization," "banalisation" and "apology of evil" are views of evil which either understand agents of evil as moral monsters, as constrained by their surrounding society and culture to commit evil without realizing it, or as knowingly doing evil but under the conviction that it contributed to a greater good. Yang finds analogs in discussions of the Cultural Revolution. "Diabolization" is to be found in the "scar literature" which describes saintly victims of collective monstrosity. "Banalisation" well describes the intellectuals who disavow any responsibility on the basis of having been "raped for 40 years." "Apology of evil" is to be found both in current views that the CR made later progress possible and in nostalgia for the Mao years among people disappointed by corruption and other contemporary problems.

None of these views, Yang argues, is willing to face the reality of the Cultural Revolution. People there at the time know that everyone was drawn in in one way or other, but none of these views will admit this. A new understanding of evil and forgiveness - Pollefeyt's proposal for the post-Auschwitz discussion - won't work here. Beyond a few prominent scapegoats, all already dead, everyone's been exonerated, indeed disqualified as an ethically responsible agent, by one or other of these discourses. Who would need forgiveness? (72)

And yet the moral landscape is devastated by these cheapened forms of condemnation and self-exculpation, by a "negation" of the whole period by government decree so glib it leaves (or should leave) all talk of ethical ideals and the human capacity to realize them suspect. Yang gestures instead at the need for something like the Christian logic of love, whose premise should be “the Wholly Other,” eternal and extrinsic to man (73). In Chinese culture everything tends to get integrated - the secular and the sacred, ... rationality and religion, ... regal right and religious right, behavioral standards and spiritual values; as a result ethical judgment is overwhelmed by practical compromises (73). What's needful if one is to learn the discomfiting lesson of the Cultural Revolution is an uncompromised and uncompromising "pursuit of responsibility” which is not directed at any individual person per se, and rather than questioning a certain ethical theory, it questions ethics itself (75).

What makes this "theological," even in the cultural Christian sense, and what work could it do in a merely cultural Christian sense? And just why is Pollefeyt's proposal dismissed out of hand? Stay tuned!

Yang Huilin, “The Contemporary Significance of Theological Ethics: The True
Problems Elicited by Auschwitz and the Cultural Revolution,” in China, Christianity
and the Question of Culture (Waco, Texas: Baylor University Press, 2014), 61-75

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