Thursday, May 19, 2011

Alexandre de Rhodes in Vietnam

I've only visited Vietnam once, a visit that lasted about ten minutes. That short visit, however, was only part of a highly memorable trip. I traveled through mountains along the southern border of China where every village spoke its own language and wore its own clothing: Yao with peaked red hats, Miao, Hani, Han, at least two kinds of Dai. The scenery was so beautiful coming back that I got off the bus to take pictures, then hitchhiked with a gem smuggler back to the next main town. (I took this picture of a minority family bringing groceries and kids home from market from out of the window of the bus.) The smuggler operated a mine in the mountains of Vietnam, hiring Hmong tribesmen to carry gems down the mountain -- he gave me one, which unfortunately I lost. This counted as an honest trade in the border regions: I felt comfortable spending the night (on another trip) at the home of jade smugglers, and even a local church businessman smuggled Hyundais: it was those who dealt in heroin or women that bothered me.

A series of Dai villages near the border seemed like Shangri La -- straw roofed huts, girls with flowers in their hair, a popular hotspring next to rice paddies.

But locals told me I was the first American to visit the area since they'd shot American pilots down in the Vietnam War. China had has its own Vietnam War, and the bridge between the two nations, called Friendship Bridge, was new, the previous (Friendship?) bridge having been blown up. I was allowed to cross it without a visa, or any kind of check, for a short visit to Vietnam.

Recently I read a book about a western visitor who spent much longer, and had a remarkably deep impact on that country.

His name was Alexander de Rhodes, the Jesuit founder of Vietnamese Christianity, and one of the creators of the written Vietnamese text.

Few people know about Rhodes. He might be described as a disciple of the great Mateo Ricci -- he followed Ricci's methods of finding good in Vietnamese culture, and seemed to borrow some of Ricci's ideas in the Chinese classics. But in some ways he was more successful than Ricci. In 25 adventurous years in and largely out of Vietnam, training lay Christian leaders, with very few missionaries, the Vietnamese church grew to some 300,000 -- about the same as in China and in Japan after most of a century, larger fields with more missionaries, and which by any reasonable measure count as successes in their own right.

And de Rhodes (and a few colleagues) did all that with little in the way of European hard power, and much (it seems) in the way of diplomacy, wisdom, love of Vietnamese culture, and perhaps a little divine preparation. By contrast, the Inquisition in Goa, India -- established on the suggestion of Francis Xavier -- burnt dozens of infidels to death, imprisoned thousands, and forbid even the mildest "Hindu" customs. It was like the contest Aesop describes between the wind and the sun to see which could get the coat off a man: cruel force was used in Goa, and gentle persuasion in Vietnam.

I'd like to share a few exerpts from Peter Phan's wonderful book on Alexander Rhodes, Mission and catechesis : Alexandre de Rhodes and inculturation in seventeenth-century Vietnam.

Rhodes's methods of preaching, on visiting a town in Tonkin for the first time:

"As soon as the Porguguese ship reached shore, a crowd rushed out to see who the newcomers were, where they came from, and what merchandise they were bringing in. De Rhodes took advantage of the people's curiosity to clarify in fluent Vietnamese (to their surprise!) the purpose of his mission. He explained that while most of the people who had just arrived were Portuguese merchants seeking to trade goods adn arms, he had a precious pearl to sell so cheap that even the poorest among them could buy. When the people wanted to see the pearl, he told them that it could not be seen by bodily but only by spiritual eyes. The pearl, he said, was the true way (dao) that leads to the happy and everlasting light."

De Rhodes reflected:

"Having heard of the Law which they call dao in the scholarly language and dang in popular tongue, which means way, they became all the more curious to know from me the true law . . . I decided to announce it to them under the name of the Lord of heaven and earth, finding no proper word in their language to refer to God . . . I decided to employ the name used by the apostle Saint Paul when he preached to the Athenians who had set up an altar to an unknown God. This God, he said, whom they adored without knowing him, is the Lord of heaven and earth."

Dao here is the Chinese word 道, which means not only road or way, but morality (for Confucius, whom the Vietnamese also read), and the Supreme Principle of reality, for Lao Zi.
The Chinese also spoke of "Heaven and Earth," and Jesuits in China most often called God the "Lord of Heaven." De Rhodes didn't know the Chinese classics as well as Ricci, or he might have used the terms Shang Di and Tian, or their Vietnamese equivalents. Still, the term he used would surely have been well-understood in China, Japan, and Korea -- and apparently Vietnam.

Comparing the Gospel to a pearl goes back to Jesus' "Pearl of Great Price." Early Christians told a beautiful story about Jesus as a pearl salesman who was also a doctor. The analogy would, of course, have been readily understood in sea-hugging Vietnam.

"One of the converts, whose Christian name was Lina, opened a residence for the poor. There was also near the church in Van No, a leprosarium which the missionaries frequently visited. Many lepers became Christians."

Outreach to the poor and to lepers is a near-constant in Christian missions.

"Amidst these successes, there began opposition to the missionaries, especially on the part of Buddhist monks. They challenged de Rhodes to a debate."

The opposition eventually developed into overt persecution. In his debates with Buddhists, de Rhodes may have been more clever than Ricci. Ricci would debate directly, which could be a lose-lose proposition: win the argument, and you cause the Chinese to lose face; lose the argument, and you lose the argument.

By contrast, when De Rhodes was asked to debate, he invited an educated Vietnamese Christian (Ignatius) to argue the Christian side on his behalf. Ignatius was "very well versed in all their books and possessed special grace for disproving all the errors of these idolators." The downside of this approach was that persecution was directed at the Vietnamese Christian, who as I recall was eventually martyred.

Some Buddhist monks also converted to Christ, though.

Rhodes was willing to use what Don Richardson calls "redemptive analogies:"

"I noticed one custom among them that might suggest that our holy faith had been preached at one time in that kingdom, where nevertheless all memory of it has been obliterated by now. As soon as children were born, I often saw the parents put a crossmark on their foreheads with charcoal or ink. I asked them what good this would do to the child and why they daubed this mark on its forehead. 'That,' they used to tell me, 'is to chase away the devil and keep him from harming the child.' . . . I did not neglect to disclose its secret to them by explaining the power of the holy cross. This often served me as a means of converting them.'"

This is like stories in the Old Testament, in which God gives Pharoah or the king of Babylon a riddle, then sends Joseph or Daniel to explain its meaning.

De Rhodes took a nuanced and complex approach to Vietnamese beliefs, Phan argues. He opposed practices that he saw as immoral, appealing both to the Gospel and to folk wisdom to oppose such things, when possible. (As did Augustine, in City of God.) What he saw as good, he adapted. He strongly opposed introducing European practices that would set Vietnamese apart from their own culture.

De Rhodes comes across, in Peter Phan's book, as a wise, humble, yet dynamic and spunky missionary. He set the Vietnamese church up as a truly Vietnamese institution. As a result, Christianity spread rapidly during those first decades, and to this day, there are some 7 million Christians in Vietnam, mostly Catholic.

There is a lesson for missions in this contest between wind and sun that I hope we never forget.

A stone monument originally erected in 1941 in Hanoi, and placed in 1995 in the garden of the National Library, gives a strictly historical account of Rhodes’ life and works, aside from the following quote, which underlines the friendship he helped establish between the Gospel and Vietnam, his greatest legacy:

"I left Cochinchina in my body, but certainly not in my heart; and so it is with Tonkin. My heart is in both countries and I don’t think it will ever be able to leave them.”

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