Wholly Overlapping Magisteria


I was interviewed recently by a colleague for a thesis she is writing on religion and Cultural Relations. I don’t remember exactly what I said, but the conversation came back to me in fragments last week in Périgord, sitting by a log fire, eating walnuts and reading Shusako Endo’s extraordinary novel, Silence. Endo’s story of the end of the Jesuit missions in Japan makes clear that in a sense religion is at the very heart of Cultural Relations and reminds us that it is the prism through which cultures have seen each other through most of history, with surprisingly little sign of change today. Martin Scorsese, who loves Endo’s novel and has recently made a faithful and powerful film of it, writes of Endo that “he had great difficulty reconciling his Catholic faith with his Japanese culture.” His long, exquisite meditation on that irreconcilability is an important text for the profession from which I have just retired.

The Jesuit Missions to the East were an aggressive Cultural Relations enterprise, just as the oil-fuelled explosion of Wahhabi Islam across the world in the last 50 years has been: both demonstrate quite how powerful and how political culture can be, especially when it takes the form of religious proselytism. Distracted by the apparent decline of religious belief in the West and a growing assumption that religion is anyway an internal, optional business quite separate from external ‘real’ life, we fail to understand this.

Stephen Jay Gould coined the phrase “non-overlapping magisteria” to provide a framework in which religious and scientific authority, and so truth, could co-exist without conflict, each owning a discourse of authority in its own discrete sphere. It is a very modern, and perhaps hopeless, attempt to neutralise a contradiction by redefining its terms to keep the competing claims at arm’s length from each other: the two magisteria, we are told, have quite different natures and quite different rules, so any apparent conflict is illusory, caused by a failure to segregate them properly.

That’s not quite how it appeared to a Jesuit missionary, for whom the two magisteria overlapped entirely. Jesuit scientists led the Christian world in the magisterium of science, but never forgot where ultimate authority lay. Christopher Clavius, the greatest of Jesuit mathematicians, spent much of his life working on astronomy, calendrical calculation and the precise observation of the solstices, not because abstract astronomical enquiry took him that way (though he was doubtless fascinated and curious): it was an indispensable tool for establishing something much more important, the correct date of Easter. In the same way, Muslim astronomers refined great mathematical expertise through their need to determine the qibla, the direction of prayer focused on Mecca. Mathematicians and religious scholars debated the matter of qiblat ahl Fas, the alignment of the Fes qibla, for four centuries. There was little that was non-overlapping about their magisteria.

For the Jesuit, as for the Muslim, truth was indivisible and universal. What was true in Rome, or Padua or Paris was by definition equally true in Peking, Madurai or Edo. In this iron-clad certainty St Francis Xavier led the first missionaries to Japan, where they prospered, converting perhaps 300,000 Japanese in what has been called ‘Japan’s Christian Century.’ To be sure, they made compromises which they saw as essentially presentational, not impugning the central truths of the gospel. Just as the Jesuit missionary Robert de Nobili in southern India had dressed as a sanyasin and worn the brahmin’s triple thread on his chest, and Matteo Ricci in China dressed, spoke and behaved as a mandarin, so the Jesuits in Japan made their own compromises of costume, behaviour and language, which are sometimes called ‘inculturation.’ This was persuasive and harmless, at least in the view of the Jesuits themselves – their old adversaries the Dominicans took a very different and much dimmer view – and left the monolith of Christian truth untouched. There was no hint of what we would call cultural relativism, no suggestion that every culture deserved respect and honour on its own terms, and least of all when that culture was religious.

But cultural and religious purism proved very hard to maintain. Father Ferreira, the apostasizing Jesuit whose presence hangs over the whole of Endo’s novel, puts it like this: “What the Japanese of that time believed in was not our God. It was their own gods. For a long time we failed to realise this and firmly believed that they had become Christians … From the very beginning those Japanese who confused “Deus” [God] and “Dainichi” [the Great Sun] twisted and changed our God and began to create something different. Even when the confusion of vocabulary disappeared the twisting and changing secretly continued. Even in the glorious missionary period … the Japanese did not believe in the Christian God but in their own distortion.”

This is the background to the collapse, over a period, of the young Jesuit whose faith does not withstand exposure to Japanese persecution in what he comes increasingly to see as the absence – the Silence – of God. He eventually persuades himself, in a way that echoes Borges’s Three Versions of Judas, that the greatest of all Christian sacrifices is the renunciation of Christ for the sake of Christ, the bearing of universal infamy in a greater cause. Encouraged, as he believes, by Christ, he commits the symbolic apostasy of treading on an image of Christ’s face in order to save Japanese Christians from martyrdom. He then lives the rest of his life, like Ferreira, as living witness to cultural defeat, writing against the truth of Christianity and becoming a crushed exponent of Japanese culture.

Seen, though, as a parable of Cultural Relations, the book is a tale of cultural synthesis and the journey from certainty to uncertainty, the crumbling of faith, the intrusive birth of cultural relativism. Catholicism in Japan after the expulsion of the mission is a persecuted shadow of its former self, practised, if at all, in secret and mutating fractally, in the absence of priests. Silence is a demolition of universalism. When cultures meet, compromise takes place, whatever we intend – the phenomenon that linguists call ‘accommodation,’ by which accents involuntarily converge in the course of a conversation. It is natural and inevitable. There is no such thing as cultural purity in the context of an intercultural encounter, least of all an encounter as radical as the Jesuits’ in Japan, where a whole culturally rooted system of ideas was exported wholesale. The interface is a fertile place of exchange and cross-pollination – the “twisting and changing … that began to create something different.” The Jesuits thought that they could promote and contain this by careful and controlled inculturation; the Dominicans thought quite otherwise (a running Punch-and-Judy conflict which expressed itself most delightfully in Macao in 1623, when a party of armed Jesuits attacked a Dominican priory: the Dominicans played what they thought was their trump card by holding up the Blessed Sacrament in a monstrance at a window, and the Jesuit commander simply barked the order to his arquebusiers, “Genuflect and fire!”). The Japanese authorities understood correctly that the missions were political as well as cultural, and they defended Japan against the intrusive assault: a significant part of this defence was demonstrating that the Christian God could not intervene to save His devotees, and ‘His’ culture could be entirely negated by the traditional culture of Japan. Which is why, of course, Endo’s vanquished Jesuits were purposefully made into cowed exhibits of that traditional Japanese culture.

Today we are just as sure of our own rightness, but the monolithic culture that we promote as an apparently consistent, autopoietic system is scientistic rather than religious. We see it as unquestionably universal – the laws of thermodynamics, gravity and geometry are true everywhere and anywhere. Our certainties and universalities are not limited, either, to science: we are as sure of human rights, freedom of expression and democracy as we are of quadratic equations and square roots. In this we are cultural Jesuits, dictating truths (however gently) and taking a dim view (however politely) of deviance from our Enlightenment norms.

My point is not to argue whether we are (or the Jesuits were) right in our assumptions of universality and truth. I am interested by the difficulty we have in seeing ourselves from the outside – in understanding both how limiting such certainties are, and how off-putting to our interlocutors. We need to listen. To reflect. To weigh up other opinions and world-views, no matter how outlandish they may seem to us, dignifying them with serious consideration. To be prepared to change our own minds. This is all about the earning and giving of trust, and the tentative establishment of a shared set of assumptions, however sparse, however grudging. Stephen Shapin, the historian of science, wrote in a majestic passage of his Social History of Truth,

A world-known-in-common is built up through acts of trust, and its properties are decided through the civil conversations of trusting individuals. The root of all civility and good manners is therefore the presumption of that basic perceptual confidence and sincerity which provides warrants for our conversation as being reliably orientated towards and about the realities on which we report. The ultimate incivility is the public withdrawal of trust in another’s access to the world, and in another’s moral commitment to speaking the truth about it: those who cannot be trusted to speak reliably and sincerely about the world may not long belong to the community of discourse. It is not just that we do not agree with them; it is that we have withdrawn the possibility of disagreeing with them. The external determinate world is preserved across this great incivility; what is lost is the presumption of a world-known-in-common between the participants of such a rupture. The great civility, therefore, is granting the conditions on which others can colonize our minds, and expecting the conditions which allow us to colonize theirs.

None of us are very good at this: it’s difficult. Getting outside ourselves and seeing differently, accepting the fact that things look very different from different standpoints. Understanding that agreement is less important than the civility of trusting conversation and the mutual colonizing of minds. It is this ‘Great Civility’ that is the business of cultural relations: the careful curation of a space where not just agreement but, perhaps more importantly, trusting disagreement is possible.

Bullet-proof certainty is the enemy of spaces like that. If we are to do our job as Cultural Relations professionals effectively, we can’t be Jesuitical; and we can’t admit alien ideas only with a clove of garlic held firmly behind our backs. If we aren’t prepared to reflect on, and engage candidly with, ideas and beliefs that lie outside our mental universe, then we’re not doing our jobs. It’s odd how many of the ‘value-sets’ we find difficult to engage with are still, to this day, religious. To the post-religious Westerner, religion is uncomfortable, even embarrassing, its imperatives inexplicable and quaint. In its ‘extreme’ forms it is downright frightening, whether Buddhist monk, Christian Zionist, ISIS assassin or Israeli settler: frightening because its logic strays across the boundary between magisteria, seeming to muddle myth and logic. But this is the stuff of cultural relations today, and understanding and explaining them is what Cultural Relations today should actually be about – twisting and changing, and the creation of something different.


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