The True Meaning of the Lord of Heaven

These excerpts are from the Translator’s and Hu Kuo-chen’s S.J. Introduction to The True Meaning of the Lord of Heaven by Matteo Ricci S.J. and Douglas Lancashire’s translation of Ricci’s text. Institute of Jesuit Sources. St. Louis 1985

The Life of Matteo Ricci

Established in 1534 and given formal recognition by Pope Paul III in 1540, the Society of Jesus declared its aims to be "to strive especially for the defense and propagation of the faith and for the progress of souls in Christian life and doctrine" and also "to go…to whatsoever provinces they [the popes] may choose to send us…"

Francis Xavier (1506-1552), one of the founding members of the Society, made his way to Japan….Noticing…"that whenever the Japanese were hard pressed in argument, they always had recourse to the authority of the Chinese…" Xavier determined to carry the message of Christianity to China…. Forbidden as a foreigner to enter China, however, Xavier landed on Shangchuan Island. There…he died of a fever on 3 December 1552.

On 16 October of the same year Matteo Ricci was born in Macerata, Italy…. It was not until 1583, however, that Ricci and Ruggieri were able to take up residence in China…. In 1603 The True Meaning of the Lord of Heaven was finally published. Ricci died on 11 May 1610. He was buried in land on the outskirts of Peking….

Shang-ti, and used the Chinese classics to prove that some of the basic religious concepts of Catholicism were already to be found in the China of ancient times. The work thus provided Christian thought with an entrance into Chinese culture.

Many of the Jesuit missionaries who came to China after Ricci shared his point of view and continued along the same path. Typical examples were Giulio Aleni at the end of the Ming dynasty and Francois Noel and Alexandre de la Charme during the Ch'ing dynasty. Their writings drew even more on the rites and classics of ancient China in an attempt to prove that the scholars of ancient China had faith in God. With ever greater clarity they discussed the principle, still only partly explored in Ricci's dialogue, that Catholicism could augment Confucianism.

In a work entitled T’ien-hsue ch’uan-kai,(A Summary of Teaching about God), written by Li Tsu-po, a Chinese Christian who lived at the beginning of the Ch'ing dynasty, the author raised the following question: "Why is there agreement between the Confucianism of ancient times and the basic religious ideas of Christianity?" Answering his own question he said: "They both find their origins in mankind as a single family, for both the Chinese and the Jews had the same first ancestors." With this pronouncement a further theoretical view was provided to bolster the opinion that Catholicism was in a position to make up what was lacking in Confucianism.

Although the views put forward in The True Meaning of the Lord of Heaven found an echo in the minds of some and so contributed to the growth of the Church in China, it was inevitable they should also encounter opposition. Adverse criticism has come from both within the Roman Catholic Church and from Protestant missionaries and theologians who have either quarrelled with the equation of the Judaeo-Christian God with the Chinese deity, Shang-ti, and with the choice of other Chinese terminology for key Christian concepts, or have pointed to the fact that little of what is commonly associated with the word "gospel" can be found in it. That there is truth in the latter view is something Ricci himself would not have denied,…

Mistaken Views About the Lord of Heaven
  1. The Western scholar says: The work of creation is an enormous undertaking and it must have its own pivot; but this is established by the Lord of Heaven. If there were no first cause to serve as the source of phenomena, neither principle nor the Supreme Ultimate would be able to fill this role. I am sure that there initially must have been very profound reasons for the teachings concerning the Supreme Ultimate. I have read them, and I would not dare to cast aside these arguments in any casual manner. Perhaps I shall later be able to write another book in which I can discuss their important ideas.
  2. The Chinese scholar says: From ancient times to the present the sovereigns and ministers of my country have known only that they should pay reverence to Heaven and Earth as if they were reverencing their fathers and mothers. They have therefore employed the ceremonial of state worship to sacrifice to them. If the Supreme Ultimate were the source of heaven and earth it would be the first ancestor of the world; and the first sages, emperors, and ministers of ancient times ought to have given priority to the worship of it. But, in fact, this was not the case. It is obvious, then, that the explanation given of the Supreme Ultimate is incorrect. You have argued the matter exhaustively, Sir, and your views are the same as those of the sages and worthies of ancient times.
  3. The Western scholar says: Despite what you say, the teaching that Heaven and Earth are the two things most honored is by no means easy to explain, since that which is most deserving of honor is unique and unparalleled. If we speak of "heaven" and "earth" we are talking about two things.
  4. . He who is called the Lord of Heaven in my humble country is He who is called Shang-ti (Sovereign on High) in Chinese. He is not, however, the same as the carved image of the Taoist Jade Emperor who is described as the Supreme Lord of the Black Pavilions of Heaven, for he was no more than a recluse on Wu-tang mountain. Since he was a man, how could he have been the Sovereign of heaven and earth?

  5. . Our Lord of Heaven is the Sovereign on High mentioned in the ancient [Chinese] canonical writings [as the following texts show]: Quoting Confucius, the Doctrine of the Mean says: "The ceremonies of sacrifices to Heaven and Earth are meant for the service of the Sovereign on High." Chu Hsi comments that the failure to mention Sovereign Earth [after Sovereign on High] was for the sake of brevity. In my humble opinion what Chung-ni [ i.e. Confucius] intended to say was that what is single cannot be described dualistically. How could he have been seeking merely for brevity of expression?

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