Urbanity & Fervor
Prophecy and Religion in Ancient China and Israel
By H. H. Rowley Harper
154 pp. $2.75.
The leveling of partitions between civilizations which students of anthropology, comparative literature, psychology, and other disciplines have effected in recent decades has contributed substantially to a general awareness of the essential brotherhood of man and may one day facilitate the ecumenical organization of society. Whether the gnomic wisdom of Amen-em-ope and Hesiod and Proverbs or the glorification of a heroic ideal in Gilgamish, Iliad, and Mahabharata are actually interdependent or derive, like widespread myths based on the annual vegetation cycle, from analogous challenges to life, or whether they are all expressions of the archetypes of the collective unconscious which are part of humanity’s physiological heritage, the recognition of similarities among peoples widely separated in space and time makes the world a cozier lodging for all of us.
In highly articulate civilizations far removed from the primitive, like the Hebrew or Greek or Chinese, differences in manner loom so large that they tend to obscure essential likenesses in matter. And yet acute students of Chinese philosophy like Fung Yu-lan can point to striking parallels between the thought and even the expression of Confucius and his followers and the Greek pre-Socratics, and Marxist scholars like George Thomson find it easy to relate parallel stages of thought among the Greeks and the Chinese to parallel stages of economic development based on bronze, iron, and commodity production.
In the realm of religion, parallels between China and other peoples are not so easy to schematize because the Chinese have been less concerned with religion than other peoples. The “Four Books” (Confucian Analects, Book of Mencius, Great Learning, Doctrine of the Mean) have properly been called the Chinese Bible, but they contain no mention of creation or of heaven and hell. But religion was the sole preoccupation of the Hebrew prophet; where he thought of himself as directly inspired by a vigorous personal deity who could chide or comfort, and delivered the words of his message with passionate zeal, the Chinese teacher was urbane and formal and spoke of heaven vaguely if at all and always in the third person. “You love the sheep,” Confucius said to a disciple who proposed to abolish a certain sacrifice, “I love the ceremony.” The only major Chinese teacher who can be called religious in cur sense is Mo-tzu, and even Mo-tzu should properly be classed with the authorities at Bethel whom the prophet Amos set himself to make uncomfortable.
Doubtless the religious motivation of the prophets is so central that no approach to their work other than the religious is possible. Certainly none other is possible for the foremost expositor of Old Testament prophecy in the English-speaking world—who happens to be an accomplished Sinologist to boot. The result is that the two admirable halves of Professor Rowley’s book only confront but do not engage each other. His method suggests that of the Dickensian character who, bidden to write on Chinese philosophy, copied out the encyclopedia articles on “China” and on “philosophy.” After a succinct chapter on the “Nature of Prophecy” (in which its ecstatic and supernatural aspects are properly stressed) he presents alternating expositions of the teachings of the Hebrew prophets on the one hand, and of Confucius, Mencius, and Mo-tzu on the other, under the headings “The Prophet as Statesman,” “The Prophet as Reformer,” “The Prophet and the Golden Age,” “The Prophet and Worship,” and “The Prophet and God.” The paramount standard to which Professor Rowley is committed and by which he judges the Chinese is of course the ideal of Hebrew prophecy. He makes comparison possible by bestowing the title of prophet upon the Chinese also and claiming divine inspiration for them. The handsomeness of this gesture must not be minimized, but the effort it cost is all too visible and the result is after all only a figure of speech.
But Professor Rowley’s expositions are terse and honest—it would be hard to find more concise statements of the teachings he deals with—and the reader has before him sufficient materials for formulating his own conclusions. What does emerge is that both sets of teachers invoked authority, based in one case on the sanction of deity and in the other on the sanction of tradition, to enforce lessons of discipline, prudent government, and social justice. If the sanction is the paramount consideration, the gulf between the Chinese teachers and the prophets is unbridgeable; if the lessons, then the two groups are as close kin as Gilgamish and Odysseus and Rama, and Beowulf. We should then have another salutary leveling of differences between cultures, with no greater disparity than that suggested in the lines of a latter-day sage—
Have longer queues
Than other Chinamen.