26. Judeo-Christian thought

Singular truth vs pluralism ◆ will vs wuwei ◆ sacred vs secular ◆ passion vs Golden Mean

Key terms introduced in this chapter:

  • no new terms are introduced in this chapter

Key terms mentioned in this chapter that should now be familiar:

  • alternating contexts
  • authoritative thought systems
  • caizi-jiaren narrative model
  • cultural context
  • distance
  • layers
  • love
  • mixtures
  • model reader
  • situational factors
  • status
  • ToM
  • traditional
  • true love


26.1. Introduction

Christianity was the dominant *authoritative thought system for much of the history of most Western Europe cultural groups although around its periphery there was the Islamic empires and pagan cultures.[1] *Traditional Western ideas and ideals of *love developed with Christianity as a broad and “close” (not *distant) *cultural context.

Four aspects are important to understanding a *ToM that is has a relevant “Western” *cultural context which includes these values. I put “Western” in parenthesis because some of the ideals of “true love” has been absorbed in *East Asian cultures and would not be considered “Western” at all, just “not *traditional” perhaps. These four differ sharply with *traditional *East Asian *worldviews and values. In that way they can warp interpretations even of contemporary *East Asian films but especially of *premodern *East Asian literature. For this reason, I am presenting the four with an oppositional scheme (Western value vs *East Asian value). However, it is much better not to think of these as “either/or” relationships but rather *layered arrays or *alternating contexts. *Mixtures is also very common.

  • The first is the nature of Christianity as a monotheistic religion with an all-knowing God existing nearly total dominant, affirmed *status in Western culture during the time that traditional ideas and ideals of love were developed.
  • The second viewing morality as a test of will which leads to action (carried over from Greek philosophy).
  • The third is how it establishes a radically perfect sacred space for love. “Sacred space” is common to all Mesopotamian religions, and to some degree the Greeks but it is Christianity that squarely considers acts of the best ways of love to be in the image of God’s love. Devotional love is an important element in this as well.
  • The fourth is the high value placed on the extreme emotional states such as intense desire or passion, when pointed in the right direction.

26.2. Monotheism and singular truth versus multiple pluralistic systems

Western *worldviews and *values derived from them were formulated almost entirely during the era of Christendom while, on the other hand, Chinese culture developed under the triple systems of Daoism, Confucianism, and Buddhism. (Traditional Korean and Japanese *worldviews are composed of both indigenous ideas and those received from Chinese developments grounded in these three *authoritative thought systems.) Even though China has a strong predisposition towards syncretic thinking—and so Daoism and Confucianism and Buddhism have blended dramatically—they remain identifiably separate thought-systems in all of our *East Asian countries, each with its own *worldviews and *values. In addition, today’s *East Asian cultures are essentially secular, so, for the most part, individuals in these societies are not devoted practitioners of any single one of these systems but instead have a certain amount of *distance from them.

So, we have on the one hand a constellation of *values based on a single common *worldview (the teachings of the Catholic Church for the most part) and, on the other, a more complex *array of differing *values derived unsystematically from multiple sources.

Increasing the strength of this phenomenon is the Christian teaching of moral imperatives (godly actions) that are expected at all times, in all situations, as opposed to an *East Asia where there is a more complex array of expectations that sometimes depend on situations and timing as well as whether anyone will be able to know of an action.

To put it another way, Christianity (like all Abrahamic religions that descended from worship of the God of Abraham) posits an all-knowing, all-powerful, singular God who judges his subjects based on their free moral choices between good and evil. Whether one is in the public sphere, private sphere, or just alone with one’s heart, God knows (and you know He knows) as to whether your decisions and actions are good or evil.

Daoism, Confucianism, and Buddhism do not posit such a “seer” who is directly and personally aware of your decisions and who will judge, punish, reward, or forgive. The most omnipresent and persistent principles in these three systems would be as follows.

In the case of Daoism, one can be out of harmony with the configuration of a situation and this will weaken your position or cause illness.

In the case of Confucianism, the eye of society is nearly pervasive and is indeed judgmental and can indeed punish or weaken or exile you for anti-social behavior. But discrete, private, secret actions operate beyond this principle.

In the case of Buddhism, the neutral law of Dharma where bad actions invite bad consequences is indeed as omnipresent and persistent as God, but it is not personal and so not judgmental. In other words, while there are bad consequences to bad actions, there is no tangible moral imperative seeking to require good action. While Buddhist compassion encourages one’s heart towards good action, it is not nearly as key to the religion as love is in Christianity.

Some concepts that are relevant to *East Asian views of *love and behaviors related to those views that are related to this complex *array of *worldviews and *values are: *layering, the role of deception, and “convenient choices” (pragmatic, situation-based ethics) in love (and in any other ethical situation for that matter).

From both the Greek and Christian perspectives, all three of these are viewed as limited in vision or criticized as moral compromises, or both. From the *East Asian perspective, on the other hand, they are seen as sophisticated wisdom or actions that are realistically based on the complexities of the world in which we actually live, even if not always perfectly ethical.

26.2.1. Layering

*Layering turns out to be surprisingly key for generating good interpretations of our narratives. As we try to develop a credible *ToM for a character, or establish an accurate picture of the *worldviews and *values providing the framework for a narrative more totally, we almost always encounter what seems like multiple systems stepping forward or stepping back depending on the moment of the narrative, and so on. *Layering also runs directly counter to the Western notion of “soulmate” or other ways of thinking that one person is the perfect or *fated (ordained by God or Heaven) partner for another. So, for example, it is often okay in *East Asian narratives to *love someone who reminds one of someone else. In the West this could not be called “*true love.” *Layering also subverts the idea of individuality and individual responsibility—”I” is multiple things, not just a single soul who makes moral choices and bears the rewards or punishments for those choices. These “multiple things” might be identity confusion, or the dominance of memories, or one’s hyper-awareness of one’s various roles and duties in the world. For example, a spy who has fallen in love with an enemy spy must chose, because of external pressures, whether to betray the country or the lover. But this is a situational choice, deep in the heart of the person in question there is no imperative to chose one way or the other. It is seen as understandable and  normal to feel both and be entirely undecided, permanently.

26.2.2. Deception

In our narratives we will notice that deception as often facilitates and supports love as it does subvert it. One should not automatically take the interpretative (or moral) position that if a lover lies to (or just doesn’t share something with) the one he or she loves, that it is an indicator of flawed love. Deception and secrets seems intimately entangled in *love states in *East Asian narratives.

26.2.3. Convenient choices (situational factors)

Christianity argues that if you act immorally, the end result is that even in cases where you derive some immediate benefit ultimately upon death you will be judged and can suffer greatly for your short-sighted pursuit of selfish pleasure or profit. You will, in other words, suffer a net loss for your actions. Moral values are consistent in all situations. There is no way to “game the system.”

Ethics is a more complex affair in *East Asia in part because it is an amalgam of ethical systems that are not necessarily coordinated in all of their parts. Thus it is possible to mix-and-match, drawing on one system at one time and another at another time in ways that are most immediately convenient. Further, Daoism, is not really an ethical system—it is a strategic one: wise action is based on understanding the current situation and the changes underway, and then acting accordingly. Behavior is tied to the immediate situation and one’s deep understanding of it, not eternal moral principles although “harmonize with the cosmos” is, indeed, an enduring, omnipresent cosmic principle. Punishment or retribution is in the form of less successful action or weakened health, and such. Confucianism in its ideal form has enduring principles of honesty, respect, kindness, and so on, but as it was and is practiced it has a high tolerance for modifying these principles to more selfishly profitable ends (such as the abuse of authority). Punishment in this system comes from society (not God) but society is less interested in delivering punishment if no disruption of social order actually occurs. So, for example, if one has a love affair and no one notices it or suffers because of it, it is not a good thing but it is not as fundamentally targeted for punishment as it is in Christianity. Finally, Buddhism, which is closest so a system that says that bad acts will bring bad things (karma), has a softer edge than Christianity by viewing bad acts as acts of ignorance rather than truly evil and deserving of punishment. All of these systems, in other words, have well worked out guidelines for correct behavior but lack the absolute (transcendent, metaphysical) nature of moral punishment embraced by Christianity.[2]

26.3. The importance of will versus wuwei and harmony

As already noted in our discussion about Greek philosophy, will-power is how one masters one’s own less-than-perfectly-moral urges—the chariot drive asserts his will of the black horse that resist his commands. Moral acts, correct-choice-based actions, and the will-power to pursue actively( even aggressively) a correct path are all already fully in place in the Greek system.

26.3.1. Free-will as a key element in morality

The Jewish tradition and Christianity both take this focus on free choice (act based on one’s choice that can become the basis of moral judgment)  a step further by placing a focus on the free will (and willpower) of each individual, asserting, for example, that God has given Man freedom to either believe or not believe in Him. With the concept of Original Sin, being good (having full faith in God which then leads the way and empowers one to be good) is a choice that hangs on one’s soul.

To illustrate the centrality of free will in discussions of morality, below are examples from randomly selected web pages that teach Jewish or Christian principles:

  • If humans do not have free will–the ability to choose–then actions are morally and religiously insignificant: a murderer who kills because she is compelled to do so would be no different than a righteous person who gives charity because she is compelled to do so.
  • Jewish tradition assumes that our actions are significant.
  • God dignifies us with free will, the power to make decisions of our own rather than having God or fate predetermine what we do. Consider what the Bible teaches.
  • God created humans in his image. (Genesis 1:26) Unlike animals, which act mainly on instinct, we resemble our Creator in our capacity to display such qualities as love and justice. And like our Creator, we have free will.
  • Free will is a precious gift from God, for it lets us love him with our “whole heart”—because we want to.

26.3.2. No place to hide—secrets and confession

Since God is all-knowing, one’s moral choices are known and will be judged. Keeping one’s immoral acts secret does nothing to avoid God’s judgment. This challenges the value of secrecy in maintaining social harmony, a common path of choice in *East Asia and one considered mature behavior when deployed correctly (but which is clearly open to self-serving abuse).

Christian confession is not telling God what He does not know. It is an act of removing secrecy from the perspective of the sinner, admitting the guilt of the action, and asking for forgiveness, which is an act of Grace. *East Asia has this confessional moment too, in the sense that the perpetrator recognizes his or her guilty act, and implies an understanding of that guilt as well as an intention not to repeat the action. But these statements are delivered to “society” not to God, and society’s forgiveness—while it can be essential to survival—is not seen as having a divine cleansing power.

26.3.3. Testing one’s moral steel and depth of love—Free-will in love narratives

Over-coming confusion and mustering the courage to do the right thing (or *love the right person) in the face of temptation or a dispiriting challenge is a very common Western narrative which affirms this principle. Such stories are easily woven into the fabric of *love narratives: to slay the dragon in order to rescue the girl is one of those. (The Chinese *caizi-jiaren narrative model which has wide distribution in East Asia in contrast is: come from a good family, be handsome, then work hard to enhance one’s education / social status and you will be rewarded with a beautiful wife.)

26.3.4. One’s relationship with God trumps one’s relationship with society

There is a derivative of this line of argument. Moral goodness is following the Will of God. In other words, the source of right and wrong is other-worldly. The sets up a certain pitting of the individual against society. If society is wrong-minded, the Christian must choose the higher authority—God’s authority—in order to be morally good. “But everyone does things that way” — convenient choices or *situational factor arguments — simply are not acceptable. It is rare to find in *premodern *East Asian narratives any celebration whatsoever of making choices that do not follow widely-held social norms.

26.4. Sacred space versus secular space

Greek philosophy and the Mesopotamian region religions all in their own ways posit a sacred space. Those individuals who understand and operate within the light of divinity have strength, health, certainty, healing-power, and so forth. For example, in the Irish-British film short “Orbit Ever After” (2014) the young male protagonist Nigel, contemplating a dangerous space leap to unite with his girlfriend, looks towards the window of his spaceship. Light pouring in through the window to illuminate beautifully his face—the scared light of love possibility.  By this light we, as *model readers familiar with Christian-like narratives, know something “good” will happen and the message delivered by this staging cue (nothing is more important that “true love”)makes the ending more complex. It is a tragedy and triumph, both.

The Abrahamic religions posit love as situated within this divine goodness, with Christianity’s hallmark being to make love its central tenet. In this system, “*true love” has the power to overcome all obstacles, heal all trouble, and so on. Rarely is *love given this sort of supernatural power in *East Asian narratives, not just because love is not explicitly tied to divinity (although it is, indeed, not), but also because the sacred space itself is less all-knowing, all-powerful, and does not represent the spiritual destination of the Daoist, Confucianism, or Buddhist. Daoist and Buddhist immortals are indeed great beings with great powers but these are not God-given and lack the echo of “all-powerful” that the true believer is afforded in these Western religions. “Good overcomes evil” and “Love conquers all” are sayings based on these notions of the power of the sacred to shine its light into this secular world and lend its miracle-making qualities. Again, many Western narratives are designed to confirm these “truths.” The exuberance of love is, perhaps in part, this sense of being situated within the sacred, the right, the powerful, and true.

26.5. Passion versus the golden mean

Read this description by a Western medieval Catholic female mystic of the 16th century:

  1. I saw in his hand a long spear of gold, and at the iron’s point there seemed to be a little fire. He appeared to me to be thrusting it at times into my heart, and to pierce my very entrails; when he drew it out, he seemed to draw them out also, and to leave me all on fire with a great love of God. The pain was so great, that it made me moan; and yet so surpassing was the sweetness of this excessive pain, that I could not wish to be rid of it. The soul is satisfied now with nothing less than God. The pain is not bodily, but spiritual; though the body has its share in it, even a large one. It is a caressing of love so sweet which now takes place between the soul and God, that I pray God of His goodness to make him experience it who may think that I am lying.[3]

While this is of course an extreme position and Christian mysticism is not considered mainstream Christianity, the basic notion that passionate devotion and extreme acts of kindness (such as Jesus dying on the cross for the benefit of all others) bring one closer to true faith and/or true goodness is definitely supported. Daoism (because of its concern for balance and harmony), Confucianism (because of its interest in social order and harmony), and Buddhism (because of its view that highly emotional states cloud the mind and prevent religious insight) all reject the power of extreme actions and extreme mental states (although, as a fighting stance ferocity is recognized and is extreme endurance). Each in its own way promotes a concept of the “*Golden Mean” which is a more moderate, mediated, balanced position in any given situation. Intense devotion to another can be seen as a mark of love in a Western context but feels somehow threatening in most *East Asian contexts. This is an over-simplification, and there are definitely significant exceptions to this basic notion, but I do think that there is some distrust of extreme positions in most cases. Being overwhelmed by love, in *East Asian narratives, in, generally speaking debilitating to the individual in love and disruptive to the society around her or him.

  1. "Pagan" is a tricky term for us who are looking at authoritative thought systems and their reach. When we are in a "neutral mode" will use "pagan" to mean, as the Google dictionary offers: "a person holding religious beliefs other than those of the main world religions." However, when we are talking from the perspective of Christianity, we will follow the definition suggested by this quote: "It is crucial to stress right from the start that until the 20th century, people did not call themselves pagans to describe the religion they practiced. The notion of paganism, as it is generally understood today, was created by the early Christian Church. It was a label that Christians applied to others, one of the antitheses that were central to the process of Christian self-definition. As such, throughout history it was generally used in a derogatory sense." Owen Davies, Paganism: A Very Short Introduction (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011).
  2. Buddhism teaches that there are various hells for those who are bad but in its higher discourse takes the position that these are metaphors for motivating people, not actual places.
  3. Chapter 29, “Of Visions. The Graces Our Lord Bestowed on the Saint. The Answers Our Lord Gave Her for Those Who Tried Her.” In The Life of St. Teresa of Jesus of the Order of Our Lady of Carmel, by Teresa of Jesus (1565). See http://www.catholicspiritualdirection.org/lifeofteresa.pdf


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Interpreting Love Narratives in East Asian Literature and Film Copyright © 2019 by John R Wallace is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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