Thursday, August 18, 2005

August Issues

The article below is my bit in the August Taichung Voice

I was sitting at home playing Mech Assault on the Xbox, when the phone rang. My huge battle robot was doing a pretty good job of devastating the enemy city as I snatched up the receiver.

"Wei?" I said. "DIE SCUM!"

"What?" Lance sounded hurt and confused. "Why do you want me to die?"

"Not you" I said. "I'm playing Xbox." "TANKS? YOU CHALLENGE ME WITH TANKS? HA HA HA!"

"Karl, calm down." said Lance. "When can you give me the article for the July issue?"

"What's the topic?" I said. "BURN! BURN, YOU MISERABLE FOOLS!"

"The theme for July is theology."


"Karl, stop playing Mech Assault and talk to me."

"I AM TALKING TO YOU LANCE! THEOLOGY!? You want me to write about THEOLOGY? Are you trying to get me killed? There will be angry mobs in the street clamoring for my head!"

"Now Karl, there's no reason to be worried. Just tone down the sarcasm, and try not to enrage anybody. Be sensitive."

"But? OK Lance, fine. I'm all about sensitive. I'll get right on it."

"Good. And don't mention robots or computer games. People are starting to complain. Deadline's tomorrow. Bye." And the line went dead.

I hung up the phone, and turned back to the Xbox in time to see my mighty battle robot go down to a combined attack of enemy helicopters and missile turrets.

Let's get our definitions straight. The word 'Theology' is from the Greek [theos] meaning "God", and [logos] meaning "Inspires a lot of argument". It is closely related to the topic of metaphysics. The word 'Metaphysics' is derived from the Greek [meta] meaning "after" and [physika] meaning "a few beers this will make a lot more sense". Now that we're all clear on those points, let's take a look at how these are viewed and practiced in Taiwan.

It can be difficult for a foreigner to deeply understand local beliefs and religious practices in Taiwan. Riding around the city, you might think you've got a feel for it- you see Buddhist temples, Taoist temples, Tu di gong shrines, a Catholic church here, a couple of Protestant churches there, and earnest young Mormons on bicycles everywhere. Ask a few Taiwanese friends, coworkers or students what their religion is, and the most common answers are Buddhist or Taoist. Well actually, the most common answer is 'sleeping' [shui jiao], but keep pressing and you'll usually get one of the first two. You might also get the feeling that the person you are asking doesn't get asked that question very often. More on that later.

These initial impressions of faith in Taiwan are often misleading. The actual religion practiced by those who profess to be Buddhist is actually a combination of Buddhism, local folk religion, and Taoism. The same goes for local Taoists- and I still don't know where Matzu fits in. The third largest religion in Taiwan is I-Kuan Tao, which I assume is a kind of Taoism. It's got 'Tao' in the title, anyway. Taiwanese Christians will frequently make incense and food offerings to their ancestors or to Guan Gong (the god of business). We can deduce that when weighing the possible sin of idolatry versus the possible disaster of pissing off the God of Business, Taiwanese people take the practical route. The best example of this cultural tendency to blend aspects of various faiths can be found in the religion Tian De Jiao, an eclectic mix of Confucianism, Taoism, Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam. I don't know if Tian De Jiao temples have statues of Jesus and Mohammed next to each other up in front, but if they do, I can take a pretty good guess that local Christians don't get too riled up about it. Expatriate Christians, on the other hand, are probably less than pleased with the arrangement. Local Muslims might or might not be too thrilled. I suppose I could head on over to the Taichung mosque in the Nantun district and ask someone, if I ever get around to researching these articles before I start to write them.

In the West, we don't see this kind of free borrowing and mixing of religious practices like we do in Taiwan. In North America especially, the trend is the opposite- so that there are now over 1000 denominations of Christianity in North America. That is kind of a puzzler to me. Not only can I not tell you the theological differences between say, a Methodist and a Presbyterian, but I'm actually pretty vague on differences in belief between Catholics and Protestants. Something about good works? The Eucharist? I don't know.

Back to Taiwan. So in addition to a fusion approach to belief and practice, let's look at the other striking aspect of theology in practice here: Respect and tolerance for different faiths that surpasses by far what we have been able to achieve in the West (or the Mid-East). This tolerance is more than just a self-interested notion that if someone believes the wrong religion, that's pretty much their problem. The attitude is more pervasive- in Taiwan, your religion is your business. There is not any kind of constant proselytizing, or perceived need to convert others to one's faith in Taiwan. So, if you do decide to start asking your Taiwanese friends what their religion is, you are probably going to get some funny looks.

Does this forbearance for different faiths stem from the fact that Chinese culture has made a leap over a philosophical obstacle that we still stumble over in the West? I mean, if God is all powerful, then we would assume that God transcends logic and reason. So, not only can God make a stone so big that he cannot lift it, he can make a stone so slippery that two plus two equals giraffe. Come on, He (or She) is God. The inconceivable (or logically impossible) is not a problem for God. God can (and as far as we know, has) made all religions true at the same time.

The Taiwanese seem to have figured this out, while the rest of the world stumbles along with religious condemnation, relentless proselytizing, and the occasional holy war. That makes Taiwan a great place for atheists, and a tougher ride for those who feel compelled to come here and save souls. The advanced attitudes of people in Taiwan towards religion makes converting them to a new faith very difficult. Consider our diligent Mormon missionaries- The LDS church has been in Taiwan since 1956. Total Mormons in Taiwan today: 38,735. There are still more Muslims in Taiwan (53,000) than there are Mormons, and I have yet to see a single Muslim missionary here. Of course, that could be because Muslims don't spend much time at PJ's or FM.

Both in theory, and in custom, Taiwan is way ahead of most of the world when it comes to the spiritual stuff. That's not to say that there aren't some odd religious practices here, but nobody really minds if you happen to believe something else. So the Taiwanese have invalidated my definitions of 'theology' and 'metaphysics'- theology does not have to inspire argument, and metaphysics can make sense even without a beer or two to help out. I suppose it's probably better that way.


Red A said...

What a great article. You know, if I had read that right after the temple next door began the loud speaker chanting and wailing on Sunday morning I would have felt much better about them, you know, not trying to convert me or anything.

I much prefer them to scream to dead spirits with megaphones than to approach me and offer me a pamphlet or two.

Angus Barrs said...

I suppose the christian thing to do would be to pile heavy rocks on your chest until you confess/recant or your ribcage collapses. Good 'ol Cotton Mather...Ennyhoo, in GWB's version of America, the religious right is gettin' mighty brave and pushy. Wanting the Ten Commandments in the courthouses and teaching "Intelligent Design" in the schools as an "equal theory" ...well, I'd hate to go to court with forelocks or a turban...and as long as we are giving equal time to any 'ol "theory" (ahem...), why not the creation legends of the south american yanomamo (sp?) indians, so the kids can all blow green dust up their noses, convulse, hallucinate and meet their spirit guides? That makes school a lot more fun, I think. But noooooooooooo........For some reason, tolerance and equal time only apply to Jesus. How 'bout that? I may have to come to Taiwan. It'd probably be easier to learn chinese than to keep trying not to blow a blood vessel every time I read a paper or watch the news.

Aj said...

That is a well written article Karl, who wrote it really?

Karl said...

AJ, the "God transcends rationality" theme is vintage Karl. Check the archives of this blog where I've talked about it before.

I finished the Mechwarrior single player missions about a week after the article. Do you have Mechwarrior II? Are the graphics any better?

Robin said...

In point of fact, Cotton Mather did not pile rocks on anyone to get them to confess. That was reserved for people who refused to plead before the court at all.

During the Salem witch trials, one male defendant was in fact so pressed until dead as he refused to plead. It is not clear why he refused to plead, but I suspect that the reason was that if he was convicted of witchcraft his property would escheat to the crown but if he died refusing to plead, his estate would stay within his family - but that's speculation on my part.

Johnny Atomic said...

The Salem Witch Trials were just as you described; a huge land stealing scam. It had little or nothing to do with a belief in witchcraft at all. If accused, (not convicted) your land went to the Governor. The game ended when the Governors wife was accused and he had to throw out the ridiculous concept of Spectral Evidence so there would be no way to convict her. The people may have believed in witches, but I really doubt that the Governor did. This is the first time a group of little girls would determine the fate (and suffering) of many. The second would, of course, be the Fox sisters who we can almost directly blame for John Edwards?

Angus said...

Okay, I stand corrected on the Cotton Mather thing. Lotsa green dust today, woohoo! I'M A JAGUAR!

Michael Turton said...

The second would, of course, be the Fox sisters who we can almost directly blame for John Edwards?

Wow! Nice historical connection.....I had never thought of it quite that way, putting Edwards in the line with more modern fraudsters, like Van Praagh, etc.