The Chinese nurse

August 1 2007

The Australian Institute of International Affairs
177 Collins St.
Melbourne, C.I. Victoria, Australia

(This will reach me till 17 August)

15 July 1956

Dear Columba,

I have just had your letter of 6 July (? or 7 June) [parenthesis in original], following one of 24 May, and your card from Florida. Once one is in the U.S.A., one gets on the move in a big way. You must have been nearly as hot in Florida as we were in Panama. I am so glad that Sheepfold and Shepherd [no obvious mention of this on Abebooks] is out and the China book [China and the Cross] so nearly out at last. I am also delighted that you are reviewing my Religio Historici in “Books on Trial”. [Footnote: C.C.E.’s review appeared in Books on Trial (October 1956), pp. 63-64).]

The reference is to An Historian’s Approach to Religion, where he writes:

There is, for instance, the doctor’s approach to the mystery of the Universe (religio medici); and there is the mathematician’s, the sailor’s, the farmer’s, the miner’s, the business man’s, the shepherd’s, the carpenter’s, and a host of others, among which the historian’s (religio historici) is one.

Religio medici comes from Sir Thomas Browne. The phrase religio historici is Toynbee’s. Returning to the letter:

In the present state of the World we cannot, I think, expect agreement, but we can try to understand one another’s different approaches. Your explanation, to Catholics, of my approach will be made with the patience and charity that are the saving virtues for the World in our time (perhaps for the World in all times). Where Pascal makes the same points as his secular-minded contemporaries, it is interesting, because it tells us what were the common problems that were exercising all the greater minds in Western Christendom in the late seventeenth century. [Though Pascal died in 1662.] As for the Indian religions and the Judaic ones, I think one has to equate our Judaic God with the impersonal Indian Brahma and Nirvana, and the Indian (and Greek) gods with the order of beings with whom, in the Christian hierarchy, exorcists are expected to be able to cope. The two facets of ultimate reality – personal and impersonal – that the Jews and the Hindus have perceived are, I am sure, only two out of an infinite number. They are to be equated, not only with each other, but with all those others that are beyond the horizon of our finite human minds. What are we turning to now? One has to look back behind our 17th century revolution, and to discover the causes of that, if one is to be able to look into our own future and – what is more important – to have a chance of influencing it. I think history will be important in this next chapter, because learning each other’s history is an essential part of getting to understand each other better. But, as we approach towards mutual understanding, I believe our outlook will be less relativist, because I believe we shall begin to see some of the underlying common ground between us.

For now, less relativism means less understanding.

Boddhisattvas (sic) seem less heroic than Christ and the martyrs. But then the Indian and Chinese experience of life has been less violent than ours at the Western end of the civilized world. Do you know the story of the Chinese nurse who took service with a cultivated and devout Christian family, whose house was full of reproductions of Italian old masters. She burst out one day that she could not understand how good and responsible parents, like these, could bring themselves to expose their children to these horrible pictures of a criminal being put to death by a form of torture that was happily unknown in the civilized world from which she came! The milder key of the Indian and Chinese part of the World has to be allowed for always.

Yours affectionately,


Shusaku Endo in his Preface (1978) to the American edition of his Life of Jesus:

“The religious mentality of the Japanese is – just as it was at the time when the people accepted Buddhism – responsive to one who ‘suffers with us’ and who ‘allows for our weakness,’ but their mentality has little tolerance for any kind of transcendent being who judges humans harshly, then punishes them. In brief, the Japanese tend to seek in their gods and buddhas a warm-hearted mother rather than a stern father. With this fact always in mind I tried not so much to depict God in the father-image that tends to characterize Christianity, but rather to depict the kind-hearted maternal aspect of God revealed to us in the personality of Jesus.”

Christian B Peper, editor, An Historian’s Conscience, The Correspondence of Arnold J. Toynbee and Columba Cary-Elwes, Monk of Ampleforth, with a Foreword by Lawrence L Toynbee, OUP, by arrangement with Beacon Press, Boston, 1986, posthumous

An Historian’s Approach to Religion, OUP, 1956

6 Responses to “The Chinese nurse”

  1. Stephen Marsh Says:

    General impression: benign but woolly. Perh. this woolly impression is caused by AT supposing that the recipient of the letter knows exactly which bits of Pascal’s teachings he meant, and who P’s “secular-minded contemporaries” were (the only famous thinker I can call to mind who was roughly contemporary with P and secular-minded was Thomas Hobbes, but perh. AT meant a less well-known writer).

    I also find his comparison between the Judaeo-Christian tradition and Hinduism hard to follow, to say the least.

  2. davidderrick Says:

    The point being made is that impersonal gods (and states) are higher than personal. I can’t see any “comparison” being made between the “Judaeo-Christian tradition and Hinduism”.

  3. davidderrick Says:

    I pushed SM on his objections to this passage, not because such a slight letter deserves a weight of interpretation, but because I sensed prejudice in him and wanted to get to the bottom of what he meant. I only posted this letter (so to speak) for the sake of adding the Endo quotation.

    Quote (SM)

    I’m afraid that a second reading of this passage makes me think less of AT’s clarity of thought, even allowing for the informality of the context (a personal letter, not a lecture, learned article etc). In places, the logical structure of his assertions simply breaks down.

    1) “When Pascal makes the same points as his secular-minded contemporaries …”

    a) Who are these secular-minded contemporaries? The only famous contemporary I can think of (if you can call him that) of Pascal’s who had a notoriously secular outlook was Hobbes.

    b) What were these same points? I assume these must be points about a non-materialist understanding of humanity and its history: AT returns to this theme of the 17th century revolution later on in the same paragraph.

    So far, my only complaint is about obscurity of thought through omission of specifics: one wonders whether the recipient of the letter knew what AT had in mind.

    Unquote (DD)

    SM has omitted to mention the other major contemporary political thinker in England, Locke, who was unquestionably secular-minded.

    An Historian’s Approach to Religion might tell us more. It deals in part with seventeenth-century thought, though not in T-R’s depth. But what does secular-minded mean? SM was implying: “The physical universe for Newton was a manifestation of the glory of God; he published more about religion than science, so he was not secular-minded at all, etc.”

    But a) that is a non-sequitur, and b) the separation of religion from other matters can happen in many and subtle ways and in many degrees. “Hobbes was secular-minded and the word should not be used about anyone else in the seventeenth century” is also an absurd simplification.


    2) “As for the Indian religions and the Judaic ones, I think one has to equate our Judaic god with the impersonal Indian Brahma and Nirvana …”

    a) It is absurd to claim that the God of the OT and NT can be equated with anything impersonal: millennia of Jewish and Christian theology rest upon such concepts as “judge”, “king”, “lover”, “hater”, “avenger”, “redeemer” etc which cannot be anything other than personal by definition.

    b) Brahma is the Hindu creator-god (note that this concept can be impersonal – I don’t know whether Hindus see B as a personal god or an impersonal force, or whether such a distinction would make sense to them) but Nirvana (a Buddhist concept, the Hindu equivalent of which is, I think, “anatta”) is quite definitely neither. It is a state of being (or rather non-being) which is indeed impersonal, but in a completely different sense, ie the state of having abolished the self, by the renunciation of all desires. The functional equivalent in Christian thought is “heaven” or “salvation”.


    The only “equation” being made is between higher conceptions of reality. Indian and Judaic religions both have high, transcendent conceptions of ultimate reality. He is not saying that they are the same. And both Hinduism and Buddhism have such conceptions.

    Some of the terms SM refers to are perhaps more OT than NT. To the extent that they refer to the NT, there are, perhaps, many reaches of theology which will allow T’s apparently slapdash point about impersonality in. He is referring to an evolution of Christian ideas, and no doubt to the point which he himself had reached, which left personal conceptions of God behind. Even the conception defined in SM’s words “judge, king”, etc, is so complicated by so many and so various Christian ideas of what God is that I wouldn’t insist on easily making this “personal” connection in the way he wants to.

    Quite obviously T knows that Nirvana is not only impersonal, but not a “god”. In fact, the word impersonal in relation to Nirvana is nonsense. Even if this were a learned essay, I don’t think he would be required to spell out something so elementary.

    SM summarises those last points thus:


    AT starts with a misleading and unhelpful equation (equating Churchill with Hitler, say) and then compounds it with an utterly meaningless one (such as equating Churchill with Fermat’s Last Theorem). This intellectually dubious act of equating has, I assume, the morally laudable purpose of producing a theological “characteristica universalis” in which all the theological concepts of all religions can be made mutually intelligible, thus preventing bigotry and persecution.


    See above. And he did not say that all concepts are mutually intelligible. Though he does, it is true, like to look for common ground.

    SM goes on:


    3. “And (equate) the Indian (and Greek) gods with the order of beings with whom, in the Christian hierarchy, exorcists are expected to be able to cope.”

    Brahma is an Indian god, but already equated with the “impersonal” Yahweh: I presume AT means “lesser Indian gods”.


    Yes. Of course he does.


    It is true that many Fathers of the Christian Church, instead of denying the existence of the traditional pagan deities, said they were devils or evil spirits. This irrational and regrettable doctrine survives in the less enlightened parts of Orthodox Christianity. Why AT wished to re-assert this doctrine, I do not know.


    Why re-assert, exactly? Lesser gods are/were small enough to be cast out of one’s mind as if they were demons, and a larger conception cannot be, is what he is casually saying. He is not re-asserting a doctrine.


    4. “The two facets of ultimate reality – personal and impersonal – that the Jews and the Hindus have perceived are, I am sure, only two out of an infinite number.”

    AT’s maths is unclear at this point: did the Jews (I presume he means “the Judaeo-Christian tradition”) and the Hindus each perceive two facets, or was the score “one-all”?


    Obviously each two. Look at the text. And I think he means the Jewish prophets.


    If the former, does he mean that the J-C t contains impersonal elements like Yahweh and personal elements like the pagan deities aka demons, and the Hindus have Brahmah as their impersonal element (NOT Nirvana, which is a Buddhist concept) and the lesser deities as their personal element?


    Yes, but the lesser elements he is mainly referring to are within Indian (and Greek) religion, not Judæo-Christian. There are also very high personal elements in the Christian conception of God: Christ, for example.

    And the term Nirvana IS used in Hinduism.


    If the latter, he seems to have contradicted himself, as he has already credited Hinduism with both personal and impersonal elements.


    But he clearly didn’t mean the latter.


    Again, AT’s maths is dubious here. If you take the dichotomy, personal/impersonal as being between contradictories (black and not black) then it is logically impossible for there to be any other kinds of deity: if you read the dichotomy as being between contraries (black and white), then there is a third possibility (non-personal) which needs new theology to define it: this is no guarantee of infinity, merely diversity (three or more).


    But we already know he is not thinking of contradictories or even contraries. He is saying that the terms personal and impersonal are inadequate and there may therefore be an infinite number of other terms to use. His point is merely a reservation. So neither of SM’s alternatives applies.


    5. “They are to be equated, not only with each other, but with all those others that are beyond the the horizon of our finite human minds.”

    “They”, I presume, has as its antecedent “the two facets of ultimate reality”: if that is the correct construal, why should we equate opposites or contradictories?


    Because he only means equated as facets! In other words, it may be a delusion to think of a dualism. Give him a break.


    I believe AT has “riffed” on two very different senses of “equate”: in the earlier part of this passage, he was trying to show rough functional equivalences between different religious traditions: a more convincing example than any of his would be to equate, in that sense, Yahweh in the J-C t with Allah in Islam. I am sure he is now talking about something very different, what is now called “equality of esteem”, i.e. all conceptions of the divine should receive equal RESPECT and none should claim predominance.


    I don’t at all think he means equality of esteem. The equation of opposites is an equality of all possible incomprehensibles.

    Apropos the point about Yahweh and Allah, T says elsewhere to Columba:

    “For ‘Allah’, substitute ‘God’ throughout. The transliteration of the Arabic word ‘Allah’ in a European language, suggests that, like ‘Yahweh’ or ‘Chemosh’, it is the proper name of a tribal god who is not the same as ‘God’ in the Jewish-Christian-Muslim sense of the solely real One True God. Remember what a heroic spiritual effort (or, alternatively, what tremendous inspiration) it required in the series of Israelite and Judahite prophets, from Amos to Deutero-Isaiah, to replace ‘Yahweh’ by ‘God’ in our sense.”


    If AT is still talking about equating in his original sense, he would seem to be equating not only contradictories (personal-impersonal), but also knowns (personal/impersonal) with unknowns (the facets of ultimate reality our dull minds cannot grasp). I haven’t commented on the final part of the letter, as it takes us into the relationship between understanding and prediction, which is too global an issue for a short detailed analysis like this one: I assume that his concern with the 17th Century revolution is that he sees it as the beginning of the centrality of secularism in Western thought, and that an understanding of its causes and underlying concerns would somehow promote a rapprochement with non-secular ways of thinking.


    See above.


    This may seem an exercise in hyperpedantry, but laudable aims are not furthered by imprecision and unclarity. Is there a reply to this letter extant?


    No reply that I know of. This isn’t an exercise in hyperpedantry, but we are laying too much on to what is basically a postcard.

    My original gripe was that SM said Toynbee was comparing two “traditions”, but there is no mention of any “traditions”, and a rather broad-brush equation of higher conceptions or states of reality, but no comparison.

    SM’s intention is to show that Toynbee does not have the intellectual firepower to justify his entering these areas of discussion. I am not defending Toynbee here, but questioning the calmness of SM’s reading.

  4. […] The same difference in temper between the two halves of the Old World comes out in other historical parallels as well. For example, Christianity and Buddhism were, each, expelled from its homeland by a rival younger religion which had derived its inspiration from the older religion that it was opposing and evicting. Christianity was expelled from South-West Asia by Islam; Buddhism was expelled from India by a post-Buddhaic Hinduism whose philosophy bears indelible marks of its Buddhist origin. But the advance of Hinduism at Buddhism’s expense in India in the age of the Gupta Dynasty was accomplished as peacefully as the previous advance of Buddhism at the expense of a pre-Buddhist Indian paganism in the age of the Maurya Emperor Açoka. By contrast with this Indian record, the supplanting of Christianity by Islam in South-West Asia and Egypt in the age of the Arab Caliphate was a story of pressure and penalization – though, by contrast with the treatment of subject Jews and Muslims in Christendom, the treatment of subject “People of the Book” in Dār-al-Islām has been honourably distinguished by its comparative tolerance. The Chinese nurse […]

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