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  • Divine Grace and the Play of Opposites
  • Trent Pomplun

In Prisoners of Shangri-la: Tibetan Buddhism and the West, Donald Lopez treats his readers to a provocative but entertaining history of Western fantasies about Tibet. Lopez discovers at the root of these fantasies a "play of opposites" between "the pristine and the polluted, the authentic and the derivative, the holy and the demonic, the good and the bad."1 Not surprisingly, Catholic missionaries to Tibet play an important role in Lopez's history, and he depicts them as prisoners to the play of opposites par excellence. Truth be told, it is difficult to deny his charges; in a passage quoted by Lopez, the seventeenth-century Jesuit polymath Athanasius Kircher describes Tibetans' veneration of the Dalai Lama in these words:

Strangers at their approach fall prostrate with their heads to the ground, and kiss him with incredible Veneration, which is no other than that which is performed upon the Pope of Rome; so that hence the fraud and deceit of the Devil may easily and plainly appear, who by his innate malignity and hatred, in way of abuse hath transferred, as he hath done all the other Mysteries of the Christian Religion, the Veneration which is due unto the Pope of Rome, the only Vicar of Christ on Earth, unto the superstitious Worship of barbarous people.

Whence as the Christians call the Roman High-Priest Father of Fathers, so these Barbarians term their false Deity the Great Lama, that is, the Great High-Priest, the Lama of Lamas, that is, the High-Priest of High-Priests, because that from him, as from a certain Fountain, floweth the whole form and mode of their religion, or rather mad and brain-sick idolatry, whence also they call him the Eternal Father.2

Lopez explains this passage in light of what he calls the "doctrine" of demonic plagiarism, a relatively common belief among Christian theologians that resemblances between Christianity and other religions could be explained as parodies of the true faith authored by the Devil. Athanasius Kircher undoubtedly believed in such parodies; in point of fact, he had much stronger views about them than many of his contemporaries. But Lopez continues,

Why must this appearance be demonic? The answer derives in part from the Christian Church's claim to historical and ontological particularity. It is the [End Page 159] task of the missionary to transmit the word of particularity to those realms where it has not spread, to diffuse it from its unique point of origin. To carry its accoutrements from Rome in a time and to a place they could not possibly have been taken before, and to find them already there, suggests the workings of a power beyond history, which could only be seen as demonic.3

I would like to take issue with this unfortunately misleading presentation of Christian theology. No orthodox Catholic theologian believed that such appearances were necessarily demonic, nor did any think that demonic influences ruled out other, more positive, ones. A cursory reading of the writings of Ippolito Desideri, the Jesuit adventurer and missionary who lived in Tibet from 1716 to 1721, should demonstrate that Roman Catholic theologians developed several complex theories about the resemblances between Christians and non-Christians in the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. If we situate the Jesuit missionary squarely in the theological currents of the seventeenth century, especially in debates about the salvation of non-Christians, I think we can come to see that the views of Roman Catholic missionaries about Tibetans, and non-Christians in general, were considerably more complex than Lopez imagines.

Ippolito Desideri on the Salvation of Tibetan Buddhists

Ippolito Desideri arrived in Lhasa on March 18, 1716. As a result of his acquaintance with Khang chen nas and Don grub tshe ring, Desideri quickly gained access to the court of the Qōśot Mongol chieftain Lha bzang Khan.4 Much to the missionary's delight, the Khan granted his request to preach the Gospel in Tibet with great enthusiasm and—if we are to believe Desideri's account—no small amount of paternal sentimentality. In order to facilitate his preaching, Desideri composed a small book explaining the errors...


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