The Catholic Thing
Olympics in China Print E-mail
By James Schall   
Thursday, 07 August 2008

The Olympic Games are a Greek idea. They test the limits and the splendor of the human form itself. When the pope said, in his Regensburg lecture, that Paul went West to Macedonia, not East to Persia or the Orient, it was no accident. It had a specific purpose. Not everyone likes to hear this. That purpose was the centrality of Greek philosophy, already hinted at in revelation.

That particular philosophy, however, though Greek, was more than Greek. It spoke to and about man as such, not just about the Greek man. It is still the one philosophy that considers all philosophies by what they hold, by a single standard of reason. This universality, it seemed, providentially, is what connected it to Christianity. The last message that Christ left to his Apostles was to “go forth and teach all nations.”

Among the nations, China has long fascinated Christians. Half of the lore of the Society of Jesus, it sometimes seems, has to do with Ricci, Schall, Verbeist, and the glory of a failed mission. The Middle Kingdom records many dynasties going back before Christianity itself. The Xia and Shang Dynasties are before Abraham.

Most scholars think Confucianism is more of a philosophy than a religion. Things like style, propriety, manners, beauty, pervade our images of China. A student of mine sent me a postcard the other day on which was a picture of the Great Wall. She wrote: “Greetings from China! I am having a wonderful time living in Shanghai and learning Chinese. This week I am visiting Beijing. Yesterday I hiked up to the Great Wall which was even more impressive than in photographs. I am looking forward to your Aristotle class this fall.” It is already all there, East and West.

Thomas Boswell, in a fine article in The Washington Post sports page (August 3), wrote that there are two Olympics. One has to do with games and races, the other with China presenting itself before the world as the new Middle Kingdom. The “authoritarian capitalism” is there, with its Marxist background that takes us back not to China but to Germany itself and a man who was originally a Jew and read Hegel.

Evidently, the Chinese have built the largest and most beautiful airport in the world in Beijing. My nephew married a lovely Chinese woman and they have both been through that building this summer. I have seen pictures of it. Four billion people will, presumably, watch the Olympics, to see the races, to see the airport, to see China.

We know unpleasant things about modern China, the brutal one-child policy that disproportionately kills girls. It makes us wonder where Chinese men will find women—some think Siberia. We remember Tiananmen Square, Tibet, the massacres, and starvation. None of these things will be mentioned. China does not so much forgive as forget. Some say that this forgetting is the only way to bear such burdens. Others wonder if things can be forgotten unless they be forgiven. The section on judgment in Spe Salvi is about this issue.

In the meantime, China has become the workshop of the world. Half of the things we wear or use, it seems, are made in China. The Olympics promise to be a display of Chinese order, efficiency, and, yes, loveliness. We know that a remarkable number of graduate students in the sciences in our universities are Chinese. It seems obvious that the Chinese can quickly learn what they do not know but what they think they need. I have had numerous Chinese students in class over the years. You never need to wonder whether they study. The only worry is whether they study too much. They are, by all accounts, a most likeable people.

So the Olympics, in a sense, will bring the world to China in exchange for bringing China to the world. Will it be a fair exchange? Thus far, China seems to overrule much of democratic political thinking. Prosperity and trade have rather strengthened the central government, not replaced it, as the theory predicted. The world watches.

Benedict XVI recently wrote a very sensible letter to China. This pope seems to stand for the idea that the way to Rome and Zion passes through Athens. On its way, it collects what is noble in the nations. To many people, China has long been the toughest earthly power for revelation to penetrate. It is perhaps the last nation of the nations. It is the one nation that seems to lack nothing in what it is. This is what we will see then, the limits of the human displayed in the new Middle Kingdom. And we will wonder, watching humans race in this oriental city of this earth, whether an opening exists to Zion.

James Schall, S.J., is a professor at Georgetown University, and one of the most prolific Catholic writers in America.

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