Berggruen Seminar Series: Ten Letters Between Zhao Tingyang and Alain Le Pichon

Ten scenes of Chinese and Western thought excitation

The third “Berggruen Seminar”, held on the afternoon of June 22, 2019, resembled a light conversation between two old friends, Zhao Tingyang and Alain Le Pichon. Zhao is a 2018-2019 Berggruen Fellow and member of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, while Le Pichon is a French anthropologist and president of the Transcultural International Institute.

The lecture was titled “The Importance and Difficulties of Transcultural Initiatives: Ten Letters Between Zhao Tingyang and Alain Le Pichon”, and the conversation concerned a recently published correspondence between the two scholars called The Shadow of Monotheism (CITIC Press, March 2019). Regarding the difficulties found in the transcultural dialogue, Zhao and Le Pichon examined the limitations and problems of inter-subjectivity, and created the methodology of “trans-subjectivity” as a solution. However, under the condition of monotheism, it is hardly possible to construct trans-subjectivity. In other words, we still lack an effective way to construct subjectivity.

During the conversation, Zhao Tingyang raised two crucial questions: How is transcultural dialogue possible if monotheistic faith still exists? How to defend one God when all gods are equally reasonable? The point is that Le Pichon has created a notion of “reciprocal anthropology” for transcultural dialogue, which suggests that every culture has the right to observe and question other cultures, while also being observed and questioned by others. Philosophically, this requires two cultures to apply the “epoché” (i.e. suspension of judgment) to their own subjectivities, and encounter each other within “ur-experience”, where no truth or knowledge has yet been determined.

However, this can hardly be realized if monotheism exists. Tracing back to original historical conditions, Zhao pointed out that every civilization has been transcultural by nature. It was not until the monotheistic mindset appeared and cultural borders were established that transcultural dialogue became a real problem. Because of its sanctity and legitimacy, monotheism inevitably considers one God as the single epistemological authority. Therefore, how to transcend existing borders and show acceptance of others has become the primary question in the context of transculture.

Meanwhile, it is not easy to justify the oneness of God, even if belief is reasonable. Zhao referred to the argument of French philosopher Blaise Pascal, “Pascal’s Wager”, which uses game theory to demonstrate the reasonableness of believing in God. This theory argues that if God exists, believers will be rewarded and non-believers punished; if not, believers will receive nothing bad. Thus, belief in God is the safest bet. But, as Zhao pointed out, this same reasoning leads us to have faith in all gods, not only one God, because we don’t want to be punished by any of them. Therefore, we lack the necessary reason to choose one God rather than many gods.

Alain Le Pichon began by making some comments on the title of the book, The Shadow of Monotheism, as “shadow” carries an ambiguous meaning. In the Chinese language, “shadow” may simply cast a poetic image. But in the west, “shadow” also refers to the remnants of something that has passed, something that no longer exists. In this sense, can we say that God has already become history? Le Pichon admitted that he thought maybe not. But, he said, if “shadow” was used in the same sense that Iranian philosopher Suhrawardi had used it in “The Shadow of the Wings of Angel Gabriel”, then the title had sent the correct message. Because this “shadow” not only exists in reality but is also fulfilled in the cosmos. Anyone who enters in would feel the “nostalgy” of God (the feeling of absence, which makes God more real).

Whether original civilizations were open to others as Zhao described, Le Pichon was not sure. But he agreed that as a model, monotheism did establish culture borders. However, this was not done by the faith of God. On the contrary, “monotheism”, as a concept, was created in the 19th century when Europeans gradually abandoned their faith. Before that, monotheism had also been used as a weapon by the Roman Empire while conquering the world. However, if we use the “Mosaic distinction”, a concept created by German historian and Egyptologist Jan Assmann describing the distinction between truth and falsehood in religion, we can say that before Moses, monotheism did not lead to the forbidding of other gods. That is to say, faith in God is not necessarily based on the Mosaic distinction.

For Le Pichon, true faith is based on neither distinction à la Moses, nor calculation according to Pascal, but the nostalgy of God. It is universal because we can find believers in every religion and civilization. Therefore, the development of all civilizations worldwide takes place within the same historical process. During this process, there have been some important figures whose thinking models have influenced people’s faith in God. Le Pichon named three of them. The first one was Nietzsche, who eloquently banished God and let man take His place. The second was ancient Egyptian pharaoh Akhenaten, who was not a Jew, nor lived in a Semitic civilization, but invented monotheism. The third was Melchizedek, the King of Peace, who gave blessings to Abram. Melchizedek was not a Jew either and Le Pichon believes that he might have even been Chinese.

Although living in different ages and civilizations, all three of them had their “prophetic functions”. Today, global crisis calls for a new alliance; we need humankind to establish new relationships with the Earth, the Heavens and the Cosmos. In Le Pichon’s view, Zhao’s Theory of Tianxia has come at the right time, because it could constitute a better alliance between humans and Heaven (or God). This could be the start of a new moment in the historical process.