Gods, Heroes, and Ancestors: An Interreligious Encounter in Eighteenth-Century Vietnam

An Tran has written a valuable book which gives us insight into the religious beliefs and practices in eighteenth-century Vietnam, and of Christian missionary responses to and understandings of those beliefs and practices.   The core of his book is a thoroughly annotated translation of “Errors of the Three Teachings,” which the author found in the archives of Missions Etrangeres de Paris.  This document, by an unnamed author, is designed as a dialogue of a missionary with representatives of Confucianism, Buddhism, and Daoism, demonstrating – in the author’s mind – how Catholic teaching identifies and refutes the errors of these native traditions.   Tran believes that it was probably used as a catechetical device to help Vietnamese Christians understand and defend the superiority of their adopted faith.  Not surprisingly, the author dismisses or refutes a number of traditional beliefs and practices without fully understanding how Confucians, Buddhists, and Daoists would see them; the three interlocutors are not given a full chance to articulate and defend their positions.  Nonetheless, the text shows a fairly impressive acquaintance with Vietnamese beliefs and practices, showing that this missionary took some care to familiarize himself with the religious world of his mission field.

Tran’s volume is particularly helpful in providing a detailed and well-researched description of the historical and religious context, and what is known about beliefs and practices of the Three Religions, before he turns to the text. His book provides one of the fullest accounts of Vietnamese religions available in English, which is a boon for the religious studies scholar.   This approach also helps the reader to appreciate both what the missionary author knew of Vietnamese religions, and how his Christian views resisted or failed to fully understand those religions on their own terms.  It is not entirely clear whether this limited understanding is a result of insufficient knowledge (unfamiliarity with Vietnamese religious texts, or the absence of adequately informed native informants), or simply of a strong commitment to received Catholic teaching.  The text demonstrates no impulse for the contextualization of Christian theology in Vietnamese culture, although the author does appreciate that some “Confucian” practices were bulwarks of Vietnamese culture and were to be respected as far as possible.

The book, offering a comparison of a missionary text with what is known of Vietnamese religious practices, provides a complex and rich understanding of the state of missionary Christian encounter with native Vietnamese religions in the eighteenth century.  And it provides yet another example of the complexities of religious and intercultural counter.


Judith A. Berling, Professor Emerita, Chinese and comparative religions

Graduate Theological Union

Categories: (T) Book Review

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