“Joseph Needham: Reflections on the Holy and Society”; Latest Revised Version of Paul’s Essay

Needham was an eminent scientist who also sought after the eternal verities contained in world religions and philosophies. This essay explores the evolution of his ideas across a century of growing secularisation, a clash of ideologies and world wars. His ideas have relevance today. Click on link below. Hope you enjoy.

Joseph Needham

Advice to Christians: Needham 1961

Joseph Needham was “The Man Who Loved China”, a great historian of Chinese science. He was also religious. He gave this advice to Christians in a Cambridge college sermon in 1961:

“Focus on Christian essentials, not on the accidental incidentals of the faith but on its eternal values: “If we only knew the treasures of human experience of God contained in cultures which because we will not work to understand  them seem so foreign to us, we should hug them to our breasts and cry out in amazement at the work of the Holy Spirit under all meridians…if heaven is where the good are, and where good things are done, perhaps the invisible Church already covers the broad earth without our knowing it, most truly one spirit, under one God and Father of all”.

The Numinous Sensation of Shuddering Fear and Joy

“In these times it will be well for us to remember that the essential component of religion is mystery and mystical experience… The numinous sensation of shuddering fear and joy, the sympathetic understanding of all creation, the dark night of the soul, the supernatural sense of peace and illumination, the peculiar beneficent effects of rites, the whole range of experience, in fact, which makes up religious mysticism, is what we have to deal with when we speak of religion” (Joseph Needham, 1931).

Can We Learn from Chinese Tradition about the Natural World?

One can argue that the western tradition, the Hebrew/Christian tradition, actually fostered a feudal or imperialistic domination of nature. By contrast scholars have argued that eastern philosophies (Buddhism, Taoism, etc) have revered the natural processes.

Joseph Needham wrote:

“for the Chinese the natural world was not something hostile or evil, which had to be perpetually subdued by will-power and brute force, but something much more like the greatest of all living organisms, the governing principles of which had to be understood so that life could be lived in harmony with it” (1976).

Religion Transcends Individual Church Forms and Dogmas

Joseph Needham argued that in their time-bound and culture-bound ways, particular churches were reflecting more eternal spiritual values, common to all the great religions:

“Religion, the distinctive sense of the holy, the application of the category of the numinous, attached as it has been in its most developed form to the highest ethical principles known to man, altogether transcends the particular manifestations of it familiar in our parochial and limited experience” (1961).