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Jesuit on the Roof of the World:
Ippolito Desideri’s Mission to Tibet

by Trent Pomplun
Oxford, 320 pages, $29.95

How many of history’s most fascinating tales go untold for want of the right teller, I wonder. There are some events that can be appreciated, or in fact even noticed, only by persons of very rare and very particular attainments; and often the right person never comes along. This is probably especially true in the case of those curious and crucial historical junctures where two essentially alien cultures meet fully for the first time. Only someone more or less equally familiar with both cultures, able to look at the encounter from both sides with comparable sympathy, has any real chance of understanding what has occurred and of conveying it to others.

For instance: Any number of scholars have recorded the fact of the Jesuit missionary Ippolito Desideri’s (1684–1733) sojourn in Tibet from 1715 to 1721—where he immersed himself in the study of the country’s language and customs, studied Buddhist metaphysics, engaged in debates with Buddhist monks, and composed Christian treatises in Tibetan, before a variety of political forces (both in Tibet and within the Church) obliged him to leave again. But until now no scholar has succeeded particularly well in describing the event of that strange meeting between two almost perfectly incommiscible worlds. This is because, simply enough, those who have written about Desideri’s mission in the past have either been Tibetanists, whose grasp of early modern Catholic theology and culture is typically fairly tenuous, or Catholic historians, who know very little about the indigenous Buddhism, monastic orders, or the religious culture of Tibet. As a result, practically no one until now has produced an account of the mission that has adequately explained the spiritual and intellectual forces at play, the cultural and institutional logic underlying the story, or the true nature of the debates in which Desideri and his Tibetan interlocutors engaged.

Happily, in this case, the story has fallen into the hands of Trent Pomplun, a scholar particularly—and, for all I know, uniquely—able to tell it properly. He is a Tibetanist, to begin with, thoroughly versed in Tibet’s language, history, culture, religious beliefs, philosophical schools, and monastic orders; and his training in Buddhist metaphysics is broad and deep. He is also, however, a Catholic theologian and historian with an unusually capacious knowledge of late Scholastic and early modern Catholic thought (generally the more recherché the better) as well as of ecclesiastical history and politics. He can move with ease between Latin and Italian texts on the one side and Tibetan on the other and is thoroughly at home in the conceptual worlds from which all of them issue. He even seems to have a special interest in the history of the Jesuits. And he writes well. In short, it would be hard to imagine a scholar more ideally suited to understand Desideri’s story in all its aspects, from every important perspective, and to appreciate its wonder, irony, and (ultimately) futility.

Pomplun first unfolds the story of Desideri’s Jesuit formation, placing it in the context of a larger overview of the great age of Catholic missions, and of the debates regarding nature and grace—or of natural and revealed knowledge of God—that so preoccupied many of the best minds of “Baroque Catholicism” (a term, incidentally, that Pomplun employs only very diffidently). This portion of the book provides a splendid insight into the sheer romance that the Jesuit cause exercised over the minds of many of the idealistic young men who entered the Society of Jesus in its early period and that inspired them to endure hardships, to risk death, and to undertake such prodigious feats of scholarship. It also quite effectively draws connections between the distinctively Jesuit devotional and contemplative uses of disciplined imagination and the spiritual and intellectual preparation for missions in distant lands. Thereafter, Pomplun follows Desideri’s itinerary from Rome to India to Tibet, then back again six years later, pausing along the way to call attention to any number of the theological concerns of the time, to discourse on the society and politics of Tibet, to explain the fine points of different systems within the two traditions, and so on.

Desideri emerges from the tale as a figure genuinely interesting in his own right: an adventurous soul moved by deep convictions, a formidable linguist and scholar, willing to struggle tirelessly to master the complexities and obscurities of the Madhyamika philosophical system and to write his replies to it in Tibetan, and a genuinely curious and reflective man. But he also functions in this book as a sort of epitome of many of the intellectual currents of his time. On the one hand, he was in many respects open to finding spiritual truths—however vestigial they may have been in his eyes—in the beliefs and practices of his interlocutors, and even in finding areas of agreement between Tibetan and Catholic thought where many of his contemporaries might have seen none whatsoever. In this he was very much a man of his age, though of a very particular variety: Many Catholic thinkers of his time were utterly fascinated by what they took to be the traces of ancient revelation preserved, in distorted form, in non-Christian faiths. And certain venerable theological questions concerning the possibility of natural knowledge of God, and its possible degrees, had become urgently current again in the great age of missions and had even become topics of fairly fierce contention between different schools and different orders within the Church.

On the other hand, Desideri was just as much a man of his age in his devout certainty that the only path to salvation for any soul was the one provided by the Catholic Church and her sacraments, and he was more than willing to denounce what he saw as the diabolical and (in fact) damnable falsehoods of Tibetan religion. He had some very choice words to say, for instance, about the Tibetan adoration of that “monstrous idol,” the Dalai Lama.

Desideri went to Tibet to inaugurate its conversion to the true faith, and nothing he encountered on the Roof of the World—however engaging he found the people, however welcoming their customs, however impressive their methods of disputation, however delightful their buttered tea—dissuaded him from his belief in the absolute necessity of his mission. He would probably have devoted the remainder of his life to that mission, in fact, ­writing more treatises against reincarnation and idolatry, engaging in endless debate, searching out new ways of stating Christian beliefs in a tongue peculiarly ill-suited to their expression, and so on, had events not overtaken him. I will not spoil the story here, but suffice it to say that some of the most absorbing and disheartening parts of Pomplun’s book concern not only the geopolitical upheavals that interrupted Desideri’s work, but the internecine squabbles among different Catholic factions.

To be honest, that might have been all for the best, at least as far as Desideri himself was concerned; if nothing else, it prevented him from squandering his life on an impossible project. I know that it is generally fruitless to speculate on what might have happened in any given situation under different circumstances; but I have to remark that I came away from this book quite certain—as I had been before reading it—that it would not have made much difference if Desideri’s mission had lasted sixty years rather than six, or if all the missionary efforts of the Catholic Church in Tibet had been conducted as a united front. In bringing the gospel to Tibet, Desideri was struggling against the remarkable impermeability of a fully realized religious culture. He could no more have made a lasting impression upon the spiritual landscape of the country with his mission than he could have hoped to make significant alterations in the size of the Himalayas by bringing cups of water from the Tiber to pour over them.

Cultural conversion is something that happens under only very particular circumstances. Christianity spread so relentlessly through the world of late antiquity in large part because it found itself in a hospitable climate of diffuse religious and philosophical longing, full of powerful and sophisticated forms of worship and schools of thought, but open on all sides to answers from other quarters. There was no single, coherent organizing principle at the social center of religious adherence, no embracing system of beliefs and values. And much the same seems to be the case today in those parts of the world where Christianity is making its most impressive inroads.

In Tibet, however, the situation was altogether different. There Desideri was attempting to enter into and transform a fully realized and complete culture, homogeneous in its spiritual and social constitution, and possessed of a refined and complex and utterly pervasive religious system, with its own metaphysical schools, mythologies, devotions, cults, and consolations. It was a wholly coherent culture, for all intents and purposes sufficient unto itself.

This is not to say, of course, that Tibetans are not prey to the same perennial questions that other peoples are; it is only to say that those questions are susceptible of a great diversity of answers, many of which may even be entirely false and yet still perfectly convincing and satisfying. And, whether based upon truths or falsehoods or a perplexing combination of both, Tibetan religious culture was, by comparison to many other religious cultures, a kind of closed totality, which no Jesuit (however idealistic) had much chance of breaking open. Of course, given the imperative of the Great Commission, one had to try, I suppose. But a Christian Tibet was never a real possibility, and in long retrospect Desideri’s mission looks more like an episode in the history of cultural interaction than an episode in the history of Christianity as such.

Of course, I could be wrong; the Spirit blows whither it will. And, in any event, Pomplun’s argument does not necessarily lead one to such conclusions. These are merely reflections of my own, formed in response to an extremely rich and suggestive book; others may take other, less peremptory lessons from it. Whatever the case, though, I can honestly say that Trent Pomplun’s Jesuit on the Roof of the World is about as enthralling a scholarly book as I have read for some time, one that I really cannot recommend too highly, and one that (as I have said) I sincerely doubt anyone else could have written.

David B. Hart’s most recent book is Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies .