December 14, 2008

PLENTY OF TIME FOR HIM TO SORT THINGS OUT WHEN HE GETS HERE:

When Jesus met Buddha: Something remarkable happened when evangelists for two great religions crossed paths more than 1,000 years ago: they got along (Philip Jenkins, December 14, 2008, Boston Globe)

By the 12th century, flourishing churches in China and southern India were using the lotus-cross. The lotus is a superbly beautiful flower that grows out of muck and slime. No symbol could better represent the rise of the soul from the material, the victory of enlightenment over ignorance, desire, and attachment. For 2,000 years, Buddhist artists have used the lotus to convey these messages in countless paintings and sculptures. The Christian cross, meanwhile, teaches a comparable lesson, of divine victory over sin and injustice, of the defeat of the world. Somewhere in Asia, Yeshua's forgotten followers made the daring decision to integrate the two emblems, which still today forces us to think about the parallels between the kinds of liberation and redemption offered by each faith.

Christianity, for much of its history, was just as much an Asian religion as Buddhism. Asia's Christian churches survived for more than a millennium, and not until the 10th century, halfway through Christian history, did the number of Christians in Europe exceed that in Asia.

What ultimately obliterated the Asian Christians were the Mongol invasions, which spread across Central Asia and the Middle East from the 1220s onward. From the late 13th century, too, the world entered a terrifying era of climate change, of global cooling, which severely cut food supplies and contributed to mass famine. The collapse of trade and commerce crippled cities, leaving the world much poorer and more vulnerable. Intolerant nationalism wiped out Christian communities in China, while a surging militant Islam destroyed the churches of Central Asia.

But awareness of this deep Christian history contributes powerfully to understanding the future of the religion, as much as its past. For long centuries, Asian Christians kept up neighborly relations with other faiths, which they saw not as deadly rivals but as fellow travelers on the road to enlightenment. Their worldview differed enormously from the norms that developed in Europe.

To take one example, we are used to the idea of Christianity operating as the official religion of powerful states, which were only too willing to impose a particular orthodoxy upon their subjects. Yet when we look at the African and Asian experience, we find millions of Christians whose normal experience was as minorities or even majorities within nations dominated by some other religion. Struggling to win hearts and minds, leading churches had no option but to frame the Christian message in the context of non-European intellectual traditions. Christian thinkers did present their message in the categories of Buddhism - and Taoism, and Confucianism - and there is no reason why they could not do so again. When modern scholars like Peter Phan try to place Christianity in an Asian and Buddhist context, they are resuming a task begun at least 1,500 years ago.

Perhaps, in fact, we are looking at our history upside down. Some day, future historians might look at the last few hundred years of Euro-American dominance within Christianity and regard it as an unnatural interlude in a much longer story of fruitful interchange between the great religions.

Consider the story told by Timothy, a patriarch of the Nestorian church. Around 800, he engaged in a famous debate with the Muslim caliph in Baghdad, a discussion marked by reason and civility on both sides. Imagine, Timothy said, that we are all in a dark house, and someone throws a precious pearl in the midst of a pile of ordinary stones. Everyone scrabbles for the pearl, and some think they've found it, but nobody can be sure until day breaks.

In the same way, he said, the pearl of true faith and wisdom had fallen into the darkness of this transitory world; each faith believed that it alone had found the pearl. Yet all he could claim - and all the caliph could say in response - was that some faiths thought they had enough evidence to prove that they were indeed holding the real pearl, but the final truth would not be known in this world.

Knowing other faiths firsthand grants believers an enviable sophistication, founded on humility. We could do a lot worse than to learn from what we sometimes call the Dark Ages.



Posted by Orrin Judd at December 14, 2008 9:21 AM
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