by Joe Palmer
[ opinion - july 09 ]
The chain of memory is resurrection.
Philip Jenkins' The Lost History of Christianity is a scholarly study of the Eastern Christian Church called variously the Byzantines, Nestorians, Jacobites and Syrian Orthodox in Asia Minor, North Africa, Mesopotamia, Persia, Turkestan and China. Eastern Christianity flourished before Western Christianity flourished, and before the snake of Secular Islam bit the Eastern varieties in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia. Now Christianity is dying in Europe. But that's another book - one I don't want to read. Are you tired too of reading about church buildings being turned into condominiums?
Christianity was widespread in the East before it came to the West In the East it informed Islam, teaching the Moslems how to pray, and giving Islam its typical practice of group prayer while prostrating oneself. Its churches were turned into mosques, with pulpits: minbars (not minibars) and bell towers: minarets, and even ritual fasting - Ramadan: Lent. The imam stands at the pulpit when leading prayers, so the early Christians thought the new Moslems were just another peculiar sect of Christians. The mystical Sufi Moslems especially owe their rites and practices to the Byzantine monks and desert fathers who preceded them and taught them what they know. The Moslems copied the practices of the early Christians that the Christians had borrowed from the Jews. And today the old ways persist in the East among both Christians and Moslems, while in the West the old traditional forms of worship were changed or partially abandoned. The Eastern Christians are the last remaining link between Islam and Christianity on the purely religious level untarnished by secular political matters.
The natural sharing of religious resources between Christians and Moslems still happens unselfconsciously and liberally in Christian communities of the Levant. William Dalrymple tells of the shrine of the Virgin in the Monastery of Notre Dame de Seidnaya in Syria where Moslems go to pray, the women sleeping overnight in hopes of conceiving children, in particular of three Syrian astronauts who, after three days on the Russian Mir Space Station, came to give thanks to the Virgin for keeping them safe as requested. They gave the mother superior a sheep to eat, in thanks.
When I picked up a copy of Philip Jenkins' new book about Christians in ancient Asia and Africa, I thought to myself, "Hooray!" Here was something good to read more substantial than New Age fluff, you know, beyond pious airy fictionalized stuff (rhyme intentional), "Jesus was Buddha's Younger Brother," that sort of thing, like #1 & #2, above. Jenkins' is a book written by a legitimate, academic historian, about how missionaries tried to bring a different order to people in Asia and Africa during Europe's Dark Ages, about past efforts that might still affect all of us. Bring order? Yes, organized religion is politics - not pure and simple politics, but insidious political order and control, and missionaries are lobbyists for a new socio-economic system that forces tithes on the complacent, making them obey new masters and pay new taxes. Religion has always been a tool for maintaining social control, for forcing people to obey. Render unto Caesar...
Let's get something straight: there is no simple, causal connection between religion and politics, economics, or history. A study of folk music, for example, might be just as relevant as religion to the history and culture of a region, a country, or a people. Religion might have been the reason for a choice to be made, but religion did not create the two or more alternatives. There are always factors more basic than ritualized mythology underlying decisions. Even in the movies when the priest looks at the chicken entrails to descry the future, possible alternative actions are kept in mind while the religious show goes on. Religion is an excuse, a beard for lust, an alibi of evil or good, just like every other human institution.
In pious times, ere Priest-craft did begin,
Before polygamy was made a sin...
- John Dryden (d. 1700) Absalom
NO Popery. NO Slavery.
- Slogan of the MPs from London, Oxford Parliament, March, 1681
Don't tell my mother I'm a priest - she thinks I play piano in a whorehouse.
Of course it has been asserted that that political ideas and principles are practical versions of theological concepts, and so our modern states somehow feed off our religious histories. Isn't it pretty to think so?
The fact that many sorts of Christian worship flourished, expanded, endured, and then died out is, to me, proof of the assertion that religion and the state (social control) must be kept separate and not interdependent. Those instances of the church filling roles that belong to the state are often inhumane, and vice versa. The Holy Inquisition, the Crusades, Puritan New England, and the subjugation of the Native Americans demonstrate what happens when we mix religion and civil government. Look at Iran today.
Perhaps a Christian ideal such as caring for the least able, weakest, and most disadvantaged remains a goal in the back of our minds when we protect our property, for protecting our goods is what modernism consists of. It could be said that liberalism is keeping the poor at bay so they do not compromise our wealth. We don't want our poor to start rioting. Whoever controls the army and the police controls the language and the economy, and necessarily everybody else, including the religious.
So I sat down to read #1 and #2 in the ordinary manner, which is to ask myself what's new to me in this text. Thinking back on it, I realize I had never known enough about ancient China to be concerned about where in China Lao Tzu had written the I Ching/ Tao Te Ching, which, come to find out, was at Lou Guan Tai on his way out of China. Where is Lou Guan Tai? In the Qingling Mountains at the Pass to the West It must be a long way out of China, because on the map the Qingling Mountains look to be in the middle of the country, and the pass leads directly to West China, not only to the Western World as opposed to the East.
The Jesus Sutras, by Martin Palmer, is a story with a conflict, with rising action, a delicious climax, and a most delovely denouement. Like Marvel Comics, it does not refer to anything real. And, looking at the evidence it presents, I am not convinced that the Chinese scrolls hidden in a sealed cave in a remote region really "recount the history of Jesus' life and teachings." In fact, the whole story appears to be a projection of the desire to see a Christian influence in Old China that might well have been wasted on desert air. If you look for faces in the clouds, you will see them. If you look hard enough for the remains of a Christian monastery, you'll see monasteries anywhere. If you look for airy versions of the Gospel in Buddhist sutras, you'll find them there, big surprise, Gullible's Travels! You can hide an elephant behind an abstract noun. I am reminded of an amateur paleontologist I knew who found Viking and Phoenician writing on the rocks in Quebec wherever he looked.
We tend to forget that until recently people had no sense of history, of events unrolling in a sequence of causes and effects. Only modern, educated people can look back at a time line and locate supposed, reported events that somehow have a bearing on current events and attitudes. To most people in the past (and surely today) the Crucifixion of Jesus Christ happened "yesterday" in that their concept of yesterday is the same as almost any other point in past time to them. So, old folks might well vaguely recall other old folks speaking about lost legends, unusual events, and momentous occurrences, and we might use their ghostly memories to substantiate a pet theory of ours about the past We do it all the time. Time is a great illusion. Because of stories I had read and heard, Alexander the Great was once more real to me than Adolph Hitler, but Hitler and the Nazis are catching up because of the media making hay with the story of politically incorrect Fascism.
Nor do the unlearned have an understanding of place among places. My dear Uncle Don Palmer often said, not quite facetiously, that he had traveled widely - in Knox County, Indiana. His mother Delta, when she learned we were going to live in Somalia, said to me, "Oh, Honey, I wish you wouldn't go across the Pond," meaning to cross the oceans to another world.
I did learn from Martin's book, on page two, that the word sutra is cognate with the word suture, as in stitch, which means "thread" in Sanskrit, which just about sews the matter up. And as you all know, Sanskrit is the oldest extant written form of our ancestors' speech.
Then I read through Tom & Ray's Lost Sutras, #2, a knockoff of #1, a speed-reader's delight, a beautiful, little book nearly as edifying and illuminating as Kahlil Gibran's The Prophet.
Love has no other desire but to fulfil itself.
- Kahlil Gibran
For example, from The Lost Sutras, ponder the weight of "the Ninth Method for meditating on the world that can lead us to happiness and fulfillment":
"The ninth method is to think of the world as a place where people go from religion to religion looking for truth but finding only confusion. They are like a skilled craftsman who carves an ox and paints it until the statue resembles the real thing. But when he tries to use it plow his field, the ox is good for nothing."
As idle as a painted ship upon a painted ocean, that ox won't plow, and block that metaphor.
So I picked up Jenkins' The Lost History, #3 above, and after a few minutes I stopped reading in order to sigh. Here was a book, a fruitcake of a book full of goodies, laden with lore. I saw that the entire early history of Christianity was before me in that book but the parts were not connected in an easily discernable, expository way. It is like a box of Lego blocks, Tinker Toys, or Lincoln Logs; you have to sort out the pieces and put them together yourself. And, Man, is it worth it!
In Perkins' masterful, scholarly book, we learn that Islam is based on varieties of Christianity and Judaism, Christianity being originally and substantially a variety of Judaism. None of these religions is monolithic. Each of them exists in multiple forms. There are many sects, new and old, of the "major Western religions." After all, where else but in his environment filled with Jews, Christians, and pagans and could the illiterate Prophet Mohammed [PBUH (Peace be unto him)] learn his revelations? Furthermore, Moslems prostrating themselves during prayer is a practice learned from early Christians, as is the Episcopal structure of Islam in Shiite Persia (Iran) today. Their Persian Ayatollahs are "bishops." The Caliph was a pope (the Caliphate being abolished in 1924). Imams, muftis, and sheikhs are pastors in the Quaker sense, the majority Sunnis following an injunction against a religious hierarchy within the faith.
Before the coming of and conquest by the Moslems, Anatolia (now Turkey) and the Near East were mostly Christian, that is Greek and Syrian Orthodox, Jacobite, Nestorian, and pagan. It is a fact that Nestorian Christian kingdoms in the Near East and Central and South Asia did exist, despite the 12th century Prester John hoax, which was intended to convince Europeans of the Church's universality, transcending culture and geography to encompass all humanity, and so egging on the European Crusaders to go and convert or kill the heathen or other Christians if they did not agree with the Crusaders.
Europe itself was Christianized slowly. The Franks in Gaul, a Germanic tribe from whom we get the name "France," were converted from paganism in the 6C, and the northern (German) Anglo-Saxons in the 7th century. Charlemagne converted the Saxons in central Germany by the sword in the 8th century. The Slavs and Scandinavians came along in the 10th century, Poland converted in 966, with the Russians choosing among Islam, Judaism, and Christianity in 987CE. Lithuania was a pagan holdout until the 1380s. They did not come gentle to the new dispensation of Christianity, for they would not kiss the flag that bore the cross until they could not refuse the offer. Remember that organized religion is politics: not pure and simple politics, but vicious politics, and missionaries are lobbyists for a new socio-economic order that will bring dental floss and tithes to the unwary. Religionists always serve other masters until they are strong enough in numbers to tell the government what to do.
A popular assumption, a touchstone of our thought, is that Judeo-Christian values have made the West rich and powerful. On the other hand, perhaps it is in spite of Judeo-Christian values that we are what we are, or it was reaction against those values that inspired the Encyclopedists and gave them the intellectual strength to bring about the Enlightenment. Or perhaps the Enlightenment is an illusion. Maybe we don't know that we still live in tribes in awe and fear of King Kong, enslaved by means of television and the internet, in fealty to gigantic corporations, discovering our real selves every day by means of computers and satellites, bound tight with cords of tribal orality in our global village.
Conversely, scholars generally agree that Islam, the great Eastern religion, is mostly derived from Judeo-Christian sources, and so, if Judeo-Christian values have made the West rich, why is the Middle East so poor?
Geography, that greatest of all studies, more relevant to everything than philosophy, determines that the Middle East, all the territory adjacent to Arabia, is starved of fresh water by the rain shadow of central Africa. The poverty of the Middle East has nothing to do with religious values and everything to do with resource development. Look at Israel; by comparison the 51st state [Israel] is a horn of plenty, a cornucopia.
Greek and Syriac speaking-and-reading Christians carried the Faith across the Near East through Mesopotamia and Persia, to India, Afghanistan, Turkistan and even to China, while it was spreading west through North Africa, and across the sea to Rome, where Constantine the Great's mother Flavia Julia Helena Augusta (d. c.330), Saint Helen, lived, centuries before much of Europe accepted the Faith. Just because the Roman state accepted Christianity does not mean that there were any Christians living elsewhere in Europe, except adjacent to Asia Minor and, they say, in the British Isles.
The vaunted preservation (in Arabic) of ancient learning in the sciences, philosophy, and medicine could not have occurred without the earlier translation of Aristotle's Topics into Arabic from Syriac (a Semitic language like Arabic, Hebrew, and Aramaic) by Catholicos (Bishop) Timothy (780-823) of the Nestorian [Eastern Christian] Church. The Nestorian, Jacobite, and Orthodox Christians of various ethnic origins were known from Constantinople to China, across Asia, with major centers wherever business was good. With the blessing of the (Moslem) Caliph, (Christian) Catholicos (Bishop) Timothy undertook to convert the pagans in Persia, Turkistan, Central Asia, and China. The administrative and regulatory work of the Moslem Ottoman and Seljuk Turks was carried out by Christians because the native Christians were literate. Judaism in those days also claimed more adherents in Persia and beyond than the Christians did, and the Moslems were appreciative of the civilizing influence of its earlier sister faiths, Judaism and Christianity. Compared to heathens and pagans, Jews and Christians were the Moslems' cousins. And generally Moslems treated Christians and Jews with deference and respect, particularly because the Christians and Jews could read and write and cypher, and they knew how to run a business and a country. Christians in contact with Moslems thought that the Moslems were just another splinter sect of Christianity, which in many ways they are. The Marcionites and Mandaeans (John the Baptist), were such splinter sects, as were the Manicheans (St Augustine before his conversion), and the Messalians, or Euchites, "those who pray," partial precursors of spiritual groups such as Gnostics, Buddhists, Sufis, Albigensians, Waldensians, Cathari, Templars, Freemasons, and Rosicrucians.
Many Jewish communities were situated in trading centers across Asia from Classical Times and later, where they remain today, such as the many thousands of Jews in Iran, where they have a reserved seat in Parliament, and those in Uzbekistan, known as the Bukharan Jews, as are all Jews in Central Asia, and there are Indian and Chinese Jews. There are three, count ‘em, synagogues in Hong Kong!
The great monotheisms, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam fitted well with Buddhism and the Tao because they came later, after people felt the need for transcendence and salvation. The concept of escape from the physical prison of earthly life lay behind the religions of Zoroaster, Mani, the Buddha, the Jain Mahavira, the Hebrew prophets, the Ionian philosophers and their Greek successors, Confucius, and the early Daoists in the Axial Age, when philosophy was begun.
In order to envision this spread of religious notions, to see it in your mind's eye, trace the Old Silk Road, from Antioch and Aleppo in Syria, across Mesopotamia (Iraq) and Persia (Iran) to the city of Mashad, in Persia, formerly the junction of the only trade routes to the West, then up to Turkistan, to Bukara and Samarkand, and across Central Asia to China. The Christian story followed the Old World Order. A southern route across Afghanistan tracked the rivers south to India, where St Thomas is said to have taught, and west to Nepal and Tibet.
These books about Christianity in the Orient say little about India and Hinduism, which despite its complexity is not only one of the numerically largest, with a billion adherents, but also among the oldest living major traditions on earth, with roots reaching back into prehistory. Along with the popular faiths Sikhism, Jainism, and Buddhism, Hinduism encompasses many types of belief - Folk, Vedic, Vedantic, Yogic, Dharmic, and Bhakti. It even preserves the prototype of the archetypical Trinity, the gods Shiva, Vishnu, and Brahma, and their multitude of saints, like the elaborated, original churches of Christianity - the Jacobite, Nestorian, Orthodox, Coptic, and Roman Churches. The Hindu gods are analoguous to the Christian Trinity and the Saints. English and Hindi are genetically related, similar languages, so the Indo-European peoples must have shared similar cultures, folkways, and religions.
The most important translator of the Greek classics was the Syriac-speaking, Christian Arab, Hunayn ibn Ishaq (809-873), known to the Latins as Joannitius. Hunayn ibn Ishaq al-'Ibadi, the Christian director of the Caliph's House of Wisdom, is credited with translating into Arabic more than one hundred Greek writings. Almost all the translators were Nestorian and Syrian Christians. They had got their learning from Greek-speaking Christian missionaries who had spread their religion to Syria, Egypt, Mesopotamia, Persia, and India long before Arabs came out of the desert. Many of them had kept Aristotle's ideas alive in the cocoon of books in the Nestorian universities such as those in Jundishapur in Persia, Merv in Uzbekistan, and Nisibis in Anatolia. They were essential in returning the philosophy, medicine, and science of old Athens to Europe.