Monday, January 19, 2015

The Forgotten Christian World

When we think of great historical events we naturally imagine them in visual terms, of great movements. But our mental maps are often too small. We know, for instance, that Christianity began in Palestine and swept west into the Roman Empire to develop a firm base in Europe. With such a picture in mind it is easy to imagine the Christian church establishing itself across Western Europe, in Britain and Ireland, and then eventually making the leap across the Atlantic into the New World. Nothing in that picture is actually wrong, but it is sadly incomplete. At the very same time that Christians were moving west into Europe in the first two or three centuries ad, others were travelling eastwards into Asia, and south into Africa. By the mid-sixth century, Christian monasteries were operating in China. And we are not speaking here of a few brave missionaries. As late as the 11th century – almost the halfway point of the Christian story to date – at least a third of the world’s Christians still lived in Asia. Even in 1250 it makes sense to think of a Christian world stretching east from Constantinople to Samarkand (at least) and south from Alexandria to the desert of the Ogaden, almost to the Equator.

These Christians differed vastly from our familiar idea of the medieval Christian world. Many Westerners are used to thinking of the church at this time as a narrow and intolerant affair, in which popes and bishops owed their power to their alliance with secular kings and emperors. According to this stereotype the church knew next to nothing about outside cultures or faiths and, if it did, it treated them with fear and contempt, a hostility that became most obvious in the Crusades. But in fact most early Asian Christians lived in a world in which they rarely or never allied with states and kings and always operated as minority faiths living in states dominated by other religions – by Persian Zoroastrians, by Muslims, Buddhists or Hindus. Christians existed alongside these other faiths, and regularly engaged in dialogues that were friendly and cooperative. In China and south¬ India, by the eighth century, members of the Nestorian Christian church used a distinctive symbol in which the cross is joined to the lotus, symbol of Buddhist enlightenment.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Civilization and it's Discontents

In our society, we don't critique Mohammed's religion (or any other religion) because it's wrong.  Religion is denied this honor. We make fun of religion because it is religion. In this culture we are forbidden to engage with religion at all on its own terms. We cannot publicly acknowledge the truth claims of any religion or the conflicting truth claims of competing religions. As a French editor said on the BBC, "We cannot criticize religious believers, only religions." That is what we all do.  Our gov'ts tell us that we cannot use our religion to make choices in public space. Our coworkers tell us we cannot be religious at our desks. Our neighbors complain when our religious observances are injected into the public space.  A religious minority is protected as a minority until it becomes religious. Ask the Mormons how they managed to get statehood for Utah.