Chinese Whispers

Martin Palmer, The Jesus Sutras: Rediscovering the Lost Religion of Taoist Christianity. London: Piatkus, 2001.

th26Q6UCE4Christianity came to China via missionaries from Central Asia in 635, and flourished until 845, when a government attack on foreign religions drove it underground and out of the sight of historians. According to a stone stele from 781 found near Xian, “The sacred doctrine that has brought light to the world came here during the reign of the Emperor Taizong. The glorious teachings were carried by Aluoben, a man of high virtue from the Da Qin Empire. He came on azure clouds bearing the true scriptures, and after a long and arduous journey, arrived in Chang-an during the ninth year of Zhenguan. The emperor sent his minister Fang Xuanling to greet him at the western suburb. The visitor was welcomed into the palace where he was asked to translate his scriptures. When the emperor heard the teachings, he realized deeply that they spoke the truth. He therefore asked that these teachings be taught, and in the seventh month in the autumn of the twelfth year of Zhenguan, he issued a decree: ‘The Way does not have a common name and the sacred does not have a common form. Proclaim the teachings everywhere for the salvation of the people. Aluoben, the man of great virtue from the Da Qin Empire, came from a far land and arrived at the capital to present the teachings and images of his religion. His message is mysterious and wonderful beyond our understanding. The teachings tell us about the origin of things and how they were created and nourished. The message is lucid and clear; the teachings will benefit all; and they should be practiced throughout the land.'”

dunhuangIn The Jesus Sutras, Martin Palmer tells the story of Nestorian Christianity in China by unpacking and commenting on seventh and eight century writings found sealed in a cave at Dunhuang alongside Buddhist and Manichean texts. Palmer’s book is aimed at a popular audience, and he has a rare talent for presenting complex information in a clear and lucid manner without distorting the story. Palmer’s ability to outline the core tenants of major world religions or the rise and fall empires within a couple of very readable paragraphs is rivalled only by the “Jesus Sutras” themselves. As Palmer argues, these texts preached Christianity to an audience familiar with Confucian, Taoist, and Buddhist thought, and they did so using language and concepts that their readers would have understood. One text, which Palmer entitles The Sutra of Cause, Effect, and Salvation, explains that “A Visitor came to this world uniting body and soul: He was happy in this world without troubling His spirit. The union of body and soul was made by the sacred spirit of God. Just as flavor creates food, so the qi [life breath] creates the body and the soul. All this comes from God. Venerate God and all will be as it should be and will become clear to you. Whatever you do in life will have its karmic impact upon your soul and will affect the physical life of the soul. … A person can only change his karma residue by being born again into this world. Do good and you will live to be in the world beyond this world. The other world can be found by doing acts of karma in this life, by living properly in this world. This world is like a mother’s womb in which you are shaped for the world to come.”

CHN-DaQin-tower-vw-02Palmer calls this a “radical” Christianity that fused Eastern and Western religions, and he finds the idea of a syncretic Christianity thrilling to say the least. He begins his story at a pagoda in Da Qin, which he says must have been Christian because it is oriented east-west, not north-south like other religious buildings in China. As it turns out, Palmer might have “discovered” this pagoda for the West, but locals knew quite well that this temple had originally been built as a Christian monastery. The texts from the Dunhuang caves give us a clue as to how these monks worshipped. One hymn, dating from c.720, chants:

“All reverence to the Great Holy Compassionate Father of All Things – Allaha!

O radiant Jade-faced One

Exalted as the sun and moon

Your virtues are greater than those

Of all the Holy Ones and Dharma Lords –

The laws of Compassion save us all!

Echoing through the world like a tolling golden bell…

Great Holy Law Giver

You bring us back to our original nature.

And the souls that are saved are countless:

Divine compassion lifts them up from the dust

Redeeming them from the saddened realm ghosts.”

Palmer and his collaborators – Eva Wong, Zhao Xiao Min, Li Rong Rong, Ni Yi Ma, and Tjalling Halbertsma – retranslated these texts for this book, and their translation is worth its weight in gold. I cannot comment on the accuracy of their work (and as a non-specialist I chaff at not being able to assess the quality of Palmer’s interpretations), but the beauty and theology of these translations is breathtaking. They not only include Chinese styles, but also Taoist and Confucian ideas. The Sutra of Jesus Christ, for example, reorganizes the Ten Commandments, and states that “the first and most important is to honor God. The second is to honor the Emperor. The third is to honor your parents. The whole of Heaven and Earth follows this way.” The Sutra of Origins describes God as the “One Sacred Spirit,” and explains that “humanity is restless – indeed the world is a restless place. Trying to find security in this world is like looking for calm waters, but where can such calm waters be found? When the wind is still and the earth doesn’t shake or fall, we can see nothing moving. Yet the One Sacred Spirit is at work.” These texts don’t say much about the incarnation or the resurrection (though they do mention them), but they do think of Jesus as the bringer of salvation and as the victor over evil. Approaching Christianity from this angle loses some of the riches that have nourished the Western Church for centuries, but it also opens up new and exciting ways of looking at the gospel message and the demands it makes on our lives. In the words of ancient Chinese Christians, “humanity lives only because it is filled with God’s life-giving breath. Peace comes only when you can rest secure in your own place, when your heart and mind rest in God. Day in, day out there you exist in contentment, open to where you may be led. God leads the believer to that place of contentment and great bliss.”

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