Even More Background

Although I’m still impatient to get to the actual Jesus Sutras, I found Palmer’s three middle chapters, “Panorama of the Early Christian World,” “The Church of the East,” and “The Multicultural World of Seventh-Century China” much more interesting than I would ever have expected, perhaps because they made me more aware of my vast ignorance in these areas.

Of the three areas, I did know the most about the “Early Christian World” because of college courses in European history, a long interest in The Dead Sea Scrolls, and a particular interest the The Gospel of Thomas (see my recent discussion of Elaine Pagel’s Beyond Belief ). Still, I found Palmer’s discussion of the early debates between various schools quite interesting, and the writer in me appreciated this metaphorical description of the early churches:

Beginning in the fourth century, Church historians and teachers presented a view of the early Church as a single ship plowing its way steadily through the tempestuous seas of the pagan world, buffeted by the winds and storms of heresy but nevertheless always finding the true path. Perhaps a better analogy would be to see the early Church as a series of small boats, setting off from different Places, using different designs, but all under the sail of the personality and teachings of Jesus. Gradually, those boats that were out- manned or outmaneuvered faltered and disappeared. Yet a small armada of boats survived and decided to sail together rather than separately.

Somehow I find the early searching of the early Church for Truth far more appealing than the certainty that many seem to feel in their church’s teachings.

I knew nothing about the Christian Church of the East, and judging from Palmer’s comments I’m not alone in this:

The extent, size, and diversity of the Church of the East is perhaps one of the best-kept secrets of Western Christian history, which has traditionally dismissed the Church of the East as Nestorian and therefore heretical. At its peak in the eighth century, this once mighty Church far outstripped the Church of the West in the size, scale, and range of cultures within which it operated. Unlike many of the missions of the Church of the West to the Germanic tribes and the Anglo-Saxons in England, for example, the Church of the East was dealing with ancient, highly literate, civilized cultures and peoples. It had to find its way in a world where theological writings, philosophical debate, and schools of education had been in existence for hundreds, even thousands of years. It was a remarkably different world from the world of the West, and it produced remarkably different churches and forms of Christianity. Perhaps one of its greatest achievements was the Taoist Christian culture and the writings of the Jesus Sutras.

I was nothing short of shocked to learn that there was an influential Tibetan Christian community,with a bishopric in Lhasa.

Although my recent interest in Chinese thought made me aware that Shamanism, Taoism, Confucianism, and Buddhism have a long history in China, Palmers short discussion of their basic ideas and relationship to each other gave me a clearer understanding of their relationship, though I was surprised to read that Buddhism is considered a “foreign” religion, since I’ve always thought of it as China’s main religion, at least before the rise of Mao’s form of Communism.

Not surprisingly, perhaps, I found Palmer’s discussion of Taoism most interesting, and particularly enjoyed this summary of Taoism:

Taoism as a religion rather than a philosophy or way of life emerges in the second century A.D. Founded by a series of remarkable mystics, it offered to ordinary people an alternative to the hierarchy and order of Confucianism, while also offering discourse and contact with the supernatural. In many ways, it is a codified version of Shamanism that became a whole way of life. It offers an understanding of the world, the Tao, and humanity’s place within it that is a very different vision from that of the Confucians. It is perhaps best summed up in the core creed of Taoism, captured in chapter 42 of the Tao Te Ching:

The Tao gives birth to the One, the Origin.
The One, the Origin, gives birth to the Two.
The Two give birth to the Three.
The Three give birth to every living thing.
All things are held in yin and carry yang:
And they are held together in the qi of teeming energy.

The Tao is before the origin of all. In this sense it is almost like the idea of God in Christian thought, except that the Tao has no personality, no emotions, no divinity. It simply is the ultimate principle of all and origin of the origin. The origin gives birth to the two cosmic forces-again, not deities, just forces: yin and yang. Yin is the female: the dark, damp, winter force of life; yang is male: the hot, dry, summer force. Together these two forces are locked in perpetual combat seeking to overcome each other. But this is impossible, for each carries the seed of the other within it. Autumn and winter are yin; just when it seems winter will never end, spring inexorably begins. Spring and summer are yang; when it seems the heat of summer will never abate, the cool winds of autumn begin.

The Three are Heaven, Earth, and Humanity. Heaven is yang, Earth is yin, and humanity combines both in the pivotal position of the balancer and arbitrator between yin and yang. Human error, pride, and foolishness disturb this balance. But at our best, humanity, through the rituals of Taoism, can ensure that yin and yang remain balanced and the world spins on.

Qi is the life breath that every living thing has and is an active expression of Tao. Life begins when qi enters the body; it is never added to but is steadily used up over the course of one’s life. Death comes when the store of qi has been fully exhausted. The quest for health, healing, and even immortality in certain schools Taoism consists of trying to hold on to qi and never use it up.

No wonder I’ve found Taoism so appealing since this description pretty well coincides with my own philosophical views.