With the arrogance of youth, I determined to do no less than to transform the world with Beauty. If I have succeeded in some small way, if only in one small corner of the world, amongst the men and women I love, then I shall count myself blessed, and blessed, and blessed, and the work goes on. -- William Morris

Monday, September 04, 2006

Inculturation Through the Ages IIIB: The Syrian Mission to China

Let us praise the Dharma:

Dharma King John, Dharma King Luke
Dharma King Mark, Dharma King Matthew
Dharma King Moses, Dharma King David,
Dharma King of Easter, Dharma King Paul
Dharma King of the Thousand Peacock Eyes
Dharma King Simeon, Dharma King Mar Sergius,
Dharma King George, Dharma King Mar Barsauma,
Dharma King Simon, and the Twenty Four –
Dharma King Henana, Dharma King Hosea
Dharma King Michael, Dharma King Silas
Dharma King Gur, Dharma King Announcing Teachings – John.

Martin Palmer, The Jesus Sutras. (New York: Ballantine Publishing Group, 2001), p.184.

There is just something about China that has caused many Christians to incorporate into their religious message the vast riches of its civilization. The Jesuits in China were not the first to attempt a synthesis of the Christian message with Chinese culture. The first large-scale missionary endeavor into China came from the Assyrian Church of the East (known also as the Chaldean Syrian Church of the East) and her missionaries took considerable effort in translating the Christian message to the religious and philosophical outlook they found in China. During the life of Matteo Ricci, Neo-Confucian thought took precedence, and the Jesuit missionary took on the role of the Confucian scholar, granting him a place in the ranks of the cultural elite of his day. The Syrian missionaries took a rather different approach.

Around 635, Christian monks, led by Aleben, crossed into China via the Silk Road. The emperor, the rather enlightened Taizong, was interested in their mission, and wanted a translation of the texts they carried with them to be placed into his ever-expanding imperial library. He was more than a little impressed with what the monks had told him. He heard from them about their faith in a savior who liberates humanity from the darkness of sin. From this description the emperor entitled their faith in Chinese as “The Luminous Religion.”

Being given an imperial welcome, they were given the grounds and finances necessary to build their first monastery and to begin translating their sacred texts. For the next several generations, the monks were given considerable prominence and respect in China. Even though Christianity slowly spread among the Chinese, the mission was not a failure. Monasteries were being built throughout China: early texts suggest one was built in every province, later texts, one in every major city.

The Christians found themselves to be in a far from an ideal situation. They were outsiders, and outsiders in China were often feared. The xenophobic in China grouped them with other foreigners, such as the Manicheans, as being a bad influence to the state. Not only did Christians have to defend themselves from the attacks of native Taoists and Confucians, they had to be able to differentiate themselves from other religious traditions trying to make their way into China at the same time.

By the time the Christians had entered China, the most successful foreign mission in China was done by the Buddhists, and many of their ideas had already entered the general Chinese milieu. Even though it had been in China for centuries, Buddhists were still entering the land, bringing new religious texts with them, translating them for their faithful. It is rather difficult to explain, but in the midst of these two differing missions, the Christians, under the leadership of the 8th century Ching-Ching from Chang-an, undertook a cooperative work with an Indian monk, Prajna, to translate the Buddhist Satparamitta Sutra into Chinese. Prajna knew Sanskrit but had difficulty with Chinese, and welcomed Ching-Ching’s willingness to help him translate the text into Chinese. Their collaboration was stopped, not by Christians or Buddhists, but by the emperor who thought the two religious traditions should not be so easily mixed.

Ching-Ching, however, is important to us, because he represented the Syrian Christian mission at its height. He erected the famous monument of 781, giving us not only a glimpse of the history of Christianity in China, but also the way Christianity engaged the Chinese intellectual tradition in the way earlier Church Fathers had engaged Hellenism. His catechetical and liturgical texts are among the few texts that have been recovered from this ancient Christian mission. They indicate how inculturated the Chinese mission had become, taking significant Taoist and Buddhist themes as a means to express the teaching and work of Jesus.

Ching-Ching indicates that Jesus’ message can be summed up into four laws: non-desire, non-action, non-virtue, and non-demonstration. Similar to the Buddhists and Taoists, desire is seen as an alienating force the defiles the mind and causes us to sin. We must put an end to our desires, that is, as Jesus said, we must die to the self. This means we must engage in non-action. Non-action here means that we need to rely upon the natural goodness of creation, sustained by the Messiah. Like a ship at sea, the Christian must rely upon the driving force of the Messiah, and if they resist the work of the Messiah by their own activity, they will be like a ship struggling against the wind. Non-virtue means we should not rely upon our own virtue, but be at rest in the work of the Messiah. It is not, as it might sound, moral relativism. Rather, it points out that virtue is natural, and when we seek virtue, we create an unnatural understanding of what it means, an attachment to an incomplete, and thus false, view, and so end up struggling against the grain to achieve what, through the Messiah, should be natural in and through him. Non-demonstration means we should not seek to create systematic, conceptual “truths,” which restrict one’s mind from seeing a pure vision of reality. We must abandon ourselves, even our own thoughts, and be open to the full revelation of the Messiah. Anything else, including our own feeble attempts at moral or intellectual superiority, will only fail. In this way, one can see a Christian anthropology which combines a radical vision of grace with Taoist and Buddhist ideals. Jesus is expressed as the Sage who is himself the Way, the Tao.

The Syrian mission came to an end from several outside factors. The first was the advent of Islam. The second was a new xenophobia within China which persecuted and kicked out foreigners (which included not only the Christians, but Jews, Zoroastrians, Manicheans, and even the Buddhists). With their homeland controlled by the Muslims, the Syrian Church of the East was not able to support their Chinese mission. They were, more or less, on their own. When the Chinese took on a hyper-nationalistic ideal in the 9th century, the mission could not successfully keep itself open, and by 845, no functioning church could be found within China (cf. Palmer, 236). A few Christians remained within the region, but they were incapable of restoring the mission. Interestingly enough, under the Khans, the Syrians would again have one last brief renaissance in China, but it would prove a little to little a little too late.

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