Vanderbilt's Amy-Jill Levine spoke in Cambridge on Christian and Jewish misperceptions of Jesus and his Judaism. (Evan Richman/Globe Staff)
"Tackling myths about Jesus, Judaism"
By Rich Barlow, www.boston.com, November 22, 2008
Amy-Jill Levine is not given to cliches, but the one about the road to hell and good intentions cropped up in a talk she gave last week. Levine used the old saw to summarize her point: Liberal, tolerant Christians are defaming Jews and Judaism.
From the left-leaning World Council of Churches and liberation theologians to former President Jimmy Carter, Christians have spread myths about Judaism: that Jesus overthrew a wrathful Old Testament God in favor of a loving deity, that he preached compassion against an obsessive-compulsive Jewish adherence to legalistic rules and purity laws, and that he was a first-century feminist up against a misogynistic Jewish establishment, said Levine, a professor at Vanderbilt University Divinity School in Nashville.
All of which is wrong, and "it happens not by bigots, but by well-meaning ministers who are uninformed," she said to an audience last week at Cambridge's Harvard-Epworth United Methodist Church. And Jews shouldn't feel too superior, she said, for they also need to bone up on their own history and appreciate, not reject, Jesus' role in it.
When it comes to religions, "I am an equal-opportunity kvetch," she said.
Two years ago, Levine published to laudatory reviews "The Misunderstood Jew," a book based on her research into Christian and Jewish misperceptions of Jesus and his Judaism. The message comes from a woman who revels in contradictions. Her website calls hers "a Yankee Jewish feminist . . . in a predominantly Protestant divinity school in the buckle of the Bible belt." (She was raised outside New Bedford.) An Orthodox Jew, she teaches the New Testament, and her upbringing in a community of ethnic Massachusetts Roman Catholics left her with eclectic tastes: She finds "Silent Night" prettier than "I Had a Little Dreidel."
A respected academic, she showed her laid-back side when she doffed her black heels at the start of her talk. "I don't like to teach with my shoes on," she explained. "But these really are fabulous."
The informality prefaced a steely, passionate dismembering of what she called lingering misapprehensions of what first-century Judaism and Jesus were all about.
As for Jewish law imposing a burdensome array of nit-picking rules like kosher eating, Jews don't find them onerous, and didn't in Jesus' day. "It's not as if Jesus is going to be tempted to eat a ham sandwich," she said.
Far from dismissing the laws, Jesus embraced them, she recalled, in the Sermon on the Mount from Matthew's gospel: "Until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or the smallest part of a letter will pass from the law."
She disputed critics who say the Hebrew Bible depicts a harshly vengeful God, citing passages showing God's love. And the idea that "Jesus was Hillary Clinton," a feminist trailblazer, overlooks inconvenient facts - he didn't recruit women among his 12 apostles, for example - as well as Gospel attestations that Jewish women didn't have it as bad as critics allege. They're variously pictured as owning homes, having access to money (some subsidized Jesus' mission), and traveling independently.
Some scholars question whether Jesus was Jewish at all, she said, although she quickly stripped that idea of credibility by reminding her audience that it is a favorite neo-Nazi canard.
She finds practices such as Christian churches' sponsoring Passover seders, while more benign, still offensive, partly because some Gospels say the Last Supper was a seder.
John's Gospel, however, says it wasn't, and Levine believes him, on grounds that it would have been remarkable for Jewish authorities to arrange a hearing for Jesus during such a sacred time, analogous to the Supreme Court hearing a case on Christmas Eve.
Besides, she said, the seders of Jesus' day were governed by rules that no longer exist and so can't be replicated. She questioned the point of Christian seders, since Christian theology holds that Jesus is the new "Paschal Lamb" through his atoning death, replacing the lamb slain in the Jewish temple at Passover.
Her words apparently won one convert.
Following her talk, Harvard-Epworth pastor William (Scott) Campbell lightheartedly directed the audience to the place where refreshments would be served, describing it as "the room where we no longer practice the seder."
Comments, questions, and story ideas may be sent to email@example.com.
"Dark passages:Does the harsh language in the Koran explain Islamic violence? Don't answer till you've taken a look inside the Bible"
By Philip Jenkins, The Boston Globe, Ideas, March 8, 2009
WE HAVE A good idea what was passing through the minds of the Sept. 11 hijackers as they made their way to the airports.
Their Al Qaeda handlers had instructed them to meditate on al-Tawba and Anfal, two lengthy suras from the Koran, the holy scripture of Islam. The passages make for harrowing reading. God promises to "cast terror into the hearts of those who are bent on denying the truth; strike, then, their necks!" (Koran 8.12). God instructs his Muslim followers to kill unbelievers, to capture them, to ambush them (Koran 9.5). Everything contributes to advancing the holy goal: "Strike terror into God's enemies, and your enemies" (Koran 8.60). Perhaps in their final moments, the hijackers took refuge in these words, in which God lauds acts of terror and massacre.
On a much lesser scale, others have used the words of the Koran to sanction violence. Even in cases of domestic violence and honor killing, perpetrators can find passages that seem to justify brutal acts (Koran 4.34).
Citing examples such as these, some Westerners argue that the Muslim scriptures themselves inspire terrorism, and drive violent jihad. Evangelist Franklin Graham has described his horror on finding so many Koranic passages that command the killing of infidels: the Koran, he thinks, "preaches violence." Prominent conservatives Paul Weyrich and William Lind argued that "Islam is, quite simply, a religion of war," and urged that Muslims be encouraged to leave US soil. Today, Dutch politician Geert Wilders faces trial for his film "Fitna," in which he demands that the Koran be suppressed as the modern-day equivalent to Hitler's "Mein Kampf."
Even Westerners who have never opened the book - especially such people, perhaps - assume that the Koran is filled with calls for militarism and murder, and that those texts shape Islam.
Unconsciously, perhaps, many Christians consider Islam to be a kind of dark shadow of their own faith, with the ugly words of the Koran standing in absolute contrast to the scriptures they themselves cherish. In the minds of ordinary Christians - and Jews - the Koran teaches savagery and warfare, while the Bible offers a message of love, forgiveness, and charity. For the prophet Micah, God's commands to his people are summarized in the words "act justly, and love mercy, and walk humbly with your God" (Micah 6:8). Christians recall the words of the dying Jesus: "Father, forgive them: they know not what they do."
But in terms of ordering violence and bloodshed, any simplistic claim about the superiority of the Bible to the Koran would be wildly wrong. In fact, the Bible overflows with "texts of terror," to borrow a phrase coined by the American theologian Phyllis Trible. The Bible contains far more verses praising or urging bloodshed than does the Koran, and biblical violence is often far more extreme, and marked by more indiscriminate savagery. The Koran often urges believers to fight, yet it also commands that enemies be shown mercy when they surrender. Some frightful portions of the Bible, by contrast, go much further in ordering the total extermination of enemies, of whole families and races - of men, women, and children, and even their livestock, with no quarter granted. One cherished psalm (137) begins with the lovely line, "By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept"; it ends by blessing anyone who would seize Babylon's infants and smash their skulls against the rocks.
To say that terrorists can find religious texts to justify their acts does not mean that their violence actually grows from those scriptural roots. Indeed, such an assumption itself is based on the crude fundamentalist formulation that everything in a given religion must somehow be authorized in scripture. The difference between the Bible and the Koran is not that one book teaches love while the other proclaims warfare and terrorism, rather it is a matter of how the works are read. Yes, the Koran has been ransacked to supply texts authorizing murder, but so has the Bible
If Christians or Jews want to point to violent parts of the Koran and suggest that those elements taint the whole religion, they open themselves to the obvious question: what about their own faiths? If the founding text shapes the whole religion, then Judaism and Christianity deserve the utmost condemnation as religions of savagery. Of course, they are no such thing; nor is Islam.
But the implications run still deeper. All faiths contain within them some elements that are considered disturbing or unacceptable to modern eyes; all must confront the problem of absorbing and reconciling those troubling texts or doctrines. In some cases, religions evolve to the point where the ugly texts so fade into obscurity that ordinary believers scarcely acknowledge their existence, or at least deny them the slightest authority in the modern world. In other cases, the troubling words remain dormant, but can return to life in conditions of extreme stress and conflict. Texts, like people, can live or die. This whole process of forgetting and remembering, of growing beyond the harsh words found in a text, is one of the critical questions that all religions must learn to address.
Faithful Muslims believe that the Koran is the inspired word of God, delivered verbatim through the prophet Mohammed. Non-Muslims, of course, see the text as the work of human hands, whether of Mohammed himself or of schools of his early followers. But whichever view we take, the Koran as it stands claims to speak in God's voice. That is one of the great differences between the Bible and the Koran. Even for dedicated fundamentalists, inspired Bible passages come through the pen of a venerated historical individual, whether it's the Prophet Isaiah or the Apostle Paul, and that leaves open some chance of blaming embarrassing views on that person's own prejudices. The Koran gives no such option: For believers, every word in the text - however horrendous a passage may sound to modern ears - came directly from God.
We don't have to range too far to find passages that horrify. The Koran warns, "Those who make war against God and his apostle . . . shall be put to death or crucified" (Koran 5.33). Other passages are equally threatening, though they usually have to be wrenched out of context to achieve this effect. One text from Sura (Chapter) 47 begins "O true believers, when you encounter the unbelievers, strike off their heads."
But in such matters, the Bible too has plenty of passages that read painfully today. Tales of war and assassination pervade the four books of Samuel and Kings, where it is hard to avoid verses justifying the destruction of God's enemies. In a standard English translation of the Old Testament, the words "war" and "battle" each occur more than 300 times, not to mention all the bindings, beheadings, and rapes.
The richest harvest of gore comes from the books that tell the story of the Children of Israel after their escape from Egypt, as they take over their new land in Canaan. These events are foreshadowed in the book of Deuteronomy, in which God proclaims "I will make my arrows drunk with blood, and my sword shall devour flesh" (Deut. 32:42). We then turn to the full orgy of militarism, enslavement, and race war in the Books of Joshua and Judges. Moses himself reputedly authorized this campaign when he told his followers that, once they reached Canaan, they must annihilate all the peoples they find in the cities specially reserved for them (Deut. 20: 16-18).
Joshua, Moses's successor, proves an apt pupil. When he conquers the city of Ai, God commands that he take away the livestock and the loot, while altogether exterminating the inhabitants, and he duly does this (Joshua 8). When he defeats and captures five kings, he murders his prisoners of war, either by hanging or crucifixion. (Joshua 10). Nor is there any suggestion that the Canaanites and their kin were targeted for destruction because they were uniquely evil or treacherous: They happened to be on the wrong land at the wrong time. And Joshua himself was by no means alone. In Judges again, other stories tell of the complete extermination of tribes with the deliberate goal of ending their genetic lines.
In modern times, we would call this genocide. If the forces of Joshua and his successor judges committed their acts in the modern world, then observers would not hesitate to speak of war crimes. They would draw comparisons with the notorious guerrilla armies of Uganda and the Congo, groups like the appalling Lord's Resistance Army. By comparison, the Koranic rules of war were, by the standards of their time, quite civilized. Mohammed wanted to win over his enemies, not slaughter them.
Not only do the Israelites in the Bible commit repeated acts of genocide and ethnic cleansing, but they do so under direct divine command. According to the first book of Samuel, God orders King Saul to strike at the Amalekite people, killing every man, woman, and child, and even wiping out their livestock (1 Samuel 15:2-3). And it is this final detail that proves Saul's undoing, as he keeps some of the animals, and thereby earns a scolding from the prophet Samuel. Fortunately, Saul repents, and symbolizes his regrets by dismembering the captured enemy king. Morality triumphs.
The Bible also alleges divine approval of racism and segregation. If you had to choose the single biblical story that most conspicuously outrages modern sentiment, it might well be the tale of Phinehas, a story that remains unknown to most Christian readers today (Numbers 25: 1-15). The story begins when the children of Israel are threatened by a plague. Phinehas, however, shrewdly identifies the cause of God's anger: God is outraged at the fact that a Hebrew man has found a wife among the people of Midian, and through her has imported an alien religion. Phinehas slaughters the offending couple - and, mollified, God ends the plague and blesses Phinehas and his descendants. Modern American racists love this passage. In 1990, Richard Kelly Hoskins used the story as the basis for his manifesto "Vigilantes of Christendom." Hoskins advocated the creation of a new order of militant white supremacists, the Phineas Priesthood, and since then a number of groups have assumed this title, claiming Phinehas as the justification for terrorist attacks on mixed-race couples and abortion clinics.
Modern Christians who believe the Bible offers only a message of love and forgiveness are usually thinking only of the New Testament. Certainly, the New Testament contains far fewer injunctions to kill or segregate. Yet it has its own troublesome passages, especially when the Gospel of John expresses such hostility to the Ioudaioi, a Greek word that usually translates as "Jews." Ioudaioi plan to stone Jesus, they plot to kill him; in turn, Jesus calls them liars, children of the Devil.
Various authorities approach the word differently: I might prefer, for instance, to interpret it as "followers of the oppressive Judean religious elite," Or perhaps "Judeans." But in practice, any reputable translation has to use the simple and familiar word, "Jew," so that we read about the disciples hiding out after the Crucifixion, huddled in a room that is locked "for fear of the Jews." So harsh do these words sound to post-Holocaust ears that some churches exclude them from public reading.
Commands to kill, to commit ethnic cleansing, to institutionalize segregation, to hate and fear other races and religions . . . all are in the Bible, and occur with a far greater frequency than in the Koran. At every stage, we can argue what the passages in question mean, and certainly whether they should have any relevance for later ages. But the fact remains that the words are there, and their inclusion in the scripture means that they are, literally, canonized, no less than in the Muslim scripture.
Whether they are used or not depends on wider social attitudes. When America entered the First World War, for instance, firebrand preachers drew heavily on Jesus' warning that he came not to bring peace, but a sword. As it stands, that is not much of a text of terror, but if one is searching desperately for a weapon-related verse, it will serve to justify what people are going to do anyway
Interpretation is all, and that changes over time. Religions have their core values, their non-negotiable truths, but they also surround themselves with many stories not essential to the message. Any religion that exists over long eras absorbs many of the ideas and beliefs of the community in which it finds itself, and reflects those in its writings. Over time, thinkers and theologians reject or underplay those doctrines and texts that contradict the underlying principles of the faith as it develops. However strong the textual traditions justifying war and conflict, believers come instead to stress love and justice. Of course Muslim societies throughout history have engaged in jihad, in holy war, and have found textual warrant so to do. But over time, other potent strains in the religion moved away from literal warfare. However strong the calls to jihad, struggle, in Islamic thought, the hugely influential Sufi orders taught that the real struggle was the inner battle to control one's sinful human instincts, and this mattered vastly more than any pathetic clash of swords and spears. The Greater Jihad is one fought in the soul.
Often, such reforming thinkers are so successful that the troublesome words fade utterly from popular consciousness, even among believers who think of themselves as true fundamentalists. Most Christian and Jewish believers, even those who are moderately literate in scriptural terms, read their own texts extraordinarily selectively. How many Christian preachers would today find spiritual sustenance in Joshua's massacres? How many American Christians know that the New Testament demands that women cover their hair, at least in church settings, and that Paul's Epistles include more detailed rules on the subject than anything written in the Koran? This kind of holy amnesia is a basic component of religious development. It does not imply rejecting scriptures, but rather reading them in the total context of the religion as it progresses through history.
Alternatively, one can choose to deny that historical experience, and seize on any available word or verse that authorizes the violence that is already taking place - but once someone has decided to do that, it scarcely matters what the text actually says.
Philip Jenkins teaches at Penn State University. He is the author of "The Lost History of Christianity: The Thousand-Year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia -- and How It Died."
"The other good book"
The Boston Globe, March 6, 2009
IF THE BIBLE mixes together passages teaching both warfare and mercy, so does the Koran. Pay back evil with good, says God, and your deadliest enemy will become your dearest friend (Koran 41.34-35).
In both scriptures, in fact, the angriest words are directed not against national enemies, but against those who skimp on charity. The Koran's God condemns those who show no kindness to the orphan, nor compete with each other in feeding the poor; those who love riches, and seize the inheritance of the weak. If anyone deserves hellfire, it's them (Koran 89). Meanwhile, do you want to reach the spiritual heights? Then free a slave from bondage, feed the poor in times of hunger: always have faith, be strong and merciful (Koran 90).
THE BOSTON SUNDAY GLOBE
LISTENOP - GEERT WILDERS
"Islam and freedom of speech"
By Geert Wilders, March 8, 2009
Geert Wilders is a member of the Dutch Parliament and head of the Freedom Party. In 2008 he released "Fitna," a controversial film about the Koran and jihadist violence. Wilders was condemned as an anti-Muslim agitator but also hailed as a defender of Western values and free speech. In January, a Dutch court ordered Wilders prosecuted for allegedly inciting hatred against Islam. Last month he was invited to screen "Fitna" at Westminster, but the British government barred him from entering the country. He was recently interviewed by Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby, who prepared the following edited excerpts:
Q: You've said that England today is more Chamberlain than Churchill. Explain what you mean.
A: Well, Chamberlain was the biggest appeaser to a totalitarian ideology called fascism. Now we face the threat of another totalitarian ideology called Islam, at least according to me. And instead of defending our freedom, defending our values, when I was invited a few weeks ago to show "Fitna" in the House of Lords, they denied me entry to the United Kingdom.
Q: The letter from the British home secretary said: "Your statements about Muslims and their beliefs . . . would threaten community harmony, and therefore public security, in the UK."
A: What really happened is that she was pressured. In the English press, there was a lot of news that Lord Ahmed [Nazir Ahmed, a British peer] threatened to have 10,000 Muslims demonstrating in front of Westminster.
Q: If you were allowed into the country.
A: Yes. And this is what I meant by Chamberlain. The UK government is giving in, appeasing the enemy. They should stand up and say: We might not like the political view of this guy, but he should be allowed to come here and say it.
Q: In the film, you show quotations from the Koran, together with video of statements and actions by Muslim extremists.
A: Exactly. I used reality. It was really made by radical Muslims themselves. I just combined the pictures with the source. If they don't like the movie, they don't like what they do themselves. At the end of "Fitna," it talks about Islamic ideology - that we should defeat the threat of Islamic ideology. For that to not be allowed in the United Kingdom, to be prosecuted in my own country, is an absolute outrage.
Q: A few weeks ago at a demonstration in Amsterdam, people were yelling, "Hamas! Hamas! Jews to the gas." Was there any prosecution of that type of speech?
A: This is the double standard: If you are a radical Muslim imam, and during your Friday prayer - this happened in the Netherlands - they said that Shariah should be installed, gays should be thrown from high buildings, women should be beaten up - terrible things. Sometimes the prosecutors brought them to trial, but they were always acquitted, because [of] freedom of religion. Now somebody like me stands up and says, "Hey, this is wrong," and I'm being brought to court.
Q: This month is the 20th anniversary of the fatwa against Salman Rushdie by the Ayatollah Khomeini in Iran. Back then, the West pretty much defended Rushdie. Yet now, 20 years later, you're banned from Britain, prosecuted in your country. What accounts for such a different response?
A: What's happened is that the cultural relativists believe that all cultures are equal, that Islam is just another leaf on the tree - and that everybody who says different is a xenophobe or racist. Within Europe, Muslims today have enormous political force. They all vote, and they're represented by mostly leftist parties.
Q: You say: "I don't hate Muslims; I hate Islam." Is there really any difference?
A: I have nothing against the people. I don't hate Muslims. But Islam is a totalitarian ideology. It rules every aspect of life - economics, family law, whatever. It has religious symbols, it has a God, it has a book - but it's not a religion. It can be compared with totalitarian ideologies like Communism or fascism. There is no country where Islam is dominant where you have a real democracy, a real separation between church and state. Islam is totally contrary to our values.
Q: What do you say to scholars of Islam like Daniel Pipes, who argues that radical Islam is the problem and moderate Islam is the solution? Why should one accept what Geert Wilders says about Islam, rather than someone like Pipes?
A: I respect Daniel Pipes, but I fully disagree. There is no moderate Islam. It's like the [prime minister] of Turkey, Mr. Erdogan, said himself recently: There is only one taste of Islam, and that is the taste of the Koran.
Q: But he's an Islamist. You would expect him to say that. What about anti-Islamist Muslims, Muslims who reject the radicals?
A: Listen, the Koran is seen by Muslims, unlike all the other religions, as the word of God that can never be criticized. If you criticize the Koran, you are a renegade, an apostate. There are people who are moderate and call themselves Muslim. But moderate Islam is totally nonexistent. It will never have an Enlightenment as happened with Christianity.
Q: Why not?
A: Because unlike the interpretations of other holy books, Muslims believe that the Koran is the word of God and can never be changed.
Q: Hold on - the New Testament today is the same New Testament as a thousand years ago. What's different is the way that book is read and understood. A thousand years ago, one could have said Christianity was a violent, militant religion; today one wouldn't.
A: Yes, there was a change in Christianity. It was possible because Christians don't believe that the Bible is literally the word of God - not like the Koran. If you really believe [the Koran] is the word of God, it will never have room to change.
Q: But why couldn't there be a movement within Islam that would say, "Yes, the Koran says X, Y, and Z, and it has been interpreted violently by violent people, but we give it a different interpretation"?
A: Then they are not Muslims anymore.
Q: How do you decide whether they are Muslims anymore?
A: I am not deciding. It's the Koran that's saying it.
Q: What Christians did at the time of the Inquisition was what Christianity was then; Christianity today has become something different.
A: Your premises are totally wrong. Islam is not a religion. Islam is an ideology. You keep comparing it to Christianity, Judaism. It's not. It's an ideology that wants to dominate every aspect of society. I know billions of people believe it's a religion. I don't.
Q: Is there any difference in your view between Islam and Islamism?
A: Islam and Islamism, it's exactly the same.
Q: With an outlook like this, don't you effectively exclude any Muslim from being an ally?
A: I am not excluding anybody. I don't even want Muslims from the Netherlands to leave my country. I'm not a [Jean-Marie] Le Pen. I want to help people be educated, be part of our society, get a job, respect our values. But it can never be possible on the basis of their violent ideology called Islam.
Q: Doesn't that contradict your defense of free speech?
A: Holland is not an Islamic country. I wouldn't want to have a system like in Saudi Arabia or Iran. Their ideology [says] to beat women, to kill Jews, to kill homosexuals. You can say, "Well, isn't that freedom of speech?" I want us to have more freedom of speech. But there is one red line - incitement of violence.
Q: You've said that under Dutch law, the Koran should be banned. Were you being rhetorical, or did you mean it literally?
A: I meant it. But you have to know the Dutch context for that. In the '70s, "Mein Kampf" was banned, and the left was so pleased. I am now proposing a ban on a book that is even worse than "Mein Kampf." And I'm not the first one - Winston Churchill compared "Mein Kampf" to the Koran in the 1950s.
Q: An American defender of free speech would say "Mein Kampf" shouldn't be banned, the Koran shouldn't be banned; books shouldn't be banned. To publish ideas in a book, even if they're hateful ideas - the First Amendment says you have that freedom. Is that what you would like in Holland as well?
A: I would, with the exception of incitement of violence.
Q: Do you think that multiculturalism and freedom of speech are ultimately incompatible?
A: No, Islam and freedom of speech are incompatible. Cultural relativism makes it difficult to fight, because cultural relativism says that Islam is the same as Christianity. Europe is being Islamized very, very quickly. In our prisons, we have a mark in every cell indicating the direction of Mecca. In Holland! I can give you 500 examples. People are getting beaten up on the streets of Amsterdam and Brussels for drinking water during Ramadan. We should have a sense of urgency.
Q: What do you say to Muslims like Zuhdi Jasser? He is an American, a former Navy officer, a doctor. After 9/11, he was so horrified by what was done in the name of Islam that he founded the American Islamic Forum for Democracy: pro-American, pro-democracy, anti-violence, anti-Islamist. How do you answer Muslims like him, who say: "I love my religion. I also love freedom, democracy, Western values. I believe in separation of mosque and state. But how can I be an ally with someone who says my religion itself is evil?"
A: Well, I would tell him I wish there were more people like you. It didn't happen. I would not agree with [Dr. Jasser] about Islam, but I wish there were more like him.
"When Jesus met Buddha: Something remarkable happened when evangelists for two great religions crossed paths more than 1,000 years ago: they got along"
By Philip Jenkins, The Boston Globe, Ideas, December 14, 2008
WAS THE BUDDHA a demon?
While few mainline Christians would put the matter in such confrontational terms, any religion claiming exclusive access to truth has real difficulties reconciling other great faiths into its cosmic scheme. Most Christian churches hold that Jesus alone is the Way, the Truth, and the Life, and many also feel an obligation to carry that message to the world's unbelievers. But this creates a fundamental conflict with the followers of famous spiritual figures like Mohammed or Buddha, who preached radically different messages. Drawing on a strict interpretation of the Bible, some Christians see these rival faiths as not merely false, but as deliberate traps set by the forces of evil.
Being intolerant of other religions - consigning them to hell, in fact - may be bad enough in its own right, but it increasingly has real-world consequences. As trade and technology shrink the globe, so different religions come into ever-closer contact with one another, and the results can be bloody: witness the apocalyptic assaults in Mumbai. In such a world, teaching different faiths to acknowledge one another's claims, to live peaceably together side by side, stops being a matter of good manners and becomes a prerequisite for human survival.
Over the past 30 years, the Roman Catholic Church has faced repeated battles over this question of Christ's uniqueness, and has cracked down on thinkers who have made daring efforts to accommodate other world religions. While the Christian dialogue with Islam has attracted
most of the headlines, it is the encounters with Hinduism and especially Buddhism that have stirred the most controversy within the church. Sri Lankan theologians Aloysius Pieris and Tissa Balasuriya have had many run-ins with Vatican critics, and, more recently, the battle has come to American shores. Last year, the Vatican ordered an investigation of Georgetown University's Peter Phan, a Jesuit theologian whose main sin, in official eyes, has been to treat the Buddhism of his Vietnamese homeland as a parallel path to salvation.
Following the ideas of Pope Benedict XVI, though, the church refuses to give up its fundamental belief in the unique role of Christ. In a widely publicized open letter to Italian politician Marcello Pera, Pope Benedict declared that "an inter-religious dialogue in the strict sense of the term is not possible." By all means, he said, we should hold conversations with other cultures, but not in a way that acknowledges other religions as equally valid. While the Vatican does not of course see the Buddha as a demon, it does fear the prospect of syncretism, the dilution of Christian truth in an unholy mixture with other faiths.
Beyond doubt, this view places Benedict in a strong tradition of Christianity as it has developed in Europe since Roman times. But there is another, ancient tradition, which suggests a very different course. Europe's is not the only version of the Christian faith, nor is it necessarily the oldest heir of the ancient church. For more than 1,000 years, other quite separate branches of the church established thriving communities across Asia, and in their sheer numbers, these churches were comparable to anything Europe could muster at the time. These Christian bodies traced their ancestry back not through Rome, but directly to the original Jesus movement of ancient Palestine. They moved across India, Central Asia, and China, showing no hesitation to share - and learn from - the other great religions of the East.
Just how far these Christians were prepared to go is suggested by a startling symbol that appeared on memorials and stone carvings in both southern India and coastal China during the early Middle Ages. We can easily see that the image depicts a cross, but it takes a moment to realize that the base of the picture - the root from which the cross is growing - is a lotus flower, the symbol of Buddhist enlightenment.
In modern times, most mainstream churches would condemn such an amalgam as a betrayal of the Christian faith, an example of multiculturalism run wild. Yet concerns about syncretism did not bother these early Asian Christians, who called themselves Nasraye, Nazarenes, like Jesus's earliest followers. They were comfortable associating themselves with the other great monastic and mystical religion of the time, and moreover, they believed that both lotus and cross carried similar messages about the quest for light and salvation. If these Nazarenes could find meaning in the lotus-cross, then why can't modern Catholics, or other inheritors of the faith Jesus inspired?
Many Christians are coming to terms with just how thoroughly so many of their fundamental assumptions will have to be rethought as their faith today becomes a global religion. Even modern church leaders who know how rapidly the church is expanding in the global South tend to see European values and traditions as the indispensable norm, in matters of liturgy and theology as much as music and architecture.
Yet the reality is that Christianity has from its earliest days been an intercontinental faith, as firmly established in Asia and Africa as in Europe itself. When we broaden our scope to look at the faith that by 800 or so stretched from Ireland to Korea, we see the many different ways in which Christians interacted with other believers, in encounters that reshaped both sides. At their best, these meetings allowed the traditions not just to exchange ideas but to intertwine in productive and enriching ways, in an awe-inspiring chapter of Christian history that the Western churches have all but forgotten.
To understand this story, we need to reconfigure our mental maps. When we think of the growth of Christianity, we think above all of Europe. We visualize a movement growing west from Palestine and Syria and spreading into Greece and Italy, and gradually into northern regions. Europe is still the center of the Catholic Church, of course, but it was also the birthplace of the Protestant denominations that split from it. For most of us, even speaking of the "Eastern Church" refers to another group of Europeans, namely to the Orthodox believers who stem from the eastern parts of the continent. English Catholic thinker Hilaire Belloc once proclaimed that "Europe is the Faith; and the Faith is Europe."
But in the early centuries other Christians expanded east into Asia and south into Africa, and those other churches survived for the first 1,200 years or so of Christian history. Far from being fringe sects, these forgotten churches were firmly rooted in the oldest traditions of the apostolic church. Throughout their history, these Nazarenes used Syriac, which is close to Jesus' own language of Aramaic, and they followed Yeshua, not Jesus. No other church - not Roman Catholics, not Eastern Orthodox - has a stronger claim to a direct inheritance from the earliest Jesus movement.
The most stunningly successful of these eastern Christian bodies was the Church of the East, often called the Nestorian church. While the Western churches were expanding their influence within the framework of the Roman Empire, the Syriac-speaking churches colonized the vast Persian kingdom that ruled from Syria to Pakistan and the borders of China. From their bases in Mesopotamia - modern Iraq - Nestorian Christians carried out their vast missionary efforts along the Silk Route that crossed Central Asia. By the eighth century, the Church of the East had an extensive structure across most of central Asia and China, and in southern India. The church had senior clergy - metropolitans - in Samarkand and Bokhara, in Herat in Afghanistan. A bishop had his seat in Chang'an, the imperial capital of China, which was then the world's greatest superpower.
When Nestorian Christians were pressing across Central Asia during the sixth and seventh centuries, they met the missionaries and saints of an equally confident and expansionist religion: Mahayana Buddhism. Buddhists too wanted to take their saving message to the world, and launched great missions from India's monasteries and temples. In this diverse world, Buddhist and Christian monasteries were likely to stand side by side, as neighbors and even, sometimes, as collaborators. Some historians believe that Nestorian missionaries influenced the religious practices of the Buddhist religion then developing in Tibet. Monks spoke to monks.
In presenting their faith, Christians naturally used the cultural forms that would be familiar to Asians. They told their stories in the forms of sutras, verse patterns already made famous by Buddhist missionaries and teachers. A stunning collection of Jesus Sutras was found in caves at Dunhuang, in northwest China. Some Nestorian writings draw heavily on Buddhist ideas, as they translate prayers and Christian services in ways that would make sense to Asian readers. In some texts, the Christian phrase "angels and archangels and hosts of heaven" is translated into the language of buddhas and devas.
One story in particular suggests an almost shocking degree of collaboration between the faiths. In 782, the Indian Buddhist missionary Prajna arrived in Chang'an, bearing rich treasures of sutras and other scriptures. Unfortunately, these were written in Indian languages. He consulted the local Nestorian bishop, Adam, who had already translated parts of the Bible into Chinese. Together, Buddhist and Christian scholars worked amiably together for some years to translate seven copious volumes of Buddhist wisdom. Probably, Adam did this as much from intellectual curiosity as from ecumenical good will, and we can only guess about the conversations that would have ensued: Do you really care more about relieving suffering than atoning for sin? And your monks meditate like ours do?
These efforts bore fruit far beyond China. Other residents of Chang'an at this very time included Japanese monks, who took these very translations back with them to their homeland. In Japan, these works became the founding texts of the great Buddhist schools of the Middle Ages. All the famous movements of later Japanese history, including Zen, can be traced to one of those ancient schools and, ultimately - incredibly - to the work of a Christian bishop.
By the 12th century, flourishing churches in China and southern India were using the lotus-cross. The lotus is a superbly beautiful flower that grows out of muck and slime. No symbol could better represent the rise of the soul from the material, the victory of enlightenment over ignorance, desire, and attachment. For 2,000 years, Buddhist artists have used the lotus to convey these messages in countless paintings and sculptures. The Christian cross, meanwhile, teaches a comparable lesson, of divine victory over sin and injustice, of the defeat of the world. Somewhere in Asia, Yeshua's forgotten followers made the daring decision to integrate the two emblems, which still today forces us to think about the parallels between the kinds of liberation and redemption offered by each faith.
Christianity, for much of its history, was just as much an Asian religion as Buddhism. Asia's Christian churches survived for more than a millennium, and not until the 10th century, halfway through Christian history, did the number of Christians in Europe exceed that in Asia.
What ultimately obliterated the Asian Christians were the Mongol invasions, which spread across Central Asia and the Middle East from the 1220s onward. From the late 13th century, too, the world entered a terrifying era of climate change, of global cooling, which severely cut food supplies and contributed to mass famine. The collapse of trade and commerce crippled cities, leaving the world much poorer and more vulnerable. Intolerant nationalism wiped out Christian communities in China, while a surging militant Islam destroyed the churches of Central Asia.
But awareness of this deep Christian history contributes powerfully to understanding the future of the religion, as much as its past. For long centuries, Asian Christians kept up neighborly relations with other faiths, which they saw not as deadly rivals but as fellow travelers on the road to enlightenment. Their worldview differed enormously from the norms that developed in Europe.
To take one example, we are used to the idea of Christianity operating as the official religion of powerful states, which were only too willing to impose a particular orthodoxy upon their subjects. Yet when we look at the African and Asian experience, we find millions of Christians whose normal experience was as minorities or even majorities within nations dominated by some other religion. Struggling to win hearts and minds, leading churches had no option but to frame the Christian message in the context of non-European intellectual traditions. Christian thinkers did present their message in the categories of Buddhism - and Taoism, and Confucianism - and there is no reason why they could not do so again. When modern scholars like Peter Phan try to place Christianity in an Asian and Buddhist context, they are resuming a task begun at least 1,500 years ago.
Perhaps, in fact, we are looking at our history upside down. Some day, future historians might look at the last few hundred years of Euro-American dominance within Christianity and regard it as an unnatural interlude in a much longer story of fruitful interchange between the great religions.
Consider the story told by Timothy, a patriarch of the Nestorian church. Around 800, he engaged in a famous debate with the Muslim caliph in Baghdad, a discussion marked by reason and civility on both sides. Imagine, Timothy said, that we are all in a dark house, and someone throws a precious pearl in the midst of a pile of ordinary stones. Everyone scrabbles for the pearl, and some think they've found it, but nobody can be sure until day breaks.
In the same way, he said, the pearl of true faith and wisdom had fallen into the darkness of this transitory world; each faith believed that it alone had found the pearl. Yet all he could claim - and all the caliph could say in response - was that some faiths thought they had enough evidence to prove that they were indeed holding the real pearl, but the final truth would not be known in this world.
Knowing other faiths firsthand grants believers an enviable sophistication, founded on humility. We could do a lot worse than to learn from what we sometimes call the Dark Ages.
Philip Jenkins is Edwin Erle Sparks professor of the humanities at Penn State University. He is author of "The Lost History of Christianity: The Thousand-Year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia -- and How It Died," published last month.
- Jonathan Melle
- Amherst, NH, United States
- I am a citizen defending the people against corrupt Pols who only serve their Corporate Elite masters, not the people! / My 2 political enemies are Andrea F. Nuciforo, Jr., nicknamed "Luciforo" and former Berkshire County Sheriff Carmen C. Massimiano, Jr. / I have also pasted many of my political essays on "The Berkshire Blog": berkshireeagle.blogspot.com / I AM THE ANTI-FRANK GUINTA! / Please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org
- ► 2009 (43)
- Andrea Nuciforo "Luciforo!" - May one please imagi...
- Amy-Jill Levine on Jesus & Judaism; & related reli...
- High Schools and Colleges should have professional...
- Williams College Prez Morton O. Schapiro compensat...
- Mayor Frank Guinta & Aldermen raise local taxes AG...
- Ward 3 Alderman Peter Sullivan ripped up my newspa...
- NH Governor John Lynch waited until AFTER the elec...
- Mayor Jim Ruberto - A Pittsfield Regime of Pervers...
- ▼ November (8)