Jump directly to the Content
Jump directly to the content

David Marshall

The Tao Made Flesh

Rediscovering the ancient roots of Chinese Christianity

Arriving out of the Western desert in a.d. 635, a group of Nestorian Christians, led by the monk Aluoben, entered the Chinese capital of Chang An (modern Xian) and were welcomed by the Tai Zong emperor, founder of the great Tang dynasty. Over the following centuries, their faith spread to cities around China. The earliest Chinese Christians took the first steps in meeting the epic challenge of translating a universal message from a distant Semitic sect into words that could be understood in Europe's cultural antipodes, the "utter east," the glory and wonder that was Cathay.

In The Jesus Sutras: Rediscovering the Lost Scrolls of Taoist Christianity, researcher Martin Palmer introduces us to the Nestorian Christians, as well as the improbable story of how the ancient Chinese church was rediscovered in modern times. Palmer himself played a key role in that rediscovery, which also involved Jesuits, a Taoist priest exploring a cave, a 115-year-old gatekeeping Buddhist nun, and possible Axis spies. (It is hard to read the first part of this book without thinking of Indiana Jones.) In the rest of The Jesus Sutras, Palmer brings the extant texts of the Chinese Nestorians—the famous Nestorian stele uncovered in the early 17th century near Xian, and texts from Dunhuang in Northwest China—together in a poetic English translation. The fascinating blend of theistic and karmic thought that appears in some of these texts, Palmer argues, points toward a synthesis between West and East that can bring needed renewal to the Christian faith.

In 1998, Palmer discovered a pagoda outside of Xian that turned out to be what was left of an ancient church. (The temple where legend says Lao Zi wrote the Tao Te Ching, the hymn to the paradoxical power of gentleness that crowns the Taoist canon, stands just a mile away.) When Palmer and his fellow researchers arrived, the pagoda was being used as a Buddhist temple, and an elderly nun greeted Palmer at the door:

I stood where fourteen hundred years ago Christians had faced east and prayed, and I too prayed. I felt I had finally come home after twenty five years of searching for that home, of never knowing if it did, in fact, exist. Yet here was evidence of a living Tao of Jesus, a once vital practice of Jesus' teachings in a Taoist context. I wept for joy, for love of my faith, for the gentleness of the Buddhist nun, and because my heart was full to bursting.

As the Jesus sutras show, the Nestorian community began the work not only of translating the gospel into Chinese words but also of relating it to the Chinese philosophical tradition. "[Jesus] found people who were living evil lives and brought them back to the Way of goodness, the True Way" (or tao). "You bring us back to our original nature" (a concept central to the thought of Confucian philosopher Mencius and later Taoists). "The Messiah gave up his body to the wicked ones for the sake of all living beings" (as a bodhisattva in the Buddhist tradition aims to save all sentient beings).

As the Nestorian community interacted with other faith communities, later thinkers blended Christianity and Chinese thought in often striking imagery: "Divine Son … Send your raft of salvation to save us from the burning streams!" "Jade-faced one, exalted as the sun and moon!" "World-honored one!" The orthodoxy of the texts waxes and wanes, however:

The Messiah was orbited by the Buddhas and arhats. Looking down he saw the suffering of all that is born, and so he began to teach. … "Peace comes only when you can rest secure in your own place, when your heart and mind rest in God."
All such evil stems from the first beings, and the disobedience in the fruitful garden. All that lives is affected by the karma of previous lives. God suffered terrible woes so that all should be freed from karma.

Palmer praises this last notion (which finds echoes in some modern New Age and Hindu thought) as a "radical" shift from "classical Western nonreincarnational beliefs." But the church fathers rejected rebirth because they thought it untrue (Augustine's arguments on the subject still seem persuasive), not because the idea was unfamiliar or exotic. Nor is reincarnation so central to Chinese thought that denial of the doctrine has often proved an impediment to the gospel.

In terms of social ideals, the first Chinese Christians come across as an attractive and progressive community: vegetarian, nonviolent, treating men and women equally, refusing to own slaves. It may be unfair of Palmer to credit the Jains of India for these innovations, considering traditions in Western Christianity of gospel feminism, pacifism, and (in St. Paul, Gregory of Nyssa, and others) incipient anti-slavery. But it is heartening in any case to note the emphasis the earliest Chinese church put on social compassion.

Striking and poetic, and generally accurate, as Palmer's translation appears, he occasionally engages in a bit of wishful unorthodoxy. Palmer thinks the Nestorians disbelieved in original sin, for example. He translates the stele as saying God gave Adam and Eve "the original nature of goodness." An earlier translator read the same phrase as "an excellent disposition"—more stodgy, perhaps, but following the original more carefully. Palmer also thinks the Chinese Nestorians more ecologically sensitive than their Western cousins. Thus, God appointed Adam and Eve "guardians of all creation," rather than "governors" or "rulers" (although zhen does in fact imply hierarchical rule). Palmer then generously praises the Taoist Christians for a sensitivity toward nature that he himself has interpolated.

Palmer also suggests the Chinese Nestorians can help us overcome the burden of the doctrine of original sin, which he blames on Augustine:

In these Christian sutras from China is the shape or outline of a post-Augustinian theology that the West itself needs in order to be free from the burden of original sin and thus reconfigured to rediscover Christianity.

Ironically, some modern Chinese thinkers have come to the conclusion that what Chinese culture requires from "the Christian spirit" is precisely the teaching of original sin. Yuan Zhimin, a philosopher active in China's Democracy Movement, has argued that the Christian emphasis on sin provides "the ultimate philosophical base for the establishment of social covenants, checks and balances of power, and the rule of law. … Denial of man's sin and limitations is the spiritual root of tyranny; our awareness, the beginning of democracy."1

The Jesus sutras exhibit an attitude toward government that seems to justify Yuan's critique. One strains to see a hint in these texts of the bold Christian tradition of believers standing up to tyranny, of Justin Martyr ("You can kill us, but you cannot hurt us"), of Bonhoeffer, Solzhenitsyn, or Wang Mingdao. Instead: "The Emperor is who he is because of his previous lives which have led to his being placed in this fortunate position." By contrast, "If someone is seriously ill or handicapped do not mock, because this is a result of karma." If status is based on the merit of past lives (or lack thereof), what could be more perverse than to disturb the harmony of a hierarchical society by dreams of political equality? It would be a disappointing end to an Indiana Jones movie if, when opened, the Ark of the Covenant visited its wrath, not on tyrants or Nazi goons, but on the damsel in distress, or on low-caste Indian children laboring in mines for (presumable) past-life trangressions.

The Chinese Nestorians were, however, undeniably creative in relating their faith to the language and ideas of their host country. Palmer reasonably contrasts their attitude (and that of the early Jesuit missionary, Matteo Ricci, whom he also admires) with the cultural insensitivity of many Western missions:

The Church had made the great leap— which it has so often failed to do in the more recent past—from missionary Church to truly indigenous Church. … The building of the Da Qin monastery pushed the Church into a serious engagement with Taoism, and consequently with Buddhism and Confucianism.

Reflective and creative engagement with other beliefs is certainly one of the great needs of our day. Neither Western missionaries nor modern Chinese Christians have always related the gospel to the depths of Chinese thought well. By contrast, the free innovation of the Nestorians is often refreshing. Some of their ideas are worth serious reflection, and are often expressed in beautiful language. Still, however skillfully Ricci related his message to ancient Chinese belief about God (Tian or Shang Di), the essence of what the great Jesuit preached was orthodox Christianity. Apart from the supremacy of God and the importance of someone named Jesus, this was not always so during the later eras of Taoist Christianity.

When a religion is introduced into a new culture, syncretism, borrowing images from the foreign tradition and connecting them to native ideas—in the Dalai Lama's fine phrase, "grafting a sheep's head on a yak's body"—is perhaps the most simple and spontaneous creative reaction. As Palmer puts it, later Jesus sutras are often "a fusion of uniquely Christian imagery, Taoist teachings, and Buddhist philosophy." Contextualization, accurately translating ideas from the living heart of one tradition into the most apt terminology of another while being faithful to both, takes a studied vision or genius, like that of a Justin or a Ricci. The earlier Nestorians often achieve this as well, particularly in the famous Nestorian stele, erected in 781, which seems to me quite orthodox as well as eloquent.

A still rarer insight involves recognizing the work of God within pagan cultures in a way that deepens what is already central in the native tradition. The Sutra of Jesus Christ proclaims (in tactful terms similar to those in which the Tai Zong, and, a thousand years later, the equally great Kang Xi emperor, praised Christianity), "All great teachers such as the Buddhas are moved by this Wind and there is nowhere in the world where this Wind does not reach and move." Fulfillment theology affirms this truth from within orthodox Christianity. Sources as various as the New Testament Letter to the Hebrews, Augustine's City of God, the medieval Dream of the Rood, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and John Farquhar's remarkable The Crown of Hinduism show how Christian thinkers have mined gospel truth (the "seed of the word" or "redemptive analogies") from the depths of Jewish, Greek, Roman, German, and Indian cultures.

Are such affinities between gospel and tradition just a matter of good taste or fortune in mixing disparate cultural elements—like a "Korean burrito" at McDonald's—or is something deeper at work? Augustine believed Providence might sketch a rough draft of redemption within pagan cultures: "There is nothing far-fetched in the belief that among other peoples besides the Jews there existed men to whom this mystery was revealed."

Thoughtful missionaries and Chinese Christians have described Christianity, at its most orthodox, not as a faith that is inherently alien to Chinese culture, or even as a universal doctrine for which, after a long quest, equivalent terms might be found in Chinese, but rather as the fulfillment, culmination, and synthesis of much that is implicit in Chinese tradition itself. As several Christian scholars have pointed out, for example, in its extended, metaphysical meaning, the term tao carries connotations that are remarkably similiar to those of the Greek logos. I have seen the character carved in stone in front of a new Chinese church, with the opening words of John's Gospel, in Chinese, beneath: "In the beginning was the Tao. And the Tao was with God, and the Tao was God. … The Tao became flesh and dwelt among us."

Some Chinese Christians agree that the "founder" of Taoism, Lao Zi, was indeed moved by the Spirit of God. Yuan went so far as to call Lao Zi "a true prophet of God" who "prophesied the coming of Jesus." To the more cautious scholar Lin Yutang, Jesus and Lao Zi were "brothers at heart" who both "built their kingdoms on poverty of spirit." But Jesus went further than Lao Zi, by incarnating this teaching in action. For orthodox "Christian Taoists," the "Tao became flesh," and through the weakness of the cross, conquered all. By such insights, much that is beautiful in Chinese culture is retroactively drawn up into the redemptive story of the human race.

What place in Chinese theology will Chinese Nestorian teachings then hold? Christians can rejoice in the poetry and kindliness of many of these writings. Chinese can read them and see that the gospel is not a newcomer to China, an "alien teaching" (yang jiao). On the contrary: these texts reveal a Christianity that had assumed elegant Chinese intellectual garb, and was praised by one of the greatest Chinese rulers in the most glorious dynasty of all, while Vikings were launching raids along a partially pagan and barbarian European coastlands.

In theological insight, the Jesus sutras seem to hold a position somewhere between the Gospel of Thomas and the Alexandrian school of Clement and Origen. One need not accept Palmer's theology to share his enthusiasm for these texts, or to feel gratitude for his work in making them more readily available in English. It is hard not to like Palmer and the creative, mysterious church he champions, though he does so somewhat naïvely, and shows less sympathy with his own tradition than he might. The Jesus Sutras makes a fascinating addition to the library of anyone who is interested in Asian Christianity, missiology, and modern attempts to reconcile East and West—for here is the rough but often promising and inspiring first draft of the Divine Logos in Chinese thought.

David Marshall teaches at Siebold University in Nagasaki, Japan. Among his books are True Son of Heaven: How Jesus Fulfills Chinese Culture (Kuai Mu Press) and Jesus and the Religions of Man (Kuai Mu Press).

1. Reflections on the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, D.C., in Samuel Ling, ed., Soul Searching, God and Democracy, 2nd ed. (China Horizon, 1998), p. 57.

Most ReadMost Shared