The Da Qin Illuminated Religion

Many accounts of the history of Christianity are very Western-centric, focusing mostly on the Church in Rome and Europe. Some try to include the Eastern Orthodox Churches as much as possible, but none seem to explore the history of the early Church in the Far East. By this, I am referring to the early Churches in India, Tibet and China. There is a tradition that St. Thomas, one of the twelve disciples of Jesus, founded the church in India, and might even have traveled as far as China. Regardless of the authenticity of these traditions, we can now be quite certain that Christianity was already present in China by the 7th century, much earlier than initially thought. And Christian missionaries arrived during the heydays of the Tang Dynasty, considered to be the peak of the Chinese Empire, both culturally and politically.

A rubbing from the original Stone Stele from the Forest of Stone Steles Museum in Xi'an, China, recounting the arrival and spread of the Da Qin (referring to Rome or the West) Illuminated Religion. At its top is a carving of a cross rising out of a lotus flower.

Stone inscriptions speak of the Illuminated Religion (or Religion of Light) from Rome or the West (Da Qin), whose adherents worshiped only one God. Carvings on a stone tablet depict a cross rising out of a lotus flower surrounded by clouds, held up by two dragons. Ancient scrolls called the Jesus Sutras, discovered in a cave early in the 20th century, contain teachings based on Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, the Ten Commandments, and an overt Trinitarian theology, but with a twist: they are expressed through the languages and philosophical worldviews of Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism. More recently, a Christian pagoda was rediscovered, and within it are statues depicting what is believed to be the Nativity scene and a scene involving Jonah sitting under a vine.

This statue on the first floor inside the Da Qin Pagoda is believed to be depicting an Eastern Orthodox version of the nativity scene, but fused with classical Chinese art. It contains the five mountains of Taoism with its most sacred mountain Tai Shan (image courtesy of BBC)

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 a 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. ~ Martin Palmer, The Jesus Sutras

The worship and teachings of this remarkable Church in the East resulted from a fusion of Christian, Taoist, and Buddhist influences. The early missionaries from Persia tried very hard to adapt the Christian message for a population whose philosophies were vastly different, and in later years the message evolved to incorporate more and more Taoist and Buddhist thought. Jesus was seen as a Messiah not unlike the Boddhisattvas (Enlightened ones who use their wisdom to help liberate other humans) of Mahayana Buddhism, thus saving human beings from karma, and the endless cycles of birth and rebirth, so that they can be with the Supreme Being. Followers of the Church were also known to be vegetarians, possibly the only officially vegetarian branch of Christianity! Some questions remain: How ‘Orthodox’ were these Taoist/Buddhist Christians? Who gets to decide anyway? Were these Taoist/Buddhist influences any less pervasive than the adoption of large swathes of Greek philosophy into Western Christianity? Even if one is led to the conclusion that this Church of the East was more Taoist or Buddhist than Christian, one has to admire the theological ingenuity that led to this fusion of widely contrasting worldviews.

Along with Celtic Christianity, the Church of the East remains as one of the best examples of how the Christian message can be incarnational and redemptive – one that enters into an entirely different world (incarnational), and in doing so brings everything within that culture under the Sovereignty of Christ (redemptive), for the glory of God, instead of rejecting these cultures as demonic or pagan. This is not unlike what the Western Church did with Christmas and Easter, leading to the Church being further enriched. This metanarrative of redemption is pursued by missiologists such as Vincent Donovan and Lesslie Newbigin, and is inherent in modern Jesuit missions. Most importantly, it is one that is modeled after our Lord.

Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. ~ John 3:17

We have often interpreted ‘the world’ to mean only ‘human souls’, as if God was only interested in saving souls. But God’s work of redemption includes all facets of humanity (physical, mental, social, cultural) and in fact, all of creation.

I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. ~ Romans 8:18-21

The Da Qin pagoda, a remnant of a once thriving Christian community in the Tang Dynasty

On another note, the Asian Church, in this post-colonial era, is in the process of rediscovering itself. By sifting through the Western cultural influences that arrived packaged together with the Christianity of the early European missionaries (as well as the influences of modern Western Christianity that still arrive in the form of books, the Internet, and other mass media), it is slowly looking to redefine itself as a Church that is distinctly Asian. Asian theologians have often looked to the likes of John Sung and Sadhu Sundar Singh as guides, yet these ‘heroes’ of the Asian Church were also products of European missions. Perhaps, we now have an earlier source to draw from, in our quest to find out what it really means to be the Church of God in Asia.

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