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Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Scandalous!


For the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy and Life-Giving Cross

“For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. ..... For Jews request a sign, and Greeks seek after wisdom; but we preach Christ crucified, to the Jews a stumbling block and to the Greeks foolishness, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. Because the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.”
(1 Corinthians 18, 22-25)

I am just half way through reading Martin Palmer’s "The Jesus Sutras." It is a fascinating read. Palmer chronicles the first exposure of China to Christianity (albeit of the Nestorian heretical type) in the 7th century when missionaries from (probably) Baghdad brought the gospel to the magnificent Tang dynasty in a newly resurgent, open and united China. By all accounts these Christian missionaries were well received and allowed to work openly and without hindrance for 200 years before a subsequent Emperor shut down all “foreign religions” (including Buddhism).

Laying aside Palmer’s own politically correct anti-Roman prejudices and dealing with the facts it becomes abundantly clear that a presentation of the gospel that freely used Buddhist and Taoist language eventually succumbed to syncretism in which the Christian elements were eventually all but eclipsed. It is clear that these Chinese missionaries tried to present the gospel in terms accessible to a highly literate and advanced religious philosophical culture, which was and is a worthy aim. However, the gospel presented was too selectively skewed towards those sophianic (wisdom based) elements congenial to Buddhism and Taoism. Eventually these Christian communities lost their way and further compromised by their geographical and spiritual isolation from Orthodox Christianity succumbed. The fundamental error they made was to downplay the cross and the resurrection, precisely the centre of gravity of the whole Christian without which there is no good news at all. The scandalous elements of God-in-the-flesh dying and rising to destroy death gradually fell away from view.

Could such a thing happen again? Of course it could. It has happened many times before. The absence of the Cross turned Islam from a heretical mish-mash of Jewish, Christian and animist elements back into an old fashioned Semitic law based faith. The absence of the Cross turned secular post Renaissance humanism into a deist, Unitarian philosophy. The absence of the Cross in postmodern Christian pietism turned this into a semi-gnostic New Age spirituality. Some would argue even that the 19th century German pantheistic idealism of Hegel (the philosophical grandfather of Marx himself) drove the Russian theologians of the pre and post Revolutionary period toward a disincarnate and esoteric sophiology.

The scandalous aspect of Christianity, so vital to it being transformative good news is centred on the death and resurrection of Christ the Incarnate God-Man. Anything short of this simply isn’t Christian nor does it have the power to change the world. During the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy and Life-Giving Cross let us recall precisely that ... that it is Holy and Life-Giving for us all.

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