Friday, March 27, 2015

Why did God create the World?

I've had a good day today.  

I'm stuck in Hong Kong trying to renew my Chinese visa.  My first day was not so good.  My partner kindly bought me a first-class ticket to Shenzhen, the ultra-modern city across the border, a few days ago.  Unfortunately that seat was set against a support and couldn't retract, which meant, with my bad back, I had to stand most of the way down.  I stayed in a run-down hotel that night, crossed the border with some hassles, and then was berated by the woman at the visa office, after a long wait, for not providing all sorts of details that they never asked for before.  Even the librarian in Wan Chai was mean (or maybe I was tired).  Then as I got into the subway, the door closed first on my backpack, which I had been lugging around all day, then on my arm.  An Australian lent me a hand (his only one, as it happened.  What is the prior probability of that, Richard Carrier?)  I started laughing, finally, and told him, "This has been such a strange day, it's only fitting that the subway would attack me."  

Today was very different. 

Monday, February 16, 2015

What? RIchard Carrier calls me a liar? Well, I never!

I have, I think, written a review of RIchard Carrier's On the Historicity of Jesus that not only refutes that book, but turns the facts Carrier misfocuses on into premises towards a very different (and for Carrier distasteful) conflusion: that the gospels are actually pretty believable records.  I own scholarly credentials as relevant to the subject as Carrier's own.  I described ten concrete and major errors with his book, in concrete detail.  Most people who have read my review on Amazon have agreed it is helpful -- 89 of 144 votes, so far.  As a former debate partner, one would think Richard Carrier would want to answer my critique of his long-awaited epic argument. 

But no, apparently he's too busy with other things, such as critiquing an Amazon review by one Ramos, to be distracted. 

Friday, February 06, 2015

Loftus Attacks! Part Deux

In our last installment of The Loftus Chronicles, John was claiming that How Jesus Passes the Outsider Test: the Inside Story could not have been written and should not have been endorsed by any real scholars.  I make too many “egregious errors,” for one thing.  So we gamely inquired what those errors were. 

John’s first critique (echoed from Arizona Atheist) was that I was contradicting myself by claiming that the Outsider Test for Faith (OTF) was flawed, and then saying it had passed in the case of Christianity “billions of times.”  This, I noted, is a feeble objection indeed.  There is no contradiction, after all, between saying “These glasses are muddy,” and saying, “But I see clearly enough to know that it is snowing,” still less, “And after I wipe them off, I can hit a 90 mile an hour fast ball.”

The rest of John’s complaints, to be concise, also failed.  Yes, whatever John thinks, I did write about testing Christianity from outsider perspectives six years before John invented the OTF, even if our tests were not identical.  Yes, Loftus does use the OTF as a weapon with which to attack Christianity, as I said, and indeed as he admitted himself, in black and white.  And no, I do not deny diversity among religions.  I claim, though, that Loftus denies similarities, which are also real, because those similarities show how Secular Humanism fails to pass the OTF.  Even in the act of responding to my arguments, John tries again to sweep those similarities under the carpet, as if he found them embarrassing -- and they may be, to his philosophy of life.   

In this post, I respond to John’s second set of complaints.  Again, let’s quote a few of John’s comments, and respond to them, before addressing his main arguments. 

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Loftus Attacks! Part Uno

I’m getting the feeling that maybe John Loftus feels he didn’t do too well in our debate on Unbelievable.  (The first part of which can be found here, the second part should be posted this coming Saturday.)  How else to explain his multiple posts since then, first complaining that he didn’t get enough time, then attacking Randal Rauser (of all people), and then a series of three posts critiquing my book?

Well, great, after all these years, and many posts on both sides, John finally gets around to actually trying to rebut some of my arguments -- sort of. 

So let’s take a look at his first post, and what he claims I get wrong. 

Predictable Preliminary Trash-Talking

I've decided to write more than just one post about Dr. David Marshall's “rebuttal” to my book The Outsider Test for Faith (OTF).

Call me David, please. 

But How Jesus Passes the Outsider Test: The Inside Story is not a “rebuttal” to John Loftus.  With due respect to John’s considerable ego, it is about much bigger topics: the work of God in the world, the role of Jesus in uplifting humanity, the story of the human race from the Christian point of view, an answer to the question, “How do religions relate to one another?”

John is a convenient jumping-off point, not the destination. 

I will attempt to show why Marshall's book, How Jesus Passes the Outsider Test: The Inside Story,is really bad. In fact, it's so bad I'm using the word "refutation" for what I'm about to do to it.  I hardly ever use that word because refutations are usually unachievable in these kinds of debates.  

Go for it! 

If I'm largely successful then it also says something about Dr. Randal Rauser, that he will say and endorse anything in order to defend his Christian faith.

I don’t believe that for a moment.  Actually, read his blog, and you find that Randal is pretty choosy about what Christian artifacts he will endorse.  It follows, then, that Loftus will probably NOT be successful, or he’s wrong about the logic. 

“No educated intellectual worthy the name would have written Marshall's book.  No educated intellectual should think it's worthy of any kind of a blurb either.”

This is disproved by the fact that I am an educated intellectual, and I did write the book.  And not just Randal Rauser, but Win Corduan (Professor of Philosophy and Religion at Taylor University), Miriam Adeney (an anthropologist who teaches at Seattle Pacific University), Ivan Satyavrata (an Indian theologian), Don Richardson, Nick Peters, and Brad Cooper, all of whom can only be described as “educated intellectuals,” in some cases much more so than John, have also thought the book worthy of a blurb -- indeed, in most cases of high praise indeed. 

But let’s skip the naval-gazing trash-talking of the wrong person, and get to the substance of John’s critique. 

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Matthew McCormick's Spectral Evidence IV‏

In our last installment, we saw that Matthew McCormick argues that the evidence for genuine witchcraft in Salem, Massachusetts was much stronger than the evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus.  Oddly, however, he is remarkably coy about citing that evidence in detail, though he offers nebulous claims for reems (thousands of books) of the stuff.  Indeed, like the "evidence" for witchcraft itself, the evidence for that evidence, in McCormick's own telling, appears to be of the kind best described as "spectral," a terms  our anonymous friends at Wiki explain:  

"Spectral evidence is a form of evidence based upon dreams and visions. It was admitted into court during the Salem witch trials by the appointed chief justice, William Stoughton. The booklet A Tryal of Witches taken from a contemporary report of the proceedings of the Bury St. Edmunds witch trial of 1662 became a model for and was referenced in the Trials when the magistrates were looking for proof that such evidence could be used in a court of law.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Matt McCormick, Part III: the Salem Witch Trials

The Gem in the Crown of McCormick's argument against Christianity is probably Chapter 3: "You Already Don't Believe in Jesus: The Salem Witch Trials."   At least that is what I have seen quoted most often, and largely what attracted me to this book.  McCormick also refers to this chapter and the one preceding it, which we have already analyzed later in the book, as if he had in these two chapters convincingly overthrown the Christian faith.
His argument is simple.  McCormick asserts that the evidence for the actual existence of witches in Salem, Massachusetts, between 1692 and 1693, is far stronger and more immediate, than the evidence for the Resurrection.  Since we reject the former, we should therefore also reject the latter. 

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

2. "The History of the Jesus Story"

In the second chapter of his, Matthew McCormick summarizes New Testament scholarship in a particular fashion.  He is not pretending to have done any original research.  But he wants to make the Gospel account of the resurrection seem as incredible as possible, without the bother of looking too much stuff up himself, or refuting such formidable Christian scholars as Craig Blomberg, Craig Evans, Larry Hurtado, N. T. Wright, or Ben Witherington

McCormick's goal in this second chapter is thus
to pretend to knowledge he does not possess, that is, the state of the Jesus question.  
He wants us to think that the evidence for the Christian account of Jesus life is late, 
scattered, insignificant, and tenuous, and that that is the consensus of Historical Jesus studies.  
But he doesnt know that, because he seems to have only read a few, and those who agree with him anyway.

McCormick clearly has not, for instance, read Richard BauckhamJesus and the Eyewitnesses.  Who that has, would dare to assert this, without qualification or defense?

But the view now, on the basis of modern work in history and Bible scholarship, is that none of the 
Gospels was written by the apostle to whom it is attributed.  Their authors are unknown. (38)

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Matt McCormick: Philosopher, Prosecutor, Card Shark, Tease? Part I

Matthew McCormick is an intelligent, fluid writer, and has taken the time to read a few important Christian thinkers (unlike, say, Peter Boghossian, AC Grayling, or John Paulos) before writing his ambitious refutation of Christianity.  He does not seem to suffer from the (inflated) self-image problems of Richard Carrier, or the intense, reality-warping spite of, say, Annie Gaylor.  This book is therefore readable, coherent, and sane.  McCorkick is, however, relentless in his assault on Christianity, and that assault fails in multiple, fated ways.  Despite negative virtues, McCormick lacks either the knowledge or the objectivity for a serious intellectual critique of Christianity.  As Jesus warned, he ought not to have ventured battle without first scouting the enemy's strength more thoroughly.  

Let's take it chapter by chapter, and allow the omens of forboding to unfold like flowers, each in its season.  

As it happens, I am also reading another book on the resurrection at the same time as this one, by Mike Licona.  That book is all that this one is not: self-critical, fair, judicious, careful, and convincing.  I may refer to that book by way of comparison from time to time.   

(1) "Speaking Ill of Jesus"

Friday, January 09, 2015

The first two non-scholar readers have just posted reviews of my new book, How Jesus Passes the Outsider Test: The Inside Story, and they are great!  (Especially the one just posted on Amazon.) 

 The shorter and somewhat more restrained but still very positive review was posted on a closed site, so I'll keep the reader anonymous:
"David's writing is very engaging, creative, and full of historical insight into the universality of the Christian worldview.   I find myself equipped with a new approach to engaging both atheists and people of other religions.  Very nicely done."
Now here's the review by Brad Cooper, a former pastor whom I had the chance to meet in Indiana a year and a half ago at a Subway in southern Michigan:  
"Even if you don't expect to agree with Dr. Marshall, it's hard for me to imagine how you could read Marshall's newest book and not enjoy it. Right from the first page of the Introduction (yes, the Introduction!), I found myself being carried along as if by an incoming hurricane, swept along by David's wit and mastery of metaphor. But unlike a hurricane, David did not leave behind a barren wasteland in his wake.  Instead, fresh insights from the history of religions sprung up page after page, and an original and cogent argument had grown tall and strong as a redwood when the winds finally died down.

"This book begins by noting one of the current fads in skeptical arguments: the Outsider Test for Faith (OTF), which has probably been most clearly and most stubbornly pushed by John Loftus.  Marshall examines Loftus' argument, turns it right side up and proceeds to show what a powerful argument it is for the truth of Christianity.

"This is a rare book. Few people have the broad range of knowledge and understanding that this book's argument requires-even fewer the skill to communicate it in a way that is both clear and enjoyable.  It encompasses such diverse topics as philosophical arguments, Biblical prophecy, the ancient religions that are the backbone of the world's great civilizations, and the history of Christian missions from the time of the apostles to the present day--all told in a way that makes you feel like your reading a fast-paced novel from among Amazon's bestsellers.

"At one point, I was thinking to myself: "I can't remember the last time I enjoyed reading a book this much." (And I read a lot.) Then I remembered that it was when I read Chesterton's Orthodoxy.  Quite honestly, I think this book even surpasses that for me. I very very rarely read a book more than once. I will be reading this one again soon."
Thanks so much!  Any comparison to Chesterton is a great honor: his writing has been an inspiration to me for many years.  And Brad also show talent with metaphors himself in that first paragraph: my Chinese colleague, a former college lecturer, was impressed by the quality of his writing, when I showed her the review. 
Even if Brad is just half right, you should read this book!  I do believe you will almost universally enjoy and benefit from it.  While I most recommend the print version (freshly printed books, not napalm, being the scent I favor in the morning), feel free to compromise with the Spirit of the Age just this once, and get the Kindle version, if you prefer. : - )

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Did Christianity Spread by the Sword?

"OK!  I'll pay my tithe!"  
Several years ago, a young atheist (and philosopher) who read my book, The Truth Behind the New Atheism, challenged me to read and respond to the work of Richard Carrier.  He felt Carrier, editor-in-chief of the “Internet infidels,” who recently obtained a doctorate from Columbia in Roman history, offers a more substantial atheist critique of Christianity than the likes of Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris. I bought a copy of Carrier’s book, Sense & Goodness Without God, and began reading, and also contacted Carrier about a possible debate – another suggestion of my atheist friend.

A month ago I posted a mostly critical, but courteous, review on Amazon. I pointed out fourteen errors in Sense & Goodness, some of the most important of which were Carrier’s “glib” discussion of the origin of life, his blatantly false claim that no early historians refer to the resurrection of Jesus, his dubious claim to reject miracles for empirical rather than ideological reasons, and his claim that Christianity usually “spread by the sword,” only thrived when it could wipe out other religions by force, and was (with Islam) the bloodiest and most intolerant religion known to man.

Carrier responded with his usual pique, calling me a “liar,” among other things. (The accusation only slightly surprised me, since he had told me in an e-mail that his debate partners generally turned out to be dishonest.)

After arguing back and forth several rounds, Carrier posted an attack on me on his web site, focusing on the issue of biogenesis.

Several other people joined the conversation at times, including three philosophers, who had been taking part in the Amazon discussion already, and two scientists, who weighed in (at my request) on the state of the evidence on the origin of life.

While the tone of Carrier’s attacks is often discreditable, his claims are popular enough that they merit response. It’s also interesting to observe this edgy NEW “new atheism” evolve, as younger and better-informed infidels (Carrier knows the relevant literature far better than, say, Richard Dawkins) go “mainstream,” get books published, and take up the mantle from the likes of Dawkins and Hitchens.

Did Christianity spread by the sword? Has Christianity only been successful when it has suppressed other religions by force?

The first question will take two rounds, then systematic historical analysis.  The second can be dealt with more succinctly.

Round One

Richard Carrier, from Sense & Goodness Without God:

"Most people in ancient times believed it was proper to respect the gods of other peoples.  This changed on a global scale when Christianity was spread, quite literally, by the sword. Those who attempted to assert their religious differences were harassed, tortured, robbed of their land and belongings, even killed.  Before it achieved political power, Christianity was a small sect, a heresy against the Jewish faith, that had to accept equality among all the other religions of the Roman Empire.  Yet it was the first religion to openly attack the religions of other people as false (the Jews, at least, were a little more tactful). Needless to say, Christianity only truly flourished when it had the ability to eliminate the competition – when it had the full support of Rome’s Emperors after 313 A.D., and when, in 395 A. D., every religion other than Christianity was actually outlawed.  Through force and decree Christianity as immersed in the cultural surroundings of lands near and far, and in an environment where it was widely accepted, it not the only thing accepted, it spread and planted itself among subjugated peoples.  As kids grew up taking Christian ideas for granted, they often did not realize that only a few generations ago those ideas were entirely alien.”

“Colonization of the world, more often than not by robbery and warfare, spread Christianity into the Americas and other corners of the earth, just as Islam was spread throughout Asia and Africa.  It is not a coincidence that the two most widespread religions in the world today are the most warlike and intolerant religions in history.  Before the rise of Christianity, religious tolerance, including a large degree of religious freedom, was not only custom but in many ways law under the Roman and Persian empires . . . Indeed, Christians were persecuted for denying that the popular gods existed – not for following a different religion.  In other words, Christians were persecuted for being intolerant." (264)

Finally, from another section of the book, we find this jumbled thicket of confused revisionism:

"Christianity was spread, quite literally, by the sword . . . Christianity only truly flourished when it had the ability to eliminate the competition . . . the two most widespread religions in the world today are the most warlike and intolerant religions in history. Before the rise of Christianity, religious
tolerance . . . was not only custom but in many ways law under the Roman and Persian empires . . . Christians were persecuted for denying that the popular gods existed . . . for being intolerant." (264)

I responded as follows in my Amazon review of that book:

(1)  To begin at the end, if it is "intolerant" to deny that popular gods exist, what is Richard Carrier? He denies not only the Greco-Roman gods, but Christian, Muslim, Confucian, Aussie, and every other vision of God as well!

(2) In fact Christianity mostly did NOT spread by the sword. Constantine adopted the faith because it had already become the strongest spiritual force in Roman society already -- by caring for the sick, treating women well, and showing courage in the face of death, as Rodney Stark shows in The Rise of Christianity. Richard Fletcher's The Barbarian Conversion tells the rest of the story for Europe, others for the rest of the world -- force was the exception, not the rule.

(3) Christianity has always been strongest in a free market of faiths -- as in modern America, Korea, and even modern China.  Here Carrier badly needs to read Stark's other studies.

(4) To say even Islam is the most intolerant or warlike religion in history reveals gross ignorance.  Has he never heard of the Aztecs?  The Tai Pings?  Yanomamo shamanism? Jim Jones?  Or (to stretch the term "religion" slightly) Vladimir Lenin? Adolf Hitler?

(5) The tolerance of the Greco-Romans was punctuated by episodes of persecution, bigotry, witch-hunting, and murder. Elsewhere in the same book, Carrier admits that one sect began their rituals with the shout, "Away with the Epicureans! Away with the Christians! . . . this hostility could come to slander and violence. Challenging a popular legend might start a riot, even get you killed."

In fact you didn't even have to go that far -- Socrates was not the only one to get officially killed for unorthodoxy.

Round 2

(Note: Here I quote only Carrier’s response to points (2) and (3), which are the issues I will reply to below. For the rest of that part of our conversation, see the discussion under my review of his book on

RC: "As I show in Not the Impossible Faith (chapter 18), Marshall is misusing Rodney Stark in his attempt to claim that Christianity became the dominant religion peacefully.  Stark argues (as do all other modern experts) that Christianity was still a small minority religion even in the time of Constantine.  And beginning with his conversion, force was used to support it: already in his reign pagan temples were robbed of their wealth by force, being given to Christian churches instead, while by the end of the same century paganism was actually outlawed, and over subsequent centuries gruesome displays of force were used to terrify the disobedient into compliance (see Not the Impossible Faith pp. 21-23).  Likewise, no one reading the history of the Christianization of the Americas can possibly believe "force was the exception, not the rule." 

"The history of the European Middle Ages is likewise just as bloody (simply read The Carolingian Chronicles for the Christians' own account of what they did).  Indeed, actual force was often not necessary precisely because the threat of it was enough (as I discuss on p. 265 of Sense and Goodness without God).  Since I cite abundant scholarship confirming everything I say (pp. 267-68), again, Marshall is the revisionist here."

DM: What did Carrier mean by saying that Christianity "spread by the sword?"  The comment is rather ambiguous. From the context, in which Carrier talks first about the spread of Christianity in ancient Rome, then in the world in general, it is clear he is referring to the overall history of Christianity. And given the rest of his comments, it is clear he is, at minimum, referring to the
most normal method of proselytism. He is not saying that Christianity has SOMETIMES employed force, but at the least, that it has USUALLY (if not ALWAYS) employed force.

What does "by the sword" mean? I will not require that it mean most converts had actual metal pressed against their throats (though the adverb "literally" is, as often, misused here.) I take "by the sword" to refer to bringing people to faith under military or police compulsion.

I do insist, however, that conversion involve direct physical violence, or the threat of violence, against the potential convert, to count in favor of Carrier's claim. It cannot even mean that mob violence was occasionally employed, or even that Christians occasionally persecuted people of other religions. This for the simple reason that Carrier is comparing "intolerant" Christianity with "tolerant" paganism in this passage. ("It was the first religion to openly attack the religions of other people.") Yet he admits there was persecution of Christians (and other sects) in pagan Rome, along with mob violence against them. Clearly the phrase "spread by the sword" must mean something above and beyond what Christians experienced at the hands of the pagans, to justify the contrast Carrier is drawing.

Finally, what might Carrier mean by "spread?" Should it refer to transmission of faith to new lands, cultures, or individuals?

We can probably rule geography out. It would be unreasonable to count the spread of faith among Eskimos in Alaska as more significant than among some tribe in Rwanda, just because more territory is involved. Spread to individuals seems more likely at first. If this is what Carrier meant, however, his claim may be too obviously absurd. The vast majority of Christians have accepted faith from parents or teachers, through education, not the threat of death. Furthermore, most Christians have probably lived over the past 200 years. (By my back of the envelope calculation, about 40% of all people who have lived in the last 2000 years, have lived in the last 200. Towards the beginning of that period, the percent of Christians in world population increased dramatically.) Over the past 200 years, only tiny minority of believers converted on pain of death. Neither, of course, did most Christians in the Middle Ages.

So the only plausible meaning of "spread," and the meaning most likely intended, is "transmitted into a new politico-cultural sphere, so as to be adopted by a significant portion of the populace."

Now we can analyze the accuracy of such claims about the history of Christianity.

I'll look at twelve great population groups, to which the vast majority of Christians belong. I'll begin from the first days of Christianity.

Historical Analysis: Twelve Regions and Eras in which Christianity Spread

(1) Roman-European Christians, 33-600 AD.  

According to Rodney Stark, by the time of Constantine's conversion and the Edict of Milan in 313, proclaiming religious tolerance, about 10% of the entire Roman empire had become Christian. Obviously, before this time Christianity was NOT spread by military compulsion. In fact, it spread in the face of often severe persecution. Furthermore, according to Stark, Christianity was growing by about 40% per decade at this time. By that natural growth rate (similar to that later traced by Mormons), Stark argues, the success of Christianity was already a fate accompli:

"In fact, Constantine's conversion was, in part, the response of a politically astute man to what was soon to be an accomplished fact - the exponential wave of Christian growth had gathered immense height and weight by the time Constantine contended for the throne (One True God, 61)."

Capturing 10% of the "market" shows that a religion has "arrived." We know that before this time, Christianity had spread to almost all of the empire by this time - without force of any kind, but in the face of force.  By the natural growth pattern it had already established, even without state support, one could expect Christianity to surpass 50% of the population in the latter half of the 4th Century.

St. Augustine's conversion came under
no human compulsion.
While Christians did take matters into their own hands by forcibly destroying temples at times, for the most part conversion to Christianity during the 4th Century was by free will, not compulsion. (Read Augustine's Confessions, for example - St. Augustine converted as late as 386, in apparent freedom, having freely chosen among contemporary beliefs.) Occasional mob violence or state sanction do not constitute "conversion by the sword" on Carrier's own terms, as we have seen that he praises the ancient Romans, who engaged in both, for being quite different than and superior to Christians.

Theodosius I established "Catholic" Christianity as the state religion in 380.  In the 5th Century, the conformity of all, apart from Jews, was mandated and enforced. As we will see when I address Carrier's second claim, Stark and I agree that the vital impulse of Christianity largely died in this period.

Several of the most prominent 4th Century Christians were born into a Christian family: Ambrose, Gregory Nazianzus, (his father was converted not by the sword, but by his wife), Basil the Great and his many siblings, Jerome.

This is consistent with Stark's thesis that like Mormons today, much of the Christian increase came through larger families and better health care.  Others, like Augustine, came from a partially pagan background, and were converted after dallying with pagan philosophies: Theodore the Interpreter and John Chrysostom were both educated under the pagan Libanius and then chose the Christian faith -- again, not at the point of a sword.  Nor do their biographies seem to involve anyone who converted that way, as far as I know.

Sketchy as this is (let the reader continue this line of research as he or she pleases), this empirical evidence, from various parts of the empire, tells against the claim that the great numerical increase in Christians over the 4th Century came about primarily through military force. It agrees fully, however, with Stark's arguments.

In any case, what happened in the 4th Century is best described as "consolidation," not "spread" as we defined it. Christianity did not win the Roman Empire primarily by force, but by persuasion. As I pointed out, "spread" must refer to the transmission of a religion to a new politio-cultural entity, not to individual conversions, or consolidation. If we count individual conversions, then the early Christians will count for very little, compared to the billions of Christians in the modern world, and Carrier's argument will be rendered even less plausible!

(2) North African, West Asian Christians, 600-2009 

In the first centuries after Christ, as in European Rome, Christianity spread through missions, voluntarily. Some consolidating force was employed late in the Imperial era.

After the Islamic conquest, for the next 1400 years, Christianity in the Middle East was mostly transmitted from parents to children, rather than by military force. Thousands of Muslims become Christians today (especially in Algeria, Iran, Egypt), not only of their own free will, but in the face of often strong persecution.

(3) Chinese Christians, 624-2009 

The China Inland Mission founded this church in Dali,
among the Bai ethnic minority of Southwest China. 
Christianity spread to China in four main waves, and one or two smaller ones - all without military or police compulsion on anyone to convert. Nestorian Christianity spread peacefully, with some minor support at first, and some persecution later, from Chinese emperors. Catholicism spread peacefully, with some persecution from the government, in the 16th and 17th Centuries, until there were about 300,000 Catholics in China. In this case, European meddling and Chinese strong-arm tactics combined to undermine Christianity, keeping it from growing much after the "Rites Controversy" erupted in 1705.  So this is just the opposite of Carrier's thesis that "Christianity only truly flourished when it had the ability to eliminate the competition."  

In the 19th Century, Protestants entered China as a correlate of European imperialistic action against a weak Qing government. Missionaries did not, however, use force; in fact imperialism was a strong disincentive to conversion, making "yang jiao" or "foreign religion" very unpopular. It was in the face of persecution (ie, the Boxers, who killed tens of thousands of Christians in 1900, but all through the 19th Century) that Christianity spread.

In the 20th Century, both under the Nationalists, and far more under the Communists, Christianity was officially discouraged. It has been under persecution that the number of Christians in China has grown to some 70 million not "gua ming" or nominal Christians, but largely highly committed believers - the second or third largest number of any country, after the US and possibly Brazil.

(4) European Christians, 600-1800 The grassroots missions impulse having mostly died within Latin Christianity, the faith did however spread to northern Europe, and was then consolidated as the official religion. (And later, as dueling Catholic and Protestant official religions.)

Mass forcible conversions did occur during this period, including of the Saxons under Charlemagne, in the 8th Century. Joseph Fletcher, Professor of History at the University of York, notes however in The Barbarian Conversion, "It is a striking feature of the spread of Christianity to barbarian Europe that it was, before Saxony, so tranquil a process." Force was also employed on later occasions, among some Norse, Slavs, Finnish, and Baltic peoples. Other methods of transmission that seem to have been more important, however, were evangelism (St. Patrick, to the Irish) and the export of Christian wives to pagan kings. Of course the history of the Middle Ages was bloody, as Carrier remarks - as
are all histories. But the spread of Christianity in Europe can't be reduced to Charlemagne's religio-political campaigns. As Fletcher shows, the most common pattern was for a king to marry a Christian bride; the kingdom generally following his lead.

It's true that there often was an element of compulsion in the subsequent conversion of nobles and laity (also later, with the spread of Protestantism, and the Catholic reaction.) But it would be simplistic to say Christianity was mainly spread "by the sword" to Northern Europe - sometimes it was, more often it doesn't seem to have been.

Still, this period is probably the second-best case for Carrier's claim.

(5) Latin American Christo-Catholics, 1492-1900

This is probably Carrier's best argument for the "spread by the sword" hypothesis. The conquest of South and Central America by the Spanish and Portuguese was, beginning with Christopher Columbus himself, a bloody and terrible affair. What spread most quickly, though, was germs, wiping out much of the Indian population before they had the chance to be subjugated by Rome.

I am not a Latin expert, but it also seems a complex history of conversion.  Conquistadors did make Christianity a tool of oppression and conquest.  Colonists sometimes attacked the Jesuits, though, for defending Indians against their depredations. Slaves were sometimes baptized, perhaps against their will; at other times prevented from voluntarily becoming Christians voluntarily.

Whether or not Christianity (as opposed to colonialism) spread primarily by the sword over this region during this period, would require closer study than I have done. But Latin America seems like the best case for Carrier's claim, as clearly it sometimes did.

(6) European Christians, 1800-2009 

Ours has been an era of consolidation, revival, and a neo-pagan and secularist ("Enlightenment") backlash.  Christianity spread, to the extent it did, almost entirely by voluntary conversion. In Eastern Europe, Christianity spread in the face of communist suppression - most successfully in Poland, but also in other countries. (See, for example, the works of Richard Wurmbrand, George Weigel, and James Felak.) Solzhenitsyn's story of conversion was in some ways typical of the era - and was, of course, of his own free will.

(7) North American Christians, 1620-2009 

See any swords?
Christianity spread to North America primarily through immigration, education, and voluntary evangelism.  There may have been rare instances of force (mostly in the earliest years of this period, among small groups, and through schools in 20th Century Canada), but choice has been the overwhelming pattern. In fact, predominately Christian American and Canada have allowed far more freedom of conscience than did pagan Rome. Given that the US has had more Christians than any other country in the world over the past century and a half (probably some 900 million self-declared Christians altogether), the history of his own society should have given Carrier pause.

(8) African Christians, 1800-2009

Knowing that most of African was colonized by European powers, one might suppose the imperial powers spread their religion to the indigenous population by force.  In fact, they usually did not.

In 1900, as the tide of colonialism began fitfully to recede, there were only about 9 million Christians in Africa, including Copts and other small minorities in Muslim countries. Today there are over 400 million at least nominal Christians.  (For a total approaching perhaps a billion over the past century.) The vast majority have come to faith of their own free will, in response to missions.  (Sometimes in the face of persecution, as in Uganda under Idi Amin, Ethiopia, and in some tribes.)

(9) Latin Protestants, 1900-2009 

The number of Evangelical Christians grew from negligible in 1900, to some 60 million by 1997. (First Things, Pedro Morena, June / July 1997)  Few converts seem to have been zealous Catholics; most seem to have been religiously apathetic, or Christo-pagans. Few, if any, came to Christ "at the
point of the sword," or any other weapon.

(10) Indian Christians, 33 AD-2009 

Aside from the case of Goa, where Catholic inquisitors forced the mixed-race population to adopt Christianity, the vast majority of converts to Christianity in India came to faith of their free will.

Even during British rule, compulsion to Christian faith was seldom used; some were even persecuted for belief. Today, there are between 25 and 50 million Christians in India. The free spread of Christianity has worried some "Hindutva" fanatics to the point of persecution and other pressure on
Indians to abandon Christianity.

(11) Korean Christians, 1900-2009

Again, Korean converts adopted Christianity freely, not under compulsion.  Much of the conversion went on in the face of communist or Japanese oppression. Some 30% of South Koreans are Christian today, often zealous.

(12) Tribal Christians, 1900-2009 

Taiwan: About 12 tribes (Ami the largest) converted to Christianity, under no political compulsion.

China: Lisu, Lahu, Wa, Jingpo, some Yi, Miao, Bouyi, small groups of Dai, all converted freely, or in
the face of anti-Christian persecution.

Southeast Asia: Karen, Kachin, Lisu, Lahu, Wa, Hmong, all converted freely.

India: Naga, Mizo, other tribes in eastern states, Santal, Kholli mountain tribes, also converted freely.

New Guinea: millions of Christians among the Dani, Yali, and other tribes, became Christians without being forced to it.

Polynesians also adopted Christianity because they wanted to, not because missionaries threatened to
kill them if they didn't.

Tribes in North America have generally either adopted Christianity of their own free will, or not at all.  Some exceptions may be found among Indian children who were forced to go to Christian schools during the mid-20th Century.

Summary: So clearly, Richard Carrier and those who believe with him that Christianity has always or usually "spread by the sword" are just plain wrong.   Use of force has been the exception, not the rule.  Only in some parts of Latin America, and in some cases in Northern Europe, did Christianity
spread to new people groups primarily by force. In the vast majority of cases, peoples adopted Christianity because they wanted to.

The same is even more clearly true if we look at individual conversion, rather than the conversion of groups.

Furthermore, both of the periods in which force WAS an important means of "converting" people, occurred (1) long after the initial and defining spread of Christianity; and (2) after Christianity had become institutionally corrupt, in part for reasons worth considering.

So Does Christianity only succeed when it suppresses The Opposition?  

Now let us zero in on Carrier's claim that Christianity only thrives by violently suppressing other faiths.

Richard Carrier again provides the counterpoint:

"Marshall falsely claims `Christianity has always been strongest in a free market of faiths -- as in modern America, Korea, and even modern China.' Yet it is not "strong" in China or Korea (it is a minority in both countries), and even in America it claims only about 80% of the population.  Compare that to a rate of 95% and more in much of medieval Europe and all of early Spanish-controlled America, when one had to be Christian under pain of death or prison or dispossession or exile, then you'll understand the difference I am talking about: Christianity was strongest then, not now.

"Allowed to compete fairly in a free market, Christianity slowly washes out into a minority religion, or else must change radically to accommodate popular desires (which is why Catholicism is a minority now and losing ground in America, while most Christians are merely nominal, unable even to name the four Gospels, with nearly half now claiming Christianity is not the only path to eternal life, while secularism and other minority religions are growing, as they have done in Europe--slowly reversing the after-effects of an ages-long era of force and intimidation that really only ended in America with the demise of the McCarthy witch-hunts barely fifty years ago)."

Carrier’s arguments here are poorly informed and sometimes bizarre. Senator Joseph McCarthy’s career marked the high point of Christian “force and intimidation” in America?  Can he be serious?
Carrier seems to be conflating “Christians” with “everyone I don’t like.”

But as Rodney Stark shows in “Secularization, RIP,” citing a great deal of primary and secondary data, Medieval Europe was by nothing like "95 % Christian" in the sense Carrier defines the term here. ("Most Christians are merely nominal, unable even to name the four Gospels.")

Compare that to the CLERGY during the Middle Ages:

"In 1551 the Bishop of Gloucester systematically tested his DIOCESAN CLERGY. Of 311 PASTORS, 171 could not repeat the Ten Commandments, and 27 did not know the author of the Lord's Prayer." (my emphasis - DM)

"During the middle ages and during the Renaissance, the masses rarely entered a church, and their private worship was directed toward an array of spirits and supernatural agencies, only some of them recognizably Christian."

"In 1800, only 12 percent of the British population belonged to specific religious congregation. This rose to 17 percent in 1850 and then stabilized -the same percentage belonged in 1990."

"French Catholics today participate more willingly and frequently, with far greater comprehension of what they are doing, than was the case 200 years ago." (All from Stark, “Secularization, RIP”)

So by Carrier's own criteria, it is balderdash to claim that "95%" of Europeans were Christian before the Enlightenment, in some more significant sense than Americans are Christian today. Not even most MONKS could pass a simple test for biblical literacy in the Middle Ages, let alone ordinary folks! Church attendance was often quite nominal, with only a tiny fraction of the populace coming to church even once a year.

In fact, the percent of Americans who belong to a church, and who go to church, is far higher today than it was in the late 18th Century.

I live in one of the most secularized corner of the United States. Washington State has had the lowest church attendance rates in the country, and Seattle is worse.  Plus about 15% of the population is Asian.  Yet the Hartford Institute database lists more than three dozen "mega-churches," mostly (as I happen to know) vibrant, evangelical Christian churches with 1800 or more attendees a week, in the Seattle area alone.

And only a fraction of evangelicals go to mega-churches. And there are other kinds of Christians in the Seattle area, too, of course - Catholics, Orthodox, liberal Protestants.

To call Christianity "weak" in America is a secularist pipe-dream. And to say that about South Korea, where thousands meet for fervent prayer in the morning, or retreat to pray on mountains for days at a time, and has produced single churches numbering in the hundreds of thousands of worshipers, defies the imagination.

Christianity is thriving in huge swaths of the world today. Under no compulsion, tens of millions of Africans and Latin Americans will engage in fervent worship this coming Sunday.  Millions more will meet throughout China, praying with fervency, singing and bringing friends. Christians will
meet in huge mega-churches in Singapore, and then go out to eat in outdoor food courts, side-by-side with Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, and "freethinkers," as they call them there.

The freer the market, the better Christianity does. In fact, the problem with Europe is its state religions.

As Stark, one of the world's leading sociologists of religions, has demonstrated through decades of empirical research, monopoly religions lose their fervency:

"Christianity might have been far better served had Constantine's faith been pretended. For, in doing his best to serve Christianity, Constantine destroyed its most vital aspect: its dependence on mass volunteerism." (One True God, 61)

"From a popular mass movement, supported by member donations and run by amateurs and poorly paid clergy, under Constantine Christianity was transformed into an elite organization, lavishly funded by the state, and bestowing wealth and power on the clergy. Thereupon, church offices became highly sought by well-connected men, whose appointments greatly reduced the average Christian leader's level of dedication."

"The Christianity that triumphed over Rome was a mass social movement in a highly competitive environment. The Christianity that subsequently left most of Europe only nominally converted, at best, was an established, subsidized, state church that sought to extend itself, not through missionizing the population, but by baptizing kings . . . corruption and sloth as well as power struggles and enforced conformity, became prominent features of the Christian movement . . . Most of the evils associated with European Christianity since the middle of the 4th Century can be traced to establishment."

Stark traces that trend through the history of Europe to the modern day. (In our interview, he suggested that it is precisely the beginnings of competition in Europe that offers the most hope that Christianity will revive there.)

The atrophy of grass-roots fervor, and the corruption of the clergy by money and wealth, sent European Christianity into a long decline. There were still faithful Christians, but they were always a minority.  And they tended to come from the margins of society, like Francis of Assisi, or of the clergy, like Martin Luther.  Most Medieval "Christians" also could not read, the Bible was prohibited them, and they knew little about their supposed faith.

Carrier is simply displaying ignorance.  His claim that Christianity has "only truly flourished when it had the ability to eliminate the competition" is fine nonsense, and the near opposite of the truth.  In fact, Christianity thrives best in a free environment, with an open market of ideas. (Or even under some persecution.)  That’s how it arose, and that is how it spread in many cases.  It is no coincidence that the persecuting church was also a corrupt church, a "Christian" church in which church offices were for sale to the rich, but which had lost interest in world missions.

Friday, December 26, 2014

The Dharma, the Gospel, and Chinese Culture

I hope you enjoyed a Merry Christmas!  I'm only in the US for two more days, then return to China.  It's been a great holiday with family.  We went to see the tens of thousands of beautiful lights at the Bellevue Botanical Garden.  My brother Steve, who is dealing with a bout of cancer, was with the rest of us on Christmas Eve for a wonderful feast at my sister's house.  (Mom was in good spirits, and in powerful prayer mode.)  And then the three of us (our son John is in Japan) enjoyed a short hike to the Ice Cave on the Mountain Loop Road.  Since it is now winter, but avalanches have not yet begun, I dared to walk into the cave, and took a few pictures of the waterfall that feeds the other end of it.  

Over the past few days, I also found myself in a conversation among Christians about whether there is truth in Buddhism.  I referred people to an article I wrote many years ago for the Taiwan Missionary Journal, but not everyone was able to open it.  So I thought I would copy it here.  

"Blessing" on a pine tree, Fragrant Hills, a traditionally
Buddhist mountain outside of Beijing. Does Buddhism bring
This article was not written to directly answer that question.  Indeed, my audience was conservative Christians like myself, and my goal was to help them preach the Gospel in Taiwan!  But it should be obvious, in what follows, that I think there is quite a bit of good.  Of course, the word "Buddhism" is highly ambiguous: there are many forms of Buddhism, which sometimes seem to disagree more than they agree.  And in general, any religion can be defined: (1) by the life, teachings, and personality of its founder; (2) by its sacred texts or oral "canon;" or (3) by its developed tradition.  We don't know much about (1) for sure in the case of Buddhism, (2) is famously vast, and (3) is even broader, as we shall see.  So there is no solid "core" to Buddhism, but there is a great deal of mantle and crust, and all kinds of good things embedded within those layers -- especially if you are a Christian miner for precious metals.  (If you just want coal to darken the air, of course you can find plenty of that, too.)

Anyway, here's the article.  If I were to answer the question more directly, I think I would point to even more that is of value, and not necessarily in just an instrumental case.  (Only God fully knows ends from the beginnings, after all.)  

The Dharma, the Gospel, and Chinese Culture

1. Introduction

Popular Buddhist teacher Thich Naht Hanh has written movingly about what he
called "rootlessness," and the danger that conversion to religions from the outside might
separate people from their own cultural heritage. Young people in the modern world
are like "hungry ghosts," he noted, because they lack a sense of connection with
previous generations. "In our time, society is organized in such a way that we create
thousands of hungry ghosts every day. . . We have to help hungry ghosts to be less
hungry, to go back to their family and tradition, to be reintegrated." (Thich, 180-185)
In a related context, the Dalai Lama has warned against putting "a yak's head on a
sheep's body," confusing traditions that conflict. (Dalai Lama, 1996, 105)

The Christian is likely to argue, in response, that truth is more important than
tradition. Anyway, the world is becoming unified, whether we like it or not: isolation
is not longer an option. But the need for "rootedness" to one's traditions is intensely
felt by many Chinese, and is one of the primary reasons Chinese reject Christianity.
How can we as Christians show Chinese that we are not calling them to the life of a
hungry ghost or a mad science project? One of the great needs of our time is for a
culturally-transcendent ideal that saves local values, that integrates indigenous traditions
within a system of universal truth.

The purpose of this paper is to consider how Buddhism and Christianity root
themselves in the pattern of story, ritual, and symbol that is the Chinese culture. My
thesis is that while Buddhism appears more "Chinese" than Christianity, (a fact that is
partly our fault), Christian missions is, or should be, the solution both to the need for
rootedness, and for cultural transcendence. Both by tapping into the deepest truths
within every culture, and by unifying many aspects of tradition in one truth, The
Gospel, believe, affirms and fulfills Chinese culture in ways that no merely human
teaching could, that of Siddhartha Gautama being a case in point.

2. Three models of indigenization

In general, three fairly distinct models of relating a belief system  a new culture are available missionaries of all faiths. The first is to popularize the new belief by borrowing elements of native tradition that tend to transform the original belief. (syncretism)  For example, early Chinese Buddhists adopted the Chinese story of Miao Shan. Miao Shan was a virtuous young woman whose father resented her goodness and her refusal to marry his (highly dubious) choice of suitors. Martyred for her virtue, she descended into Yin Jian. But when her presence threatened to transform hell into
paradise, (a disaster in the eyes of the Powers-That-Be)she was expelled to the land of the living.  When her father became sick, she used her own eyes to create healing medicine for him.  By means of this story Buddhists (who identified Miao Shan with Guan Yin) adopted a Chinese commitment to filial piety that radically contrasts with the more negative attitude towards the family typical in early Buddhist literature.

Syncretism is like dropping a spoonful of food coloring in a pond. While it
may alter the tinge of the water, it does not radically disrupt the action of the ripples
on its surface, still less the chemical composition of the water as a whole.
 But what is added, is diluted. Myths adopted in order to make a foreign faith
more acceptable, overwhelm the core values of the faith itself. The Marxist myths of
Lei Feng in China, the adoption of bloody Tibetan gods by the Tantric Indian Buddhist
Phadmasambhava, and the substitution of a Guan Yin figure for Mary among hidden
Christians in the Goto islands of Japan, are examples of this process. When confronted
by new cultural challenges, all belief systems tend to undergo a similar metamorphosis.
A similar process of watering down has been blamed by some for the disappearance of
Nestorian Christianity between the Tang and Song dynasties in China. A number of
syncretistic new "Christian" cults have also appeared in mainland China recently that
join indigenous occult practices to a magical use of the Bible. (Bi, 1992, Lambert, 1992,

The second means of enculturalization is to describe new truths in familiar
language, underlining agreement between traditions, and translating beliefs into a new set
of icons. (contextualization) This is better from a Christian point of view. The Hebrew
name Yahweh was translated Elohim, Theos, then God, as faith crossed cultural borders,
without any necessary change in theology. Early Jesuits like Matteo Ricci were adept at such translation, though unfortunately they concentrated on the Confucian aristocracy,
to the neglect of popular tradition. Buddhism similarly adopted and retooled the Taoist
term Wu Wei to describe detachment. During the Song, Buddhist monks adapted literati
painting styles to promote Zen realization. The Buddhist monk Mu Qi's naturallistic yet
suggestively impressionistic paintings, such Mother and Baby Gibbon in a Tree and
Persimmons, evoked the universal in the familiar with stunning brilliance; they "point to
transcendance" yet "let the viewer know that all knowledge is but the foreground of
something deeper and greater," as the Catholic historian of Zen, Heinrich Dumoulin, put
it. Yet even while building artistically on established traditions, Mu Qi painted scenes
you might come across on any foggy day on the outskirts of Hangzhou.

The third and most radical, but typically Christian, method of enculturalization is
to take the simplest and most basic traditional expressions of spirituality, and describe
the "foreign" faith as a deepening or working out of meaning inherent in those icons or
myths. One traces the Gospel to the deepest roots of the culture, bringing out new life
and truth that, in retrospect, seemed latent in those roots from the beginning. Don
Richardson popularized and developed the term redemptive analogies to describe this
kind of insight.

This idea was not a novelty. As every attentive reader of the New Testament
knows, early Christians saw the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus as a fulfillment of
many aspects of the Jewish tradition: Passover, atonement sacrifice, Messianic prophecy,
the Exodus, episodes in the lives of Job, Joseph, Moses, and David. In addition, the
idea that Christianity came not to "do away with" non-Jewish cultures, but to "fulfill"
the best in them, is a persistent (if often overlooked)theme in the writings of Paul,
Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Augustine and other early church fathers. The ways in
which Christianity rooted itself even in "pagan" cultures still seem remarkable two
thousand years later, and help explain why Christianity caught on in Europe, Africa,
Polynesia, and parts of Asia. (See Chesterton, 1925, Richardson, 1981, Pelikan, 1985,
Marshall, 2000) Native peoples frequently saw the life of Jesus as a fulfillment of
ceremonies, myths, even prophecies, within their own cultures, rather than "yang jiao," as the Chinese put it, an alien and irrelevant set of dogmas.

 Clement, a second Century Christian philosopher, described Greek teachings as a "tutor" to bring the world to Christ. The various sects, he said, were not simply wrong.

In fact, "All are illuminated by the dawn of Light." Each held a fragment of the truth,
a piece of the puzzle that Christ, the Logos, had come to join. Just so, Chinese
culture has shattered the Dharma, and the Dharma has fractured Chinese culture, and the
Gospel joins these broken pieces of truth together.

2. The importance of indigenization

 Ireland is Catholic and Scotland is Presbyterian because England is Anglican, and
Poland is Catholic because her neighbors have been Orthodox, Lutheran, or Marxist.
The same dynamic influenced the form of Buddhism that caught on in China, in a way
that illustrates the challenge before us as Christians.

Two Tibetan Buddhists were given power in China under Kublai Khan: Sangha
as head of government, and Yang-Lien-chen-chia under him. Yang was a devote
Buddhist who expropriated Taoist temples, used forced labor to build more Buddhist
temples, and even dug up and desecrated the tombs of the Song emperors. (Rossabi, 16)
(These insults reflect, perhaps, the situation ethics of esoteric tantras like The
Symposium of Truth: "If for the good of living beings or from attachment to the
Buddha's interest, one seizes the wealth of others, one is not touched by sin."
(Snellgrove, 176)  One member of the Chinese sangha (Buddhist community) described Tibetan monks leaving palaces on horse-back, crowds of syncophants surrounding them, and likened their
"hautiness" to that of "kings and grandees." (Herbert Franke, 317)  Christian
missionaries, of course, have been known to "get on their high horses" in the same way,
resulting in the same combination of public deference and private contempt.

In the early 20th Century, coincidental with the fall of the Manchurian dynasty, a revival of esoteric Buddhism began, forwarded in part by the politically-motivated patronage of a number of Tibetan lamas, in part, by the efforts of the retired KMT general who took the name Neng Hai, and in part by the reformist measures of the monk Tai Xu. (Welch, 1968) As the roles once played by ruling Mongols and Manchus and their Tibetan confederates on the one side, and subject Han Chinese on
the other, have been reversed, esoteric Buddhism has become "cool.". A few people have joined new esoteric Chinese sects like True Buddha and Black Sect Tantra. The Daai Lama in particular (who has made efforts to reach out to the overseas Chinese community)and Tibetan Buddhism in general, have gained a lot of sympathy by their perseverance under hardship. A nun I interviewed in a Chinese Zen temple in Seattle lambasted the True Buddha sect, founded by Taiwanese Lu Shengyan, for its
non-vegetarian diet. "They can teach what they want, as long as they don't call it Buddhism." But when I pointed out that Tibetan Buddhists also eat meat, she quickly excused them by noting that since Tibet's climate made the growing of vegetables difficult, eating meat was permissible for Tibetans.

 Christianity is unpopular in many Asian countries not because Jesus is alien to
Asian people, (it is not)but because he is associated with an alien and powerful culture.
Christianity prospered in China best after the missionaries left. In countries like Taiwan,
where Christianity is still associated with Westerners, t is our responsibility as Christians
to get down off our high horses, to go the extra mile (on foot, if need be)to show
Christ in Chinese culture.

3. Buddhism became Chinese by attempting to reinvent the Gospel.

The story of the young prince who left his father's palace to seek enlightenment and end the sufferings of all sentient beings, is well-known.  Even evangelical Christians have testified to the psychological effectiveness of meditation and the training in mind and body Siddhartha taught. (Cathoway, 1976)  The doctrines of karma, reincarnation, impermanence, emptiness, "no self," and compassion in the Buddhist sense, and the Four Noble Truths -- the fact of suffering, its cause, and the details of Buddha's solution -- make for complex philosophy. Christians can affirm some of
Buddha' insights, sometimes with appropriate qualification -- the deceitfulness of riches; the impermanence of earthly pleasures, the need for renunciation to gain joy. Christian song writer Michael Card expressed the Buddha's feelings well when he sang, "It's hard to imagine the freedom we find, from the things we leave behind."

As is the habit of intellectuals who discover neglected truth, however, I believe Siddhartha oversimplified. All is impermanent? (Even God?) Selfish desire is harmful? (What desires, precisely, are helpful, then, and under what conditions?)  Passion is an obstacle to happiness? (The sutra Defeat, part of the early monastic rule for Buddhist monks, punishes sex between married partners exactly the same as the ugliest perversion.  Is passion, then, equally culpable in all situations?)  The history of Buddhism is a grand quest to right the balance, to redeem good things too dogmatically rejected, and
rediscover subtleties overlooked. Buddhism adapted itself to the Chinese "market" by adopting ideas that are absent from, or even antithetical to, the teachings of Siddhartha -- but not to Christianity.

Mahayana Buddhism and Divine Grace

Buddha, influenced perhaps by the new Advetic doctrine of an impersonal and
remote Brahma, did not speak of God. He warned against relying on any savior but
the self. "Raise yourself by your own efforts, O bhikshu; be your own critic. . . Be
your own master and protector." (Dharmmapada, Chapter 25)  F. N. Farquhar noted that
while Advetic and Buddhist philosophy spoke of an impersonal ultimate reality, Indians
quickly reacted against this doctrine. The new doctrine of divine incarnation:

"Found its way (into) almost every division of the Hindu people, and into every
corner of Eastern Asia. . . . Nor can there be any doubt as to what element in
the doctrine it is that has given the movement its power: it is the belief that
God actually appeared as a man, was born, and lived and died among men." (Farquhar, 1913)

 For thousands of years, Chinese hoped for a Savior -- "Sheng Ren," Confucius
called him. For Mahayana, the revised form of Buddhism that caught on in China, this
impulse was expressed in the doctrine of Boddhisattvas. Buddhist thinker C. N. Tay explains:

"The Lotus states in moving dramatic terms that Kuan-yin protects merchants bearing precious jewels from robbers, sailors from shipwreck, criminals from execution. By his help women obtain the children they desire. If one thinks of Kuan-yin, fire ceases to burn, swords fall to pieces, enemies become kindhearted, bonds are loosed . . . beasts flee, and snakes lose their poison." (Tay, 35)

The educated Buddhist, Tay believed, should interpret these tales as "iconographic
possibilities," poetic images by which a Buddhist stilled his fears and reconciled himself
to trouble, rather than an objectively existing being who solves them. But he admitted
most Chinese wanted a Savior who was more than a metaphor.

Guan Yin became the most popular goddess in China. She was the Heavenly
Queen who conquered the Monkey King, and having conquered him, made him a loyal
vassal. Her figure adorned hot springs, fishing harbors, and temples. She rescued
drowning fishermen, it was said, blunt the blows of swords, and turned bad men to
good. Her thousand raised arms symbolized the common people felt for a salvation
that they knew could only come from outside themselves, despite orthodox Buddhist
beliefs to the contrary.

Buddhists themselves see the connection between this lovely myth and Jesus.
The Dalai Lama called Jesus "either a fully enlightened being, or a bodhisattva of very
high spiritual realization." (Dalai Lama, 2000) Christian missions transformed Asia by
copying the acts of healing, mercy, and teaching modeled by Jesus. (see Marshall, 2000)
As early as the late 16th Century, Japanese shogun Nobunaga noted with concern the
contrast between Buddhism and Christianity on this score:

"The methods (of the foreign temple)are very peculiar. In Buddhism,
contributions are made to the temples; but who ever heard of a temple that gave
alms to the people. This new religion is gaining too much influence over
peoples' hearts. I am considering the question whether it would not be better to
destroy the temple and send the barbarians home." (Cary, 249)

The Dalai Lama (1990, 190)and D. T. Suzuki (Calloway, 147-8) suggest, by contrast, that Buddhists reinterpret compassion in response. Buddhist charitable organizations like Ci Ji multiply the affect of the impact of Jesus' example by their competition in good deeds.

The stories of Jesus have two qualities distinct from those of Guan Yin that should recommend them to Chinese. First, Chinese share with the Jews a concern for historicity. (Confucius: "I can describe the customs of the Yin, but lack enough data on the Song to describe them." (Analects 3-IX) The stories of incarnations in the Indian tradition, or of Guan Yin in Chinese legend, do not fit Confucius' criteria for a flesh and blood Sheng Ren who brings tangible help, or for any honest person's need to
go beyond myths to empirical reality.

The White Lotus Sect and Revolution

 Another advantage of the Gospel, odd as it may sound, is its intolerance.

While occasional Buddhist sects like Bai Lian (White Lotus) preached rebellion, or (more often, perhaps)were accused of preaching it, Buddhism never succeeded in grass-roots social transformation in China. Since the time of Mo Zi, a radical critique of social injustice has, on the other hand, often been linked to theism. Mozi, the first Chinese egalitarian, believed that love of man followed from the fact that God is love.

Zhu Yuanzhang, the revolutionary founder of the Ming, built a Temple of Heaven in Nanjing, and his son built the present Temple of Heaven in Beijing, the center of the worship of the Supreme God. The reformist Tai Ping rebels saw themselves as returning China to its ancient worship of "Huang Shang Di." Even the rebels of the Water Margin received a stone from Heaven as an emblem of their brotherhood and righteous cause. In modern China, Christianity continued this tradition. A high percent age of early revolutionaries against the Qing were Christians (Gu Weiming, 1996), as
were, of course, Sun Yat-sen, Jiang Jieshi, and Li Denghui. A joint confession of faith between four major Chinese house church groups in November of 1998 stated that "We are opposed to the unity of Church and state or the intermingling of the Church and political power," (Lambert, 1999) The loyal independance of mainland Christians to church and state suggests the hope that the Church may serve China as the basis of a healthy civil society.

At best, early Buddhism called for rulers to be "compassionate." (Ashoka was an outstanding example of one who took that advice.)  But if all things are appearances, and equally a reflection of the one reality, why struggle to free the oppressed? It is hard to see how monism can serve as the basis for social reform, and easy to see how it can justify oppression.

Buddhist scholar Dharmachari Jhanavira described a Japanese monastic system of
what could only be called institutional child abuse. He seemed to regret that "the
present configeration of sexuality" in the West makes the hope of reestablishing such a
system "inconceivable." Quoting from the Dhammapada, he portrayed the lack of an
absolute moral standard in Buddhism as an advantage:

"The deed which causes remorse afterward and results in weeping is ill-done.  The deed which causes no remorse afterwards and results in joy and happiness is well done. . . ' Motivations were skillful or unskillful, not in relation to a Creator deity's designer realistic agenda, but in terms of the degree to which they resulted in a lessening of desire." (Jhanavira, 2001)

 As Jhanavira rightly noted, the anger with which Catholic priests raled against
perversion among Japanese monks underlines the differing assumptions of Buddha and
Christ. While Buddhists use the term "compassion," the meaning they attach to it is
the monist intuition that beings are not, after all, distinct. Thus Buddhist liberation,
like Marxist, was largely a matter of definition. The Diamond Sutra describes the role
of a Bodhisattva as follows:

"All the bodhisattva-mahasattvas, who undertake the practice of meditation, should cherish one thought only: 'When I attain perfect wisdom, I will liberate all sentient beings in every realm ofthe universe, whether they be egg-born, wombborn, those without form, those with perception, those without perception, and those with neither perception nor non-perception. . . And yet although immeasurable, innumerable, and unlimited beings have been liberated, truly no being has been liberated. Why? Because no bodhisattva who is a true bodhisattva entertains such concepts as a self, a person, a being, or a living soul.  Thus there are no sentient beings to be liberated and no self to attain perfect wisdom." (Mo Soeng, 142)

If this is the case, then when confronted with injustice, better to react not with
anger (like Jesus in the temple), but by meditation.  Christians, by contrast, do indeed
see the righting of wrongs as part of the Creator's "agenda." Jhanavira might not
approve, but I think Confucius would have.

Perhaps the tolerance of Buddhism also obstructed spiritual liberation. One of
the founding myths of Tibetan Buddhism is the story of how Phadmasambhava defeated
the demons of Tibet -- and then having defeated them, made vassals of them. The
autobiography of the Dalai Lama's mother, Diki Tsering, suggests that this approach did
not solve the problem. She describes her experiences with a type of ghost called
"kyirong," to which she attributed the deaths of four of her children, and which she
called "the most frightening experience of my life." (Tsering, 54) Such experiences seem
miles away from, and strangely irrelevent to, the philosophical writings of her most
famous son. But both from the Dalai Lama's description of the state oracle, and from
watching the thing itself on video, I see little difference between Tibetan Buddhism
oracles, and spirit mediums (tang ki)in Taiwanese folk religion. Both practices suggest
compromise or even collusion with the powers of evil, rather than the kind of victory
over them that we are in need of.

Tantra and the Art of Love

 Buddha showed little sympathy for the family. Jhanavira admits that Buddhism
came into sharp conflict with East Asian cultures due to its disinterest in procreation, "
which was, after all, seen as the mechanism whereby beings were chained to a constant
round of rebirth."

In 1996, after a retreat at a temple in Puli, forty young people decided to stay and become nuns. After scenes of parents falling on their knees and begging their children to come home were broadcast on television, an interesting editorial appeared in Freedom Times, noting that such conflicts had increased over the past few decades among "educated young Buddhists." (As the Chinese community in Taiwan has urbanized, and Taiwanese have come to have more in common with Siddhartha, a move towards more orthodox Buddhism has occured. (Laliberte) The editorial pointed out:

"In the value system most people hold to, leaving your family is a serious violation of
the natural human order." 

But at the same time,

"People shouldn't forget that the principle teacher of Buddhism, Siddhartha, himself was a man who, abandoning his wife, escaped from the palace of his father in the middle of the night." 

Buddha also used 'magical powers' to prevent a worried father from meeting his son. Caught between
respect for Buddhism and tradition, the editorialist gave the former a typically Chinese

"The final purpose of Buddhism is to mitigate human suffering. If practitioners
begin by making a lot of people suffer, isn't this a betrayal of the original purpose of
the founders of Buddhism?"

Note the words, "People shouldn't forget." Why should such a reminder be necessary in a country where most people call themselves Buddhist? Precisely because, in embracing Buddhism, China did choose to forget this aspect of Buddhist teachings.

But in recent years, Taiwan has attained a measure of Siddhartha's own prosperity, with MTV for dancing girls and BMWs for elephants, to the point that even middle class teenagers can despise (like the American Baby Boom generation in the Sixties)the emptiness of material pursuits and the "grasping" tendencies of parents who grew up in a poorer and "less enlightened" Taiwan.  Education, urbanization, and prosperity all weaken family ties, leading to the popularity (for the first time?)of something that resembles orthodox Buddhism.

 Jhanavira admitted that Buddhism "did not validate women as mothers," nor at all, for that matter, but saw them as inferior and degraded beings. Tantrism represented a deliberate, but extreme, reaction to Buddhism's radical rejection of sex -- the idea that sexual union could be a psychic shortcut to enlightenment. But the Chinese, schooled by Confucianism to value modesty, were turned off by the ritual antics of Tibetan monks. The Gospel affirms the tantric idea that sex could be a symbol of union between the individual and God. But it defines that union in terms of the loyalty,
fidelity, and monogamy that Chinese traditionally valued, rather than momentary bliss between person of no permanent "attachments." The Christian concept of marriage as an image of Christ and the church thus bridges two traditions, the esoteric Buddhist and the Confucian, that are otherwise separated by a deep chasm.

Unlike Buddha, Jesus did preach an absolute moral standard. Christianity does
not merely affirm the family, but deepens the concept of what family loyalty means
(Marshall, 1996). Christ's standard, and the subversively respectful way Jesus treated
women, is why, as the famous Chinese scholar and reformer, Hu Shih, admitted, the
Gospel achieved what Confucianism and Buddhism had not for Chinese women:

"'Let women serve as oxen and horses.' This saying is not sufficient to describe
the cruelty and meanness with which Chinese have treated women. . . . Our holy
 Scriptures were of no saving value. . . Suddenly from the West a band of
missionaries arrived. Besides preaching, they also brought new customs and new
ways of looking at things. They taught us many things, the greatest of which
was to look at women as people." (Gu Weiming, 313)

Zen and the Kingdom of God

 Reginald Blyth notes that, in Indian literature, "Zen is painfully absent." The riddles of Zhuang Zi and the paradoxes of Lao Zi introduced an element into Chinese tradition that would be developed in Zen -- and in Christ. Kenneth Leong called Jesus "One of the greatest Zen teachers." (Leong, 32)

 "In contrast to the teachings of many Buddhist philosophers who are often caught
 up with abstractions and abstruse metaphysics, Jesus' teachings are poetic and not
 pedantic, simple and not laborious, intuitive and not analytical, humorous and not
 stodgy." (41)

Leong was particularly attracted to such sayings as that to enter the Kingdom of
God, one must become as a child.

One attraction of Zen is that it allows many practitioners to see, as we seldom
take the time to see after childhood, the beauty of a flower or a bird.  A Zen
expressed this state of mind by saying he wanted to "give thanks to all things."  This
brings to mind the suggestion of one of C. S. Lewis' characters that a misplaced
preposition was responsible for what was wrong with the world.  We would say no,
give thanks for all things -- having found Someone to give thanks to.

Zen was also practical in a Chinese way.  T. S. Elliot notes that, in contrast
with upper-class Greek (and, one might add, Brahminic) thinking, that depended on slave
owning or caste priviliges, Christianity affirmed the nobility of labor. (Elliot, 126)  So
Zen, in its own way, affirmed that, "In the chopping of wood and the carrying of water,
there lies the wonderful Tao."

Lao Zi, the founder of the Chinese tradition that led to Zen, noted, "A Sage . . .
abandons his life and so preserves his life. Is it not through this lack of selfishness
that his amibitions will be realized?" (Lao Zi, 7)) Christianity twice tried to win China
through strength (gunboat diplomacy, and the Tai Ping rebellion). But only when the
Gospel was stamped out, that it took root. Christianity fulfills the best in Zen in part
because Jesus teaches us in Zen fashion, but even more, because at the heart of the
Gospel is the paradox of ultimate strength made perfect through weakness. The
ultimate riddle of divine love is Christ on the cross.

Buddha saw no need for sacrifice. This is probably not because (as Huston Smith seems to imply)sacrifice was unknown to him; in fact, the Rig Veda, the most ancient collection of Indian Scriptures, is almost an anthology of the purposes and means of sacrifice.  Almost three thousand years ago, Buddha and the mystics who wrote the Upanishads recoiled from the slaughter of animals.  Yet three millennia later, when Gandhi visited the temple of Kali in Calcutta, he had to call again for an end to it.  He wrote, thinking of the Buddha,

"To my mind the life of a lamb is no less precious than that of a human being. . . It is my constant prayer that there may be born on earth some great spirit. .. who will deliver us from this henious sin, save the lives of the innocent creatures, and purify the temple." (Gandhi, 208)

 Yet even today, Chinese and Indians both sacrifice, and Indians try to wash their
sins away in the Ganges River.  Perhaps it was precisely the unwillingness to
differentiate between animals and humans, and the tendency among intellectuals to
denigrate this need we all share for unmerited grace, that rendered the example of the
Buddha, and the pleas of Hindus like Gandhi, ineffective.  French sociologist Rene
Girard notes that, in societies around the world, a "scapegoat" serves as a means of
allowing regeneration of society by the catharsis of transferred recrimination.  The death
 of Jesus both punctured the unjust illusions of society, (placing the blame on the
"winners", where it belonged) and also served as the means by which God turned the
devil's own weapon against him. (Girard, 1996)  Buddha never ended sacrifices in China
because he did not understand them: the awesome imperial ceremonies on the summit of
Mount Tai that stretch back through Qing to Tang to Han, and is lost in the mist of
pre-Confucian legend, the annual sacrifice at the Temple of Heaven, or the display of
pigs in a village temple at New Year. Jesus, who saw one man as worth more than
many doves, pigs, or lambs, nevertheless put an end to animal sacrifice. Gandhi's
prayer for the lambs was answered before his birth but by the "Lamb of God, who
takes away the sins of the world." As in so many other ways, Christ did not put a
full stop to ancient practice, did not simply abolish the Law and the Prophets, but
brought them to a natural and redemptive fulfillment.

Buddhism and the Pure Land

Like John Lennon, Siddhartha imagined a world without heaven. Buddhism was
part of the Upanishadic reaction against the ancient Indian desire to, as expressed in the
Rig Veda, "Unite with the fathers, with Yama, with the rewards of your sacrifices and
good deeds, in the highest heaven." (Rig Veda, 44) I once asked a young Dai
restaurant owner, the walls of whose restaurant were decorated with pictures of monks
and other signs of Buddhist piety, about his faith. "What do you see as the most
important aspect of Buddhism?" I asked. "When you die, you go to heaven," he replied. "If a child goes to be a monk, he can save his whole family to go to heaven and escape hell. It's like Chinese serving as soldiers." Such misconceptions, common even among Theraveda Buddhists, show how contrary to human desire the Buddhist idea of nirvana as "snuffing out of the candle" is. The most popular form of Buddhism in China is Pure Land, which encourages hope not for cessation of desire, but for its fulfillment.

I think there is a lot we can (re)learn from the various Buddhist traditions. The emptiness of material obsessions. The concept of presence: that now is the moment of salvation, or of happiness. To use truth as a lure, rather than a harpoon, like Jesus and other Zen "fishers of men." Spontaneity. To see Creation in a grain of sand, a carp, a persimmon. (If creativity is a hallmark of Zen, then what is more Zen than the "ordinary magic" of nature?)  Not to be shocked by chickens in the temple, exorcisms,
or millenial cults, but to point through the honest needs that they express to their fulfillment in the Gospel. The art of adapting expressions of the truth to local conditions. (Contextualization, not syncretism.)

The history of Buddhism in China has been a gradual re-affirmation of truths in Chinese culture that point to Christ: God, heaven, redemptive sacrifice, the sanctity of marriage, the hunger for justice, patriotism, the hope for a Savior.  Huston Smith notes,

"This religion which began as a sharp revolt against ritual, speculation, grace, mystery,
 and a personal God . . . ended with all of these brought back in abundance." (Smith,

Indeed, item by item, China tried to invent the Gospel from scratch, as if to whittle a cross from a bodhi tree.

What would be more ironic and wrong-headed, then, than for us to see Buddhism as Chinese religion and Christianity as a foreign interloper?  When we draw analogies between Christianity and Chinese culture, we're not pulling the wool (sheep or yak) over peoples' eyes, we're pulling it off so they can see what was there all along.  When we say Buddhism became Chinese, in general we mean China created a syncretistic belief system that it called Buddhism.  Buddhist thinkers also worked to
contextualize, but those efforts bore less fruit, I think, because the doctrines of Buddhism, rightly understood, were fundamentally out of sync with Chinese Culture.

Syncretism permitted the rapid spread of something that often had only the most tenuous relationship, or none at all, to what Siddhartha taught.  This is true of many forms of Buddhism. All the branches of Buddhism compromised with indigenous culture, and with human nature, in their efforts to win China, and became something radically new, and often richer, in the process. This is true of Vajrayana among the Tibetans, Theraveda among the Dai, and Mahayana among the Han Chinese.

While Chinese may sip coffee at Starbucks or eat burgers at Mcdonalds, the modernization of China creates a deep longing for "soul food," for roots, for connection to one's past. Buddhist and Taoist temples remain as ornate bastions of Chinese culture and of ethnic identity. It is assumed, on the other hand, that "yang jiao" (as 80% of Taiwanese identified Christianity in a poll I took about ten years ago) cannot be performed apart from suits and ties, wooden pews, organs, 19th Century English hymns, and other symbols of Western Culture. White statues of Mary outside Catholic churches in Taiwan look like Guan Yin or Ma Zu, only with a Western nose. Many pastors sprinkle English or Greek into their sermons to remind their congregations of their esoteric knowledge of the divine (Western)tongues. With each word, with each hymn, a wedge is driven between Chinese culture and the Gospel.

When people say "Buddhism is Chinese," to a large extent this is because Buddhism has become Chinese, watered itself down, in other words. When we say,"Christianity should become Chinese," we should mean, on the contrary, "The church needs to become more like Christ, and in being more Christ-like, it will become more Chinese."

It is our job, as Christians who care about China, to do in Asia what Clement, Origen, and Augustine accomplished in the Mediterranean world: to show Christ as the fulfillment of truths already known, and thus the basis for a synthesis and radical new unity between the best in Chinese culture. In so doing, the roots of the Gospel spread to China's glorious past, and provide nourishment for a tree of life that, God willing, in the future will give shelter to many good things, and in giving them shelter, join China into a new and organic community of truth.

On recent visits to Taiwan and Mainland China, I seem to notice more signs of Christians relating their faith to its roots in Chinese culture, both in terms of contextualization and of fulfillment. I saw some Spring Festival couples (Chun Lian) with Christian messages on doorposts in urban Taipei and rural Wenzhou. A professor gave me recordings of Hakka Christians songs he made. The Discovery in Genesis books, which trace latent Christian meanings in Chinese characters, seem popular too.
In mainland China, I've visited churches that use Spring Festival couplets, Chinese rock gardens, and folk art to communicate the Gospel.  All of these are an aid to communicating our central message: of the Tao become flesh, who lived among us, and calls all men and women to Himself, that the will of God may be done "On earth, as it is in heaven."

Bibliography (English)

Tucker Calloway, Zen Way, Jesus Way (Tokyo: Charles E. Tuttle Co., 1976)
G. K. Chesterton, The Everlasting Man (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1993)
Dhammapada, translated by Eknath Easwaran, (Tomales, California: Nilgiri Press, 1985)
T. S. Elliot, "Virgil and the Christian World," from On Poetry and Poets, (London: Faber,
Mohatmas Gandhi, Autobiography: The Story of My Experiments with Truth (New York: Dover Publications, 1983)
Andre Laliberte, From Corporatism to Pluralism: the Role of the Sangha in the Growth
 of Civil Society in Taiwan; unpublished at the time of reading.
Dalai Lama, Freedom in Exile: The Autobiography of the Dalai Lama (New York: Harp
er Perennial, 1990)
Dalai Lama, The Good Heart: A Buddhist Perspective on the Teachings of Jesus (Bosto
n: Wisdom Publications, 1996)
Dalai Lama Newsweek, March 27, 2000, "The Karma of the Gospel"
Herbert Franke, China Under Mongol Rule
Rene Girard, First Things, April 1996
Dharmachari Jhanavira Western Buddhist Review, V.3 "Homosexuality in the Japanese Tradition"
Tony Lambert, China's Christian Millions: The Costly Revival (London: Monarch Publish
ing, 1999)
Tony Lambert, Global Chinese Ministries OMF International, December 1997-January 19
Tony Lambert, China Insight, November-December 1992
Kenneth Leong, The Zen Teachings of Jesus (New York: Crossway, 2001)
Lao Zi, Dao Dejing
David Marshall, True Son of Heaven: How Jesus Fulfills the Chinese Culture (Seattle:
Kuai Mu Press, 1996)
David Marshall, Jesus and the Relgions of Man (Seattle: Kuai Mu Press, 2000)
David Marshall, "Gospel Art in Mainland China and the Sinofication of Christianity: Notes from Four Churches," Siebold University Journal, 2000
Jaroslav Pelikan, Jesus Through the Centuries: His Place in the History of Culture (New York: Harper and Row, 1985)
Huston Smith, The Religions of Man (now titled: World Religions) (New York: Harper and Row, 1958)
Mu Soeng, The Diamond Sutra (Boston: Wisdom Publications: 2000)
Donald Snellgrove, Indo-Tibetan Buddhism, 176
Diki Tsering, Dalai Lama, My Son, (New York: Penguin Books, 2000)
Holmes Welch, The Buddhist Revival in China, Cambridge, MA, 1968


Bi Dan, 受望中華, May-June 1997
遠志明、老子vs。聖経  (台北:1997, 宇宙光
(顧卫 民, 基督教与中国社会, Peoples' Publishing Co. 1996,
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中国与教会, November-December 1992


C. N. Tay ( 僧) Kuan Yin: The Cult of Half Asia 観音ーー半個亜州的信仰 (Taipei: Tsai Tuan Fa Ren Hui Lu Publishing Company, 1987)

(Ironically, considering its pacifist reputation today, from the Tang dynasty on, one of the most attractive things about esoteric Buddhism has often been the magical military powers it offered. The Nationalists "recalled that when the Mongols tried to invade Japan in 1281, the Japanese had recited a mantra from the Jen-wang hu-kuo ching." (Scripture for Protecting the Nation.)  (Holmes, 175))