Tuesday, October 25, 2011

How Religion Poisons Everything

Except most things

Jinan, the capital city of Shandong Province north of Shanghai, was everything I remembered -- drab, grey, dreary (well it was dampish), flat, wearisome, more like the picture of hell in C. S. Lewis' Great Divorce than a mortal city should. A few newer apartments reflected the trend towards gentrification all around China -- cleaner and more nicely painted high rises, a small number of planned communities -- but fewer than usual, and the apartments looking a lot like rows of wispy cottonwood trees on the outskirts of the city, only without any green leaves rustling in the breeze. Not a single beautiful building was visible from the train, and very little that gave reign to the human instinct for creativity.

Then we passed a church, a stone's throw from the tracks. "Christian Church," is all the sign said. Simple architecture, the cross glowing in the morning twilight, a peaked roof that reached for, and did not ignore, the sky.

If a Martian visited Jinan, and saw only what I saw (no doubt there are better sights once one gets off the train), he would say whatever force created that building was all that tried to give life to that end of the city. No doubt if he saw a Buddhist temple or a Muslim mosque, he would say the same.

Indeed, while Korean cities are more lively, especially the newer brick homes with their nice compromise between straight edge and curve, the churches that pop up like mushrooms everywhere (one sometimes sees four or five in a single block) are still the most beautiful buildings.

The Martian probably wouldn't know, not speaking the language or having access to the history, the efforts Timothy Richard made in the same province to save the starving during a famine. Nor would he likely be aware of John Nevius, whose ideas about self-sustaining churches did much to get the Korean church off to the right start, and who introduced all manner of fruit to Shandong Province, giving farmers more produce for their labor, and the people better food. He might also be unaware (like our New Atheists) of the thousands of schools and hospitals founded by missionaries (I stayed last night in Shanxi University, which was founded by Richard with indemnity money after the Boxer Rebellion). And having failed to do his homework before his visit to earth, he might not have known that Richard also pushed for trains to Shanxi Province, to stave off an even more severe famine a few years later. (Donkey simply couldn't bring enough stores over the mountains to the drought-stricken province.)

Just looking around this one city, and gazing at that one building, I fancy our hypothetical Martian (so put upon in pushing lesser causes), would say,

"I don't know what ruined this city. But whatever built that building, is its greatest aesthetic hope."

It might be unfair to blame the modernist uniformity of so many Chinese cities, and the destruction of charming old architecture, on the militaristic material philosophy of those who did the destroying. Though Tokyo, where religion is also kept to a bare minimum, is also filled with functional monstrosities, and Shinto shrines are a grace, if not a saving grace. But there are few stronger proofs of the harm of looking at man as purely material beings, than a simple walk around one of these cities. Some have, admittedly, been better preserved, and some new architecture is nicer, in Shanghai and Hong Kong, for instances.

But Hitchens needs to get out, more.

Other notes from China, beginning from the port of Weihai where we landed:

* I was a little afraid of Weihai, since the last time I came here, maybe fifteen years ago, some men seemed to want to mug me.

Weihai looked more developed from the water -- buildings with Mediterranean style red tile roofs rise from the harbor in neat encircling rows, interspersed by attractive skyscrapers.

The town of about 450,000 is far enough out in the boonies that sometimes I was treated like a bit of a movie star. Two young women at KFC wanted to have their picture taken with me, and did. When I stopped to eat at a Muslim noodle shop, four or five young men surrounded me and asked friendly questions while I ate. The food was delicious -- Xinjiang noodles, thick, thick noodles like stroganoff with a bunch of mildly crunchy vegies and beef in a spicy red sauce, and a nice little soup on the side. The owner asked me if I had a US dollar, and when I showed one to him, he insisted I pay for my meal with it! I assuaged my slight guilt feelings by adding one of those state memorial quarters into the bargain. Neither politics nor religion came up, though there was a full-wall tile picture of the mosque in Xining on the far wall.

* Strange to think the "shortened" name for Shandong Province, Lu, is a Chinese character that Confucius would recognize on car license plates, were he to return. Lu was the name of his own state, founded by one of the original Zhou Dynasty relatives -- never large in size, but prestigious for its royal associations. "So, Lu has survived another 2500 years after my death!" He might think. "Some sage king must have adopted my teachings, after all!"

* It began to mist, then rain. I caught the evening train in the direction of Beijing, to the obscure town of Dezhou, still in Shandong Province.
Worse than usual sleeping, maybe two hours. Two of the five people in the six-bunk alcove were serious snoorers. (Two well-fed men.) LIttle conversation, it being time to sleep. The former soldier in the top bunk tried flirting with the girl in the bunk across from him. Bad form. He was a sharp-looking fellow, but after a little conversation, she turned her back on him. In the morning, I caught a glimpse on his screen of a mouse, then Tom Hanks and prison bars -- The Green Mile!

* The sun came out. I got off the train, got some breakfast -- three delicious Baozi of different kinds, a friend egg and fruit juice -- and caught a bus to Tai Yuan, the capital of Shanxi, one of my main destinations. A couple taxi drivers tried to rip me off, and I slammed the door on one with an angry English word. The next taxi driver was above-board, and gave me a city map, even refused a tip.

* A young professor at ShanXi University is my host. He doesn't have much teaching to do, and will help me with the final bit of research necessary for my doctorate. We worked on a survey I am doing last night, and that's the plan for today.

* First impressions of Tai Yuan: Fairly Big. Easy to understand their dialect of Chinese, which is pretty standard. Bad air: you can see it like an enveloping swamp, coming down from the mountains into the city. (On the way, saw lots of old stucco houses with flat roofs in among the hills, with corn drying on the roofs.) Very conservative, my host says -- they had 29 departments at the University when Richard was here, and they still have 29 departments.

* This is also the city where the Boxer governor had over a hundred missionaries beheaded. Despite the good works of Richard, David Hill, Gladyl Aylward, and the like, the attitude has apparently changed only in degree since then.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Korea proves full of nice people.

After the Night of the Drunks, I wasn't optimistic about my short stay in Korea.  For one thing, where would I stay? (I had tried to make contacts before I came, but without success.)

I decided to gamble on my one, thin relationship in the country: a brief e-mail exchange with the Dean (or something) at a graduate school for missions and / or ministry in South Seoul.  So I packed up my backpack full of books, made my little suitcase as light as possible (the perpendicular vector of its force on muscles already carrying a heavy load hurts more than the straight downward push of dead weight), and set out for Seoul.

The express train was almost empty, maybe about ten people on the whole thing.  The girl who took our tickets wasn't occupied, so I tried to catch her attention and learn a few words of Korean along the way.  She didn't even turn her head, deeply engrossed in her entertainment box. 

This, it turns out, is how most young people in Korea occupy their time on trains: movies and games on little screens.  Gone are almost all of the books and newspapers one used to see.

We glided over the island where the Incheon airport is located, and which still hosts a little agriculture as well, and out over the vast mud flats that the communists trusted in to protect them, underestimating Douglas MacArthur.  I noticed little mud canyons with water at the bottom, and mud uplands about six feet higher, on and on for miles -- what a place to land with heavy weapons, and artillery heading your way! 

I changed trains at Seoul station, then again, and dragged my luggage, lugged my draggage, down bumpy sidewalks for about a kilometer, turning a couple times, and found myself at Torch Trinity Graduate School. 

It's a remarkable institution.  The main buildings appear to rise about four or five stories above both sides of a wide stairways ascending a little hill.  In reality, most of the buildings are connected underground, with maybe another 4 or 5 floors of dining halls, cafeteria, classrooms, offices, below ground.  Rooms are named things like "Faith Hall," "Joy Hall," etc, the purpose of the room apparently fitting its title. 

The school is half in Korean, half in English.  Students are recruited from around the world, and also from Korea.

It turned out that was the day for Open House: 2-5 for Koreans, 4-7 for internationals, with the overlap being a public meeting with skits and a welcoming, vision-type sermon. 

The Dean was in.  She was busy preparing for the Open House, but kindly gave her unforseen visitor fifteen minutes.  She mentioned a guest house, which turned out to be part of the complex, and arranged to allow me to stay there. 

Blessed be, no drunks!  Trees, a well-stocked library with this very computer (and comrades), friendly mission students, inexpensive meals.  In the two days I've been here, I've met students from Pakistan (she introduced me to the missions prof), the Ukraine, Kenya, another African country, Korea of course, and Mongolia (whose great-grandfather, surprisingly, turned out to have been a Christian -- presumably one of the "two and a half Christians" Donald Treadgold used to say were in the country before the Soviet takeover.)  She said there are now about 100,000 Christians in the little country, about 5% of the total.        

My mission in Seoul is to sound out local publishers about Korean editions of two of my books.  The attempt to visit these companies proved time-consuming and difficult. 

I quickly learned that giving workable directions to foreigners is not one of the motivating interests of Korean culture.  An elevator at the airport said the train was on 1 Fl.  It turned out that meant 1 Fl basement, not 1 Fl prime.  Inside the elevator the legend said less about 1, and more about basements . . . Naturally I went to the wrong place, as, no doubt, have countless visitors before me. 

Addresses and street signs are almost all only in Korean.  Even in Mcdonalds, I lined up in the wrong place, and missed lunch (no great trajedy), because the signs telling people the till had closed were in Korean.  Few people speak English, Japanese, or Chinese, and if they do, they can't always figure out the directions I have in English. If they do give directions, one still can't read the signs to which those directions point. 

Furthermore, the telephone in my room was 6 stories and a labyrinth of rooms from the computer, so directions by e-mail -- the only kind that work -- involved running back and forth several times to obtain.  And I couldn't print directions out.

And that was just the start of difficulties. 

Another problem was that people confuse book stories, which I was not looking for, with head offices for publishing companies, which I was.

On the up side, many Koreans proved extraordinarily helpful in trying to point me in the right direction -- even when it was the wrong direction -- and sometimes more than point. 

So in a day and a half of trying, I visited three Christian book stores, belonging to the main three publishers in Korea, but no headquarters.  I did, however, manage to get my books into the hands of two publishers, and get to know two contact people at the right offices in the process.

Last night was a particular adventure. 

After much calling and vain computer searches, I finally procured a couple addresses for one of the companies.  (One my American publisher had recommended, as a matter of fact.)  They rounded up a girl who could speak English and was involved in the publishing end of things.  I was given spider scratches on paper which, I was assured, represented the company headquarters, plus a transliteration of a Korean address in English.  Of course I had no idea if the two matched. 

If not for the generous kindness of many Koreans, my epic journey across Seoul that afternoon would have proven a complete failure. 

Several people pointed me in the "right" direction, sometimes however wrong by several subway stops. 

An older gentleman loudly starting a conversation on the train, the kind that begins "Where are you from?  I went to New York and Los Angeles once."  In Japan, this would  likely provoke icy silence all around, indicating that the speaker was romancing the fine line between crudity and lunacy.  Here, there seems to be no such stigma attached to chatting up strangers: we had a good conversation.  Off at the wrong stop (of course), another gentleman then spent considerable time phoning and mapquesting, and got me (finally) to the correct train stop.

A taxi driver didn't know the place.  I tried to pay him for all the time he spent trying to figure it out, but he refused. 

After wandering around and asking at random (including a cop -- no English!), I began to lose hope of tracking the place down by closing time at 5 PM.  I stopped at a jewelry shop and bought an alarm clock -- the owner pointed me back the way I just came, with a flury of Korean that I could almost pretend to get the gist of.  Several blocks and queries later, a couple who spoke decent English took it into their big hearts to escort me all the way to the building on the paper, a full mile or more away.  We jogged a good part of the distance in an effort to get there on time, and they were a bit heavy. 

When we arrived, I gave them a copy of my China book to say thanks, and learned they were both novelists!  We parted friends as well as comrades. 

But of course it wasn't company headquarters, it was a bookstore, and I was late.

A little more ringing by the girl at the counter, and the girl I'd talked with at headquarters came half an hour after her work day was finished, took me to a cafeteria, and bought me a strawberry drink and desert (on company dime) and we had a good talk.  She turned out to have a background in YWAM and literature, so we talked missions, Shakespeare, Chesterton, and East Asian culture.  She recorded some of my replies to her questions.  Finding that I was interested in learning more about Korea, she then kindly bought a little Korean primer for me, on her own dime. 

Missed dinner, then went jogging along a river this morning, and missed breakfast as well.  Bought manjiu and strawberry yoghurt at a 7-11.  I'm heading to a place where I can speak the language, again, but I'm almost sorry to be leaving Korea this afternoon.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Seoul Music

I'm sitting in bed in a "hotel" room, aka "guest house," it being dark outside, not counting the street light, and no idea what time it is.  There are no clocks in the room, the TV doesn't work, and my internal clock is fowled up by the 12 hour flight from Seattle.  A car passes only very occasionally, so I guess its the middle of the night here, though time to get up back home. 

Two bulky drunks are waiting outside the door.  One appears to be English; the other mumbles too much to tell where he's from.  Now one is singing.

The first sign that they were there came when one yanked on the door several times.  I was awake, having just been jotting plans for the following day on the back of a card, so heard it clearly.  The door was stout, fortunately.  (It's a fairly spartan room, otherwise, but clean enough.)  I had slept for a few hours, earlier, which is good for the first day of a trip.  Then came the knocking. 

"Go away!  This is not your room!" 

"Where should we go?"

"Go down to the first floor (they call it that, here), and talk to the people down there."  (I assumed they were looking for their own room.) 

"Yeah, there's lots of people down there.  We talk to them, and they just mumble.  You're the first person who's talked to us like this in an hour.  Open the door!"

"I'm not going to open the door, but I will call the police." 

"Yeah, like that'll help.  You have three choices."

I waited to hear the three choices, not expecting to like any of them.  But the drunk could only recall one, got stuck on it, which turned out to be one I actually approved of.

"If I were you, I wouldn't open the door." 

He went on explaining why keeping it shut might actually be the better option, apparently trying more to reason for himself than to convince me, and ended in incoherence.

I did try calling the police.  But he was right about that, too.  There wasn't much of what you could call a phone in the room.  There's something you can pick up, without about 5 buttons and words in Korean next to them, and little lights.  The top buttom made a little alarm sound, not enough to bother anyone outside the room.  The next few seemed to do nothing.  The bottom one rang.  I tried this one with some hope, ten or so times, and at one point heard a man speaking a few gruff words of Korean.  After that, it didn't even ring much. 

I considered other options, should my neighbors find a way of openning the door.  Weapons?  I could throw the TV at them, maybe.  On further reflection, the TV stand seemed like the only remotely servicable weapon in the room, and it didn't look like it could fend off more than a very sleepy lion cub. 

Could I break the window, and escape to the street?  Kind of a last option, though we were only on the second floor -- looks like pavement down there. 

Now I begin revising my "things to do tomorrow morning" list. Ask for my money back?  Not only was my "sleep" interrupted, but even in a 4000 won guesthouse, they ought to provide a phone and a little security -- this place is like a death trap.  Go to the airport and tell the Info lady to strike this place off her list of places to stay?  All in all, I think I'll begin with the police. 

Heck of a way to start a trip.  Guess I'll just hope they eventually think of somewhere else to go, and don't locate a battering ram or a blasting cap. 

Mount McKinley was magnificent, anyway.  I've flown by it before, and drove with my cousin to the park, but never saw the mountain clearly before.  First some other alpine mass came into view, with a tall summit at the center, and I wondered at first if this might have been it.  But when Denali floated into view, there was no doubting it.  The summit was not far beneath the level of the plane.  Beneath it, lesser peaks, still sharp and snow-covered, were as grasshoppers. 

The only glaciers I could spy associated with the mountain were low elevation valley glaciers.  I wondered, is there anywhere in the world that sports a larger elevation spread over which ice rules?  A smaller but still tall  peak (Foraker?) rises to the south of McKinley, close yet distinct enough to count as part of the same mountain, or not, as your fancy leads. 

After McKinley, I spent hours in conversation in the back of the plane with Bill, a man about the build, age, and a little of the attitude of Bill Maher.  Not that he attacked religion -- he was grateful to the Christians who mended him when he got hepatitis in Pakistan or China.  His father had been CIA, so he grew up all over, and has traveled even more all over ever since.  (Preferably by bicycle.)  He said the CIA kids were the left-wingers, State and Military kids more conservative.  We swapped travelers' tales: if it was a contest, no doubt he won. 

Still singing out there.  As poorly as I sleep the first night of a trip, can I possibly sleep with those two drunks at seige?  Maybe I'll give it a try. 

I've never seen a "guest house" quite like this one.  It's on a city street a mile or two from the airport.  From the outside, it looks like an office building.  Go into the lobby, and there's a little "Travel Agency" room to the right, and that' where they sign you in.  Then someone gives you a key, shows you to the elevator, and after a long wait, you're on the second floor. 

Here the strange inner design of the building reveals itself.  There's a kind of atrium or courtyard at center, with maybe 15 stories of rooms that look like Tokyo rabbit hutch apartments rising on two or three sites, with walkways facing the atrium.  There is an attempt at a potted plant (plastic?) or two, but nothing of any charm whatsoever. 

Whistling now.  The sound of metal.  No battery rams, I hope?  High-pitched, wordless singing. 

An airplane sounds over head.  Early morning flight, I hope? 

I see this from two perspectives.  One is that of a newspaper article about something bad happening in a hotel in Korea.  The other lies in the past perfect perspective of an anecdote about a rough start to a trip.  (The bank hassle and missing camera yesterday being the harbinger of trouble.) 

In any case, I will not now be staying here three nights. 

(Postscript: I dozed off, after all.  Turned out so did the drunks.  Didn't see them again.  Someone said they were crazy, shook his head when I asked.  I told the airport girl, not the police.  Took the train to Seoul, and am now staying at a kind of graduate school / missions training center in South Seoul.  There's a hill above the center, in pine, ewe, chestnut, part of which I can see from my room, and no noisy drunks anywhere to be seen.  Korean lunch for $2 in the cafeteria!)

Monday, October 17, 2011

A Religion for Atheists?

In my last post, I quoted Brian Barrington, an Irish atheist, who admitted that secularized humanity is in danger of losing much that seems essential to human nature.  He argued (perhaps with tongue partly in cheek) for a synthetic religion that joins the best of each tradition, as Hinduism (he claims) does for India. 

Let's take the idea seriously, though.  First, I'll explore his suggestions in a bit more depth, challenging some. 

I'd then like to offer a counter-proposal that may seem a bit predictable, coming from me, but that I think possesses simplicity and power that I hope will make it worth considering, even for an atheist. 

What good is religion? 

Brian suggested that people benefit in many ways from an "officially sanctioned spiritual and religious community with shared rituals, customs and beliefs."  Such a structure of belief gives meaning to life, a sense of belonging, and a meaning to death.  Modern cities seem to lack soul, compared to their older counterparts:

"The people who lived in these cities were part of real communities; but the people who live in our fractured and fragmented modern cities are not part of genuine communities – they are isolated atoms, at best clinging together in small, degraded cults."  

As someone who cares a lot about architecture (I just about wilt in Tokyo), I see Brian's point.  In traditional Chinese cities, temples anchored a neighborhood: indeed, markets in Taiwan often still gather around Buddhist temples.  Old European towns also gain character and "soul" from their cathedrals and church graveyards. 

But society was not always so unified as a result in ancient world.  Gibbon points out that in Roman Empire, the common people took all religions as equally true, philosophers took them as equally false, and politicians saw them as equally useful.   The same contrast can be drawn between Brahmin and lower castes in India, the neo-Confucian literati and the secret societies and popular temples filled with spooky black gods in China. The quasi-totalitarian temple religions of Egypt, Sumer and Meso-America displayed an even more austere bias towards the "Haves," against the "Have Nots." 

Then as now, sects also competed, sometimes violently.  A young man from Fukian Province told me how gangs from different temples fought one another.  In Taiwan, criminal gangs often associate with temples.  Medieval monosteries in Europe and in Japan sometimes waged war on one another. 

Like our ancestors, we need to find truth that can both be believed, and can unify classes, creeds, and tribes.

Jesus said, "Don't think I've come to abolish the Law and the Prophets.  I have not come to abolish, but fulfill." 

I don't think Jesus was just talking about the Old Testament, when he said that.  In effect, I believe he was talking about all human cultures.  Furthermore, part of what the gospels mean by "fulfill" is to synthesize different strands of truth.  Jesus is described in the gospels not only as the "Messiah," but as "Son of David," "Suffering Servant," "Passover Lamb," and other Jewish stories and types.  Like a seed planted in the soil that sends out roots and draws up nourishment from all directions, the Gospel thus draws on different sources to create a tree that spreads its branches, in which the birds come and nest. (To use one of Jesus' own metaphors.)   

This is, indeed, one function Christianity served in the Greco-Roman world.  Clement, an intellectual leader of Alexandrian Christians, compared truth to the body of Pentheus, who was been torn asunder by the women of Thebes in one of Euripedes' plays.  Truth, which should be one, had likewise broken into fragments, each school being "illumined by the Dawn of Light," which for Clement was Christ.  And indeed, Europe found unity in those sheltering branches. 

For a while.

Brian is a big fan of the Enlightenment, and believes (with some reason) that in the wake of that movement, it is harder for European intellectuals to see the Gospel as the unifying theme of world civilization any longer.  Marxists then denied that Christianity worked for the poor and working class. 

In the long run, perhaps those were useful challenges.  Christianity had grown too corrupt, and too easily taken for granted.  As it gained power in the West, and as the West gained power in the world, the old synthesis broke down.  We are now aware of the world.  Christians, as well as skeptics, now need to reformulate our beliefs in light of all the human race. 

Brian recognizes the need for a unifying ideology:

"If every individual goes off and finds the cult that he likes best, then how can that provide a shared space where Communities and Families can act as one and experience being a unity? The centre cannot hold. Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world."

One cannot accuse North Korea or Saudi Arabia of loosing anarchy.  I presume that as a "liberal" Brian does not like the alternatives they offer.  He seems to recognize the difficult of finding a good balance between chaos and control:

"The traditional organised religions are now dead or implausible to many – their rigid and dated doctrines often no longer suffice. There is no returning to their special, privileged status at the heart of the city, especially in our diverse, globalised, scientific societies. A multiplicity of established religions in different countries with competing claims also sets up lethal tribal and religious conflicts between various peoples which we can no longer afford. There is no going back. But trying to replace the old religions with “new religions” works even worse – such manufactured cults are contrived and ridiculous (at best, they are the religious equivalent of Esperanto) and have even less claim to be at the heart of the city. So what to do?"

Christianity does not, as a practical political fact, unify modern cities like London or Los Angeles.  Millions of immigrants practice other religions, Islam being prominent in London, Chinese religions in parts of LA.  And many Anglos and Jews in such cosmopolitans centers are secular.  Brian is also right in doubting that even minority religion that are established for the purpose of unifying can really do the trick.  Can one really get everyone to join the Unification Church, or Bahai? 

What's wrong with diversity and pluralism?  One might question Brian's assumption that a multitude of competing creeds need lead to violence.  Where is the rioting in Singapore?  Do the Buddhists in Monterey Park often burn down churches in Pasadena?  When has America ever had a pogrom? 

Following Adam Smith, Rodney Stark argues, to the contrary, that monopoly religions most easily become oppressive. 

But let us braken that big question.  Certainly there has been some conflict in London and LA, Beirut and Bombay, including riots and murders, often with a racial and religious justification.

This is nothing new, of course.  Clement's Alexandria was a seething maelstrom of rampaging mobs. 

The Search for Synthesis: Will Hindu Work?

Brian then suggests that "the established, officially-sanctioned religion of modern society" should be "based on tradition, not invented from scratch," and should include:

"The teachings of all the greatest and most influential prophets of human history.  If this was done correctly it would not be superficial or artificial. The Scripture of this religion would be a compendium of the teachings and stories of the greatest prophets and educators of human history – Confucius, Laozi, Buddha, Mahavira, Socrates, Jesus, Muhammad and perhaps some others. Think what a wonderful book that would be! The most wonderful book in the world, containing the best of all that has been thought and said by the wisest most influential figures of human history . . . a system of thought and stories with beliefs spanning monotheism, polytheism, panentheism, pantheism, monism, atheism, agnosticism, gnosticism and others."

I like this idea, and I think Brian is quite right to hope that the result not be "artificial."  He compares his amalgram to "Hinduism."  I don't think that will work, though. 
Brian holds some serious misconceptions about Hinduism, I think:

"Hinduism IS such a religion, and it works, and its tradition is older and more enduring than that of any of the other existing great religions."

This is untrue on several counts. 

A temple in Xin Dian,
Taiwan, with a similarly
snycretistic blend
First, the term "Hinduism" is a modern invention, because the religion itself is largely a modern invention.  Tomoko Masuzawa, in The Invention of World Religions, notes:

"Brahmanism (ie, Hinduism) . . . the religion of India, supposedly, despite the empirical fact that multiple, often contending and always polymorphous cultic communities had existed in the Indian subcontinent for milliennia . . . ever since Europeans learned to read Sanskrit, the spiritual genius of the Indian nation has been claimed to reside above all in the Vedas . . . "(133)

Second, why was this alleged "religion of India" once called "Brahmanism?"  Because it was, in fact, the philosophy of the upper-caste Brahmins, not of "India" as a whole. 

The difference is clear when you read Gandhi's disgusted reaction to the cultic sacrifice of lambs in a "Hindu" temple.  That was popular Hinduism, and Gandhi didn't like it one bit. 

Third, what religion is really most ancient in India?  The religion of sacrifice.  That's the central theme of the oldest "Hindu" Scriptures, the Rig Veda.  It's also the theme against which the Brahmins reacted.  What we call "Hinduism" is the upper-caste philosophy of the rebels, who went off into the woods to torture themselves until they found enlightenment within.  (I use the word "torture" advisedly: these people would have found waterboarding child's play.) 

Finally, did "Hinduism" really "work" in India?  My visit to New Delhi, in 1984, was interrupted by religious riots that killed thousands of people.  If you say, this sectarian violence is a modern phenomena, prompted by Islamic and Christian invasions, well so is "Hinduism."

So it it not quite true to say what we call "Hinduism" has been the dominant faith of India, that the cults of India are unified, or that there is any real unity between the philosophy of the gurus and popular Hindu practice.  One cannot carve a face on a loose pile of sand. 

Furthermore, the upper castes oppressed the lower and outcastes badly.  The shadow of an outcaste should not so much as fall on a Brahmin, or he could be beaten severely.  They were not allowed to drink from the same wells.

Women were also terribly oppressed in Brahmanism, as authorized in the Law of Manu.  Women were commanded to treat their husbands as gods.  They were confined indoors.  Girls were forced to marry older men, then often "invited" to throw themselves on their husband's funeral pyre, when he died.  To go on living was to show an impiety that merited abuse. 

True, every tradition has its problems. But in what sense did Hinduism "work," except for upper caste men?
"In point of fact, all the great “traditional” religions are syntheses of other religions that evolved over time - they built on the best of the past and modified it as necessary."

This is true to a point.  But there is a difference between a synthesis, in which the parts fit together to make a coherent whole, and a monster with arms and legs tacked on all over, without rhyme or reason.   

The Missing Sage

Perhaps we should start, instead, at the ground floor, and build up our ideal, universal belief system, from the best in what we find in each tradition. 

(1) It should preserve the Hindu concept of sacrifice.  It might even preserves the ancient Hindu idea that the Supreme God somehow sacrifices Himself for all humanity.  Yet it should not require us to actually kill humans or animals. 

(2) It should allow us to celebrate Yuletide, as Brian insists.  It should not, however, demand that we, say, sacrifice children to the gods, or drunken orgies, of which modern cities have enough, already.  (Perhaps it should encourage, instead, a nakedness of the soul before God.)

(3) We cannot, of course, include Islam, or many native African, Australian, or Asian religions, or the great Greek philosophers, without a strong concept of the Supreme God, who speaks to mankind through messengers. 

Putting God in our amalgamated religion might, it is true, make the Buddhists feel left out.  But this will allow serious Buddhists to meditate on the paradox of unity within difference.  A lot of marginal Buddhists believe in God, anyway. 

(4) Let us learn from the priesthood abuse scandal.  Synthesis must be critical to be helpful.  Good medicine gets rid of quacks.  Good religion gets rid of abusers.  To build a world community, let us also insist that religious messengers be genuinely holy men and women who have something of value to say.  It does not help to praise murderers, torturers, child molestors, or war-mongers, even if they carry a "prophet" or "Master" before their names.

(5) Lao Zi teaches us to value the weak, who overcome the strong by their humility.  Let us take that as a principle by which to evaluate gurus, demigods, and great teachers.  Let the true, ultimate sage, be one who comes in weakness and humility. 

Let us in the West learn from Lao Zi, or more proximate teachers, the wisdom of humility.  Maybe it's a good thing that the Church has lost its power.  We found, in the communist era, that Christ is often strongest in our weakness.

(6) Zhuang Zi shows that one can say serious things and make people laugh, at the same time.  He also speaks of a Creator.  I'm with Brian, if he wants to include the two great founding texts of Taoism, in his expanded canon.  They have much to teach us. 

(7) Confucius described himself as "eager to learn."  His humility showed itself in obedience to God (天), concern for poor students, intellectual curiosity, and awareness both of his own limits, and of God's calling on his life.  His central teachings were kindness, and respect for authority. 

Let us include these teachings, and this example, in the expanded human canon.  Let us also look for someone who exhibits these characteristics, the "Sage" Confucius, Mencius and Lao Zi all sought, who would benefit all the world, even sacrifice himself for it.  Mencius expected another great sage about 500 years after the time of Confucius.   

(8) Strangely enough, some Buddhist texts also predict the sum of the bodhisattvas and Buddhas about 500 years after the time of Buddha.  (Who, like Confucius, lived around 500 BC.)  Let us also respect their wishes, and see if such an unlikely vision might somehow be fulfilled in our synthesized system.

(9) Of course, we should also include Buddha's compassion.  Only, as the Dalai Lama admitted, Buddhist compassion has often proven too theoretical: let us look for a way of incarnating it in a human model of compassion, who teaches, heals, feeds the hungry, stills storms, and gives hope at the time of death.

(10) Let us also include the Pure Land Buddhist hope for life after death.  We might also recognize, with Pure Land Buddhists, that we need help to find salvation.

(11) Nor should Judaism be neglected.  Let us pray that our Sage also fulfill the key tropes of Hebrew tradition.

(12) Our hypothetical common religion should also include the greatest moral teachers of the ancient world, the Jewish prophets.  Bottle their fire, passion, poetry, and their loud and ringing call to look out for the poor and helpless against their oppressors, and sell it to the world.   

(13) Socrates was the great hero of the Greco-Roman world.  Let us include a figure like Socrates, who goes to his death nobly, "drinking the cup" for the good of his city, or more than his city.

(14)  Also let us include the moral teachings of the Stoics, after the Jews perhaps the noblest moralists.  They are so refreshing an alternative to modern omnipresent cant: make school children read a chapter from Epictetus on a weekly basis.

(15) Nor should we neglect the teachings of the great modern schools.  Let's include whatever ideology actually inspired the birth of modern science.  (Which, it turns out, shared a creationist theism with the ideology that inspired the birth of ancient, Greek science.) 

(16) We need a teacher who rebukes his own followers, not only when they become lazy, but also when they grow fanatical, and want to call down fire on unbelievers.  The Enlightenment recognized that need, and let us try to canonize that recognition, as well. 

And then, if we follow Brian's prescription, we need to find some way of weaving all these threads together.

It would be nice, also, if after all is said and done, there were some reason to believe the synthesized belief system were actually true.  Maybe this wouldn't be necessary for government work, but it would help ordinary people, even give us an extra reason for dancing at Christmas.

(Note: I'm heading to Asia tomorrow, but wanted to post this first.  It's still a bit of a rough draft, though, and may need to come back and do some revision later.  I recognize  plausible objections to the trend of my argument, here, and may come back and address them.  -- DM)

Sunday, October 16, 2011

If you can't beat 'em, dance naked with 'em at the Winter Solstice!

Atheists at play?
Maybe it's just me, but atheism of the Gnu variety has gotten a bit old.  You know what they're going to say about religion before they say it.  Religion is bigoted, irrational, intolerant, causes war, hypocricy, and taudry evangelical come-ons.  The moon would shine brighter, ravens would sing on key, deserts would blossom, and lapping waves threatening to inundate lowland South Sea islands would recede before our eyes, if only we could get rid of this horrible thing, of which we ourselves suffer no symptoms, called "religion." 

Such views are expressed with fervent sloganeering, often translated into graphic Anglo-Saxon and slighting references to the intellect of dissidents, on the most popular atheist web sites. 

One eventually tireds of such attacks, by people who seldom listen to contrary arguments (Myers has just banned me for making them on his site, after many curses from his disciples), the "Borg" blundering endlessly into the same ray guns but failing to adapt.  So to take a break from such silliness, and with nights lengthening as we move towards Halloween and the Winter Solstice, I would like to present the contrarian perspective of one Brian Barrington, an Irish atheist (I would like to say friend) with a sense of whimsy, and a refreshing ability to see value in what he rejects intellectually.  I think there's also sense to some (not all) of his comments, in some cases perhaps deeper than he recognizes as of yet. 

I'll let Brian's comments speak for themselves here, welcome comments from other posters, then give my own spin on them, as a student of world religions, in a later blog.
Gobekli Tepe in Turkey,
the world's oldest temple
AND community?
"Many if not most human beings have a profound and ineradicable yearning to be part of a genuine, officially sanctioned spiritual and religious community with shared rituals, customs and beliefs. These shared rituals need to be something that all the Community and all the Family participate in during the most important life-ceremonies surrounding birth, coming-of-age, marriage and death. This gives meaning and structure to people’s lives and gives them a sense of stability and belonging. People bound together like this feel grounded and they do not feel like isolated atoms. Today, this yearning is not easily satisfied in modern, individualistic societies. Consider the temples, cathedrals and mosques at the centre of ancient cities – these buildings were the visible expression of the collective hope and shared spiritual outlook of the people who lived there. The people who lived in these cities were part of real communities; but the people who live in our fractured and fragmented modern cities are not part of genuine communities – they are isolated atoms, at best clinging together in small, degraded cults. At the centres of our old cities, the temples existed beside the market-places – the temples testified to a higher human need than those of just the market place. But in our new modern cities there are only markets at the centre.

"In the modern world there is a kind of spiritual anarchy that leaves people at a loose end. People drift around from cult to cult, feeling vaguely lost. There is no officially sanctioned purpose or structure to life – people have to try and find their own meaning as best they can, and more often that not they fail to get very far with this. If every individual goes off and finds the cult that he likes best, then how can that provide a shared space where Communities and Families can act as one and experience being a unity? The centre cannot hold. Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.

Naked public square?
 "Why did this happen? Why was religion, so to speak, banished from the central square of human cities? How and why did this change come about? It happened because of the Modern or Enlightenment notion of the separation of “church” and “state” – the separation of religion from politics. The Enlightenment guarantees freedom of religious worship. The point of this project was to end religious intolerance, persecution and wars. Because of this, in Modern countries religion became a purely private matter – no particular religion can lay any public claim to the centre of our cities. Every religion has equal rights and none has a special claim. This freedom of religious worship is at the heart of modern societies. This arrangement has its benefits but it also has its problems (as outlined above). Is there any way around these problems? What, if anything can be done about this?

"The traditional organised religions are now dead or implausible to many – their rigid and dated doctrines often no longer suffice. There is no returning to their special, privileged status at the heart of the city, especially in our diverse, globalised, scientific societies. A multiplicity of established religions in different countries with competing claims also sets up lethal tribal and religious conflicts between various peoples which we can no longer afford. There is no going back. But trying to replace the old religions with “new religions” works even worse – such manufactured cults are contrived and ridiculous (at best, they are the religious equivalent of Esperanto) and have even less claim to be at the heart of the city. So what to do?

"The answer to the problem is quite simple in my view – the established, officially-sanctioned religion of modern society needs to be based on tradition, and not invented from scratch, and it needs to include the teachings of all the greatest and most influential prophets of human history. If this was done correctly it would not be superficial or artificial. The Scripture of this religion would be a compendium of the teachings and stories of the greatest prophets and educators of human history – Confucius, Laozi, Buddha, Mahavira, Socrates, Jesus, Muhammad and perhaps some others. Think what a wonderful book that would be! The most wonderful book in the world, containing the best of all that has been thought and said by the wisest most influential figures of human history. Beautiful, magnificent temples would be built in the centre of each city where everyone would go to worship and meditate together, get married, name their babies, be buried, and also learn the teachings of the great and wise prophets. This official religion needs to be a system of thought and stories with beliefs spanning monotheism, polytheism, panentheism, pantheism, monism, atheism, agnosticism, gnosticism and others. In other words, the established religion of all countries needs to be a modified and much expanded form of something like Hinduism, because Hinduism is like that. Nobody can claim that a religion with doctrines as diverse and tolerant as the one I have described above is impossible, for the simple reason that Hinduism IS such a religion, and it works, and its tradition is older and more enduring than that of any of the other existing great religions. In Hinduism there is no one principle founder or prophet, but a whole series of them, all co-existing. There is no fixed dogma, but a whole range of beliefs and traditions putting forward their claims from under the same umbrella. The religion for our globalised world needs to be something like this, but it needs to fully incorporate the teachings of the other great religions as well.

"Some people might worry that such a religion would be an incoherent jumble of all the existing religions, slightly modified. I merely reply: ALL of our existing great organised religions are already merely a jumble of numerous already existing religions, slightly modified. Christianity manages to incorporate the prophets and teachings of Judaism even though the two might appear to be in conflict. The Bible itself is the ultimate cobbled-together, incoherent jumble of a book. Islam manages to incorporate the prophets and teachings of both Judaism and Christianity even though they might appear to be in conflict. As already noted, Hinduism manages to incorporate a huge amount of apparently conflicting ideas and traditions from a massive pile of diverse teachers. The Chinese managed to synthesize Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism. The Japanese managed to synthesize Shintoism and Buddhism. In point of fact, all the great “traditional” religions are syntheses of other religions that evolved over time - they built on the best of the past and modified it as necessary."

"On the farm of one of my in-laws down in Longford in Ireland there is a six thousand year old dolmen. Every Winter Solstice I dance around it naked, festooned with wild flowers, to honour the gods of my forefathers. This dolmen stood in that field for thousands of years before that arriviste St. Patrick came to Ireland and introduced the teachings of Jesus to our small yet great nation. The pre-Christian world-view of pagan Ireland never completely died out, and still exists deep in Irish hearts, along with the Christian world-view. The Celtic Cross is the visible expression of this synthesis of the Pagan and the Christian in the Irish spirit – the Celtic Cross marries the principle symbol of Christianity with the pagan symbols of pre-Christian Ireland. The point is this: we Irish are both traditionally Pagans and traditionally Christians. The same is true of much or even all of Europe. Traditional European religious rituals and beliefs ARE a synthesis. Christmas, the most popular Christian holiday, comes from Yuletide, a pre-Christian pagan winter festival. Spiritual synthesis can and does happen in all sorts of contexts when it needs to happen, and it enriches all traditions when it does so. It happened in the past and it can happen again now and in the future. Our globalised world needs a new religious arrangement. It may take a few hundred years for the religious arrangement outlined above to come into existence, but (in my view at least) it needs to happen."

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

World Religions in Vancouver

I'm giving a day of lectures on Christianity and World Religions (from a missions perspective), this Saturday.  The series of which my talks will be a part is jointly sponsored by Koinos and Missions Fest.  The price for the general public is $30 Canadian, including lunch, and it's open to the public.   

If you're in the Vancouver area, and have the morning and a little of the afternoon free, please think about coming!  It'll be held at Richmond Chinese Alliance.  You may need to register in advance; best to ask, anyway. 

This will be the third series I've given for Koinos.  I've enjoyed speaking there, because it gives us a chance to dig deeper into issues than we would have in a shorter seminar.  Dr. Ward Gasque, one of the founders of Regent College and a New Testament scholar, puts these seminars on at several locations around Vancouver.  Here's his description of the program and its rationale:

"The new Koinos series of Saturday seminars at RCAC focuses on the global Christian mission [Koinos 401] . . . You can sign up online (Google: Koinos Seminars). The next session is Sat Oct 15 on Christianity & Other Faiths.

"One of the biggest challenges to the Christian Faith today is pluralism - recognizing the reality of competing world religions as well as secularism. We have next door neighbors and colleagues at work or school who are Buddhists, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Sikhs, or followers of a multitude of other, lesser known religions..

"This seminar is designed to give you an understanding of the basic tenets of the major world religions and suggestions as to how to bear witness to your non-Christian neighbors without alienating them.

"The teacher for this Koinos 401 seminar is David Marshall . . . (etc) "

The actual procedings may be a little less "practical" than this intro implies -- but the day should be fun.  With luck, maybe I'll see you there.

Monday, October 10, 2011

The Apologetics of Puddleglum

 A few years ago, I was asked to explain what Narnia means to me, as someone who has argued for the truth of Christianity in several books.  My answer was featured as a chapter in an illustrated
book subtitled "Our Adventures in Aslan's World."*  Here, with the kind permission of Harvest House, is the short story I told.     

"I first discovered Narnia in the basement of my parents' friends' house two miles from Mendenhall Glacier near Juneau, Alaska.  Neither Alaska nor Narnia have quite left me since: enriching my life even in slums outside Bombay, exhaust-choked Chinese cities, or sordid districts in Taiwan. 

"A friend in Hong Kong used to call me 'Puddleglum,' no doubt for my cheery disposition, and blended my name with the tribe of Marsh-wiggles.  Maybe I took her jokes as a calling.  Ever since, I've wandered through an Underland of skepticism, Marxism, Buddhism, and Gnostic philosophy with a mission parallel to that of my webfooted mentor: to lead captives out of intellectual gloom and into the light of Christ.  The Chronicles of Narnia are wonderful training for a Christian apologist. 

"The books are sneaky.  You think you're reading children's tales about talking mice, fauns, and centaurs?  You think Lewis is a little sloppy, the way he mixes his mythologies?  Watch out!  A profound view of life and ideas and of how to think critically waits like Susan with her bow to ambush you. 

"Is faith just wishful thinking?  Puddleglum's speech in Underland is a brilliant response to deconstructionist views of life.  Why should we believe the Christian God over other religions?  Aslan's 'I was the lion' speech to Shasta and his welcome to Emeth reflect subtle Christian teaching on the 'divine logos,' or what Justin Martyr called 'tutors to Christ' in other faiths.  Can we believe the remarkable claims Jesus makes about Himself?  'There are only three possibilities,' Professor Digory reminds us, yet his logic represents not a narrowing, like the arguments of a Dawkins or Harris, but a broadening of the possibilities of what it means to be human, backed up by the latest and best scholarship on the historical Jesus.  The whole gang -- monopods, Reepicheep, and, of course, Puddleglum -- follow me into my own books, where they always have helpful things to say."

Adapted from: Lion and The Land of Narnia © 2008 by Robert Cording. Published by Harvest House Publishers, Eugene, OR. Used by permission.

Friday, October 07, 2011

C. S. Lewis' (really) 10 Best Books

This morning, I noticed an article offering a list of C. S. Lewis' 10 Best Books.  The journalist, who looked young, got it all wrong.  Two of the books he listed were not even by Lewis -- one was a collection of his essays (God in the Dock), another a collection of his letters (and the wrong collection, something practical, rather than Volume 2 of The Collected Letters, which is chock full of useless good fun.)  But a great book is great in conception as well as detail: collections of essays or letters by some third party seldom qualify.

Nor did the author include most of Lewis' best stuff. 

So here's the correct list.  Let's do it in David Letterman order.  

(Note: at the end, I'll copy my recent Amazon review of the number 1 book, which like many of Lewis' fans I had overlooked for many years, and have only just read for the first time.  My reviews of most the other books can also be found on Amazon.) 

10. That Hideous Strength.  Yes, it is hideous sometimes -- but I always love a good stew, especially with meaty pieces of truth, characters as unique as carrots, spuds, beans, and cherry tomatoes, swirling in a bubbling chaos of mad-cap apocalypto, spiced with satire and whimsy.

9. Perelandra  Along with Pandora, the best-imagined planet ever.  I love those islands.  And of course the characters, dialogue and philosophy are far better than Avatar.  Even the long-winded conversation on the mountain at the end is starting to grow on me -- I quote it at the end of my dissertation. 

8. Abolition of Man.  Don't skip the appendix, in which Lewis shows that morality is universal, perceptively using Confucius' term "Tao" to describe the moral truth that all humanity shares. 

7. The Last Battle.  OK, all these books are wonderful, and I hate to leave Uncle Albert ("Brandy") off the list.  But there's only room for one Narnia here.  As Emeth would no doubt confess, the Last Battle is NOT really all in Plato.  But there's a splendid feast of mortal pagan and Christian wisdom, hidden in this "children's fantasy," with a good slice of heaven for dessert. 

6. Mere Christianity.  "The Great Sin" chapter alone causes this book to merit inclusion.  It is a silly error of silly atheists to dismiss this book for its apparent simplicity.  (And the many who criticize Lewis' "Liar, Lord, or Lunatic" trillemma for leaving out the possibility that the Gospels are unreliable in what they record of Jesus, should read Lewis' essay, Fernseed and Elephants, which in effect answers this objection.) 

5. Surprised by Joy.  One of the great autobiographies.  Gosippy, profound, heart-wrenching, dark, humorous, real, breathing the air of a well-stocked old country library, with a window to the outside world on the sill of which a little boy has left shoe scruffings.  Lewis' character sketches are, as usual, brilliant.  His description of his conversion touches the heart of many matters.  I even like the title, which is no doubt an inside joke -- he says not a word about a certain Joy Davidman.  He's a little unkind to his father, though. 

4. The Four Loves.  The perfect gift for newlyweds. 

3. The Great Divorce.  Not a self-help manual for the same couple a few years down the road!  This is, rather, the story of a journey from hell to the outskirts of heaven.  It may change how you see the afterlife, but also how you see love and choice in this world.  (A book I found no room for on this list, but also belongs on it, achieves similiar psychological insight: The Screwtape Letters.) 

2. Till We Have Faces.  Lewis ought to have won the Nobel Prize for this book.  A myth, retold, profound, magnificent, and brilliant. 

1. Poetry and Prose in the 16th Century
"Earlier this summer, I visited a place on Mount Rainier I hadn't been to in more than thirty years. It was a splendid day: glaciers towered above clouds, which wafted over ridges rising out of evergreen forests, with waterfalls tumbling down, a cinnamon-phase black bear grubbing for eats on the far bank of a glacial river, deep snow fields, and dozens of kinds of wildflowers sprinkled across the meadows.

"Since my last visit to that spot, I've read almost everything C. S. Lewis had written, in some cases many times -- except for this book.

"It is almost as majestic, in its own way, as the mountain.

"Here's a daunting piece of topographical data: a 92 page bibliography. Lewis takes time to briefly introduce thousands of books in it, often with notes on their quality and what you'll find. Got a couple lifetimes to spare?

"But every trip begins with a single step, and Lewis is walking through a century. He gives a little more weight in this narrative to poets than prose writers, and about as much to the last 20 years of the century, as to the first 80. Not being a scholar of English literature, I found some of the early citations a bit hard to make out -- the language becomes easier for us non-specialists as the century draws on. The "wild flowers" visible on this mountain are snippets of poetry Lewis quotes. The "bears" and other wildlife might be compared to the sometimes scruffy writers, whom he describes with consumate literary skill.

"One of the remarkable qualities of Lewis' work is the variety of genres to which he contributed. Tolkien may have found Narnia glib, but most of us enjoyed it. Till We Have Faces is, I think, better than some Nobel-Prize winning novels. His shorter scholarly works tend to be revolutionary in their insight and beautifully written, but less grand in their ambition. Of course he also did science fiction (fantasy), "letters" (from the devil), and theological / philosophical essays. This book, with its many peaks, reaches above the clouds. In scope and outline majestic, in detail brilliantly observed, whatever else it be, Poetry and Prose in the 16th Century is a great work of scholarship.

"If you don't know anything about 16th Century literature (I didn't) should you read this book? Sure. Don't try to swallow it all in one bite, though. It took me two months to read, 5-15 pages at a time. A lot of it remained over my head; I may have to read a few more of the principles, put a walking stick in the back of my car, and return. I also want to pick up a copy of Arcadia."

Monday, October 03, 2011

Abolition of Slavery: The Early Years

"Breaking of the hatches up and bursting of the holds,
Thronging of the thousands up that labour under sea
White for bliss and blind for sun and stunned for liberty.

"Vivat Hispania!
Domino Gloria!
Don John of Austria
Has set his people free!"

-- Lepanto, G. K. Chesterton

(Note: latest edit, August 2022)

A year ago, I wrote a response to Dr. Hector Avalos' critique of a passage in The Truth Behind the New Atheism where I talked about the role Christianity played in liberating slaves.  At the end of a fairly long rebuttal (actually two), I appended a timeline of key events in the Christian anti-slave movement, for the past two thousand years. (But ending where most such records begin -- about the year 1800.) 

I did not claim that Christians have everywhere and always liberated slaves.  We haven't, of course.  Christians have also sinned against God and man by enslaving many millions of human beings, over the centuries.  Popes have justified slavery, and even owned slaves.  The Council of (unholy) Toledo decreed that the children of priests be enslaved.  This is a story that one could also tell, and it is shameful. 

But I did want to make the point that the modern abolitionist movement, led by zealous believers like William Wilberforce, was no fluke. There is, in the genome of Scripture, something that pushes towards liberty, that eventually emerged in a big way. 

This timeline was buried at the end of those articles.  I'd like to give it due prominence by featuring it as the key item in this blog. 

Not every item on this list is, strictly speaking, about "abolition" in the full sense.  But these are important markers in that general direction. 

I've also added some "key events" that I have learned about since, including one from the 1830s that was so interesting, I just ignored the time-line's end date.  As I learn of more such stories, I'll add them to the list.   

Timeline of the Christian Abolitionist Movement

50s AD: Paul writes, “In Christ, there is neither Greek nor Jew, slave nor free.” The full implications have been debated ever since; certainly it precludes treating slaves as less than human.

60s: Paul writes a letter to his fellow Christian, Philemon, asking that he take back Onesimus “no longer as a slave, but as a brother.” His meaning has been debated ever since.

300s: Ambrose, bishop of Milan, melts down communion vessels to redeem captives: “The ornament of my sacrament is the redemption of captives; and those alone are precious vessels, that redeem souls from death.”

354-431: Paulinus, bishop of Nola, (whom Avalos criticizes for alleged racism) liberates his own slaves, spends his considerable wealth redeeming citizens of Campania, and then, (allegedly, will need to look into this further), goes into slavery to redeem one captive.

4th Century: Gregory of Nyssa critiques slavery in the light of Christian theology:

"'I obtained servants and maidens.' What are you saying? You condemn man who is free and autonomous to servitude, and you contradict God by perverting the natural law. Man, who was created as lord over the earth, you have put under the yoke of servitude as a transgressor and rebel against the divine precept. You have forgotten the limit of your authority which consists in jurisdiction over brutish animals . . . “

"God has said, 'Let us make man according to our image and likeness' [Gen 1.26]. Since we are made according to God's likeness and are appointed to rule over the entire earth, tell me, who is the person who sells and buys? . . . How can we properly estimate the earth in its entirety as well as its contents? If these things are inestimable, tell me, how much greater is man's value who is over them . . . ? "

Meliana the Younger (383-429 AD) inherited “immense estates,” apparently in Africa, and with her husband Pinian, who would become a bishop, “distributed that immense territory to their slaves (more than a thousand).” Pernoud, 24 (Note: a French Catholic medieval historian, in Women in the Days of the Cathedrals, translated and adaopted by Anne Cote-Harriss (Ignatius: 1989)).
“Church councils never ceased to enact measures to make the fate of slaves more human and gradually to have them recognized as human beings. Thus we can measure progress between the Council of Elvira in 305, which imposed seven year’s penance on anyone who had killed his slave, until the Council of Orleans (511), where the right of asylum in churches was proclaimed for freeing slaves, and the Council of Eauze (551), which automatically emancipated a slave whose master forced him to work on Sundays..” Pernoud, 25
5th Century, St. Caesarius, blamed for paying for the emancipation of slaves, “I would like to know what those who criticize me would say if they were in the place of the captives I am redeeming. God, who gave himself as the price of man’s redemption, will not reproach me for redeeming captives with the money from his altar.” Pernoud, 26

400-425: Socrates Scholasticus, a contemporary historian, tells how Acacius, Bishop of Amida in modern Turkey, talked his priests into melting down holy vessels in order to redeem 7,000 Persian captives and send them home. He explains:

“Our God, my brethren, needs neither dishes nor cups; for he neither eats nor drinks, nor is in want of anything. Since then, by the liberality of its faithful members the church possesses many vessels both of gold and silver, it behooves us to sell them, that by the money thus raised we may be able to redeem the prisoners and also supply them with food.”

410s: St. Augustine argues that, while slavery occurs as punishment for sins, and might be a just substitute for killing soldiers on the losing side of a just war, it was not part of God's plan for humanity:

"This relationship is prescribed by the order of nature, and it is in this situation that God created man. For he says, 'Let him have lordship over the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky . . . and all the reptiles that crawl on the earth.'  He did not wish the rational being, made in his own image, to have dominion over any but irrational creatures, not man over man, but man over the beasts . . . The origins of the Latin word for slave, servus, is believed to be derived from the fact that those who by the laws of war could rightly be put to death by the conquerors, became servi, slaves, when they were preserved . . . But even this enslavement could not have happened, if it were not for the deserts of sin . . . "

"The first cause of servitude, therefore, is sin, by which man was placed under man in a condition of bondage: a condition which can come about only by the judgment of God, in Whom there is no injustice."

Augustine continues:

"By nature, then, in the condition in which God first created man, no man is the slave either of another man or of sin. But it is also true that servitude itself is ordained as a punishment by that law which enjoins the preservation of the order of nature, and forbids its disruption . . . The apostle therefore admonishes servants to be obedient to their masters, and to serve them loyally and with a good will, so that, if they cannot be freed by their masters, they can at least make their own slavery to some extent free . . ." (City of God, Book 19, chapter 15)

Doug also brings to my attention a letter from Augustine to his friend Alypius (who he writes about in the Confessions; by this time bishop of the nearby city of Tagaste).  In the letter, apparently written in 428 AD, he writes sadly that in Africa "there is now an enormous crowd of what are called mangones" (slave-traders), who were "draining the population" of North Africa.  Slave-traders inhabit wild places to waylay travelers, and break into peoples' homes to snatch children.  (One of whom, having been liberated, he describes interviewing.)  He recounts how, in one incident, the Christians of Hippo liberated more than a hundred slaves:

"Let me give you just one example, and you can estimate from it the total extent of their activity throughout Africa and along its coasts. About four months before I wrote this letter, a crowd of people collected from different regions, but particularly from Numidia, were brought here by Galatian merchants to be transported from the shores of Hippo (It is only, or at least mainly, the Galatians who are so eager to engage in this form of commerce). However, a faithful Christian was at hand, who was aware of our practice of performing acts of mercy in such cases; and he brought the news to the church. Immediately, about 120 people were set free by us (though I was absent at the time), some from the ship which they had to board, others from a place where they had been hidden before being put on board. We discovered that barely five or six of these had been sold by their parents. On hearing about the misfortunes that had led the rest of them to the Galatians, via their abductors and kidnappers, hardly one of us could restrain their tears."
400s: St. Patrick rebukes Coroticus for enslaving Christians and threatens him with damnation:

“I do not know what to lament more: those who have been slain, or those whom they have taken captive, or those whom the devil has mightily ensnared. Together with him they will be slaves in Hell in an eternal punishment; for who commits sin is a slave and will be called a son of the devil.”

The assumption here, which has NT precedent, is that slave-trading is a “sin,” and a particularly nasty one, showing that the sinner is “mightily ensnared” by the devil. Patrick’s rant continues:

“Far from the love of God is a man who hands over Christians to the Picts and Scots . . .They have filled their houses with the spoils of dead Christians, they live on plunder . . . This is the custom of the Roman Christians of Gaul: they send holy and able men to the Franks and other heathen with so many thousand solidi to ransom baptized captives. You prefer to kill and sell them to a foreign nation that has no knowledge of God. You betray the members of Christ as it were into a brothel. What hope have you in God, or anyone who thinks as you do, or converses with you in words of flattery? God will judge.”

500s: An anonymous Christian believer in Egypt makes a legal declaration that a woman dependant on his family named Martha is not a slave, as she says, but free. After she certified that she was in fact of slave status, “fearing the judgment of God, and mindful of the Savior’s love of mankind, I groaned aloud.” He warned that anyone who tried to enslave the woman and her children would be subject to God’s judgment.

610: Isidore of Seville, one of the great intellectual leaders of his age, insists that "God . . . has made no difference between the soul of the slave and that of the freedman."  He also writes, "I can hardly credit that a friend of Christ, who has experienced that grace, which bestowed freedom on all, would still own slaves."

781: Jing Jing, in Chang An, the Chinese capital, writing an authoritative summary of the history and characteristics of the Church of the East:

“They do not keep slaves, but make the noble and humble equal. (不畜臧獲。均貴賤於人). They do not amass wealth, but put their stock in common.” (Note: the first Chinese phrase here is an unusual classical expression, used similarly by the Han historian Si Maqian, among other places.)

972: Counsel of Koblenz

1008: Wulfston, Archbishop of York, writes legislation banning the export of slaves from England.  Several years later, in the "Sermon of the Wolf to the English," Wulfston lambasted the English for many social evils, including restricting the rights of slaves, and sex slave trade:

"And poor men are grieviously betrayed and cruelly deceived and widely sold out of this land into the possession of strangers even when perfectly innocent.  And widely throughout this nation children in the cradle are enslaved for minor theft through savage injustice.  And the rights of free men are taken away, the rights of slaves are pared away . . . and to put it briefly, God's laws are hated, and His councils despised."

"Too many Christian people have been sold out of this country.  All this is hateful to God, believe it who will." 

"These people club together and buy a woman for themselves out of the common fund . . . taking turns like dogs . . . And then for the right price they sell God's creature . . . out of the country into the hands of enemies."

Wulfston makes it clear that God was judging the English people through disease, "rapacious taxes," storms, and most of all, the ravages of the Vikings, for such sins. 

 Slaves seem to have constituted either about 2 or 10% of inhabitants of England.

1000-1150 Iceland: ¨Christian influences were also one reason why slavery declined and disappeared in the 11th and early 12th centuries.¨ Jon Hjalmarsson (a history teacher in Iceland and regional administrator of education), History of Iceland, 34

1102: Under the leadership of Anselm, philosopher and Archbishop of Canterbury, the Council of Westminster condemned the slave trade: “Let no one here after presume to engage in that nefarious trade in which hitherto in England men were usually sold like brute animals.”

1198: Founding of Trinitarians, who are credited with freeing almost a million (Christian) slaves over following centuries, among other acts of charity.

1200s: Founding of Mercedarian Order, also dedicated to freeing Christian slaves.

1256: The city of Bologna decided to place all bonded servants under eccelesiastical jurisdiction, then to grant them liberty.  According to David Hart, "The municipal government reached this decision explicitly on Christian grounds." (Atheist Delusions, 181) 

1300s: Louis X allows slaves to buy their freedom, as Avalos notes, to swell his coffers; actually his rationalization extended beyond that. In any case, France remained mostly slave-free, which did not need to happen.

1335: Magnus IV outlaws slavery (for Christians, anyway) in most of Scandinavia.

1416: The Republic of Ragusa (in modern Croatia) abolishes slavery and slave-trading.

1404 /1435: Spain colonized the Canary Islands and enslaved its inhabitants. In 1435 Pope Eugene IV wrote a bull entitled "Sicut Dudum." In it, he commanded that all enslaved Christians who were inhabitants of the Canary Islands be freed. This was no real step forward in doctrine.  But it marked the opening shot in a long struggle between colonists and a church that often tried to ammeliorate or reverse the oppressive acts the colonists took against "heathen natives." 

1508: Thomas Hunt, one of John Smith's lieutenants (see Pocahontas for the Disney version!), kidnaps an American Indian named Tisquantum (Squanto) and attempts to sell him as a slave in Europe. Friars educate him, he is freed and returns to North America. While he is gone, everyone in his village died in an epidemic. Settlers at Plymouth are surprised to meet an Indian who speaks English. He teaches them how to fish, fertilize vegetables, and talk with other local tribes, enabling the colony to survive.

1537: Pope Paul III wrote (Sublimis Deus) about the enslavement of the natives of the West and South Indies. Satan, the "enemy of the human race," had:

"... thought up a way, unheard of before now, by which he might impede the saving Word of God. ... Satan has stirred up some of his allies ... who are presuming to assert far and wide that the Indians be reduced to our service like brute animals. And they reduce them to slavery, treating them with afflictions we would scarcely use with brute animals. ... Rather, we decree that these same Indians should not be deprived of their liberty・and are not to be reduced to slavery."

The Pope did, however, allow that non-Christian soldiers captured in a just war could be enslaved.  (One cannot, after all, simply set them free, and have them rejoin their units.  James Herriot tells, in one of his books, how German prisoners-of-war often rather cheerfully helped farmers in Yorkshire in World War II: no doubt it beat a POW camp.) 

1588: The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth abolishes slavery.

1772: The Somersett’s case essentially ruled against the (already rare) institution of slavery in England.

1777: The Republic of Vermont adopted a Constitution outlawing slavery: "no male person, born in this country, or brought from over sea, ought to be holden by law, to serve any person, as a servant, slave or apprentice, after he arrives to the age of twenty-one Years, nor female, in like manner, after she arrives to the age of eighteen years, unless they are bound by their own consent."

1778: Slavery is outlawed in Scotland.

1780: Pennsylvania passes an Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery; other northern states follow with similar laws in 1783, 1784, 1799, and 1804.

1783: Slavery is ruled illegal in Massachusetts.

1780-1803: Other new laws are adopted against slavery in various parts of Europe and the Western Hemisphere.

c 1790  “Although the Catholic Church did not forbid it, Koreans also seem to have understood that the Christian gospel precluded slave-holding. Yun Gun-myeong of Chungcheong province liberated all his bondservants after he was baptized (Dallet 1874: 271), and when Hwang Il-gwang – a butcher and therefore an outcaste – became a Christian, he was received on the same footing as other believers . . . “ Kim and Kim, A History of Korean Christianity, 26
(Note: not all early Korean Catholics seem to have recognized this principle either, but there was already a long such history in the Catholic church.)
1804: Haiti declares independence and abolishes slavery.

1825: American Baptist missionary Adoniram Judson buys a Karen slave and mass-murderer, Thah Byu. He teaches him Christianity and baptizes him.  Thah Byu is the first Karen Christian, and spends the rest of his life preaching the Gospel, helping found a Karen church that now exceeds a million believers. 

1881: Griffith John, Leading the Family in the Right Way (Yinjia Guidao, 1881) (note: John was a famous and effective Protestant missionary to China), covers Christian doctrines, and deals with ancestor worship, the Sabbath, etc. “It also treats social themes such as child slavery and education for girls, almsgiving and polygamy, footbinding and work ethics, equal rights that should exist between men and women, and marriage between Christians and non-Christians.” Oak (B &L Christianity in Korea), 84
1884: Ernest Faber, Zixi Cudong, Evangelical Missionary Society of Basel, 1884 book. Confucianism should be ally to Christianity. “Grafting.” Includes discussing of peace-making, humane treatment of animals, honest admin, street improvements, “and of prohibiting the slave trade and female infanticide.” Oak, 88
c. 1908: "You see, in those days foreigners were afraid we would take their heads. But that didn't stop Mr. Young Man (Watkin Roberts, a Welsh missionary to eastern India.) Why, once when he heard that a dying Lushai chief was having his slaves buried with him, he traveled day and night to save them. The slaves were already buried to their waist when he arrived. He ordered his native helpers to dig them out, and nobody laid a hand on him." (James and Marti Hefley, God's Tribesman: The Rochunga Pudaite Story, 19)

After 1800, and with this precedent, evangelicals (and Quakers) led what became the moral crusade against slavery, first in the English world, then extending around the world to this day. (I myself was privileged to play a small role in the continuing struggle.)

But not being a slave myself, I think I'll end here. A more proactive argument for the influence Christianity had and continues to have in ameliorating and ending slavery is probably needed to join all these little dots; maybe I’ll find time to write such a paper, or book, later.