We’ve never suffered from a dearth of books on Christianity. Even leaving aside the Bible, books on all things Christian–apologetics, fiction, inspirational tracts, and even books that take on Christianity from an atheistic viewpoint–have never been in short supply. The Christian publishing industry takes in revenues in excess of billions of dollars per year, much of it spent preaching to the converted, and much of the rest attempting to convert the rest.
What we don’t see nearly as often are books that unearth the other Christianities, those that have existed side-by-side with orthodox Christianity, or that show us the Christianities that might have been. Sure, The DaVinci Code created a flurry of interest in all things Gnostic, but there are a plethora of other possibilities that blossomed in the early years of the religion, many of them never to come to full flower. One such “alternate” Christianity is outlined in Martin Palmer’s The Jesus Sutras.
As we’re still reminded on a nearly daily basis, cultures and religions seem more likely to clash than collaborate. Palmer’s great gift in this book is to show us that it wasn’t always, and need not always, be so.
The story goes something like this: In the seventh and eighth centuries C.E., missionaries from the Church of the East, following in the footsteps of the Apostle Thomas (who, legend tells us, evangelized in India) reached South Asia and China. What set these missionaries apart from so many others before and since was the spirit in which they approached their work, being willing not only to approach other individuals and their beliefs on the locals’ terms, but–more importantly–being willing to approach them in dialogue as equals.
The results would not happen overnight; reading the translations of the sutras, one sees an evolution in their theology and the means by which that philosophy is expressed. The initial attempts are halting, even tentative, but later sutras skillfully and hauntingly convey Christian theology in terms the indigenous population would find familiar. Rather than trying to force Western values on their Eastern bretheren, the monks at Xian found a way to meld Christian and Eastern modes of thought. The result of this encounter, and the collaboration that came with it, was a marvelous synthesis of Christianity, Buddhism, Taoism, and Tibetan Shamanism. What Palmer ends up showing us is that it’s possible to blend the best of two or more religions while still allowing one of those to be primus inter pares (first among equals).
Palmer spends as much of the book, it seems, explaining his own fascination with the Religion of Light as he does explaining the context of the texts themselves. This can be a distraction, but it’s only a temporary one; just as the novelty of Palmer’s fear of heights or his encounter with a Buddhist nun start to wear thin, we’re treated to another segment of the sutras:
The laws of Compassion save us all!
Echoing through the world like a tolling golden bell
Great Holy Law Giver
You bring us back to our original nature.
And the souls that are saved are countelss:
Divine compassion lifs them up from the dust
Redeeming them from the the saddened realm of ghosts
The hundred Ways bring us clarity and kind-hearted mercy…
Every seven days we have an audience with heaven…
It’s easy to forget–or at any rate, it’s easy to be shouted down for mentioning–not only the Jewish roots of Christianity, but also its deep roots in paganism and other local religions like Zoroastrianism and Mithraism. The truth in this, however, ought not to threaten, or threaten to obscure, whatever truth one finds in one’s own faith (or lack thereof). These blends, this melding, of traditions and beliefs isn’t something new, nor something unworkable. Rather, it seems something we’ve lost the knack of doing. The shame of this is that these hybrids, when they’re forged (I was going to say “when they happen,” but that suggests a level of accident or serendipity that wasn’t, and isn’t, there), teach us new things about ourselves, and in bringing us together bring us closer to that one divine spark.
Postscript: The Jesus Sutras has, sadly, gone out of print. While other books approach the Sutras–one example that’s still in print would be Ray Riegert and Thomas Moore’s The Lost Sutras of Jesus: Unlocking the Ancient Wisdom of the Xian Monks–sometimes with perfectly serviceable translations of the sutras themselves, they generally lack Palmer’s enthusiasm for his subject, not to mention his scholarly rigor. Find The Jesus Sutras either used, or at your local library.