Christ was born, lived and died in a culture shaped by God to become his people - from Abraham who first heard God's call, to Christ. This was indeed a unique culture which encountered the personal God, God who spoke to them and cared for them. In Christ the personal encounter between God and Man became definitive - thus the rise of Christianity. As Christianity expanded in the East, it encountered the Chinese Culture in which faith in Christ had to be understood within its cultural context.
Here we see the restored remains of Da Qin Christian monastery located 50 miles from Xian, once the capital of the Tang Empire. When it was first explored by Martin Palmer it contained a crumbling nativity scene situated below the five sacred mountains of Taoism. On the third floor was the discernable scene of Jonah, resting under the gourd tree outside Ninaveh.
In front of the pagoda is a replica of the Stone Sutra (now located in the old Confucian temple on San Xue Street, Xi'an City) originally erected in 781 A.D. probably when the Christian monastery was dedicated. This Sutra (Sacred Text) carved with 1900 Chinese characters expresses in Taoist-Buddhist terms the beliefs and history of the Christian Mission (Religion of Light) in China.
Note the sculptured cross on the top of the stone. Below the Chinese characters reads,
"Da Qin Religion of Light Record
of its Transmissions Throughout China"
Aluoben who first established Christianity was a Nestorian monk-priest. The Nestorians believed that in Christ there were two persons, one human and one divine and that Mary was not the mother of God but only of the human Christ. This being said, we cannot take away from their desire to spread the faith in Christ in the Tang Dynasty and their ability to express the faith in Taoist-Buddhist-Confucian terms.
The Stone Sutra begins as follows:
"In the beginning was the natural constant, the true stillness of the Origin, and the primordial void of the Most High. Than, the spirit of the void emerged as the Most High Lord, moving in mysterious ways to enlighten the holy ones. He is Joshua, my True Lord of the Void, who embodies the tree subtle and wondrous bodies, and who was condemned to the cross so that the people of the four dimensions can be saved." ... "Therefore, my Lord Ye Su, the one emanating in three subtle bodies, hid his true power, became a human, and came on behalf of the Lord of Heaven to preach the good teachings." (Stone Sutra v. 1-3, 17) 87
Speaking of Adam and Eve follows:
"He gave them the original nature of goodness and appointed them as guardians of all creation. Their minds were empty; they were content; and their hearts were simple and innocent. Originally they had no desire, but under the influence of Satan, they abandoned their pure and simple goodness for the glitter of gold. Falling into the trap of death and lies, they became embroiled in the three hundred and sixty-five forms of sin. In doing so, they have woven the web of retribution and have bound themselves inside it." (Stone Sutra v. 4-11)
Here we run into the Eastern concept of "Original Nature". From their perspective, man never lost his original nature but it became clouded by sinful inclinations and sins. Now by self-effort he can recover his original nature. Western Christianity basing itself on Biblical revelation speaks of Original Sin, the loss of the original nature that can only be restored by the grace of God in Christ beginning with Baptism, or as St. Paul puts it, "All men have sinned and are deprived of the glory of God." Further, David Marshall has pointed out that "Original Nature" has also been translated as "an excellent disposition". In any event, the Nestorians were only trying to help the Chinese see that the Christian faith was not alien to their culture but fulfilled the longing of their hearts.
Belief in Reincarnation was prevalent in the East and in Buddhist China. Unlike the Church in the West, the Church there did not deny reincarnation but points to Christ as the way out of reincarnation.
"He [Christ] set afloat the raft of salvation and compassion so that we can use it to ascend to the place of light and be united with the spirit. He carried out the work of deliverance, and when the task was completed, He ascended to immortality in broad daylight." (Stone Sutra, Part 2, v.23-24) Martin Palmer points out that "the raft of salvation and compassion" is one of the oldest images which speaks of the salvatory activities of the Buddha and Bodhisattvas. Christ is here presented as the one who carries us away from falsehood, greed, karma and rebirth to the Pure Land. The wheel of return was a return like Christ back to God. The expression "immortality in broad daylight" differentiate the immortality of Christ from Taoist view of immortality. "Most Eastern immortals ascended secretly and are only discovered to be immortals when their coffins are lifted and found to be empty." (Martin Plamer, p. 215)
The Stone Sutra gives us a view of the Spread of Christianity in this period of Chinese history which we in the West never imagined until the Stone Sutra was discovered in 1625. We read,
"The Emperor Gaozong praised his ancestor for recognizing the value of the true teachings and decreed the building of the Religion of Light monasteries. He conferred upon Alouben the title 'Lord Protector of the Great Teachings.' The teachings spread in the ten directions and the country prospered. Monasteries were built in hundreds of cities and many people received blessings from the Religion of Light Church." (Stone Sutra, Part 3, v. 26-29)
Portrait of Empress Wu Zetien: The National Museum of Chinese History.
The decline of Eastern Christianity in China began with the rule of Empress Wu Zetien (695-705) who favored Buddhism. In 705 she was forced out of power. Gradually the Taoists and Confucionists gained control of the government. They disbanded the Buddhist monasteries and forced Nestorian monks return to lay life. By 845 the Church of Light was no longer functioning in China. The Da Qin monastery was destroyed and only its lonely pagoda remains standing to this day.
Way of Heaven