Woody Allen used to joke that he had been kicked out of college for cheating on an exam in his metaphysics class: He looked into the soul of the guy sitting next to him. It's not a form of cheating I'm especially tempted by. On those rare occasions when I have truly looked into my own soul, what I have seen there does not incline me to investigate the contents of someone else's.
But when I am so tempted, it is often because of something I read or hear that I simply can't account for. Occasionally a statement will puzzle me, and therefore fascinate me, because I simply cannot imagine that the person uttering it can possibly believe it to be true. And at such moments I would indeed be tempted to look into that person's soul to find out what in the world is going on in there.
I had this experience recently while reading an essay in the Boston Globe by Philip Jenkins, a historian of Christianity whose book The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity has been much (and I think rightly) praised. Jenkins has now turned his attention to the history of the Christian faith in Asia, and the Globe essay is a kind of preview of his new book The Lost History of Christianity. Intending, I suppose, to show the relevance of his topic, he devotes his essay to contrasting the lost Asian Christianity to the versions of the faith the Globe's readers are likely to have heard of. And this is where my curiosity about the author's inner state is piqued.
Jenkins presents, for our edification and (I think) admiration, the story of “Peter Phan, a Jesuit theologian whose main sin, in official eyes, has been to treat the Buddhism of his Vietnamese homeland as a parallel path to salvation.” And then he writes: “Following the ideas of Benedict XVI, though, the Church refuses to give up its fundamental belief in the unique role of Christ.”
Now here is where I pause in wonderment. Does Jenkins really and truly believe that “belief in the unique role of Christ” is an “idea” distinctive to the current pope? Can he be unaware that he would have come nearer to the truth by writing “Following the ideas of Benedict XVI, of every previous occupant of the throne of St. Peter, of the apostles, of the Church Fathers, of the leaders of the great Reformation traditions, and of most influential leaders of Christianity throughout the world, the Church refuses to give up its fundamental belief in the unique role of Christ”?
Well, I think Jenkins does know that he's exaggerating, because at one point he admits that “most Christian churches hold that Jesus alone is the Way, the Truth, and the Life.” A little later, Jenkins reattaches this belief to the pope, but only to acknowledge that “this view places Benedict in a strong tradition of Christianity as it has developed in Europe since Roman times.” In any event, if this conviction that Christ's role in salvation is unique is a strong tradition of Christian belief, then what are the other strong traditions of Christianity, the ones that do not see Jesus Christ as a unique figure?
This, presumably, is the burden of Jenkins' new book, but the sketch of the argument in his essay is not promising. It leans heavily on “a startling symbol that appeared on memorials and stone carvings in both southern India and coastal China during the early Middle Ages. We can easily see that the image depicts a cross, but it takes a moment to realize that the base of the picture—the root from which the cross is growing—is a lotus flower, the symbol of Buddhist enlightenment.”
This is indeed a remarkable image, but does it mean what Jenkins assumes it means? I wonder if he is aware of the common ancient tradition in Orthodox Christianity that depicts the Cross atop a skull, which is clearly meant to say that death is conquered by the Cross, not that it is the root or the soil from which Christian faith grows.
I will leave it to the historians to evaluate Jenkins' interpretation of such evidence, along with his claim that the broad-minded and tolerant churches of the East died out through no fault of their own. Let's waive the point and assume that the history is sound. If so, what's appealing to Jenkins about this model of Christianity? And what, after all is said, remains Christian about it?
It turns out that Jenkins' claims and commitments are rather difficult to lay hold of, owing to his tendency to invoke anodyne nostrums in place of straightforward arguments. Consider this example: In our world, Jenkins writes, “teaching different faiths to acknowledge one another's claims, to live peaceably together side by side, stops being a matter of good manners and becomes a prerequisite for human survival.” But what does acknowledge mean here?
“Over the past thirty years,” he adds, “the Roman Catholic Church has faced repeated battles over this question of Christ's uniqueness, and has cracked down on thinkers who have made daring efforts to accommodate other world religions.” But what does accommodate mean here?
Or “if these Nazarenes could find meaning in the lotus-cross, then why can't modern Catholics, or other inheritors of the faith Jesus inspired?” But what does find meaning in mean here?
Or “some day, future historians might look at the last few hundred years of Euro-American dominance within Christianity and regard it as an unnatural interlude in a much longer story of fruitful interchange between the great religions.” But what does fruitful interchange mean here?
Or “we could do a lot worse than to learn from what we sometimes call the Dark Ages.” But what does learn from mean here?
The difficulty should be evident. Only the coldest of hearts and the most tightly shut of minds could repudiate acknowledgment of one another and finding meaning in one another's views and learning from one another and having lots of fruitful interchanges. Certainly I am eager to embrace all of those values, insofar as I understand them. But must I give up my belief that Jesus is the Way, the Truth, and the Life in order so to embrace them?
And if I do give up on the uniqueness of Jesus, what do I retain? I think we get a clue in this passage from Jenkins:
By the twelfth century, flourishing churches in China and southern India were using the lotus-cross. The lotus is a superbly beautiful flower that grows out of muck and slime. No symbol could better represent the rise of the soul from the material, the victory of enlightenment over ignorance, desire, and attachment. For two thousand years, Buddhist artists have used the lotus to convey these messages in countless paintings and sculptures. The Christian Cross, meanwhile, teaches a comparable lesson, of divine victory over sin and injustice, of the defeat of the world.
But these lessons are not comparable at all; they are quite dramatically at odds with each other, which may help to explain why attempts to reconcile them—if indeed that was really what was going on—have not succeeded. Christianity, being anything but Gnostic, does not believe that the material world is evil, but rather good: the glorious creation of a personal God. Christianity does not teach the innocence or purity of the soul, but rather the corruption of the will and the resulting involvement of the body in sin: As the Body says in a poem by Andrew Marvell, What but a Soul could have the wit / To build me up for Sin so fit? Christianity does not believe in nonattachment, but rather teaches precisely the opposite, that we should weep with those who weep and rejoice with those who rejoice. The Buddha says, “He who has no love has no woe”; St. John says, “He who does not love abides in death.”
Jenkins continues, “For long centuries, Asian Christians kept up neighborly relations with other faiths, which they saw not as deadly rivals but as fellow travelers on the road to enlightenment.” But the quest of the Christian is not enlightenment; rather, it is love of God and neighbor and reconciliation with God, as God reconciles the world to himself. Yes, if you choose to voyage along “the road to enlightenment,” you can get along swimmingly with your Buddhist neighbors. But you will have ceased to practice Christianity and begun to practice Buddhism or something very like it.
Jenkins draws his essay to a close in this way:
Consider the story told by Timothy, a patriarch of the Nestorian church. Around 800, he engaged in a famous debate with the Muslim caliph in Baghdad, a discussion marked by reason and civility on both sides. Imagine, Timothy said, that we are all in a dark house, and someone throws a precious pearl in the midst of a pile of ordinary stones. Everyone scrambles for the pearl, and some think they've found it, but nobody can be sure until day breaks.
In the same way, he said, the pearl of true faith and wisdom had fallen into the darkness of this transitory world; each faith believed that it alone had found the pearl. Yet all he could claim—and all the caliph could say in response—was that some faiths thought they had enough evidence to prove that they were indeed holding the real pearl, but the final truth would not be known in this world.
Jenkins doesn't give a name to the position he is recommending, and that he believes Timothy is recommending, but it seems to me that it does have a name: agnosticism. The lesson of the parable is clear: Not only do we not know whether any of our religious beliefs are true, we cannot know. This world is simply and necessarily a realm of darkness. What I clutch so eagerly in my hand may be a pearl or may be a pebble, but I will not know until the light comes, and that will happen at the end of this life.
Indeed, Jenkins seems to be placing his faith in the simple belief that dawn will break, that enlightenment will eventually come—but why should we, scrambling ignorantly in the darkness, trust in that? (We who cannot tell pearls from pebbles surely would not dare to prophesy a coming dawn.) In this sense Jenkins is not quite an agnostic, for genuine agnosticism doubts the promise of morning as it doubts the authenticity of the pearl.
Moreover, if you look at the actual dialogue between Timothy and the caliph, you might well conclude that the old catholicos—such is his patriarchal title—would have been less than sympathetic to Jenkins' project. The parable of the pearl, it turns out, comes near the end of a long conversation in which Timothy patiently explains and strenuously defends to the caliph the doctrine of the Trinity. And his invocation of the parable is a kind of trick. The caliph, doubtless rather overwhelmed by Timothy's apologetic vigor, is quick to interpret the parable: “The possessors of the pearl are not known in this world, O Catholicos.”
But Timothy does not agree. “They are partially known, O our victorious King.” They are known by the good works of Christians—“those who possess the true faith”—and by the miracles that are attested in Scripture, those performed by Jesus' disciples as well as by the Lord himself. “It is by the brightness of such rays,” says Timothy, “that the possessors of this pearl, which is so full of luster and so precious that it outweighs all the world in the balance, are known.”
The caliph proffers exactly the interpretation of the parable that Philip Jenkins does—and Catholicos Timothy rejects it. He transforms the story's pearl into the pearl of great price, and by so doing he encourages the caliph to give everything he has to acquire it.
Jenkins is absolutely right to say that this “discussion [is] marked by reason and civility on both sides,” but neither the reason nor the civility stems from Timothy's willingness to agree that he is scrabbling in the darkness along with everyone else, clutching something that may be a pearl or a pebble. Timothy does not acknowledge that. Rather, peaceably but firmly, he describes for the caliph what he is so bold as to call “the true faith”—faith in the one and only Light of the world.
Alan Jacobs is professor of English at Wheaton College. A regular contributor to First Things, he is the author of several books, including Original Sin: A Cultural History.