The Thousand-Year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia – and How it Died
The End of Global Christianity
Religions die when they are proved to be true. Science is the record of dead religions.
Usually, this history is presented as a tale of steady expansion, from the Middle East to Europe and ultimately onto the global stage. Christianity appears to have spread freely and inexorably, so that we rarely think of major reverses or setbacks. When we do hear of disasters or persecutions, they are usually mentioned as the prelude to still greater advances, an opportunity for heroic resistance to oppression. Protestants know how their faith survived all the persecutions and slaughter of the wars of religion; Catholics recall how the worst atrocities inflicted by Protestant and atheist regimes could not silence true belief. Modern observers witness the survival of the churches under Communism, and the ultimate triumph symbolized by Pope John Paul II. As the hymn teaches, truth will endure, in spite of dungeon, fire, and sword.
Anyone familiar with Christian history has read of the planting, rise, and development of churches, but how many know accounts of the decline or extinction of Christian communities or institutions? Most Christians would find the very concept unsettling. Yet such events have certainly occurred, and much more often than many realize. During the later Middle Ages, mass defections and persecutions across Asia and the Middle East uprooted what were then some of the world’s most numerous Christian communities, churches that possessed a vibrant lineal and cultural connection to the earliest Jesus movement of Syria and Palestine. Seventeenth-century Japan thoroughly eliminated a Christian presence that had come close to becoming a real force in the country, possibly even to achieving a national conversion. Repeatedly through its history, the church’s tree has been pruned and cut back, often savagely.
These episodes of removal or mass destruction have profoundly shaped the character of the Christian faith. In modern times, we are accustomed to thinking of Christianity as traditionally based in Europe and North America, and only gradually do we learn the strange concept of the religion spreading to the global stage as Christian numbers swell in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. So grounded is Christianity in the Western inheritance that it seems almost revolutionary to contemplate this kind of globalization, with all its potential impact on theology, art, and liturgy. A faith primarily associated with Europe somehow has to adapt to this wider world, adjusting many assumptions drawn from European culture. Some even ask whether this new global or world Christianity will remain fully authentic, as European norms seem to represent a kind of gold standard.
But such questions are ironic when we realize how unnatural the Euro-American emphasis is when seen against the broader back• ground of Christian history. The particular shape of Christianity with which we are familiar is a radical departure from what was for well over a millennium the historical norm: another, earlier global Christianity once existed. For most of its history, Christianity was a tricontinental religion, with powerful representation in Europe, Africa, and Asia, and this was true into the fourteenth century. Christianity became predominantly European not because this continent had any obvious affinity for that faith, but by default: Europe was the continent where it was not destroyed. Matters could easily have developed very differently.
In describing the fall of the non-European churches, I am not offering a lament for a worldwide Christian hegemony that never was, still less for a failure to resist rival religions such as Islam. We should rather regret the destruction of a once-flourishing culture, much as we mourn the passing of Muslim Spain, Buddhist India, or the Jewish worlds of eastern Europe. With the possible exception of a few particularly bloody or violent creeds, the destruction of any significant faith tradition is an irreplaceable loss to human experience and culture. Furthermore, the Christian experience offers lessons that can be applied more generally to the fate of other religions that have suffered persecution or elimination. If a faith as vigorous and pervasive as Middle Eastern or Asian Christianity could have fallen into such total oblivion, no religion is safe. And the means by which such an astonishing fall occurred should be of keen interest to anyone contemplating the future of any creed or denomination.
Above all, rediscovering the lost Christian worlds of Africa and Asia raises sobering questions about the nature of historical memory. How can we possibly have forgotten such a vast story? In terms of the story of Christianity, which we usually associate so centrally with the making of “the West,” much of what we think we know is inaccurate, in terms of the places and times at which things happened and how religious change occurred. Moreover, many aspects of Christianity that we conceive as thoroughly modern were in fact the norm in the distant past: globalization, the encounter with other faiths, and the dilemmas of living under hostile regimes. How can our mental maps of the past be so radically distorted?
A Third Christian World
Much of what we today call the Islamic world was once Christian. The faith originated and took shape in Syria-Palestine and in Egypt, and these areas continued to have major Christian communities long after the Arab conquests. As late as the eleventh century, Asia was still home to at least a third of the world’s Christians, and perhaps a tenth of all Christians still lived in Africa—a figure that the continent would not reach again until the 1960s. Even in 1250, it still made sense to think of a Christian world stretching east from Constantinople to Samarkand (at least) and south from Alexandria to the desert of the Ogaden, almost to the equator.
When we move our focus away from Europe, everything we think we know about Christianity shifts kaleidoscopically, even alarmingly. Let us, for example, take one legendary turning point in the history of Western Christianity. By the year 800, the Frankish king Charles—Charlemagne—had drawn most of western Europe under a single united Christian rule. On Christmas Day of that year, in Rome, the pope crowned him emperor, consecrating the long association of church and state in the medieval West. For many modern observers, this coronation symbolizes much that is distasteful about the story of Christianity: its alliance with state power, its thoroughly European nature, and its arrogant isolation from other faiths and cultures. Today, the word Christendom implies for many a theocratic regime in which the most stringent moral and doctrinal codes were enforced through law, while Jews and other outsiders were excluded or subjected to violence and insult. And all too often, Christian states were associated with ignorance, in a world that remembered only vestiges of classical learning and science. Although Charlemagne presided over a “renaissance” of sorts, it was a pallid affair compared with the ancient world, to say nothing of the true Renaissance of the fifteenth century.
Historians can argue over the realities of Charlemagne’s Christendom, but this was only one part of a much larger Christian story, and one that is massively more diverse, and more impressive, than the common stereotype suggests. When we speak of the medieval church, we are usually referring to conditions in western Europe, and not to the much wealthier and more sophisticated Eastern world centered in Constantinople. But there was, in addition, a third Christian world, a vast and complex realm that stretched deep into Asia.
To appreciate just how radically different this lost Eastern Christianity was, consider one individual who was closely contemporary with Charlemagne. About 780, the bishop Timothy became patriarch, or catholicos, of the Church of the East, which was then based at the ancient Mesopotamian city of Seleucia. He was then aged about fifty-two, well past the average life expectancy for people of this era. Nevertheless, he lived on well into his nineties, dying in 823, and in that long life, Timothy devoted himself to spiritual conquests as enthusiastically as Charlemagne did to building his worldly empire. At every stage, Timothy’s career violates everything we think we know about the history of Christianity—about its geographical spread, its relationship with political state power, its cultural breadth, and its interaction with other religions. In terms of his prestige, and the geographical extent of his authority, Timothy was arguably the most significant Christian spiritual leader of his day, much more influential than the Western pope, in Rome, and on a par with the Orthodox patriarch in Constantinople. Perhaps a quarter of the world’s Christians looked to Timothy as both spiritual and political head. At least as much as the Western pope, he could claim to head the successor of the ancient apostolic church.
When they think about Christian history, most modern Westerners follow the book of Acts in concentrating on the church’s expansion west, through Greece and the Mediterranean world, and on to Rome. But while some early Christians were indeed moving west, many other believers—probably in greater numbers—journeyed east along the land routes, through what we today call Iraq and Iran, where they built great and enduring churches. Because of its location—close to the Roman frontier, but just far enough beyond it to avoid heavy-handed interference—Mesopotamia or Iraq retained a powerful Christian culture at least through the thirteenth century. In terms of the number and splendor of its churches and monasteries, its vast scholarship and dazzling spirituality, Iraq was through the late Middle Ages at least as much a cultural and spiritual heartland of Christianity as was France or Germany, or indeed Ireland.
Iraq and Syria were the bases for two great transnational churches deemed heretical by the Catholic and Orthodox—namely, the Nestorian and Jacobites. Well into the Middle Ages, the Christian strongholds of the Middle East included such currently newsworthy Iraqi cities as Basra, Mosul, and Kirkuk, while Tikrit—hometown of Saddam Hussein—was a thriving Christian center several centuries after the corning of Islam. Nisibis and Jundishapur were legendary centers of learning that kept alive the culture and science of the ancient world, both of the Greco-Romans and of the Persians. In their scholarship, their access to classical learning and science, the Eastern churches in 800 were at a level that Latin Europe would not reach at least until the thirteenth century.
Focusing on the Asian, Eastern story of Christianity forces us to jettison our customary images of the so-called Dark Ages. From Timothy’s point of view, the culture and learning of the ancient world had never been lost; nor, critically, had the connection with the primitive church. We easily contrast the Latin, feudal world of the Middle Ages with the ancient church rooted in the Semitic languages of the Middle East, but in Timothy’s time, the Church of the East still thought and spoke in Syriac, and its adherents continued to do so for several centuries afterward. As late as the thirteenth century, they still called themselves Nasraye, “Nazarenes,” a form that preserves the Aramaic term used by the apostles; and they knew Jesus as Yeshua. Monks and priests bore the title rabban, teacher or master, which is of course related to the familiar rabbi. Church thinkers used literary approaches that have as much to do with the Talmud as with the theologies of Latin Europe. Through such bodies, we can trace a natural religious and cultural evolution from the apostolic world through the Middle Ages. If we are ever tempted to speculate on what the early church might have looked like if it had developed independently, avoiding the mixed blessing of its alliance with Roman state power, we have but to look east.
Repeatedly, we find Timothy’s churches using texts that, according to most Western accounts, should have been forgotten long since. Eastern scholars had access to abundant alternative scriptures and readings, some of them truly ancient—scarcely surprising when we remember how close they were physically to the setting of so much Jewish and early Christian history. One stunning hint of just what was available to them comes from one of Timothy’s letters, written around the year 800, when a Jew in the process of converting to Christianity told him of the recent finding of a large hoard of ancient manuscripts, biblical and apocryphal, in a cave near Jericho. The documents had since been acquired by Jerusalem’s Jewish community. Modern readers naturally draw parallels with the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, and, then as now scholars were thrilled. Timothy responded with all the appropriate learned questions, seeking to track down “several passages which arc cited in our New Testament as from the Old, but of which there is no mention in the Old Testament itself.” How did the newly found texts compare with the known Hebrew versions? With the Greek Septuagint? He was delighted to hear “that these passages exist, and are found in the books discovered there.” His questions are all the more impressive when we think what scholars in the Latin West would have made of such a find at this time. The Westerners had no inkling of such distinctions, nor knew the relevant languages in any but the most rudimentary form, even in the spiritual powerhouse of Ireland. Literally, only a very few Western Christian scholars at the time would have known how to hold the manuscripts: which way was up?
Timothy found rich treasures in the scrolls. “My Hebrew informant told me that they had found among these books more than two hundred Psalms of David,” he wrote, and Nestorian writers preserve readings of noncanonical Psalms that also appear in the Qumran scrolls. Syriac writers also knew a host of lesser and later Jewish postbiblical texts, and Old Testament apocryphal writings, the pseudepigrapha. Like its ancient predecessors, Timothy’s church remained thoroughly in dialogue with Semitic and Jewish traditions. Our accepted chronology of the ancient church is wrong: ancient Semitic Christianity dies out not in the fourth century, but in the fourteenth.
Over the past thirty years, scholars have rediscovered the many spiritual currents that characterized the earliest church, the various lost or forgotten Christianities that were remembered, if at all, as heretical byways of the faith. For scholars like Elaine Bagels, Bart Ehrman, and Karen King, these mystical and speculative ideas flourished—together with their distinctive lost Gospels—until they were largely suppressed during the fourth century, following the Council of Nicea. Yet Eastern Christians also continued to pursue mystical quests in ways that were familiar in the early church, and they did so long after the fourth century. In contrast to the rigid homogeneity that is so often associated with the Western Middle Ages, Eastern prelates had to confront real diversity of thought, with daring mystical and theological speculations.
One continuing influence was the third-century Father Origen, who had proposed that the soul was preexistent and that salvation and damnation might be temporary states leading ultimately to a grand restoration of all things, the apokatastasis. At this climax beyond history, even the Devil would be redeemed, and all would share the divine nature. Origenism long continued to agitate the Nestorian church. Some mystics taught that, as true salvation was spiritual, bodily resurrection was irrelevant, and there would be neither judgment nor punishment. Visionaries sought contemplative ecstasy in which verbal prayer would no longer be relevant, and some rejected sacraments and offices, in their quest for the pristine simplicity of a restored Garden of Eden. Above all, such mystics taught silence and solitude, together with strict asceticism, using language highly reminiscent of the ancient Gnostics. These theories were still circulating widely enough to force Timothy to confront them in the 780s. We have to ask ourselves: at what point can we speak of the death of the ancient church, the primitive church, the patristic church? Intellectually and spiritually, it was assuredly alive in Timothy’s day, and for centuries afterward. The Syriac churches represent the ultimate lost Christianity.
The Countries of the Sunrise
But Timothy’s church was anything but a mere fossil, as centuries of missionary fervor had projected the faith of Yeshua into an incomprehensibly vaster world. Although largely forgotten today, these Eastern ventures mirrored, and exceeded, the much more celebrated missionary successes in Europe. Thomas Hobbes fa-sly described the papacy as “the ghost of the deceased Roman tire, sitting crowned upon the grave thereof.” The Church of East likewise built upon the ruins of older empires—in this the great Persian realm, and before that, archaic states like Assyria, Babylonia, and Elam.
To appreciate the scale of the Church of the East, we can look at t of the church’s metropolitans—that is, of those senior clergy a oversaw inferior hierarchies of bishops grouped in provinces. England, to give a comparison, the medieval church had two Metropolitans: respectively, at York and Canterbury. Timothy himself presided over nineteen metropolitans and eighty-five bishops, though the exact locations of metropolitan seats changed over time, map 1.1 on page 12 identifies some of the leading centers. Just in Timothy’s lifetime, new metropolitan sees were created at Rai s Tehran, and in Syria, Turkestan, Armenia, and Dailumaye on Caspian Sea.
The presence of metropolitan seats in Turkestan and central Asia is amazing enough, but the list of bishoprics and lesser churches inludes just as many shocks: Arabia had at least four sees, and Timothy created a new one in Yemen. And the church was growing in southern India, where believers claimed a direct inheritance from missions of the apostle Thomas. One ninth-century copper plate records the grant of land to one of Thomas’s Indian churches, a means that would have staggered contemporary Europeans: boundaries were marked by walking a she-elephant around the grounds.
Timothy himself was committed to the church’s further expansion, and he commissioned monks to carry the faith to the shores the Caspian Sea, even into China. He reported the conversion of the Turkish great king, the khagan, who then ruled over much of central Asia In a magnificent throwaway line, Timothy described,about 780, how “In these days the Holy Spirit has anointed a metropolitan for the Turks, and we are preparing to consecrate another one for the Tibetans.” Timothy was deeply conscious of the church’s universality. When debating a technical liturgical question, he drew support from the practice of the wider churches of the sprawling Christian world he knew: the Persians and Assyrians don’t do this, he argued, and nor do the churches of “the countries of the sunrise—that is to say, among the Indians, the Chinese, the Tibetans, the Turks.” The church operated in multiple languages: in Syriac, Persian, Turkish, Soghdian, and Chinese, but not Latin, which scarcely mattered outside western Europe.
To put this geographical achievement in context, we might think of what was happening in contemporary Europe. Before Saint Benedict formed his first monastery, before the probable date of the British king Arthur, Nestorian sees existed at Nishapur and Tus in Khurasan, in northeastern Persia, and at Rai. Before England had its first archbishop of Canterbury—possibly before Canterbury had a Christian church—the Nestorian church already had metropolitans at Mery and Herat, in the modern nations of (respectively) Turkmenistan and Afghanistan, and churches were operating in Sri Lanka and Malabar. Before Good King Wenceslas ruled a Christian Bohemia, before Poland was Catholic, the Nestorian sees of Bukhara, Samarkand, and Patna all achieved metropolitan status. Our common mental maps of Christian history omit a thousand years of that story, and several million square miles of territory. No reasonable historian of modern Christianity would leave Europe out of the story; and omitting Asia from the medieval record is just as unconscionable. We can’t understand Christian history without Asia—or, indeed, Asian history without Christianity.
Neither the Nestorian nor the Jacobite churches apparently knew or cared much about European developments. Timothy would certainly have known about Charlemagne, if only because the Frankish ruler exchanged diplomatic missions with the caliphate, and Timothy was aware that Rome had its own patriarchate. Even so, he felt that many reasons gave natural primacy of honor to his own Seleucia. If Rome drew its authority from Peter, Mesopotamia looked to Christ himself, a descendant of that ancient Sumerian Abraham. Was not Mesopotamia the original source of monarchy and civilization, not to mention the location of the Garden of Eden? Just as the rivers flowed out of Eden, so the other patriarchates flowed forth from Mesopotamia. And obviously it was the East, rather than the West, that had first embraced the Christian message. The natural home of Christianity was in Mesopotamia and points east. According to the geographical wisdom of the time, Seleucia stood at the center of the world’s routes of trade and communication, equally placed between the civilizations that looked respectively to the Atlantic and the Pacific.
In modern terminology, the Eastern churches were thoroughly enculturated, presenting their faith in the languages of the cultures they encountered, sharing their artistic and literary forms. Operating as it did on a global scale, Timothy’s church had no choice but to engage in dialogue with several other world religions—with Islam and Judaism, of course, hut also with Zoroastrianism, Buddhism, and Taoism. In central Asia, the Christians’ main rivals were the Buddhists, who were then engaged in their own great missionary era. For many Mongol and Turkish peoples, Buddhism and Christianity were familiar parts of the cultural landscape, and existed comfortably alongside older primal and shamanic traditions. So widespread were these Asian contacts, in fact, that it is tempting to see Timothy as a holdover from the great Axial Age in which the world religions were formed, even as he looks forward to later eras of global faith and intercultural contact. And the process went far beyond mere polite discussion: Christianity affected and transformed other faiths, and was in turn reshaped by them.
In China particularly, Christianity in Timothy’s age was being transformed by local religious traditions. The Church of the East was anything but a newcomer in China, and Christianity first established itself in that land about 600, roughly at the same time that Tibet first welcomed Buddhism. About 780, a Nestorian community erected a monument that recounted the Christian message in Buddhist and Taoist terms, just as European Christians were trying to make the faith acceptable to peoples of western and northern Europe:
The illustrious and honorable Messiah, veiling his true dignity, appeared in the world as a man; … he fixed the extent of the eight boundaries, thus completing the truth and freeing it from dross; he opened the gate of the three constant principles, introducing life and destroying death; he suspended the bright sun to invade the chambers of darkness, and the falsehoods of the devil were thereupon defeated; he set in motion the vessel of mercy by which to ascend to the bright mansions, whereupon rational beings were then released; having thus completed the manifestation of his power, in clear day he ascended to his true station.
The intellectual categories used here would have baffled a first-century Jew, but no more so than the Latin formulations of Anselm or Thomas Aquinas. Both in China and in southern India, some Nestorians used a distinctive symbol in which the cross is joined to the lotus, symbol of Buddhist enlightenment.
Around the time this memorial was erected, in 782, the Indian Buddhist missionary Prajna arrived in the Chinese imperial capital of Chang’an, but was unable to translate the Sanskrit sutras he had brought with him into either Chinese or any other familiar tongue. In such a plight, what could the hapless missionary do but seek Christian help? He duly consulted the bishop named Adam, whose name headed the list on the Nestorian monument. Adam had already translated parts of the Bible into Chinese, and the two probably shared a knowledge of Persian. Together, Buddhist and Nestorian scholars worked amiably together for some years to translate seven copious volumes of Buddhist wisdom. Probably; Adam did this as much from intellectual curiosity as from ecumenical goodwill, and we can only guess about the conversations that would have ensued: So, what exactly is this “bodhisattva” we bear so much about? Do you realty care more about relieving suffering than atoning for sin? And your monks meditate like ours do? Scholars still speculate whether Adam infiltrated Christian concepts into the translated sutras, consciously or otherwise.
Adam’s efforts bore fruit far beyond China. Other residents of Chang’an at this time included Japanese monks, who took these very translations back with them to their homeland. In Japan, these works became the founding texts of the two great Buddhist schools—respectively, Shingon and Tendai; and all the famous Buddhist movements of later Japanese history, including Zen and Pure Land, can be traced to one of those two schools. To appreciate the full diversity of the Christian experience, it is eye-opening to think what was happening in western Europe at this exact time. The year 782 marked one of the worst horrors of Charlemagne’s reign, the reputed beheading of forty-five hundred Saxons who resisted the Frankish campaign of forced conversion to Catholic Christianity.
Faith Speaks to Faith
Timothy’s church also had critical interactions with Islam, inevitably because for the past century and a half most Eastern Christians had lived under Muslim political power. Christians largely flourished under that authority, although subject to legal disadvantages. Timothy lived in a universe that was culturally and spiritually Christian but politically Muslim, and he coped quite comfortably with that situation. As faithful subjects, the patriarch and his clergy prayed for the caliph and his family. The catholicos was a key figure at the court of the Muslim caliph, and when the city of Seleucia itself went the way of ancient Babylon, fading into ruin in its turn, the caliphate moved its capital to Baghdad; and Timothy naturally followed. Most of his patriarchate coincided with the legendary caliphate of Harun al-Rashid, the era of the Arabian Nights.
As in the case of Buddhism, Christians had to engage intellectually with Islam, and the interactions were impressive, even moving. Timothy’s famous dialogue with the caliph al-Mahdi survives as a precious monument of civilized, intelligent religious exchange. The caliph spoke “not in a harsh and haughty tone … but in a sweet and benevolent way” Given the setting, of course Timothy had to acknowledge the virtues of the Prophet Muhammad, who (he agreed) must have “walked in the path of the prophets.” But the patriarch took every opportunity to explain and defend the Christian position. He concluded with a statement that would have appalled contemporary Europeans, secure in the dogmas they knew. Timothy, in contrast, ruled a church that knew many civilizations and faiths, each equally confident of its own rightness. He asked the king to imagine that
we are all of us as in a dark house in the middle of the night. If at night and in a dark house, a precious pearl happens to fall in the midst of people, and all become aware of its existence, every one would strive to pick up the pearl, which will not fall to the lot of all but to the lot of one only, while one will get hold of the pearl itself, another one of a piece of glass, a third one of a stone or of a bit of earth, but every one will be happy and proud that he is the real possessor of the pearl. When, however, night and darkness disappear, and light and day arise, then every one of those people who had believed that they had the pearl, would extend and stretch their hand towards the light, which alone can show what everyone has in hand. The one who possesses the pearl will rejoice and be happy and pleased with it, while those who had in hand pieces of glass and bits of stone only will weep and be sad, and will sigh and shed tears.
In the same way, Timothy said, the pearl of true faith had fallen into the transient mortal world, and each faith naively believed that it alone possessed it. All he could claim—and all the caliph could assert in response—was that some faiths could see enough evidence that theirs was the real pearl, although the final truth would not be known in this world.
Timothy could speak so freely because Eastern Christians played such a critical role in building Muslim politics and culture, and they still had a near stranglehold over the ranks of administration. Their wide linguistic background made the Eastern churches invaluable resources for rising empires in search of diplomats, advisers, and scholars. Eastern Christians dominated the cultural and intellectual life of what was only slowly becoming the “Muslim world,” and this -cultural strength starkly challenges standard assumptions about the relationship between the two faiths. It is common knowledge that medieval Arab societies were far ahead of those of Europe in terms of science, philosophy, and medicine, and that Europeans derived much of their scholarship from the Arab world; yet in the early centuries, this cultural achievement was usually Christian and Jewish rather than Muslim. It was Christians—Nestorian, Jacobite, Orthodox, and others—who preserved and translated the cultural inheritance of the ancient world—the science, philosophy, and medicine—and who transmitted it to centers like Baghdad and Damascus. Much of what we call Arab scholarship was in reality Syriac, Persian, and Coptic, and it was not necessarily Muslim. Syriac-speaking Christian scholars brought the works of Aristotle to the Muslim world: Timothy himself translated Aristotle’s Topics from Syriac into Arabic, at the behest of the caliph. Syriac Christians even make the first reference to the efficient Indian numbering system that we know today as “Arabic,” and long before this technique gained currency among Muslim thinkers.
It was during Timothy’s time that Baghdad became a legendary intellectual center, with the caliph’s creation of the famous House of Wisdom, the fountainhead of later Islamic scholarship. But this was the direct successor of the Christian “university” of Jundishapur, and it borrowed many Nestorian scholars. One early head of the House of Wisdom was the Christian Arab Hunayn, who began the massive project of translating the Greek classics into Arabic: the works of Plato, Aristotle, and the Neoplatonists, as well as medical authorities like Hippocrates and Galen. Reputedly, the caliph paid Hunayn for these books by quite literally giving him their weight in gold. Such were the Christian roots of the Arabic golden age.
Making a Christian East
When Timothy died in 823, he had every reason to hope for his church’s future. The new caliph was friendly to Christian clergy and scholars, Although some ordinary Christians were drifting toward the new faith, there were few signs of any ruinous defections. Even if conditions under Islamic rule ever did become difficult, the Church of the East had plenty of opportunities to grow outside that realm, with all the new conversions in central Asia and China, and the continuing presence in India. Even more than today, South and East Asia were by far the most heavily populated parts of the world. An ever-expanding Church of the East should be more than able to hold its own against the Orthodox Church in Constantinople, the obvious rival for leadership in the Christian world.
Any reasonable projection of the Christian future would have foreseen a bipolar world, divided between multiethnic churches centered respectively in Constantinople and Baghdad. Timothy would probably have felt little hope for the future of Christianity in western Europe. Already in Timothy’s last days, Charlemagne’s vaunted empire was fragmenting, and falling prey to the combined assaults of pagan Northmen and Muslim Saracens. In the century after 790, ruin and massacre overtook virtually all the British and Irish monasteries that had kept learning alive over the previous two centuries, and from which missionaries had gone out to evangelize northern Europe. Spain was already under Muslim rule, and southern Italy and southern France seemed set to follow In 846, Saracens raided papal Rome, plundering the Basilica of Saint Peter and the tomb of the Fisherman. Latin Europe’s low point came soon after 900 when, within the space of a couple of years, areas of central France were ravaged in quick succession by pagan Vikings from the north, Muslim Moors from the south, and pagan Magyars from the east: Christians had nowhere left to hide. Perhaps history would ultimately write off the Christian venture into western Europe as rash overreach, a diversion from Christianity’s natural destiny, which evidently lay in Asia. Europe might have been a continent too far.
Later events often seemed to be following those hopes and fears. Many would agree with the Victorian scholar who declared: “It may be doubted whether Innocent III [pope, 1198-12151 possessed more spiritual power than the patriarch in the city of the Caliphs.”‘ Innocent was the most powerful pope of the Western Middle Ages. Later in the thirteenth century, Nestorian influence was so strong among the Mongols who conquered the Middle East that for a few years, Christian leaders dreamed that Baghdad itself might be the capital of a new Christian empire that would consign Islam to the catalog of forgotten heresies.
The enduring power of Christianity in Asia and Africa must raise doubts about many of the statements that scholars conventionally make about the history of that religion, when conditions in Europe are taken to be the norm for the whole church. While most Christians in Europe certainly lived in a kind of “Christendom:’ in which church and state could be seen as broadly identical, that was far from the reality facing the millions of Christians who lived under other and possibly hostile faiths, under Persian, Muslim, Hindu, or Chinese rule. These believers were well accustomed to a modern idea of Christianity as a minority faith operating far from centers of power, usually suffering official discrimination, and facing the recurrent danger of persecution. About 1420, an Italian traveler observed that “These Nestorian are scattered all over India, in like manner as are the Jews among us.” He found it hard to grasp the idea of Christians as a scattered group living among many other creeds, probably as a small minority. Yet, viewed over the whole span of Christian history, such an experience was no less typical than the dominant status enjoyed by members of nominally Christian societies.
Remapping the World
In visualizing this older Christian world, we need to reconstruct our sense of geography no less than of history. Though maps rarely lie, in the sense of cartographers presenting data they know to be false, the way we choose to visualize information can give a radically distorted impression of reality. When we think about the spread of Christianity, we commonly use maps focused on Europe and the Mediterranean, as we know intuitively that this was the scene of the most intense and important activity.
The Christian world, it appears, had always been what it was when map 1.2 appeared in 1915, a largely European reality: indeed, this particular map suggests that the geographical center of historic Christianity was located somewhere in Austria. And this presentation was more inclusive than many, in stretching as fax east as Syria and Armenia. The message offered is that beyond the colored margins, Christianity never existed, or at least never mattered. Our maps don’t include South America, because it is irrelevant to the story before 1492; by the same token, why should we include Asia or Africa?
As a useful alternative image, we can turn to the symbolic world maps that Christians commonly used through the Addle Ages and the early modern period, which depicted the three continents as lobes joined together in Jerusalem (map 1.3).
Depicting the world in such simple geometric forms did not mean that early cartographers were ignorant or incompetent, as they were quite capable of drawing up highly accurate charts for practical navigation. Rather, these maps carried a higher truth: Jerusalem was the center of the world, the natural site for Christ’s act of self-sacrifice and redemption. (Timothy, of course, would have pushed the center of gravity still farther east!) These images also reflected a world in which Christianity had a strong presence across Asia and much of northern Africa. Criticizing traditional visual concepts of Christian history, Andrew Walls has suggested that, instead of placing a vital early Syrian center like Edessa on the distant eastern fringes of Europe, it makes at least as much sense to locate it at the far west of an Asian map, in the lower left-hand corner.’ Walls was not of course suggesting that such an Asian-focused interpretation would be complete or comprehensive, but that it would be no less accurate than the Eurocentric vision.
The End of a World
And yet this older Christian world perished, destroyed so comprehensively that its memory is forgotten by all except academic specialists. During the Middle Ages, and especially during the fourteenth century, church hierarchies were destroyed, priests and monks were killed, enslaved, or expelled, and monasteries and cathedrals fell silent. As church institutions fell, so Christian communities shrank, the result of persecution or ethnic and religious cleansing. Survivors found it all but impossible to practice their faith without priests or churches, especially when rival religions offered such powerful attractions.
The statistics of decline are sobering. Look, for instance, at Asia Minor, the region that is so often mentioned throughout the New Testament: it is here that we find such historic names as Iconium and Ephesus, Galatia and Bithynia, the seven cities of the book of Revelation. Still in 1050, the region had 373 bishoprics, and the inhabitants were virtually all Christian, overwhelmingly members of the Orthodox Church. Four hundred years later, that Christian proportion had fallen to 10 or 15 percent of the population, and we can find just three bishops. According to one estimate, the number of Asian Christians fell, between 1200 and 1500, from 21 million to 3.4 million. In the same years, the proportion of the world’s Christians living in Africa and Asia combined fell from 34 percent to just 6 percent. Actually, the contraction outside Europe was probably more dramatic than even these figures suggest, but the basic point is accurate.
And what of the Nestorian, the great Church of the East? In southern India, several million Christians today represent the remnants of those missions, although most are affiliated with Catholic or Orthodox churches, which have become the “mainstream” of world Christianity. But elsewhere, the Church of the East largely ceased to exist, and virtually all its once-famous cities and centers now stand in territories that are largely or exclusively Muslim. By the 1920s, the survivors of this once-vast Nestorian Church, which once attracted the loyalty of Tibetans and Mongols, were reduced to “a miserable community of about forty thousand refugees” in northern Iraq. But even then, their sufferings were not at an end. Some years later, they were subjected to massacres so severe as to force legal thinkers to construct a new vocabulary of human savagery. The concept of genocide evolved from discussions of their plight. Timothy’s distant successor today—the catholicos patriarch of the Holy Apostolic Catholic Assyrian Church of the East—is based not in Baghdad, but in Chicago.
A brutal purge of Christianity, most spectacularly in Asia, left Europe as the geographical heart of the Christian faith, and as the only possible base for later expansion. The destruction was not total, but whole areas were swept clean of Christian communities, and believers elsewhere were reduced to a tiny fraction of the population. To borrow the image of the medieval maps, the three lobes became just one. If we look at the whole Middle East, broadly defined, from Egypt to Persia, from Turkey to Arabia, then by 1900 this region had about 5 million Christians in total. This made up a pathetic 0.9 percent of the world’s Christian population, which was then overwhelmingly concentrated in Europe and its overseas settlements. In absolute numbers, there were fewer Christians in the Middle East than in Oceania, that is, mainly, the fairly new colonies of Australia and New Zealand.
Cut Off from the Roots
The disasters of the late Middle Ages tore Christianity from its roots—cultural, geographical, and linguistic. This “uprooting” created the Christianity that we commonly- think of today as the true historical norm, but which in reality was the product of the elimination of alternative realities. Christianity did indeed become “European,” but about a millennium later than most people think As Andrew Walls remarks, “It was not until comparatively recent times—around the year 1500—that the ragged conversion of the last pagan peoples of Europe, the overthrow of Muslim power in Spain, and the final eclipse of Christianity in central Asia and Nubia combined to produce a Europe that was essentially Christian and a Christianity that was essentially European.
The geographical shift away from Asia has cultural and political implications, in that no region, no church, can claim special authenticity or authority on the basis of representing the historic core of the Christian tradition. In this geographical sense, Christianity has no heart, no natural core. Medieval Christians spent two hundred years in bloody efforts to reclaim the home of their faith, in the Holy Land, but their struggle proved fruitless. This lack of a heartland is in stark contrast to the history of Islam, which originated in Arabia and neighboring lands, and has always continued to find its heart there. From that solid base, Islam has spread over large sections of Asia and Africa, occasionally losing some territories, such as Spain and the Balkans, but always retaining its heartland and speaking its Arabic language.
The Christian center of gravity, on the other hand, has shifted over time. For long centuries, the faith found its most active centers in the Near East, but in later eras, the cultural and demographic heart of the church moved to Europe and the Atlantic world, and in our time appears to be shifting to the global South. But unlike Islam, Christianity has not retained its original foundation, in that its original homeland—the region where it enjoyed its greatest triumphs over its first millennium—is now overwhelmingly Muslim. To offer a parallel example to understand how radical the uprooting of Christianity was, we would have to imagine a counterfactual world in which Islam was extinguished in Arabia and the Middle East, and survived chiefly in Southeast Asia, using scriptures translated into Malay and Bengali. Christianity is just as severed from its original context.
Throughout the history of the faith, Christians have used the primitive church as an idealized standard by which to judge their own days, and have tried as far as possible to construct their own faith and practice according to the tenets of New Testament Christianity. Yet the better we understand the authentic worlds of the Christian East, the harder it becomes to contemplate any such vision of a “return to basics.” Timothy and his contemporaries genuinely did live in a world that had a recognizable continuity from the earliest church, a pattern of organic development in terms of social and economic arrangements, of language, culture, and geography. We can debate how far that world represented authentic primitive Christianity, but it is quite certain that no later ages could possibly replicate the apostolic world anything like as faithfully. The loss of continuity—the loss of the core—makes moot later efforts to enforce the culture-specific regulations of the earliest Christian communities.
Looking for the Mainstream
The throttling of the great Eastern churches raises other theological questions for modern-day Christians. Most fundamentally, if Christianity has no historic core, how can we speak of a “mainstream,” a historic norm or standard against which later movements or positions can be judged? When we trace the history of Christianity, we emphasize the kinds of Christian belief that characterized the churches of the old Roman Empire, the Catholic and Orthodox, but they achieved their absolute hegemony only as a consequence of the (relatively late) fall of the older rival churches. Many mainstreams once flowed.
In theology, for instance, the Catholic/Orthodox taught one particular approach to understanding the Incarnation, a fundamental belief from which thinkers strayed at peril to their lives, and later Protestants largely inherited this theology. A thousand years ago, though, orthodoxy (with a small o) represented one theological position among several, and very different opinions prevailed in large and populous sections of the Christian world. Neither Jacobites nor Nestorians were anything like as floridly heretical as the Gnostics, who have attracted so much attention in recent years. Yet even on an issue as basic as the Person of Christ, what we today call mainstream historical orthodoxy looks more like the view that happened to gain power in Europe, and which therefore survived. And what was true of such weighty doctrines applied even more forcefully to lesser matters, to questions of liturgy and devotion. European churches, especially the Roman Catholic Church, became the mainstream of belief by dint of being, so to speak, the last men standing.
The Eastern experience must make us reconsider our view of Christian history. When a movement or church fails or vanishes, hindsight can make us assume that it was doomed to failure from the outset, and that it was never going to play a serious role in history. Yet movements that ultimately became marginal were not always so. The perception that alternative Christianities seem to perish so rapidly after separating from the parent stem just reflects the tendency of later scholars to ignore their existence. In reality, Nestorians and Jacobites remained very influential for over eight hundred years after the great church councils expelled them from the imperial fold, and they attracted believers over a huge geographical area. To put that achievement in context, that time span is far longer than the entire history of Protestantism to date. If such endurance does not mark a variant of Christianity as a thoroughly legitimate expression of the faith, what does?
When modern observers look at the course of Christianity, they often apply a kind of Darwinian perspective, assuming that some versions of the religion succeeded because they were better adapted to their circumstances than were others. From a theological standpoint, this would mean that some kinds of Christianity survived and flourished because they were more faithful, and truer to the divine plan. And the fact of survival in turn validates the present-day beliefs of Christians who follow those particular forms of the faith: faith interprets history, which supports faith. Yet such a model meshes poorly with the actual history of those other churches, which perished not through their own theological failures or contradictions, their own loss of faith, but through secular politics. In no sense were they less authentically Christian than the churches of Rome and Constantinople. If matters had developed differently, perhaps Christianity today would be thoroughly and “naturally” Asian and Nestorian, just as obviously and traditionally as we think of it as Euro-American. Neither faith, nor piety, nor scholarship, nor ancient tradition served to keep the churches alive across most of their ancient homelands, a great extinction that should offer a sobering message to modern-day believers. The success of a particular religion or faith tradition in gaining numbers and influence neither proves nor disproves its validity.
How Religions Die
Theologians seldom address the troubling questions raised by the destruction of churches and of Christian communities. Most important, we need to realize that such incidents of decline and disappearance are quite frequent, however little they are studied or discussed. Dechristianization is one of the least studied aspects of Christian history.
Partly, the lack of interest in vanishing churches is a matter of practicality, in that dying organizations tend not to produce records of their extinction. A rising movement or congregation produces historians who lovingly seek out records of the foundation and trace whatever they can find about the early days. The founding text of Christian history is the Church History by Eusebius, who pieced together every snippet of information, legend, and gossip he could find about the origins of the burgeoning Christian movement of the fourth century John Foxe, in the sixteenth century, was no less dedicated to collecting details about all the heroes and martyrs whose sacrifices laid the foundations for the new Protestant churches.
But in contrast, imagine a church in the process of dissolution. The churches are ruined or deserted, no successors can be found for the bishoprics, while despairing ordinary believers are drifting away to other faiths. Perhaps priests and monks are being hunted, in fear of their lives. At some point, it becomes possible to identify the last Christian priest or pastor in a city or a region, perhaps even the very last believer. In such desperate conditions, few have the will or capacity to write their histories of decline and fall, and fewer still to preserve them for posterity. When one faith succeeds another, its members will devote little care to the fading writings of a rival religion they may well regard as wrong, or even diabolical. Some enthusiasts might even regard the destruction of these older records as Praiseworthy: such pious book burning is the reason so few written records survive of the Aztec and Mayan religions. And at least before the coming of modern forms of media and communication, fellow believers in other lands knew or cared little about such dis4t events. The reason we know so much about the fall of the Japanese church was that the fate of its European priests was of immense concern to literate fellow Catholics in Manila and Macao, who preserved every detail of their sufferings. Once the European priests were gone, no one bothered to record the fate of the remaining tens of thousands of humble native Christians.
For many reasons, then, later historians have few materials to work with in order to understand examples of eclipse or extinction. As one Victorian scholar wrote of North Africa after the Muslim conquest, “This church has perished so completely that the very causes of its ruin have disappeared.’ The fact that we know so much more about the European churches than their non-European counterparts does not necessarily reflect their greater importance at the time: rather, they survived long enough for scholars to preserve and study their records. The Cathar Church of thirteenth-century France, the Albigensians, left no historian to write an inspiring work about the blood of martyrs being the seed of the church, or to claim that one could never really kill an idea.
The Triumph of Persecution
Given that the destruction of Christianity has not been much studied, we can make certain general observations, stressing above all the role of states. Though churches may lose political influence under Christian states or in predominantly Christian societies, though they might be secularized, they do not vanish anything like as thoroughly as in the African and Asian examples mentioned. In most of these cases, churches collapsed or vanished because they were unable to cope with the pressures placed upon them by hostile regimes, mainly Muslim. While religions might sicken and fade, they do not die of their own accord: they must be killed.
In stressing the role of conflict with Islam, we should not exaggerate the intolerant or militaristic nature of that religion. Some egregious examples of church extinction were perpetrated by other faiths, by Buddhists or followers of Shinto, or by Christians themselves, most thoroughly in the case of the Cathars. Nor did the spread of Islam chiefly result from force and compulsion at the hands of Muslim soldiers who supposedly offered a crude choice between the Quran and the sword. For several centuries after the original conquests, the great majority of those who accepted Islam converted quite voluntarily, for the usual range of reasons that explain such a transformation: some changed their religions for convenience or advantage, but most because they accepted the claims of the new religion to provide a definitive revelation of God’s will. Many ordinary people probably accepted Islam for the same reason that their ancestors had become Christian—namely, that they followed the lead of local lords or other notables. Conversion was all the easier because, in these early centuries, Islam bore a much closer resemblance to Christianity than it would in later eras, making the transition less radical. From the tenth century onward, many prospective converts were attracted by the example of Muslim saints and sages, whose charismatic powers recalled those of earlier Christian saints. Nothing in Muslim scriptures makes the faith of Islam any more or less likely to engage in persecution or forcible conversion than any other world religion.
Islam also grew later on because Muslim regimes encouraged the immigration of fellow believers from other lands, who quickly outnumbered the older, native populations. Although religious change is commonly discussed in terms of conversion, it is often a matter of population transfer rather than of the transformation of personal convictions. As in the Americas following the Spanish and Portuguese conquest, converting an area to a new faith does not necessarily mean securing the allegiance of the whole people. Rather, the older inhabitants can be expelled, or are outnumbered and diluted by newer population stocks. In the Middle Eastern context, too, immigrants benefited from their different economic background. Anthropologists commonly find that pastoral peoples outbreed their sedentary peasant neighbors, and eventually end up owning most of their land. As the Middle East became progressively Arabized in language and culture, so the ground was prepared for the newly dominant religion. Gradually, after three or four centuries, Muslims came to constitute majorities, usually through peaceful means.
But just as undeniably, many Christians and others (Jews and Zoroastrians) were driven to accept the new faith, whether by outright persecution or systematic discrimination, exercised over centuries. Most of the lands conquered by Islam during the initial expansion of that faith were at the time heavily Christian, and large sections of the population retained that loyalty until intolerable pressures drove them to accept conversion. Nor did Christianity simply fade away of its own accord, following a centuries-long downward slope to oblivion. Across the Christian worlds of Africa and Asia, the twelfth and thirteenth centuries marked a widespread cultural renaissance in many lands and many tongues, movements that produced some of the greatest thinkers and authors of the Christian Middle Ages. Only around 1300 did the axe fall, and quite suddenly.
This stress on coercion is striking in light of the modern belief in the essentially tolerant nature of Islam through most of its history, an image that is often associated with idealized pictures of the friendly coexistence that supposedly prevailed in medieval Spain, the convivencia. But coexistence in some times and places does not preclude persecution in others. Much as Christian Europe treated its Jewish population, good social relationships between Muslims and Christians could endure for decades or even centuries. But in the world of Islam as in Europe, persecution when it did arise could be savage, devastating the minority community, and in both cases, the fourteenth century witnessed a crescendo of violence and discrimination. Muslims attacked Christians as subversives and traitors, even accusing them of plotting mega—terror attacks on beloved mosques and public monuments. Such theories became plausible with the introduction of the new superweapon of gunpowder.
Around the world, in fact, the years around 1300 produced an appalling trend toward religious and ethnic intolerance, a movement that must be explained in terms of global factors, rather than merely local. The aftereffects of the Mongol invasions certainly played their part, by terrifying Muslims and others with the prospect of a direct threat to their social and religious power. Climatic factors were also critical, as the world entered a period of rapid cooling, precipitating bad harvests and shrinking trade routes: a frightened and impoverished world looks for scapegoats. For whatever reasons, Muslim regimes and mobs now delivered near-fatal blows to weakened Christian churches. Even today, jihadi extremists look back to the hard-line Muslim scholars of this very era as their role models in challenging the infidel world.
African and Asian Christians have often throughout their history faced the reality of armed religious warfare. Islam was not uniquely prone to persecution, and Muslim regimes generally behaved no worse than others: Christian states have little to boast of in their own treatment of religious minorities. For lengthy periods of Muslim history, in fact, acts of religious violence were rare and sporadic. Even when we look at incidents in which Muslim forces destroyed Christian communities, we must ask whether these groups were acting in the name of religion, or if Islam happened to be the faith of invading nations or tribes, who applied the extraordinarily destructive standards of nomad warfare. On other occasions, however, we can speak without hesitation of religiously motivated jihad. All religious traditions have their military theologies—Hindus, Christians, and Buddhists; and we should not exempt Islam from this category. Anyone who believes that boundless aggression and ruthless tyranny over minorities are built into the DNA of Islam needs to explain the quite benevolent nature of Muslim rule during its first six centuries; but advocates of Islamic tolerance must work just as hard to account for the later years of the religion’s historical experience.
So extensive, indeed, were persecutions and reductions of minority groups, from the Middle Ages through the twentieth century, that it is astonishing how little they have registered in popular consciousness, or how readily the myth of Muslim tolerance has been accepted. One factor distorting memory has been the total oblivion into which the non-European Christian communities have fallen, and the assumption that the familiar realities of the present day must always have existed. For those accustomed to a near—solidly Muslim Middle East, it seems incredible that a different situation might ever have existed, or if it did, that it could ever have experienced a different outcome.
The difference in Christian responses to occupation or persecution also demands explanation. Faced with such challenges, some churches evaporated quickly, and Christianity scarcely lingered in the wider community. This is what happened to the once-influential churches of ancient Africa, the area that we would today think of as Algeria and Tunisia. As one Catholic scholar observed, “In this overwhelming disaster of the Arab invasion the churches of Africa were blotted out. Not that all was destroyed, but that remnant of Christian life was so small as to be matter for erudition rather than for history.’ In the sixth century, some five hundred bishops operated in this region; by the eighth century, it is hard to find any. Ironically, one of the paladins of North African Christianity in the third century had been the prophetic church father Tertullian, who wrote the famous line about the blood of martyrs being the seed of the church; yet some centuries later, this very church all but vanished before the Muslim invaders. In this case, seemingly, the seed had fallen on stony ground.
In Egypt, by contrast, which has been under Muslim rule since 640, not only does native Christianity survive to this day, but the Coptic Church has often exercised social and political influence. Even in the twentieth century, it probably still retained the loyalty of 10 percent of Egyptians. Possibly, such radical differences reflect different official policies, differing degrees of persecution, although nothing suggests that the conquerors of North Africa were dedicated to a kind of religious genocide. The differing outcomes chiefly arose from variations in the churches themselves, and that remark applies also to other parts of the old Christian world.
The question of how some churches survived demands at least as much attention as does that of why others died. To some extent, decisions taken by churches themselves determined whether they died or lived, whether they went the way of Africa or Egypt, or took some intermediate course. Some commonsense explanations come to mind, though none work very well for explaining this distinction. In theory at least, church structures should play some sole, in that highly centralized and hierarchical organizations are more vulnerable to destruction than more decentralized groupings. So are churches whose operations depend entirely on ordained clergy as opposed to grassroots activism. And churches centered on monasteries, with large landed estates, are of course singularly vulnerable. Yet by all these criteria, the Egyptian church—hierarchical, clerical, and monastic—should have been an early candidate for extinction.
The key difference making for survival is rather how deep a church planted its roots in a particular community, and how far the religion became part of the air that ordinary people breathed. The Egyptian church succeeded wonderfully in this regard, while the Africans failed to make much impact beyond the towns. While the Egyptians put the Christian faith in the language of the ordinary people, from city dwellers through peasants, the Africans concentrated only on certain categories, certain races. Egyptian Christianity became native; its African counterpart was colonial. This difference became crucial when a faith that was formed in one set of social and political arrangements had to adapt to a new world. When society changed, when cities crumbled, when persecution came, the faith would continue in one region but not another.
Religions die, but they leave ghosts. Religious persecutions drive believers to take refuge in more congenial areas, creating influential diasporas that spread ideas and cultural trends. This pattern, so familiar in Jewish history, is also found frequently in a Christian context, where exiles from crumbling communities have so often invigorated new societies and their churches.
A religion that dies in one area, in the sense of having no known active followers, may have many covert or clandestine believers, and—rather like the collapse of churches—crypto-Christianity is a thoroughly understudied phenomenon. In theory, true hidden believers should be immune to study, as they never break cover, and the people who can be studied are only the less discreet. But we often do hear of crypto-Christians, and the stories are startling, all the more so for Westerners accustomed to thinking of Christianity as the established faith of states.
Even after the overwhelming persecution that uprooted the Japanese church, thousands of “hidden Christians,” kakure kirishitan, somehow maintained their clandestine traditions in remote fishing villages and island communities. This catacomb church strayed far from mainstream Catholicism, and many of its practices make it look almost like a Shinto sect: their Eucharistic elements are rice, fish, and sake. They knew nothing of the wider church, believing themselves to be the world’s only true Christians. Yet the story still amazes. One moving documentary from the 1990s, Otaiya, actually allows us to hear very old believers reciting Catholic prayers that first came to the region over four hundred years ago, some in Church Latin and sixteenth-century Portuguese. They pray “Ame Maria karassa binno domisu terikobintsu,” a recollection of “Ave Maria gratia plena, dominus tecum, benedicta . . .” And they lovingly display a fragment of a silk robe once worn by one of the martyred Fathers. The film shows us the last two members of the indigenous hereditary priesthood, both frail men in their nineties, the distant successors of Saint Francis Xavier and the Jesuit pioneers.
And crypto-Christians are startlingly abundant. The World Christian Encyclopedia suggests that in the year 2000, 120 million believers fell into this crypto-Christian category, some 6 percent of the world’s Christians, mainly concentrated in Asian nations like India and China. If we were to separate them out from the main body of believers, those crypto-Christians alone would today constitute the world’s fifth largest religion.’ This is also, largely; a distinctively Christian phenomenon: while other religions, including Judaism and Islam, possess their secret believers, the absolute numbers are tiny beside those of crypto-Christians. Those figures may well be inflated or overoptimistic, but secret Christian communities have survived for centuries under hostile regimes, Muslim and other.
Ghosts also haunt the new religions that succeed the old. Destroying the organized worship of Mexico’s old gods did not prevent ordinary believers from practicing familiar rituals and customs. Indeed, they integrated them into the new faith of Catholic Christianity, in the process reshaping the practice of that new religion. Across large sections of Africa and Asia, also, Islam and other religions built upon the ruins of older Christian communities, and incorporated many of the older ideas. The Christian impact on Islam was profound, and can be traced at the deepest roots of that faith. Mosques look as they do because their appearance derives from that of Eastern Christian churches in the early days of Islam. Likewise, most of the religious practices of the believers within those mosques stem from the example of Eastern Christians, including the prostrations that appear so alien to modern Westerners. The severe self-denial of Ramadan was originally based on the Eastern practice of Lent. The Quran itself often shows startling parallels with Eastern Christian scriptures, devotional texts, and hymns, and some scholars have even argued that much of the text originated in Syriac lectionaries, collections of readings for church use. The countless mosques built on the foundations of older churches—in many cases, using large portions of the older architecture—serve as a visual symbol of a lengthy and transforming process. Only by understanding the lost Eastern Christianities can we understand where Islam comes from, and how very close it is to Christianity.
Such incorporation of older faiths continued long after the initial spread of Islam. Asia Minor, for instance, had been Christian for twelve hundred years by the time the Muslim Turks secured political dominance, and many old Christian families survived, albeit as social inferiors. Women particularly tended to keep old beliefs alive, as they had neither the duty nor the opportunity to operate in the public sphere, where they would have been forced to reveal their religious loyalties on a daily basis. Christian women could pass on older ideas within the household, among the serving classes, and even to the children of Muslim masters. As late as the nineteenth century, many rural Turks who considered themselves faithful Muslims insisted on getting their children baptized, to safeguard their physical and spiritual health.’ In much popular Muslim practice, we hear the echoes of older voices.
On occasion, the remnants of old religions transform their victors. No worthwhile history of Islam could omit the history of the Sufi orders, whose practices so often recall the bygone world of the Christian monks. It was the Christian monastics who had sought ecstasy and unity with the divine by the ceaseless repetition of prayers, a practice that would become central to the Sufi tradition. Once dead, Sufi adepts continued to attract devotees to their tombs, so that venerated sheikhs fulfilled exactly the same role for Muslims that the Christian saints had in their day. Christianity and Islam have far more in common than many rigorous believers of either faith would care to admit. The ruin of Middle Eastern and Asian Christianity had complex consequences for other faiths as well.
The connection between Islam and older Eastern forms of Christianity is so intimate, in fact, as to raise unsettling questions for modern-day members of both faiths. Often, when faithful Christians complain about aspects of that alien religion, they are in fact denouncing customs or beliefs that are deeply rooted within the most ancient forms of their own Christian faith. And while Muslims praise the prophet Jesus, few are aware of just how extensive a tentage they draw from the churches of the Narrays, the Nazarenes. Christianity and Islam haunt each other beyond the skills of the wnrld’s greatest exorcists to expel. One would like to think that a recognition of these closely intertwined roots would provide a foundation for closer dialogue between the sister faiths.
Past and Present
Understanding the fallen churches tells us a great deal about the history of Christianity and its interaction with other faiths. But this history also has many implications for the present day, especially as modern churches confront the implications of globalization. In 2006, for instance, Pope Benedict’s speech at Regensburg aroused the anger of Muslims who felt he had portrayed their faith as based on force and persecution. If nothing else, this affair demonstrated the enduring power of history, and specifically regarding the means by which the Middle East became Muslim. Who would have thought that quoting a fourteenth-century Byzantine emperor could have generated street demonstrations in the twenty-first century?
Less noticed at the time, however, was a perhaps still more controversial theme, as Benedict insisted that authentic Christianity had to be based on the Greek philosophical tradition, establishing the European intellectual model as the inevitable norm for all future ages. This would be a far-reaching principle in an age when African and Asian Christians are trying to define their relationships with their surrounding cultures. Yet an awareness of the Christian past reminds us that through much of history, leading churches have successfully framed the Christian message in the context of non-Greek and non-European intellectual traditions, cf. Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism. That precedent is encouraging for modern intercultural encounters. Far from being again. Once, the prospect of a non- or post-Christian Syria or Mesopotamia would have seemed inconceivable, as the Christians of these lands knew incontrovertibly that they stood at the heart of the faith. That knowledge was part of their consciousness, as assuredly as twentieth-century citizens of France or Britain knew that their nations were fundamentally Christian. A thousand years ago, the Christians of Asia Minor held just the same assurance; yet that region today bears the name of Turkey, a country that notionally claims 99 percent Muslim loyalty.
A society that today considers itself Christian might in a century or two have equal confidence in its complete identification with Islam, or radical secularism, or Buddhism, or some other religion not yet born. That caveat also applies to specific denominations. If Christianity itself does not bear a warranty, still less do specific denominations or forms of the faith, and this point is not lost on Latin American Catholics, or Orthodox believers in Eastern Europe. Even if Christianity still flourishes in those parts of the world in a century or so, it might well be in forms that present-day majorities would find puzzling and uncongenial. Such an acknowledgment of transience and frailty should make Christians cautious about trying to associate their faith inextricably with any particular tradition or cultural form, still less any given political order.
We can certainly draw lessons from the mistakes churches make that hasten their demise, but other lessons also present themselves. Indeed, rather than asking why churches die, we should rather seek to know how they endure for so long, in seemingly impossible circumstances. The fate of Middle Eastern Christians is particularly impressive in this respect: as late as 1900, after all the coercion and disdain, they still made up some 10 percent of the region’s population. We have much to learn about their adaptability in the face of dominant languages and cultures, their ability to learn the new languages of power, without abandoning their core beliefs. Christians around the world have vast accumulated experience about dealing with minority status, and with exclusion from power and influence in a scale vastly greater than that faced by any modern church in the West.
A Terrible History
The best reason for the serious study of history is that virtually everyone uses the past in everyday discourse. But the historical record on which they draw is abundantly littered with myths, half-truths, and folk history; historians can, or should, provide a corrective for this. This remark applies particularly to the history of Christianity Wind of the Christian church, which represents a familiar component of popular knowledge, part of “what everybody knows.” Whatever the religious beliefs of a given audience, a majority of people, whether in private or public life, feels comfortable referring to aspects of that history, and particularly to great institutions or events, like the Crusades, the Inquisition, or the persecution of witches. Media accounts regularly draw on a standard body of assumptions and beliefs about Christian history, which is seen as a barely relieved saga of intolerance and obscurantism. Kathleen Jefferts Schori, presiding bishop of the U.S. Episcopal Church, nearly summarized this approach when she challenged Pope Benedict’s claim that “Muslims have a history of violence. So do Christians! They have a terrible history. Look at history in the Dark Ages. Charlemagne converted whole tribes by the sword.” James Carroll, author of the sweeping Polemic Constantine’s Sword, argues that “Even in its foundation, the church was getting it wrong. That’s why Christians go to church, as much to be forgiven as to be fed.”