Friday, March 26, 2010

a pretty radical (8th century) image of church

I’m teaching a paper this semester called Church, Ministry, Sacraments. In approaching the paper, I’ve wanted to dispel the idea that when we think of church, we simply draw a line from Jerusalem to Rome to Europe. The reality is that for the first 1,000 years of the life of church, Christianity was a global faith, covering three continents – Asia, Europe and Africa. This gives a dynamism and diversity that offers a very different approach to church.

“In the West, attention centred … on the clergy … ecclesiological discussion in our time nearly always centres on, or degenerates into, disputes about clergy and bishops, the result being that the question of the nature or being of the Church is rarely allowed to come into view.” Gunton in On being the church, 49.

A really helpful resource for me has been Readings in World Mission which has a great little section of about 13 different 20th century authors from 5 continents summarising how they see church. So rich and provocative. And The Lost History of Christianity: The Thousand-Year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia–and How It Died, which describes a vital and energetic first 1000 year period in Christianity, a period during which the Middle East, Asia and Africa where much more dominant than Europe. (I’ve blogged about this more here and here).

Anyhow, this is church, for Bishop Timothy, of the Syriac church, in the 8th century, living in a pluralist world and asked to debate his faith with the caliph al-Mahdi, the leader of the Muslim world at that time:

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.

Which is a pretty radical position for what was at the time, a major Christian leader to take. For Timothy, the pearl is true faith and it had fallen to earth and each faith believed it alone had possession. All humans can do – Christian, Islamic (today atheist?) is offer their evidence for believing, or disbelieving, that they have the real pearl. But the final truth can not be known on this side of reality.

Was he selling out? Or was he modeling a humility which should actually be at the heart of Christian witness?

Posted by steve at 10:36 AM