Gospel & Universe
East & West 1
This page notes how the foundations of Eastern religions stayed intact while the Western religions shifted radically from polytheism to monotheism
An Eastern Flow - The Classical Break
An Eastern Flow
In India and China the main religions -- Hinduism, Buddhism, and Daoism -- have a continuous history. Yet in the Middle East and the Mediterranean religion was radically altered by the monotheism of Israel.
In the East the sources of religion flow from their beginnings right up to the present day. In India the Hindu scriptures (starting with Rg Veda) date to the late Ancient period, while the Hindu epics and the teachings of Buddha date from the Classical Age. In China, the traditions of Daoism and Confucianism, as well as the importation of Buddhism, date from the Classical Age. The fusion of Daoism, Confucianism, and Buddhism is often referred to as the Chinese religion, although Confucianism is often seen more as a social and moral philosophy than a religion. These Hindu and Chinese traditions are established in the Classical Age and then flow through the Middle Ages to become part of the Modern Age. There were, however, interruptions -- in India, the Buddhism of the emperor Ashok (3rd century BC) and the Islam of the Delhi Sultanate and the Mughal Empire (c. 1290-1707 AD); in China the legalism of Qin Shi Huangdi (210-212 BC) and the communist period of the last 50 years -- which took a particularly anti-religious phase during Mao's Cultural Revolution from 1966-to 1976. While a large portion of the Indian subcontinent became Muslim, and while communism pushed the Chinese further toward secularism, none of these things destroyed the foundations of Hinduism or the Chinese religion. For instance, the powerful current of Islam affected India deeply -- and from there flowed all the way to Indonesia -- yet there are still about a billion Hindus in India.
1000 BC - Classical - 500 AD - Medieval
Hindu & Buddhist ----------------->
Confucian & Daoist ------------->
(The compassionate bodhisattva Guanyin & the many-sided Shiva, from the Boston Museum of Fine Arts -- photos RYC)
The Classical Break
In the Middle East and the Mediterranean, on the other hand, there was a massive theological shift between 300 and 700 AD -- from polytheism to monotheism. This shift had everything to do with the Jewish tribes, who 1) had polytheistic Middle Eastern roots, 2) became fiercely monotheistic at some point late in the Classical Age, and 3) gave birth to Christianity in the late Classical Age and to Islam early in the Medieval Age.
1000 BC -- 500 AD
Polytheism: Sumer to Rome ||
Monotheism: Judaism -> Christianity, Islam
Toward the end of the Classical Age, Christians gained the upper hand in the Roman Empire, and then proceeded to distance their version of monotheism from Greco-Roman and other forms of polytheism. In the late Classical Age councils established dogma about the nature of God and Jesus, all the time resisting the notion that Jesus, the Holy Ghost, Mary, the saints, and figures like Satan constituted any form of polytheism. They rejected any religious system that differed – even Zoroastrianism, which contained a similar scenario in which a variety of mythic figures operated, and in which a Supreme Being (Ahura Mazda) wins the cosmic struggle between Good and Evil, eventually redeeming even the most evil of creatures (Ahriman).
Like Islam after it, Christianity may have spread so extensively partly because of the clarity and simplicity of its message. Starting in the Middle East and Greece, it spread throughout the Roman Empire, and then to Northern and Eastern Europe, the Americas, the Philippines, Sub-Saharan Africa, Australia, etc. Islam spread an even more clear and uncompromising form of monotheism -- in which God has no all-important Son, no Virgin gives birth to such a Son, etc. -- outward from the Middle East, all the way from Morocco to Indonesia.
While Classical learning existed in Medieval Jewish, Christian and Muslim realms, Classical religion was labelled myth, and Classical philosophy was only tolerated if it could be squared with these three forms of monotheism. In Christianity, Augustine reconciled Plato's idealism with the Christian Heaven (the Ideal City of God), and Aquinas used aspects of Aristotelian analysis to explain the existence of God and His Great Chain of Being. In Islam, Classical pagan questioning of monotheism was pre-empted by the Seljuk Persian, Al-Ghazali (1058-1111). Mixing jurisprudence, theology, and mysticism, Al-Ghazali managed not only to reconcile orthodoxy with mysticism but also to distance Islam from Neoplatonism in the process. For instance, the Andalusian physician and philosopher, Avicenna (or Ibn Sina) was, according to Cyril Glassé in his Concise Encyclopedia of Islam (1989), "one of the prime targets of al-Ghazali" because of his “unified study of Plato, Aristotle, and Neoplatonism.” Al-Ghazali “was obliged to denounce the philosophers … in order to forestall a neo-pagan renaissance within Islam” (pp. 176, 311). It's perhaps ironic -- or paradoxical, depending on one's view of Islamic iconoclasm -- that while Islamic writers re-transmitted much Classical thinking to Europe, the type of free-thinking that slipped into the Christian world with the Renaissance was cut short in the Islamic world.
Next: East & West 2