Monday, March 5, 2012

Abrahamic Traditions on the Silk Road

By Kwok Pui Lan

The Silk Road refers to the network of roads connecting Ch’ang-an (modern-day Xian), the ancient capital of China, to the Mediterranean, with spurs into the Indian subcontinent, the northern Eurasian steppe, and southern Iran. When caravans went East and West on the ancient Silk Road, trade and commerce brought people of different cultures and religious traditions into contact with each other.

The Episcopal Divinity School (EDS) organized a one-day conference on March 3 to explore the interactions and cultural exchanges of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam along the ancient Silk Road. Speakers of the conference included scholars in Hebrew Bible, New Testament, early Christianity and theology, Syriac-speaking Christianity, Armenian Christianity, Islam, and Judaism and Christianity in Asia. The big lecture room at Sherrill Hall was filled to capacity with some 100 scholars from other schools within the Boston Theological Institute, EDS faculty, students, staff, and alumni/alumnae, and other guests.

The theme of the conference “What Would It Take to Move the Map?” was provocative. As Professor Lawrence Wills, who organized the conference with Professor Patrick S. Cheng, said, “There is increasing evidence of a rich history of Christians, Jews, and Muslims who moved eastward all the way to China, at a time much earlier than was previously believed.” The conference aimed to broaden our understanding of this long history of interactions of Abrahamic traditions.

A map is a tool to look at the world and to organize and constitute reality. It takes vision, courage, humility, curiosity, and restless inquiry to move the map to include the religious exchanges along the Silk Road.

I was asked to comment on the proceedings from the day in a final session. Here are a few of my observations:

First, we have to expand our imagination of the Christian tradition to include the many branches of Christianities and their interactions of other religious traditions. In the United States, the teaching of church history tends to focus primarily on Western Christianity, with little mention on Greek and Oriental Christianity.

For example, in his survey of textbooks on church history, Professor Cheng pointed out that many leave out or mention in passing Nestorian Christianity in China. This narrow and selective way of understanding church history fails to do justice to the complex and multilayered Christian traditions and impoverishes our knowledge of the many expressions and experiences of the divine.

Second, in order to expand our imagination, we need to learn to decolonize our minds, such that we will not read history and create cartography based on Eurocentric lenses. In his concluding remarks, Professor Christopher Duraisingh spoke of cultivating multiple consciousness and developing the capacity to see maps as synchronic and not diachronic. This reminds me of what the late Edward Said, the pioneer of postcolonial discourse, has said of contrapuntal reading of history—reading history as intertwined and territories as overlapped.

Decolonization of the mind means that we have to be aware of the impacts of the Latinization of the world in the first “globalization,” in which the people in the Americas were brought into the orbit of Europe in the early modern period. The Roman Catholic Church played important roles in this remapping of the world. Those of us who are Episcopalians would do well to remember the consequences of the Anglicization of the world. The British Empire has shaped and remapped the cultures and histories of peoples under its colonial control and the Anglican Church has played a vital part in it.

Third, we have to learn to live in a multipolar or Post-American world, cognizant of the shifting geopolitics and the rise of Brazil, Russia, India, and China as key players in shaping global economy and world affairs. China’s phenomenal economic growth will change our ways of looking at East Asia and its long interactions with Central Asia, West Asia, and Europe.

China has developed a new Silk Road strategy in order to secure oil and gas from the Middle East to fuel its economic growth. Vast pipeline networks have been built in the region and the Iron Silk Road project, an ambitious Eurasian railway network is being built to connect China to Turkey, Iran, and the European countries.

The ancient Silk Road is being remapped by many powers to serve present economic and political purposes. Our awareness of cultural and historical interactions in the past will help us to live in this brand new world of the twenty-first century.

Kwok Pui Lan is the William F. Cole Professor of Christian Theology and Spirituality at the Episcopal Divinity School and her most recent book is Globalization,Gender, and Peacebuilding: The Future of Interfaith Dialogue

1 comment:

  1. Glad to hear that this conference was held at EDS. I have been teaching my history of Christianity course at CDSP with this paradigm for several years now. I hope other theological education centers adopt this emerging pedagogy.
    Blessings on this work,
    Dan Joslyn-Siemiatkoski