Having a poor visual memory is a source of considerable regret to me. Art historians stir a profound awe in me because they need to know everything that any expert knows and in addition apply it to what they have seen. On the three occasions in my life when I was in some danger of committing the sin of pride, I picked up Charles Cuttler’s great book, Northern Painting from Pucelle to Bruegel and committed the sin of envy instead. I will know for sure I am in heaven if I see Munich’s Alte Pinakothek down the golden street and receive a free ticket to visit one day a week (preferably Monday) throughout eternity.
These reflections are occasioned by memories of a trip to China. Since I never remember much of what I see, I am quite content to travel by book in my trusty reading chair. My idea of an exciting and exotic journey is from this chair to the coffee pot and back. My lady wife, on the other hand, loved to travel. Like John Wesley, the world is her Paris. I attribute this love of travel to her school years in Assiut, Egypt. For little Peggy with her family at the tiny Presbyterian mission station among the Anuak people at Akobo Post deep in Sudan, going to school every year involved a month-long, thousand mile trip by outboard motor down the Sobat River, by steamer down the River Nile, and by train across the Sahara Desert.
Lady Margaret studied the guidebooks, researched the history, checked the internet for local weather, packed the suitcases with all things needful, and so on. My role was to deal with the big suitcase and then follow her around carrying the camera case, the extra film, the water bottles, foreign currency, and whatever else she did not want to bother about. Actually, I enjoy travel because I realize how wonderful it will be to get back to my long suffering and faithful chair.
Lots of Americans have seen China’s forbidden city in the movie, “The Last Emperor.” A few remember “55 Days in Peking” with Charlton Heston and Ava Gardner and therefore know something about the Boxer Rebellion. Younger Americans probably assume the Boxer Rebellion concerns the rejection of an underwear style. (Lawyers, I am told, prefer briefs to boxers.) I will not attempt to decide whether the Chinese Society of Righteous and Harmonious Fists was an indigenous liberation movement, a savage civil revolt, or an early form of tai chi.
In any event, the Boxers were aroused to murderous fury by western commercial exploitation of their country. As a result of the industrial revolution, the English found they could sell cloth in China two-thirds cheaper than it could be made locally. So the English happily ruined the Chinese cloth industry for their own profit. Nothing personal, just business. Many Chinese believed that the mining activities of the foreign devils were releasing the precious breath of their mountains and the railroads being built were disturbing the benevolent dragons that lived under Chinese soil. Perhaps modern, sophisticated Presbyterians who pay some attention to their zodiac sign will not scoff overmuch at the simple Chinese of a century ago.
With his pen the author of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer also fought in the Boxer Rebellion. I concede that the opening lines of chapter nineteen of Huckleberry Finn is the finest paragraph ever written by an American. However, Sam Clemens took a strongly negative view of Christian faith in general. In general, therefore, the relation of my theology to his may be fairly described as “never the twain shall meet.” Sadly, I must agree with his protest in this event. After the Boxer Rising was crushed, some American Christian groups coerced extravagant reparations from entirely innocent Chinese. Mark Twain was justifiably outraged and used his considerable literary skills in vigorous and righteous denunciation of gun muzzle extortion by Christians (See North American Review Feb. & Apr. 1901). Reformed theology has always known that even the best causes are served by sinful people.
Mark Twain most clearly pointed out that our missionaries can be terribly misguided in some things they do. On the other hand, certain contemporary theologians insist that our missionaries are most clearly misguided in the main thing they do. According to our sophisticated pluralists, it is erroneous to proclaim Jesus Christ as the world’s Lord and Savior because there are many paths to the sovereign God. Faith in Jesus Christ, they say, is one path to God but only one path. What a momentous theological difference between believing that Jesus Christ is only one path to God and believing that Jesus Christ is the only one path to God!
For this “progressive” view to prevail, Christians will need to believe that the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt is NOT one Lord but just one God in a cozy pantheon with others. If there are many ways to God we can cease worrying about committing the sin of idolatry because all the top gods are essentially the same at bottom. Had Presbyterians a century ago believed that Jesus Christ is one Lord among many, none of our obedient missionaries would have died in China and no disobedient reparations would have been collected.
The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) can still save a lot of money if it disallows the claim of Jesus to be the way, the truth, and the life (John 14:6). Exclusively Christian evangelism will be replaced by pluralistically interfaith dialogue. Presbyterians can close down their long-term worldwide mission enterprise, bring all their missionaries home, and set up a Board of World Religions to fund occasional seminars on the faith commitments of the peoples of the earth. With all that money saved, there should be funds available to “Re-Imagine God.” Now there’s a hoot.