25 March 2011

The Unfolding Revelation of the Tao in Human History: Part Two of Two

Departure From The Way: Knowledge of God in the Earliest Historical Cultures

Continued from here...

After his primordial departure from the Way, man as a whole was still more simple and innocent, closer to God an nature, than he is today. Thus, his knowledge of God was more pure. This is substantiated by records that have come down to us fro the earliest periods of ancient civilizations. The religion of Egypt's first dynasty, for example, was much more pure than the forms of polytheism that arose in later dynasties. Mircea Eliae writes, "It is surprising that the earliest Egyptian cosmogony yet known is also the most philosophical.  For [the Supreme God] Ptah creates by his mind (his 'heart') and his word (his 'tongue').... In short, the theogony and cosmogony are effected by the creative power of the thought and word of a single God. We here certainly have the highest expression of Egyptian metaphysical explanation.... It is at the beginning of Egyptian history that we find a doctrine that can be compared with the Christian theology of the Logos.

The same is true for the primal period of Chinese civilization. The oldest book of Chinese history, the Shu Ching (Book of Documents), relates that in China's first dynasty, the Hsia (ca. 2300-1700 B.C.), the people believed in one supreme God, Whom they called Shang Ti 上帝—Shang meaning "above," "superior to," and Ti meaning "ruler" or "lord". "At this point," writes historian John Ross, "the very threshold of what the Chinese critics accept as the beginning of their authentic history, the name of God and other religious matters present themselves with the completeness of a Minerva. We are driven to infer that the name and the religious observances associated with it are coeval with the existence of the people of China.
"It is therefore evident that the belief in the existence of one Supreme Ruler is is among the earliest beliefs of the Chinese known to us. Of an earlier date, when no belief existed or when the belief in polytheism did exist, we find no trace. Nowhere i there a hint to confirm the materialistic theory that the idea of God is a later evolutionary product of a precedent belief in ghosts or departed ancestors, or that the belief had arisen indirectly from any other similar source." 
During the next dynasty, the Shang (ca. 1700-1100 B.C.), the supreme Deity was more commonly called by the name T'ien 天 —meaning "Heaven"—though the name Shang Ti continued to be used interchangeably with it, sometimes side by side* The Chinese Emperor had to possess what was called the "mandate of Heaven" or the "mandate of Shang Ti," which he earned by living and ruling virtuously. If ever he ceased to rule according to the Way of Heaven, he would lose the mandate and fall from power. This understanding of government remained intact in China until the early twentieth century.

In China's oldest book of literature, the Shih Ching (Book of Odes), which dates from the middle of the Chou dynasty, 800-600 B.C., we find such phrases... [that mirror the Old Testament Kingdoms] ... 

Of all thr primordial peoples save the Hebrews, the Chinese—together with their racial cousins the native North Americans—retained the purest understanding of the one God, the Supreme Being. ... 

 ... As centuries passe, the original monotheism of China continued to be obscured. Since the Chinese culture is so strongly based in tradition, however the ancient religion could never disappear entirely. Above all, it was preserved in the state worship. The Emperor continued to offer the Great Sacrifice to Shang Ti twice a year, at the winter and summer solstices, according to ancient custom. The practice continued into modern times, and ended only with the fall of the Manchus in 1911.**

Ever from the popular mind, the ancient monotheism could not be completely eradicated. To Westerners it is a little-known fact that in China and Taiwan even today, vestiges of the original Chinese religion are found in the Taoist and Buddhist temples. When people come to these temples, they burn incense and pray to Shang Ti at a special area inn the narthex, and only then do they enter the main temple area. 

Still, it must be conceded that much of Chinese religion has descended to polytheism through the centuries, and that the worship of the one God, Shang Ti, has been confused by pantheons of deities if various ranks.***

The same would have happened in ancient Hebrew culture as happened in China—and at many times in Jewish history it almost id happen—but God, through the Prophets, continually called this people back to the worship of Him alone. he intervened in this way because it was out of the Hebrew race that He was to one day take flesh and reveal the ultimate mystery of His Being to the world. 

*See, for example, Bernhard Karlgren, tr., The Book of Documents (Shu Ching), p. 48. On how T'ien and Shang Ti were used to designate the same supreme Diety, see James Legge, The Religions of China, p. 10.

** For the fascinating text of the Chinese Emperor's sacrifice to Shang Ti in A.D. 1538, see James Legge, The Notions of the Chinese Concerning God and Spirits, pp. 26-31. Also published, with commentary, in James Legge, The Religions of China, pp. 43-51.

***For a description of later Chinese polytheism, see James Legge, The Religions of China, pp. 167-170. 

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