Trading Goods and the Gospel

Sharing the Good News on the Silk Road

Talk by Dcn. Aaron Friar

Boston Trinity Academy, Trinity Term, February 10, 2023

The Gospel of our Lord, God, and Savior Jesus Christ has been preached and is known to thrive in some of the most diverse and exotic places on the planet. The Silk Road with its many varieties of cultures, languages, and peoples is no exception to this rule. “The Silk Road” is a term coined by a German geologist and explorer in the late 19th century to describe not a single route but a network of roads stretching from Xian, China in the east to as far west as Venice, Italy and as far south as India. While different parts of these roads were more or less active at different times in history, there are two periods of intense activity I wish to speak about today. The first spans the 7th – 10th century when the Byzantine Roman Empire and her capital city of Constantinople (New Rome) provided the midpoint and gateway for this road. The second period is the 13th-15th centuries when the Mongol Empire and its peace (Pax Mongolicus) greatly protected and encouraged trade on the eastern end of the road in China.

            Speaking of times of peaceful commerce, it is well known that the Lord Jesus Christ became Incarnate at a moment in history that was particularly conducive to trade, travel and evangelizing the Gentile nations. Caesar Augustus reigned over a period that later historians dubbed the Pax Romana or the Peace of Rome. It was this very peace that allowed the Holy Spirit to send the apostles, “in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” This thesis statement contained in St. Luke’s account of the early Acts of the Apostles serves as a description of the geographical spread of the good news to various portions of the Jewish and later Gentile world. The part that prophesized “to the ends of the earth,” best describes the vastly different cultures and faiths contained along the Silk Road. Just as the early apostles spread the Gospel around the Roman Empire, an area mostly concentrated around the Mediterranean Sea, so the later apostles spread the Gospel to the pagan tribes beyond the Mediterranean.

            The Emperor St. Justinian the Great in the 6th century first reconquered areas in the West taken by Pagan invaders in the previous two centuries, and then rebuilt the largest and most beautiful Christian cathedral Hagia Sophia or the Church of the Holy Wisdom of God. It is no mistake that the Emperor Justinian celebrated his reconquest of Western lands with rebuilding a Church. For ancient Christians, beauty as well as truth testified to the potency of the gospel. And Constantinople played this role of beauty well as the midpoint or gateway between East and West along the Silk Road. In the 10th century, one leader from the north, Great Prince Vladimir of Kiev invaded and conquered the city of Kherson which is near Crimea and then demanded of the Byzantine Emperor Basil II that he marry the Emperor’s daughter Anna. One must note that the pagan prince already had five wives and 800 concubines, so it seems he was treating this additional wife (however royal) as just another commodity to trade for peaceful coexistence. But the Christian Emperor Basil responded that if he were to have his daughter Anna, the prince must first repent, be baptized, and give up his whore mongering and idol worshiping ways. The pagan Prince Vladimir, wanting some kind of new faith, had previously sent emissaries to other parts of the world. They witnessed ancient Judaism, the more recent religion of Islam, and finally received a taste for the western Latin/German expression of Christianity and here was their report:

When we journeyed among the Bulgars, we beheld how they worship in their temple, called a mosque, while they stand ungirt. The Bulgarian bows, sits down, looks hither and thither like one possessed, and there is no happiness among them, but instead only sorrow and a dreadful stench. Their religion is not good. Then we went among the Germans, and saw them performing many ceremonies in their temples; but we beheld no glory there. Then we went on to Greece [the Byzantine Roman Empire], and the Greeks led us to the edifices where they worship their God [i.e. Hagia Sophia], and we knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth. For on earth there is no such splendour or such beauty, and we are at a loss how to describe it. We know only that God dwells there among men, and their service is fairer than the ceremonies of other nations. For we cannot forget that beauty.

Povest’ vremennykh let (The Russian Primary Chronicle)

So Great Prince Vladimir was himself baptized and then baptized his people. And one of the most ferocious of pagan princess became a saint and enlightener through the beauty of this one Christian temple and the testimony of a Christian Emperor at the crossroads of the Silk Road.

            But what of the more treacherous eastern portion of this road through China, Central Asia, and Persia? The height of traffic through this part happened under the Pax Mongolica or the peace of the Mongol Empire in the 13th-15th century. It was during this period that the famous Venetian explorer Marco Polo traveled the Silk Road east and smuggled back to Europe the coveted trade secret of how to make the silk from which the road gets its name. But again, it was not just the merchants but the missionaries traveling to the Far East through the peace and protection made possible by the Mongol Empire. Starting in the 7th century, Nestorian Christians first came China with the Gospel followed by Jesuit priests in the 16th century, closer to the time of the peace of the Mongols. The Jesuit fathers emphasized the compatibility of Chinese Confucian philosophy with the Gospel. In our own time, this compatibility has been worked out in a book published by an Eastern Orthodox priest-monk from California named Fr. Damascene Chistensen. His work entitled Christ the Eternal Tao imagines a reworking of the classic Chinese text The Tao Te Ching by the sage Lao Tsu (from 5th Century B.C.) in conversation with the Hebrew Prophets and the Lord Jesus Christ via the Gospel writers (especially St. John the Beloved). I refer to this text in our discussion as a possible approach that some of these historic Chinese missionaries might have been familiar with or even employed themselves; it is not an approach that compromises the Gospel message, but merely one that translates its eternality into different cultural modes (much the same way that the Apostle John used the Greek philosopher Heraclitus’ notion of the logos in his Gospel to refer to God the Word). The book contains many paintings by Chinese artists from a book entitled The Life of Christ by Chinese Artists. These images are a reminder of what the British writer G.K. Chesterton said about seeing the Gospel of Jesus Christ afresh and resisting the temptation to grow bored with it as expressed in our own all-to-familiar cultural milieu. Chesterton says,

“I do seriously recommend the imaginative effort of conceiving the Twelve Apostles as Chinamen. In other words, I recommend [one] try to do as much justice to Christian saints as if they were Pagan sages. … When we do make this imaginative effort to see the whole thing from the outside, we find that it really looks like what is traditionally said about it inside. … It is exactly when we see the Christian Church from afar … that we see that it is really the Church of Christ. To put it shortly, the moment we are really impartial about it, we know why people are partial to it.

from Everlasting Man by G.K. Chesterton

Here are some of my favorite portions from Christ the Eternal Tao to illustrate this principle of cultural accommodation and translation:

“Water,” said the Ancient Sage, “greatly benefits all things but does not compete with them.

It dwells in lowly places that all disdain, and so it is like the Way.”

The Way came down and emptied Himself in a lowly cave:

Not amidst human dwellings, but in the home of lowly animals.

Born on a lowly bed, dirty straw strewn on the ground.

Happy, prosperous people slept in soft beds in the nearby inn.

But while other infants wept that night, He was silent.

And the sheep bleated like rippling water. (Chapter 16, Christ the Eternal Tao)

All, all the way down

To where you no longer calculate and think,

And care not what others think.

All, all the way down

To where you have nothing to lose,

Nowhere to go, nowhere to hide.

This is the point of emptiness.

“Emptiness penetrates the impenetrable,” said the Ancient Sage,

“The softest things in the world overcome the hardest.

Through this I know the benefit of acting without desire.”

Acting without desire,

You will see a flash of the beauty you had forgotten

From when you were a little child.

A little child does not calculate.

Humble, he has not yet formed the desires which break the original unity and harmony.

Soft and yielding like water, his mind is therefore boundless.

Spontaneous, he accepts without thought the Course that all things follow.

Therefore the Ancient Sage, follower of the Way, said:

“One who possesses abundant virtue resembles an infant child.

This is the consummation of harmony.”

And the Way, when He took flesh, said:

“Whoever shall humble himself as this little child,

The same is the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven.”

Again the Ancient Sage said:

“Controlling the breath to make it gentle,

One can be as a little child,

Then, when desires arise,

One can put them to death with the Way:

The Way of nameless Simplicity.”

Descending with the mind into the secret place of the heart,

And gently checking the breath,

Followers of the Way now call upon the Name of Him Who had once been


And the Way, Who took flesh,

Puts to death all the passions of their flesh –

All pride, ambition, rancor and resentment –

Purifying their hearts,

Re-creating them in His image,

The image of a pure and innocent child,

The image of the nameless Simplicity. (Chapter 49, Christ the Eternal Tao)

The Ancient Sage, follower of the Way, said:

“The Way is like an empty vessel

That may yet be drawn from

Without ever needing to be filled.

It is like a deep pool that never dries.”

And the Way, when He became flesh, said to the woman at the well:

“Whoever drinks of the water that I shall give him shall never thirst;

But the water that I shall give him shall become in him a well of water springing up into unending life.”

Before you can drink of the still pool,

Concealed under the ground of sorrow,

You must become like the pool,

Become like the water, which can only flow down.

The water has one law to follow,

And it never fails to follow it.

People, too, have laws to follow:

Laws of the universe, not invented by man.

Simple laws, yet unchanging, inexorable.

There can be no others,

There can be none better.

Not even the Maker of the universe will change you

Unless you change your mind.

Unless you abandon the path of avarice, sensual pleasure, and self-exaltation.

Unless you collapse, fold in on yourself, and open out of yourself.

Unless you release everything, redirect all your energy,

Despoil yourself of all that is not of the Way,

Strip your heart of all created things,

Renounce your will, inclinations, whims, and fancies,

And allow yourself to be carried by Him downstream,

Down to the still pool,

Drinking of which

You shall never thirst again. (Chapter 73, Christ the Eternal Tao)

The Ancient Sage, follower of the Way, said:

“He who takes upon himself the humiliation – the dirt – of the people

Is fit to be the master of the people.” (Chapter 27, Christ the Eternal Tao)

In conclusion then, we see through these witnesses, that the Gospel of Jesus Christ really is universal and has the power to reach to the ends of the world and to be translated into a variety of vernaculars, including those located on the historic Silk Road. May all of us take advantage of the relative peace of our own time and place (the Pax Americana?) to discover new and creative ways to share it with the multitude of peoples and cultures God has seen fit to bring to these shores.

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