A remarkable thing happened in the 6th century B.C. – a great awakening began that continued all the way through the 5th century B.C. As if on cue, other ancient cultures, aside from the Greeks, were starting to awaken to the fact that there was an overarching order to the world.1 The Greeks called it “Logos” and the Chinese philosophers dubbed it “Tao.” Regardless of the name, the idea was the same – that of an incredible unity and order to the cosmos. This new enlightenment was occurring throughout the world, both East and West, from Greece to China to India. The amazing thing is that all of this occurred simultaneously, without these various cultures communicating with each other.
Just like with Heraclitus and other Greek philosophers, various peoples throughout the world were starting to see that there was an order to the universe. Not only was it ordered in a profound way, but it was beautiful as well. What could account for this order and beauty? Chinese philosophers, such as Confucius and others, reasoned that there must be an all wise Supreme Being responsible for this.
If we examine other ancient cultures such as those in Africa and the Americas, we will find that over and above their polytheism, they too believed in a Supreme Being. The Indians called him the “Great Spirit,” and the Africans had various names for him among the different tribes.
Father Seraphim of Sarov (1759-1833), a Greek Orthodox priest who was later beatified, said:
“In the history of ancient China, there are moments when it is absolutely incredible how the same things happened in Chinese life as happened in the West, even though there was no outward connection between the two civilizations. The first of the Greek philosophers – Thales and so forth – lived about the sixth century B.C., just about the time Confucius was in China and Buddha was in India. It is though there really was a spirit of the times.”2
The Ancient Great Awakening
Through this great awakening, God was preparing the world for a major event – the coming of His Son, Jesus Christ. Consider the following quote by English historian Christopher Dawson:
“Natural laws…governed the progress of civilization for thousands of years and only passed away with the coming for the new vision of reality which began to transform the ancient world in the fifth and sixth centuries B.C. – the age of the Hebrew prophets and the Greek philosophers, of Buddha and Confucius, an age which marks the dawn of a new world.”3
At this time, the corpus of Hebrew revelation was almost complete, leading to the 400 “silent years” between the closing of the Hebrew canon and the birth of Christ. Ionian philosophy was just awakening, which would lead to the golden age of philosophy characterized by Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle.
Also. around this time, Siddhartha Gautama was born in what was then a territory in northern India. Siddhartha Gautama, a.k.a. “the Buddha” (meaning “Awakened One”) or simply “Buddha,” was born in Lumbini, located in modern day Nepal, sometime between the 6th and 4th centuries B.C.4 His teachings were orally transmitted for centuries until they were finally written down in Pali, Sri Lanka in the 1st century, B.C.5 The Buddhist teachings are known as the Pali canon, Tipitaka (“Triple Basket”), or Tripitaka in Sanskrit.
In this same time period, Kongqiu, a.k.a. Confucius, was born in Lu, a regional state of eastern China.6 He lived from 551 to 479 B.C. When Confucius was born, the religion of China, for the most part, was monotheistic compared to the religions of ancient Greece and Rome. Nevertheless, even it had devolved from its former simplicity.7
Evolution or Devolution of Religion?
I want to take a brief detour from the story of the great awakening among the ancient cultures to discuss a very important related topic: the progression of religion in the ancient world. This will bring more clarity in understanding the great awakening.
Rev. Wilhelm Schmidt, in his magnum opus Der Ursprung der Gottesidee (“The Origin of the Idea of God,” 1912-1955)8, discussed how evolutionary theory revolutionized how European man looked at God.9 Schmidt was a German anthropologist and Catholic priest who presided over an influential European cultural-historical school of ethnology.10 He was also a member of the Society of the Divine Word mission order.
Schmidt’s school of ethnology was one of the first to notice that the theory of evolution had a distorting effect on the scientific study of natural religion.11 The theory of evolution had a profound impact on both European man’s understanding of God in general and the study of anthropology in particular. By the end of the 19th century, materialistic evolutionary thinking had completely upended the study of primitive religion.
Christian cosmology portrays a world that was good, complete, and perfect at the time of creation. Only later did it decay into imperfection, introducing the concept of entropy after the Fall. The theory of evolution describes just the opposite – a chaotic, post-Big Bang confluence of time, space, and matter that eventually organized itself into all that we see today, including living creatures and the rational being, man – despite the presence of entropy!
It was a small step, down a slippery slope, to apply this principle of things evolving from the simple to the complex to the development of world religions. Just as single-celled organisms evolved into the more complex, so too, as the narrative went, did the primitive polytheistic pagan religions practiced by ancient cultures evolve over time into the monotheistic religions that we see today.
However, as E. Michael Jones states in discussing Schmidt’s ideas on the development of religion, just the opposite is actually true:
“Instead of showing upward progress, the idea of God invariably showed degeneration from pristine monotheistic belief in a sky god, who was known as father and creator of the moral law, to polytheistic decadence.”12
Monotheism in China
Based on Schmidt’s anthropological theory, it’s not surprising to learn that one of the early Chinese philosophers, Confucius, was born into a monotheistic culture, albeit one that had been deteriorating for some time. Even though Chinese religion was more advanced than those of ancient Greece and Rome, it had declined from its pristine, simplistic origins.13
Much like it was Socrates’ mission to return corrupt Athens to its original simplicity of devotion to God, so too did Confucius yearn for a time when people were closer to God and nature.14 Like all ancient cultures, the Chinese had traditions of a previous golden age in the distant past, when man had been in a pure state. Even today, many people, despite holding contrary evolutionary ideas, feel that something has gone wrong and that we have “fallen” from a higher state of perfection. This idea, common to humanity, has different cultural expressions throughout the world.
Understandably, shortly after the Fall, ancient cultures had a more pure understanding of God than cultures do today, save for the Gospel.15 There are records to that effect that have come down to us from the earliest of ancient cultures. For example, the evidence shows that the religion of the first dynasty of ancient Egypt was more pure than those of later dynasties.
In A History of Religious Ideas, Mircea Eliade states:
“It is surprising that the earliest Egyptian cosmology yet known is also the most philosophical…. In short, the theogony and cosmology are effected by the creative power of the thought and word of a single God [Ptah]. We here certainly have the higher expression of Egyptian metaphysical speculation…it is at the beginning of history that we find a doctrine that can be compared with the Christian theology of Logos.”16
The same is true for ancient China’s primal civilization.17 Shu Ching (“Book of Documents”) is the oldest book of Chinese history. In it, we find information that explains that the people in China’s first dynasty, the Hsia (circa 2300-1700 B.C.), believed in one supreme God. They called this God the Shang Ti, portrayed by the following Chinese characters:
Shang means “above” or “superior to” and Ti means “ruler” or “lord.” So, what we have here is the equivalent of “God Almighty.” The most well-known of the Chinese philosophers hadn’t entered the scene yet, but the belief of one “God Almighty” was already commonplace.
John Ross, D.D. (1845-1915), Protestant missionary to China, stated the following:
“It is therefore evident that the belief in the existence of one Supreme Ruler is among the earliest beliefs of the Chinese known to us. Of an earlier date, when no such belief existed or when the belief in polytheism did exist, we find no trace. Nowhere is there a hint to confirm the materialistic theory that the idea of God is a later evolutionary product of a precedent belief in…departed ancestors, or that the belief had arisen indirectly from any other similar source.”18
During the Sheng dynasty (circa 1700-1100 B.C.), the supreme deity was more commonly called T’ien, which means “Heaven.”19 T’ien is denoted by the following character:
I don’t know why the change occurred, but an interesting parallel was found among the Jews as well. The name of God was so sacred to the Jews that they would often substitute the word “Heaven” in place of “God.” That is why St. Matthew, in writing his Gospel to a Jewish audience, used the phrase “Kingdom of Heaven” instead of “Kingdom of God.”
Regardless, the emperors of China understood that they had to rule by the authority of God or Heaven, and this meant that they had to rule and live virtuously. There’s that concept of virtue again that we saw with Aristotle and the Greeks. The emperor answered directly to heaven, so if he did not live or rule virtuously, he lost his authority to rule. There is some overlap here with the European concept of the “Divine Right of Kings.”
From Light to Darkness
The earlier we go back in history to look at ancient cultures, the more pure and monotheistic religion becomes. That is because it is closer to the original revelation of God and had less time to be corrupted. Of all the various ancient cultures, it seems that the Chinese and their racial cousins, the American Indians, retained one of the purest expressions of God as the Supreme Being.20 But even at this early stage, the knowledge of God, although relatively pure, was starting to become corrupted.
By the time we get to the Zhou Dynasty in the 11th century B.C.,21 things had already begun to get more corrupted; the Duke of Zhou stated that “Heaven cannot be trusted.”22 The general progression continued downward from pristine simplicity to a complexity shrouded in increasing darkness. Instead of asking, “Should I follow Heaven or not?” people began asking, “What is the way of Heaven?”
We see this even in modern times in Western cultures that were once enlightened with the Truth of the Gospel. Western nations have gone from acknowledging and following God’s Law, to acknowledging His Law but viewing it as optional, to what we see presently, lawlessness – not acknowledging God’s Law at all. The inertia is always from good to evil, or light to darkness, unless we actively work against it like a fish swimming upstream. A powerful way of doing that is through catechesis, which I discussed in post 12.
The cultures of the ancient world, both Eastern and Western, took a downward course from the light of the knowledge of God and pristine religion practiced shortly after the Fall, to the spiritual darkness, polytheistic paganism, and immorality that we find in the 6th and 5th centuries B.C. The more distant the ancient Chinese got from the Creator, the more they sought out lesser deities – gods of nature, ancestor worship, etc.23 At this point, they never sought the Supreme Being directly, but only through intermediaries in practices such as divination.
This darkness was universal. It was true not only of China and the other Asian cultures, but also of the Greeks, Romans, Africans, and American Indians.
From Darkness to Light
After that short excursion, let’s return to our discussion of the Great Awakening. Even though things were bad, God never completely abandons any culture, but always leaves a witness.24 As St. Paul states in Acts 14:
“In past generations he allowed all the nations to walk in their own ways; yet he did not leave himself without witness, for he did good and gave you from heaven rains and fruitful seasons, satisfying your hearts with food and gladness.”
Even though China’s monotheism became more obscure as the centuries passed, there were vestiges of the one true God above all in the state worship.25 Since Eastern cultures like China were so heavily rooted in tradition, no matter how far they fell, they always retained remnants of the one true God whom they knew from centuries past. Their ancient religion could never entirely disappear.
For example, the emperors continued to offer what they called the Great Sacrifice to Shang Ti twice a year on the solstices.26 The practice continued in modern times all the way up until the fall of the Qing dynasty in 1912. Overall, the Chinese had worshipped Shang Ti for over 4,000 years. And still even today, vestiges of the original Chinese religion are found in Taoist and Buddhist temples. When worshippers enter the temple, they burn incense and pray to Shang Ti in the narthex before entering into the main area of the temple. This fact has not been lost on Christian missionaries who have used Shang Ti to lead people to Christ by showing them that the one true God has always had active witness in their culture.
Nevertheless, by the time of the 6th and 5th centuries B.C., religious worship was more darkness that light, not only in China, but in the rest of the world as well, with the exception of the Jews. Outside of Israel, the one true God was barely recognizable.
And this is the world into which not only Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle were born, but also the Chinese philosophers Confucius and Lao Tzu. They, among others, had the role of turning the world back to a more pure and simplistic understanding of God in order to prepare the way for the coming of Christ.
Parallels in Ancient Israel
The downward slide into the darkness of idolatry was happening to God’s own people – the Israelites – as well. They weren’t immune to this just because they were God’s chosen people. The Israelites ran headlong into idolatry, even sacrificing their own children to Moloch. In certain ways, they were worse than the ancient cultures of other nations since they had no excuse.
Israel had an advantage that none of the other nations had: divine revelation. This is what made them unique. But even with that, the Israelites remained stubborn and rebellious. Eventually, God sent a direct chastisement through the Babylonians, who destroyed Jerusalem in 586 B.C. and took the Israelites into captivity. They eventually returned a restored people 70 years later. By the time they finished rebuilding and restoring their nation, it was around 400 B.C.
Instead of having philosophers, Israel had prophets like Haggai, Zephaniah, and Malachi; priests such as Ezra; and governors such as Nehemiah who helped restore their nation after the Babylonian captivity. As the other nations were undergoing an enlightenment, Isael was experiencing a chastisement. One could say that with the destruction and restoration of Jerusalem, Israel had undergone a death and resurrection.
If we examine what happened with Israel closely, we will see an Old Testament parallel to a New Testament fulfillment. God’s only Son, Jesus, had to undergo a death and resurrection so that the rest of the world could be enlightened with the light of the Gospel. This was foreshadowed in the Old Testament by God’s only son, Israel, undergoing a death and resurrection as well. (God calls Israel His firstborn son in Exodus 4:22-23.) In my opinion, it is not merely a coincidence that the time frame in which Israel experienced all of this – the 6th and 5th centuries B.C. – coincided with the nations of the world reaching their spiritual nadirs and each having a great awakening.
Some theologians have said that as Israel went, so went the nations. Israel was meant to be a beacon of truth and light to the rest of the world. By not fulfilling this purpose, was the world left without a witness? Could this be part of the reason that, as Israel sunk into the morass of rebellion and idolatry, that the rest of the world followed? These are interesting questions to consider. Was this merely typological or was there some metaphysical connection as well?
Regardless, in order for Israel to be restored, the nation had to undergo a purification for her sins. Of course this is all figurative, but it is all meant, like the rest of the Old Testament, to point to Christ. These Old Testament events were merely types and shadows of the realities to come in Christ.
Two Great Chinese Philosophers
Greece had Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. China had Confucius and Lao Tzu, the two greatest Chinese philosophers that China ever produced. Like the Greek philosophers, they were philosophers with a God consciousness. This led them to not only seek moral reform, but like Socrates, to bring people back to the one true God. This is the opposite of most of our modern philosophers who seem to have an anti-God consciousness and a disregard for moral absolutes.
Having said that, the enlightenment of the ancient world with China, India, Greece, and other nations was only a partial enlightenment where people could once again see the one true God, but dimly and in shadow form. That was enough, though, to pull them out of the abyss and prepare their hearts for the fullness of light and revelation in Jesus Christ.
The Seeds of Logos
In the previous post, I discussed how Justin Martyr (100-165 A.D.) saw the Logos at work throughout the world. In witnessing to the Greek polytheists of his day, he pointed to the fact that the seeds of the Logos were implanted in the hearts of all men, and that even pre-Christian people of all cultures who understood the Logos understood that there was only one God.27 They saw the ordering principle of the universe and called it Logos. In talking about ancient writers, Justin states:
“For all the writers were able to see realities darkly through the sowing of the implanted Logos that was in them.”28
In the next post, I will pick up where I left off and discuss the lives and work of the two great Chinese philosophers – Confucius and Lao Tzu.
I will end with a couple of quotes. The first is from Socrates, 5th century B.C.,
“It is neither easy to find the Father and Maker of all, nor having found Him, is it possible to declare him to all.”
The next quote is from Lao Tzu, 6th century B.C.,
“I do not know its name, but characterize it as the Tao (Way).”
Now consider the following question:
Do you think that all cultures have a “Tao.” Please comment below and don’t forget to subscribe. Thank you!
From Amazon reviewer J. Bair: “A thoroughly documented and visually appealing presentation summarizing the ancient Chinese belief in a single Creator God. The thesis is that traditional Chinese culture was monotheistic. Even after the introduction of the gods of Buddhism and dragon worship, those various spirits were seen as lower spirits than Shang Di, literally Lord of Heaven, Creator of everything including those spirits. Until the last emperor abdicated in 1911, nearly every Chinese monarch for over four thousand years offered sacrifices to the King of Heaven.”
- Damascene, Hieromonk, Christ the Eternal Tao, p. 30, Valaam Books, Platina, California, 2004
- Dawson, Christopher, Dynamics of World History, p. xvii, Wilmington, DE: ISI, 2002 as cited in Jones, E. Michael, Logos Rising, A History of Ultimate Reality, p. 139, Fidelity Press, South Bend, Indiana, 2020
- Lopez, Donald S. “Buddha”. Encyclopedia Britannica, 19 Feb. 2020, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Buddha-founder-of-Buddhism. Accessed 23 May 2021
- Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopedia. “Pali canon”. Encyclopedia Britannica, 22 Mar. 2019, https://www.britannica.com/topic/Tipitaka. Accessed 23 May 2021.
- Chin, Annping. “Confucius”. Encyclopedia Britannica, 19 Oct. 2020, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Confucius. Accessed 23 May 2021.
- Damascene, Hieromonk, Christ the Eternal Tao, p. 229, Valaam Books, Platina, California, 2004
- Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopedia. “Wilhelm Schmidt,” Encyclopedia Britannica, 12 Feb. 2021, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Wilhelm-Schmidt. Accessed 23 May 2021.
- E. Michael, Logos Rising, A History of Ultimate Reality, p. 37, Fidelity Press, South Bend, Indiana, 2020
- Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopedia. “Wilhelm Schmidt,” https://www.britannica.com/biography/Wilhelm-Schmidt.
- Jones, Logos Rising, A History of Ultimate Reality, p. 37
- Damascene, Hieromonk, Christ the Eternal Tao, p. 229
- Damascene, Hieromonk, Christ the Eternal Tao, p. 221
- Eliade, Mircea, A History of Religious Ideas, Volume 1, From the Stone Age to the Eleusinian Mysteries, p. 88, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2014; cited from Damascene, Hieromonk, Christ the Eternal Tao, p. 221
- Damascene, Hieromonk, Christ the Eternal Tao, p. 221-222
- John Ross, D.D., The Original Religion of China, pp. 23-25, Edinburg: Oliphant, Anderson & Ferrier, 1909 as cited in Damascene, Hieromonk, Christ the Eternal Tao, p. 222
- Damascene, Hieromonk, Christ the Eternal Tao, p. 221-222
- Damascene, Hieromonk, Christ the Eternal Tao, p. 224
- Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopedia. “Zhou dynasty”. Encyclopedia Britannica, 12 May. 2020, https://www.britannica.com/topic/Zhou-dynasty.
- Damascene, Hieromonk, Christ the Eternal Tao, p. 224-225
- I also discuss this concept in post 21.
- Damascene, Hieromonk, Christ the Eternal Tao, p. 225
- Damascene, Hieromonk, Christ the Eternal Tao, p. 225-226
- Damascene, Hieromonk, Christ the Eternal Tao, p. 41
- St. Justin Martyr, Second Apology, in the Anti-Nicene Fathers, vol. 1, p. 193, Grand Rapids, MI, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing as cited in Damascene, Hieromonk, Christ the Eternal Tao, p. 41
Bibliography and Sources:
Chan Kei Thong, Faith of Our Fathers, China Publishing Group Orient Publishing Center, Shanghai, 2006
Confucius, The Analects, translated by D.C. Lau, Penguin Classics, Westminster, London, 1998
Damascene, Hieromonk, Christ the Eternal Tao, Valaam Books, Platina, California, 2004
Dawson, Christopher, Dynamics of World History, Wilmington, DE: ISI, 2002
Eliade, Mircea, A History of Religious Ideas, Volume 2, From Gautama Buddha to the Triumph of Christianity, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1982, paperback edition, 1984.
Jones, E. Michael, Logos Rising, A History of Ultimate Reality, Fidelity Press, South Bend, Indiana, 2020
Lopez, Donald, Buddhist Scriptures, First Edition, Penguin Classics, Westminster, London, 2004
Father Seraphim of Sarov, Orthodox Christianity website: https://orthochristian.com/
YHWH’s Janitor, “God in Ancient China – Who is Shang Di?” https://yhwhjanitor.com/2018/08/11/god-in-ancient-china-who-is-shang-di-part-1