What I discovered, through sixteen years of (off and on) research, was most clearly symbolized for me by my early experience in July of the first year, at the Temple of Heaven in Beijing, the great symbol of the ancient Chinese culture. (I told the story of that experience in my first book, True Son of Heaven: How Jesus Fulfills the Chinese Culture. Here I will paraphrase the story slightly.)
I arrived in Beijing on a hot summer day. On the horizon of this flat, endless city, I caught sight of an elegant shaped roof with dark blue tiles. I walked around the enormous wall that surrounded the two kilometer park of long grass and cedars in which it was set, and found an entrance.
It was a beautiful building. Three roofs rose one above the other like a wedding cake, with frosting so blue it seemed to have drained the pigment from the sky. Four red and golden pillars, twelve red pillars in a circle around them, and twelve more in a wider circle inside the wall, held these layers in place. (I later learned that after a fire a hundred years before, these pillars had been reconstructed with Douglas Fir from the Northwest.) Under the eaves, where swallows flew in and out, the ceiling was carved in intricate, colorful patterns.
The people who build the Temple of Heaven -- the first rulers of the Ming Dynasty, about seventy years before Columbus sailed -- wanted above all for Chinese religion to wear a Chinese face. The early Ming emperors threw off the yoke of the Mongols, chased foreigners out of the capital, including any Christians, and put up this hall as a revival of the most ancient and pure Chinese beliefs. So here I was coming into contact with another religious culture in its most traditional and ancient form, one that had nothing to do with the Western God, and wanted to have nothing to do with Him. It was a revival of Chinese worship of Heaven that went back thousands of years, and had been ennacted in a grand way upon an altar on Mount Tai in Shandong Province, long before the time of Confucius, and the great Jewish prophets.
The building should have been as alien to me as anything on earth. (Apart from the Douglas firs.) Yet it shocked me with its familiarity. The four gold and red inside pillars reminded me of four gold-leafed, red-letter-edition Gospels. The twelve red outside pillars seemed to suggest the twelve patriarchs and twelve apostles of the Bible -- symbolized in Christian writings by pillars sprinkled with blood. The twelve tribes of Israel, too, had been arranged in four groups around the Tabernacle and the Holy of Holies.
In fact, the building was startlingly reminiscent of the sacrifices of the Old and New Testaments. Here, I learned, like the high priest in Jerusalem, one man came once a year to ask pardon for a nation. To whom did he appeal? "Tian:" a Supreme God identified (but only in part) with Heaven, who could not be represented by idols. (And almost never was.) As in those old Sunday School flannels of the Jewish Tabernacle, here too, it was thought that the blood of animals might (at least in a temporary and symbolic fashion) bring Heaven's mercy. The Emperor even brought many of the same animals to the altar.
As I descended the steps of the temple, already awestruck, a Voice seemed to speak to me with a clarity I don't recall ever having heard it before. "Do you think I just came to China with the missionaries?" It seemed to ask. "No, I didn't just come here with them. I have been here all along. I made China."
The Temple of Heaven symbolized to me the fact that God had been in pagan cultures throughout human history. Yet at the same time it also reminded me that he did come, in a more emminent sense, with the missionaries, who brought news of the "Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world."
Over the following years, as I continued to study the cultures and beliefs of non-Christian peoples around the world, I often had doubts, felt lonely, and was distracted by tangential interests -- the pretty girls, for example, one of whom I married and has turned out to be a help rather than a distraction, however. Yet as I continued to follow this Tao, in my feeble way, God answered my prayers at times in ways that confirmed His reality to me.
I found that even many Asian Christians see Christianity as an alien way, a Western faith imported complete with wooden pews, 19th Century hymns, and (most ghastly of all) the ubiquitous organ. Christianity is "Yang Jiao," Chinese often say, "foreign teaching."
Yet the more I have studied non-Christian cultures and beliefs of various cultures and periods, the more I have become persuaded that the truth is just the opposite. Jesus is the Tao that Confucius and Lao Zi were looking for, the Rta of Indian philosophers or Purusa of the Rig Veda, the Divine Logos of St. the Apostle John. John's famous words about that Logos are correctly translated as follows in Chinese: "In the beginning was the Tao. And the Tao was with God, and the Tao was God. . . All things were made through Him, and without Him nothing was made that was made. . . ."
And then, as if to wake all the philosophers and day-dreamers among us up:
"And the Tao became flesh and dwelt among us."
interior of the Temple of Heaven, Beijing.
In 1984, I moved to Asia to try my hand as a missionary. My motives were admittedly mixed. I'd always loved to learn new languages, and see what was behind the next mountain. I loved photography, and I suspected the exotic East might furnish some good material. And girls, too, I was hoping.
People seemed to think missionaries go to other countries to serve God, and I think that was true for me, too, to a degree. But even more, I think I wanted to make sure He was really there. Growing up in an evangelical family, I'd heard stories about waters being parted and loaves of bread miraculously multiplied. My experience had been more prosaic, and I had a naturally skeptical turn of mind. I had seldom seen Him act in my life in any way that might not be explained psychologically.
Like many Westerners who travel to Asia, I also felt intrigued by expressions of the religious spirit other than the one I grew up in. I visited temples and mosques. I met monks, revolutionaries, and gurus who wanted to found new religions. I read holy books that formed the basis of other faiths. I even approached a couple hundred people on trains, buses, parks, and in homes, asking (in a moderately scientific fashion) such questions as "Where do you think we go when we die?" "What is the meaning to life?" "Is there a Creator?" "Do you believe in evil spirits?" and "What is the noblest virtue?" I swapped notes with spiritual travelers who were dissatisfied with the simple materialism or religion of their childhood and were groping for universal answers.