I am expecting Dandong’s sole remaining oasis of silence, beauty and the past. But the taxi to the temple drops us at a building site. It seems this oasis is itself Under Construction. An enormous new temple of fresh concrete rears up behind the remains of the old, columns poured and hard awaiting a coat of red lacquer, golden plastic-sheathed buddhas await some ritual unwrapping and installation. Taped chanting encourages the leaving of a donation; a lone nun smiles beatifically beneath a parched hillside park I’ve never seen before.
Here, two years ago were the only surviving lanes of Old Dandong. They are gone. New towerblocks rear up around us, leaving only a single Danish-built villa and an abandoned hospital, also built by the Danes, caught in a vice between local campaigners and developers, quietly decaying. The Lutheran church nearby is spruce and neat, packed out on Sundays; the gothic Catholic church is now approached across a junction of dual carriageway and underpass that has appeared from nowhere, aged, and become decrepit, all within 18 months of speeded-up Chinese time.
Then I spot the curved eaves and brightly coloured brackets of a large traditional building: how could I have missed that in 20 years of exploration? We make our way through a building site, half completed skyscrapers and squatter’s huts with smoke rising stubbornly from chimneys. This ancient-looking temple, it turns out, is even newer than the buildings that surround it; there are fresh-as-yesterday mural paintings and more plastic-wrapped statues, this time of bearded dieties: this, it turns out, will be a great Taoist prayer-vat for the rich and wannabe rich of the city.
Not for the first time, I experience the disorientation of a country in which time often seems to run forwards so rapidly that it turns tail and runs back on itself.
It sat precariously on the cistern in the loo from July to December, and a wee at a time (note to the girls: standing up is key here), it is done.
What a work. I know for myself – http://www.amazon.co.uk/Cathedral-English-Cathedrals-World-That/dp/1841198412/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1294310921&sr=1-1 – how hard it is to synthesize a vast field, while remaining a good read. Yet my focus was a pindrop compared to his. How can anything that complex and log be such a page-turner? Yet I could almost read it again for all the new insights and fascinating stories I missed. Such as the Christian saint who results from an early co-option of the tales of the Buddha. Time and again, familiar events (such as the Second World War) look like an entirely new landscape when light is thrown on them from the unfamiliar angle of this one specific faith.
As one nears the ending, where he makes some resonatingly interesting points, especially about the possible future directions of liturgy (yes, happy clappy is liturgy too; and no, happy clappy doesn’t have to mean Fundo nonsense) and the impact of the Enlightenment, one realizes he, too has an agenda, a point of view. Sexual politics is one theme, for example; another is the uniqueness of the European tradition, or as he rightly calls it, state of mind; a tradition which has such a powerful relationship to the faith that dominated European culture from the late Roman to the late Industrial era. Indeed I don’t think he makes clear enough just how remarkable our current juncture is, faith-wise. Europeans today operate in a multi-faith and no-faith environment unmatched since the Romans; not just because of population change – ie migration from non-Christian cultures into Europe – but also because of the influence on ‘indigenous’ culture of those traditions, from Buddhism to Islam, and including newly-minted homespun faiths, often cut from the cloths of many others. This is a major contrast to the previous millenium or so, making is closer to some very distant ancestors than we realise (not just the Romans, but also, for example Britain at the time of the first Anglo-Saxon incursions: Christian, pagan, Empire cults, all mixed up and combining with major population shifts).
The only place I beg to disagree with him, however, comes in the first half of the book. The problem is that he sees the success of Christianity — still the largest religion on the planet — as entirely the result of a series of historical accidents, especially in its early centuries, before it had achieved any kind of hegemony. I don’t think it’s that simple. His reporting of current paleo-archaeological analysis of that elusive thing, the Historic Jesus of Nazareth, is fascinating, but he throws the baby out with the bath water when he says that all faiths have a ‘love thy neighbour as thyself’-type message. It’s not that it’s not true — it is. It’s also not that other faiths don’t have their own core, unique and powerful insights — Buddhism’s Wheel of Suffering, for example, or Islam’s approaches to the nature of G*d. It’s just that no other faith says: there is only one thing to remember, only one form of behaviour that is moral, and it’s love thy neighbour as thyself. That’s a simple, but powerful, contribution. Likewise, Christianity has been so successful in so many cultures over such a long period that there must be something in the essence of it that is persuasive, that meets real human needs. I don’t deny the significance of simple power politics here, and the coincidence of Christianity’s riding on the back of early Modern European expansion; nor that other great faiths don’t have their own equally persuasive Core Story. But I do think that Core Story is worthy of attention, and something unique about it, something inherent to the story itself, has a power that has contributed to its succcess. And that something is not just about a moral message. For a start, as he very eloquently emphasizes, there’s a certain flexibility, an unfixed-ness, that has helped aid success enormously. But there’s more: something in the story itself, the birth, the death of it: what I’m saying is that the success owes as much to the power of images, myths, stories as it does to abstract moral messages; and that those of us who find themselves friends of the faith, interpreters of its contribution, without quite being *of* it (except in the loosest sense), need to get to grips with whatever-it-is that is that faith’s unique contribution if we are to understand it, and faith, and indeed our condition and what can heal it.