Chalcedon has very kindly provided some of the background for what I want to write about. In his post today (and when he found the time to whip that one off, I don’t know) he outlined the debate which took place between the Nestorian Catholicos, Timothy I (780-823) and the Abbassid Caliph al-Mahdi in 781. As he says, it is well worth reading in full.
At the end, the Caliph says what he was bound to say, that the Christians (whose disagreements among themselves he had highlighted as one of the signs that Christianity was a false religion) have it wrong about Jesus being the Son of God. Mar Timothy, who was obviously something of a diplomat, responds in a way which deserves full quotation:
”O our victorious King, in this world we are all of us as in a dark house in the middle of the night. If at night and in a dark house a precious pearl happens to fall in the midst of people, and all become aware of its existence, every one would strive to pick up the pearl, which will not fall to the lot of all but to the lot of one only, while one will get hold of the pearl itself, another one of a piece of glass, a third one of a stone or of a bit of earth, but every one will be happy and proud that he is the real possessor of the pearl. When, however, night and darkness disappear, and light and day arise, then every one of those men who had believed that they had the pearl, would extend and stretch his hand towards the light, which alone can show what every one has in hand. He who possesses the pearl will rejoice and be happy and pleased with it, while those who had in hand pieces of glass and bits of stone only will weep and be sad, and will sigh and shed tears.
This is certainly not (as some have suggested) a statement that all faiths are in some way equally valid – quite the opposite. Mar Timothy clearly thought that he was right and the Caliph was wrong, so the idea that somehow the ‘lost Christianity’ of the East was more open to syncretism than its Western counterpart, is not sustained by such quotations.
But what does come through the discussion is a tone of mutual respect. The Caliph had, after all, power of life and death over the Catholicos, as they both knew, but the freedom of discussion was not curtailed by it. The two men were immensely tolerant with each other, and where they were intolerant of the principles of the other, they were so in a manner which commanded mutual respect.
In 781 Mar Timothy, had he known anything of it, would have thought little of the Christianity of the West, with the Pagan Norsemen decimating Anglo-Saxon and French Christianity, and the Saracens doing the same in Spain. By contrast, he presided over 80 bishoprics and a Christianity which had already reached China. It is as well that the future is hidden from us.