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This is the eighth of a sequence of posts about ecumenical formation.
The Church of the East seems to have been little known until the publication in 2009 of Diarmaid McCulloch's 'A History of Christianity', which includes a section about the Church of the East. I also recommend The Lost History of Christianity by Philip Jenkins. That this history is lost is somewhat alarming but Jenkins' book is a good place to start to catch up.
It is clear, reading Jenkins, that the churches' success, (it existed for many centuries longer than Protestant churches have existed in Europe) was based on its networks of communities, usually founded on a library. When the church was destroyed in the thirteenth century, whole cities were wiped out along with almost all of its libraries. Some survive but are little known in the West, although Kenneth Bailey draws on them in his books, eg Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes.
Two stories from Jenkins.
Had not the Indians designed a system of nine wonderful signs that could be used to express all numbers? Although he does not seem to know of the existence of zero, that is the first reference in the West to the revolutionary numbering system, which we know as Arabic numerals. Though the system would not be widely publicised until the ninth century, Syriac Christians had known it long before that. (Page 77)
Arabic numbers are so called because they came to Europe through Islamic Arabic libraries. It seems they obtained their knowledge through the Church of the East. For most of its existence the Church of the East was under Islamic political rule and there was a close scholastic exchange between the two traditions. But the Church of the East didn't invent Arabic numbers, they obtained them from their churches in India, presumably through Hindu libraries.
The other story is of Bishop Adam in China.
Around ... 782, the Indian Buddhist missionary Prajna arrived in the Chinese imperial capital of Chang'an, but was unable to translate the Sanskrit sutras he had brought with him into either Chinese or any other familiar tongue. In such a plight, what could the hapless missionary do but seek Christian help? He duly consulted the bishop named Adam, ... Adam had already translated parts of the Bible into Chinese, and the two probably shared a knowledge of Persian. Together, Buddhist and Nestorian scholars worked amiably together for some years to translate seven copious volumes of Buddhist wisdom. Probably, Adam did this as much from intellectual curiosity as from ecumenical goodwill ... Scholars still speculate whether Adam infiltrated Christian concepts into the translated sutras, consciously or otherwise. (Page 15)
Jenkins goes on to show how these texts bore fruit far beyond China, in Japan.
These two stories illustrate the close relationships between faiths centuries ago. These relationships seem to have been natural co-operation between scholars, for mutual benefit.
Perhaps different faiths were not seen as so different in those days, after all it was modern Western missionaries who classified the world's faiths. We have made distinctions between faiths and in consequence we have built walls between them and now need interfaith dialogue to break them down. Many see such dialogue as somehow unnatural. It is hard to see how they can be, given the natural ways in which information has been exchanged in the past.
Formation was a natural outcome of exchange between faiths. Whilst some people might have changed faith, it seems people largely found it natural to exchange ideas with people from other faith traditions.
Today some believe we must keep other traditions at arms length. Is this wise? Many ecumenists, me included, claim their faith has deepened as a result of sharing ecumenically and interfaith. Usually this is built up as an intriguing discovery. Perhaps a thousand years ago this would have been an unremarkable experience.