By Ronald Brown
“Oh, God,” I thought, another temple. Like cows in India, taxis in New York, musicians in Mexico, and nuns in Rome, I barely noticed temples in China anymore. But that spring day in Shanghai in 2005 was hot and humid so I decided to stop in for a visit.
The “god” was a rather ruthless looking person, flanked by equally fierce sword-wielding guards, all enshrouded in incense. Compared to a loving Jesus, scroll-bearing Confucius, or a serene Buddha, this god seemed fierce. Not on the tourist beaten track, the signs were all in Chinese so I asked a young guy to translate one for me.
“Back a long time ago, the British Empire attacked the city to force the people to become Christian and take opium. Chen Huacheng was a Qing Dynasty general who vowed to defend his city to the death,” he freely translated. “He roused his fellow residents to resist but they were defeated and Cheng was killed.” In honor of his heroic qualities and dedication to his homeland, the government of Shanghai declare him a god, placed a statue in the temple in his honor, and instituted a priesthood to worship him forever.
The god of Shanghai was about as far from the almighty, eternal and omnipotent god of Jews, Christians and Muslims as one could get. Jews might write books about such great men, and Catholics might construct elaborate visions of heaven, hell, purgatory, and until recently limbo, but only Confucianists would make a hero a god and celebrate the survival of a city as the goal of religion.
Standing in front of the incense enshrouded statue of Chen, I realized that deep beneath the centuries of encrusted rituals, traditions, beliefs, and deities of the religions of the world was a common quest: The creation of a perfect human being and placing this human in a perfect human society.
The evolution of religions
As humans evolved from their tree perches in East Africa to orbiting space stations, they have elaborated a host of unique religions.