The general intellectual ferment, compelling thirst for truth and the spiritual urge that is, in a most remarkable way, revealing itself today in all lands, amid all peoples, races, and religions of earth, has only one outstanding counterpart in ancient history. That was from about 650 to 550 B.C.
Equally remarkable, yet not strange to the true interpretation of history, God had for the sixth and seventh centuries a competent plan to answer adequately the reckless spirit of investigation and the spiritual longings that were astir in all lands. As we delve into the study of the philosophical and religious conditions of these ancient centuries, we find amazingly interesting similarities with our own time, from which we may gain much instruction.
1. Israel's Challenge for Greater Evangelism
The relation of the "going in the tops of the mulberry trees" in those distant days of antiquity to the preparation of the world for the first great advent of Christ is not difficult to observe. Isaiah, Israel's greatest evangelist-prophet, who lived just prior to this period, possessed a clear vision of Israel's world-evangelism responsibility, such as was given in anticipation of coming days of unprecedented mental and spiritual activity. Jeremiah, Israel's last precaptivity prophet and another of her greatest prophets, living contemporaneously with this significant period, brought to Israel the same evangelistic emphasis. Both these Hebrew prophets observed and several times drew comparisons between the then present times and task of the first Israel with that of the second Israel of today. In this brief presentation we are confined to a telescopic, general survey of the leading thinkers of that momentous age ; the early, formative, impressionable nature of the Oriental religions and philosophies ; and the mighty, millenarian, never-to-return challenge to Israel for evangelism in these fertile, primitive civilizations.
It is peculiarly unique that within the brief scope of practically one hundred years the then small world was graciously favored by the appearance of a few philosophical and religious geniuses beyond whose thoughts it has been very difficult for any of their devotees to pass. It has been in their philosophical and religious thought mold pattern that most subsequent scholars in these lands, and the great systems of religion their teachings gave rise to, have made their greatest intellectual and spiritual achievements.
2. Greek Philosophy in Its Formative State
To this one remote century is assigned the origins of Greek cosmology and critical and speculative thought. About 640 B.C., Thales of Miletus was born. He "is universally recognized as the founder of Greek geometry, astronomy, and philosophy." His is the first name to appear in the brief list of great Ionian, pre-Platonic thinkers. The next genius in thought was Pythagoras, born about 570 B.C. on the island of Samos. To Pythagoras is given the unchallenged honor of "having raised mathematics to the rank of a science." With these two men began Greek science and philosophy.
Here we observe the Greeks, not satisfied with their intellectual and philosophical achievements of the past, but admitting the fact, as they later did, of "the unknown God," they were in search of the ultimate purpose of life, and desired to know the causes and laws of all spiritual and natural phenomena. What a fertile soil and strategic opportunity was presented by such a close neighbor to ancient Israel for evangelistic endeavor. If only Israel had answered this challenge, and presented the wisdom, power, and love of the "unknown God" while Greek philosophy was still in its fluid, plastic state, what a different subsequent history of Western thought we would have today.
3. Persia Initiates Her Quest for Salvation
Traveling eastward, we enter Persia. Growing out of its native religious soil came one of Persia's greatest sons, Zoroaster, born in about the year 66o B.C. Outside of Israel, God's chosen, enlightened people, Zoroaster was one of the most brilliantly enlightened spiritual minds of antiquity. During the millenniums that have come and gone since his day, time and study have not yet been sufficient, in any sense, to appreciably measure his contribution and influence to subsequent Near Eastern and Mediterranean religious experience and thought.
Down through the following centuries the stream of religious influence that radiated from Zoroaster's dynamic teaching divided; one branch turned to the East, entered India, and is today known as Parsiism; the other branch turned to the West, and entered the Roman Empire as Mithraism. Volumes have been written concerning both these religious systems that grew out of the fire and sun worship to which each has dropped, and the myriads of people that have and are today, both in India and the West, following in the wake of their depraved teaching.
Zoroaster, a contemporary of some of Israel's saintly prophets, devoted his life, all his mental and spiritual power, toward a better understanding of the problems of religion. With this deep spiritual quest on the part of Persia's populace, these people having already kindled "a fire" and having compassed themselves about "with sparks" that they had kindled, how advantageous it would have been for Israel, the depository of God's eternal, saving truth, to have sent a missionary to that land to give them the message of the true light. "God so loved the world" was just as true in Zoroaster's day as it was in John's, but how little evidence we have that Israel realized or believed it.
4. Indo-Gangetic Peoples Revolt Against Priestcraft
We now drop down into the rich alluvial civilization of the ancient Indo-Gangetic Valley. Out of the syncretism of alien Aryan and native Dravidian thought there developed a most potent system of religious philosophy known as Brahmanic Hinduism. In this cradleland of Hinduism was evolved an elaborate religious ritual from which eventually developed the four Vedas, then the priestly commentaries of the Brahmana, ripening, during the period from the eighth century to the sixth century B.C. into the rich, philosophical Upamishads—"knowledge," which was the prize possession of only "the inner circle of the enlightened few."
In that intensely interesting sixth century, as India was swarming with heresies and religious ferment, there rose one of her most princely sons, Mahavira. He was born in 599 B.C. Revolting against the authority of the Brahmans and the Vedas, he came to be called the film, or conqueror, and led the way of millions to Nirvana through Jainism.
Again within the scope of the same century in that thrice fertile valley of the Ganges there was born to a wealthy rajah his noble son Siddhartha Gautama, to whom, by the fortunes of personal gifts, spiritual ardor, and the destiny of history, has, during the roll of the centuries, been ascribed the peerless appellation of "the Light of Asia." And by the light of the "sparks" of his own "kindling" he has led countless myriads of the East to Nirvana by the "way" of Buddhism.
In that distant country man is again found during this early century, groping and stumbling along in his age-old attempt to answer his inborn striving for spiritual satisfaction. What a tragic situation the inhabitants of the Indo-Gangetic Valley present, struggling alone with the doctrine of Karma, transmigration, and many other kindred philosophical teachings and metaphysical speculations of equal darkness and error.
The great religious revolution of the sixth century in India, which produced the two great reformers, Mahavira, the founder of Jainism, and Gautama, the founder of Buddhism, is most convincing proof that men were dissatisfied with their spiritual experience. In earnest sincerity they were seeking for that which their souls demanded. What a rich and responsive soil that would have been for Israel's messenger to present the true philosophy of life here and hereafter—the two questions that so vitally disturbed the philosophic Indian mind. But sad to record, the Hebrew annals of this momentous period—a period pulsating with the greatest mental and spiritual strivings for new and fuller light on the significance of life and its future, the evangelistic challenge of the centuries—reveals no sign of response.
The task given to, and so heedlessly observed and fatally neglected by, Israel—that of giving to the Eastern world the knowledge of the "light of the world," Jesus—was immediately assumed by Buddhism, and has, through the passing centuries, been consistently and continuously carried on by the teachings of the "light of Asia"—Buddha. Buddhism became one of the world's greatest missionary religions. During the past two millenniums, through its northern branch, Mahayana, Buddhism has been carried to, and been accepted by, the countless millions of people in China, Tibet, Korea, and Japan. And through its southern branch, Hinayana, Buddhism has been carried to practically all the countries and islands east and southeast of India.
—To be concluded in March