Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Early Christians and Religious Plurality

The following are my reflections on Gerald R. McDermott's, God's Rivals: Why Has God Allowed Different Religions: Insights from the Bible and the Early ChurchI read this text recently as a part of a seminary course on World Religions.  A highly recommended read...

The central question, “Why has God allowed different religions?” is a complex inquiry that demands thoughtful and potentially complex responses. Moreover, a single and unified conclusion within the Christian tradition has neither been subscribed to in the past, nor has it been arrived at in the present. However, in God’s Rivals, Gerald R. McDermott does not hesitate to explore this aged and difficult question. Instead, McDermott engages the biblical witness, i.e. both the Old and New Testament, and significant voices from the early church in efforts to extend beyond pat answers and to pursue dialogue with diverse inclinations and contemplations. In essence, God’s Rivals reminds the reader that real cultural change resides not in the presence of religious plurality, for this has always been so, but in the reduced and removed Christian responses to it.

One of the sub-questions explored within McDermott’s text is, can revelation occur outside of Israel and Christianity? While it is a central conviction of the Christian faith that in Jesus the fullness of God has been revealed (Col 1:19), one cannot ignore the plausibility of religious truths contained within alternative philosophies, traditions, and experiences. The biblical witness is saturated in not only harsh criticism, but also elevation of Israel’s pagan neighbors and the appropriations of their religious narratives, traditions, and disciplines, e.g. Melchizedek, Zarephath, adaptation of names for Yahweh, creation and flood stories, etc. (35). Furthermore, this practice carried over into the early church, as Christians continued to engage the philosophies and religious teachings of their context in efforts to develop and understand their conviction of Jesus as the Way, the Truth, and the Life. McDermott is keen to note Justin Martyr of the second-century who believed that all truth was God’s truth and that “Christ had sowed the seeds of truth among the pagans” (96). Clement of Alexandria was also a prominent witness in the early church who believed that “Christians should not be afraid of philosophy [1], for it contains truth useful for leading seekers to the full truth” (118, italics mine). Even more, Origen was sure to remind Christians that embedded within other religions was the dialectic of truth and falsehood; therefore, Christians were to be cautious in their interactions (150). Nonetheless, the biblical witness and the traditions of the early Christians charges contemporary believers not to dismiss with ease and ignorance, but to engage with wisdom and concern the religious and philosophical plurality of our contexts, especially as such interactions lead to improved understandings of Jesus, who is the Divine Logos revealed.

A second sub-question posed by McDermott’s text is, do the pagan deities actually exist? This question is unable to be answered definitively, neither in the affirmative nor negative. However, McDermott is quick to note a variety of biblical texts to suggest that, for Israel, and quite possibly early Christianity, monotheism was not as clearly embraced or developed as often assumed. Instead, Yahweh was the One “true” God who sat in judgment over the “divine council” (53; see Ps. 29, Ps. 82). However, there are many scholars who have also proposed that Israel’s arrival at monotheism was progressive, which led such prophets as Isaiah (44:9-17) and Jeremiah (2:11; 5:7; 16:20), along with the Psalmist (18:31), to state that there was no God besides Yahweh (59). The New Testament writers pose similar notions and affirm not only the existence of these deities and principalities, but also the need to resist and hold fast to Jesus who is Lord over them (Gal. 4:3; Eph. 6:10ff; Col. 2:20).

However, there still remains ambivalence in regards to the pagan deities’ existence, to which McDermott notes four approaches. The first, neighborly pluralism, maintains that other peoples and/or nations may have their own gods, as assigned to them by Yahweh, yet they must leave God’s people alone and free to worship Yahweh (61). The second, competitive pluralism, affirms the existence of other deities; however, “there is absolutely no room for honor or worship to be given to other gods- even if they were originally created as a part of the divine council” (62). The third, vehement missionary exclusivism, denies any and all deities other than Yahweh. Finally, cosmic war view affirms the cosmic realm of spiritual forces that wage against humanity and the created world. McDermott writes, “Yahweh has defeated these hostile powers, but the war is ongoing” (63). Each of these schools of thought can be supported and thwarted by biblical texts and early Christian witness, which reminds us over and again that unanimity in regards to the existence of pagan deities is unable to be attained. Nonetheless, wherever one stands on the spectrum, one must be careful neither to delegitimize nor over-indulge alternative religious philosophical traditions.

The possibility of revelation found within the very real existence of religions other than the Christianity leads to a final musing, why has God allowed this? The strength of McDermott’s text lay within his engagement with Clement of Alexandria. Clement suggests that religious systems and traditions, along with their respective deities, were given as a covenant to nations beyond Israel in order to lead them eventually to the gospel found in Jesus (129). Irenaeus, prominent within the same century as Clement, also noted that God, as the great pedagogue, could use even pagan religious systems to lead them to sufficient revelation and ultimately Jesus (111). However, it was Clement who devised a three-fold response to the above question and for the purpose of the Church. First, other religions serve a didactic function for the church to engage people far and wide in the religious traditions of their cultural contexts and demonstrate that in Christ all promises have been fulfilled. Second, other religions serve as an apologetic tool to compare and contrast the Way of Jesus with the ways of alternative deities and religious experiences. Finally, other religions help the Christian understand his or her own faith on a broader and deeper level, even with the possibility of correcting and rebuking errors in his or her thinking and being in the world (130). The interaction with world religions, as noted by Clement, is a significant and necessary discipline for Christian communities. Nonetheless, McDermott paraphrases Origen as a reminder, “We can learn from his warnings that exploration of other religions is deep water that the spiritually young should not enter until they have first gone deeper into their own pools” (155). Sadly, many of the pools our contemporary congregations swim in are shallow at best, empty at worst, and we still manage somehow to drown.

The depth of McDermott’s work, God’s Rivals, is a significant read for any Christian who seeks to engage the religious plurality past and present. The ability of each chapter to remain both faithful and conversant is a gift to the church and generous towards those religious traditions outside Christianity. However, the most significant remark within God’s Rivals lay in the concluding remarks:

And [other religions] are used by God, in God’s sovereign plan, to serve the ends of redemption…This also means that other religionists are not our enemies. And we should not fight them…That believers of other religions are not our enemy also means patient persuasion, not hostile argument. It means loving witness to others who sincerely believe they have the truth. We may believe they have been deceived by spiritual forces, but we first must acknowledge that we don’t have complete possession of the full truth either (165).
These words remind the Christian that God can use any vehicle God chooses for the purpose of revelation and liberation. In the process, we would do well to listen, engage, and, above all, work towards love and grace [2]. These are the hallmarks of the Christian Way and Path that should saturate any and all religious discourse.

[1] I appreciated McDermott’s reminder that philosophy and religion were not separate categories in antiquity, rather assumed as unified disciplines.

[2] For good measure, I thought I would throw one of my favorite Karl Barth quotes in here, “God may speak to us through Russian Communism, a flute concierto, a blossoming shrub, or a dead dog. We do well to listen to Him if He really does” (Church Dogmatics I/1, p. 55).

[3] A great article was recently published in Christian Century, "Double-Belonging," by Amy Frykholm: http://www.christiancentury.org/article/2011-01/double-belonging