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

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Reform Our Rhetoric; Tame the Tongue: Pastoral Words from John Stewart

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There are rare moments in which comedians and political satirists unveil somewhat of a pastoral heart and prophetic concern. Tragedies, like the events this weekend in Tucson, Arizona, often evoke this side of cable characters, even the most cynical of talk show hosts, John Stewart. I confess that I am a fan of both his program, The Daily Show, as well as the one that directly follows, The Colbert Report. On more than one occasion I have warned myself not to filter my interpretation of current events through these shows, rather enjoy them for what they are: entertainment. However, as I watched Stewart’s recent monologue, I found myself challenged and convicted, even somewhat comforted and enlightened. Moreover, I was appreciative of the sparse moments of comic relief that allowed me to digest his statements honestly.

Stewart is spot on; we all must work towards the reformation of our political discourse and rhetoric. The polarization and demonization of social, political, and religious opponents, a trend rampant within all parties and platforms, while maybe not responsible, fosters a climate that certainly makes it easier to act out heinous crimes that were once limited to a twisted imagination. The attempted assassination, which resulted in the death of many innocent bystanders, is not the first belated caution flag raised due to irresponsible rhetoric. This past year, as mentioned in one of my previous posts, we also witnessed the rise of bullying and related suicides of homosexual youth. Again, reformation of rhetoric was one of many lessons to be learned,albeit too late. As it says in the Epistle of James, “but no one can tame the tongue -- a restless evil, full of deadly poison” (3:8). Yet we sure as hell should try…

It is a sad reality that it takes tragedy for humans to adjust our ethics. This is not to say that we as a society are more at fault than the one who sprayed the crowd and took the lives of beautiful people. The fault lay upon him. Nonetheless, as Stewart reminds us, we do not do enough to make it more complicated for such crimes to be committed.

So I ask and I ponder, what does this mean for us? How am I, how are we, in need of reforming our political rhetoric? How can you and I have intelligent and informed debates, which are not afraid of disagreement, but also refrain from polarization? And like the religious sages and prophets have asked throughout history, how long will we continue in our ways of malice and conceit?

Check out the recent blogs from Jim Wallis and other contributors to Sojourners, all who continue to work towards Peace and Civility within religious and political spheres:

Peace and Civility Pledge:

Shooting a Reminder of Our Swords and Words:

Monday, January 10, 2011

Liberation for Southern Sudan?

“Christian neighbors below, where are you tonight? Are you home? Would you hear me if I called? Would it be enough to simply bang the floor? Will you hear me kicking? I lift my legs, still tied together, from the knee down, and strike the carpeted floor with as much force as I can muster. The sound is undramatic, a muted thump. I try again, harder now. I kick for a full minute and am winded. I wait for some reaction, perhaps a broomstick banging back in response. Nothing. Christian neighbors, because it interests you, I will tell you about the slave raids, the slave trade. The slave trade began thousands of years ago; it’s older than our faith” (139-140).

The above citation is an excerpt from Dave Eggers', What is the What? The book unveils the story of Valentino Achak Deng, a Lost Boy of Sudan, who struggles to make his way as a refugee in the United States in the wake of an oppressive history in the largest African nation. In a twist of irony, Valentino’s U.S. apartment is burglarized while he is tied to a bedpost and, in vain, cries for help to his neighbors. As he sits on the floor and waits for his liberation, Valentino tells his story of oppression, genocide, and war that has plagued Sudan and the tribal peoples. His question continues to resonate throughout my conscience, Christian neighbors below, where are you tonight? Are you home? Would you hear me if I called?

Several years ago the story of the Lost Boys became of particular interest to me through a developed friendship with one of the Lost Boys. I will never forget watching with him the award-winning documentary, God Grew Tired of Us, in one of our friend’s living room. Tears welled up in his eyes as he relived the story that was his own, traveling endless miles as a young boy in hopes of escaping the violence and war that had invaded his village in Southern Sudan. Words cannot describe my friend’s reaction when he saw a satellite photo of his journey towards a refugee camp in Kenya, a long line of Sudanese boys and girls who traveled barefoot throughout the hills, many who had cheated death, others who could not. However, nothing will ever compare to the phone call my friend received while we sat on the couch together that night. It was his friend who also appeared in the film, “Panther, we are watching you eat a donut in the grocery store for the first time.” What I viewed as documentary, he knew as experience. What we viewed as on-going injustice, he lived as personal narrative. What we could not believe a young boy could ever endure, he was living proof that, through God’s grace, indeed one could.

The past few days have been a historical for the nation and people of Sudan. Votes have been cast and the people of Southern Sudan continue to voice their hopes for what is expected to be first-steps towards their secession from the oppressive North. That is, a new and free South is on the horizon. While I would love to explore the depths of injustices that underscore the referendums long-overdue approval, there are far more qualified sources. That said, below is a list of helpful books, websites, organizations, etc., that should be read and engaged.

The people of Sudan continue to call out to us as their neighbors. Are we are home? Are we concerned?

Excellent Articles on the Pending Referendum:

Save Darfur
Around the country and across the globe, the Save Darfur Coalition is inspiring action, raising awareness and speaking truth to power on behalf of the people of Darfur. Working with world leaders, we are demanding an end to the genocide, and our efforts are getting results. http://www.savedarfur.com/

Enough Project
The project to end genocide and crimes against humanity. ENOUGH is a project of the Center for American Progress which aims to answer questions about what is really happening and offer a clear path to sustainable solutions. We were co-founded by CAP and the International Crisis Group in early 2007, setting out to establish a new paradigm for action. http://www.enoughproject.org/

Not on Our Watch: The Mission to End Genocide in Darfur and Beyond
Written by activist John Prendergast and actor Don Cheadle, Not on Our Watch briefly highlights the history of Sudan as well as the world’s responsibility to refrain from permitting genocide from continuing in places like Darfur. This book will also provide insights on how you can take action as an individual to work towards justice and the promotion of human rights. A New York Times best seller.
http://www.notonourwatchproject.org/ // http://www.notonourwatchbook.com/

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Take to the World: Derek Webb and the Eucharist...

This past year our youth ministry began a new experience called Cafe EucharistiaThe hope was for youth in our congregation to be able to engage one another in conversations that pertain to life and faith, the sacraments and our missional vocation, the gospel and our culture.  We even thought we could consider what it means not only to gather around the Eucharistic table each month, but also be sent from it and into the world.  This past month we explored three music pieces as a part of the Cafe:

1. Become to Us the Living Bread (Hymn #500 in the PCUSA Hymnal)
2. Take to the World (Derek Webb , above)
3. Carried to the Table (Leeland, click for song, not a huge fan of video but you at least get the song...)

While it is difficult to be overly engaged with high school students on a Sunday morning right before they head back to school after a Christmas break that has threatened to turn their brains into mush, it was a great opportunity to reflect on the Eucharist.  My prayer has been, as with other volunteers, that as we continue to do life and community with youth in the church that the sacred and sending table and the sacred and sending waters of baptism would be reclaimed as central to all we do as youth pastors and ministries.  They want it. They need it. They love it. They crave it.  Even more, it reminds them that they are a part of something so much bigger, far more beautiful, and certainly more life giving than the consumer driven products and packaged materials that have become the life and breath of contemporary youth minsitry.   We think that is what they want.  However, in such poor assumptions we have underestimated the hearts, minds, and callings of today's youth and their ability to engage the rich tradition they are a part of and the sacred symbols that invite them to be God's people in and for the world.

What's even crazier, some students prefer Hymn 500 over Webb and Leeland ;)

Here is a great resource for fellow youth workers:

Book, Bath, Table, Time: Christian Worship As a Source and Resource for Youth Ministry by Fred P. Edie

Other Thoughts to Ponder:
“The Lord’s Supper is therefore also the sacrament of human participation in the divine life by sharing life with each other…There is an intrinsic connection between responsible participation in the Lord’s Supper and commitment to a fairer distribution of the goods of the earth to all its people.”
---Daniel L. Migliore, Faith Seeking Understanding, 295

“Eucharist also reveals the goodness of God’s creation, the church as Christ’s Body in the world, and our vocation to live as a hospitable people. In other words, you could say that Eucharist embodies an exhaustive curriculum for Christian life. Liturgical scholars are also assisting the church in recovering the Lord’s Supper as more than a memory device (“a reminder…”) but as a eschatological enactment, one that nourishes the baptized by remembering the past and representing the future.”
---Fred P. Edie, Book, Bath, Table, and Time, p. 39

“In this meal the Church celebrates the joyful feast of the people of God, and anticipates the great banquet and marriage supper of the Lamb. Brought by the Holy Spirit into Christ’s presence, the Church eagerly expects and prays for the day when Christ shall come in glory and God be all in all. Nourished by this hope, the Church rises from the Table and is sent by the power of the Holy Spirit to participate in God’s mission to the world, to proclaim the gospel, to exercise compassion, to work for justice and peace until Christ’s Kingdom shall come at last.”
--- PCUSA Book of Order, W-2.4007