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


  1. Re: sub-question #1: Justin Martyr certainly did believe that the Logos spermatikos had scattered the seed of truth throughout the world. But does McDermott at all indicate that Justin taught that the scattered truth is not really understood by the pagans outside of the revelation of Christ and Israel? That strikes me as a very important part of Justin's argument and one that problematizes your language of "revelation" existing in other religions or philosophies. Where did Plato get his truth according to Justin? He stole it from Moses! To say that there is truth scattered abroad in the world is, I think, to understand properly God's identity as both Truth and Creator: the one who creates the world as truth created the world to contain truth. But, being the Augustinian that I am, I would say that we only truly recognize that scattered truth when our eyes and minds are illumined by revelation in the Holy Spirit.


  2. good Word. I would agree with Justin's approach and belief that the Logos is manifested broadly via the Holy Spirit. McDermott also underscores Justin's remarks about Plato more or less plagiarizing Moses ;) The beauty of this text is that it reminds us that God can speak to us through a broader mosaic than our Western Evangelicalism. However, to echo the early church, all truth is God's truth and must lead us to the Person of Jesus, who is Truth Revealed and Revealing. If it does not point us to Jesus, is it really even truth?

    One of the things I find interesting is that only the Western Christian world fears truth revealed in other philosophical traditions. however, in the Eastern world, to engage Daoist, Confucius, and even Buddhist thinking is just as appropriate as our obsession with Plato, Kant, DeCartes, Derrida, etc... this is not to say that such eastern schools and teachigns are Truth, but they can encompass truths...

  3. Hmmm.... I think this statement is very, very unfair: "One of the things I find interesting is that only the Western Christian world fears truth revealed in other philosophical traditions." First off, this statement contradicts what you are arguing Justin's stance on truth. But more importantly, and I think this is a major problem with the emergent and missional movement, this statement is a complete strawman argument. A solid reading in the primary texts of the Christian tradition should demonstrate how manifestly false such an accusation is: Origen, Maximus Confessor, Pseudo-Dionysius, Augustine, the Cappadocians, Thomas Aquinas, William of St Thierry, Bonaventure, the Gospel of John, Acts 17, Paul Tillich, Henri de Lubac, Hans Urs von Balthasar, Hugh of St Victor, John Scotus Erigena, John Polkinghorne, Alasdair MacIntyre, even Luther and Calvin are just a few of the Christians who "spoil the Egyptians", who see the truth and the value in philosophies and religions outside of Christianity and extract, transform and refine their raw material into something Christian.

    Emergent folks seem to be so wedded to this inane, and easily discredited, idea that Christianity is narrow-minded and not open to the challenge of dialogue with other traditions when in fact there hasn't been a religion in the history of the world that has been more open to the world outside its own theological territory.

    What Emergent seems to keen to criticize in fact only exists in a very SMALL corner of evangelical fundamentalism. And that small corner of evangelical fundamentalism sure as heck ain't a good representation of Christianity, or even of Western Christianity! Emergent creates a strawman out of the Christian tradition and romanticizes the "openness" of Eastern religions to such an extend that both pictures are distorted beyond any recognition in reality.

    But here's the thing: Christianity is not syncretistic. Maybe that's what some people in Emergent want Christianity to be, but it isn't. Christianity "spoils the Egyptians"-- it takes those aspects of foreign beliefs that are true or useful for Christian truth and integrates them into its own truth. But precisely in that integration comes transformation. Example: Christianity has drawn a lot of its own theological identity from Plotinus' Neoplatonic "exitus reditus" model where the One exists in perfection, creation falls away through a series of emanations, and in its desire for its perfection, strives to reunite itself with the One. Christians saw that model as a pagan articulation of John 1. So we incorporated it into Christianity (the majority of Christian spirituality follows this exitus/reditus model). But when Plotinus was integrated into Christianity, he was fundamentally transformed. The distant and unknowing One was transformed into the personal God of the Bible who purposely creates the world unlike the One who unconsciously emanantes the world. For Plotinus, union with the One is motivated by human's desire for perfection; for Christians, union with God is motivated by God's descent to humanity in love in Christ. So there is openness there in Christianity but an openness that is not syncretism. It is an openness that transforms what it welcomes. This is how the vaaaaaaaaast majority of the Christian tradition has worked-- from its founding in Scripture to the faithful theologians working today.

  4. Thank you for sharing your bibliography ;) I agree that much of Western Christianity, including the plethora of names you mentioned, are friendly critics of contextual philosophy and that we must be careful to pigeonhole "Western Christianity" with minority attestations and expressions of the faith. However, I do challenge the notion that what you see as a small minority, i.e. fundamentalist evangelicalism, as actually "small." Moreover, despite the possibility of it being small, especially compared to Main Line and Traditional Protestantism, the influence of this segment of Western Christendom cannot be overlooked as insignificant. In that light, what the emergent and missional church critiques is to help expose the breadth and depth of those names you mentioned and their much more consistent nature of Western Christian expression and tradition. That said, your critique of my statements is important, as I would consider myself a part of that tradition which has attempted to transform "the spoils of Egypt." I also believe voices like Barth and Moltmann should fit in there, too...

    On the flipside, I also think we should be careful not to "romanticize" Western Christianity as if it bests illustrates Christianity as a whole. I think we forget that Christianity is actually an Eastern religion in its earliest roots that was coopted by Western philosophy, even in its earliest days. In other words, I challenge even Augustine and some of the early fathers, even those I am quite fond of (like Justin and Origen) for being overtly Platonist in their thinking and planting the seeds of overt doctrinal and dogmatic idolatry. my favorite theologian, Karl Barth, also falls victim to this, which he confessed. In other words, what I love about the Emergent and missional movements is that they speak loudly about the early conviction of Christianity as a Way versus system, a movement versus set of statements. There is plenty of room for critique of emergent and missional theology and communities, their voice must not be discredited either.

    Furthermore, I would challenge the notion that the "vaaaaaaaaaast majority of the Christian tradition" as not syncretist. It is easy to assume that when the faith has soooooooooooo assimilated to a particular culture and philosophy that increasingly colonizes the world, that such a tradition has not assimiliated. In other words, Western Christianity is a brand of Christianity, with all its brilliance, beauty, and decay, that has also adopted a particular way of thinking and often assumed this to be the lens through which we should view, interpret, and preach the gospel. This is not only reductionist, but also imperialistic.

  5. and I meant "careful NOT to pigeonhole"