Theology of religions
In this month’s synchroblog article Christianity: inclusive or exclusive? I wrote that many Christian “theologians of religion” seemed to be asking the wrong questions. The question most of them were asking was “Is there salvation in other religions?”, and, depending on the answers they gave, were classified as “inclusivist”, “exclusivist” or “pluralist”. The names of the categories might vary slightly, but not in any fundamental way.
If asking whether there is salvation in other religions does not lead to a theology of religions, what questions should theologians be asking?
Alan Race, in his book Christians and religious pluralism (London, SCM, 1983), quotes Wilfred Cantwell Smith as saying
From now on any serious intellectual statement of the Christian faith must include, if it is to serve its purposes among men, some doctrine of other religions. We explain the fact of the Milky Way by the doctrine of creation, but how do we explain the fact that the Bhagavad Gita is there?
Race quotes this at the beginning of his book, on page 2, yet one may read through to the end and find that he has still not even attempted to explain why the Bhagavad Gita is there. The same applied to Paul Knitter, and most of the other so-called theologians of religion.
Many Western theologians write as though religious pluralism is something new, or assert, as Race does, that “the present experience [of religious pluralism] transcends any earlier sense Christians may have had of its significance”, which he ascribes to the new mobility brought about by modern means of transport, the academic study of comparative religion and the new missionary consciousness found among many non-Christian religions. This perception may arise from the peculiar circumstances of most Western Christians between the ninth and the sixteenth centuries. In that period Western Europe was nominally Christian, and other religions were to be found only on the peripheries – tribal and nature religions in the north-east, and Islam in the south and east. Only in Spain and North-West Africa did Western Christians continue to live in an Islamic society, and in North Africa the Church had practically disappeared by the eleventh century. By the sixteenth century technological developments in shipbuilding and navigation had allowed Western Europeans to bypass the Islamic world, and once again establish contact with Eastern Asia, and to make contact with most of the American continents for the first time.
For Eastern Christians, however, the picture was very different.
The Church grew in a religiously plural society, and much of this religious pluralism persisted for some time after Christianity became the dominant religion of the Roman empire. In fourth-century Antioch, for example, there were more pagan temples than Christian churches, and the educational system was still basically the Greek paideia. The rise of Islam in the seventh century meant that many Orthodox Christians were living in a predominantly Muslim society, and continue to do so to this day. In Russia, Orthodox Christians were under Tatar rule for some centuries and even in the Byzantine Empire they “felt less threatened by Mongols and Turks than by the papacy, the Teutonic Knights and the monarchies of Central Europe” (Meyendorff 1989:47).
Western theologians like to talk about the “Constantinian era”, and “Christendom”, but for Orthodox Christians in the Patriarchates of Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem the “Constantinian era” lasted for less than 300 years and was gone by AD 640.
In the Western perception, therefore, a plurality of religions is a new phenomenon, which demands a new theological explanation, while for Orthodox Christians, especially those living among Western Christians, Western theology itself is the “new” (and sometimes more puzzling) phenomenon. Nevertheless the Christian Church came into being in a world in which there was a plurality of religions, and religious pluralism is not really a new thing.
What is new is not the fact of religious pluralism, but the concept of religious pluralism, and indeed the concept of religion itself. Harrison (1990:63-64) points out that “religion”, as we speak of it today, was a product of Western modernity, and the sources of Western modernity were the Renaissance, the Reformation and the Enlightenment.
One of the effects of the Reformation was the exchange of an institutionally based understanding of exclusive salvation to a propositionally based understanding. Formerly it had been “no salvation outside the Church”, now it had become “No salvation without profession of the ‘true religion” – but which religion was the true religion? The proliferation of Protestant sects made the question exceedingly complex, and led to the production of innumerable abstracts, summaries and the like of the Christian religion, with confessions and statements of faith, in attempts to arrive at a solution. Thus there was a concern for ‘fundamentals’, which could therefore bring Christianity into a closer relation with other faiths, if the ‘fundamentals’ were broad enough to include them. Religions, in the new conception, were sets of beliefs rather than integrated ways of life. The legacy of this view of “the religions” is the modern problem of conflicting truth claims.
The inclusive, exclusive and pluralist models all derive from and are shaped by this conception of “religion” that itself arose from historical circumstances in early modern Europe, but these classifications neither explain, nor do they purport to explain, why the Bhagavad Gita is there. They are not so much theologies of religion as attempts to classify Christian attitudes to religious pluralism. Knitter, though he has much to say about the need for “authentic dialogue”, does not give much evidence of such dialogue in his book.
There were three different understandings of ‘nature’, which led to three different understandings of ‘religion’ and ‘the religions’. 1) the natural order as opposed to the supernatural. ‘Natural’ religion is the result of human sin and stands in opposition to ‘revealed’ religion. This dichotomy was largely shaped by the Protestant reformers. 2) an instinct, or the light of conscience (also Bacon, and Kant’s ‘practical reason’. This view is derived from Renaissance thought and ultimately from Stoic philosophy.`In this view the natural is not opposed to the supernatural but complements it. 3) the light of nature is that which springs from reason, sense, induction and argument (Bacon), which Kant later called ‘pure reason’. It was this view that developed as the Enlightenment progressed, and led to ‘religion’ being investigated in the same way as phenomena of the physical universe (Harrison 1990:5-6).
If modernity thus sidetracks the discussion of why the Bhagavad Gita is there (from a Christian point of view) perheps we can find some clues from a premodern source, the Bible.
The biblical view of other religions is a complex one. In Isaiah 46 there appears to be an absolute monotheism — the Lord is God and there is no other. In other passages the gods of the nations exist, but are subordinate to the Lord, the “great King above all gods” (Ps 94(95):3). The clearest statement of this is perhaps Deuteronomy 32:8-9:
When the Most High gave the nations their inheritance,
when he separated the sons of men,
he fixed the bounds of the peoples according to the number of the sons of God.
For the LORD’s portion is his people, Jacob his allotted heritage.
This translation is based on the Septuagint reading, recently confirmed by some ancient Hebrew manuscripts. The Masoretic Hebrew text says “sons of Israel” instead of “sons of God”. I believe the “sons of God” reading (bene Elohim) is correct. This seems to imply that God gave each nation or people its own god, or its own religion. Israel was an exception, and had a hot line direct to YHWH himself, without having to go through a “middle man” – an angelic intermediary or go-between.
These gods of the nations were also national spirits, and were very often embodied in the human rulers of the nations, in the institution of divine kingship. They are the heavenly representatives of the earthly rulers, and stand before the throne of God. The “bene elohim” are the sons of God (Job 6), or in a Semitic metaphor, sons of gods, or simply gods.
Israel does not appear to have had one of these angelic rulers, because of its special relationship to YHWH. But after arriving in the promised land many Israelites were attracted by the political and religious arrangements of the people living there. they found all sorts of religions, and what goes with religions, kings, and they demanded a king for themselves (I Sam 8), thus rejecting YHWH’s direct rule over them. So later we find that Israel too has its god, its angelic intermediary, Michael (“who is like God?”).
The trouble is that the gods, and the political powers they represent, are corrupt and oppressive (Ps 81/2). The Psalmist prays for the restoration of God’s direct rule over all nations, and in an almost exact parallel of the last three verses of Psalm 81(82), Jesus asserted that he had come to do just that (Jn 12:31-32). The gods have allowed injustice and oppression in the nations they have been given to rule, and their rule will be taken away from them:
I say, “You are gods, sons of the Most High, all of you;
nevertheless, you shall die like men, and fall like any prince.”
Arise, O God, judge the earth; for to thee belong all the nations (Ps 81:6-8).
The picture here is not one of strict monotheism in the sense of denying that other divinities exist, but rather the assertion that the Lord is supreme over all the gods. The gods of the nations are the vice-gerents of YHWH, and are his servants. But what is interesting is that the last verses of the Psalm are almost exactly paralleled in John 12:31-32, when Jesus says: “Now is the judgment of this world, now shall the ruler of this world be cast out; and I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself.”
Jesus himself is the one who puts the rebellious gods in their place, and St Paul affirms this when he says: “And you, who were dead in trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, having cancelled the bond which stood against us with its legal demands; this he set aside, nailing it to the cross. He disarmed the principalities and powers and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in him” (Colossians 2:13-15).
There is indeed a theology of religions here, but its concerns are very different from those of most of the Western theologians who have written on the topic. The concern is not with questions of “religious pluralism” or “dialogue”, but rather with the place of the gods in the economy of the kingdom. In the New Testament we read about the spiritual powers that later theologians, like Pseudo-Dionysius, systematized into nine orders divided into three triads: cherubim, seraphim and thrones; dominions, powers and authorities; principalities, archangels and angels. These angelic powers are identified with the stars and planets (Job 38:7) and thus with the pagan gods of Greece and Rome and several other nations. C.S. Lewis used this idea in some of his fictional writings, namely the “cosmic trilogy” and The magician’s nephew.
In all this, there is no clear unambiguous statement of exactly what these spiritual powers are. Genesis 1 seems to adopt the strict monotheist approach: other nations may worship the sun and moon, but Genesis 1 does not even call them that, but just refers to the “big light” and the “little light”, making them material objects to provide illumination and regulate the calendar, and so demythologizing them. But the other passages I have quoted show that the demythologizing approach is not the only one.
There is also some ambivalence about whether these powers are good or evil. Romans 13 and Revelation 13 demonstrate that ambivalence in the Christian attitude to the state, but the “authorities” of the state are not mere flesh and blood. “Authority” (exousia) in the Bible is spiritual, and Christians find themselves in conflict with “authorities” and “world-powers” (Ephesians 6:10-12). We often speak of the “demonic” and “Satanic” as if they were utterly evil and godless, yet even Satan is among the “sons of God” (Job 1). This is expressed symbolically in Revelation, where it is said that the dragon swept down a third of the stars from heaven (Rev 12:4; 13:9). It may be doubted whether this represents an exact number, or whether it is possible to identify any particular spiritual power as “good” or “evil”. The proportion is probably intended to reassure Christians, as Elisha reassured his servant, that “those who are with us are more than those who are with them” (2 Ki 6:16).
The gods of the nations, then, are seen as servants of the one true God. Sometimes they are rebellious servants, sometimes they are obedient servants, but they form part of the created world. The principalities and powers, or rulers and authorities, are part of the creation of God. In relation to human beings they are gods, and yet in relation to God himself they become as nothing – “I am the true God, there is no other.”
The “great king above all gods” is the creator of the bene elohim, the gods. This has been confused in modern thought by focusing on a division between the “natural” and the “supernatural”. Since the late Middle Ages in the West, and continuing into modernity, beings have been classified as natural or supernatural, with God, the gods, and all spiritual powers being included in the latter classification.
Orthodox Christianity, and premodern Christianity generally, draws the line in a different place, between creator and creature. The gods, the spiritual powers, are part of the created world, the world in which we live. The “principalities and powers” are not merely “spiritual” or “supernatural” forces, but are actually closely linked with the political powers and superpowers of this world, with the economic forces that some would subject us to (like the “market forces” of the free enterprisers).
This is why, in earlier posts Notes from underground: Of egregores and angels, I wondered whether the concept of egregors could be helpful in understanding their relations.
- Harrison, Peter. 1990. “Religion” and the religions in the English Enlightenment. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
- Meyendorff, John. 1989. Byzantium and the rise of Russia. Crestwood: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press.
- Race, Alan. 1983. Christians and religious pluralism. London: SCM.