Towards a theology of religions
Since the August 2007 Synchroblog on Christianity inclusive or exclusive, I’ve posted several more-or-less connected pieces on the general theme of Theology of religion. Now it is time to wind up the series, or at least to draw together the threads of this long rambling discourse, though I have no illusions that this will be the last word on the subject, even from me.
In the second posting in the series I pointed out that
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 applies to Paul Knitter, and most of the other so-called theologians of religion.
Throughout the series I have maintained that the question whether Christianity is, or should be inclusive, exclusive or pluralist is the wrong question as far as “theology of religion” is concerned, as is the related question whether “salvation” is to be found in other religions.
I have also tried to show that there is not one single “theology of religion”; instead there are “theologies of religions”. A Christian theology of Islam will not be the same as a Christian theology of Buddhism or a Christian theology of neopaganism. An Islamic theology of Christianity will not be the same as an Islamic theology of Buddhism or an Islamic theology of neopaganism. One Islamic theology of Buddhism may have been expressed by the Taliban’s destruction of Buddha statues by artillery bombardment, but the fact that the statues existed for hundreds of years in a predominantly Muslim society shows that the Taliban’s response was not the only Islamic theology of Buddhism.
I should also point out that what I say here is not part of the dogmatic theology of the Orthodox Church. Though I write as an Orthodox Christian, this is not a statement of official Orthodox teaching. It is rather a theologoumenon, an opinion put forward for discussion.
I take as a starting point the previous article in the series, from the September 2007 synchroblog, on Christianity, paganism and literature, in which I looked at the views implied in the works of members of the literary group known as the Inklings, and in particular C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien and Charles Williams. There I wrote
Consider, for example, C.S. Lewis’s The lion, the witch and the wardrobe. A child from the normal everyday world hides in a wardrobe during a game, and finds herself transported by magic into another world, where she has tea with a faun, a figure from ancient Roman pagan mythology. A faun is half human, half goat, and the encounter is an introduction to a world of intelligent talking animals – beavers with sewing machines and the like. Lewis has no hesitation in blending Christian and pagan mythology in his Narnian books. There is even salvation. Salvation is at the centre of the plot of the book, but one would have to look hard to find it attributed to any religion at all, Christian or pagan.
Of course Lewis was known as a Christian, and his conception of salvation is a Christian one, but in this particular book he does not deal with what seems to be the central question for many Western Christian “theologians of religion” – the question whether there is salvation in “other” religions.
The next book in the Narnian series, Prince Caspian, is even more populated with pagan deities – Bacchus and Silenus, nymphs and Maenads, and even a river god. Lewis does not identify these with the forces of evil – they are not “satanic”, as many Christians seem to think pagan deities ought to be (and many neopagans think that Christians think neopagans’ deities are). They are rather part of the army of liberation, and are themselves liberated from the powers of evil in the course of the story.
Now it might be argued that since Lewis had a classical education he incorporated these pagan deities simply for the sake of a good story. They featured in stories that he himself had enjoyed, so he incorporated them in stories that he wrote. But there is more to it than this.
In an earlier post, Notes from underground: Of egregores and angels, I wrote:
Charles Williams, in his novel The place of the lion describes what happens when the powers get loose, and when men worship them independently of the power of God. C.S. Lewis sees them as belonging not just to human groups within the earth, but to the planets themselves, the principalities, archontes, princes he calls oyeresu, and each planet has its oyarsa, or planetary ruler, and this was the basis of astrology.
And someone responded
This paragraph is written as though this is a belief of CSL, not a creation of his imagination, which is what it is. CSL “sees” is not the same as believes. This is not ‘theology’ or even something approaching church doctrine held by CSL or CW for that matter. You are referencing here works of fiction, right?
Right, I am referencing works of fiction. But wrong, I am going to explore the doctrine expressed in these works of fiction. I could argue why I think such a procedure is justified, but it would take too long, and might require a post on its own, or even several posts. Suffice it to say that I believe that the works of the Inklings that I refer to are not simply fiction, but are mythical, and, as Nicolas Berdyaev has pointed out, “Myth is a reality immeasurably greater than concept.” I shall, perhaps foolishly, try to link some of these myths to concepts.
There are several indications in the fiction of the Inklings of the way in which they see various deities and spiritual forces and powers. The Narnian stories feature a river god, Bacchus and several others. Lewis’s “Space trilogy” features the ancient Graeco-Roman gods, Mars and Venus, under the names Malacandra and Perelandra, and several others. Charles Williams writes about the Tarot in The greater trumps, about Islam in Many dimension and about the principalities and powers in The place of the lion. Tolkien writes about the creation of the world in The Silmarillion, which also contains a mythical retelling of the Fall.
The Christian Symbol of Faith begins “I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible.” Among the invisible things are those to which Williams, Lewis and Tolkien have tried to give visible form in their fiction. The “Father Almighty” (Patera pantokratora, Pater omnipotens) has nothing to do with the “omnipotent god” of the atheists, and whether he can create a rock so heavy that he can’t lift it. It is a translation of the Hebrew YHWH Sabaoth, which can also be translated into English as “Lord of Hosts”. And what are the “hosts”? They are the “invisible things” that God has created.
These invisible things are described in various ways, and have been pictured in various ways by people. Sometimes they are described abstractly, love, beauty, power, strength, justice. Sometimes they have been represented symbolically in pictures, for example in the Greater Trumps of the Tarot, where there are cards representing force, justice, death and so on. At times they are represented by animals, as in Williams’s The place of the lion, as lion, snake, butterfly, eagle. In one scene Anthony Durrant asks if what Dora Wilmot saw was Aaron’s Rod that turned into a snake (Exodus 7:8-13). “I think the magicians of Pharaoh may have seen Miss Wilmot’s snake,” Mr Foster said, “and all their shapely wisdom have been swallowed by it, as the butterflies of the fields were taken into that butterfly this afternoon.”
Williams was writing fiction. Anthony Durrant, Miss Wilmot and Mr Foster are fictional characters in his book. But I think it is fair to say that Williams believed that the shapely wisdom of Pharaoh’s magicians was swallowed by the snake he described.
In Prince Caspian Lewis brings in Bacchus and the Maenads, dryads and fauns, and the river god. Such creatures are found in classical mythology, and Lewis, like many of his generation, and those of several generations before, had had a classical education. British poetry since the Renaissance had many classical references and allusions, and is sometimes difficult to understand without a knowledge of ancient Greek and Roman mythology. But this Renaissance classicism was cold and dead, like the bare marble statues of the gods, for decoration, not for worship. The temples were in ruins, or converted into churches (like the Pantheon in Rome), and even the old statues had lost the gaudy paint that once covered them in the temples.
But Lewis brings Bacchus and his devotees to life, in a fertility rite that produces a feast, and Susan says, “I wouldn’t have felt safe with Bacchus and all his wild girls if we’d met them without Aslan.”
Nymphs were spirits of nature, of trees and springs. Dryads were spirits of trees, sometimes appearing in human form. Nereids were spirits of the sea, though in modern Greek usage the term may be applied to any nymphs, and in some places, even today, people believe that whirlwinds are caused by nereides dancing. In classical times, before chopping down a tree, the spirit of the tree needed to be propitiated. In premodern hunting societies, in many parts of the world, when an animal is hunted for food, its spirit needs to be propitiated.
Lewis weaves this premodern element seamlessly into his story, and in this demonstrates a Christian theology of religion.
If God created all things, visible and invisible, and pronounced them good, then both the trees and their invisble spirits are part of the good creation. Wine, “that maketh glad the heart of man”, and Bacchus, the spirit of vineyards, are part of that good creation.
This, in part, answers the question with which this enquiry was begun. We explain the fact that the Milky Way is there by the doctrine of creation, and we explain the fact that the Bhagavad Gita is there by the same doctrine of creation. In another of his stories, The voyage of the Dawn Treader Lewis introduces a retired star. ‘In our world,’ said Eustace, ‘a star is a huge ball of flaming gas.’ ‘Even in your world, my son, that is not what a star is, but only what it is made of.’
The stars sing at the creation of Narnia, and in the Ainulindale 0f Tolkien they sing at the creation of Middle Earth, but even in our world God asks Job, ‘Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundations? Who laid its cornerstone when all the stars of the morning were singing with joy, and the Sons of God in chorus were chanting praise?’ (Job 38:4-7).
So a Christian theology of religion, based on the doctrine of creation, could say that the gods of the Bhagavad Gita were there among them, joining in the chorus. And there among them too were Mercury, Venus, Mars, Saturn and Jupiter, or as Lewis calls them, Viritrilbia, Perelandra, Malacandra, Lurga and Glund. Lewis calls them gods and angels, as do the Christian scriptures. In Christian parlance the term “heavenly host” could refer to either the stars of the sky, the angels of the heavens, or both.
At this point some might say, Wait, didn’t Boniface chop down the oak of Thor? Didn’t Christians go to their death rather than participate in the emperor cult? Didn’t missionaries call the gods of the heathen demons?
And the answer is, Yes, Christians did all these things.
St Justin Martyr, one of the earliest Christian writers to discuss the relation of the Christian faith to other religions, says:
We do not worship with many sacrifices and floral offerings the things men have made, set in temples, and called gods. We know that they are inanimate and lifeless and have not the form of God (for we do not think that God has that form which some say they reproduce in order to give honor to Him) — but have the names and shapes of those evil demons who have appeared [to men].
In Orthodox ikonography God the Father and God the Holy Spirit are never represented in material form. Jesus Christ, as the incarnate Son of God, is indeed represented graphically in ikons, because though “no one has ever seen God; the only Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, he has made him known” (Jn 1:18). During the iconoclastic controversy the iconophiles made their position clear: “an idol was the image of a creature which was worshipped as God, as was the case with the pagans.” The iconophiles relied a great deal on St Basil the Great’s contention that the honor of the image is transferred to the prototype. For a theology of religions the important question is therefore not so much the image itself, but the nature of the prototype. If the image is of Christ, then honor to the ikon of Christ is honor to Christ, and it is therefore not idolatry. If the image is of the Theotokos or of one of the saints, then honor to their ikons is not idolatry because they are not mistaken for God. The essence of idolatry is worshipping the creature instead of the creator. For St Justin Martyr, the pagans not only worshipped images, but regarded the prototype as God himself, whereas Justin himself thought that the prototypes were evil demons.
In the Christian view, God created all things, visible and invisible, and pronounced them good. But they didn’t stay good. Evil entered the good creation of God, and this fall from grace meant that the human race and creation itself was alienated from God. There is thus both a positive and negative view of human religion, at least among Orthodox Christians. Unlike Calvinists, Orthodox Christians do not believe in total depravity, that everything on earth is so tainted with evil that nothing of God can be seen in it. Human and religion and human worship, like everything else in the world, is fallen, and at best can only give a distorted vision of God. As Father Thomas Hopko notes
While affirming that God is indeed unknowable in His innermost being, and that there are indeed a multitude of manifestations of God and revelations in and toward His creatures, and that there are indeed an immense variety of forms and categories of expression and explanation proper to God in human thought and speech, the Orthodox tradition remains adamant in its insistence that not all of man’s thoughts and words about God are “adequate to divinity” (to use a traditional expression), and that indeed most of man’s ideas and words about God are plainly wrong, being, as they are, the inventions of the vain imagination of creaturely minds and not the fruit of a living experience of God in the actual reality of His self-disclosure.
Yet Justin’s view is not the only possible one. It is also possible that the “idols” of the pagans are false images of the true God, as St Paul seems to suggest (Ac 17:22-31) or of created spiritual beings, not necessarily evil (Col 1-2).
Father Michael Oleksa, the Orthodox missiologist, notes that it was St Maximus the Confessor’s opposition to the monothelitism of his times, and to the Platonic theology of Origen, that laid the foundations for the positive view which Orthodox missions have generally had of traditional societies in central and eastern Europe in the 9th & 10th centuries, and across central Asia and into eastern Siberia and Alaska over the next 800 years.
Orthodox evangelists felt no obligation to attack all the pre-contact religious beliefs of shamanistic tribes, for they could perceive in them some of the positive appreciation of the cosmos that is central to St Maximus’ theology. They could affirm that the spiritual realities these societies worshipped were indeed ‘logoi’ related to the Divine Logos, whose personal existence these societies had simply never imagined.
This is the last of a series of five articles on interreligious dialogue and theology of religions.
It has also (a year after it was first posted), been incorporated into a synchroblog on interreligious dialogue. To see links to the other articles in the series, and other articles in the synchroblog, please go to Notes from underground: Interreligious dialogue