Notes from underground

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Archive for the tag “theology of religion”

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.

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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

Christianity, paganism and literature (synchroblog)

Christianity and neopaganism – synchroblog

When I have read or participated in electronic discussions on religion in general, and the relation between Christians and neopagans in particular, I have commonly found an expectation of hostility. Christians are expected to be hostile towards neopagans, and often are. Neopagans are expected to be hostile towards Christians, and often are.

Much of the hostility I have seen in electronic discussions arises from ignorance. Christians and neopagans do not so much attack each other as they attack caricatures of each other. And when they really get into the swing of the attack, they sometimes start behaving like the caricatures too. I believe the writings of the Inklings can go a long way towards removing the caricatures.

Some Christians have never heard of neopagans, and wonder what they are, and there is even disagreement about that, so here is a brief description. The word “pagan”, as used by Christians, originally meant someone who wasn’t a Christian. It was probably derived from Roman military slang, where it meant a civilian as opposed to a soldier, and for Christians it meant someone who had not enlisted, by baptism, in the battle against the evil “Prince of this World”.

As a result of this origin, in the early days of Christianity, pagans were not aware of being “pagan”, though as time went on some doubtless became aware that Christians called them that. They had many different gods and cults and philosophies, depending on where they lived. But whatever else they worshipped or didn’t worship, citizens of the Roman Empire had a universal obligation to participate in the Emperor cult. Christians were awkward in refusing to do so, and this sometimes got them into trouble with the authorities, and there were sporadic persecutions of Christians.

In many of the places where Christianity spread people stopped worshipping their old gods altogether, and became Christians; sometimes this happened because they wanted to do so, sometimes their king or other local ruler became a Christian and then forced all his subjects to do the same. For whatever reason, though, the worship of the old gods ceased.

In the 19th and 20th centuries a movement of secularisation spread through Europe and other parts of the world. Religion ceased to hold a central place in people’s thinking, and in some places, the so-called Second World, it was actively suppressed. The Western world had become post-Christian. People who were nonreligious, for whom God meant nothing, often called themselves, and were called by Christians, “pagans”. But some people were dissatisfied with a secular worldview, and many were spiritual searchers. Some of these searched in the pre-Christian religions of their countries, and began worshipping gods that had long been neglected. And they came to be called “neopagans”, new pagans, to distinguish them from those who had worshipped those gods before the coming of Christianity (who were sometimes called “paleopagans”). These revived pagan religions were not the same as the originals, and had a totally different social base. Many neopagans were eclectic, choosing gods who had never been worshipped together, and some worshippped gods of their own devising. It is impossible to describe all the different varieties of neopaganism here. Some have particular names: Asatru, the worship of the old Norse gods; Hellenism, the worship of the old Olympian gods of ancient Greece; Wicca, the worship of a goddess, and sometimes a god who is a consort.

As a result of some fanciful and now-discredited ideas propagated by Margaret Murray, some neopagans, and Wiccans in particular, came to believe that the Great European Witchhunt in Early Modern Europe was actually a persecuton of a pagan religion (labelled The Burning Times), and that the “witches” then persecuted were precursors of modern Wiccans. This fuelled the hostility that some neopagans felt towards Christians, while some Christians accused neopagans of being satanists and devil worshippers, and in some cases neopagans experienced real persecution in the present, and did not need imaginary persecutions of the past to make them aware of hostility.

One thing that strikes me about the fiction of the Inklings (C.S. Lewis, Charles Williams and J.R.R. Tolkien et al) is that they are often enjoyed by Christians and neopagans alike. These three authors, and perhaps others who write in similar genres, may provide a way for Christians and pagans to communicate with each other without such hostility.

Lewis, Tolkien and Williams were Christians, and I am a Christian, so what I say here, I say from a Christian point of view, and I am mainly addressing my fellow Christians. That doesn’t mean that I don’t want neopagans or others to read this. Anyone who is interested in the topic is welcome to do so. It’s just that I don’t advocate a neopagan viewpoint here, and nor do I pretend to a neutral “objectivity”. So if you are a neopagan, you’ll probably disagree with a lot of what I say. A lot of Christians might disagree with it too.

Tolkien’s Lord of the rings is probably the best-known and most widely read of the Inklings’ works. In the rec.arts.books.tolkien newsgroup, there are periodic discussions on whether it is a Christian book or not. Christians often claim that it is a Christian book, whereas non-Christians often claim that is is a “pagan” book. The elements of pagan mythology are plain to see, whereas there are none of the externally-recognisable elements of Christian “religion”. The characters don’t read the Bible, they don’t go to church, and Christ is never mentioned. There isn’t even a recognisable Christ-figure, like Aslan in the Narnian books of C.S. Lewis, to provide a reference point.

It is also fairly well known, at least among Inklings fans, that there was some disagreement on this point between Tolkien and Lewis. Tolkien disliked allegory, and said that he regarded the Christianity in Lewis’s books as too explicit. Some neopagans also find the Christianity in Lewis’s books too explicit, and avoid them for that reason. Others enjoy them, and either ignore the Christian references, or regard them as another “path” that they themselves do not need to take, though they acknowledge that it may have been legitimate for Lewis and others.

Lewis’s fiction works might be a good starting point, however, precisely because they are most explicitly Christian. Even though this is so, one could also say much the same of them as many have said of The lord of the rings – there are no church services or Christian ministers, or any other religious activities. There is no religion in them. But there is quite a lot of pagan material in them.

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.

One could give more examples from the other books in the series, but the picture one gets from all of these is far removed from some of the common Western perceptions of the Christian attitude towards paganism and pagan deities, whether seen from the point of view of Christians or of neopagans. That is, the perception that Christianty and neopaganism are, and perhaps ought to be, hostile to each other.

This hostility was not always around

Back in the early 1970s a group of us were trying to set up a Christian commune in Windhoek, Namibia. We made contact with other groups with similar interests, largely through an exchange of underground magazines in something called The Cosmic Circuit (a kind of hard-copy Webring). One magazine dealing with communes was produced by a neopagan group in Wales, and was edited by Tony Kelly of the Selene Community there. We sent them our Christian magazine Ikon in exchange for their publication Communes. They also sent us a few copies of their neopagan magazine The Waxing Moon. There was no hostility that I could discern. The people who published The Waxing Moon appeared to want to revive the pre-Christian nature religions of north-western Europe. It seemed to be part of a wider “back-to-nature” movement, a reaction against the urban-industrial society of the 20th century with its wars and political systems.

Then we lost contact. Our community in Windhoek was broken up by deportation and banning, and we went our separate ways and got involved in other things. In the 1990s I once again came into contact with neopagans, mainly through electronic computer links, such as bulletin board conferences and reading Web pages put up by neopagans. The bulletin board conferences were more informative, because they were more interactive. But there seemed to be differences from my experience of 20 years earlier. There was a hostility and suspicion that I had not noticed before. It also seemed that where there was this hostility, there was also a lack of communication. Christians and neopagans did not so much attack each other as attack caricatures of each other. The electronic media made it possible for people who might otherwise never meet to talk to each other, but when they did, they failed to communicate and just talked past each other. As someone once put it, these new electronic communications media made it easy to communicate with people of other countries and cultures, but very often it is communication without community.

One difference, which may be significant, is that the neopagans we were in touch with in the 1970s were in Britain. Most of those I encountered in the 1990s through BBSs were American. And some Americans, at least, seem to get a lot more aggressive and bitter about things, and were more inclined to divide the world into “good guys” and “bad guys”.

But what I think may be even more significant is the time. I got the impression (which could be mistaken) that the neopagans of the 1960s and 1970s were engaged in a search for spiritual values in reaction against secular modernity. They failed to find those values in Christianity, because many Western Christians had sold out to secular modernity. The most influential Christian books at the time were all about how the Christian church must come to terms with modernity and secular values: The secular meaning of the gospel (van Buren), The secular city (Cox) and Honest to God (Robinson) are a few of the better-known ones. Anyone looking for spiritual values at such a time would have been hard-put to find them in the Christian churches of the West. While Christian theologians were saying how difficult it was for “modern man” to believe in the resurrection of Jesus, the youth were marching in the streets in their thousands with posters proclaiming that “Che Guevara lives” and “Chairman Mao will live for 10000 years”. The theologians who were trying to address the “with it” generation were quite obviously “without it”.

In the 1990s, however, when I began communicating with neopagans and others electronically, I got a different impression (which could also be mistaken) – that many people who had turned to neopaganism in the 1990s had reacted not against secular values, but against religious ones, and those religious values were those of Christianity, or, perhaps more accurately, those which American sociologists have called “Judeo-Christian” when trying to describe the middle ground of US culture. The difference between American neopagans of the 1990s and British ones of the 1970s was that the former were rebelling against a “Judeo-Christian” upbringing, whereas the latter were rebelling against secular materialism, and could therefore more easily find common ground with Christians who were rebelling against the same things. Those who are rebelling against a “Judeo-Christian” upbringing might on that account be more inclined to be hostile towards Christianity.

What happened to make the change?

I suspect that one cause is that in the 1970s many Western Christians rebelled against the “secular sixties”, and changed. This rebellion took several different forms. One form was radical Christian “Jesus freaks”. Another was the spread of the charismatic renewal, with its rediscovery of a sense of miracle and mystery. It is possible that in the 1970s this attracted many who in the 1960s might have been attracted by neopaganism.

By the end of the decade, however, a reaction had set in. The charismatic renewal had become institutionalised and domesticated in a kind of Protestant neo-scholasticism. A thousand loose-cannon prophets receiving direct revelations from the Holy Spirit (so they said) found that these revelations seemed to concern all the other groups and teachings but theirs, and began calling on the faithful to “Come out of Babylon” and join their particular version of the New Jerusalem. The denunciations became stronger, and the tolerance of deviation less, and euphoria of the 1970s led to the hangover of the 1980s, which some called “charismatic burn-out”. The miracle and the mystery had been swallowed up in a sterile intellectual rigidity. (I’ve been toying with the idea of a research project into the history of the charismatic renewal in South Africa to test some of these hypotheses).

Having observed this process among Western Christians, I am a little disturbed by signs of something similar beginning to happen among Orthodox Christians in the West, only three decades behind the Protestants and Roman Catholics. There seems to be an idea going around that Orthodox Christianity must be inculturated in the West by having clean-shaven clergy in business suits, with pews and microphones and musical instruments in the churches. Orthodoxy could be beginning its own sell-out to secular Western culture. Not entirely, though. Groups such as the Youth of the Apocalypse, with their slogan of “Death to the World”, affirming the countercultural character of Orthodoxy, might provide a counter weight.

So much for the background (as I see it) to the hostility between many Christians and many neopagans. What does the fantasy literature of people like Lewis, Tolkien and Williams have to do with it?

In the 1960s Lewis and Williams’s fiction was reprinted in paperback, and so became more accessible. Tolkien’s Lord of the rings was reprinted in 1966, and enjoyed a new popularity. Until then, Lewis had been widely known as the author of popular works of Christian apologetics. In a smaller, more specialised circle, he was known as the author of some works of literary criticism. Williams continued to be known mainly by a fairly small circle of enthusiasts. All three writers based their work, mainly or in part, on premodern myths and legends.

At the same time as professional theologians were writing works extolling the virtues of modernity, of the modern world-view or “paradigm”, and calling for Christianity to be “demythologised”, these authors were in effect reaffiming the value of myth. At the same time as the publication of Robinson’s Honest to God, which caused such a stir in the West, J.V. Taylor published The primal vision. Both Taylor’s and Robinson’s books were discussed at conferences of the Anglican Students Federation of South Africa, and their somewhat incompatible messages seemed to cancel one another out. Demythology was very trendy, but Taylor included in his book a quote from Nicolas Berdyaev, who pointed out that “myth is a reality immeasurably greater than concept”.

But the best means of communicating the value of myth is myth itself. The primal vision is almost forgotten, but the demand for the works of the Inklings has grown over the last 30 years.

I’ve already mentioned the appearance of pagan themes in Lewis’s Narnian books, and have discussed the appearance of some of these themes in his Cosmic trilogy, and especially Out of the silent planet on another web page. The third novel in the trilogy, That hideous strength, comes closer to the writings of Charles Williams. It has been described as Lewis’s attempt to write a novel in the style of Williams. Like Williams’s novels, and unlike the other two in the trilogy, or the Narnian books, the setting is this world, rather than an imaginary one, or a setting on other planets.

hidstrenIn That hideous strength spiritual powers manifest themselves in this world – the ancient Greek and Roman deities, who are also the planetary rulers, show themselves in human society, and, in alliance with a revived Merlin of the Arthurian legends, confound the powers of evil. The Arthurian theme has echoes of Williams’s poetry in particular. It has echoes in the children’s novels of Peter Dickinson, who wrote of a revived Merlin whose awaking provoked an atavistic fear of modern technology among the inhabitants of Britain.

Alan Garner, whose children’s novels The weirdstone of Brisingamen and The moon of Gomrath were first published in the 1960s, wrote of a wizard, Cadellin Silverbrow, who is guarding a company of sleeping knights, who are threatened by the evil power of the Morrigan and Nastrond. The sleeping knights are to waken when Britain is in extreme peril.

The return of a half-forgotten power from a mythical past to battle an evil in the present is common to That hideous strength and the works of Garner. Lewis uses Graeco-Roman mythology in developing the characteristics of the planetary rulers, and also uses Romano-British mythology and folklore for the idea of a revived Merlin. Garner uses Celtic, Anglo-Saxon and modern folklore – the idea of the “old straight track”, for example, which he uses in The moon of Gomrath is a recent one.

Unlike Lewis, Garner’s books do not have many clearly-identifiable Christian elements. Yet for Christians, Garner’s books are as enjoyable as Tolkien’s. Neopagans have sometimes recommended Garner’s books as an introduction to a pagan worldview and pagan values for children. I believe that the attraction of these books could offer a key to understanding the common ground shared by Christians and neopagans, and also the differences between them.

One of the attractions for Christians is a struggle between good and evil powers, which is a central feature of the Christian worldview. In That hideous strength Lewis asserts Christian, liberal and democratic values against those of a fascist technocracy, and suggests that the latter are part of a satanic cosmic plot. This happens at several levels. For the modern worldview, nature and politics need to be demythologized (see Harvey Cox, The secular city). Lewis effectively remythologizes them. For the early Christians (and for most of their contemporaries) political and spiritual power were inseparable. The emperor cult, which Christians refused to participate in, bore witness to this. Lewis shows how this power operates in a modern setting.

In Garner’s books the struggles are for the possession of the symbols of power – the weirdstone of Brisingamen itself, for example. But there is the same struggle between the forces of good and the forces of evil.

In Tolkien’s Lord of the rings the primary symbol of power is the One Ring carried by Frodo Baggins to Mount Doom, to be destroyed in the fire in which it was forged.

Where does that take us?

This article has been nearly ten years in the writing. I posted it on a web page, and have added to it from time to time, as new ideas have occurred to me, but the main point has been to pose questions rather than to give answers. In the blog format it is easy to respond by comments, and I hope that it may be the beginning of a conversation. The conversation need not be limited to a blog, and could take place in face to face discussions, or even in a reading group.

Here are some of the questions that occur to me. I hope that if this provokes any ideas, you may respond in comments, or even with other questions.

What values do you see in the writings of the Inklings? Which ones are common to Christians and neopagans? Which ones do you think are incompatible with one or the other?

For Christians: what kind of Christian theology of religions to you see behind the works of the Inklings? What are the similarities and differences between it and that of your community or tradition?

For neopagans: what do you think of the view of pagan deities in tho books of the Inklings? Do you find it hostile, friendly, condescending, cooptive?

[ Continued at Towards a theology of Religions ]

See the other Synchroblogs on the theme of Christianity and neopaganism:

This article is loosely based on an article I posted on my web pages about 10 years ago, and have been adding to since then. An older version may be found at Christianity, paganism and literature

It is also a continuation of a series of posts on Theology of religion, which bedan with the August synchroblog on Christianity, inclusive or exclusive. The instalment previous to this one can be found at Theology of religions and interreligious dialogue. The next instalment is at Towards a theology of religions.
See also an earlier post on Beats, Inklings, Christian literature and paganism.

Theology of religion and interreligious dialogue

This is a continuation of a synchroblog article Christianity: inclusive or exclusive?

In the first two parts of this article I noted that writers on “theology of religion” tended to concentrate on the question whether “salvation” was to be found in non-Christian religions, and to divide views on this into “inclusive”, “exclusive” and “pluralist”. I have tried to show why I believe that this is the wrong question to ask, because no matter what the answer, it does not lead to a “theology of religion”.

Some years ago I attended a course on evangelism at the Haggai Institute in Singapore. At that time I was Anglican, and one Sunday I went with a fellow South African Anglican on the course to a service at the Anglican cathedral in Singapore. After the service we went to have coffee at Raffles Hotel, one of the most famous hotels in the city, just to be able to say say we had done so. Then we walked up the road from the hotel to look at the Sultan Mosque, another of the famous sights of the city.

On the way our attention was attracted by a lot of noise from a building on the other side of the road — a sound like banging frying pans and blowing hooters. It was a Chinese temple, and we crossed the road to have a look. We asked someone what was happening, and were told that it was the goddess’s birthday. We wandered inside to have a look, in some trepidation, not sure if we were intruding. Two ministers, dressed in orange robes, were chanting something at a table full of fruit, and would occasionally turn round to two women kneeling behind them and wave incense over them. Every now and then a bloke sitting on one side would bang gongs and another would tootle a sort of oboe affair that made a noise like a bicycle hooter.

Further in was another room with two benches, on one of which was a pig with an orange in its mouth, and on the other a shaved goat. Some people were standing around, others walking about with joss sticks, kneeling down at various places, or bowing and prostrating themselves. On the right was a rack of tablets, — I wondered if they were ancestor tablets — and further to the right a kind of altar with a fire. Geoff remarked that the goddess seemed to be doing rather well for her birthday: apart from the pig and the goat there were plucked ducks (with their heads over their backs), fruit, vegetables and more. As we went out again past the chanting ministers a little girl of about nine was coming in, right past the tooter, following her parents, with her hands over her ears and her face all screwed up. I wish I could have taken a photo of her. The place had an oppressive atmosphere of idolatry, and was very ritualistic.

We went on to the Sultan Mosque, a little further up the road. Since it was a Sunday, it was empty, and very quiet, a kind of oasis of peace, with its blue-green carpets, and the noise of the streets seemed far away. We stayed there for a while, enjoying the contrast — the raucous idolatry of the temple, contrasted with the cool iconoclasm of the mosque.

Singapore is a very pluralistic place, where several religions can be found coexisting. A week later at an Anglican service we met a man who had been a spirit medium and fortune teller. He had become a Christian, but said he had been plagued by demons. This had persisted until he had had a tattoo of a goddess surgically removed from his back, and he showed us the dressings on his back where the tattoo had been removed.

In none of these things did the inclusive-exclusive-pluralist model make much sense. Now I am an Orthodox Christian, and I find that the extremes of the raucous idolatry of the Chinese temple and the cool iconoclasm of the mosque are not for me. Orthodoxy is somewhere in the middle between those two extremes. But that may just be a cultural preference.

The man who had switched from being a devotee of the goddess to Christ did, however, have a theology of religion. He believed that having a tattoo of the goddess on his back laid him open to demonic attack (I do not know if his was the same goddess as the one who had had her birthday the previous week). This was not something that Western missionaries had told him to do, in the course of a general attack on Chinese culture. The church be belonged to, an Anglican parish, consisted mainly of people who were the only Christians in their family. The parish priest had been brought up as a Buddhist, but he did not preach against Chinese religion. He simply told people about Jesus Christ. Most members of the congregation had formerly practised Chinese religions, and most of their relations still did. But when they became Christians they developed a theology of religion that interpreted their former beliefs and practices in a new way, from the point of view of their Christian faith. And this theology or religion doesn’t fit very easily into the “inclusive-exclusive-pluralist” model.

As a South African, I tended to look at it differently, as an outsider. I had not encountered Chinese religion before, and there are very few books about it in English, so one can’t even read about it. It’s not taught in most religious studies courses in non-Chinese universities (I don’t know about Chinese ones). Most Religious Studies courses seem to teach that the Chinese religions are Taoism, Confucianism and Buddhism, but in fact those are schools of philosophy rather than religion, and to them one could add a fourth, the Thought of Chairman Mao.

Among other things, as I noted in part II of this series, a Christian theology of religion should explain why the Bhagavad Gita is there. And these things will all look different when seen from different perspectives. The Christians in Singapore have just come from Chinese religion, and in their perspective it looms very large, because they are still close to it, not just geographically but existentially. A Christian theologian in Chicago, brought up in a Christian environment, will have a different and more distant perspective on it. So in any Christian theology of religion there will be different perspectives, depending on how close one stands to the religion concerned, personally, historically and geographically.

There would also be at least as many theologies of religion as there are religions. There might be a Christian theology of Islam, for example. In fact there might be several. I’ve heard some English-speaking Christians, for example, saying “Allah is not God”. I’m still not sure whether that is actually a theology of religion, or simply English-speaking chauvinism, because what it primarily asserts is that those who say it believe that God speaks English and not Arabic, and listens to prayers in English but does not listen to prayers in Arabic. It is but a small step from that to saying that Bog is not God, o Theos is not God, Dieu is not God, uNkulunkulu is not God, Gott is not God, and no doubt God is not God, if God is pronounced with a guttural G, as in Afrikaans and Dutch, instead of the approved English pronunciation, with a hard G. But then what about all those Americans in the soaps who are always saying “Oh my Guard!”? Guard is not God? Or should that be God is not Guard? But if Allah is not God, who do Arabic-speaking Christians worship?

As I also noted in Part 2, C.S. Lewis interpreted the Roman Mars and the Greek Ares as Malacandra. That, in a way is a theology of religion, even though Lewis used it in works of fiction. But the very identification of Ares with Mars is a theology of religions, interpreting the ancient Greek and Roman pantheons in terms of each other. And C.S. Lewis was by no means the first to do this, even from a Christian point of view. A Christian work that was very popular in the Middle Ages, the story of Barlaam and Ioasaph, is a Christianized version of a very ancient “spiritual romance” that was composed in India and first written down in an Indian language by Buddhists.

So, as I see it, a true Christian “theology of religions” would deal with questions such as “Why does the Bhagavad Gita exist? It would seek to explain other religions in Christians terms But in order to do that, we need first of all to understand them in their own terms. So I think “theologians of religion” like Paul Knitter have got it exactly the wrong way round. We don’t need a theology of religions in order to have authentic dialogue. We need authentic dialogue in order to have a theology of religions. Without such authentic dialogue, we will not have a theology of religion, but a theology of a caricature of religions. Those, like the Chinese Christians in Singapore I referred to, had a dialogue of sorts with Chinese religion, in the sense that they knew it from within before they became Christians. The rest of us are not really qualified, until we have made at least some attempt to understand Chinese religion (see book suggestion below).

And just as there might be a Christian theology of Hinduism, the dialogue would enable Hindus to develop a Hindu theology of Christianity, as indeed some have already done.

[ continued in the September synchroblog on Christianity, paganism and literature ]

Bibliography

  • Budge, E.A. Wallis, (ed) 1923. Barlaam and Yewasef: being the Ethiopic version of a Christianized rescension of the Buddhist legend of the Buddha and the
    Bodhisattva
    . Cambridge: Cambridge University
    Press.
  • Chamberlain, Jonathan. 1987. Chinese gods. Selangor, Malaysia:
    Pelanduk. ISBN: 967-978-105-4

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.

Biblical data

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.

[continued in Part 3]

Bibliography

  • 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.

Christianity: inclusive or exclusive? (Synchroblog)

The theme for this month’s Synchroblog, Christianity — inclusive or exclusive? is rather vague, perhaps deliberately so. It allows people to blog about different things depending on how they understand those epithets.

From recent reading in the blogosphere I get the impression that “inclusive” means that one is in favour of the ordination of practising homosexuals, “exclusive” means that one is not.

But when I go back about 20 years, I encountered the terms mainly in the academic discipline known as Theology of Religion. The terms “inclusive” and “exclusive” were there applied to the views that different groups of Christians were alleged to hold on whether salvation was to be found in other religions or not. The inclusivists believed that salvation was to be found in other religions, and the exclusivists believed that it wasn’t. There was a third group, called “pluralists”. There is a pretty good summary of that debate and its various views here.

In 1990 I was asked to help with the teaching of the third-year course in Missiology at the University of South Africa (Unisa) which included a half-course in “Theology of Religions” (Course MSA301-B). I was asked to mark one of the assignments for the course, and in order to prepare myself for doing this, I read through the prescribed book (No other name? by Paul E. Knitter, SCM, London 1985) and the study guide issued to students (Kritzinger 1985). This raised a number of questions in my own mind, which I wrote down at the time in order to discuss them with others – especially those who were marking other assignments in the course. I found Knitter’s book frustrating, because it seemed to ask the wrong questions, and it seemed to beg too many questions. Other literature on the same topic seemed to have the same shortcomings.

Even though I was called upon to teach the course, I found the whole debate quite meaningless. Whatever it was, it was not a study of theology of religions, but rather a study of different Christian factions. It never got to grips with the content of other religions at all. There was much talk of interreligious dialogue but the dialogue never took place. It was all metatalk, talk about talk, talk about Christian attitudes to talking, and the talking never happened.

The main difficulty I had with Knitter may have sprung from my own failure to understand what “theology of religions” means. I had assumed that, in a Christian context, it meant the Christian understanding of other religions in the widest sense. I have always understood that it was to be distinguished from “Science of Religion”in that theology of religion was concerned with the Christian understanding of, and approach to, other religions, while science of religion was concerned with a phenomenon called “religion” (however defined) and took a more comparative approach. In other words, I understood science of religion to be concerned with questions like “How does a Buddhist regard the Buddha?” or “How does a Christian regard Christ?” and possibly a comparison between them, and I thought that a Christian theology of religions was concerned with questions like “How does a Christian interpret the Buddha and
Buddhist teaching?”

Knitter did not seem to me to deal with theology of religions at all. Throughout his book, the non-Christian religions are somewhere “out there”. Knitter seems not to be concerned with a theology of religions, but with reshaping Christian theology to conform to the values he regards as most important, one of which is a “more authentic dialogue”. Except that the dialogue does not actually take place. It’s all about how to get to the bus stop, but it never gets on the bus, it never goes anywhere.

And I believe it never goes anywhere because it starts from the wrong place, by asking the wrong questions.

“Is there salvation in other religions?” is the wrong question.

First of all, it is the wrong question because Christians believe that there is no salvation in any religion, including Christianity. Salvation is in Christ, not in religion.

Secondly, if Christians can’t agree among themselves on what salvation is (see, for example, here, here and here), how can they expect to find it in other religions, especially if, like Knitter, they don’t even examine or discuss those religions?

Thirdly, do the “other” religions think salvation (in the Christian sense) is at all important? Should we not rather ask how those religions pereive their own goals, and only then consider whether and how they relate to Christian ideas of “salvation”?

To use a consumerist metaphor, it is like describing the different views of the customers and staff of a bakery about the quality of bread to be obtained from the builder’s merchant, selling cement, bricks and window frames. The icnlusivists would say yes, the bread you get from the builder’s merchant is just as good as the bread you get from the bakery, as they spread jam on a slice of cement loaf, while the exclusivists would say it isn’t as good. What neither group appears to consider is that it isn’t bread at all.

[continued in next post]

Other synchrobloggers this month

 

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