Other Faiths: A New Testament Perspective
Arguably the Judeo-Christian religious tradition owes its origins to the complex interactions first of the people of Israel and their ancestors, and then of the emerging Christian movements, with their religio-cultural environment. Beyond the synthesised, monotheistic rewriting of Israel’s history now in the biblical record, we recognise the likelihood that tribal deities and national deities of place and people lie at the roots of the tradition. There in its more developed form Israel saw its god alongside other gods, with an increasing tendency to see its god as superior. One form of this synthesis was to hail Yahweh as superior to other gods, often depicted as angels of the heavenly court, as in Psalm 82.
Major developments took place as a result of the exile, including a much stronger sense that the God of Israel not only rescued a people from Egypt, but was also the creator of the universe who then interacted with humanities’ beginnings, depicted through the adaptation of common myths in early Genesis. These developments were more than manifestations of nationalism. They belonged to the emergence of a critical theology which connected cult and ethics, expressed powerfully through the prophets. The particularity which developed at the same time as its universalising tendencies created problems of how to find a place for the nations (and not just their religious and cultural heritage). We generally prefer the models which they developed that saw a place for all, over those that saw the nations as threats to be exterminated.
If the exile stimulated major new development of thought, the advent of Hellenism intensified the process. The common phenomenon of being exposed to other cultures, which we still observe today, elicited diverse reactions, from maximised separation to all-out synthesis. Christianity emerged in the midst of this turbulence. One major problem was how to deal with the cultural particularities of Jewish religion. Biblical laws of clean and unclean, pure and impure, food, circumcision, holy place and time became critical. People like Philo and Pseudo-Aristeas, who insisted on upholding all such laws, gave them additional credence by imbuing them symbolic meanings, predominantly ethical.
Ethics and theology were easier to handle. Disparagement of idolatry (with little appreciation of how idols often function, as symbols not as gods) was vogue, but also found sympathetic hearers among the “citizens of the world” exposed to relativising experiences. Monotheism had strong appeal. Jewish teachers, as early as Ben Sira and perhaps Koheleth, found much in common with their elite counterparts, particularly in Greco-Roman tradition. Love and friendship, rejection of sexual depravity, honesty, self-control, were common values. Stoics spoke of a divine logos which made sense of the universe – an excellent tool for expounding the role of Torah and God’s wisdom. Such processes were well underway at the turn of the millennia and would regather speed in the second century in both Judaism and the church after the interruption of Christianity’s emergence in the first.
For Christianity began not on the cutting edge of encounter with Hellenism, despite the now largely discredited attempts to portray Galilee in this light, but in conservative nationalistic Judaism concerned with hope for radical change that would affect the lives of the poor and revive Israel. Jesus’ radical espousal of the more generous version of prophetic hope probably also envisaged a place for all peoples at the great feast, one of his favourite prophetic images, which he ultimately used to portray his whole life work. That focus established relativities within the biblical interpretation: immediate response to human need outweighed all else.
This helped set the parameters for the new movement to make a successful transition to the wider world. The national hope could be transferred to all people. There were strong tendencies not to so, but to refocus the reign of God from radical change on earth to the realm of the spirit or the heavenly world. That was probably the least successful transition, because it also entailed transforming immediate future expectations into long term hopes.
Nevertheless the relativities established by Jesus’ approach were very much in line with what others in Greco-Roman culture were saying at the time. A relationship with God and fellow human beings based on love was the paramount manifestation of the Spirit and the basis for critical appreciation both of what went on in Christian communities, and what went on in other religions. For Paul and a number of others it could justify not only treating some things as secondary, but also the further step of abandoning them altogether as unnecessary barriers (Eph 2:14-15), or as not making sense (Mark 7:17-21) – a development which more conservative Jewish Christians considered a betrayal of scriptural authority.
The story of Jesus also needed to make the transition. It made little sense to preach about a Jewish Messiah to non-Jews. A saviour was better or an embodiment of God’s wisdom, God’s son. The degree to which Christ rather than Christ’s message became central varied, threatening to become a Jesus cult, but was, to some extent, inevitable, especially in the fierce conflict between Christian Jews and other Jews. This was the setting for the assertions that there is “no other name” by which to be saved (Acts 4:12) or that Jesus alone is “the way, truth, and life” (John 14:6). Paradoxically the fourth gospel, written against the background of that tension, also reworks a range of universal symbols formerly used of Torah , such as bread, water, light, life and word, and uses them of Jesus. The effect is to position response to human existential need at the centre of its preaching and so speak a language common to many world religions.
While demarcation occupied the first generations of Christianity, we find some indications of how it might develop in relation to other religions, even if rather incidental. Having slammed idolatry and immorality in Romans 1, which would have won strong Jewish support, Paul employs a different set of arguments in Romans 2-3 to relativise Jewish privilege. Gentiles who do what the Law demands, without knowing it (he means ethical goodness not observance of ritual law), are as much likely to win God’s approval as Jews keeping the law. This logic underlies his use of Abraham as a prime example of someone without the Law, but whom God reckoned righteous. It was not Paul’s intention to assert that there could be many more Abrahams out there, but his logic allows it. Similarly today we recognise that there are people who in effect live by the values of the gospel without knowing it. Incognito lovers of people are the true sheep at the judgement in Matt 25:31-48. The love criterion abounds. Jesus makes a religious outsider, a Samaritan, its most famous exemplar (Luke 10:25-37; cf. also Mark 10:17-22).
Luke portrays Peter standing before Cornelius and his friends and declaring that he has learned that “that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him” (10:34b-35). This was good Judaism and good Christianity. Peter does not stop there. It inspires him to go on to talk about Jesus, a healthy sequence. Similarly in Acts 17:28 Luke pictures Paul citing Aratus a pagan poet, that all human beings are God’s children, recognising thereby that God has been speaking also through Greek culture. Paul then goes on to speak about Jesus, including that Jesus will be the judge of all people in the end. So the inclusivity and recognition goes with an exclusive claim, an exclusive criterion.
What can we do with this in our very different situation? Until I am persuaded otherwise I make Jesus the “criterion” for assessing what goes on both in Christianity and in other religions. What I mean by “Jesus” needs a separate paper. It includes values related to love which affirm all people as of worth and that this love is at the heart of God, and Jesus embodied it. I may see the light I recognise in Jesus in other parts of Christianity, in other religions and beyond them, labelled or not. Light does not wear labels! Negatively, it means that I recognise injustice, violence, abuse, etc. as not light. If John 14:6 meant: only through faith in Jesus do we have the way to God, I would say: only the way of Jesus, labelled as such or not, is the way to God or the manifestation of God in the world. So I can be honest about my Christian claims, but generous about where else the spirit might move.
As Christians I think our role is to lay our table as richly and accessibly as possible, to tell the Jesus story. It is not to overturn the tables of others. My ignorance about others requires my constant openness while I own the riches I know in Christ. It helps me recognise salvation (= transformed people/communities living goodness and love; not individuals ticketed for heaven) wherever “good news” happens.
See also: Does the Cross mean "No"? Further Reflection on Christians and Other Faiths
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