Other Religions in Sunday School

Today in my Sunday school class we continued to discuss how we as Christians might, and should, view other religious traditions. To facilitate this, the pastor and I will provide an overview about some major world religions in next week’s class.

Providentially or coincidentally, I found that I had taken along as scrap paper some notes from a talk I gave at Butler, as part of a series called “Loving Your Neighbors, Understanding Their Faiths”. In it, I presented some Biblical reasons for Christians to expect to find they can learn from other religions.

I began with John 1, which emphasizes that the Word “enlightens every human being coming into the world”. That itself should lead us to expect that God is revealed not only in Jesus, or in the Bible, but elsewhere. More than that, the concept of the Word (Logos) is itself an example of something from another religious tradition (Stoic pantheism) that Jews and then Christians found they could utilize in expressing their own faith. After Taoism came up, I also mentioned the fact that, when the Bible was translated into Chinese, the translators rendered John 1:1 as “In the beginning was the Way (Tao)”.

Acts 17 is another key text in thinking about this subject. There we see Paul disagreeing with Greek idol-worship, but we also find him depicted in terms echoing the story of Socrates. In Acts 17:28 two Greek sources are quoted: “‘For in him we live and move and have our being’. As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.'”

Epimenides’ poem Cretica is quoted twice in the New Testament. In the poem, Minos addresses Zeus thus:

They fashioned a tomb for thee, O holy and high one—
The Cretans, always liars, evil beasts, idle bellies!
But thou art not dead: thou livest and abidest forever,
For in thee we live and move and have our being.

The other text quoted in Acts 17 is “We are his offspring” from the Cilician poet Aratus (c. 315-240 BC) in his “Hymn to Zeus”. And so clearly the author of Acts did not think that what was said about Zeus could not be applied to God as understood by Christians.

We also touched on Romans 2 and the parable of the sheep and the goats, both of which suggest that it may be more important what we do than the doctrines that we hold. Paul’s choice of Abraham as an example of saving faith points in this direction too, since Abraham probably didn’t assent to anything in the Nicene Creed beyond “We believe in one God”.

So can Christians learn from other religions? Yes, we already have, and there is no reason in principle why Christians today ought to take a more negative view of other religious traditions than the New Testament authors themselves. I hope one day to write a commentary on Romans that will unleash the power of its message for our time, a message that I understand to be addressing an exclusivistic view of salvation that I fear much contemporary Christianity resembles rather than opposes. It is time to reclaim this element of the New Testament message, that “there is no partiality with God“, and to affirm with Peter in Acts 10:34-35, “Indeed, whoever fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him in any nation.”

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  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/12963476276106907984 Sabio Lantz

    Well written!I learned a lot from that – I think that Atheists (in my circles) would benefit from knowing such thing exists among some Christians.I wonder if your angle could even be broader? In the examples you gave, you had other religions saying the same as Christianity but in different terms and with perhaps different concepts. But could there also be things in other faiths that Christianity did NOT manage to capture and that those insights could supplement your faith? I imagine even your answer will be “yes” but I am curious if you could write about them as well. For instance, I consider myself a Buddhist Atheist — and I think Buddhism could supplement Christianity (and vica versa, of course). This may be odd coming from an atheist, but when I listen to you, I translate what you are saying into deeper non-theist terms just as you might translate things I say into your theistic model.Again, thanx for your blog !

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/12963476276106907984 Sabio Lantz

    Is it fair to you you a “Universalist Christian”?I am trying to think of a favorable way of presenting you to my Atheist circles. I have always felt I could actually, with total comfort, befriend universalists, no matter what faith.Most my close friends are atheists, but my semi-close Christian friends are mostly universalists, not because they deeply thought through all the theological implications, but because their intuitions naturally lie there and they just ignore the theology of their home churches — I also call these Cafeteria Christians, but it is not a derogatory word in my language. For real thinkers, will pick and choose from the pre-wrapped packages that are handed to them from Churches that they ended up in my accident of birth, location or friendships. Cafeteria Christians who are Universalists are my favorite type. But I am sure to Evangelicals you are a threat.

  • http://www.crucifixation.blogspot.com Mike Flaim

    I just stumbled upon your blog, but this post caught my eye. This is excellent, and I appreciate the open-mindedness you have. I also think it’s great you’re teaching your kids about being open-minded to other faiths, which is unfortunately not something many christians I know try to do.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/11983601793874190779 Steven Carr

    Is a Muslim only acceptable to God if the Muslim is a truly devout Muslim and sincerely believes that God has no Son, and that Jesus did not die on the cross?

  • Danny Boy, FCD

    The case of religious syncretism is even more obvious in the Old Testament, where the biblical authors borrowed the stories from their neighbors. When I read about myths from Ugaritic/Canaanite religions, the parallels with the Genesis account are obvious. Indeed, evidences of polytheistic leanings has not been fully eradicated from the OT, such as in Psalms 82. Most learned Catholics I know admit that there are pagan influences in scripture, but are nonchalant about it. Maybe the fundamentalists should take a page in tolerance from their Catholic brethren.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02561146722461747647 James F. McGrath

    Sabio, thanks for your comments! I’d say a definite “yes” to your first question about input from other sources supplementing my own understanding. FWIW, Don Cupitt has at times categorized himself as a “Buddhist Christian”. I sometimes surprise people who expect me to categorize myself as a “pluralist”, but so far I’m sticking with the label “inclusivist”. I don’t have a neutral standpoint from which to evaluate other traditions, and one key reason for acknowledging that there is truth outside one’s own tradition is when one encounters something elsewhere that resonate with you and/or overlaps with what your own tradition maintains. But I must acknowledge that my own evaluation from my own standpoint and context may be wrong, as is certainly not objective.I’d suggest that all Christians are “cafeteria Christians”. The only difference is that some of us admit it, and some of us don’t…

  • http://anumma.com/ anumma.com

    @Danny Boy,My mind was on the same thing: In adult ed at church this Sunday, I have planned to show the epithets and motifs shared between the OT (mostly Psalms and Genesis) and the Ugaritic narrative poetry.For my part, I am less inclined to talk about “borrowing” than about “shared inheritance.” My brother and I both have hazel eyes: which of us “borrowed” them from the other? As with language and material culture, many of Israel’s ways of talking about God and the cosmos arise (in my view) from a background that it shares with its neighbors.

  • Danny Boy, FCD

    @anumma.comI agree that “shared inheritance” is a much better (and value neutral) term than “borrowing”. I blame my limited grasp of english. :p

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/06135739290199272992 Eric Reitan

    I think the Zoroastrian influences on Jadaism and Christianity are insufficiently appreciated. One of the things that most struck me while reading Bart Ehrman’s GOD’S PROBLEM was that in his discussion of Jewish and Christian apocalypticism he made no mention at all of Persian influences–even though the apocalyptic strains in Judaism only appeared after contact with the Persian Zoroastrians. He even at one point talks about Jewish apocalypticists “making up” the eschatological and dualistic theology they espoused. I was so stunned I wrote him a too-long e-mail (never heard back).Anyway, it seems obvious to me that Judaism and then Christianity (whose earliest champion, Paul, emerged from the ranks of the Persian influenced Pharisees) were both deeply shaped by Zoroastrian ideas–especially in terms of the doctrine of a devil, the theology of heaven and hell (although the mature Zoroastrian theology was universalist), and the eschatalogical view of history as an epic struggle in which God will ultimately prevail.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02561146722461747647 James F. McGrath

    Thanks for mentioning the Zoroastrian context and influence, which is another great example.Of course, lately I’ve been focused more on Zoroastrian aspects of LOST… :)