Feast of St Cyprian of Carthage
I'VE BEEN thinking about the way that Christianity relates to other religious traditions ever since I was in Middle School. A topic of perpetual interest for me, I have arrived at the following conclusions. (What follows is largely a summary and expansion of Fr. John Anthony McGuckin’s dense but excellent introduction to Orthodoxy, The Orthodox Church, and his treatment of Orthodoxy’s relationship to other religions.)
Christians ought to begin, when considering other religious traditions, with our closest relatives in faith—that is, our sister Abrahamic faiths. Jews, Christians, and Muslims all account for one another in some way in our respective traditions. For Jews, Christianity and Islam are deviations from Judaism as understood by the Rabbis, but nevertheless prepare the world for the coming of the Messiah through their teaching of creational, providential, Abrahamic monotheism and the resurrection of the dead. Christianity, in Jewish eyes, is far more recognizably Jewish than is Islam, despite other similarities between Rabbinic and Islamic theology unshared by Christianity (for instance, Unitarian conceptions of divinity, which are themselves by no means unanimous in either tradition). Judaism understands Christians and Muslims more or less as Godfearers, Gentile worshippers of the true God of Israel.
For Islam, on the other hand, both Jews and Christians are People of the Book. Their revelation is in differing degrees insufficient, but they are worshipers of the true God and God will judge them according to their faithfulness to Torah and the Gospel. Islam, too, at least on paper, recognizes and celebrates what is good and holy about its siblings in Abrahamic faith.
Christianity is both continuous and discontinuous with this trend, in that it affirms the basic intuition of recognizing a special status for Jews and Muslims as distinct from pagans but outlines that status in an asymmetrical fashion. For Christians, the Jewish people continue to be the heirs of irrevocable divine gifts and election in the present, and will ultimately be restored through repentance and reception of the Gospel at or just prior to the Parousia of Christ (Rom. 9-11). Christians recognize a special mystical unity with the Jewish people:
- as worshippers of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob
- as believers in Jesus of Nazareth as the Messianic, Davidic King of Israel and, hence, Lord of the Gentiles
- and in the eschatologically promised Spirit, as founded on the apostolic community of Jewish followers of Jesus in the first century, and as destined to be united with Israel in faith in the Messiah prior to Christ's second coming
Jews and Judaism retain for Christianity a biblical, ecclesial, and eschatological significance that makes us, in our view, members of the same household. Put another way, Gentile Christians are grafted into Israel through Christ, and so the legitimacy of Judaism is as standard for us as is the recognition that the majority of Jews are still in need of the illumination of the Gospel. Christianity is indeed a form of Second Temple Judaism and, despite its historical separation from the Synagogue, retains the deepest possible spiritual attachment to the Jewish people, as those with whom through Christ we have a shared destiny. Indeed, classical Christian eschatology, beginning with St. Peter (Acts 3:17-21), affirms that God’s plan to consummate the ages in the coming advent of Christ revolves around the Jewish people and their relationship to God.
Islam, on the other hand, came into existence more than half a millennium after the birth of the Church, and while it does retain and remix many of Judaism and Christianity’s essential traditions, it does not have the same sort of organic continuity that the two have with one another. St. John of Damascus gave the classical Christian opinion on the subject in his famous designation of Islam as “the New Heresy.” On the one hand, as Fr. McGuckin notes, this is something of a condemnation: to Christians, Islam is a deviation from the fullness of the truth of the Gospel; it is heterodox insofar as the worship that it offers to God is unacceptable and, from a Christian perspective, is not salvific. However (following McGuckin again), notice what St. John’s designation assumes. In designating Islam a heresy, he is acknowledging that it is deviation, not outright paganism: Muslims are, at the very least, genuinely attempting to worship the God of Abraham; they hold a deep reverence for the biblical prophets, as witnessed by the often splendorous monuments that they erect over their tombs; and they hold an especially high reverence for Jesus Christ (though of course they do not offer Him right or sufficient praise from a Christian point of view, insofar as they do not believe in His divinity, and most do not believe in His crucifixion and resurrection from the dead). I would go only slightly further than St. John, and apply the title “Godfearers” to Muslims: they believe in the God of Abraham, and retain much tradition about him that is true, and they possess a worshiping life that displays genuine reverence, beauty, and some truth; but Christians cannot recognize this as sufficient or salvific, and certainly do not have the same organic closeness and shared destiny with Islam that we do with Jews and Judaism. “Asymmetrical” seems to be the most apt description of this dynamic.
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What, then, of paganism? What is Christianity’s attitude toward the pagan religions of the ancient Near East, classical Greece and Rome, pre-Roman Europe, classical India, China, Japan, and the tribal religions of Africa and North and South America? What of Hinduism, Buddhism, Daoism, Shinto, Asatru, Totemism, and all the myriad forms of non-Abrahamic, often polytheistic religiosity? St. Justin Martyr gave an answer to this question when he appealed to the Stoic concept of the Logos spermatikos, the seed of the Logos scattered through the whole cosmos, which all human beings perceive and celebrate as they are each able. And indeed, about this Logos there is a surprising continuity cross-culturally in several traditions. Christianity recognizes that the truth, goodness, and beauty of Jesus Christ, God’s Wisdom, is available everywhere, since it was through Christ that all things were created and by whom they are sustained. Jesus Christ is the Logos of God, ordering the whole cosmos well, and as such He is perceptible by all humanity, perhaps not in His incarnate mystery, but certainly in His preincarnate and divine glory. Second, Judaism and Christianity have always recognized the reality of the gods worshiped by the pagans, even while stressing the nothingness of the idols worshiped as those gods. The Scriptures recognize that there are indeed real spiritual beings of immense power and might, referred to as gods in both Testaments, that are worshiped by the Nations: but they are almost always thought of as in rebellion against the God of Israel, their Creator and Lord, to whom they themselves owe worship. Classical Judaism and Christianity are monotheistic in an ontological sense (asserting the existence of but one God who is wholly and totally Other, self-existent, and transcendent), but acknowledge together with this the existence of an innumerable host of celestial, spiritual beings, who are often referred to in divine terminology in the Scriptures and related literature. But Christianity offers no worship to these lesser, created, contingent gods and lords, since “for us there is one God, the Father, and one Lord, Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 8).
In a strange way, the Church has become the guardian of pagan heritage, particularly in the West. It is the Church, more so than any other institution, which has preserved and transmitted ancient mythologies and, indeed, holy sites (through their conversion to use as sites of Christian worship). It is the Church’s scribes who saved for us Apollodorus and Ovid, Homer and Virgil, Hesiod, Euripides, and Sophocles, even as they retained Herodotos, Thucydides, and Cicero. A thorough education in pagan mythology and philosophy remains, in any classical Christian educational program, a key step in the young Christian’s formation, a recapitulation of the historical movement of the Gentile world from the darkness of idolatry to enlightenment by the God of Abraham, which in turn illumines the value of paganism by unveiling, finally, the Figure whose shadows the soul find so lovely. Christianity relates to paganism on a variety of different levels, but not all of them are entirely negative. Western Christians in particular have, in an almost solemnized fashion, the duty of remembering the stories which prepared our forefathers for the Gospel.
So Christians ought not to be surprised to encounter truth, beauty, and goodness in the best of the pagan traditions. Instead, the historic Christian practice has been to claim this as the pre-conversion perception of the Logos, and has typically latched onto these best elements of the religion and culture of the surrounding peoples, baptizing them and bringing them into the Church to serve the Gospel, or, rather, revealing them to have been about Jesus Christ all along.
Nor does Christianity begrudge the world of magic, beasts, and cosmic forces these religions assume. The main Christian critique of these traditions is that all of the forces and beings which they describe are under the sovereignty of the one God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and the Lord Jesus Christ who sits at His right hand; but not all are benevolent toward the human race, and human beings who meddle with them often find themselves either wrapped up in affairs they do not understand well or ensnared with the demons who lurk within them. This is precisely why God forbids Jewish and Christian engagement with certain forms of the occult: not because it is superstition in the modern sense of “irrational fear,” but because it is real and dangerous, a forum of demonic activity to be avoided at all costs.
The one and only philosophy with which Christianity shares almost nothing is contemporary atheistic secularism. When I first typed this, I wrote “absolutely nothing,” but I stopped myself, because I realized that the great scientific disciplines that have arisen in the contemporary West are rooted in Christian theological assumptions about the creation and intelligibility of the world. All of our advancements in Physics, Biology, Cosmology, Chemistry, etc. are in essence Judeo-Christian victories, because they depend on a philosophy of the world that was gifted to the West by Jews and Christians. Indeed, humanism itself—easily the noblest philosophy in our post-religious landscape, even if the most inconsistent with the secular worldview—is rooted historically in the biblical assumption that human beings are created in the image and likeness of God. When the sciences and humanism are removed from the Judeo-Christian theological and philosophical framework within which they were originally conceived, we find the mass confusion over and misuse of both, which we encounter today in the constant, personally and socially destructive, redefinitions of the human person and breakdowns of harmonious ways of living with the cosmos, according to the Logos of creation.
David Armstrong is an Orthodox Christian who enjoys a shameless love affair with Jews, Judaism, and other Christians. He graduated with a BA in Religious Studies (minor in Classical Greek) from Missouri State University in Springfield, MO, where he is now working on an MA in Biblical Studies. He has an avid interest in far too many things, and would do well to specialize.