Part 4 of the series “What Christians Have to Learn…”
Rev. Mark Schaefer
Kay Spiritual Life Center, American University
September 29, 2013
Deuteronomy 12:29-31; Acts 17:16-28;Matthew 7:21-23
Deuteronomy 12:29–31 • Once the LORD your God has removed from before you all the nations that you are entering and taking possession of, and you have displaced them and are living in their land, then watch yourself! Don’t be trapped by following their practices after they’ve been wiped out before you. Don’t go investigating their gods, thinking, How did these nations worship their gods? I want to do the very same thing!
Don’t act like they did toward the LORD your God because they did things for their gods that are detestable to the LORD, which he hates. They even burned their own sons and daughters with fire for their gods!
Acts 17:16–28 • While Paul waited for them in Athens, he was deeply distressed to find that the city was flooded with idols. He began to interact with the Jews and Gentile God-worshippers in the synagogue. He also addressed whoever happened to be in the marketplace each day. Certain Epicurean and Stoic philosophers engaged him in discussion too. Some said, “What an amateur! What’s he trying to say?” Others remarked, “He seems to be a proclaimer of foreign gods.” (They said this because he was preaching the good news about Jesus and the resurrection.) They took him into custody and brought him to the council on Mars Hill. “What is this new teaching? Can we learn what you are talking about? You’ve told us some strange things and we want to know what they mean.” (They said this because all Athenians as well as the foreigners who live in Athens used to spend their time doing nothing but talking about or listening to the newest thing.)
Paul stood up in the middle of the council on Mars Hill and said, “People of Athens, I see that you are very religious in every way. As I was walking through town and carefully observing your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: ‘To an unknown God.’ What you worship as unknown, I now proclaim to you. God, who made the world and everything in it, is Lord of heaven and earth. He doesn’t live in temples made with human hands. Nor is God served by human hands, as though he needed something, since he is the one who gives life, breath, and everything else. From one person God created every human nation to live on the whole earth, having determined their appointed times and the boundaries of their lands. God made the nations so they would seek him, perhaps even reach out to him and find him. In fact, God isn’t far away from any of us. In God we live, move, and exist. As some of your own poets said, ‘We are his offspring.’
Matthew 7:21–23 • “Not everybody who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will get into the kingdom of heaven. Only those who do the will of my Father who is in heaven will enter. On the Judgment Day, many people will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, didn’t we prophesy in your name and expel demons in your name and do lots of miracles in your name?’ Then I’ll tell them, ‘I’ve never known you. Get away from me, you people who do wrong.’”
In the speculative history short story The Olympians, science fiction author Frederick Pohl imagines a world in which Christianity never emerged and the Roman Empire never fell. At one point, the characters in his short story imagine what it would have been like had an obscure Jewish prophet known as Jeshua not been flogged and released but instead had been crucified.
As the characters engage in this thought-experiment of alternate history they conclude that this martyr might have given rise to a powerful religious movement that could even have gone on to become a world religion—perhaps even conquering Rome itself. But it’s then that one of the characters points out that a religion that insists on one God—as this hypothetical Chrestian-Judaeanism no doubt would—would also insist on one truth. And where there is only one truth, everything else is false and heretical. There would be conflicts and wars, collapse of the Empire, scientific stagnation, and nation-state against nation-state. You know: our history.
The idea makes for a fun story but the point is a valid one: Christianity, like its fellow monotheistic faiths, has rarely embraced the idea that other religions might also be true, the way the pagan religions of the ancient world did. Actually, the pagan religions barely cared about truth the way that the Abrahamic faiths do.
And so, given that fact, Christianity has not always been the most open to hearing what other religions have to say. In fact, as a religion defined in part by Jesus’ Great Commission to “go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to obey everything that I’ve commanded you, ” is shaped by an understanding that we have a story to tell the nations. We possess the truth and our task is to share it. While we might reluctantly agree that perhaps rock and roll music or even sports might have some worthy insights to teach us, we balk at the idea that there’s something Christians could learn from other religions.
II. THE TEXT
Of course part of that has to do with the particular distrust of other religions that we inherited from Judaism. The Jews were unique in the ancient world in that they were particularists: they believed in and worshiped only one God and that was it. There was no compromise. There was no acknowledging that there were other gods, no willingness to participate in the syncretism of the day, the blending together of religious beliefs and practices that was at the heart of much of the religious expression of the ancient world. In fact, much of their attitude to foreign religions can be summed up by the passage that we heard earlier from the Book of Deuteronomy:
Once the LORD your God has removed from before you all the nations that you are entering and taking possession of, and you have displaced them and are living in their land, then watch yourself! Don’t be trapped by following their practices after they’ve been wiped out before you. Don’t go investigating their gods, thinking, How did these nations worship their gods? I want to do the very same thing! Don’t act like they did toward the LORD your God because they did things for their gods that are detestable to the LORD, which he hates. They even burned their own sons and daughters with fire for their gods!
In fact, many of the commandments that we associate with Judaism—circumcision, keeping kosher, observing the sabbath—were so that the Israelites would not associate in any way with people practicing other religions, particularly those pork-loving Canaanites with their fertility goddess who was such a temptation when you needed a really good harvest or strong flocks.
Christianity inherited not only this attitude about other religions, we inherited scripture verses like this that brook no compromise with other faiths. “Don’t go investigating their gods…” To the ancient Israelites, all other religions were idolatrous and false. The ancient church adopted this attitude toward the other religions of the world. And while we grudgingly admitted that Judaism was not idolatrous, we certainly insisted that it was false or at least only part of the truth. The full truth lay with Christian faith.
But it is worth noting that Judaism itself has not remained wedded to the idea that all the other religions are idolatrous. Medieval rabbis made a distinction between the idolatrous ancient religions and the religions among which medieval Jews found themselves. Islam was declared to be non-idolatrous and some rabbis even said that prayer in a mosque was okay for Jews. And when the Muslims built the Dome of the Rock on the old Temple mount, many of the Jews of Jerusalem saw it as the rebuilding of Solomon’s Temple. And while most rabbis remained suspicious of Christianity and of Christian faith, there were those who made a case for distinguishing Christianity from the ancient idolatrous religions of Babylon, Assyria, Greece, and Rome. 
In recent centuries, Reform Judaism has looked to Christian tradition a lot in reinterpreting its place in Jewish life, from aspects of the liturgy, to the clergy wearing robes and processing into the sanctuary, to the style and aim of sermons; our Jewish brothers and sisters have borrowed a lot from us over the years. Indeed, there is an old joke about a Reform Jew walking down the street in New York who walks into a Dutch Reformed Church and didn’t realize he was in the wrong place for half an hour.
It may be the case, therefore, that we also are not bound by the attitudes enshrined in the Book of Deuteronomy.
III. WHAT WE HAVE TO LEARN
So perhaps there are some things that are worthy of note from the other religions of the world.
To ask the question of what we have to learn from Judaism is on some level absurd; we have already learned a great deal from the Jewish tradition having inherited the bulk of the Israelite tradition. But there are a few emphases that contemporary Judaism has to teach us.
1. Commitment to Peoplehood
The Jewish tradition has a strong sense of peoplehood and there is an understanding of the people as the centerpiece of the faith. The “people of Israel” is a constant refrain both in the liturgy and in the consciousness of the Jewish people. The Church sometimes imagines that it is the “New Israel” but rarely has it established the same sense of peoplehood that exists in Judaism. In fact, we are as wont to turn on other Christians as be mindful of them and their needs. The plight of Jewish communities around the world will often garner the attention of the global Jewish community, but Christians will often be ignorant of the stories of the Keren Christians in Burma, the Assyrian Christians in Iraq, or countless communities around the world. In some curious cases, we even side with other groups against fellow Christians. If there is one lesson we could learn from Judaism, it would be this sense of peoplehood, so that when we say, “For once we were no people, but now we are God’s people,” we might actually mean it.
2. Toleration of Debate
This could be facilitated by another thing the Jewish tradition could teach us. There’s another old joke about having two Jews in a room and three opinions. A nod to the idea that there is a multiplicity of opinions in the Jewish tradition on matters both great and small. Our former Jewish chaplain, whenever invited to one of those interfaith panels where they would want to know “What Judaism says about X…” would always remark, “Which Judaism?” and proceed to discuss how there are varying interpretive traditions and schools of thought.
That’s not to say that Christians don’t have the same thing: we’re just not as okay with it. We often expect that there should be accepted theology or belief on a particular matter. I remember once having a conversation with a Catholic priest who opined that he was sure that Protestant Christians longed for some one figure that they could have who could tell them what the faith was about. I remember replying, “Father, I have been a Protestant my whole life and have never wanted such a thing.” But I understand that a lot of Christians would. We might be better served adopting a broader view, that there is no one “orthodox” Christianity, and that a multiplicity of Christianities exists. And further, that we can all be one people even with such diversity of opinion. It was John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, after all, who said that there were really only a few essentials of Christian faith and that all else was just “opinion” and that the Methodists should adopt the ethic of “think and let think.” Would that more of us could do just that.
1. Disciplines of Spirit
The second largest religion in the world is the faith of Islam and, historically, the main rival of Christianity. And yet, there is a lot we could learn from the Islamic tradition.
Islamic practice is generally defined by the Five Pillars is Islam which include a Confession of Faith, prayer five times a day, charitable giving, fasting for Ramadan, and a pilgrimage to Mecca. What strikes an observer of Islam is the level of daily piety asked of an adherent. This is not to say that every Muslim regularly performs all the pillars or that every Muslim even cares. A friend of mine was once on a business trip to Egypt during Ramadan and needed to climb up several flights of stairs. When she got to the top, she was clearly tired due to not having eaten or drunk during the day. The person she was meeting with was surprised and remarked, “You’re not actually fasting, are you?” So, I’m not going to pretend that the average Muslim is more pious than the average Christian.
But I will say that the expectations on the average Muslim are different. When you’re expected to pray five times a day it does establish a pattern for pious living that we would do well to emulate. How many times a day is a Christian expected to pray? Once? Three? None? In addition, the practice of fasting, a staple of life in the early Church life and of early Methodism too, is all but unknown in contemporary Christianity. Indeed, our “fasts” which usually involve abstaining from meat or chocolate during Lent, or restricting ourselves to one meal and two lesser meals that don’t add up to a full meal, pale in comparison to going without food or drink from sunrise to sunset for 29 days. And it can be easy to forget the spiritual benefits of such a discipline. As a friend of mine says, “If you can asbtain from eating and drinking—two necessary and perfectly moral things to do—why not abstain from lying, cheating, stealing, and other things which are neither necessary nor moral?” Islam could help us to re-learn some of the spiritual disciplines that we have lost.
The Buddhists have something to teach us about the nature of our suffering. We expect things to remain as they are, but all things are impermanent. Grasping for things which are constantly changing leads to our suffering. Thus, detachment from things leads to greater peace and tranquility. And an emphasis on living in the moment, rather than trying to preserve the past or control the future.
This attitude of living in the moment is tied to the Buddhist emphasis on “mindfulness”—since all we have is the present, and we should be mindful of what we do in the moment. This mindfulness on the present moment in which practicing lovingkindness, meditation, and intentionality in one’s thoughts play an important role.
This is not to say that Christianity doesn’t teach us to let go or to be intentional in our living, but in a religion that all too often focuses on the hereafter rather than the here and now, we could use a lesson on present-mindedness.
1. Yoga and union of body and soul
There are probably a lot of things the Hindu traditions could teach us. But of all of those one leaps to mind. In the Hindu traditions, yoga—commonly viewed in the West as a kind of exercise—is an important balancing of the spiritual and the physical. It is rooted in an understanding of wholeness in body and in spirit. We Christians often focus so much on the soul and its eternal salvation that we neglect the body. I have often maintained that Christianity is an inherently material religion that should place a higher emphasis on our createdness. But a religious tradition that incorporates bodily health into an understanding of spirituality and wholeness has something to teach us.
IV. WHAT WE REALLY HAVE TO LEARN
In the Book of the Prophet Amos, the prophet criticizes the Israelites for imagining that because they are the only people in relationship with God that they are somehow more special. To combat this idea, the prophet says:
“Aren’t you like the Cushites to me, people of Israel? says the LORD. Haven’t I brought Israel up from the land of Egypt, and the Philistines from Caphtor and the Arameans from Kir?” (Amos 9:7 CEB)
A century and a half later, when the Jews were in exile in Babylon, an unnamed prophet whose writings we find in the Book of Isaiah, spoke hopefully of the Persian King Cyrus, who was on the verge of conquering the very Babylonians who had taken the Jews into captivity:
“The LORD says to his anointed, to Cyrus, whom I have grasped by the strong hand, to conquer nations before him, disarming kings, and opening doors before him, so no gates will be shut: I myself will go before you, and I will level mountains. I will shatter bronze doors; I will cut through iron bars. I will give you hidden treasures of secret riches, so you will know that I am the LORD, the God of Israel, who calls you by name.” (Isaiah 45:1–3 CEB)
Second Isaiah even refers to Cyrus as the Lord’s “anointed”—that is, messiah. Both Amos and Isaiah present a truth that the prophets were seeking to make known: God’s story is larger than our own.
A. Prevenient Grace
This is something that those of us in the United Methodist tradition should know. John Wesley taught that God’s grace was known in three ways: prevenient grace, justifying grace, and sanctifying grace. Prevenient Grace is that grace that is everywhere available, to everyone, at every time. It is the grace of God’s invitation into relationship and it is already at work in the world.
E. Stanley Jones was a Methodist missionary in India early in the 20th Century. He had a disastrous time in India and was not successful in making a single convert. It was only after this colossal failure that he realized that his approach—trying to share God with the people of India was all wrong. His task was not to share God with them, but to help them to see where God was already at work among them. E. Stanley Jones would go on to be one of the greatest missionaries the church has ever produced and his book The Christ of the Indian Road has defined the Methodist approach to mission ever since.
The lesson, steeped in Wesley’s theology of prevenient grace and Jones’ experience in India is that God is already present among the peoples of the world. We are not sole possessors of the truth to the exclusion of everyone else. God’s story is larger than our own.
This is the attitude taken by Paul in the Areopagus. He points out that the God he knows is among them already as the God they proclaim the “unknown God”. And it’s the lesson that Jesus is making when he says it is less about confession (saying “Lord, Lord”) than about doing what is right. God’s story is larger than our own.
And that, my friends, is the main lesson that other religions have to teach us.
It is not my purpose here to make the commonly heard claim that all religions are merely different paths to the same place. I do not seek to minimize the real differences between the faiths of the world. There are some great differences in terms of worldview, expectation, and practice.
But those differences should not prevent us from seeing the ways in which the God we know might yet be known in other faiths. Those differences provide for us a new insight, a new perspective, and a new opportunity to encounter God in a new way. And doing so reminds us that God is not simply the author of Christian history, or Judeo-Christian history, or Abrahamic history, but is the author of all history and is the God of all peoples.