Every Sunday afternoon, sometime between recording the morning’s attendance in the parish register and preparing for the 5 p.m. service, I find time to pull out the Scripture passages for the following Sunday and read through them for the first time. For a priest, this is akin to that moment just before you tear into the biggest present under the tree on Christmas morning. In that moment of heightened anticipation, you know that under the wrapping paper could be a ski jacket and two tickets to Colorado, or it could be an oversized, scratchy, electric blue sweater hand-knitted by your Great Aunt Betty. I feel the same way about the Scripture lessons. Very many Sundays, I’ll take that first peek and, to be honest, I feel like I’ve been given Aunt Betty’s sweater. Some things just won’t preach. But other weeks—like this week—oh, baby, it’s the ticket to the ski slopes!
In Acts this morning, Paul wanders through Athens looking at the temples and shrines to the various Greek gods. He finally stops to speak to any who will listen, and what he says is nothing short of amazing. He says that among all the godly statues and shrines in this pagan city, he has found one altar with the inscription, “To an unknown god.” He goes on to claim to the Greeks that, “What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you…” This god the Greeks worship as anonymous is, in fact, Paul says, God, the maker of heaven and earth who has instilled in all of God’s creation a desire “that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him—though indeed he is not far from any of us. For in him we live and move and have our being.”
Here Paul grants more to these pagans that we are often willing to concede to those whose faith differs from our own. Paul grants that even before his arrival with the Good News of Jesus Christ, God has been present and active in their lives. He is saying nothing less than that there is truth to be found in their pagan religion. Paul does not dismiss them as primitive heathen. He does not condemn all that they have believed and replace it with Jesus. Rather, he finds points of contact between what they have known and what he now has to share.
How can Paul say this? If he were anyone other than Paul, we might be tempted to say he’s some cultural relativist who is giving up Jesus’ claim (read just last Sunday) to be the Way, the Truth, and the Life. Our common understanding—even though it is an understanding that may make some of us fidgety and uncomfortable—is that truth is to be found only in Christianity. There may be any number of reasons that we cling to this understanding, but I suspect one is that it makes it much easier for us to dismiss or even despise those who are not Christian. For instance, in today’s world, when virtually all Muslims are suspect (and not just the tiny percentage who would do violence in the name of God), we may subconsciously decide, because Muslims have denied the truth of Jesus, that it’s o.k. to be wary and deny that they are human beings with the same hopes and fears as the rest of us.
But c’mon, this is Paul. This is the guy who took the Gospel to the Gentiles and who wrote the letters that make up two thirds of the New Testament. And he doesn’t adopt our exclusive position. Paul engages the pagan people of Athens as though they share common ground—they share truths—from which to have a conversation about faith. So what in the world is Paul talking about? Well, he’s talking about a deeply orthodox reading of Scripture. Consider this: In Genesis, we are told that God creates all human beings in God’s own divine image. In John’s Gospel, this is amplified when John claims that the whole creation is made through Christ. John says, “All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.” Paul affirms this understanding in his own letter to the Colossians when he says, “in [Christ] all things were created…He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together.”
In other words, Paul believes that the God of Jesus Christ is present in the Greeks just as in himself. Paul recognizes that Christ, though anonymous and hidden to the Greeks and others, is nevertheless God’s cosmic reality who works through the lives of all people, slowly but surely leading all those who will pay attention toward the embrace of God.
Now, don’t check out yet! I want us to talk about what this does and does not mean. What it does mean is that Paul fits with those theologians—and I include myself here—who believe that God reveals himself to all people in all times and in all places. The reason that the Hindu Bhagavad Gita and many Native American stories seem to ring so true in parts is because they are true. Theologians call this truth God’s “general revelation,” and as one studies the landscape of the world’s great religions, the pattern of this revealed truth emerges. There are at least two major insights that general revelation imparts. The first is that the divine reality, which we call God, is benevolent. God wishes good for creation. The second insight is that all is not as it should be. There is something wrong with creation. A Buddhist might describe this fact differently than a Christian, but both would agree that in the world something is essentially off-kilter.[i]
That there are insights that are part of our common human religious understanding is something over which we should rejoice. If we can let down our defenses and let go of our need to categorize non-Christians as mysterious and fearsome, then we can begin to hear from them the way that God truly is working in their lives. They will seem less like foreigners to us and more like relations, beloved siblings with whom we share a divine parent.
Yet some theologians jump off from this reality and conclude that all the world’s religions are essentially the same. The image they use is of God as a mountaintop and all religions as equal paths to this single pinnacle. But this sweeping claim reveals either an ignorance of the various religions (including Christianity) or a conscious failure to honor the uniqueness of each religion by pretending that essential differences don’t exist.
Paul would rebel at this notion, and so do I, because the essential differences in the religions are as real as their shared truths. The other faiths of the world may each share some of the vital aspects of Christianity, but they only share some. There are perhaps two primary instances in which the truth upheld by Christianity diverges. First, there is the prescription that most religions offer as a solution to the brokenness of the world. In most religions (including other monotheistic ones) adherents right their relationship with God through their own actions. Prayers are offered; sacrifices are made; good karma is accumulated, and these things render the breach between God and humans repaired. This is in stark contrast to the truth of God’s love we Christians say is revealed in Jesus. What we know—what we experience—is that nothing in our own power can restore us and the world to God’s intentions for it. Only God can accomplish this, and God does so through the gift of grace that is freely given and cannot be earned or achieved.
The second place of divergence is this: Many religions understand the world to be cyclical, characterized by an endless repetition of cosmic birth, decay, destruction, and rebirth. Lives in the creation, and indeed the creation itself, are considered to be inherently painful, and the ultimate hope is to escape the cycle of rebirth altogether and enter into something beyond it.
Nothing could be further from the truth embodied in Jesus. The creation, our faith affirms, is not an endless cycle, nor is it base or evil, and escaping the world is not our goal. The creation is the stuff—the art, even—of God himself. It is a linear tapestry moving toward the fulfillment of God’s Purpose, and it is in the single life of Jesus—God Incarnate—that we come to know what God’s Purpose is. God’s Purpose is to redeem this world. As we see in Jesus, God uplifts the downtrodden and values love and compassion over selfish and personal gain. In Jesus, God begins to make this broken world whole. Jesus reveals that living is not primarily for the sake of some heavenly reward. The “eternal life” of which Jesus speaks throughout the Gospels is living in union with God and creation, and that is salvation. And at the end of time, Revelation assures us, heaven will descend upon this world. This good creation, of which we are a part right now, will be fully transformed and made new, and we will be part of it.
This whole truth, about the goodness of creation, the gift of grace, and God’s Purpose for the world is fully known in Jesus the Christ. It is the truth to which Paul adds an exclamation point today when he says, “of this [God] has given assurance to all by raising [Christ] from the dead.”
So, where are we? Where does Paul take us today? We can and should say that there is truth in other religions, truth that we should hope their adherents will share with us. But we must also affirm that the ultimate truth of God, incarnate in Jesus, is something that we must share, something that completes all truth and reveals God’s love and grace for the world.
The remaining question is whether other religions can save. Salvation, as I’ve just said, is not primarily about going to some heaven. It’s about living fully in union with God, in this life and the next, and this happens when our wills and our lives are conformed to Jesus. So the question is, can the adherents of other faiths be followers of the Way of Jesus Christ—which is the way of love that seeks to make God’s world whole—without consciously knowing it? If we wish to pursue this question, we can do so only by listening to the adherents of other faiths and discerning from what they share with us the ways in which the hidden Christ moves in their lives. Ultimately, though, this judgment is not one we are called to make. What we are called to do is make the Purpose of Christ our own. We are called, as the Body of Christ, to go into the world and further his project of love and reconciliation. This work should be our life’s love and task. If we busy ourselves with it, then I have faith and confidence that the arms of God, which hold his children closer than we know, will bring us to that day when his Purpose is fulfilled and Christ truly “is all in all.”
[i] Knitter, Paul. No Other Name? (Orbis Books: Maryknoll, New York), 1985, 100.