Thursday, March 01, 2007

Gerald McDermott, Learning from World Religions, and God's Rivals

I first encountered the work of Gerald McDermott through my research in the area of theology of religions. This has long been an interest of mine, and the perspective that Gerry brings to the issue is refreshing. Gerry is Professor of Religion at Roanoke College, where he teaches not only on the relationship between Christianity and other religions, but also on his other research interest that deals with religion in America. Gerry is part of the Lausanne issue group on postmodern and alternative spiritualities. He is also the author of a number of books, including Jonathan Edwards Confronts the Gods: Christian Theology, Enlightenment Religion and Non-Christian Faith (Oxford University Press, 2000); three books on practical theology that deal with cancer including Cancer: A Medical and Spiritual Guide For Patients and Their Families (Baker Books, 2004); and books specifically addressing theology of religions, Can Evangelicals Learn From World Religions?: Jesus, Revelation & Religious Traditions (InterVarsity Press, 2001), and the latest, God's Rivals: Why God Allows Different Religions - Insights from the Bible and the Early Church? (InterVarsity Press, 2007).

Morehead's Musings: Gerry, thanks for making some time to share your thoughts. I wonder if you could begin by sharing a little of your background. Where did you grow up and study, and what influences might have shaped your interests in theology of religions?

Gerald McDermott: I grew up in the Northeast (Boston, Philadelphia and the New York City area) as a Roman Catholic, attending a Jesuit high school in New York City. After a spiritual wake-up call through the Catholic charismatic movement, through a priest who had been to a retreat at Oral Roberts University, I studied New Testament and Early Christian Literature at the University of Chicago. Then, after a career in private school administration, I did a Ph.D. at the University of Iowa, where I studied both the history of Christianity and Asian religions. Teaching world religions for years, taking students to the Middle East, and getting to know friends in other religions—all these things started me thinking about how to understand the relationship between Jesus and the gods, or, you could say, my faith and that of my non-Christian friends.

MM: Why do you see the theology of religions and the "scandal of particularity," the teaching that God has restricted his "revelation to certain particular times and peoples and places," to be two of the key issues for Christians in the twenty-first century?

McDermott: I find these are the questions my students ask. They also are asked frequently by Christians in the churches: How does Jesus compare with the Buddha? Can Muslims be saved? Why has the gospel been known only to a minority of people in history? Does that mean that all the rest are damned? What does that say about God’s fairness and love? And the idea that the Father of Jesus Christ is a God of revelation—if so many have not received that revelation?

MM: I'd like to talk about some of the ideas presented in your books that relate to these topics. In Can Evangelicals Learn From World Religions? you talk about the need for humility and respect in the way we understand and approach the world religions? Why do you see this as so important, how might we be falling short, and would you call for the same type of approach among the new religions or "cults" in America and the West?

McDermott: Respect is important because if we don’t show it to our non-Christian friends and interlocutors, we won’t get a hearing. Besides, it is common courtesy and Christian manners (Rom 13:7). We also need to be humble, remembering that we often fail to display Christian virtue, that many non-Christians show more virtue than we do, and that “there but for the grace of God go I.” Humility and respect are important not only because they are both commanded by our Lord, but also because our evangelism will be relatively powerless and probably unfruitful in their absence.
When we regard other religions as netherworlds of unmixed darkness, or non-Christians as deceitful sinners somehow worse than us, we fall short of Jesus, who praised pagans for their virtue (Luke 10:25ff). We also fall short of Paul, who was respected by pagans because of the respect he showed them (Acts 19:31, 37).

The new religions and “cults” of the modern West are similar to the Hellenistic religions which Paul faced. Rather than denouncing them outright, he appealed to the hints of truth within them and urged their devotees to look to Jesus, who is the full Truth (Acts 17:23).

MM: A major part of this book explores the concept of Christians learning about aspects of their own tradition, as well as God's working with humanity, through other religious traditions. This may sound strange, and threatening to evangelicals. Can you briefly share a biblical example where this is the case? I am particularly intrigued by the knowledge of Yahweh among ancient pagan peoples of the near east.

McDermott: Let me point you to the early Greek theologians (Irenaeus, Justin Martyr, Clement of Alexandria, and Origen), who, when thinking about why God permitted other religions, said the answer goes back to God's love. That is, God loved the world so much that He gave its inhabitants freedom to reject His truth, both in whole and in part. Most human beings and civilizations have accepted various dimensions of God's truth, but none has accepted them all. Every one, in fact, has rejected the basic proposition that God be Lord over every area of life. That rejection is what the tradition has called original sin.

Yet God, in His love, has not left humankind in its sins. He has gone back to the world in suffering love, in Christ, to win it back, to redeem it. And He has gone back over and over to work with individuals and cultures, to meet them where they are in their blindness and hardness of heart--which kinds of blindness and hardness vary from individual to individual and culture to culture--and to patiently lead them back, over time and indeed millennia, to fuller and fuller visions of the Truth, which is Jesus Christ.

In the moral sphere, an example of God's willingness to work with human beings even in their hardness of heart, is divorce. Jesus taught that God's original intention is marriage for life, but that Moses permitted divorce "because you were so hard-hearted . . . . but from the beginning it was not so" (Matt 19:8).

Notice the pattern: God permits what is less than the best, because His creatures refuse to accept the best. Rather than abandon His creatures because of their stubbornness, God works with them where they are. And by a long process of education and discipline, as God did through Jesus in teaching the original vision of marriage, humans are called to a higher truth.

Irenaeus was the first to portray God as the cosmic pedagogue, Who educates His creatures through various stages. He taught the Jews by stages, over the course of millennia, in order to prepare them for the Messiah and the gospel. To use the principle we have just examined, God patiently endured Jewish hardness of heart over centuries, gradually softening their hearts and opening their minds to prepare them for the visible incarnation of deity.

In a similar way, we could say, because God respects the freedom of His human creatures, He chose to work with them even when they rejected the fullness of truth, and accepted various religious distortions that arose since the Fall. God did not abandon Jews and Christians who accepted divorce, but worked alongside that "marital system" (if you will), honoring what was true in it (the notion of marital covenant and faithfulness within each marriage) while patiently teaching His people to see the higher vision of lifelong marital covenant.

According to Clement, God worked in a similar way with other religions. They are covenants of sorts, comparable to the covenant God gave to the Jews. Within the covenantal system, portions of which like divorce are not God's highest will, God gently and gradually led His people toward the New Covenant with Jesus.

As for knowledge of Yahweh among peoples of the ancient near east, there is a developing tradition, running from the Old Testament all the way through the NT and the Greek Fathers, that this knowledge was broken and distorted, but partially mediated by fallen angels who brought truth with them from before the fall, and then used this distorted truth to impersonate Yahweh—thus serving as the foundation of other religions.

MM: You also discuss how certain figures in church history reflected on their Christian faith in light of their prior religious experiences. Can you share a brief example?

McDermott: Augustine, for example, was aided by Plotinus and his Neoplatonic ontology (his understanding of being, influenced by Plato) to understand evil as lacking in substance, to break from Manichaeanism (a Gnostic sect based on a supposed primeval conflict between light and darkness) by seeing the biblical emphasis on God's sovereignty and holiness, and to battle Donatism (schismatic part of the 4th-century African church that refused to accept sacraments from priests who had surrendered during the persecutions but later repented) by seeing that the church on earth will never be a company of the perfected.

MM: You have a new book that was released recently, God's Rivals. Can you tell us a little bit about it?

McDermott: I’d be happy to. This tries to answer the question, Why are there other religions at all? If the true God is the Father of Jesus Christ, why did this God permit the rise and flourishing of other religions?

Although this question is new for us, it wasn’t new for the biblical authors and early church thinkers. They had thought long and hard about this question, and came up with an intriguing set of answers. We have generally not recognized these answers, or if we have seen the answers, we have not imagined that they were answers to this question. Instead, reading with eyes that have been conditioned by the Enlightenment, we have overlooked them or dismissed them as ancient superstition.

If there is one theme, or red thread, that runs through the book, it is this: the biblical authors and early church theologians saw the religions as not simply human constructions but spiritual projects as well. The religions are living and breathing beings, if you will, that have inner souls, derived in part from spiritual entities called “gods” by the Old Testament and “powers” by the New Testament. Not every bit of every religion is spiritual or directly linked to spiritual entities, but at least some parts of some of the religions are just that.

MM: You present some interesting thoughts about the existence of gods in the Old Testament. Of course, evangelicals tend to interpret these as angels or false gods with no real existence in light of what you call a simple monotheism as exemplified in Isaiah. Can you share a little of your research and thinking that arrives at different interpretations?

McDermott: Sure. After years of thinking all references to “gods” in the OT referred, quite self-consciously, to pagan delusions, I came to see that they actually exist for most authors of the Old Testament.

The Psalms fairly explode with evidence. “There is none like you among the gods, O Lord” (86:8); “For great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised; he is to be revered above all gods” (96:4); “Our Lord is above all gods” (135:5); “Ascribe to Yahweh, [you] gods, ascribe to Yahweh glory and strength” (29:1, my trans.); “He is exalted above all gods” (97:7); “For Yahweh is a great god, and a great king above all gods” (95:3, my trans.). And so on.

But it’s not just the Psalms. In Exodus Yahweh predicts that he will execute judgments “on all the gods of Egypt” (12:12). The author of Numbers then declares that that is indeed what happened: “Yahweh executed judgments against their gods” (33:4). There is no hint that Yahweh is the only God. Instead it is clearly implied that Egypt has her own gods, and Yahweh will defeat them. When Yahweh gives his people the Ten Commandments, the first commandment implies the existence of other gods: “You shall have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:3; see also Deut. 5:7). In Exodus 23:32-33 Israel is told not to covenant with or worship other gods; there is no suggestion that the gods of Israel’s neighbors do not exist. Our thinking that the verse itself presumes the non-existence of other gods owes more to our own prejudice than to the passage.

Deuteronomy picks up this theme. Israel is told, “Do not follow other gods, any of the gods of the peoples who are all around you” (6:14). Yahweh predicts to Moses that after he dies, the Jewish tribes “will begin to prostitute themselves to the foreign gods in their midst, the gods of the land into which they are going” (31:16). Again, “the gods” seem to have real existence.

But Deuteronomy goes even further. It suggests that Yahweh had assigned other gods to the nations. When Moses warns the Israelites that they will be punished if they worship other gods, he predicts that “all the nations” will wonder why Yahweh’s people “abandoned the covenant of the Lord, the God of their ancestors . . . and served other gods, worshiping them, gods whom they had not known and whom he had not allotted to them” (29:25-26, emphasis added). This allotment of gods to different peoples is cited just a few chapters later:

"When the Most High apportioned the nations, when he divided humankind, he fixed the boundaries of the peoples according to the number of the gods; Yahweh’s own portion was his people, Jacob his allotted share." (32:8-9; emphasis added).

The implication is that Yahweh delegated supervision of other nations to other (in the context “subordinate”) gods, while he exercised direct supervision of Israel.

MM: Conservative evangelicals will likely be unsettled by this, perhaps even labeling it "pagan" and "unbiblical." How would you respond to this concerns?

McDermott: At first glance it does seem pagan, but not when you consider the immense differences between pagan and biblical cosmology (view of the cosmos or what we would call “ultimate” reality). First of all, among Israel’s pagan neighbors the gods were roughly comparable in stature and power, so that there were many rivalries and assorted relations (often sexual) among them. But for Israel, Yahweh brooked no rivals. There was only a single council of the ruler and the ruled. There were no other relations among the gods.

Yahweh had no consort, no sexual partner, no children conceived by sexual acts. The Old Testament rejected the Canaanite symbolism of El (its god) as a bull, and Asherah as his wife. The Bible shifted the paradigm “from the model of the divine couple in charge of the four-tiered pantheon to a single figure surrounded by minor powers, who are only expressions of that divinity’s power.”[1]

Second, while for Ancient Near Eastern pagans monsters and gods challenge the high god for mastery, Yahweh is depicted in the Old Testament as having conquered them all. Some still challenge, but there is no doubt that in future fights Yahweh will win again. The monsters are subservient to Yahweh in Ps. 148:7 (“Praise Yahweh from the earth, you sea monsters and all deeps”), Leviathan is a “tamed pet” in Job (40:25, 29),[2] and in Genesis 1 the cosmic forces are no longer divine—as they were for many of Israel’s pagan neighbors.

Finally, the Israelites believed there was only one true God. There were other “gods,” but none had the power of Yahweh, and they were probably created by Yahweh anyway. What power they have is on loan from Yahweh. In fact, as some Old Testament texts proclaim, Yahweh alone is the creator of all. He alone is therefore sovereign of all. And He alone is eternal.

So while there are some superficial similarities to pagan religions of the Ancient Near East—in that both Israel and her neighbors believe in a cosmos animated by a variety of powers—there are still significant differences. And enough differences to sharply distinguish biblical religion from pagan religion.

MM: You also talk in the book about learning from thinkers in the church who wrote on this topic. How might it be important for us developing a theology of the religions in the twenty-first century to reflect on Christian thinking related to this in the third, fourth or other centuries?

McDermott: Let me suggest a number of ways in which this new understanding could change the way we think. First and most obviously, it should change the way we think about the religions. They aren't just human creations, but they may also involve real cosmic powers. This should change the way we think about our friends and neighbors who practice other religions. They are involved not simply with human constructions but real spiritual entities. These entities may have been originally created by God to praise Him and further His Kingdom. Even if they later rebelled, they still retain and teach truth in the midst of distortions. And they are used by God, in God's own sovereign plan, to serve the ends of redemption, even though at one level, and for all that we can see, the religions seem to resist God's purposes.

This also means that other religionists are not our enemies. And we should not fight them. Our real battle, as Paul advises us, is not against human beings ("flesh and blood") but against "the cosmic powers of this present darkness" (Eph 6:12). If we have any enemies besides sin, flesh and the devil, it is the cosmic powers that war against God's Kingdom, and sometimes use other religions to mask their designs. (They also wage war within the church, often pitting Christian believer against Christian believer!) And even if we do war against cosmic powers that sometimes use other religions, our weapons should be spiritual not worldly. "For the weapons of our warfare are not fleshly" (2 Cor 10:4, my trans.).

This means patient persuasion, not hostile argument. It means loving witness to others who sincerely believe they have the truth. We may believe they have been deceived by spiritual forces, but we must first acknowledge that we don't have complete possession of the full truth, either. And that we are no doubt also deceived to some extent--even though we know that Christian faith is the final reality to which all other faiths should eventually lead. Having access to the true God through Christ does not mean complete possession of the Truth--since we are finite and sinners, belonging to a church that is still growing in its understanding of Christ.

This also means that we have a lot in common with believers of other religions. We agree with them that final reality is spiritual not material. We agree with many of them--Muslims, for example--that God is moral and that He has given us divine law. In fact, this understanding of the powers, as we have seen above, reinforces the idea that we must submit to moral law. It is for this reason that Catholics could work side-by-side with Muslims at the 1995 United Nations Conference on Population and Development in Cairo to prevent abortion-on-demand from being enshrined as a universal human right. It is why Christians and Muslims can work together today to defend marriage. They, along with believers from other religious traditions, agree with Christians that this world is the creation of God, and that one day all of us will be judged. They agree that God is just and good. And this commonality in knowledge about God and His ways helps restrain sin and evil in us all, so that the world is a happier place than it would be without these religions.

It also means that we need to share the gospel with more respect and sensitivity. If our non-Christian friends and neighbors sense that we believe their religious traditions contain religious truth, they may be more open to what we have to say. They won't feel they have to deny everything they have ever believed and practiced in order to become a disciple of Jesus, or that their culture has had no value in their religious pilgrimage. They will have a better chance of feeling love and respect from the Christian sharing her story.

MM: You are also interested in the study of Mormonism, and recently completed a dialogue book on this topic with Robert Millet of Brigham Young University. Can you tell us a little about this book, and what did you learn during this dialogue?

McDermott: This book (Claiming Christ: A Mormon and an Evangelical Debate Jesus [Brazos Press, September 2007]) grew out of two debates I had with BYU theologian Robert Millet at Roanoke College. Both debates drew large crowds of both Mormons and evangelicals, demonstrating the interest in both communities in how they differ on Jesus. After the second debate, we asked a publisher if he was interested in a much longer, more fleshed out book version of the debate.

The book includes chapters on authority and canon, Christ and the Trinity, Mormon claims that Jesus went to North America, the Book of Mormon, faith and works, what happens to non-Christians, and other matters. Bob Millet and I discuss how all of these subjects affect our views of Jesus.

Now to your question. Early on in my Evangelical life I was told that Mormonism is a cult with radically un-Christian beliefs. Chief among these, I was told, were the ideas that we are saved by our works and that Jesus is not God. Their focus, I thought, was on Joseph Smith rather than Jesus Christ.

Then, a number of years ago, I met Bob and a number of his colleagues at Brigham Young University. I learned from Bob’s books and our conversations that he and others have been bringing a new emphasis on grace to the LDS community. I also discovered that there was more emphasis on grace in the Book of Mormon and other parts of the LDS canon than I had imagined and that Mormons worship Jesus as a God. I saw a concentration on Jesus which I had previously thought to be absent.

But there are still serious problems. As I have tried to show in this book, there still are considerable doctrinal differences between not only Evangelicals and Mormons, but between Mormons and the general stream of orthodox Christianity. Throughout the book, I examine these problems in great detail. Bob, of course, disagrees with me on most of them. And that is what, we think, makes for a good book.

MM: Gerry, it has been a privilege to learn from your scholarship and to benefit from it in the shaping of my own theology and missiology of religions. Our Lausanne issue group is also richer due to your contributions. I look forward to your continued work.

[1] Smith, The Origins of Biblical Monotheism, 47.

[2] Smith, The Origins of Biblical Monotheism, 36.

No comments: