Just thinking about this as I continue to read An Asian Introduction to the New Testament, and as we head into Holy Week.
One of the things the authors of this book point out (it’s a collection of writings walking through each book of the NT from a cross section of Asian theologians/scholars) is how reading scripture through an Asian perspective and context requires understanding the language of a diverse religious landscape where scripture is informing and making sense of a a diversity of languages, traditions, symbols and practices that inform how Asian communities make sense of the world. Theirs is a worldview which assumes the existence of gods and spirits and a tangible sense of the spirit world shaped through years of sharing of complex and integrated traditions and stories and testimonies.
This had me thinking about one of the most compelling aspects of faith for me personally. I think many people assume that Chrisitanity is by its nature exclusive. That it can’t make sense of or leave room for other faiths, traditions, and expressions. That it, by nature of being a monotheistic religion, can only operate by way of the call to full assimilation to a singular way of seeing the world. Indeed, I’ve even heard some argue recently (Bart Ehrman for example) that what accounts for the super spread of Christianity in the ancient world is the subsequent demand following conversion to give up all other beliefs, practices and traditions for the sake of following the one true God. This was unique in world that otherwise practiced a form of pluralism. That is, as long as you worshipped Ceasar and paid your dues you were free to worship whichever other god you wanted. In fact, in the ancient world Christians were called atheists due to the perception that in following Christ they did not worship other gods.
Typically the assumption here in the modern sense is that Christianity is exclusionary (and indeed it can be) while secularism, however ill defined that term is, with its noted seperation from religion is inclusive. In a practical and functional sense there is truth to this. However, in a moral, theoretical, and idealistic sense I do think his represents a belief that is in many ways false. This is something I grappled with when I walked away from religion for a bit years ago. I struggled to see how, if God did not exist, how we make a case for the diversity of culture and religious expression that exists in this world. You can explain it in the historical and scientific sense- that is, that we arrived at this diversity in this way. But we cannot explain why it is that we should uphold this diversity as atheists, nor could one explain how we would, at least, in my opinion, in a way that satisfied the rational argument in my mind.
For me, even though I could make a case for co-existing with religious belief, theoretically atheism compelled me to admit that an ideal future is one where such beliefs are governed and informed by a godless view of the world. This, many believe, represents a more just, inclusive, and pluralistic landscape. The more I thought about such a world the more I questioned these claims towards diversity. In truth, beliefs stripped of their power actually shape ones worldview no longer have a functional place in forming culture. Given how much of the worlds cultural diversity was birthed from these stories that reflect very real beliefs about Gods (or the gods/spirits) place in this world, a world where such beliefs no longer play this role in society means the stripping of so much of the worlds diversity of culture. Everything from food, traditions, music, ect, has its roots in these different belief systems. A global reality shaped by atheism alone (and atheism assumes it bears witness to truth at the exclusion of other beliefs in a fundamental sense), even if it leaves room for faith exprsesions to maintain a metaphorical presence, can only ever speak to one way of seeing the world, and in doing so it, by nature of what it sees to be true about this word, strips other beliefs of the necessary power to actually inspire and create a diversity of culture.
This is where I found on of the most compelling aspects of Christianity, again speaking personally not definitively. One thing people often miss about the Judeo-Christian Tradition is the way it provides a cohesive narrative through which a diversity of expressions and beliefs can be made sense of collectively. You see this at work in the Hebrew scriptures in the diverse multitude that assembles in Egypt and leaves in the Exodus. You see this in the common adopting of the names of other deities to describe and locate Yahweh. You see this as Israel is given over to exile and must take root in foreign lands where a variety of practices and traditions co-exist. Now yes, you do see the call to not participate in the worship of foreign gods, but it is worth asking what the prophets, priests and kings were concerned about and to what end the people of God were being raised up. What you see in Christ, and in the teachings of Paul, is the retelling of the story of Israel as a way of laying claim to the idea of being raised up as a people for the world. In both Christ and Paul we see God being articulated and expressed as Christ in the flesh using the language and images and stories of the Greco-Roman world as well. In many ways this becomes the means by which Yahweh moves through the world in a revealing sense. Christ and the cruciform life becomes, to borrow Tolkiens idea, the universal story and language through which all other stories can then make sense together. In this sense Christ is not the sole property of Christianity, rather Christ is the interpretive lens through which we can then understand the diversity of the worlds beliefs, religions and traditions functioning together. Yes, there is an exclusve statment there- all stories and beliefs point to Christ, the fullness of God’s revelation in this world, the moment God breaks into human history and dwells among us so to speak. But in Christ we also find the only true way to make sense of world where a diversity of beliefs and practices co-exist. In the Greco-Roman world the way they tried to do this was through worship of Ceasar as Lord. Pluralism could only functon in this sort of highly governened and heavily controlled sense. Scripture refers to this as the way of “Empire”. In todays globalized world pluralism functions as a product of a secularized society, but purely in a functional sense at best, and in an exclusive sense at worst. It too functions under the guise of Empire. In Christ though we are given a way to contrast Empire with the rule of God. We are given the means of making sense of a world where God is expressed and understood in a variety of ways using a variety of different languages and traditions. Christ becomes the measure then of the potential for good and evil in all of these expressions.
For me, I lay claim to worship of Christ as the fullness of God’s revelation. I don’t believe this leads me towards exclusionary ways of thinking and believing in a diverse world. I also don’t think seeing Christ at play in the diverse stories that make up our world, including atheism, undercuts the exclusivity of Christ as the one who makes sense of a diverse world. I think in both cases it gives me greater cause to celebrate religious and cultural diversity. One thing An Asian Introduction to the New Testament has been teaching me is that one of the outcomes of Christianities movement West was the stripping of scriptures ability to express itself within a culture of diversity, even in places that can’t name Christ or the cruciform life overtly. This, i think, was and is one of its most compelling attributes. It gives appropriate shape to that idea of Christ playing in 10,000 places, and of that familiar and popular prayer of St. Patrick that imagines
Christ with me,
Christ before me,
Christ behind me,
Christ in me,
Christ beneath me,
Christ above me,
Christ on my right,
Christ on my left,
Christ when I lie down,
Christ when I sit down,
Christ when I arise,
Christ in the heart of every man who thinks of me,
Christ in the mouth of everyone who speaks of me,
Christ in every eye that sees me,
Christ in every ear that hears me.