31. Orthodoxy and Other Faiths – Part One: Introduction – How to deal with other faiths honestly but respectfully

When Christians think of other religions, sometimes they call them demonic and condemn their members to hell. Don’t do that. When Christians deal with members of other religions, sometimes they beat them over the head with Christianity. Don’t do that. When Christians deal with members of other religions, sometimes they keep their mouths shut about Christ and the Church, for fear of offending them. Don’t do that. There is another option.

This is the first of a series of occasional articles on other faiths. (When will we get back to traveling again? In 2 weeks. As I said last week, I have only so many trips to tell you about, and if we use them all up quickly we’ll be grounded forever, and we don’t want that, do we?) This will be a rather long series, interrupted often by other topics. As always I’ll number the Blog Posts, so you can easily refer back to earlier ones on the same subject.

Why should we learn about other faiths? 

Because we live in a non-Orthodox society. We Orthodox are a minority in the world, which impinges upon us ever more. Once people could live a more or less isolated existence. No more. Our youth are influenced by a non-Orthodox culture. All of us, whether in the media or with our non-Orthodox friends or family or wherever, are exposed to many different kinds of Christianity as well as other religions and ideas, including atheism and agnosticism. There are now atheist commercials on television. (Why are there no Orthodox commercials?) We can’t be protected from this, nor should we try to be. It wouldn’t work.

What we need is to learn about other religions from an Orthodox perspective, so that we Orthodox (1) will be strong in our faith and not be taken in by strange doctrines, (2) will have a solid grounding in Orthodoxy and not feel threatened by other faiths, (3) can learn to respect what is good in other people and their beliefs.

How can we live in the world if we don’t know other religions? How can we understand why there are Muslim fundamentalists today unless we know something about Islam? How can we understand Christianity unless we know our Jewish roots? How can we understand America unless we understand the kind of classic liberal Protestant social teaching that is written into and assumed by our national Constitution?  I wish comparative religion were a required course in school. Religion has been central to human life, society, history, music, art and even the development of modern science, but most young people today are taught so little about it in school, for fear someone might be offended.

Here’s the plan: This time we’ll do a general Introduction about how to approach the subject. Then we’ll proceed to brief looks at (1) atheism, agnosticism and some non-Christian religions. Then eventually we’ll consider in somewhat more detail the faiths we deal with most often in this country: (2) Judaism and what the New Testament says about the nation of Israel, (3) Islam, especially in light of current events, (4) Roman Catholicism, (5) the major Protestant denominations (6) a few of the multitude of sects that have emerged out of the Protestant movement.

I am not an expert in the study of religion, so if I make errors or you disagree with my interpretations, please speak up. And certainly I can’t pretend to be impartial. I am a convinced Orthodox Christian. But I will try to be honest, fair and respectful. When we’re done I hope we will all have a better understanding not only of other peoples’ faiths, but of the truth and beauty of our own Orthodox faith, and of how our Lord Jesus Christ and Christianity are unique among the religions of the world.

What should we think of other faiths?

Judge them, certainly, in light of the full revelation of God and truth in Jesus Christ. But approach them as positively as possible. Look for what is good. God’s “Spirit fills the whole world” (Wisdom 1:7), holds all things together, gives life and knowledge to all. C.S. Lewis pointed out that all religions share a common moral code. All agree in principle that stealing and adultery are wrong – though there is some disagreement about how many wives a man can have! However, aside from the great mono-theistic faiths, there is complete disagreement about God. We’ll get around to that as we go along.

 What should we think of those who belong to other faiths?

First, approach them as family. 2 weeks ago I quoted Saint Paul: God “has made of one blood all nations of the world.” We are all related. All human beings are one family. Everybody knows that families do not always agree or get along. Nevertheless members of other faiths are our brothers and sisters.

Furthermore, approach them as our potential future brothers and sisters in the Kingdom of heaven, not just because they may be converted to Christianity on earth. For can those who are non-believers be saved? Yes. Of course Jesus Christ is the one way to salvation. He said so. “I am the way, the truth and the life; no one comes to the Father except by me.” (John 14:6) “No one knows the Father except the Son, and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.” (Matthew 11:27) But then listen to what else Christ said in Matthew 25:31-46. At the Last Judgment All the nations will be gathered before Him, and He will separate them one from another, as a shepherd divides his sheep from the goats. And He will set the sheep on His right hand, but the goats on the left. Then the King will say to those on His right hand, ‘Come, you blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: for I was hungry and you gave Me food; I was thirsty and you gave Me drink; I was a stranger and you took Me in;  I was naked and you clothed Me; I was sick and you visited Me; I was in prison and you came to Me.’” This will be the judgment of the nations, including non-believers. Some who now are non-believers will meet Jesus Christ at the End and become believers and be welcomed into the Kingdom.

The standard of judgment will be love, not which religion or denomination they belonged to. And, if you’ll recall the end of that parable, there will also be people who will be thrown out, even though some were as “Orthodox” as could be. How many times did Jesus say: “Many who are first shall be last and the last first.” There are those who are serving Christ, even though they don’t know him yet. But in the End they will! As one of my professors said, “Many people are better than their theology” – or lack thereof. While all of us Orthodox are certainly “worse than our theology.”

Speaking of which, let’s take a minute and approach this theologically. Why is Christ the only way to salvation? Simple: Because God is salvation, and eternal life is found only in God who is the one Source of life, and Christ is God, so salvation is found only in him. But because Christ is God, therefore he is and always has been present everywhere, working in a hidden way with all mankind – as Paul says he did with the Hebrews as he led them up out of Egypt long before his Incarnation. Christ is the Word, the Logos, the personal creative Reason who orders the cosmos, so that wherever there are truth, goodness, beauty, love, we know Christ our God is there – no matter what religion people belong to, or whether they have none at all.

Furthermore the revelation in Christ is that “God is love”, our Father “who is good and loves mankind”, “in whom there is no darkness at all”. Why would he condemn people because they grew up in a non-Christian culture or were turned away from Christianity because of the hypocrisy of Christians they knew? Christ came (he quoted the prophet Isaiah) so that “A bruised reed He will not break, and smoking flax He will not quench, till He sends forth justice to victory; and in His name the Gentiles will trust.” (Matthew 12:20-21) Christ came “not to condemn the world but to save it.” With some of the early Fathers, we may even dare to hope (hope, not know) that in the End all will be saved. So when we find agnostics who love their families or Hindus who feed the poor, we should give thanks that God is working through them. We should honor and respect them as potential future believers and our brothers and sisters in Christ.

So, given all this, should we try to convert non-believers? Should we speak to fellow Christians about Orthodoxy? Yes, of course we should. Not because we fear God will send them to hell, but how can we not share the joy and beauty and truth of our Orthodox faith, of Jesus Christ and his life-giving death and resurrection? Orthodoxy is too good to keep to ourselves. Don’t bat them over the head with it. Be gentle. Be sweet. Don’t be personally “judgmental”. But why should it be offensive to speak what one believes to be true? So if the time is right and they are seeking and open to it, tell them about our faith. And let them speak of what they believe. However, here is my opinion: if a Buddhist is a firmly convinced Buddhist, not open to Christ and the Church,  I would tell him: “My dear brother, stay Buddhist. If that’s what you truly believe, Christ can save you that way. You cannot be saved by violating your conscience and by lying and pretending to believe in Jesus.”

I recommend to you a little book Seeds of the Word: Orthodox Thinking on Other Religions by John Garvey, book 2 of the Foundations series from Saint Vladimir’s Press.

OK, enough theory. Next time we’ll get down to specifics.

Next weeka ridiculously short analysis of atheism, agnosticism, Buddhism and Hinduism. I’ll have to skip a few things! Then in due time we’ll look at Islam and Judaism.

In two weeks: 2007 Trip – Patmos and of course another little trick by Saint Nektarios. 

7 thoughts on “31. Orthodoxy and Other Faiths – Part One: Introduction – How to deal with other faiths honestly but respectfully

  1. I agree with your initial thoughts on the subject, brother, but there some points that I disagree, they’re not the beliefs of the Historic Orthodox Church. The Lord give you wisdom.

  2. Thank you, Fr. Bill. It was the beauty of love in Orthodoxy that drew me to the fullness of the true church. My priest, Fr. Jason Foster, taught this to me while a Protestant, and being loved in the manner in which you describe in this blog post was so powerful, it overcame a lifetime of family dogma and religious teaching. Not being hammered with a “you’re wrong and you’re going to hell” judgment, opened my heart to see that my very approach to life made me miss the love of Christ. My prayer is that I can attain to even a small portion of His love! If so, perhaps I will see some saved around me. Lord have mercy.

  3. Dear Father Bill, Glory to Jesus Christ!
    Please permit me to be a bit provocative and (in the spirit of charity!) challenge what appears to be a key premise of this series of blogs. I don’t think there is any evidence that the Church Fathers shared our very modern concept of “religion”. In antiquity, the Latin word religio simply meant any binding social obligations. That certainly included cultic practices specific to certain pagan shrines, but it also included other obligations arising from civic oaths, family rituals, friendship, or other human relationships that moderns consider “secular.” Even this meaning evolved over the course of the Middle Ages. Aquinas treated religio as one of nine virtues annexed to the principal virtue of justice. For Aquinas, the object of religio were the rites and practices of communities that offer worship to God. In the English language in the 14th century, the “religions” were the Benedictines, Dominicans, Franciscans, etc. What moderns politely call other “religions” – Arianism, Manichaeism, Zoroastrianism, etc. — were to pre-modern Christians simply (and accurately) heresies or idolatry. Saint Irenaeus of Lyon wrote Against Heresies not Against Other Religions. The Church (ekklesia) was (and still is) understood as the Mystical Body of Christ, and Christ proclaimed that he is Truth (John 14;6) but never ‘I am a “religion”‘. Looking at the Church Fathers (and before them the Prophets) through the modern lens of “comparative religions” renders both Apostolic Tradition and Scripture unintelligible. St. Irenaeus reports that when Polycarp (a disciple of John) saw the heretic Marcion on the street in Rome he passed him by without greeting him. Marcion reproached him, saying “Polycarp don’t you know me?” And Polycarp replied: “I do know thee, the first-born of Satan.” Going back further, one may well ask why Elijah didn’t try to ” learn to respect what is good in [the prophets of Baal] and their beliefs? (1 Kings 18).

    1. Michael, I’m sorry I didn’t get your thoughtful response posted earlier. I was out of town and trying hard to spend my time with grandchildren, not with this Blog!

      I was just assuming one of the “very modern” definitions of religion as an organized group sharing a common belief in God or “spiritual powers” or (whoops, I almost forgot the Taoists) a common moral system. Yes, the term “religion” has been used in different ways at different times. Even now, Roman Catholic monastics are still often called “the Religious”. But that of which I’m writing has existed for millennia, even if not under the name “religion”.

      Finally, it seems there are two different sorts of Orthodox, both of them true Orthodox: 1) Those who believe there is no truth or goodness outside the bounds of the Orthodox Church, and 2) Those who believe God is present and active in the many peoples and “religions” of the world, all of which possess partial truth, but that the Holy Orthodox Church possesses (or more properly is possessed by) the ultimate and authentic Truth revealed in Jesus Christ.

      I’ve always loved that story of Polycarp and Marcion, but (and this is mere supposition) if Marcion gave to the poor, wouldn’t Polycarp have to admit that this was a good thing and in accord with the will of God?

      1. Dear Father Bill,
        Thank you for the thoughtful reply. Whether what you’re writing about has existed for millennia (even if not under the name “religion”), would seem to be a historical question. If there was, over millennia, “religion” (if even under another name), then there was necessarily something that was “not religion,” otherwise “religion” would be merely an altogether vacuous category or simply a synonym for all creation. The problem, however, is that there is scant evidence that pre-modern peoples divided their world into “religion” and “non-religion” (whether under these or any other names). Brent Nongbri, writing from the comparative religions perspective, makes exactly this argument in his “Before Religion” (2013). William T. Cavanaugh reaches the same conclusion in his “The Myth of Religious Violence” (2009), writing from a Catholic/radical orthodoxy perspective. Both argue that “religion” is one of the founding myths of modernity and to apply it to pre-modern periods is to fall hopelessly into anachronism.

        As for Polycarp, I don’t know what he would have said. If Marcion gave to the poor, did he give because he saw Christ in the poor? Judas (claimed) that he wanted to give to the poor, and Christ rebuked him (Jn 12;7). The hypocrites announced their almsgiving with trumpets, and Christ rebuked them (Mt. 6;2). So actually we don’t have to admit that “giving to the poor” is categorically good; in fact, “there is none good but one, that is, God.” I suspect that there is a great deal of “humanitarian” giving to the poor that is actually a case of giving snakes in the place of fish (Lk 11;11). The mass “gift” of abortifacients in the third world by humanitarian agencies comes to mind. Without Christ, we can’t actually distinguish fish from snakes, so our giving, however, ‘good’ intended will inevitably end in the ‘gift’ of bads rather than of goods.

        1. I meant “organized religion” in the sense of having priests, ceremonies, practices and the like, not as something distinct from the rest of life or from “non-religion”. One of the things that attracted me to Orthodoxy was that it is more integrated with life than western “religion”, insofar as that is possible to us living in western society. More of it still remains in Greece – game shows on TV during Pascha which begin with the host crying “Christos anesti!” As I was becoming Orthodox I saw a several part series on PBS (can’t remember the name of it) about 2 British brothers who spent 10 years with primitive tribes in Indonesia and their complete integration of religious practices with life, and I thought Orthodoxy was more like that than with the western religion (in your sense) I was leaving. Since then I’ve often paraphrased Will Roger’s comment about his being a Democrat: “I don’t belong to any organized religion. I’m Orthodox.”

          Is it objectively a good thing to give to the needy? Yes. Of course people can give hypocritically or even with the best of motives give the wrong things. “Without Christ we can’t actually distinguish [good from evil].” I disagree. All human societies agree on a basic moral code: stealing, murder, adultery, etc. are wrong – though they may disagree on when killing is murder, or how many wives a man may have. And on a deeper level I believe if there is any good, Christ is present there, whether people know it or not. I’ll let God sort that out. I can’t. All I know is what Jesus said in Matthew 25:31-46.

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