I wonder if there is not a very pagan foundation to the way some Christians think about God. There is, of course, the whole “transactional” relationship between humans and God, the idea that God is chiefly of interest to me in terms of what He can give me, what He can protect me from, and what He can inflict upon me, and that I must deal with Him wisely so as to placate and please Him and therefore maximise my benefit from Him. I addressed that topic in a recent post.
What I am thinking of here is the pagan idea of polytheism—many gods; and the tribal competition that goes on within such a world view—my god is better than your god. By and large, in the pagan world, the existence of many gods was taken for granted. Worshippers of one god did not consider the god of their neighbours to be non-existent, but to be inferior. And should one’s own god turn out to be the inferior one, then the prudent course of action is to switch allegiance to the more powerful god (thus maximising one’s benefits).
Doesn’t this worldview lie behind certain strands of Christian thought in some circles today?
Consider the question of whether the Allah of Islam is the same as the God of Christianity. Whenever I’ve had this discussion with people (both Christian and Muslim) there is always a “compare and contrast” approach: in which ways are the two gods similar, and in which ways are the two gods different? The underlying assumption is that there must be an underlying “winner,” and it is our task to determine which of the two gods that is. Notice the “two gods.”
One of the consequences of this approach is division and exclusion. If you chose the wrong god (or were born into the wrong tribe), then you are in error. My god is better than your god. I win. You are wrong. You are excluded from the ‘cool’ group. On this vastly oversimplified attitude, wars have been fought, both in words and with deadly weapons.
But it is not the only way of thinking about God. In fact, I think it is the wrong way. It belittles God by making Him just one god among many. This way of thinking was the intermediate stepping stone from outright polytheism to Christian monotheism. People thought there were lots of gods, then they came to think there was a supreme God among the many gods, and finally, they came to realise that there can only be one true God. Thus, in the earlier historical times of the Old Testament they prayed, “Who among the gods is like You O God?” (Exodus 15:11). Humanity first had to have the concept of divinity, to recognise the manifestation of divinity in creation, and then to gradually come to see the One, Only, Holy, Unequalled Ultimate Source of all that is. Polytheism raised our consciousness above the merely physical. Christianity raised our consciousness to the Lone Ultimate, the Incomparable, the utterly ineffable and transcendent. Yet some Christians are still unconsciously stuck today in that intermediate stage: a monolatrousmindset—there are many gods, but only one of them is worthy of worship—rather than a genuinely monotheisticmindset—there is only One God. Period.
Implicit paganism leads to insecurity. Debates over whether Jehovah or God or Allah is the ‘true God’ usually take the form of a defence. But if we understand God to be the necessary Ground of all being, transcending all human thought and expression, if we discover the security that such an understanding provides, we would be freed from mere anxious (or aggressive) defence to explore with wonder and joy the various expressions of this awesome God throughout His creation.
Muslims believe there must be only One God. There is little value in pursuing the question of whether or not Allah is the same as the God of Christianity. It is not a competition, a matter of who has the better god, but a search for understanding and Truth. As a Christian, I have no need to object to this pronouncement from the mouth of a Muslim. In some sense, it is my belief also. One Truth, One God, being discovered in different ways by different people in different circumstances. Surely that is a cause for unity rather than division, for reassurance that we have both come to the same conclusion from different assumptions, and for rejoicing at the mutual discovery of profound Truth rather than quibbling over who is the cool crowd?
Thus, St Justin Martyr (second century) could argue that when non-Christians—the ancient Greek philosophers in this case—reached any true conclusions, they could only do so by in some limited way finding Christ Himself, for He is Truth.
“For I whatever either lawgivers or philosophers uttered well, they elaborated by finding and contemplating some part of the Word.” (Second Apology, ch. 10)
Let me emphasise here, neither Justin nor I are at all arguing that “all religions are really the same.” There are quite clear and important differences in our concepts of the One God (and on many other topics!). Most obvious among these differences is the insistence of Christianity on the necessarily Trinitarian nature of the God who is Love, and the full embodiment of that divine love and loving divinity in Christ, and the equally vehement insistence of Muslims on the non-Trinitarian nature of God and their rejection of Christ as God incarnate. And let me emphasise, so far as I can tell, Christians (generally) have got this right and Muslims (generally) have got this wrong. But even such a deep difference is not a difference over the existence of God, but over what God is like, and what God has done. The differences do not erase the things we share in common.
And there is an important practical dimension to this discussion. Taking this ‘bigger’ view of God means that I can disagree with a Muslim without hating her, excluding her, or considering her a competitor to be defeated and humiliated. I can recognise and appreciate her sincerity. I can dialogue with her to better understand why she believes what she does, and to help her better understand why I believe what I do. None of this is threatening to me (and I hope it is not threatening to her). We both are engaged in the same underlying project: the search for what is Good, and Real, and True. And we both share at least one common starting point: we have realised that God (or Allah) is not just a god among the gods, but a Being (actually, both Christian and Islamic mystics agree that God is beyond any human description like ‘being,’ but it’s the best we can do) far beyond this world and its ways in a way we will never fully understand. If our God were just one god among many gods, then indeed, we would be competitors. But He isn’t.
So, why not seek Him together, shoulder to shoulder (with appropriate physical distancing just at the moment), rather than competing with one another in a zero-sum game where one must win and the other must lose? Finding Truth means everybody wins.