25 August 2008

Other gods?

My friend Sally has written an interesting post on the subject of whether the followers of other world religions worship a different God from the Christian God. I have a lot of respect for Sally and her views even when I disagree with her;  and this is one of the rare times we disagree! Anyway what she said, as well as some of the other comments on the post, got me thinking.

The most intriguing comment was by my blog-friend
Tim Chesterton who suggested that when people say that other religions worship 'different Gods', that they are saying that they believe different things about the God they worship than people of other religions.

The problem I have with Tim's suggestion is that I often feel I'm worshipping a 'different God' from many people who call themselves Christians. And I sometimes feel that my concept of God has more similarity with people of other religions - particularly progressive Jews, Sikhs and Baha'i.

What I specifically mean is that there are many Christians who seem to worship a hard God who is eagerly waiting for human beings to slip up so that he can punish them. These individuals wouldn't say that this is their official doctrine, but they act that way. They also voice objections to my brand of 'soft and fluffy' Christianity that really believes that Jesus meant 'forgive your enemies' when he uttered these words. On the other hand, many progressive Jews, Sikhs and Baha'i would say that a merciful God who calls us to forgiveness is at the centre of their beliefs. I often feel that I have more in common with some of these individuals than with other Christians, yet I feel it is my duty not to reject my Christian brothers and sisters.

As Sally noted, this is a very complicated question and I'm not claiming to have all the answers to it.  I thought it was an interesting discussion, though.


Judy said...

This is indeed an interesting discussion. My experience with the elderly on this issue is telling. Many are so afraid to die, and when you find out why, it is because their vision of God is that of the wrathful and vengeful God, and that they have somehow failed to pass muster before this God.

I would suggest that maybe, instead of competing, or different Gods, it is a matter of imagery. Each of us I think has an image of God. Hopefully, as we have matured in faith our image has also matured. Mine sure has!

I think it is also a matter of how intimately a person knows, or is in relationship with, this image of God. For example, I could never have an intimate relationship with the God of my childhood. It has taken me years to come to intimacy with God, if I dare to claim the beginnings of that relationship.

Anyway, thanks for the blog and discussion, Pam. Always challenging.

Sally said...

I agree with you that many Christians portray a hard and unforgiving God, but then so do many Muslims and not a few Jews. The fact that there is such breadth in other religions as well as within Christianity highlights how mysterious God is, and so we remain seekers!

PamBG said...

Judy, thanks for your perspective working with the elderly. Like you, I could never have an intimate relationship with the 'God' of my childhood;

Sally, I totally agree with you that individuals of all religions believe in 'a hard God'. I guess I see it as 'thinking different things about God' rather than 'different Gods'.

Beyond Words said...

I agree with you, Pam, it's far more disturbing to me that Christians have so many views about God than it is to ponder the gods of other religions. But it's humbling, too. I'm becoming more comfortable with knowing how limited my understanding is, and paradoxically more patient with people who demand certainty

Pilgrim said...

The God who was
is not the God who is...

That's the start of a poem I wrote, reflecting on my own struggle to make sense of this God who steadfastly refuses to make sense or meet our expectations.

I've also written my own Creed because I simply can't go along with the Creeds the Church keeps trying to feed me.

Other gods? Who can say? Like you, I think, Pam, if I'm reading you correctly, I always have far more questions than answers... and I recommend Terry Pratchett's Small Gods for an entertaining but also quite profound take on some of those questions...

PamBG said...

Pilgrim - I'm not much of a fan of poetry, but I like your poem and I like your creed, as a poem.

I'm not big into re-writing creeds.

The way I see it, the creeds reflect 'the Christian story'. Like the story-tellers in story-telling cultures, I think it's the church's duty to pass on the creeds faithfully as they are.

What I do not believe is that each individual believer is required to 'believe' every jot and tittle of the creeds. I believe that individual members of the Christian community are allowed to wrestle with them, question them, disbelieve them and get angry at them.

Judy said...

Wow, is THIS turning into a fascinating discussion! I too feel that, while one might want to rewrite the creed(s) for a personal spiritual exercise, the ones we have and pray together across the globe contain an important part of our family story. Not that, as you say, we can't wrestle with it or even say "that no longer speaks to me."

Of course, being a Roman Catholic, I always look to the big Tradition. What interests me is that there is so much there that is not acknowledged. Yet "tradition" is used as a reason for many teachings. Just an example of how so many teachings and traditions are multifaceted, and need re-imagery in the light of the times.

PamBG said...

This *is* a good discussion - thank you everyone :-)

Judy, I like your last sentence. Stunning words; wish I'd thought of them!

Pilgrim said...

I guess I should say that I do still sort of mumble my way through the creeds in church (mumbling being part of the Anglican tradition to which I belong, even if it has largely been supplanted by grumbling these days) — but I only ever join in when they're said in the "We" form, not the "I" form...

I can more or less go along with "We believe" as an expression of the faith of the community of which I am a part — but to state boldly "I believe" would be to lie, and I can't be doing with that...

PamBG said...

Pilgrim, I rather like 'Mumbling and grumbling Anglicans'.

I understand what you're saying.

Brian said...

It seems clear to me that there are other gods that people of non-Christian religions worship.

Over and over in the Old Testament, God (the LORD) told the Israelites not to worship the gods of the other nations, but to worship only Him. The first commandment is "You shall have no other gods before me" (Ex. 20:3).

In the New Testament, the apostle Paul was disturbed to see so many idols (or gods) being worshiped in the city of Athens (Acts 17:16). Because of that, he committed to tell them the good news of Jesus that they might be saved.

As Christians, we can often find some common ground with people of different religions. For example, the apostle Paul noted that the Athenians, like Christians, also believed that we are God's offspring (Acts 17:28). Paul used that fact in his message to the people. He went on to tell them that one can be in a right relationship with the true God and have eternal life only by repenting of ones sin, and putting ones trust in Jesus who rose from the dead (Act 17:30).

A number of Athenian men and women believed the gospel and were saved. I pray that I would have the love and boldness to share Christ as Paul did so that others can be saved.

PamBG said...

Brian - Interesting contribution, thanks. You might be taking the same approach as my friend Sally.

You said: Over and over in the Old Testament, God (the LORD) told the Israelites not to worship the gods of the other nations, but to worship only Him. The first commandment is "You shall have no other gods before me" (Ex. 20:3).

I guess my question is - do these other gods 'really exist'? Does Baal, for instance, really exist? Or are The Faithful commanded not to pray to Baal because that is a deviation from the worship of YHWH? I would say the latter.

You also noted that we can have common ground with those of other faiths. I agree.

If I can continue with my 'Baal' analogy, I guess for me, the question is 'Do I believe that Baal worshippers are worshipping Baal because they intend to worship the One True God? Or do they worship Baal as an active rejection of the One True God?'

I guess I believe that sincere people of the major religions intend to pray to The One True God and that it is not their intention to say 'We know the One True God but intend to reject God and pray to another god.'

espouse said...

I love William P Young's idea in The Shack - Jesus says that "most roads don't lead anywhere...[but] I will travel any road to meet you."

(with regards from a fellow Methodist in mid-Devon, stumbling around Methodist blogs...)

Pilgrim said...

Well that sounds like the Jesus I know. Just this morning I was reading where John has him saying, "I am the way, the truth and the life: no one comes to the father but by me."

It's so easy to read that as exclusivist, isn't it? As putting up barriers — whereas to me, Jesus was/is all about tearing down barriers: I think John captures the essence of that for the particular historical/cultural context he was addressing, but I wonder, if he was writing today, would he have phrased it differently? "I am the way, the truth and the life: all who come to the father do so by me."

A slightly different emphasis that makes a world of difference...

I well remember weeping as I read the scene towards the end of C S Lewis' The Last Battle, where the soldier of Tash finally meets Aslan — I'll say no more in case there's anyone reading who hasn't read it, but if that's you I'd urge you to go read it. Truly mind blowing!

No, whatever little deities may or may not exist, that may or may not distract us along the way, the God who is remains a constant source of surprises...

(Interesting but brief review of The Shack here by Max Turner, Professor of New Testament Studies at London School of Theology).

PamBG said...

Espouse, welcome. I love the William P Young quote. :-)

Tim said...

Great blog! We would like to bring to your attention an event we are hosting....

The Evangelical Alliance, specifically Krish Kandiah, is hosting an informal lunch event for Christian bloggers to network with one another and think through a Christ-like approach to blogging. Please find an invitation attached.

The event will begin at 11am and run through until 2.30pm. There will be a £5 charge for the event, which will cover lunch and resources.

We would be extremely grateful if you could let us know whether you are available to attend by Tuesday 16 September.

I look forward to hearing from you.

Kind regards
Alexandra Lilley

Churches In Mission Project Co-ordinator
Email: a.lilley@eauk.org
Tel (direct line): 0207 207 2109

Evangelical Alliance
Whitefield House
186 Kennington Park Road
London SE11 4BT

Rev Tony B said...

The point about the spectrum of images of God in all religions says a great deal about the range of believers and what they seek in their faith. There are those who will not rest with anything less than fundamentalist certainty, others who are caught by the sense of mystery, and all points in between - and that is true of all religions. The real question is the connection (if any) between the images of God we hold, and the reality which lies behind them. Which is where Pam's question as to what actually exists becomes key.

Brian's comments seem to based on the biblical perception that other people believed in other gods, and made idols of them. There are parts, especially earlier parts of OT tradition, which seem to accept that such gods exist. However, the high point of the prophetic tradition is in Isa.40-55, and there is a recurring theme there that there is only Yahweh, and the gods imaged in the idols do not exist - indeed, the Hebrew is so dismissive that I have always felt translating it into English is not enough; it really needs to be translated into Geordie: "they're just a load o'little nowts!" (Isa.44:18, Geordie paraphrase - yes, that does reveal my personal bias, but what the heck!).

Idolatry is about false images, and that concerns false mental images as much as false metal images. In Christ, God gave us his "eikon" (Col.1:15) - Jesus is the clue to what God is really like, the window into his nature. The historic creeds are attempts to unpack that, and they raise their own issues. I have problems with the Nicene Creed as a statement of the truth, partly because it was written in 4th C Neo-Platonic language, and I'm not a 4th C Neo-Platonist, and partly because I am deeply suspicious of the politicking that was going on at Nicea - it seems as if certain parties were rigged against Arius, and his condemnation had little to do with matters of truth.

However, I can affirm the Creeds as shared statements of faith, as markers on our journey to a deeper understanding of God.

Long enough, I think - I'm never sure whether a comment which is longer than the original post is a serious blogging faux-pas! :)

PamBG said...

Tony - I know what you mean by long blog posts, but I don't mind them on my blog. I'm very much enjoying this conversation and anything that furthers it is welcome.

As usual, I agree with everything you said. (I should note that I don't have the expertise to 'agree' with your comments on Isa 44:18 but I appreciate the information and agree with your resulting conclusion).

Brian said...

Hi Pam,

You said, I guess my question is - do these other gods 'really exist'? Does Baal, for instance, really exist? Or are The Faithful commanded not to pray to Baal because that is a deviation from the worship of YHWH? I would say the latter.

I would argue that the “gods” exist, but that they are no equal to the true God, YHWH, whose Son is the Lord Jesus Christ.

The magicians in Moses’ time performed some similar acts as Moses (e.g. turning the Nile into blood and calling up frogs), but they weren’t empowered by God (Exodus 7:22, 8:7). What (or who) was the source of their power? God, in speaking about the Passover, said, “On that same night I will pass through Egypt…and I will bring judgment on all the gods of Egypt. I am the LORD (Ex. 12:12, emphasis mine)”.

The magicians were empowered by their “gods” to do false miracles. Jesus, Himself, said that this kind of thing would happen again on a large scale in the end times: “false Christs and false prophets will appear and perform great signs and miracles to deceive even the elect — if that were possible” (Matt. 24:24). It would seem that “gods” other than YHWH were the source of power of these false Christs and false prophets.

Who are these gods? Moses speaks about the Israelites rejection of YHWH: “They made him jealous with their foreign gods and angered him with their detestable idols. They sacrificed to demons, which are not God — gods they had not known, gods that recently appeared, gods your fathers did not fear” (Deut. 32:16-17, emphasis mine). These “gods” exist, but they are demons—evil spirits aligned with Satan and his kingdom. Psalm 106:36-37 and 1 Corinthians 10:20 also refer to people worshiping idols and in so doing are really offering sacrifices to demons.

You said, I guess I believe that sincere people of the major religions intend to pray to The One True God and that it is not their intention to say 'We know the One True God but intend to reject God and pray to another god.'

I do believe that many people are sincerely searching for the true God who have not yet found Him. Cornelius in Acts 10 is a great example. God-fearing, devout, gave to the poor, family man—he’s the kind of guy you want in your church. Only one problem: he wasn’t saved!—yet. He didn’t know about Jesus. God miraculously brought the apostle Peter into Cornelius’ life. Peter preached the gospel to Corny and his 50 closest friends and they all got saved. I love it!

You may have heard stories of missionaries in remote places encountering people who had dreams of Jesus or of people coming to tell them the way of salvation. God has given us the message. Let’s give it out so people can come to Jesus and be saved.

Doorman-Priest said...

"I believe in One God, Father Almighty, etc. etc."

To my way of thinking it is the same God, but understood differently.

Watchman said...

Dear PamGB,

Your postings and the subsequent comments have been wonderful to read. In particular, I liked Rev Tony B’s contribution; he elevated the discussion above “my God is better than your God” by implying that idolatry can emerge within any religion, depending upon attitudes and the range of spiritual proclivities amongst believers. Just to pose the question of whether different religions identify different entities as “God” or whether -- like the blind men of Hindustan and the multifarious elephant – there is one entity perceived and understood in various ways through numerous attributes, reveals how interconnected the various extant faiths truly are.

If we accept that each theistic religion attempts to reveal God as fully as possible, but that the conditions of the time and place (such as culture) affect both the form of the revelation and receptivity of the people for it, then we can begin to understand the broad range of variation we find when we compare and contrast religions. We might even characterize religion as progressive in this case, where the stern God of the Old Testament becomes the loving God of the New Testament. God didn’t change in this transition; what changed was humanity’s capacity to appreciate God more fully and to perceive God anew.

When humans concretize beliefs, formalize doctrine, and form a thick crust of dogma over the original words they received from the founders of their faiths, their view of God changes even further, sometimes reinforcing the very selfishness, self-righteousness, and egotism identified as “evil” in the first place. Further, by taking symbolic teachings literally, the symbol becomes elevated ahead of the referent, creating a distorted image of God and establishing exclusivity (“only we have the true path to salvation; you others only partially have it” etc., as some commented on your blog). An objective examination, if such a thing were possible, might indicate that each revealed religion attempts to detach the believers away from selfishness and materialism and thus to uncover their spiritual natures. This seems to be a common element of religions, as is the intensive use of symbolic devices such as parable, similitude, allegory, and metaphor to help the seekers think outside of the materialistic comfort zone they have become accustomed to.

One point you made was in regard to whether God is vengeful and seeks to punish us for wrong doing. It seems to conflict with our understanding of God as merciful. My I offer a Baha’i perspective? The larger context is the existence of evil and its meaning, when God is Good and All-Merciful. This is the theological problem of theodicy. Perhaps we can find a resolution from the Apostle Paul, who wrote in Romans 2:3 as follows:

“Do you not know that the kindness of God is meant to lead you into repentance? But by your hard and unrepentant heart you store up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath and of the revelation of God’s ordinances, Who will requite each one according to his works … .”

To fear God is to understand well the relationships between cause and effect relative to our own thoughts, intentions and actions; and to discover through generation of our own will power that selflessness and loving-kindness build up and reinforce one’s spiritual life, whilst selfishness and rancor destroy it (resulting in “wrath”). Both ways of being reverberate to society at large, one positively towards establishing the Kingdom, the other negatively. The punishment of God is really the consequence of our own actions ("For whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap" as Paul said so well). This knowledge of the cause and effect interaction is reflected in the descent of Adam and Eve (wonderful metaphors for the spiritual condition of humankind) into the “garden” of the knowledge of good and evil, where we find ourselves faced with moral dilemmas and ethical considerations constantly; and where we can implement the guidance provided by the great founders of the world’s religions, individuals who the Baha’is refer to as the Manifestations of God. If we manage to find our way out of the exile in the wilderness of pride; or mount our own crosses to die to our passions and desires; or escape the prison of self; we can begin to discern the image of God latent in the mirrors of our hearts and rid ourselves of the false images that impede our spiritual growth.

I am glad you said that you will accept long comments because this one is not the essence of brevity!