Words I never heard in the Bible (6)

The insufficiency of revelation

Buddha. Now there’s name you don’t hear often in the Bible. Krishna’s another. And Aphrodite, Zeus, Hermes, Apollo. Some Gods are mentioned, the Baals, Moloch, to whom children are sacrificed, Astarte the Venus of the near East, but all are mentioned simply to be condemned as idols, as no-beings, as manufactured distraction from Yahweh, the one true God.

Early in the composition of the Bible, Yahweh is praised as the High God who is above all the Gods, signalling a recognition of a hierarchy of heaven, in which the God of Israel is top dog. The faith that Yahweh was the creator of the universe, however, led in the direction of monotheism, and the conviction that the Gods of other nations were unreal. As the Scots version of the Psalm has it:

For all the Gods are idols dumb/ which blinded nations fear

But our God is the God by whom/ the heavens created were.

To the imagination that produced a God who made uncongenial demands for communal justice, and who stood above nature as its creator, the gods of Israel’s neighbours might well have seemed trivial. This meant however that Israel saw God as the inventor of the people, rather than vice versa; which in turn led to an abdication of responsibility for the nature of its God, who for example, commanded the ethnic cleansing of the peoples who had formerly occupied the land of promise. These commands are extant in scripture and are not, as far as I am aware, officially disavowed by modern Judaism or any mainstream Christian church.

And while the followers of Jesus believed they should take his good news of God to all peoples in the world, they maintained their Jewish contempt for the gods of these peoples, so that with few exceptions, until the late 19th century, Christian churches showed no positive interest in any other faith.

This is an astonishment to a believer such as I who has been helped by the Hindu Shiva to notice the creative and destructive dance of cosmic energy, by the Sikh Guru Nanak to value the ministry of communal eating open to all strangers, by the Jain teachers to comprehend the equality of all living beings, by the Prophet Muhammed to fight for the justice of God on earth, and by the Buddha to understand that all of our realities including Gods are produced by the interaction of humanity with its environment. Yet I am still a follower of Jesus. Yet again, I think I am a better follower of Jesus by virtue of what I have learned from these other religions.

An open-minded study of world religions helped me to identify in my own faith those religious motifs that are common to most; and those that are unique to Christianity. It gave me a critical perspective on Christianity and a new appreciation of its originality. Above all it gave me an understanding of the insufficiency of orthodox christianity, in its dishonest closure of revelation at a fixed point in the past, and its lack of interest in pursuing the truth of Jesus beyond its own definitions.

Perhaps my relationship,with the Zen master Thich Nhat Hahn might be a useful example. He has written beautifully of many aspects of Jesus’ life and teaching which he affirms. But he ignores, and is a little embarrassed by, his suffering and death, because for him there is no possible positive meaning in suffering. I understand his conviction and completely disagree with it. But with him I wonder at the ease with which Christians assert the eternal value of a Roman torture; what are all those crosses doing? Buddhism is to do with avoiding, minimising, exiting from suffering, which is an important human skill, but just because of that wisdom, it fails to value the bearing and sharing of suffering. I think that the great Buddhist teacher and I have things we can learn from each other, but I’m not sure if he would agree.

Usually however, those who know best their own traditions of faith also know their limitations, their insufficiency. This knowledge is an essential mark of the health of all traditions of faith. Placing a full stop at the end of a creed is like placing the stone on Jesus’ tomb: finis, caput, done, no more from this source. But hallelujah, he is alive to contradict all claims to finality, even those made in his name.

1 Comment

  1. I totally and completely love this personal statement. How narrow the existence that most Christians live! Thank you for shattering any illusions of sufficiency and exclusivity that I may have still harboured in the depths of my subconscious. Hooray for insufficiency!! Great stuff here.


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