The following descriptions of Jews contrasted with Christians in the Roman Empire inspire my thoughts today:
“Rome respected Judaism because the religion was ancient and enduring. Jews had survived opposition for over a thousand years and, in spite of that opposition, had spread throughout the Roman Empire and beyond.… Roman authorities did not require Jews to venerate the gods (say, through sacrificial offerings in local temples) or to serve in the military, and Romans viewed and used at least some local synagogues as civic centers, which implies that Judaism served the larger Roman public, however modestly. Jews were far more integrated into Roman society than it might at first appear.
“…. Jews worshiped one God, Yahweh, to whom they were exclusively devoted; followed a rigorous set of ethical and religious practices; and refused to participate in pagan rituals and festivals. They observed a way of life that set them culturally apart. The Jewish rite of circumcision kept Romans who were attracted to Judaism from wholesale conversion. Jewish kosher laws required that Jews shop in their own stores, their dress codes made them noticeable, and their commitment to marry only fellow Jews prevented them from assimilating into Roman culture.”
“Christians appeared to live like everyone else. They spoke the local language, lived in local neighborhoods, wore local styles of clothing, ate local food, shopped in local markets, and followed local customs. ‘For Christians cannot be distinguished from the rest of the human race by country or language or custom. They do not live in cities of their own; they do not use a peculiar form of speech; they do not follow an eccentric manner of life.’ At a surface level Christians appeared to blend in to Roman society quite seamlessly.
“Yet they were different, too, embodying not simply a different religion but a different—and new—way of life. ‘They live in their own countries, but only as aliens. They have a share in everything as citizens, and endure everything as foreigners. Every foreign land is their fatherland, and yet for them every fatherland is a foreign land.’ They functioned as if they were a nation within a nation, culturally assimilated yet distinct at the same time. ‘Yet, although they live in Greek and barbarian cities alike, as each man’s lot has been cast, and follow the customs of the country in clothing and food and other matters of daily living, at the same time they give proof of the remarkable and admittedly extraordinary constitution of their own commonwealth.’”
This is the fascinating description of Christians from an anonymous letter writer in the Second Century to Diognetus, a Roman official, which the writer of the book from which the excerpt is taken compares to the Roman view of the Jews in the same time period. The comparison inspires a number of thoughts that are worth exploring.
Os Guinness talks about differences between Christianity and other religions in an interview with Justin Brierley a few years ago. He made a statement that Christianity is the only “traveling religion”.
He observed that Hinduism began in India and remains primarily in India. Buddhism began in India and remains primarily in India and Eastern Asia. Islam began in the Middle East and remains primarily in the Middle East. Christianity, however, began in the Middle East. Then it moved to Europe; and then it moved to North America; and now Christianity is growing fastest in Africa and Latin America and Asia.
While I think Guinness overstates the case little bit, he got me thinking about the how the major world religions have spread. For instance, Islam, which rivals Christianity in numbers, grew very rapidly during the life and immediately after the death of Muhammad. It spread throughout the centuries into Europe and down into Africa and more recently across Southern Asia.
To that extent, Islam rivals Christianity in its “travel” around the world. But the spread of Islam looked different than the spread of Christianity. This is the significant fact, in my opinion – not so much that Christianity has traveled through all the world (though it has) like no other religion.
I have been “collecting” the stories of people who became followers of Jesus from all sorts of different backgrounds, including different religious backgrounds. Some of the more interesting and compelling stories are from former Muslims.
In addition, the same coercive practices that grew Islam in the previous centuries are in operation today. While conquest isn’t broadly practiced as it was in previous centuries, strong prohibitions exist in predominantly Muslim countries and areas that inhibit people from leaving Islam. Families disown former Muslims and, in extreme cases, kill them. Those same inhibitions extend even into the west where the same cultural influences discourage leaving Islam or denouncing Islam.
For that reason, the testimonies of Muslims who become followers of Jesus Christ are remarkable and poignant. Afshin Ziafat’s story is such an example. His father disowned him immediately when Afshin admitted that he has become a Christian as a young man in Houston. The decision cost him his father and his family.
One of the hallmarks of the Muslim turned Christian phenomenon of the 21st Century is the way in which so many former Muslims become Christians. A very high percentage of those stories include experiences like visions and dreams of Jesus. Even Islamic radicals and ISIS jihadists have had these experiences that changed their lives. You can watch them tell their stories in their own words on the Muslim testimony page and Muslim/ISIS testimony page.
A social media friend recently responded to a blog article I wrote, Are Christians Hypocrites, by asking whether I thought that “higher religious subscription correlated to fewer societal ills”. I think the answer is clearly, yes! (For a skeptic who agrees with me, see this dialogue on the podcast Unbelievable!)
But I know what he was getting at. Intermixed with that “progress” in the Western world are deep grains of corruption and evil in which the Church was not only complicit, but intimately involved.
My friend is a skeptic and an atheist. He believes that the world is better off without religion. He is critical of Christianity, and let’s face it: “the Church” has created its share of societal ills.
People are often critical of Christians and Christianity with some basis in fact for its checkered past. Christians often view that history differently than non-Christians, but a candid person must admit that corruption in “the church” evidenced in history is undeniable.
For skeptics, this vein of corruption running through the history of the Church”spoils the whole thing, undermines the truth of Christianity and justifies their rejection of it and the God Christians profess. The fact that popular history focuses on that corruption, to the exclusion of all the good that Christianity has brought to the world, doesn’t negate the fact that such corruption exists.
When my friend posed his loaded question to me, I suspect that he sees a correlation between religion and societal ills, and I can’t deny it.
But there is much more to the analysis. From my cursory perspective (I am no historical or ecclesiastical scholar), that corruption correlates strongly and directly with the “marriage” of church and state power. I think that Lord Acton was right when he said, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” When the church becomes intertwined with kings and kingdoms, the influences of power, wealth and all that goes with it colors the church, and the church is inevitably corrupted by it.
Ravi Zacharias has spoken to orthodox theological scholars of Islam and orthodox theological scholars of Christianity around the world. He speaks from experience when he says that those orthodox scholars who know the sacred texts do not say that the God of the Quran and the God of the Bible are the same deity. Pluralism is a positive and important cultural value, and we can value pluralism without sacrificing distinctions or truth.
We don’t embrace the beliefs of “Flat-earthers” in the name of pluralism. They are free to believe what they want to believe, but we shouldn’t let the flat earth position affect how we do science or how we view the world because of pluralism. An appreciation and respect for different cultures and ways of viewing and living in the world should not dictate an embrace of positions that are inherently contradictory with each other or compel us to abandon reason or truth.
In the clamor and noise of the connected world in which we live, we are tempted to minimize or ignore differences. We often only see a rudimentary and distorted view of things, and we are apt, therefore, to come to incomplete and inaccurate conclusions without a nuanced understanding of those things. We might be tempted to think that all major world religions are fundamentally geared in the same direction, being merely different approaches to the same end. We might be tempted to think that Christianity is a very politically orientated and conservative, western worldview that is arbitrarily exclusive and, therefore, elitist.
Ravi Zacharias grew up Hindu in a world in which Buddhism, Islam, and other religions were more prevalent than Christianity. His background lends some credibility to his observation that no religion offers redemption like Christianity does. Other world religions offer a way of attainment that must be earned. Christianity is unique in this respect in its view of God and our relation to God, and Christianity is uniquely accessible to all people in all places to the same extent.
I didn’t want to read the NY Times article, What Religion Would Jesus Belong To, by Nicholas Kristof. Just as I suspected, the article lacked a deep understanding of Christianity. It lumps Christianity together with other religions of the world in a pluralistic mush. I don’t know the depth of the author’s understanding of Christianity, but it didn’t show in the article (though he claims a conservative Christian background).
Still, the article makes a good point… and I shouldn’t be so reluctant to admit it.
American churches don’t reflect “the Jesus we meet in the Gospels”. Never mind that the author’s proof is another NY Times article complaining of the Christians of the Republican Party. The author seems to equate Jesus with the current political and moral landscape, as if Jesus would condone it, as if the modern American church is the exact representation of Jesus. If the modern American church doesn’t accurately reflect the Jesus we meet in the Gospels, it isn’t a reflection on Jesus; it’s a reflection on the modern American church. Continue reading “The Jesus We Meet in the Gospels”→
How many people have claimed to be God and have people wondering for centuries whether the claim is true? The list is short! While many people have claimed to be God or a god, most of them have only left people wondering what they were smoking or what the diagnosis is!
I often recall the World Religion class I took in college and the fact that Buddhism was particularly attractive to me at that time. I entered that class thinking that truth could be found in many places, all around the world, in all the religions, philosophies and cultures. I still think there is truth to that. After all, truth is truth wherever it is found.
At the same time, I hear people say that all religions are essentially the same or that they are all the same in the essence. I didn’t find that to be true when I studied the word religions in college (though my professor suggested the same sentiment), and I don’t find it to be true now. While there are some similarities and themes that run through many if not most of the world religions, the differences significant and fundamental.
A comparison between Buddhism and Christianity is one example.