Beliefnet
At the Intersection of Faith and Culture

Many self-identified (though not necessarily practicing) Christians, or at least those living in the contemporary Western world, tend to think that the existence of other religious and philosophical traditions somehow threatens the unique claims of Christianity.

While I won’t bother rehashing it here, in my last essay I made an argument designed to show that this way of thinking is as bogus as it is popular.

What, then, is Christianity’s relationship to other philosophical and religious traditions?

Contrary to what many suppose, for much of their history, and beginning from very early on, Christians have steadily maintained that there is indeed truth to be found disseminated well beyond the parameters of their faith.  From this perspective, matters couldn’t be otherwise.

Consider, it is Protestant Christianity—which didn’t emerge upon the scene until rather late in the life of the faith—that affirmed the principle of “Sola Scriptura” (“Scripture Alone”).  In stark contrast, from the emergence of the Church in the first century and straight through to the present day, the Catholic tradition has insisted upon another principle: the Word of God alone.

God’s Word is not limited to the Bible.  How could it be?  As John informs us in the prologue to the fourth Gospel, it is by way of the Word of God that all things came to be.  But the Word of God is God, specifically, Christ, God the Son.  Now, God is Truth.  Truth is a Person, and this Person is the Creator of the heavens and the Earth.

As such, creation bears the impress of its Creator.

More exactly, the finger prints, so to speak, of the Word of God, Who is Truth, are all over creation, for the Word is Incarnate in it.

The Word of God, Who is God, can never contradict Himself.  Because God is Truth, it is impossible, then, for Truth to ever contradict Truth.

The Greek term that the Evangelist originally used and that is somewhat misleadingly translated into English as “Word” is “Logos.”  Logos refers, essentially, to order.  The Greeks, as epitomized by Hesiod’s The Theogony and Homer’s The Odyssey, held that the world was born in chaos.  St. John’s Gospel spares neither a single moment nor syllable in repudiating this notion.

The world was created by God, Who is Logos.

This being so, it should come as no surprise that from practically its inception, Christian thinkers recognized the compatibility, at least up to a point, between Christianity and non-Christian forms of philosophy.  In the second century, Justin Martyr remarked:

“We have been taught that Christ is the firstborn of God, and we have proclaimed that he is the Logos, in whom every race of people have shared.” Martyr undoubtedly takes his reasoning a step too far when he adds that “those who live according to the Logos are Christians, even though they may have been counted as atheists” (emphases added).  However, he recognizes that while “the lawyers and philosophers” of the pagan world “articulated” truth only “by finding and reflecting upon some aspect of the Logos,” because “they did not know the Logos—which is Christ—in its entirety, they often contradicted themselves.”

Justin Martyr concludes that “all writers were able to see the truth darkly, on account of the implanted seed of the Logos which was grafted into them.”

Clement of Alexandria wrote that prior to the advent of Christ “philosophy was necessary to the Greeks for righteousness.” And even after the Logos assumed flesh, philosophy continued to serve a vital function in that “it assists those who come to faith by way of demonstration, as a kind of preparatory training for true religion.”

Since “God is the source of all good things,” philosophy too is from God, particularly inasmuch as it is a “schoolmaster” meant “to bring the Greeks to Christ” and which would find “its perfection” in Him.

In the fourth century, the greatest of all Christian philosophers, the inimitable Augustine of Hippo, insisted that “we must not reject…anything which is true and consistent with our faith [.]”  Rather, Christians “must claim it for our own use”—even while recognizing that the pagans “possess it unlawfully.”

The Egyptians, Augustine notes, were in possession of “idols and heavy burdens, which the children of Israel hated and from which they fled; however, they also possessed vessels of gold and silver and clothes which our forbears, in leaving Egypt, took for themselves in secret, intending to use them in a better manner [.]”  Similarly, “pagan learning is not entirely made up of false teachings and superstitions [.]”

Augustine elaborates: “It [pagan learning] contains also some excellent teachings, well suited to be used by truth, and excellent moral values.” Moreover, “some truths are even found among them which relate to the worship of the one God.”

These teachings of the pagans that are true and consistent with Christianity are “their gold and their silver, which they did not invent themselves, but which they dug out of the mines of the providence of God, which are scattered throughout the world [.]”

Indeed, Plato and Aristotle, courtesy of the philosophers of late antiquity and the middle ages, respectively, exerted an immeasurable influence over the development of Christian theology.

There is truth in other religious and philosophical traditions, but only Christianity has truth in its fullness.

Even without the benefit of divine revelation, the pagans, both in Europe and beyond, were able to partake of the Logos of God.

As has long been noted, the Greeks, for all of the variety of ideas that proliferated among them, were largely united in their “logocentrism,” their belief that the visible world of mutable beings depended upon and derived its intelligibility from a changeless world of being that ordered it.

Among the pre-Socratic philosophers (the first of the West’s philosophers who preceded Socrates), Heraclitus—who, struck by what he took to be the relentless and ubiquitous nature of change, memorably remarked that one can never step in the same river twice—was the first to theorize about what he expressly called “the Logos” of the world. While change is everywhere, changes weren’t random but, rather, occurred in orderly ways in accordance with the Logos.

Anaxagoras is another pre-Socratic who saw order in the universe and saw it as emanating from what he referred to as Nous, or Mind, i.e. the principle or entity that shifts and organizes into ever new combinations the indefinite number of fundamental “stuffs” that compose the cosmos.

And Parmenides, though admittedly guilty of having made an eccentric claim—there are no beings, no change, just one, seamless, homogenous Being—discovered that from nothing, you get nothing: Whatever is, is, and whatever is not, is not.

What the pre-Socratics failed to notice, though, and what they couldn’t have been expected to have noticed, is that whether they called it Logos, Nous, Being, or anything else, this most basic organizing principle whose presence they detected in the universe is a Person.

Plato argued that there existed one supreme, fundamental thing that is the Ground for all else that exists. This ultimate Being, Plato deduced, is immaterial, without beginning, immutable, indestructible, and eternal.  It is what he called “the Form of the Good.”

Plato failed to see that the Good is a Person.

Aristotle, using reason, concluded that, in order to account for the motion of all finite things in the universe, there must exist a first mover, an “Unmoved Mover.”  This being Aristotle identified with God, it’s true.  But Aristotle’s God is a deistic God: It does nothing and can do nothing but contemplate its own self-sufficiency for all eternity.

Aristotle failed to see that his Unmoved Mover is a Person.

In the East, the proponents of what the world would call Hinduism discovered that the human being’s desire for unlimited life, knowledge, and joy is nothing less than the person’s longing for God.  Hindus, however, failed to see that Infinite Life, Wisdom, and Joy constitute the essence of a Person, a Creator-God, as opposed to an impersonal pantheistic substance.

In China, Lao Tzu, the founder of Taoism, remarked upon the Tao.  For Lao Tzu and those who he inspired, the Tao (the Way) is an impersonal force that pervades and orders every detail of the entirety of the cosmos.   Like his Western counterparts, Lao Tzu too didn’t realize that inasmuch as the world is intelligent, and the world is as it is because of the Tao, the latter must be intelligent, and, thus, a Person.

The Tao to which Lao Tzu refers, though he didn’t realize it, is a Person.

The Tao is Christ.

Truth can never contradict itself.  Many of the claims made by the world’s metaphysical traditions overlap with one another, and the truth of all non-Christian perspectives reflects awareness on the part of the adherents of those perspectives of the Logos or Tao.  It is due to either an inability or an unwillingness to recognize that this supreme organizing principle is Christ that accounts for why the proponents of these views are not yet Christian.

Only on the assumption—the patently bogus assumption—that truth, when it comes to matters of ultimate reality (“religion”), is as substantive and subjective as taste could anyone think to conclude that because there is a variety of religious claims, they are all equally legitimate.  It shouldn’t take the reader much to see such logic for the illogic that it is.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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