Into the lions’ den I know, but here goes… And it’s that time of year so show some goodwill…
Firstly, I write to explain: it’s my personal viewpoint, no one else’s, and neither to convince nor argue into belief. Second I am in some ways a reluctant Christian: it’s against my naturally confrontational and driven personality, but I’m a better person for my faith even if it is a struggle. I was 30 years ago a strident atheist having rebelled against my upbringing, but bit by bit as I studied for my doctorate in Classics my work shredded my atheism, fading it into agnosticism, then deism and finally into an unorthodox orthodox protestant Christianity informed initially by scholarship and latterly, after many years in business, by life experience and the gaining of, hopefully, some wisdom.
It was Coloniescross’ recent rather dismissive comment about Christianity (something quite out of character) that prompted me to write because it revealed to me than even a thoughtful person such as CC has little understanding of what is the founding tenet of our entire culture and civilisation. I speak as an educated Hellenist who appreciates that it was the coming of Christianity that took the achievements of the Greeks ,and Romans, and gave them humanity and new heights of achievement. That all three are marginalised today by our enemies is no surprise at all because to destroy us they need to eradicate these foundation stones of our very being.
And so as I worked my way up various corporate ladders, mainly doing turnarounds and putting in new strategies, raised a family etc, I continued to read and study voraciously, trying to utilise secular scholarship to better understand my faith, its meaning and its significance for the world, and even the pattern of history. This search has taken me into astrophysics, evolutionary biology, the dawn of civilisation (especially the Sumerians) and Scholastic philosophy. My wife’s eyes roll whenever she asks me for a present list as she knows it will comprise obscure books which will fill up ever more shelves.
I don’t claim by the way to be an expert in any of these things other than my own subject, but rather an interested layman looking for challenge. Why challenge? Because the pursuit of Christianity is a struggle, a hard path, a true Pilgrim’s Progress, something the modern western candyfloss church has shied away from because it involves wrestling with doubt within and without. No one can be born a Christian, you can be born into a Christian environment, but at some point you have to make a choice and go on reaffirming that choice every day because it seems the fullest explanation of everything around you, not perfect, but the best approximation, incomplete certainly, but as St Paul said, “But today we see through a glass darkly…”
Today I want to deal briefly with two things:
1. Why did the incarnation of Jesus happen when and where it did?
2. How does Christianity sit in relation to other belief systems and faiths?
I could write on another issue every day for twenty years and still not cover the subject adequately. Christianity is extraordinary and unique in the depth and breadth of its theological and philosophical scholarship. For two thousand years, fed by the Greek search of wisdom and knowledge it absorbed in its earliest days, it has turned itself inside out to better understand the mind of God as revealed in the Incarnation, Death and Resurrection, and to reconcile these things with the world we observe and with other learning.
1. Why did the Incarnation happen when and where it did?
I did a talk on this to a mainly Christian audience a few months ago. People were stunned, not because I said anything heretical, but because I simply pointed out from a historical perspective some questions and answers that no one had ever asked themselves before.
The timing of the incarnation is so obvious it’s staggering in its simplicity and few therefore consider it. Around 4 BC to 1 AD Jesus was born in Judaea which had only in recent decades become a Roman Protectorate on its way to becoming a Province after Herod’s death. This process was a common Roman strategy in which the last king of a client kingdom bequeathed his kingdom to the Republic. The greatest of these was Attalid Pergamon and the most familiar to us the kingdom of the Iceni. This was the final missing piece in the jigsaw that meant that the Roman Empire controlled all the shores of the Mediterranean, and stretched from the Rhine to the Nile’s second cataract and from the Euphrates to the English Channel. One law, one sovereignty, one authority, for the first time united the Mediterranean and most of Europe.
To the east was the Zoroastrian Parthian Empire of the Arcasids stretching to the borders of Han China and India, with trade routes stretching far down the East African seaboard and reaching modern Indonesia and the Baltic. For the first time in human history it was possible to trade and travel largely safely from the English Channel to China. It was a unique and early moment that was not to last more than a few centuries.
So if one wanted to start an idea that would spread readily around the world, about 1 AD was as early as one could go.
So why Judaea? A look at any map will tell you. Judaea is effectively the land bridge between Africa and the Mediterranean, and Asia and the Red Sea and Persian Gulf. It was the crux of the new integrated international world of the day, on the boundaries of the Greek speaking Near East and Eastern Mediterranean, the Aramaic speaking Near East of Syria and Iraq, and the Iranian languages of Persia and central Asia. If one wanted to promulgate a message that could spread around the world it was the obvious place to start.
So the timing and place of the Incarnation are either blind chance or deterministic genius, even providential.
2. How does Christianity sit in relation to other belief systems and faiths?
This is where I get a little more unorthodox and controversial. Assuming for one moment that you believe Jesus was who he said he was and who his immediate followers believed him to be, the Messiah, or Son of God, whatever that means, but at least a fully divine entity with some incomprehensible and paradoxical relationship with the Creator God such that they are one unity, but different in some way.
[A brief interlude: Theologians have been terrible at explaining this paradox because we can’t, it’s beyond our comprehension just as the paradoxes of quantum mechanics are beyond the ability of human understanding. I would use an analogy. The best Sci-Fi series for me is without doubt Babylon 5 in that it grapples with profound truths. In it one of the main characters, an immortal alien of the Vorlons, has the ability to sub-divide his consciousness and place part of it within a human being without the latter having any awareness of it, but is still suggestible by the alien, while the alien is still connected in its own consciousness. I’ve often suspected that the Director based this on the mystery of the Trinity and it’s the best analogy of which I am aware.]
Jesus clearly placed himself in the Jewish tradition by claiming descent from King David and declaring himself to be the Messiah and Son of Man and God. He said that he came not to overturn the Law of Moses, but to fulfil it and to complete prophecy (perhaps another time I might try to explain what that means, but it’s not what Jews understood it to mean). So he was in effect declaring Judaism complete, the cocoon broken and the butterfly emerging. Therefore the Christian understanding of modern Judaism must be that it is an ossified and obsolete throwback, something of great value once, but now of limited value, if any. There can therefore be no true Prophets after Jesus according to orthodox Christianity.
Another pre-existing faith, that of the Zoroastrians, is worth a mention. CS Lewis once said that if he were not a Christian he would be a Zoroastrian. I agree with him. The origins of the founding Prophet Zoroaster are lost in time, most probably around 600 BC, but claims have been made for as far back as 1800 BC. What is clear is that the Persians were Zoroastrian by 550 BC when Cyrus the Great created the first great Persian Empire stretching from India to the Bosphorus. Cyrus was a monotheist, and not a dualist as some people wrongly understand Zoroastrianism to be. When he conquered Babylon he found the exiled and imprisoned Jewish elite there and freed them to go home, restored their lands and helped them rebuild the Temple. Why? Because he saw something in Judaism he recognised – another monotheistic faith with a not dissimilar set of laws, ethics and beliefs. If anything, Zoroaster’s strictures against violence etc are closer to those of Jesus than anything in the Old Testament, and if I as Christian accept the divine inspiration of the Jewish Prophets, then I should have little difficulty in accepting Zoroaster likewise.
And now we get interesting because I asked myself the question ‘why would a God that wanted to communicate with humanity without revealing himself directly, because that would destroy the gift of free will, not do so earlier, and only then in certain parts of the world and not others?’ But what if he has been communicating all along (‘the still small voice of calm’ of Moses etc), but Prophets being human, are imperfect vessels. Some perhaps misunderstood the message, others ignored it or ran away (Jonah), others got nowhere or were killed, but some had some impact, even if what they said or taught was scrambled or misunderstood by later generations. Might that explain the Buddha, Zoroaster, Confucius, others no longer known, the apparent commonalities of many of their teachings? So perhaps these faiths are to be regarded in the same manner as Judaism, as having some of the essence of the truth, but may be obsolete and incomplete, but not false.
So what then of faiths post-dating the Incarnation? Well Jesus said “by their fruits you will know them” and he warned enough about false prophets in the future to come and the devastation they would bring.
Some later faiths, such as Sikhism and the Bahai, seem to have some of the root of the matter in them, a desire to do good, and are perhaps manifesting later influences of the earlier faiths and the Bahai were certainly heavily influenced by Christianity and are probably syncretists. At best they are equivalent to Zoroastrianism or Judaism, but at worst, by subsequently denying the divinity of Christ, they are foolish distractions, but not inherently evil.
And so we come on the largest of the post-Incarnation religions. The early Sura are redolent of most of the other faiths, monotheistic, expressing similar sentiments on morality and goodwill to others etc, and are arguably syncretist, mixing Christianity with Judaism and native moon god worship.
And then it all changes, as the vastly more populous and later Sura are completely different in tone and teaching, and are infused with the opposite spirit, hatred, viciousness, cruelty and the urge for conquest and slaughter. Unfortunately, Islamic scholarship teaches that the later Sura override the earlier. It’s almost if as if there are two Mohammeds, a peaceful syncretist teacher and then a later blood crazed warlord with a conviction that he was God’s Anointed and whatever he did was right.
Now recall when Jesus was tempted in the wilderness by Satan who promised him the rule of all the earth if he submitted to him, a rule that would have been founded on principles utterly alien to those of God. Jesus, as the Messiah, rejected the offer. But what if early on Mohammed was made the same offer as Christ, but being a mere man, fell prey to temptation? The dichotomy is so striking, so profound, that I can’t but wonder, and everything that Islam has produced subsequently is so much more redolent of Hell than Heaven.
“By their fruits you shall know them.” Matthew 7.16.
Any avowed Christian who says that Islam has any commonality with Christianity is therefore a heretic either knowingly or foolishly. A half-truth is far more deadly than an outright lie: it’s harder to refute, and so Islam has adopted some of the outward marks of Christianity better to destroy it, but the spirits of Jesus and Mohammed could not be further apart.
Not for nothing does Islam celebrate the use of deceit to further its progress and not for nothing is Satan sometimes known as ‘The Deceiver’. Not for nothing did Jesus warn of false prophets to come, the greatest being the Anti-Christ. If he meant anyone, it was surely Mohammed.
I apologise if I have bored you or wasted your time, but hopefully I have helped stimulate your thinking about the founding faith of our civilisation and clarified the dividing lines between it and its opponent/s.
Have a peaceful Christmas. I think we’re going to need it more than ever.