The Word of God and World Religions

By Brandon Gallaher

(This essay was originally delivered as a public talk at the June 2015 Fordham/OTSA conference on the upcoming Great and Holy Council of the Orthodox Church. It was part of a panel on “The Contribution of the Orthodox Church to the Realization of Justice, Freedom, Brotherhood, and Love among Peoples.”)

There is no one topic that is more important than any other for the Council to consider. What is crucial is that it speaks clearly and sympathetically to this moment from the light of Christ that illumines all. Too often we Orthodox speak to the modern world from a sort of nostalgic Byzantinism or an angry certainty when what is needed are the healing and wise words of the Gospel for those whose consciousness is “modern” or “post-modern.” By these terms I mean that the default understanding of reality for contemporary man, including the average Orthodox, involves a disparate and competing plurality of truths as well as a conception of the human being as essentially plastic with no divine end. In our teaching and worship, our ecclesial self-consciousness is “pre-modern.” Part of this self-consciousness is the awareness of a world radiating with the Word and words of God. It is also includes the belief that by contemplating Scripture and the words in their communion with the Word that we can attain to ‘the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ’ (Eph. 4:13). But we rarely attempt to translate this consciousness into the language of the age in which we live or ask whether we might obtain new insights about Orthodoxy from modernity (e.g. gay marriage, evolution).

The topic that best summarizes the deep pluralism of our world is inter-religious dialogue. It is crucial that the Church, without relativizing its claim to be the fullness of truth, has a knowledge of other religious traditions from which basis it can be at peace with its neighbours as well as cooperate with them in a common response to secularism. Simply dismissing other religions as ‘heresies’ (Islam) or ‘demonic delusion’ and ‘idolatry’ (Hinduism and Buddhism) is counterproductive. It is also contrary to the spirit of the Church, which holds, as Justin Martyr expressed it, that whatever was said rightly among all people belongs to us Christians. The seed of the Word who dwelt among us and saved us and whose Body the Church is was implanted in every race of men and through a share in this Word all non-Christian writers can see the truth–if ever so darkly–and elaborate it by invention and contemplation (2 Apol. 8, 10, 13).

Maximus the Confessor argues that there is a logos or divine principle for all the beings and powers of God (e.g. angels, humans) that preceded their creation and guided it (Amb. 7). All these logoi find their coherence in Christ as the one Logos is many logoi. Can we extend this concept to the different world religions?

For example, we might argue that the Holy Spirit is eternally coaxing the tradition of Islam towards the truth of Christ through its logos. This in no way affirms everything Islam teaches. There are aspects of Islam—its rejection of the Incarnation, the cross and resurrection (Qur’an, 3:55, 3:59, 5:157, 19:34-35)—where we must say it has deviated from its guiding principle. But there is truth here such as in its affirmation of the Virgin Birth (3:47, 19:16-21, 21:91) or in its acknowledgement of Jesus as the Messiah, Messenger, Word and Spirit of God (4:171). The guiding principle of Islam (logos) has more or less truthful expressions (tropos) in the religion and its story is not yet finished. Islam only finds its coherence and clarity within Orthodoxy as the Body of the living Logos, but, as a religion, it embodies truth nevertheless.

Things become more obscure once one attempts to see the face of Christ, albeit dimly visible, within non-Abrahamic traditions, like Buddhism. But the challenge needs to be taken up, for if all things hold together in the incarnate Word then He is the watermark of divine love. When the truth of Orthodoxy shines on creation then Jesus is made visible even in something as abstruse as the Ryokai or Two Worlds Mandala of Japanese Shingon Buddhism. The cruciform rationale and meaning of what is apparently Godless then becomes intelligible finding its true direction and shape in its transcendent ground.

Brandon Gallaher is Lecture of Systematic and Comparative Theology at the University of Exeter.