Early Christian thinking on non-Christian religions was conditioned by the official paganism of the Roman Empire, Greek philosophy, Christianity’s relationships with Judaism and flourishing mystery cults. Later, Orthodoxy had extensive historical experience, often but not entirely negative, as a religious minority under non-Christian regimes in Persia, the Middle East and the Ottoman Empire. Christian communities under Muslim rule were frequently in a survival mode, which made theological reflection on the meaning of religious diversity in God’s plan for salvation next to impossible. Only in recent times have Orthodox begun to consider the theological significance of religious diversity, especially as Orthodoxy is increasingly challenged with this reality both in countries of Orthodox immigration in Western Europe and North America, and increasingly in countries of Orthodox tradition.
Some early Christian thinkers had a cautiously positive view concerning the presence of elements of truth in pagan philosophy. The most important patristic idea concerning non-Christian religions is perhaps from St. Justin Martyr, who uses the Hellenistic notion of the “seeds of the Logos” (logos spermatikos) in a Christian sense, meaning (most likely) that aspects of Christian truth are present in the ancient Greek philosophers. For Justin, pagan philosophers such as Socrates and Plato had a certain knowledge of truth, but the fullness of truth resides only in Christianity (Second Apology, 8; 10; 13). This strand of thinking is also present in Clement of Alexandria, Athanasius of Alexandria, Gregory of Nazianzus, Augustine of Hippo and John of Damascus.
But a critical evaluation of other religions, inheriting the negative attitude of the Old Testament towards idolatry, also found support in early Christianity. Tertullian represents this strain of early Christian thought, seeing in other religions only the work of Satan and considering pagan gods as demons. Tertullian nonetheless recognizes that on some points of morality and virtue, the philosophers have the same teachings as Christians (Apology, 23; 26).
These two strands of ancient Christian thinking about pagan philosophy and non-Christian religions are represented in modern Orthodox thought preeminently by Metropolitan Georges Khodr of Mount Lebanon and Archbishop Anastasios Yannoulatos of Albania on the one hand, and Fr. Seraphim Rose on the other.
Georges Khodr argues for a vision of the Church as “the instrument of the mystery and the salvation of the nations.” He sees the Church’s task as “to reveal to the world of the religions the God who is hidden within it, in anticipation of the final concrete unfolding and manifestation of the Mystery” (“Christianity in a Pluralistic World,” in The Ecumenical Review 23.2, 1971).
For Anastasios Yannoulatos those who have different beliefs are also “‘children of God,’ created in ‘in God’s image,’ and hence our brothers and sisters. God is the Father of us all.” Yannoulatos advances three key concepts for an Orthodox theology of religions: the “universal radiance of God’s glory”: there is but one God, even if people have widely-diverging conceptions about God. Secondly, all humans are ontological equal, having a common origin and destiny, and sharing in different ways in divine revelation: “The universal character of divine revelation to humanity is related to our innate religious sense.” Yannoulatos’ third principle is universal divine providence: “God has never stopped caring for the whole world that he created”; God’s covenants with Adam and Eve and with Noah, are universal and permanent: “All human beings… are in a relationship with God through some previous covenant to which he himself set his own seal” (Facing the World: Orthodox Christian Essays on Global Concerns, 2003).
Seraphim Rose inherits the Tertullian strand of early Christian thinking on non-Christian religions. His main concern in his book Orthodoxy and the Religion of the Future (1975) is to expose forms of religious and quasi-religious beliefs and spirituality which spread in the United States after World War II, including Islam, Hinduism, yoga, zen, transcendental meditation, Hare Krishna, Maharaj-ji, the charismatic revival, the New Age movement, the Jonestown Sect and UFOs. Rose’s objective, admirable in itself, is to warn Orthodox about the risk of straying from Orthodoxy represented by these movements. But Rose goes beyond this to denounce Orthodox participation in the ecumenical movement and in inter-religious dialogue, writing that those who dialogue with non-Christian religions “have already departed so far from Christianity as to be virtual pagans: worshipers of the god of this world, Satan.” His main target is none other than Georges Khodr, whom he calls “the avant-garde of Orthodox apostates” for speaking of “the ‘spiritual riches’ and ‘authentic spiritual life’ of the non-Christian religions.” Other Orthodox anti-ecumenists have not focused on non-Christians, but the logic of their position suggests that they would not see any possibility of salvation for non-Christians.
Orthodox thinking on religious pluralism is still in its infancy, but this is an increasingly imperative subject for the theological agenda. There is a persistent temptation, following Tertullian, exacerbated by the persecution and killing of Christians in several Middle Eastern and Asian countries, to denounce other religions as “the work of the devil.” But such a simplistic theology cannot be reconciled with the fundamental principles for an Orthodox approach to non-Christian religions put forward by Justin Martyr and other ancient Fathers of the Church, Georges Khodr and Anastasios Yannoulatos, nor with the presence of goodness and holiness in persons of other faiths, nor with the fact that the overwhelming majority of the world’s population is non-Christian and will likely remain so. The principles advanced by Justin Martyr, Khodr and Yannoulatos can serve as the underpinnings of a profoundly Christological basis of an Orthodox understanding of other religions, not in the exclusivist sense of barring from salvation those who do not know or acknowledge Christ, but to affirm that Christ, the Logos of God, is “the true Light which gives light to every man coming into the world” (Jn 1:8). This opens the door to considering that non-Christians may be saved, as Christians understand salvation, in ways which have yet to be defined, or which may remain indefinable in the mystery of salvific mission of Christ and the Holy Spirit.
Paul Ladouceur is Adjunct Professor, Orthodox School of Theology at Trinity College (University of Toronto) and Professeur associé, Faculté de théologie et de sciences religieuses, Université Laval (Québec).