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Lord of Bounty

 Thanksgiving is upon us. It is a time to thank God for his bounty. He is the Giver of "every good and perfect gift" (James 1:17). And for that we thank him. Since Thanksgiving is specifically a harvest festival, it is the earthly gifts for which we thank him. 

Yet for all that, it is not a bad time to reflect also upon the spiritual riches of which God is the dispenser. "O the depth of the riches and the wisdom and the knowledge of God!" (Romans 11:33). "In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace, which he lavished upon us" (Ephesians 1:8). 

Hindu scripture has a title for God that perfectly sums up this aspect of his beneficence: "Bhagavat," which means "Lord of Bounty." The great scripture of Bhakti devotion, The Bhagavad Gita, is "The Song of the Bhagavat." It is a treasure store of spiritual riches, as is our own beloved Bible. Thanksgiving, then, is the feast par excellence of the Bhagavat. 

What are the spiritual riches of God and of Christ, the Bhagavats of our tradition? On the deepest level, the treasure of God is simply God himself, made available to the rapture of the mystic who encounters him. But I think it is equally true to say that the riches of Christ must include our liturgical and theological heritage, and the art and music and architecture of the church through the ages. 

All these were the sacrifices of the faithful, joyfully rendered to the treasury of God. These things abide the centuries, making Christianity an ever richer faith the older it gets.á But, like the dragon Smaug, I am greedy for more treasure still.áI want to cast the net still wider. As I have already implied, I regard as my own treasures the wonderful and profound traditions of the other great religions, too. Not infrequently I find occasion to quote them in my sermons. 

One Sunday morning not long ago I quoted a relevant passage from the Bardo Thodol, the Tibetan Book of the Dead, to help develop the implications of a text from Paul's letter to the Romans. One visitor to the church was so affronted that she rose to her feet and stormed out, but not before leaving an eloquent account of her reactions, which I quote. 

"The Evil One must be laughing in the aisles to see false religions and the ego exercises of incorrect theologians trying to explain what is clearly explained in the Bible - the only book Christians need consider in church. The others may be studied but not here - not during worship!" I take this comment seriously, as I do all comments made about our church. That is why I want to share a few thoughts on it with you, to bring this visitor's objection to a wider forum. 

First, comments like this are nothing new to me. I have heard them many, many times. I understand the rationale on which non-Christian religions are rejected. Some Christians believe that if Christ died for all, if his cross is efficacious for all, then all must need it. Then no one can circumvent it. Some Biblical writers seem to have drawn the same implication (see John 14:6; Acts 4:12), though I believe we can discern an earlier layer of Christian preaching according to which the death of Jesus was viewed only as a path to salvation for converted Gentile pagans, for whom the Levitical sacrifices made no provision for atonement. (See Sam K. Williams, Jesus' Death as Saving Event)

For Jewish Christians, I suspect, Jesus was prophet and Messiah, but not atoning sacrifice. This would modify the total picture considerably, as it would suggest the earliest Christians believed that Christ was one of two (or possibly more) ways to God. The Jewish Christian Ebionite sect maintained this belief, as did some Gnostics, but it died out elsewhere, to resurface only among Hindus who freely grant that Jesus is an avatar sent to Christians. 

Personally I believe that all the major religions are basically true. All deliver what they promise: an experience of salvation and communion with the Holy. Sure, particular doctrines contradict, but that's true among Christian denominations, too. It hardly discredits the religions as a whole. Some of the contradictions have nothing to do with the central vision of each faith, while others are posed by doctrines which I take, like some of ours, to be mythological symbolism.á

I believe the total picture of divine things is so unimaginably vast that no religion can have glimpsed more than a tiny facet of it. Thus their truths seem very different, but are not necessarily therefore mutually exclusive. 

I believe I detect a note of alarm, not just dissent, in the visitor's comment. The writer seems to feel that Christian faith is threatened by the possibility that the other faiths may be true. The others are stigmatized as simply "false." Satan rejoices in their mention, though presumably he trembles at the mention of the Christian faith. 

Sorry, but I cannot regard this as anything but irrational prejudice stemming from fear. I believe the day is coming when we will all abandon this sort of bigotry, just as all people of good will now reject racism. Racists, too, quote the Bible in defense of their views. So did slave-owners, including some famous theologians. But they were wrong. 

Yet I will agree with the critic in one respect. I do think the Christian worship service ought primarily to be devoted to the Christian tradition and the Bible. Just not exclusively. 

One the one hand, I do not relish the idea of a syncretistic synthesis of all the religions, a "religionism" in general. Perhaps my objection is simply aesthetic: I would hate to see the particular riches of each tradition lost in a stew that would obscure all of them. For the same reason, I think some kind of super-ecumenical union of all the Christian denominations would be a tragic nightmare, robbing us of a marvellous diversity with little to replace it. 

What we do on Sunday morning is Christian worship. I rejoice to belong to and to propagate that tradition! Equally I rejoice that the Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, and Baha'i traditions are being practiced elsewhere! 

On the other hand I do think it quite proper to introduce cross-references to the scriptures and ideas of other faiths into the context of our worship when appropriate. This is because, as Paul Tillich said, the great religions not only have different glimpses of the truth; they also have glimpses of different aspects of the truth. The Buddhists have really been vouchsafed something we haven't. And that is why we need to learn from each other. 

We have great riches in our Christian tradition, but let us be greedy! We cannot but profit by sampling of the riches of the other faiths as well. For myself, I thank God for them on this Thanksgiving Day.

Robert M. Price

 

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