Enlightened pagans

Christians must find the courage and strength in their own faiths to be open to the lessons that may be open to them from others.

By Bill Leonard

"We have been taught that Christ is First-begotten of God and . . . that He is the Word (Logos) of whom all humanity partakes. Those who lived by reason are Christians, even though they have been considered atheists: such as, among the Greeks, Socrates, Heraclitus, and others. . . and among the foreigners, Abraham, Elijah, and … many others whose deeds and names we now forbear to enumerate, for we think it would be too long [a list]."                                  

So wrote Justin Martyr around the year 147. Martyr was not his last name but his fate — decapitation by the Romans around 165 for refusing to worship the Roman emperor.

In defending 2nd century Christianity Justin envisioned “Christians before Christ,” “enlightened pagans” whose insights bore limited but faithful influence of God’s Word — Logos — before it became flesh in Jesus. He added that “they who lived before Christ and did not live by reason were useless persons, enemies of Christ, and murderers of those who did live by reason.” But those who have lived reasonably, and still do, are Christians, and are fearless and untroubled.” Justin opened the door to pagans, but not all of them.    

The Latin word paganus means “rural” or “in the country.” Originally, pagans were simply “those who dwell in the country.” Christians applied the term to “non-Christians” or “heretics” by the 4th century, perhaps referring to rural folk who clung to the “ancient idolatry” after Christianity gained urban status, privileged by Emperor Constantine. Pagans were those “outside the city,” beyond God’s orthodox community.

Early Christians like Justin thought certain pagans had divine insight; others thought they would hit hell wide open. Vatican Council II (1965) echoed Justin’s Logos Christology in its constitution on the church, noting that persons “can attain to everlasting salvation who through no fault of their own do not know the gospel of Christ or His Church, yet sincerely seek God and, moved by grace strive by their deeds to do His will as it is known to them through the dictates of conscience.” These qualities the (Roman) Church recognized as given by God “who enlightens all … so that they may finally have life.”

These days, religious pluralism and geographic proximity thrusts families, faith-communities and politicians into questions of interfaith dialogue. Where to start? Perhaps by listening for the way God speaks through the people whose religion we can’t follow but who may teach us something about our own faith with insights we’ve not yet grasped.

Does religious pluralism and interfaith dialogue mean all religions are the same; that we all have to agree or defer to some nebulous religious syncretism? Absolutely not! But who knows then, the Spirit may speak from somewhere deep inside somebody else’s faith in ways that nurture our own spirituality or help us explore ideas we’ve never confronted before. (See Mark 7:24-30.)  

On one academic sabbatical, I spent a year teaching church history at the theological school of Seinan Gakuin University in Fukuoka, Japan. When we got to the Reformation I gave them a weekend to read the book of Romans and tell me if St. Paul was a Calvinist or an Arminian. They all agreed that in the beginning Paul leaned toward predestination and near the end he fooled around with free will! Great fun.

As the class ended a young woman raised her hand. “Sensei,” she said, using that wonderful appellation the Japanese give teachers, with no English equivalent because it shows far too much respect. “Sensei, I first heard Paul’s ideas about losing yourself when I was a Buddhist. Now I am a Christian but sometimes I can’t tell which part of me is Buddhist and which part is Christian. What do you think about that?” I made the lame suggestion that I couldn’t always distinguish my American Southernness from my Christianity, but it was one of those moments when professorial lecture ends and professorial learning begins.

Who knows how faith will find us? In our pluralistic world we all get to make our religious case, safely we hope. Then we’re all free to cast our lives where we will, sometimes “switching” when the Spirit moves. And since life’s contexts are not easily dissected, we’d better learn to listen for the Spirit’s longings wherever they appear. Perhaps we’re all enlightened pagans, ever “outside” somebody’s orthodoxy; always waiting on more light.

That same year my friend Dixon Yagi, Japanese-American-Baptist-missionary-comparative-religion-professor at the university carted me to a Buddhist monastery for meditation with the monks. We sat silently in the lotus position while the abbot occasionally wacked us with bamboo reeds as a reminder that we were still earthbound. When it was over, the abbot remarked, “you know what we appreciate about Yagi Sensei? He is unashamedly Christian but he’s not afraid to bring his God into our temple.”

Are we secure, enlightened, enough to carry Jesus into somebody else’s temple? For God’s sake, I hope so. 

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