For thus saith the Lord of hosts; Yet once, it is a little while, and I will shake the heavens, and the earth, and the sea, and the dry land; and I will shake all nations, and the desire of all nations shall come: and I will fill this house with glory, saith the Lord of hosts.
Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judæa in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came magi from the east to Jerusalem, saying, Where is he that is born King of the Jews? for we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him.
Is the Christian message and truth a gnostic secret, known only to Christians alone, accessible only to who have been initiated into the Christian sect, but completely opaque to everyone else outside of Christianity? Or is it an objective theological truth which could be known, looked forward to, and desired even, by pagans who are not themselves Christians? This is a question I wish to consider in the light of the Gospel account of the Nativity.
Monopolising the Supernatural and “Heretical” Supernatural Activity
One of the strangest things about our time is the way in which the reality of the supernatural is subjective, relative to each religion, as if there is no objective truth or fact about it. The claim that Mohammed received the Qu’ran from an angel would, for example, be hastily followed by the qualification that that is just what Muslims believe. Compare this to how we treat science. Either there are gravitons or not, either the Twin Prime Conjecture is true or false, these are claims about a reality which is “out there” in the world, not “according” to this school of thought or that sect or this theory.
Despite the temptation to blame postmodernism or relativism or whatever, the fact of the matter is that our relativism about theological truths is as much the doing of religious believers themselves as it is by postmodern sceptics. Religious believers, especially those eager to defend their own theological truth claims against all opposition, often attempt to control and monopolise the meaning of all supernatural claims or activity in the world lest those activities potentially subvert their own theological truth claims. A Muslim would cease to be one the moment he accepts the miracle of the resurrection, just as no Roman Catholic can accept the reality of miracles by “heretics” who go against their church’s teachings. (For an interesting discussion on how the Roman Catholics responded to the “heretical” Jansenist miracles, see here.) In so asserting theological truth claims, one stakes one’s claim upon the shape, direction, and meaning of the supernatural realm. One’s theology seemingly becomes determinative of the meaning of supernatural activity everywhere.
However this leads to the following contraries: Do supernatural activities confirm, or authenticate, a religious message or is it the other way round? To overcome miracles with theological interpretation is essentially to accept the other horn of the dilemma that the meaning and validity of a miracle is relative to a theological system. The theological significance or reality of any supernatural activity must be subject to my religious system or my narrative. Only from within my religious narrative or my system do supernatural activities in the world acquire their meaning or intelligibility.
It is a very short road from “supernatural activity is intelligible only from within my religious system” to “the interpretation of supernatural activity is relative to religious systems”. Supernatural activity and their theological meaning are not “objective” facts out there in the world, their theological meaning is intrinsically opaque, their relation to the divine intention or will is intrinsically ambiguous. Different religions can project different theological readings unto those supernatural events. For some the supernatural activity reveals the divine will, for others, the same activity is the work of the devil. The theological truth of the supernatural is hopelessly subjective, relative to our religious system. This is obviously particularly problematic for Christianity where Jesus’s miracles are supposed to intrinsically point to his divine appointment and to confirm and authenticate his Messianic mission.
Breaking out of the Religious Narrative/System Circle
The credibility of the Gospel would be lost if we simply gave in to religious relativism or theological subjectivism, claims which are true only relative to our firmly held systems but not objectively. We need to lose the urge to monopolise the theological meaning of every supernatural event in the world or force every supernatural activity into some preconceived theological narrative or system. We need to have confidence that the supernatural intrinsically bears the marks of the divine intention without the need to force an alien theological meaning upon it from some religious narrative.
The Bible itself does not seem to be worried about “other” people having access to supernatural insights or powers. There is of course Balaam, who was not a Hebrew but yet was privileged to have direct supernatural revelations from God and through whom God spoke his blessings upon the Israel. Then we must not forget that the “wise men” from the orients were actually “magi”, or more accurately, Eastern astrologers who used their astrological arts to read the stars and discern the birth of Christ.
Therefore it is not the case that supernatural activity can only occur with the explicit blessings or acknowledgement of Christians or the Bible. Theological insights and even supernatural power are available to all whenever and wherever it has pleased God to grant in aid of his providential ends. The Christian message and truth is not a deduction from some jealously guarded gnostic secret known only to Christian initiates. It is an objective truth which God is eager to communicate to all mankind, and in aid of that end, may supernaturally reveal this message to anyone anywhere with spiritual enlightenment or mystical visions as and when he pleases. (As for how to read “problematic” miracles in a non-circular manner, this post gestures towards a framework for grappling with that issue.)
The Desire of all Nations; Three Theories of How Christianity is Related to Other Religions
Shifting gears a little, let us now discuss how are non-Christians and their religions relate to the Christian truth. I think one can discern basically three different theories, namely, (1) eschatological, (2) sectarian, and (3) natural.
The eschatological approach sees other religions as fundamentally destined or providentially guided to find its fulfilment in Christ. It is this conception which explains many apologetic attempts to argue for how paganism finds its “fulfilment” in Christianity. I have already articulated sufficiently the defects of this approach and shan’t repeat myself. Briefly, it consists of two problems, one, it is a hostile takeover of a religion in attempt to force a meaning unto a religion and direct its narrative from the outside, two, it makes Christians as susceptible to “hostile takeovers” from outsiders, like the Mohammedans, who tell them that Christianity would find its perfection in the revelations of the last Prophet Mohammed.
The sectarian approach says that the non-Christian religions are simply nothing more than the product of satanic lies and they are to be condemned as pure idolatry and to be repented of tout court. Tertullian was its most famous exponent where he thundered against Athens in conflict with Jerusalem, decrying the former as having nothing to do with the latter. Needless to say, this approach leads to a form of religious relativism as theological truth claims simply clash and contradict each other with no objective ground for deciding between them.
Finally, there is the “natural religion” approach. While not pretending that every philosophy or religion is so necessarily directed towards Christ, it argues that all religion is the product of a universal natural seed of divinity in all mankind qua man from which the plurality of religions are formed in concert with both their cultural forms and their own sin corrupted confused understanding. Thus there is a universal “natural religiosity” which all mankind possesses beneath all the pagan mythologies and theologies concocted over it. This is the approach taken here and which I shall develop further and relate to the incarnation.
The Truths of Natural Theology
Recently there has been a lot of arguments about whether Christians worship the same God as Mohammedans, however the more interesting question is whether the pagans worship the same God as Christians.
Here is a couple of remarkable extracts from the Roman pagan priest and stoic philosopher, Cicero, from his On the Nature of the Gods:
II. The first point, then, says Lucilius, I think needs no discourse to prove it; for what can be so plain and evident, when we behold the heavens and contemplate the celestial bodies, as the existence of some supreme, divine intelligence, by which all these things are governed? Were it otherwise, Ennius would not, with a universal approbation, have said,
“Look up to the refulgent heaven above,
Which all men call, unanimously, Jove.”
This is Jupiter, the governor of the world, who rules all things with his nod, and is, as the same Ennius adds,
“- of Gods and men the sire,”
an omnipresent and omnipotent God. And if any one doubts this, I really do not understand why the same man may not also doubt whether there is a sun or not. For what can possibly be more evident than this? And if it were not a truth universally impressed on the minds of men, the belief in it would never have been so firm; nor would it have been, as it is, increased by length of years, nor would it have gathered strength and stability through every age.
XXV. By Saturn they mean that which comprehends the course and revolution of times and seasons; the Greek name for which Deity implies as much, for he is called ‘Kronos,’ which is the same with ‘Chronos,’ that is, a “space of time.” But he is called Saturn, because he is filled (saturatur) with years; and he is usually feigned to have devoured his children, because time, ever insatiable, consumes the rolling years; but to restrain him from immoderate haste, Jupiter has confined him to the course of the stars, which are as chains to him. Jupiter (that is, juvans pater) signifies a “helping father,” whom, by changing the cases, we call Jove, a juvando. The poets call him “father of Gods and men;” and our ancestors “the most good, the most great;” and as there is something more glorious in itself, and more agreeable to others, to be good (that is, beneficent) than to be great, the title of “most good” precedes that of “most great.” This, then, is he whom Ennius means in the following passage, before quoted—
“Look up to the refulgent heaven above,
Which all men call, unanimously, Jove”:
which is more plainly expressed than in this other passage of the same poet—
“On whose account I’ll curse that flood of light,
Whate’er it is above that shines so bright.”
Our augurs also mean the same, when, for the “thundering and lightning heaven,” they say the “thundering and lightning Jove.” Euripides, among many excellent things, has this:
“The vast, expanded, boundless sky behold,
See it with soft embrace the earth enfold;
This own the chief of Deities above,
And this acknowledge by the name of Jove.”
This is a remarkable argument and show how close the pagans were towards the Christian conception of God. Elsewhere in the same work Cicero traced the origins of the worship of various gods from their etymology of common nouns. Thus in a sense, he was already doing de-mythologising of pagan myths, explaining their imagery in terms of more philosophical concepts and linguistic genesis, long before Bultmann made it cool. This is the approach of the British Enlightenment who advocated for the substantial “natural religion” which all mankind share in and from which they could acquire a substantial understanding of God and theology. From there this natural theology would, they believe, be able to verify, evaluate, and authenticate the claims of the Christian religion.
We should also note that a consciousness of a universal heavenly power or divinity was not merely restricted to the West. In ancient China Mohism came very close to a pure form of deism as we can see in Mozi’s exposition on the “Will of Heaven”:
Now, what does Heaven desire and what does it abominate? Heaven desires righteousness and abominates unrighteousness. Therefore, in leading the people in the world to engage in doing righteousness I should be doing what Heaven desires. When I do what Heaven desires, Heaven will also do what I desire. Now, what do I desire and what do I abominate? I desire blessings and emoluments, and abominate calamities and misfortunes. When I do not do what Heaven desires, neither will Heaven do what I desire. Then I should be leading the people into calamities and misfortunes. But how do we know Heaven desires righteousness and abominates unrighteousness? For, with righteousness the world lives and without it the world dies; with it the world becomes rich and without it the world becomes poor; with it the world becomes orderly and without it the world becomes chaotic. And if Heaven likes to have the world live and dislikes to have it die, likes to have it rich and dislikes to have it poor, and likes to have it orderly and dislikes to have it disorderly. Therefore we know Heaven desires righteousness and abominates unrighteousness.
How do we know Heaven loves the people? Because it teaches them all. How do we know it teaches them all? Because it claims them all. How do we know it claims them all? Because it accepts sacrifices from them all. How do we know it accepts sacrifices from all? Because within the four seas all who live on grains feed oxen and sheep with grass, and dogs and pigs with grains, and prepare clean cakes and wine to do sacrifice to God on High and the spirits. Claiming all the people, why will Heaven not love them? Moreover, as I have said, for the murder of one innocent individual there will be one calamity. Who is it that murders the innocent? It is man. Who is it that sends down the calamity? It is Heaven. If Heaven should be thought of as not loving the people, why should it send down calamities for the murder of man by man? So, I know Heaven loves the people.
Thus an understanding of the divine goodness and will has been implanted into man qua man, and all man everywhere are able to attain unto it anterior to special revelation.
Conclusion: The God of Israel, the God of all Nations, and the Son of God
There is no doubt that the Israelites of the Old Testament are the objects of special divine election or attention. However just because they are the objects of special revelation does not mean that the rest are blind to supernatural realities or theological truths. As we have already seen, even those outside of salvation history nevertheless are able to attain unto true insights into God and theological realities without the benefit of special revelation.
The Messiah shall come from Israel alone, however he does not come for Israel alone. Israel alone has been specially prepared to raise the Messiah, yet it is not only for them for whom Christ has come to love and save. It is the Father’s pleasure that all nations shall know the love and joy of his Son, and to reveal to them the truth of their humanity, that its deepest desires finds its final consummation in the fleshly appearance of himself.
Therefore in aid of that end has God has implanted in all man a natural sense for divinity, by which he draw them to know and seek after himself. Many grope about in the dark after this, inventing idolatrous substitutes and myths to express this desire spurred on by this seed of divinity which he has implanted. It is a hit and miss affair, some bearing a faint resemblance to the Son of God to come, others going completely off track.
However for many all over the world, from all walks of life and from a multitude of cultures and nations, it has pleased God the Father, as a testimony to the universality of his love, to give them additional lights to guide their way towards himself in all his divine life veiled in flesh. The Magi, using their astrological insights, are the first pagans to enjoy the fruits of this universal love and from their joyful reception of the King of kings, we may be sure at the appearing of the Word made flesh, all of us would know in our own hearts the consummation of the desire of our humanity, for the divine made flesh.
So a Happy Christmas to all and in the words of O Holy Night, let us look up to the stars brightly shining above, let us remember that once God spoke through them to Magis of old, let us follow them unto the manger of the Word made flesh, and let our weary soul feel its worth as the eyes of our hearts rest upon that child who is the desire of all nations, the desire of all humanity.