Religion as a Bridge, Not a Wall

Gregory E. Sterling

In the fall of 2000 when the Second Intifada broke out, I lived in Jerusalem. I was a visiting professor at the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Hebrew University. On Rosh Hashanah I attended a synagogue service and then went to a park for a picnic on French Hill with friends.

As we sat in the park high on the hill, I looked east towards the Dead Sea and saw two balls of flame erupt – two cars exploding. Almost at the same time, small fires broke out in the village to the south. I could see Israeli soldiers chasing Palestinians from house to house. As I watched the cat and mouse maneuverings, guns began to pop in the little village of Anatoth to the north. A small group of Israeli soldiers held back a large group of Palestinians who were armed primarily with rocks.

Deadly Agendas

I wish such memories were uncommon; unfortunately, they are not. Anyone who lived in Northern Ireland or the Balkans during the 1990s knows how ferocious violence formed along religious or ethno-religious lines can be. Today we are concerned with such conflicts in Iraq, Israel/Palestine, Kenya, Myanmar (Burma), Nigeria, Yemen and elsewhere. The conflicts can be within the same religious tradition or across religious lines. In virtually every case, militant fundamentalists view their sect as the only acceptable religion, and they link this intolerance to a political agenda.1 The results are deadly.

What role should we as Christians play in these conflicts? In too many instances, Christians have been participants in the violence. Violence sanctioned by religion is not a uniquely Muslim problem. It affects Buddhists, Christians, Hindus, and Jews as well.

As Christians we cannot convincingly hold Christianity out as an embodiment of peace since we have blood on our own hands. I do think we can create a model that others could follow. It requires an understanding of our own faith that is true to Christianity but permits space for others to be true to their faiths.

Two challenges stand out. First, violence becomes a live option when intolerant believers couple their religious convictions with their political convictions, a move that leads them to the violent political imposition of their religion on others. One way to address the issue of political violence would be to decouple religion from politics. However, many in our world would find it difficult to accept such a decoupling: They would judge it to be a violation of their own faith to surrender the connection between religion and politics.

This leads me to the second and more fundamental challenge. To pose it as a question: Do religious adherents need to be exclusive in order to be loyal to their own beliefs? Does Christianity require me to regard other religions as illegitimate expressions of piety, or may I remain true to my own faith while recognizing the validity of other religions? I want to explore this second issue.

To the Unknown God

One of the highlights of the Acts of the Apostles is Paul’s speech to the Athenians in chapter 17, the Areopagetica. The author of Acts uses Athens, the intellectual capital of the Mediterranean world, to present Christianity in philosophical categories. In the introductory section (vv. 16-21), Paul encounters two of the most diametrically opposed philosophical schools of the time, the Stoics and the Epicureans.2 Acts presents Paul in a philosophical exchange with them both, providing a series of echoes that remind the reader of the career and trial of Socrates.3 The most famous echo is the accusation. Paul is charged with the same crime as Socrates: He introduces a strange deity, making reference to the Athenians’ altar to the “unknown god.”4

His speech contains four basic arguments. The first is that since God is the creator of the cosmos and everything in it, God does not need anything that humans can provide (vv. 24-25). This theme runs like a red thread through Greek philosophy. So Plutarch could cite Euripides: “God lacks nothing if he is truly God.”5

The second argument begins with an affirmation of the unity of the human race, but recognizes that humans are scattered throughout the world (vv. 26- 27). The point is that we are to seek God wherever we are since we have a common ancestry. Seeking God is our telos, our goal as human beings. Hellenistic philosophical schools made “following God” (Neopythagoreans) or “likeness to God” (Middle Platonists) their goal.

The third argument (vv. 28-29) is related: Since we identify with God as our creator, we should not cast God into the form of idols. Idolatry degrades God and, by extension, humanity. The author cited the Phaenomena of the Greek poet Aratus to make the point, “for we are his offspring.”6

The fourth argument is actually a concluding call to repentance (vv. 30-31). It contains a reference to the resurrected Christ as the judge of humanity, although he is not explicitly named. The thrust of the conclusion is not to deny the validity of Hellenistic philosophy as a means of coming to know the Unknown God, but to say it is a prolegomenon or a praeparatio for something more.

Heaven and Hellenism

What should we make of this speech? It is remarkably open to the value of Hellenistic philosophy. It is certainly different than some of the other statements in Acts that appear much more emphatic about the exclusive nature of Christianity.7 Though the argument is surprising at first glance, it makes a great deal of sense in an early Christian work that contextualizes Christianity within the larger Greco- Roman world: The author of Acts recognized the validity of Greek philosophy as a source for the understanding of God.

We now need to ask how this text helps us think about our contemporary relationship to other religious traditions. It might be useful to situate the speech within the basic categories that the philosophy of religion has used to describe the stances that different religions take towards one another.8

The first category is exclusivism: One specific tradition alone has the truth and constitutes the sole way to salvation. The most obvious example in the New Testament is the Fourth Gospel. As is well known, John’s Gospel uses light and darkness to draw a sharp line between those who accept Jesus and those who do not9 – thus, “I am the way, the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father except through me.”10 Statements like these led to the classical formulation extra ecclesiam nulla salus (“there is no salvation outside the church”), a position still held by some Christians today.11

It is difficult to see how Acts 17 can be placed into this category. The point of the Areopagetica speech is to recognize the validity of Greek philosophy as a means of coming to understand God. This suggests that the author does not have an exclusive perspective.

Promise and Fulfillment

In some ways this is not surprising. Philo of Alexandria reasoned from Greek philosophy to ancient Judaism: What the Greeks had through philosophy, the Jews had through their Scriptures. I suggest that the author of Luke-Acts reasoned along similar lines: He accepted the validity of Israel’s experience of God in the past. “The Way” was a continuation of Israel. We can express this in literary terms: The text moves from promise in the Septuagint (Greek Old Testament) to fulfillment in Luke-Acts. The narrative of fulfillment cannot be valid if the narrative about promise is not. The two halves are inextricably bound together. The Septuagint may have been insufficient, but it was not invalid. It is the same today. If we have a Bible that contains both an Old Testament and a New Testament, we cannot deny the validity of Israel’s understanding of God without repudiating the first half of the Christian Bible.

Acts 17 extends to Hellenistic philosophy the same standing that it gave Israel. Greeks as well as Jews could come to know the Unknown God. The difference was in the avenue through which they came to know God. This raises the question whether we should do the same for other religious traditions.

The second category is inclusivism: One tradition represents the normative or final truth, but recognizes that other traditions may reflect that truth. Let me offer two illustrations. The 2nd-century apologist Justin Martyr developed a theory of the history of culture.12 He thought Greek philosophy and the Judeo-Christian tradition were compatible. He argued that Christ was the Logos or Reason (Λόγος). Anyone who lived by reason has the “rational seeds” (σπερματικοὶ λόγοι) of the Logos in them and was therefore a Christian of sorts. In short, Socrates who lived a rational life was a Christian. Justin was an inclusivist since he measured Greek philosophy by Christianity.

There is a well-known 20th-century example of the same stance. Karl Rahner, perhaps that century’s most famous Roman Catholic theologian, held that individuals who lived the ethical life of Christians but had no attachment to the institutional Church were “anonymous Christians.”13

Is this what we have in Acts 17? It is certainly much closer than exclusivism. It would not be entirely unfair to say that Acts 17 offers an inchoate and popular version of what is more fully developed in Justin. At the same time, Acts does not explicitly measure Greek philosophy by Christianity. This leads us to consider the third category – pluralism.

Pluralistic Believers

Pluralism says the religions of the world offer variant perspectives on the same ultimate reality. This is clearly the working perspective of religious studies departments in the US that bracket questions of faith and analyze religions as social constructs. There are, however, others who think in terms of pluralism but are persons of faith. Perhaps the most famous scholarly example of this is Huston Smith, who grew up in China as the child of Methodist missionaries and practiced Christianity all his life, while at the same time embracing mystical forms of several other religious traditions.14

The most famous non-Christian pluralist in the last century was Mahatma Gandhi. Gandhi wrote about the differences between Hindus and Muslims: “Religions are different roads converging to the same point. What does it matter that we take different roads, so long as we reach the same goal? Wherein is the cause for quarreling.”15

The examples of Smith and Gandhi are interesting not only because of the complexity of their own lives, but because both remained committed to the religion of their youth. This raises a question: Does pluralism require the elimination of all normative judgments?

I would like to suggest that one can be a pluralist and still make such judgments. It is possible to argue that different traditions represent varying perspectives on the ultimate reality, but that some do so more adequately than others. We do not need to measure all others by a single tradition, but we can weigh them. Why is this important? It allows individuals to remain true to their own religious convictions while at the same time allowing others the space to have their own.

Beyond Exclusivism

The purpose of this exercise has been to force us to think about a sacred text that has a viewpoint that is not exclusive. I would situate Acts 17 in the inclusive category; it is certainly not exclusive. Every major tradition has texts or warrants like the Aereopagetica that move beyond the exclusive to the inclusive or pluralistic categories. It is important that we learn how to articulate our own loyalty without requiring someone else to forfeit their loyalty. As a Christian I have an exclusive loyalty to Christ; this is what it means to confess him as Lord. At the same time, my own exclusive loyalty does not require that I dismiss the validity of the loyalties of Jews or Muslims or Hindus or Buddhists.

While I was writing this article, I was also preparing a private retreat for representatives of the Iraqi government, the US State Department, delegates from the UN, and faculty from Yale in order to discuss the future of inclusivity within Iraq. The practice of exclusion has created enormous tensions within Iraq and has threatened to eliminate US support. Yet how could I encourage these practitioners and peacemakers to look within the Islamic tradition for warrants of inclusivity if I have not done the same within Christianity? These remarks are my attempt to do for Christianity what I think Muslims need to do for their own religion.

We need to be models of what it means to be unashamedly Christian without being narrowly Christian. We need to cultivate an understanding of Christianity that permits us to profess our unswerving loyalty to Christ without denying the value of other religions.

Gregory E. Sterling is The Reverend Henry L. Slack Dean and Lillian Claus Professor of New Testament at Yale Divinity School. Concentrating his research in Hellenistic Judaism, the writings of Philo of Alexandria, Josephus, and LukeActs, he is the author or editor of seven books and more than 70 scholarly articles and chapters. This essay is a shorter adaptation of a plenary address he gave in South Korea to the Korean Association of Christian Studies in late 2014.


1 An important study of the global phenomenon in its rise is The Fundamentalism Project, 5 volumes, edited by Martin E. Marty and Scott R. Appleby (University of Chicago, 1991-1995).

2 On their opposition see David L. Balch, “The Areopagus Speech: An Appeal to the Stoic Historian Posidonius against Later Stoics and the Epicureans,” in Greeks, Romans, and Christians: Essays in Honor of Abraham J. Malherbe (edited by David L. Balch, Everett Ferguson, and Wayne A. Meeks (Fortress, 1990), pp. 52-79.

3 On the parallels see Karl O. Sandnes, “Paul and Socrates: The Aim of Paul’s Areopagus Speech,” JSNT 50 (1993), pp. 13-26, esp. 20-24; and David M. Reis, “The Areopagus as Echo Chamber: Mimesis and Intertextuality in Acts,” Journal of Higher Criticism 9 (2002), pp. 259-277, esp. 266-273.

4 Acts 17:18 and Xenophon, Mem. 1.1.1. See also Plato, Apol. 24B; Euth. 1C, 2B.

5 Plutarch, Stoic Self-Contradictions 1052E citing Euripides, Madness of Hercules 1345-1346.

6 Aratus, Phaen. 5.

7 E.g., Acts 4:12. This is also a way of emphasizing the universality of claims of Christianity.

8 John Hick, “Religious Pluralism,” ER 12, pp. 331-333.

9 E.g., John 1:9-13 and John 9:39-41, which use blindness and seeing for the same purpose.

10 John 14:6. C. K. Barrett, The Gospel According to St. John: An Introduction with Commentary and Notes on the Greek Text (S.P.C.K., 1960), p. 382, accurately captured the thrust of the statement: “If John, here and elsewhere, used some of the notions and terminology of the religions of his day, and there are many indications that he was not unfamiliar with them, he was quite sure that those religions were ineffective and that there was no religious or mystical approach to God which could achieve its goal.”

11 See the formulation of Cyprian, Ep. 72.21, salus extra ecclesiam non est.

12 Arthur J. Droge, Homer or Moses? Early Christian Interpretation of the History of Culture (HUT 26; Tübingen: J.C.B. Mohr [Paul Siebeck], 1989), provides a very helpful analysis.

13 Karl Rahner, Karl Rahner in Dialogue: Conversations and Interviews, 1965-1982, edited by Paul Imhof and Hubert Biallowons (Crossroads, 1986), p. 135.

14 Huston Smith, Religions of Man (Harper, 1958) or The World’s Religions: Our Great Wisdom Traditions (HarperOne, 1991, revised edition) is his most popular book.

15 Mahatma Gandhi, Hind Swaraj or Indian Home Rule (Navajivan, 1938), pp. 45-46.