World Religions - "In Holy Array" - Sept. 1974 - by Prof. Heinrich M. Ohmann
'Prof. Heinrich M. Ohmann, Th.Drs. (1928-2006) was a Professor of Old Testament at the Theological College of the Canadian Reformed Churches, Hamilton, Ont. He has writtten a similar series of articles in Calvinistisch Jongelingsblad, entitled "De Godsdiensten van India".
Also in this third article we would like to give some introductory remarks about the theme of religion in general. We have seen what religion is, the various schools of thought in the field, and now we are going to consider what are the points or items which recur consistently in any religion—the themes which you meet over and over. We are going to make a cross-section through all that is called religion to find out what is essential.
This method looks like the one the phenomenologists apply, but it is quite different nevertheless. They start from certain philosophical principles. Our point of departure is Holy Scripture and the Confession from which we have inferred or deduced our circumscription of what religion is. In that circumscription we meet five constant items on which we are to elaborate now. They are (1) God; (2) the Mediator; (3) man and belief; (4) the way of salvation and how man is to partake in it; (5) finally, man's calling and the aim of life. It is these things that come into the picture in a religion which is worth its name.
VIEWPOINTS TO BE TAKEN INTO CONSIDERATION
First: It is Man Who Makes Religion
But no sooner have I written this down than I see problems arise. There is only one such religion. How about all the others? In the true religion we can start with GOD. In pseudo- or pretended religions there are gods, but it is man who has invented them or who, taught by tradition, supposes that they do exist. So, shouldn't we rather start with man here? But isn't it confusing to do so, because man is to be broached in the third item in his proper place?
How do we get out of the difficulty we face here? Well, isn't it this way—that we, in dealing with heathen gods, for the time being give them the "honour due to a 'god', while we are fully alive to the fact that they are invented by man, with all that is implied? It is their projections on the screen of heaven which we are going to study. 'An idol has no real existence," we know from I Cor. 8:4. But their projections do exist and that is to say: they do not fail to exert their influence. You witness the force of habit, of tradition instituted by the ancestors, spoken of in myths, telling a people how things had been from the beginning and consequently were to be preserved for evermore.
Second: The Influence of Environment
Since people in earlier times had a restricted outlook, confined as they were to a certain area, such myths and religions bear the mark of the land, the environment and the climate, the people concerned lived in. For example, without the scenery, conditions of life and appearance of Arabia and the Middle East, Islam would have been quite different from what it is now, if something like Islam would ever have originated and developed. Apart from their Arabian background Muslims cannot be understood wherever you happen to meet them today. Think away the enormous land of India for a moment, with its peculiar background against which life was to develop there, and Hinduism becomes unimaginable. And the same holds true for Buddhism which arose in reaction to Hinduism.
And is not Confucianism with its doctrine of rights and duties a mirror of the Chinese mentality, also a product of Chinese soil? And do not think that the confessors of such religions deem things mentioned here a drawback or shortcoming of their religion. Oh no! Man of antiquity, Egyptians and Babylonians, for example, and likewise primitive people today consider their own country as the hub, the centre of the universe. Proudly the Chinese call their land: The Kingdom of the Centre. The Hindus say the world mountain Meru is situated in their very land. Every religion is permeated by an outlook upon life, coloured by its land of origin.
Third: Time and History
After having spoken of place or environment in the world view of pagan peoples we should pay attention to another factor, that of time as well. When it comes to that, heathen religions are arch-conservative. Scrupulously they cling to "the futile ways inherited from their fathers" (I Peter 1:18). But can they continue doing so down the centuries, taking into account how many other, different peoples, with their cultures and religions, have crossed them on their way and influenced them anyhow? It is only primitive peoples who live in the remotest corners of the earth to whom it is given to remain in such a state; the Ainus in northern Japan, Papuas in New Guinea, the pygmies in Central Africa. But take, on the other hand, India—being invaded by a great variety of peoples, entering the land wave after wave—it is impossible that things remain unaltered there. Just compare the Vedic religion, the oldest stage, with present day Hinduism and you perceive an alteration in some respects.
So the question comes up: What is time, what does time and all that is connected with it (history, change of life) mean to pagan peoples? How do they evaluate time and the changes it brings in its train? Do they make allowances for development or are they averse from the idea? Do they make a positive or a negative stand?
Apart from the conservatism I spoke of above, the religions of the ancient near East, and of present primitive peoples, for example, are orientated towards nature, towards what is to be seen in nature—its circular course of the seasons, perceptible in the scenery, flora and fauna. To them that circular course is something to be kept going and moving perpetually. It is the pattern which life, first and foremost human life, has to be in harmony with, by celebrating and imitating its highlights, year by year, since that is the repetition and guarantee of what happened in the beginning, primeval time.
At Creation, we would say. But we are Christians—we do not orientate ourselves towards nature. Where to then? Towards time? That is what some phenomenologists answer. Besides religions orientated towards nature, there is a group orientating itself towards the values of the spirit, the most outstanding among which Christianity, Judaism, Islam. These spiritual religions show a clear historical pattern: they present a doctrine concerning a beginning and an end: Creation and Day of Judgment.
These two extreme points are connected by a straight line: history, in which things proceed from a definite beginning, and develop toward a definite end.
As for our Christian religion, our Christian belief, let alone that it is a phenomenologist who made a classification, I wholeheartedly agree that its contents are embroidered on an historical theme. GOD's revelation is presented to us in the framework of history; in the Bible, in both the Testaments, it is facts that matter—facts in which a plan of salvation comes to light.
We rely on what the LORD has done in the life of His Son Jesus Christ. If it would not have happened that way, it would be beyond hope. (Now you understand that discussions about redemptive - historical preaching in the thirties were not a hobby of some ministers and professors but matters touching the being of the Church in its very heart.) And the history of the Church after the coming of our LORD on earth up to now should give evidence of a distinct development, on the basis of the Bible, in view of the day of Christ's return. So the Christian religion is, throughout, historical. Yet we orientate ourselves to GOD, who was pleased to reveal Himself.
But what about Judaism in this respect? Its historical pattern is to be distinguished as far as it has its roots in the Old Testament and the O.T. makes itself still perceptible. But in so far as CHRIST has become a stumbling block unto them, there is a deviation from the right course, depriving Judaism from what might have been its power and strength, making its glowing expectations of the future an illusion, sorry to say.
Turning to Islam, it is also a religion orientated toward time, phenomenologists say. When you hear or read sermons which Mohammed held in his days, pointing at doomsday and the great hereafter, picturing circumstantially all the pleasures of paradise and the tortures of hell included; when you hear this "prophet" holding out a prospect of eternity on the one hand and making an appeal to his five great predecessors, (the five apostles: Adam, Noah, Ibrahim, Moses and Isaa (Jesus)) on the other hand, you get the impression that this man is founding an historical religion. However, does he do full justice to history, that is, what the Bible says about history as it happened?
Do you notice a progress, and advance on his precursors when comparing their message with his? We answer negatively. It is always the same tune and the same course: "the preaching of the message; its rejection by man; God's punishment." Reading what happened successively, you really are turning around in a circle. Mohammed is not very particular with history, he trifles with the truth. In the Qor'aan the prophets of the Bible, up to and including Jesus, are modelled after Mohammed.
That is how it is with history and time in Judaism and Islam.
If it is so with these two religions, how about Persia? There the "prophet" Zarathustra once arose and, in the religion which he founded, worked out the theme of time in his own way, subdividing time into mythical periods comprising thousands of years — totally strange to what we learn from the Bible about the Old and New dispensation. To say nothing of India, where people did not have the slightest notion of what time exactly is.
Having dealt with viewpoints which exert an influence on pagan religions, the outlook upon life, their ideas about place and time, we return to the cross section through the religions as we promised at the beginning of this article.
The first item in a religion should be: GOD. What about God in pagan religions? In a monotheistic religion like Islam? In the devotion of Islam the ninety-nine wonderful names of Allah are meditated over and over . Really wonderful names are among them, ("Al- mighty, merciful, long suffering . . ." as if we had Article I of the Begic Confession before us. But upon further consideration and comparison with the Articles 8 and 9 of the Confession a difference comes to light. He who rejects God's trinity purposely, and that is what Islam does, cannot but have a rigid and an immovable God left, which is an idol, in spite of monotheism.
In the Zoroostrian religion of Persia, one of the so-called "higher" religions, it is already two gods: Ahuramazda and Ahriman, a good and an evil one and a number of minor deities, which people cannot do without. India has been polytheistic from of old. Like in other polytheistic religions a multitude of gods is revered. We ask: does each god receive the honour he is entitled to have? As a matter of fact, that is impossible. But aside from that, the fact that so many gods exist beside each other cannot be but derogatory to the rights of the others and their divine character.
If we take the word "divine" and "god" in all seriousness, polytheism is an untenable situation. In those circles not only virtues but also vices are mentioned, the latter being the consequence of strained relations among those "gods".
Besides, there are goddesses, demigods, ghosts, demons, deified ancestors, heroes and nymphs, playing their part and their tricks. Usually, however, it is some "divine" or supernatural power people stand in awe of; a power they meet in the various gods. Later on it comes to light as a world principle, like the well- known Indian "Brahman". In ancient Greek religion it was Fate which ranked first among the gods. Thus, you discover a tendency from multitude toward unity, however not to the One and only God.
That the boundary line between God and creature in heathen religion is wiped out we learn from the myths about creation. A great many representations about creation stand beside one another in one and the same religion. I better say "Cosmogony" because it is not creation anymore where people do not recognize the might of the Creator. According to our standards the myths about cosmogony conflict with each other, the one stating that the world was the result of the co-operation between a god and a goddess, a second stating that there has been a mundane egg in the beginning, a third that the world had resulted from the strife between two gods; the world being fashioned out of the body of the defeated one by the victor. We say that is inconsistent, but heathens do not see any problem. Their logic is different.
And what about revelation? Already in Islam, the youngest of world religions, where everything took place in the light of history, we have our questions and doubts about the trustworthiness of the prophet Mohammed. In ancient India, among the Veda's, the revelation really outshines the gods in importance. And as for Buddhism, which is atheistic basically, but does have a large canon of Holy Scriptures, it is Buddha, a man, to whose word his adherents cling; or Nirwana, the hereafter, on which they have set their hopes.
The second item is the MEDIATOR. In Christian faith it is obvious that religion cannot do without its Saviour Jesus Christ. In the Old Testament, which is part of our religion as well, His coming is prefigured in priests, prophets and kings. But how about Islam in this respect? Who is to take the place of the Mediator there? Mohammed? He himself has denied this. Later on, the Shiite branch tried to fill the vacancy by the Imaams or religious leaders. And in the future the coming of Mahdi, a muslim Messiah is expected. Further, of whom in Hinduism can we say—that is the Mediator? Some point at the avataras of the god Vishnu, his embodiment in well-known heroes like Rama and Krsjna. But are those saviours in the sense the Bible attaches to it?
Thirdly, how about MAN? Man who is to answer God's revelation by faith. Oh you say, about man, whom we can see, there can hardly be any disagreement. However, be not mistaken! There is a great difference of opinion in religions as to what man exactly is about his origin, the problem of evil and sin, to say nothing of belief. Taking into account how great a difference there is between the Reformed Confession and the Roman Catholic doctrine concerning faith, with Islam we shall be further off. What does the Muslim mean in saying: "I believe"? And then there is the Amida-Buddhism in Japan teaching a justification and salvation by faith only by all accounts. By all accounts. I hope to return to this subject later on.
Fourthly, how about THE WAY MAN IS MADE PARTAKER OF SALVATION?
Under this item are subsumed: Church, means of grace, Word and Sacrament, services, officebearers and church discipline. So we ask: what is in Islam or Hinduism comparable with what we call the Church? What does his temple mean to a Hindu, and to the Muslim, his mosque? The same as our church buildings to us? Do they have their services like we are used to? Do they have their ministers or other comparable office-bearers? Do their leaders resemble the prophet or the priest? The Islam is the religion of "the prophet". You do not meet any priests there. Which is telling us a good deal about the idea they have of sin, grace, etc.
On the prophet. Rather, priests, constituting a mighty class: the Brahmins. But it does not follow that it is automatically better with consciousness of sin and the desire for atonement in India. The compli- cated offerings in ancient India are not only in ritual but also in intention en- tirely different from the simpler ones out of the book of Leviticus.
If it is this way with the very heart of public worship, how about a matter such as church discipline? Church discipline is only to be maintained where clear lines are drawn. But where are the boundaries of the Muslims, Hinduist and Buddhist church or rather, com- munity? Are there such boundaries at all? Or is religion there the concern of all the people?
Fifthly, what about MAN'S DUTY TOWARDS HIS GOD OR GODS?
His ethics, his upholding standards? Is his obedience arisen from and borne by a deep religious conviction or heart-felt persuasion? Or do they behave the way they do for fear of punishment? How do they pray? Reverently as is the proper attitude? On the other hand, a great many things point in the direction of magic. Magic, that is to coerce a god or power into the way man likes. Magic often is attended with soothsaying, the observation of omens in order to make magic more successful; a wresting of a favourable revelation from the gods, cf. Balaam.
Finally we should ask: what are the current representations about a complete salvation? Is it a being saved from sins as in the Christian faith? Or rather a being absorbed in the deity? What does a Muslim mean by his heaven. paradise? And the Buddhist by Nirvaana? And what is the impact of these doctrines on daily life, society, etc.?