The question of Christianity’s relation to the other religions of the world is more pertinent and difficult today than ever before. While Christianity’s historical failure to appreciate or actively engage Judaism is notorious, Christianity’s even more shoddy record with respect to “pagan” religions is less understood. Christians have inherited a virtually unanimous theological tradition that thinks of paganism in terms of demonic possession, and of Christian missions as a rescue operation that saves pagans from inherently evil practices.
In undertaking this fresh inquiry into early Christianity and Greco-Roman paganism, Luke Timothy Johnson begins with a broad definition of religion as a way of life organized around convictions and experiences concerning ultimate power. In the tradition of William James’s Variety of Religious Experience, he identifies four distinct ways of being religious: religion as participation in benefits, as moral transformation, as transcending the world, and as stabilizing the world. Using these criteria as the basis for his exploration of Christianity and paganism, Johnson finds multiple points of similarity in religious sensibility.
Christianity’s failure to adequately come to grips with its first pagan neighbors, Johnson asserts, inhibits any effort to engage positively with adherents of various world religions. This thoughtful and passionate study should help break down the walls between Christianity and other religious traditions.
About the Author
Luke Timothy Johnson is the R. W. Woodruff Professor of New Testament and Christian Origins at Candler School of Theology and a Senior Fellow at the Center for the Study of Law and Religion at Emory University.
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Many religious people choose to focus on those things that make their religion unique, ahistorically separating it from the cultures and other religions in and around which it originally formed. It makes sense that several kinds of contemporary Christianity would do the same. For those looking for a scholarly, well-argued position against the singular historical uniqueness of Christianity, Luke Timothy Johnson provides an excellent one in "Among the Gentiles."Johnson feels that illustrating lines of continuity between Greco-Roman paganism, Jewish traditions, and nascent Christianity opens up the possibility of dialogue, as well as providing a space where the comparative history of religions can take place stripped of the limiting, often judgmental assumptions of contemporary conservative Christian apologetics. Any project with this type of scope requires tools which allow for the analysis of those types of continuity at which Johnson is looking.Methodologically, he proposes a fourfold religious typology which claims will be useful in looking at all of these traditions; even though Johnson teaches in a school of theology, he avoids any theological language in any of these. What he calls "Religiousness A" is the participation in divine benefits, including "revelation through prophecy, healing through revelation, providing security and status through Mysteries, enabling and providing for the daily successes of individuals, households, cities, and empires." This type of religious practice is optimistic in believing that the world is a stage for divine activity, and pragmatic in that "salvation involves security and success in this mortal life." Johnson says that Greek orator Aelius Aristides embodies this type. In several of Aristides' orations, he singles out for praise Serapis (who protected him on his journey to Egypt) and Asclepius (who bestowed the gift of oratory upon him).Religiousness B is moral transformation, which exemplifies the belief that "the divine [spirit] is immanent within human activity and expressed through moral transformation." The pagan example here is the Stoic philosopher Epictetus, whose Enchiridion is quite literally a "handbook for the moral life," detailing how to manage desires and emotions and learn one's social duties.Religiousness C attempts to transcend the world, since "the divine is not found in material processes of the world but only in the realm of immortal spirit and light. Salvation is rescuing the spark of light that has fallen into a bodily prison and returning it, through asceticism and death itself, to the realm from which it first came. It is triumph through escape." Johnson selects as an example of Religiousness C the Poimandres, a selection from the Corpus Hermeticum (a complex set of texts of Egyptian origin associated with the revealer-god Hermes Trismegistus).Religiousness D tries to stabilize the world, consisting largely of "all ministers and mystagogues of cults, all prophets who translated oracles and examined entrails and Sibylline utterances, all therapists who aided the god Asclepius in his healing work, all `liturgists' who organized and facilitated the festivals, all priests who carried out sacrifices, all Vestal Virgins whose presence and dedication ensured the permanence of the city." Johnson chooses Plutarch, the biographer, priest, and philosopher as the epitome of Religiousness D. Plutarch accepts the responsibility of exercising civic magistracies, shows a commitment to maintaining Apollo's temple at Delphi (as well as serving as a priest there), and expends a lot of effort in returning the temple to its former grandeur. Plutarch is a student of the social dimension of religion, and obviously is most concerned with how religion affects the reigning social order.Johnson says that types A and B were already at work in the Christian world in the first century; he looks at type A in the apocryphal Gospels, Acts, and Montanism; type B is discussed in Clement of Rome, Ju