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Engagement with Cross-Cultural and Global Dimensions.

  Engages multicultural issues and religious
  pluralism in the context of globalization.
  Understands the inclusive character of the
  Christian gospel.

This practice is necessary because we live in an increasingly global, multi-cultural, and religiously plural world. Jesus commands us to proclaim the gospel among all the nations, and thus among people of all cultures and languages. According to John's Gospel, God sent God's Son out of love for the world, "not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him" (John 3:16-17). Jesus sends his disciples into the world in the same way as the Father has sent him (John 20:21). If we are to bear effective witness to God's love in Christ, it is important that we value what is true in people's cultures, enter their world, and engage their contexts with sensitivity. We need to listen and learn from them and creatively interpret the gospel in a way that speaks to their dreams, struggles, and deepest longings.

This corresponds to the basic structure of the gospel. God meets people in Jesus Christ where they are; they do not have to become something else first. Paul speaks of becoming everything to everyone for the sake of the gospel (1 Cor9:19-23; see also Acts 17:2-31; Phil 4:8). The Christian message transforms what it receives from various cultures, and it is transformed by them. In going into all the world, the Christian message becomes multilingual, multicultural, and pluralistic. (1) The persuasive power of a religious tradition lies in its ability to assimilate the truth present in other cultures and religious traditions without losing its identity. If Jesus Christ is God's love for the world, and if he is the incarnation of the Word through whom God created all things and cultures, we will not fully understand the wonder of what God has done in Jesus Christ until we see all reality summed up into him.

This is not new. Israel's religious traditions developed and the Bible was written in multicultural and religiously plural contexts.

Israel: Creation and Messianic Hope

Living in Palestine, Israel was distant from the great centers of civilization and power. But Palestine was also the place where the great empires battled for power and their cultures met and interacted. Here the ancient trade routes, many older than Israel, linking the great civilizations of China, India, Mesopotamia and Persia, and Egypt met, carrying stories and ideas from strange places as well as goods like silk and spices. William McNeill, in The Rise of the West, argues that the major early civilizations in China, India, Mesopotamia and Persia, and Egypt interacted and influenced each other from very early in their histories. He suggests, "The principal factor promoting historically significant social change is contact with strangers possessing new and unfamiliar skills." (2)

This is also true of Israel's religious traditions which developed in critical engagement with a wide variety of cultures and religious traditions throughout much of Asia. Some ideas and stories were assimilated and transformed; others rejected. Within Israel itself some made exclusive claims for Israel as God s people; others emphasized the promise that Israel will be a means of blessing for all the nations (Gen 12:1-3). Malachi 1:11, 14b even claims that every place among the nations where incense is offered it is offered to the name of Israels God!

In light of this, we cannot properly understand Israel's religious traditions as the self-revelation of God, or the rise of Christianity apart from its context in the global history of religions. We will examine further the example of creation.


In Genesis 14:17-24, as Abram is returning from the defeat of the kings, Melchizedek, the king of Salem, the pre-Israelite city of Jerusalem, meets Abram and blesses him by God Most High (El Elyon, the manifestation of El at Salem), "the maker of heaven and earth," and Melchizedek ascribes Abram's victory to El Elyon. Abram then speaks of "Yhwh El Elyon, maker of heaven and earth." Israel's God is identified as the "maker of heaven and earth" by identifying Yhwh with the Canaanite deity El.

In Canaanite traditions, El, the ancestor of all the gods, is the "Creator of the creatures." Israel frequently used El as a name for Israel's God. El's children, the gods, played a more complex role in Israel's history. Ba'al and Anat, Ba'al's sister and wife, are associated with the order necessary for human life and agriculture, including rain, the earth, and fertility; Yamm, the Sea, symbolized destructive, chaotic powers; and Mot, Death and drought. Ba'al battles against both Yamm and Mot over who will rule as king over all things. These conflicts symbolize the reality that life in this world is caught between conflicting powers, whether powers necessary for life or destructive of life. Ba'al defeated Yamm, the Sea, and his palace, symbolizing the ordered agricultural world, was built in seven days. In the battle with Mot, Anat plays the leading role, delivering Baal from Death.

The Old Testament does not use the mythical imagery of the battle with Death. However, the frequently used imagery of God s victory over the sea is associated with God's rule as king and ordering the world (e.g., Ps 93; 74:12-17). It can also be used of the Exodus and deliverance from enemies in war (Ps 77:16-29; Isa 17:12-14), and in appeals for God's help in personal suffering (Ps 69; 130). Isaiah 51:9-11 uses this imagery to identify the defeat of the sea at the foundation of the world, deliverance from Egypt at the Red Sea and the promised future deliverance, as though they were a single event.

The Davidic dynasty assimilated earlier Canaanite ideas associated with Jerusalem and kingship. In the enthronement liturgy (Ps 2), the Davidic king was adopted as God's Son and declared "a priest forever after the order of Melchizedek" (Ps 110). In Psalm 89:5-29, God's rule and God's victory over the sea at the foundation of the world becomes a promise that the Davidic king will share in God's rule over the sea (esp. w. 24-27). Thus, these older Canaanite traditions of Melchizedek, of divine kingship associated with the cosmic dimensions of Gods victory over the destructive powers associated with the Sea, make a significant contribution to Judaism's messianic hope for the true king, whose rule is identical with God's rule. The enigmatic figure of Melchizedek plays an extensive role in Hebrews, where he serves as a type of Jesus as a priest who initiates a new covenant through his death, and of Jesus himself (7:2b-3!).

In the New Testament, death becomes the last enemy (1 Cor 15:25-26) and in the new creation, the sea will be no more (Rev 21:1). Jesus feeds the multitude in the desert, the domain of death; he stills the sea with a command (Matt 8:23-27) and raises Jams' daughter from the dead (Matt 9:18-26); all of this is associated with the announcement of God's rule. Then the Pharisees say he casts out demons by the "prince of demons," (Matt 9:34; 10:25), Be-elzebul ("Prince Baal"), Ba'als title of honor.

The Canaanite religious texts from Ugarit, from about the time of Abraham contain no story of creation. The widespread theme of conflict and victory at the foundation of the world occurs in a different way in the Enumaelish,3 the Babylonian creation story. It centers on the conflict between Tiamat, the primordial salt waters, and her descendants, the gods. When Marduk killed Tiamat, he split her watery body in half, and placed one half above and the other below (see Gen 1:6-8). Then in the space between the waters, Marduk ordered the world of the gods, symbolized by the sun, moon, and stars (Gen 1:14-19). Finally, Marduk created human beings from the blood of Kingu, Tiamat's general, to be the slaves of the gods, and the gods celebrate Marduks kineship.

Some Babylonian influences can be seen in Genesis 1:1--2:3, which was probably written during the Babylonian exile, though it may also include some older material. There also are significant differences. First, the mythical framework is gone, although you can still hear allusions to it. Second, in contrast to the Enuma elish, God creates by speaking. Third, Genesis is interested in God's creation of everything, including the earth, plants, and animals. While the Enuma elish may have included the creation of these things in parts that have been lost, the interest is in the gods. Fourth, the place of human beings is very different. Human beings in Genesis are created in God's image. In the Enuma elish, they are created to be the slaves of the gods. Isaiah 46 uses that contrast to characterize the difference between Israel's God and idols: idols require our service, while Israel's God made, carries, and saves us.

The interest in Genesis 1:1--2:3 in everything God created is similar to Psalm 104, a wisdom psalm praising God as the creator, who continues to care and provide for everything created. This interest in God's creation and care for everything is similar to the fourteenth-century Egyptian hymn to Aten, the sun God, during their brief monotheistic experiment. (4)

The overall structure of Genesis 1:12:3 has no clear analogy in the ancient Near East. It begins with the dark watery abyss, and the Spirit brooding over it's surface, followed by God speaking the diversity of creation into existence. The closest analogy is a Hindu tradition in which the Absolute begins by projecting "outside" the one word, Om, that belongs to the essence of the Absolute and contains all words and all knowledge. It is imaged as an infinite dark sea, with the cosmic egg, the source of life and all creation floating on the surface. After a period of time this word begins to differentiate into sounds and syllables, generating the universe in all its diversity. These words constitute the Vedas. Barbara Holdrege describes this process: "the cosmogonic process is ... a two-stage process in which an unmanifest state of undifferentiated unity gives rise to a manifest state of differentiation through a series of discrete speech-acts." (5)

Israel developed their ideas of God creating the world by borrowing stories and ideas from the religious cultures of the world around them. They both assimilated these stories, and modified them in light of their traditions and understanding of God, just as these traditions, in turn contributed to Israels understanding of God as the Creator. By borrowing creation stories and ideas from the religions of the nations around them, Israel said that the One of whom the nations and their traditions speak as the Creator of the world is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the One who led Israel out of bondage in Egypt. Israel's God is the source of the entire reality of the created world and the cultures of its peoples.

Multi-Culturalism Continues in Christianity

This process continued in Christianity for the same reasons. The early Christians engaged the ideas of Greek, philosophy and Hellenistic culture. They rejected Plato's dualism, in which the Demiurge drew eternal, disordered matter into conformity with the eternal world of ideas or ideal forms. But the dynamic character of the Platonic tradition made it possible for Gregory of Nyssa in the late fourth century to interpret Genesis in a way that roughly parallels modern evolutionary big-bang cosmology. He understood Genesis 1:1 to be creation out of nothing. Everything God does after that is done through causes God created in the first moment. God creates plants by commanding the earth to do so, similarly, sea animals and birds, and land animals. He describes this as a necessary series of stages, in which each stage builds on and includes all that preceded. Human beings were created last, so that humans might include everything created within them, and nothing in all creation would be left without its share in the divine glory.

Conversation with other religious traditions can also widen our possibilities for interpreting biblical texts. In a lecture titled, "That Marvelous Mystery-the Trinity" (1882), (6) Kushub Chunder Sen, a Hindu fascinated by Christ, read Genesis 1:1--2:3 and biblical history in conversation with the Rig VedaX, 129. It resulted in an evolutionary reading of creation and redemption. "What was creation but the wisdom of God going out of its secret chambers and taking visible shape, His potential energy asserting itself in unending activities?" (p. 225). The ultimate purpose of creation is universal redemption through Jesus Christ, in whom the primary creative force of God's Word, manifested in "endless varieties" in the evolutionary process, at last takes form. "God sent His only begotten Son in order to make all His children, one and all, sons and heirs of God" (pp. 226-227).

One sees the church's practice of awareness of multicultural issues and religious pluralism was in the small congregation I grew up in, where the pastor used his connections with missionaries in Papua New Guinea to bring a regular series of missionaries and their stories to our congregation and youth group, so that New Guinea mission became part of our lives. One also sees it in a small rural Iowa congregation that spent a substantial part of their income to help support a missionary in Senegal. Through his visits and letters, his family and the people there became part of the life of the congregation.

For Discussion:

1. If the other religions in Israel's world role-played a significant role in Israel's understanding of God and in the formation of Scripture, how might those religions be a vehicle for God's self-revelation?

2. What does the model of the way Israel and early Christianity developed their ideas of God as Creator suggest about how we should deal with modern evolutionary cosmology?

3. What do you think it would mean for how we think of others, if God in Jesus Christ fulfills the deepest longings of people in other religions like God does with regard to Melchizedek?

Key words: cosmology, creation, Messiah, hope, multicultural, pluralism

(1.) See Lamin Sanneh, Translating the Message: The Missionary Impact on Culture (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1989; 2nd ed. rev. and expanded., 2009), 13-55.

(2.) William McNeill, The Rise of the West: a History of the Human Community (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1963; 1991), xvi.

(3.) "Mesopotamian Cosmogony (Enuma dish)," in Mircea Eliade, Essential Sacred Writings from Around the World (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1967), 97-109.

(4.) "Amenhotep IV and the Hymn to Aten," Eliade, ibid., 27-31.

(5.) Veda and Torah; Transcending the Textuality of Scripture (Albany, N.Y.; SUNY, 1996), 49. See the discussion of "Veda and Creation," 29-129.

(6.) David C. Scott, ed., Keshub Chunder Sen: A Selection, Library of Indian Christian Theology, Companion Series No. 1 (Bangalore: Christian Literature Society, 1979), 219-247.

Duane A. Priebe

Kent S. Knutson Professor of Systematic Theology Wartburg Theological Seminary
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Author:Priebe, Duane A.
Publication:Currents in Theology and Mission
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:7ISRA
Date:Oct 1, 2011
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