- Why Christians need to understand the multiverse
It is important for Christians to recognise both the existence and complexity of the religious and philosophical multiverse that now exists in Britain. This is because in order to relate properly to our family members, friends, neighbours, work colleagues, and so forth, we have to understand that they are likely to view the world in a variety of different ways and that the majority of them are likely to view the world in a way that is different from the way that orthodox Christianity views it.
There is a tendency among some Christians today to think that the main challenge to Christianity comes from the critical theory variant of the Postmodern worldview. This tendency is understandable given the high public profile and official support for the critical theory approach at the moment, especially in relation to matters to do with race, transgender and same-sex sexual relationships.
However, it obscures the fact that the number of people who actually hold to a Postmodern or critical theory approach to the world is very small (although disproportionately represented in academia and the media). A far larger number of people in this country hold, often unconsciously, to a Deist or Materialist worldview, or hold to a Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, or Sikh worldview, or to one of the other, smaller, worldviews noted in the introduction.
As has been noted repeatedly in these articles there is great diversity among those who share the same overall worldview. Thus, Materialists will disagree with each other over a whole range of matters, as will Muslims and Buddhists. However, this does not mean that overall world views do not exist. They do, and Christians need to understand them if they are to understand the world they live and be effective witnesses for Christ within it.
It is also the case that many people today have an eclectic worldview in which they consciously or unconsciously view the world in a way that is influenced by a number of different worldviews. For example, there are people whose lives are basically shaped by a Christian worldview, but also embrace a pantheist understanding of God influenced by Hinduism and practice Buddhist meditation techniques as part of their spiritual discipline. For another example, there are those who embrace a materialist or postmodern worldview but whose ethical values, such as a belief in equality, compassion, freedom, and progress are nevertheless derived from Christianity. For a third example, there are LGBTQ+ Muslims who seek to combine a Muslim worldview with a view of sexual freedom and the fluidity of sexual identity derived from Postmodernism.
If Christians are to be effective witnesses to people who hold such eclectic worldviews, they need to understand the different worldviews that these people are combining and how to address these from a Christian perspective.
2. The history of the multiverse
A key question that the existence of all these different worldview raises is how the multiverse came about. Why is it the case that Materialist, Muslims, Buddhists and others exist alongside Christians, both in this country and in the world as a whole?
To answer this question, we have to go back to the beginning of human history.
The biblical account of the beginning of the human story tells us that the original religion of humanity was the worship of the one creator God described in Genesis 1 and 2, the God who subsequently revealed himself to Israel as Yahweh, or in English versions of the Bible ‘the Lord.’ Thus, in Genesis 4:26, which is intended to give a description of what Gerhard von Rad calls ‘the primeval religion of mankind in general,’ we are told that in the time of Seth the son of Adam ‘men began to call upon the name of the Lord’ (‘call upon’ meaning worship).
The God who created the world had made himself known by means of personal revelation to the first ancestors of the human race (Genesis 1:26-30, 2:15-24, 3:8-19, 4:1-7) and it was this same God, Genesis says, who was worshipped when corporate worship was instituted in the time of Seth.
In the nineteenth century, as part of a general revolt against the historical veracity of the Bible, the biblical picture of religion beginning with the worship of a single creator God came to be widely rejected by Western writers on the origins of religion. What came to be held instead was that religion was a purely human construct that had gradually evolved as part of the general development of human culture.
The explanations given by scholars as to the ultimate origins of religion varied from the personification of the forces of nature, the worship of the spiritual forces believed to inhabit human beings and nature as a whole, the propitiation of the spirits of the dead, and the invocation of the spiritual power of the animal symbol (totem) of a particular clan. However, there was general agreement that the religion of early human cultures was primitive and polytheistic, and that monotheism was a late development which emerged as a reaction against this primal polytheism.
This understanding of human religious development has become part of the mental furniture of Western secular culture, something that ‘everybody knows.’
However, like many things that ‘everybody knows’ it can be shown to be wrong. The scholars mentioned above based their work on the assumption that (unlike them) early human beings were ignorant savages, and so their religion must also have been ignorant and savage. Sophisticated ideas such as monotheism must therefore have developed later. The problem with this theory was that it faileed to do justice to the discoveries about the actual religious beliefs and practices of indigenous peoples around the world as these began to be uncovered by students of ethnography from the nineteenth century onwards. Such peoples had cultures which could be seen to preserve elements of human culture that predated the developments in later and more sophisticated cultures, and when their religion began to be studied it became clear time after time that these cultures had preserved an awareness of a single creator god.
A vivid example of what took place is given by G K Chesterton in his book The Everlasting Man.
‘A missionary was preaching to a very wild tribe of polytheists, who had told him all their polytheistic tales, and telling them in return of the existence of the one good God who is spirit and judges men by spiritual standards. And there was a sudden buzz of excitement among these stolid barbarians, as at somebody who was letting out a secret, and they cried to each other, ‘Atahocan! He is speaking of Atahocan!’
As Chesterton goes on to say:
‘…there are any number of similar examples. They all testify to the unmistakeable psychology of sa thing taken for granted, as distinct from a thing talked about. There is a striking example in a tale taken down word for word from a Red Indian in California, which starts out with hearty legendary and literary relish: ‘The sun is the father and ruler of the heavens. He is the big chief. The moon is his wife and the stars are their children;’ and so on through a most ingenious and complicated story, in the middle of which is a sudden parenthesis saying that the sun and moon have to do something because ‘It is ordered that way by the Great Spirit Who lives above the place of all.’ That is exactly the attitude of most paganism towards God. He is something assumed and forgotten and remembered by accident; a habit possibly not peculiar to pagans.’
In addition to the evidence provided by the cultures of indigenous peoples, scholars also found evidence for original belief in monotheism by studying the later development of language and culture around the world. For example, as Robert Brow notes, study of the Indo-European language group shows an awareness of the one creator God among all the Indo-European peoples:
‘His first name was Dyaus Pitar (‘divine father) which is the same as the Greek Zeus Pater, the Latin Jupiter or Deus, the early German Tiu or Ziu and Norse Tyr. Another name was ‘the heavenly one’ (Sanskrit varuna, Greek ouranos) , or ‘the friend’ (Sanskrit mitra, Persian mithra). By metaphor a simile other names were added. God is called ‘the sun,’ ‘the powerful one’ and ‘the guardian of order.’’
The peoples involved eventually became polytheistic, but the linguistic evidence for an original monotheism remains.
In similar fashion, the evidence from China indicates that the earliest form of Chinese religion that we know about involved the worship of the one supreme sky-god known as Shang-Ti or Hao-Tien who was, as Corduan writes, ‘sovereign, eternal immutable, all-powerful, all-knowing, ever-present, infinite, love, holy, full of grace, good, faithful, merciful, compassionate, just, righteous and wise.’ When Confucius and other Chinese writers refer to heaven (as in ‘the mandate of heaven’) the evidence suggests that they are referring periphrastically to this god. As Chinese religion developed the worship of Shang-Ti faded into the background, but sacrifice was offered to him three times a year by the Chinese Emperor until the end of Imperial China in 1911.
These kind of examples of evidence for primeval monotheism from all round the world were compiled by the Scottish scholar Andrew Lang in his book The Making of Religion, first published in 1898, and were then set out in exhaustive detail by the Austrian Catholic scholar Wilhelm Schmidt in the 11,000 pages of his twelve volume Der Ursprung der Gotersidee (the Origin of the idea of God) which was published from 1912 onwards. Further study since their time has confirmed rather than overthrown their findings. The evidence of historical, ethnographic, and linguistic study confirms the biblical idea that the original religion of mankind was the worship of one creator god.
The existence of this evidence raises the issue of the ultimate origin of this religion. We know it existed, but why did it exit? As we have seen, the biblical answer is that God revealed himself personally to the earliest human beings, and this biblical answer is supported by the ethnographical evidence which time after time says that the first ancestor(s) of the people in question learned about God from God, and then passed this information on to their subsequent descendants.
To quote Schmidt:
‘The bottom line is that the reports we have from the adherents of the oldest religions themselves are not only merely disinclined towards the supposition that the religions were created by seeking and searching human beings; rather, worse yet, they do not even mention it with a single word. All their affirmative responses are directed to the side of divine revelation: it is God Himself Who taught humans what to believe about Him, how to venerate Him, and how they should obey the expression of His will. ‘The bottom line is that the reports we have from the adherents of the oldest religions themselves are not only merely disinclined towards the supposition that the religions were created by seeking and searching human beings; rather, worse yet, they do not even mention it with a single word. All their affirmative responses are directed to the side of divine revelation: it is God Himself Who taught humans what to believe about Him, how to venerate Him, and how they should obey the expression of His will.’
As Schmidt further argues, the sort of experience to which these testimonies bear witness is required to explain the evidence that we have concerning primeval religion:
‘Something of such intense force must have come upon these most ancient human beings in an encounter that became an all-encompassing de-stablising experience, penetrating their entire being to its innermost core, so that immediately, due to its overpowering might, it gave rise to the unity and comprehensiveness that we observe, in these, the oldest of religions
This ‘something’ could not have been merely a subjective process inside of the human being himself; for then it could not have held either the power or the complete blueprint of these, the oldest of religions. There would have been no way in which the clarity and solidity of their outlook of faith, as well as the cultural forms associated with it, could have been implemented. Neither could it have been a purely material thing or event, no matter how unusual it may have appeared. For then it would have become increasingly inexplicable how mere material stuff could act on the combined personhood of these ancient people with the power, firmness, and clarity that we admire in these, the oldest of religions.
No, it must have been a powerful mighty person, who stepped toward them, and who was able to chain their intellects with illuminating truths, to bind their wills with high and noble precepts, and to win their hearts with enticing beauty and goodness. And again, this person could not have been an inner chimera or phantasm of mere human origin because such an entity could not even have come close to possessing sufficient actual power to cause the effects we see in these, the oldest of religions. Instead, it must have been a person who came to them as a genuine reality from outside of them, and it is precisely the power of this reality that convinced them and conquered them.’
If the evidence shows that the earliest religion of humankind was monotheism based on direct divine revelation, then why is there the diversity of religions and philosophies that we see today. What happened?
The answer seems to be that the present state of affairs emerged in several stages.
First, there was the emergence of polytheism, a development which saw the one god of monotheism become part of a pantheon of different divine beings. Thus, Zeus, the divine father, is still worshipped, but becomes only one among a range of Greek deities and the same is true of Tyr who ends up as a fairly minor Norse deity. Alongside this development there was also the development of idolatry as both people (such as the Egyptian Pharaohs), and created objects such as statues, came to be seen as the places where the gods manifested themselves on earth, and therefore became the objects of worship In their own right.
Secondly, in the sixth century BC there was what has been described as the ‘axial age,’ a time which saw the emergence not only, as we have seen, of Vedanta Hinduism and Buddhism, but also of Jainism in India, Zoroastrianism in Persia, and Confucianism and Taoism in China.
These religions all seem to have emerged as a result of a revolt against the religious teaching, and also the economic and political power, of the priesthoods of the existing polytheistic religions in India, China and Persia. They introduced a range of religious ideas and practices, but none of them marked a return to a simple creational monotheism. Instead, these new forms of religion were marked by pantheism, or atheism, or agnosticism, or, in the case of Zoroastrianism, a dualism between the good creator god Ahura Mazda and the co-equal and co-eternal evil deity Ahura Mainyu.
The sixth century revolt against polytheistic religion just described seems also to have sparked off the revolt against polytheistic forms of religion which can be found in Greek and later Roman philosophy, a movement which, while challenging existing forms of religion, once again failed to produce a return to creational monotheism.
Thirdly, in the seventh century Islam emerged as a reaction against Arabian polytheism. As we have noted, Islam is an uncompromisingly monotheistic form of religion, and it may have had its roots in ancient Arabian monotheism, but it is theologically problematic because although one of its fundamental claims is that it is in line with the monotheistic religion taught in the Old and New Testaments this is not in fact the case.
Fourthly, Sikhism emerged out of the Hindu tradition in the fifteenth century. It too is monotheistic, but, as noted in article 9 in this series, its form of monotheism also raises a range of theological problems due to its attempt to combine monotheism, with monism and reincarnation.
Fifthly Deism, followed by Materialism and Postmodernism, developed as a revolt against Christian monotheism from the end of seventeenth century onwards.
This leaves us with Judaism and Christianity. To understand their emergence, we need to note that both the Christian faith, and a range of primeval religious traditions from around the world, bear witness to the fact that the creative activity of the single good creator God has been undermined by the work of an evil spiritual power, with the result that the world as it now exists is not how it was originally meant to be. For example, as Corduan notes, the creation account of the Lenape people in the Eastern United States declares that after the Great Manitou created the heavens and the earth:
‘Everyone was content. Unfortunately, the harmony of the world was eventually disrupted by the appearance of an evil magician who brought strife, natural disasters, sickness and death to all people.’
What the Bible tells us is that in order to rectify the disharmony introduced into his good creation by this evil power (what Christian theology calls the Devil), God revealed himself to Abraham and established a covenant relationship with him and his descendants (the people of Israel) through which all the families of the earth would be blessed (Genesis 12:1-3).
The God worshipped by Abraham is identified in Genesis 17:1 as El Shaddai, God Almighty, who is further identified in Genesis 14:22 as ‘the Lord God Most High, maker of heaven and earth,’ the same deity of whom Melchizedek was a priest (Genesis 14:18-19) and in the context of Genesis the same almighty creator God described in the creation stories in Genesis 1 and 2. What we learn from this is that a continuing form of pure monotheistic religion had survived among people like Melchizedek, and that Abraham, who had been a polytheist (Joshua 24:2) converted to this pure monotheism after his personal encounter with God.
The Old Testament then goes on to tell us that this same creator God subsequently appeared to Moses at the burning bush (Exodus 3:13-15, 6:2-4), rescued the people of Israel from Egypt, and established them in the land that he had promised Abraham he would give them. The rest of the Old Testament is the story of how this God maintained his relationship with the people of Israel in spite of their constant rebellion against him, and how he spoke to them through a series of prophets who warned them to worship God alone and to live in obedience to God’s laws, and who also promised that God would act in new way to fulfil the promise of universal blessing made to Abraham.
The New Testament tells the story of how this promise was fulfilled when the creator God took human nature upon himself in the person of Jesus Christ (John 1:1-18, Hebrews 1:1-14), and began a process of cosmic renewal through Christ’s death and resurrection and the pouring out of the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost (Romans 8:1-25), a process that will culminate in the coming of a ‘new heaven and a new earth’ (Revelation 21:1) in which God’s people will dwell with him for ever in which ‘death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away (Revelation 21:4).
As we have seen in articles 1 and 2, the difference between Judaism and Christianity is that Judaism accepts the witness of the Old Testament, but not the witness of the New Testament, while Christianity accepts both. It is for this reason that it is in Christianity alone that the true and full knowledge of who God is, and what he has done in the past and will do in the future, has been passed down and continues to exist today.
What this means is that the story of the development of the multiverse is a story of degeneration and regeneration. It is a story of degeneration in that it tells how the knowledge of the one creator God has gradually become lost during the course of human history. It is a story of regeneration in that it tells how God has acted to restore and deepen this knowledge through the history of Israel, the incarnation of Jesus Christ, and the work of the Spirit, as part of his overall regeneration of the created order in the face of its corruption by the activity of the Devil and the human alienation from God that has resulted from it.
The development of Islam and Sikhism represent genuine attempts to restore monotheism, but the particular forms of monotheism that resulted are flawed for the reasons previously noted, and they do not give an accurate account of the nature of God and his activity in the world.
3. Living well in the multiverse
Living well in the multiverse involves two key activities, standing firm and reaching out.
Standing firm involves holding on to the truth about God and the human situation before God the God has revealed and that the orthodox tradition has preserved. The history of the human race shows that it is all too easy for the truth about God to become forgotten and distorted and the Christian calling is to stand find in ‘the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints’ (Jude 3) so that this does not happen.
Standing firm also involves living in the way that God wants his human creatures to live. As the all good and all wise creator, God has laid down how we should live and the Christian vocation is to be faithful in living this way, obeying all that God has commanded us to do, and rejecting all that God has commanded us not to do.
In the words of Os Guinness:
‘The Church of Jesus can never be the church without both faith and faithfulness, and both of them in a form that is strong to the point of being stubborn. The supreme challenge of the hour for the Church of Jesus in the advanced modern world is to so live and speak as witnesses to our Lord that, as in the motto of the US Marines, we are ‘Semper Fi’ – always Found Faithful. Rarely in two thousand years of Christian history has that calling been so tested as it is in our time. Come threats of death or seductive temptations to an easy life, our task is to stand faithful to our Lord in every moment of our lives and faithful to our last breath.’
Reaching out involves bearing witness to others who do not yet know or accept the Christian worldview in obedience to Jesus’ commission to his disciples in Matthew 28:18-20, with the goal that they too may become baptised disciples of Jesus. What this needs to mean in practice has been helpfully summarised by the great twentieth century missionary theologian Lesslie Newbigin who makes four key points.
First, there needs to be recognition. We must discern and acknowledge the signs of the work of God in the lives who are not yet Christians:
We shall expect, look for, and welcome all the signs of the grace of God at work in the lives of those who do not yet know Jesus as Lord. In this, of course, we shall be following the example of Jesus, who was so eager to welcome the evidences of faith in those outside the household of Israel. This kind of expectancy and welcome is an implication of the greatness of God’s grace as it has been shown to us in Jesus. For Jesus is the personal presence of that creative word by which all that exists was made and is sustained in being. He comes to the world as no stranger but as the source of the world’s life. He is the true light of the world, and that light shines into every corner of the world in spite of all that seeks to shut it out. In our contact with people who do not acknowledge Jesus is Lord, our first business, our first privilege, is to seek out and to welcome all the reflections of that one true light in the lives of those we meet.
Secondly, there must be co-operation. Christians need to be:
… eager to cooperate with people of all faiths and ideologies in all projects which are in line with a Christian understanding of God’s purpose in history. I have repeatedly made the point that at the heart of the faith of a Christian is the belief that the true meaning of the story of which our lives are apart is that which is made known in the biblical narrative. The human story is one which we share with all other human beings – past, present, and to come. we cannot opt out of the story. We cannot take control of the story. It is under the control of the infinitely patient God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Every day of our lives we have to make decisions about the part we will play in the story, decisions which we cannot take without regard to the others who share the story. They may be Christians, Muslims, Hindus, secular humanists, Marxists, or some other persuasion. They will have different understandings of the meaning and end of the story, but along the way there will be many issues in which we can agree about what should be done. There are struggles for justice and for freedom in which we can and should join hands with those of other faiths and ideologies to achieve specific goals, even though we know that the ultimate goal is Christ and his coming in glory and not what our collaborators imagine.
Thirdly, co-operation will open the door for dialogue:
It is precisely in this kind of shared commitment to the business of the world that the context for true dialogue is provided. As we work together with people of other commitments, we shall discover the places where our ways must separate. Here is where real dialogue may begin. It is a real dialogue about real issues. It is not just about a sharing of religious experience, though it may include this. At heart it will be a dialogue about the meaning and goal of the human story. If we are doing what we ought to be doing as Christians, the dialogue will be initiated by our partners, not by ourselves. They will be aware of the fact that while we share with them in commitment to some immediate project, our action is set in a different context from theirs. It has a different motivation. It looks to a different goal.
Fourthly, Christians need to be willing to tell the Christian story, content to leave the outcome to God:
The essential contribution of the Christian to the dialogue will be simply the telling of the story, the story of Jesus, the story of the Bible. The story is itself, as Paul says, the power of God for salvation. The Christian must tell it, not because she lacks respect for the many excellences of her companions -many of whom may be better, more godly, more worthy of respect than she is. She tells it simply as one who’s been chosen and called by God be part of the company which is entrusted with the story. It is not her business to convert the others. She will indeed – out of love for them – long that they may come to share the joy that she knows and pray that they may indeed do so. But it is only the Holy Spirit of God who can so touch the hearts and consciences of the others that they are brought to accept the story as true and to put their trust in Jesus. This will always be a mysterious work of the Spirit, often in ways which no third party will ever understand. The Christian will pray that it may be so, and she will seek faithfully both to tell the story and – as part of a Christian congregation -so conduct her life as to embody the truth of the story. But she won’t imagine that it is her responsibility to ensure that the other is persuaded. That is in God’s hands.
It is as Christians understand the multiverse in which they live, remain faithful to God in their belief and practice, and reach out to others in the way that Newbigin describes, that they will best be able to fulfil their calling to be ‘God’s fellow workers’ (1 Corinthians 3:9) furthering God’s good purposes for the world that he has made.
Books referred to in the arricles in this series
Andy Bannister, Do Christians and Muslims worship the same God? (London: Inter -Varsity Press, 2021)
R Pierce Beaver et al, The World’s Religions (Oxford: Lion, 1992)
G K Chesterton, The Everlasting Man (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1993)
Winfried Corduan, In the Beginning God, (Nashville, B&H Publishing, 2013)
Winfried Corduan et al, Eastern Religions (Areopagus Journal, May/June 2009)
Richard Dawkins, The Blind Watchmaker (London: Penguin, 2013)
Os Guinness, Impossible People (Downers Grove, IVP, 2016)
Peter Kreeft, Fundamentals of the Faith (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1988)
Andrew Lang, The Making of Religion (London: Longmans, Green & Co., 1898)
Martin Luther, Shorter Catechism, in John Leith (ed) Creeds of the Churches (Oxford: Blackwell 1973)
C S Lewis, Mere Christianity (Glasgow: Fount, 1984)
Stephen Meyer, The Return of the God Hypothesis (London: Harper One, 2021)
Lesslie Newbiggin, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society (London: SPCK, 1989)
Eleanor Nisbett, Sikhism – A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: OUP, 2005)
William Paley, Natural Theology (Oxford: OUP, 2008)
Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay, Cynical Theories, (Rugby, Swift Press, 2020)
John Polkinghorne, One World (London: SPCK, 1986)
Bertrand Russell Mysticism and Logic (New York: Barnes and Noble, 2017)
Wilhelm Schmidt, The Origin of the Idea of God (Munster: Aschendorff, 1912-1955)
Christian Smith and Melinda Denton, Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers (Oxford: OUP, 2005)
James Sire, The Universe Next Door, 6ed, (Downers Grove, IVP, 2020)
Kevin Vanhoozer, Is there a meaning in this text? (Leicester: Apollos, 1998)
Those who are interested in reading the texts of non-Christian religions for themselves can find online translations at The Internet Sacred Text Archive (www.sacred-texts.com )