God’s Partnership and Different Religions
By J. R. Hustwit
Differences within and between religions are best explained by a God who partners with recalcitrant humans.
Human beings have imagined God in all sorts of ways: shepherd, liberator, beloved. Imagining God is the basic task of theology. Theologies can be heavily laden, with lots of doctrine attached, or they can be minimal. For this essay, I propose a very minimal model of God, hoping it is easier to swallow. Let us model God as a partner. By this I mean that God’s work in the world is not accomplished by God alone. Rather, God requires creaturely assistance because God cannot or will not override the freedom of creation. Theologians have debated whether God is unable or unwilling to coerce the world into compliance. For the purposes of this essay, both options are fine. Either way, God does not use creatures as puppets, but engages in a genuine relationship of mutual influence, without coercing creatures or abandoning them when they fail to do what God wants.
There are many advantages to imagining God as partnering with creation. Divine partnership resolves many worries about why there is unnecessary suffering in the world. We don’t need to blame misfortunes on God. It is God’s imperfect partners who bear the responsibility. Furthermore, I think God’s role as partner is deeply biblical. For example, when God wants to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, God’s will is not a foregone conclusion. Instead, Abraham argues with God, and successfully wins concessions (Gen. 18:16). Likewise, the exodus from Egypt was full of complaint, faithlessness, and violence (Exod 16-17, 32). A unilateral divine rescue mission—performed by God alone—would have been a much less chaotic operation. Instead, the exodus is accomplished through God’s partnership with flawed human beings. The world described in the biblical narratives and the world we experience today are both heartbreaking and beautiful. This ambivalence is best explained by supposing that God inspires—but does not control—creation.
Divine Partnership and Evolving Religions
My working hypothesis is that God partners with creation, rather than controls it. We can see that this hypothesis fits with how religions develop over time. All potential religions that I can imagine share two important features: they preserve the past and they evolve.
First, religions preserve the past. They transmit beliefs, practices, and sensibilities from one generation to the next. In this respect, religions connect us with the past and offer a sense of belonging and sameness. For example, many Christians still recite Nicene and Athanasian creeds which have endured for nearly two millennia. Muslims recite the Shahadah, which dates back to the seventh century. Religions preserve those beliefs and practices that continue to be relevant to every new generation.
Second, religions evolve because they must be relevant to the present situation. Each generation reinterprets the received tradition anew for their particular concerns. The concerns of the second-century Syrian desert fathers are not the same as the concerns of the nineteenth-century American abolitionists. And neither of these flavors of Christianity addresses the ecological peril of the early twenty-first century. Religious traditions are influenced both by changes in society and by moments of personal religious epiphany. As humans have fresh experiences of God (or Brahman or the Dharmakaya. . .), they contribute new ideas, practices, and sensibilities to the tradition. The sameness of tradition is always in tension with novelty. Sometimes, these changes accumulate to transform a religion in substantial ways. Whether the changes are large or small, religions evolve as people negotiate the traditions of the past and the concerns of the present.
The fact that religions both preserve and evolve is easily explained by God’s authentic partnership with humans. As a partner, God does not control how a revelation is received. Nor does God control the rituals, practices, and values that arise as a response to God’s revelations. This is attested to even in the Bible again and again. God manifests to Moses as a perfectly intelligible voice being broadcast from an unnaturally burning bush (Exod 3). Moses’ immediate reaction is not reverence, but to argue: “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh. . . ?” (Exod 3:11). Jesus heals a leper and instructs him to tell no one, which is the exact opposite of what the leper immediately does (Mark 1:43-35). The disciples continually misunderstand Jesus’ teachings, to the point where Jesus eventually calls Peter a satan, (probably meaning “stumbling block,” Matt 16:21-23). The price of human partnership is an unpredictable departure from the divine aim.
After an initial revelation, a tradition evolves, offering more opportunities for human creativity. The Bibles accessible to the English-speaking world are translations of translations of translations. Each translation is an occasion for wily human idiosyncrasy to alter the scriptural lineage. We need only pick up two different English translations of the Bible to see that all translation is interpretation, as particular words are chosen to stand in for the original words, and sentences are reconstructed according to the new language’s unique grammatical standards. If God were to control the dissemination of texts, and God’s interest were conformity, we would not have so many versions of Scripture available at the bookstore. God would ensure that only one translation be published. The same is true for rituals and values. The most plausible explanation for the proliferation of Scripture and the church’s disagreements about liturgy, sexuality, and politics is that God is a partner in the world’s religions, not a sovereign who must be obeyed.
Religions are suspect insofar as they are co-created by fallible humans with limited perspectives. On the other hand, religions are precious insofar as they are co-created by God. This co-mingling of divine participation and human brokenness means that religions are never pure unsullied revelation. Instead, they represent a compromise between divine aims and human concerns, which coalesces in the space cleared by God’s preservation of creaturely freedom.
Divine Partnership and Other Religions
If my own religion of Christianity is a compromise between God and humanity, then I must wonder about the status of other religions. Could the differences between Christianity and Yoruba also be the product of human co-operation with the divine? I can no longer insist that other forms of religious practice are “superstition” or “false teachings” simply because they differ from my own. To be logically consistent, I have to leave open the possibility that my Christianity is as far from God’s truth as any other religion is from God’s truth.
It may be helpful to compare religions to the children’s game of Telephone. In Telephone, one person whispers a phrase to a second person, and that second whispers the phrase to a third, and so on. By the time the phrase is whispered to the 20th or 30th person, the message is invariably transformed either through misspeaking, mishearing, or mischief. Religions, like the messages in Telephone, are the result of generation upon generation of imperfectly copied transmissions, for reasons both innocent and not.
If God partners with more than one religious community, then that places multiple religions on more-or-less equal footing. We may be tempted to try to decode our received message in order to isolate the divine signals amid the human noise. This would be exceedingly difficult if we only examined one line of transmission—one game of Telephone. But there is good news. Humans don’t have to rely on just one transmission. God may have multiple partners in multiple religions. To return to the Telephone analogy, we may conclude that received messages of “monofoam,” “sassafrass,” and “axiom” have nothing in common, but through phonic comparison, one could infer that all three might have been derived from a single whispered “saxophone.” God’s messages may have enduring general themes. Religious comparison—through correlation—can reveal the broad contour of sacred reality that is cloaked by human foible.
Partnership Beyond Religions
Admitting that our religions are co-created by a partnership between humans and God is daunting. It may seem to cast doubt on our cherished traditions. But acknowledging humans as co-creators of religions does not require us to abandon faith. We can instead redefine faith as the refusal to give in to uncritical confidence in our traditions, on one hand, and skeptical despair on the other.
It is important to realize that “religion” is a category invented by humans. In the past, Western academics have shoehorned many ways of living into the remarkably Christian-shaped category of religion. God, however, may not pay much attention to human ideas of what is religious and what is not. In our comparative correlations of religions, we should also be open to finding the residues of sacred partnership outside of the canon of “world religions.” We may also find divine partnership manifesting in traditional storytelling, civic service, family relationships, education, and the wilderness. A partnering God invites us to pursue the divine lure even into unfamiliar landscapes.
Question: If religions are the product of partnerships with God, are we justified in believing that there is only one true religion?
J. R. Hustwit is Professor of Philosophy and Religion at Methodist University in Fayetteville, North Carolina. He is the author of Interreligious Hermeneutics and the Pursuit of Truth (Lexington Books, 2014), in which he argues that interreligious dialogue is not just neighborly but can also contribute to more comprehensive theologies.
To purchase the book from which this essay comes, see Partnering with God: Exploring Collaboration in Open and Relational Theology.