There is a new book on the market called the Human Faces of God by a theologian named Thom Stark. In it, he writes that the ancient Israelites were likely polytheists who practiced human sacrifice. According to an interview with Valerie Tarico, the deity known as the supreme “God” by most Christians is believed to have once existed in a pantheon—much like Zeus was a part of a mythological pantheon.
Because of the centrality of Christianity’s monotheistic message, conservatives may view Stark’s radically different view of ancient Israel as a ploy to subvert the faith. After all, one of Christianity’s most widely cherished beliefs is that the ancient Israelites practiced a purer form of worship than their Babylonian neighbors.
However, many progressive Christians believe that these are the very things the average churchgoer should learn. We know that most of us are well versed in the contents (doctrines) of our faith, but lack sufficient context (or historical understanding). Most Christians can’t tell you how the Bible came into existence or how Constantine’s political prowess shaped early Christianity. Christians can quote the epistles, but are not typically aware that most theologians seriously question Paul’s authorship of many New Testament letters. Most Christians are unaware of the external influences that may have shaped our theology, such as the Mithras mystery cult, or the Code of Hammurabi, or Hellenism.
These things remain in the realm of the unknown for a large number of Christians, but it is this very information that will provide a pluralistic context for our beliefs that hasn’t existed. If we were exposed to the historical context in which Judaism and Christianity were formed as often as we are exposed to doctrine, we would develop the ability to question the veracity of our views. We would see that our Old Testament was produced by an ancient society that didn’t understand science or medicine any more than Zeus’ followers did. We would likely jettison our “only path to God” narrrative if we could simply see that our path, like others, developed through a desire to understand that which transcends human understanding. We could begin to tell our story as one that is shared by cultures all over the world.
The future of Christianity will only be realized when we begin to fully understand our past, and the path to religious tolerance will be paved for Christians with sound religious education. I hope that we will someday emerge beyond blind faith to contextual understanding.