Wednesday, October 15, 2008

The revelation to the Persians

I was the lector in church last Sunday, and this is the passage I read:

Thus saith the LORD to his anointed, to Cyrus, whose right hand I have holden, to subdue nations before him; and I will loose the loins of kings, to open before him the two leaved gates; and the gates shall not be shut; I will go before thee, and make the crooked places straight: I will break in pieces the gates of brass, and cut in sunder the bars of iron; And I will give thee the treasures of darkness and hidden riches of secret places, that thou mayest know that I, the LORD, which call thee by thy name, am the God of Israel.
For Jacob my servant's sake, and Israel mine elect, I have even called thee by thy name: I have surnamed thee, though thou hast not known me. I am the LORD, and there is none else, there is no God beside me: I girded thee, though thou hast not known me: That they may know from the rising of the sun and from the west, that there is none beside me. I am the LORD, and there is none else. I form the light, and create darkness; I make peace, and create evil: I the LORD do all these things.

You can't truly understand how mysterious and striking this passage is until you realize who Cyrus was, and what Old Testament Judaism was. The Jews of the ancient world, for all their many unique virtues, were not a tolerant or inclusive culture: they believed that their God was the true God, and all others were heathen idols, and that they, the Jews, has a special and unique favor in God's eyes. That what makes this passage so inexplicable. Cyrus the Great ("Kourosh" in his native tongue) was not a Jew. He was a Persian, the emperor of the great and mighty state of Persia, the longest continuous political entity in world history. And in terms of religion, he was a Zoroastrian; unlike the Jews, he believed that there was not one God but two, a good God and an evil Counter-God, roughly equal in power and opposite in nature, and that this universe was the scene in which they would fight a nonstop battle that would not end till the Last Day. This dualistic conception, of course, was totally foreign to the Judaism of the time, who did not even think their Devil was much of an adversary for God.

Isaiah, as is true of many men inspired by God, recognized a truth that his culture, and even his religious authorities, did not. He recognized that Cyrus was one of history's greatest benefactors to the Jewish people. Cyrus was the one who had sacked the city of the oppressor, Babylon, on the very night that Daniel interpreted the writing on the wall foretelling Belshazzar's doom. He had allowed the Jews to return to their homeland and rebuild the Temple. He was clearly a friend of the Jews, even if not a Jew himself, and Isaiah recognized in his good actions that God was working in Cyrus' life. In Isaiah's poetry there is the beginning of the recognition that God speaks in many ways to many people, and that one need not be of the 'Chosen People', or of the Visible Church, to be saved.

But it seems to me there's something deeper, too, a question that seems to run through Jewish and Christian history, and is never fully answered. What, exactly, was the Persians' relationship with God? Did they know God in something of the same way that the Jews, or the Platonists knew Him? There are strange parallels between Jewish and Persian religious belief. The ideas of a pantheon of angels and demons, of a great and evil Adversary opposed to God, of heaven and hell, everlasting life and everlasting punishment, and of history as a cosmic battlefield between opposed Powers, are important to Christianity today- but they weren't as important in original Judaism, and it's often said that they were borrowed into Jewish and subsequent Christian theology during the Jews' exile in Babylon. The Persians were, in their own way, monotheists: though they recognized two gods, they only held one of them as worthy of belief. The Persians, in contrast to many other peoples, held that repentance and forgiveness were an important aspect of salvation- God could forgive even the worst sin if the sinner was repentant. We owe to them our ideas of the devil and of the afterlife, without which Christianity would be gravely deficient. And last of all, in the moral and ethical field, Judeo-Christian and Persian morals have some strong similarities. Both upheld the importance of charity, caring for the poor, and that the content of a man's heart was as important as his deeds. Not least, the Jews and Persians were the only ancient peoples I know of to unequivocally condemn abortion.

In the books of Esther, and Daniel, and Isaiah, we see glimpses of a dim recognition that God spoke to the Persians as well as the Jews, and the Persians were not run of the mill 'idolaters'. Let's not forget, too, that the three Magi, the first human beings to recognize Jesus for Who and What He was- as is demonstrated by the gifts of gold (for kingship), incense (for divinity) and myrrh (for death)- were also Zoroastrian astronomers. How is it that they were able to recognize Jesus before any of his own people did so?

There are more questions than answers here. But I don't think these strange glimpses and hints of a deep mystery- of a relationship with God, and an ability to access hidden wisdom, that was possessed by the ancient Persians- is there by accident. Like everything else in the Gospels, the story of the Magi is there for a reason. It even seems to me that the Persians may have learned something about the nature of God and the universe that mainstream Jews and Christians did not. (I think, obviously, that Christianity is the truest religion, but that doesn't mean everything it has ever held is true- different religions have different unique insights to contribute to our understanding of God, even if I think Christianity has the most and greatest. I'd call myself a syncretist in the true and good sense.)

Zoroastrianism differed from Judaism and mainstream Christianity in that it was dualist, postulating a Devil that was co-eternal with God and almost as powerful. Jews and mainstream Christians did not share that belief, although it was a common, perhaps the commonest thread in Christian "heresies", from the Marcionites to the Albigensians. I don't wish that any of these heresies had succeeded- the Manichaeans, while they may have been right about some things, were deeply wrong about matter being inherently evil, and the world would not be a better place if they had won. But suppose they had gotten something right, out of the many things they got wrong? Suppose that they grasped the same insight that the Persians had grasped, and that this insight was true?

In one of my earlier posts, I mentioned that it seems to be there's a strong ontological argument for the existence of an evil power co-eternal with God. This is heretical, but it doesn't mean it's false. If pure logic seems to lead us to this conclusion, maybe a different and separate revelation led the Persians to the same conclusion. And maybe God decided that this revelation was too dark and terrible for humans to bear, and decided to let the heretics- and the Zoroastrians- fade away, and take that truth with them to the grave. Perhaps some truths are simply too much for us to know at this stage in our history. What history tells, us, however, is that it's perfectly possible to hold to a basically dualistic view of the world, and also to believe, fervently and passionately, that Christ was the only son of God, who lived to teach us and died to redeem us. In this sense one can be a follower of both Zoroaster and Christ.

As I said, more questions than answers. Plenty of room for speculation, but little for final conclusions. We must each look at secular and sacred history and come to our conclusions, as I have done above, and rest confident that there will come a day when the mysteries are solved, when we finally understand these strange hints and dim glimpses of a hidden reality, and in which we shall see, no longer through a glass darkly, but face to face.

Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit: as it was in the beginning, is now, and shall be for ever.

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