A Critique of “Seeds of the Word” by John Garvey

Fr. John Garvey has written a book on Orthodoxy and other world religions that has apparently become quite popular in various parishes in the United States.  A friend had suggested that we should carry the book in our bookstore, which led me to obtain a copy to review before placing in the store.  We generally don’t carry books we haven’t read in the store, with a few exceptions (mostly among some of the children’s books where we know the work of the publishing company well).  While we don’t have a specific set of criteria for any book to be included, I can summarize the basics of what we are looking for.  The book should be about some aspect of Orthodoxy, reflect the teaching of the Orthodox Church, and should be something we are comfortable with placing in the hands of our parishioners.  This last category is a bit fuzzy, but we avoid selling books that would make us feel as if we need to provide a warning with the book.  Unfortunately (I say that somewhat tongue in cheek, because I think actually that it is quite fortunate), there is nothing akin to an Imprimatur or Nihil Obstat within the Orthodox world.

With that in mind, I’d like to offer my thoughts, both after an initial read, and after a deeper reading of specific sections of the book.

The fundamental purpose of this book is to provide both a guide, if you will, to the manner in which Orthodox Christians should approach other religions, and a primer on many of the major world religions.  The author plans on addressing how we should approach other religions by providing a survey of historical contacts between Orthodoxy and these other religions, as well as looking at some modern interactions.  Fr. Garvey is careful to never suggest that he will establish “the” Orthodox approach, as there are not many situations where there is a singular Orthodox approach – as his historical analysis reveals.  It is, perhaps, somewhat interesting, however, that the friend that recommended the book feels that this is precisely what he did, and thus it is disappointing that we wouldn’t carry a book that establishes the Orthodox view on any topic.  This speaks, to some degree, on precisely why we try to be a bit cautious about the books we carry.  After I discuss the areas where I feel the author to be mistaken, I hope you can understand why I wouldn’t want people to buy this book from me with the mistaken view that Fr. Garvey’s perspective is historically Orthodox or worse is “the” Orthodox perspective.  I should note that Fr. Garvey, while not directly purporting to establish “the” Orthodox approach, does intend to demonstrate what he feels is a consistent Orthodox approach.  I agree that he does that, but the approach he demonstrates is not entirely the one he intends.
The book is clearly not intended for an academic audience.  It is fairly short, covering a mere 126 pages, and although has a decent sized bibliography, no attempt is made to footnote the many quotes and assertions in the book.  Further evidence of the intended audience can be found in the numerous caveats and qualifications placed in the book anytime the topic of interfaith dialogue comes up.  Fr. Garvey knows that the readers of his books would not be academically trained theologians, so he is clear to reiterate, again and again, that we are not to adopt a relativistic approach.  However, it is the very need for so many warnings that indicts this text as one that perhaps should have been left unwritten.  If a product needs too many warnings in order to be used safely, the benefit better be significant.  In my opinion, one of the reasons for the warnings is that Fr. Garvey is proposing, at least in part, an approach to interfaith relations that is beyond what we have seen historically.
My Issues with the Book
In the introduction, Fr. Garvey reveals what he believes is one purpose for interfaith dialogue, which is to help us learn more about our faith, and to possibly even learn new truths which can be absorbed into Orthodoxy.  At one point we are promised that, “as we will see, the history of Judaism and Christianity has shown that the Christian tradition can absorb truths from other religions and grow from that contact.” (p. 18) , and then we are told that  “a dialogue is necessary and can help us to sharpen our appreciation of our own Orthodox heritage.”  Of course, this is followed with another warning that we can’t be relativists.  That is, we can learn new things from other religions, but we need to do so while reminding ourselves that our religion has the fullness of truth, and theirs doesn’t.
I have three major problems with this perspective(beyond the incoherency of the position).  The first is that such an approach to other religions is not at all reflected in the history of Orthodox relations with other religions that is surveyed.  Although there is a promise to demonstrate how Christianity has absorbed truths from other religions, it remains unfulfilled throughout the text.  There are three different events he brings up that he might think fulfilled this promise, but none of them actually do.  One of these is a story, taken from one of the several collections of sayings of the Desert Fathers:
Abba Olympus said this, “One of the pagan priests came down from Scetis one day and came to my cell and slept there.  Having reflected not he monks’ way of life, he said to me, ‘Since you live like this, do you not receive any visits from your God?’ I said to him, ‘No.’  Then the priest said to me, ‘Yet when we make a sacrifice to our God, he hides nothing form us, but discloses his mysteries; and you, giving yourself so much hardship, vigils, prayer and asceticism, say that you see nothing?  Truly, if you see nothing, then it is because you have impure thoughts in your hearts, which separate you from your God, and for this reason his mysteries are not revealed to you.’  So I went to report the priest’s words to the old men.  They wee filled with admiration and said that this was true.  For impure thoughts separated God from man.” (p. 87)
Fr. Garvey interprets this to mean that the elders needed to learn something from the pagan priest, or that the monk in the story needed to.  I did not read that story as meaning that at all.  Instead, it seemed to me that they elders were filled with admiration that a pagan had such insights.  That impure thoughts were preventing the monk from seeing God was hardly a new concept to the men and women of the desert.  It is found throughout their writings.
Another event might be the legend of Sts. Barlaam and Josaphat, which, it is purported, is simply a re-telling of the story of Sidartha. Although now accepted by academics, I find the foundation for this view to be a bit tenuous. Be that as it may,let’s assume that it is the case.  It still doesn’t point to some deep truth that Buddhism holds that we needed to learn.  Rather, it is a useful sort of morality tale where, in spite of a fathers desire to keep his child away from Christianity, the child becomes a Christian and converts the father.  I suspect there are many such stories within Christian history,
I think, however, that the event that is being proposed as an instance of Christianity learning from another faith, is the possibility that the concepts of life after death and resurrection entered Jewish thought as a result of contact with Zoroastrianism (p. 55 ff).  He is clear to point out that this is still only a theory, but let’s assume that it is, in fact, true.  Can we then proclaim that Christianity learned of the resurrection indirectly from Zoroastrianism?  I have two issues with this.  The first is that there was not one monolithic view within Judaism regarding life after death.  Thus, there was no necessity that Christianity should follow one school or the other.  More importantly, though, is the fact that Christianity learned about life after death and resurrection from Jesus Christ, the Son of God.  We cannot suggest that Christ needed to learn something from Zoroastrianism.  If he did, then he clearly wasn’t the Son of God.  No, Christianity is a revealed faith, not one that grew from something else.  Remember that the apostles, all of them (including Paul, just later) spent several years learning from Christ himself.
What we see in the history of interaction between Orthodoxy and other faiths is not an interest in learning, but either a defense, or an attempt at evangelization.  St. Paul does not engage the philosophers at the Areopagus because he thinks they have something to teach him.  No, he engages because he has a gospel for them to hear.  If we move forward in time, skipping perhaps over the more polemical writings, we never find a case where the Orthodox were seeking to learn about another religion to enhance their own understanding.  Perhaps one of the longest interfaith exchanges we have in history is between the Tubingen Scholars and Patriarch Jeremiah II of Constantinople.  As we read through the exchange, we are never left with the feeling that the Patriarch is seeking to learn something from the Lutherans at all.  Rather, he is politely engaging them and attempting to correct their mistaken notions so that perhaps there can be a restoration of them to Orthodoxy.  The first instance that I’m aware of, and that Fr. Garvey refers to, of Orthodox dialoguing for the sake of dialoguing, or for the sake of learning something new, is in the 20th century ecumenical movement, which is precisely why it is viewed so suspiciously by a large number of Orthodox.  It is interesting to note that among all of the quotes we find from Archbishop Anastasios, a representative of modern Orthodox views on interfaith relations, we never see any sign of such a belief.  He only seeks a more irenic approach when we are interacting with, and hopefully evangelizing, others.
The next problem I have is that such an approach presumes that the person engage in the dialogue is well schooled in their own faith, so that they can discern the truth in the other religion from the falsehood.  If we grant that, regardless of the historic approach of our faith, that Orthodox should talk with non-orthodox for no other reason than to learn something new, then shouldn’t such dialog be restricted to those who know their faith well?  We occasionally receive works by non-orthodox from some of our friends on various topics.  Sometimes, much of what is said can be consistent with Orthodox teaching, sometimes, much of it isn’t.  It is important, then, for me to sift through these items and separate wheat from chaff.  What if I don’t know my Orthodoxy that well (and to be honest, I have a lot to learn)?  What if I read something, think that it sounds good, and yet it is somehow in contradiction with Orthodoxy?  Is it healthy for me to have read that?  Or should I, rather, focus my spiritual reading on Scripture, the hymns of the Church, the Fathers, etc.?  Once I’ve exhausted all of those resources (which I suspect would take me the rest of my life, and then some), then I can read through writings from other religions.
The third problem I have is perhaps just an extension of the previous issue.  That is, the thought that we, as Orthodox generally, have anything to learn from other religions.  Certainly, they may have elements of the truth, but the only way we know that is by vetting a belief or insight against the vast deposit of faith that is Orthodoxy.  But then, this wouldn’t be a new truth.  Of course the argument will end up being more nuanced.  The truth from the other religion merely helps us see what we already know more clearly.  Perhaps this could happen, but again, I would be hard pressed to imagine the case where the same insight and more cannot be found within the vast resources available to the Orthodox.  At the same time, one would need to be cautious that the new insight isn’t, in fact, a movement away from the truth.
I was also a bit bothered by the handling of Islam, and in particular the term jihad.  When he introduces the term, he immediately implies that only extremists hold the view that jihad means holy war.  By doing so, he therefore implies that it has never legitimately held that meaning, but that the term was hijacked by Islamic extremism that arose in the 20th century.  Yet, two sentences later we learn that, in fact, “jihad can refer to a war waged for a religious cause”(p. 47).  I fear that the casual reader will be left with an incorrect notion that only some small group of extremists have held the view that jihad is related to a notion of holy war.
However, jihad clearly meant holy war, or at least armed struggle, and perhaps only meant that, for at least the first three centuries of Islam’s existence,  as we can see in this intelligence analysis,* and is frankly obvious to anybody with only the barest knowledge of world history.  After that time, we see the rise of those proposing an alternate sense for the word.  That this represents a feeling that the word was misunderstood before, I doubt somehow.  I suspect, rather, that it represented the reality that as the borders of the empire grew, greater and greater numbers of Muslims would never have the opportunity to engage in armed conflict, so an alternative meaning was needed.
Although there is a limited amount of depth that anyone can go into with any sort of survey text, this is a case where the topic could have largely been left alone.  Instead, a mistaken impression is created about what is a key piece of Islamic history.  Are similar mistakes present elsewhere in the text regarding other religions?  Again, such an issue gives me pause regarding a book we will sell within out store.
Is There Nothing of Value?
So, does this mean that the book is of no value?  Not at all.  All in all, I think it does an adequate job giving at least a broad brush overview of other world religions.  Of note is that he addresses Sikhism and B’Hai, both of which are probably fairly mysterious and relatively unknown religions to most people.  While everyone by now is probably familiar with the Sikh turban, which has led them to be viewed by the uninformed as possible terrorists, few probably know much about their faith.  Additionally, to the degree that I have much understanding of either Buddhism or Hinduism, I found his treatment accurate, and sufficient for what is clearly a book aimed at providing an overview.
One area which he addresses in some detail, and think quite correctly, is when he juxtaposes to different potential approaches to other religions on the part of the Orthodox.  One, as I have noted is basically a relativism which sees other faiths as merely other equally valid paths to God, which he is quick to point, is not a valid Orthodox position.  The other approach is the one that states that all other faiths are entirely wrong and potentially evil.  While you would like to think that such a view is more of a caricature than a view legitimately held by anyone, it is, in fact, not entirely uncommon, especially within more conservative branches of American Evangelicalism.  Holding to such a view, besides simply being incorrect, has two fairly negative outcomes.  The first is that you effectively remove a key avenue of evangelization, as I noted earlier.  A more Orthodox approach, exemplified in this book by Archbishop Anastasios, and exemplified elsewhere by this great book on Taoism (written by a monk from a very traditionalist monastery here in the US), is to see where an understanding of God, because it exists at a basic level in all humans, is present in other religions.  St. Paul tells us that Christ came when he did, in the fullness of time.  The time when humanity was perhaps more ready to hear His message, than at any time prior, or any time since.  The time, of course, was one devoid of any universal religion.  Instead, there was an abundance of religions that all intersected within the Roman Empire.  It was the presence of some element of truth in each of these, that allowed the seed of Christ’s teaching to take root and grow.
The other outcome is that such a view can easily lead to a dehumanization of adherents of other religions.  In the worst case, it could lead to persecution, either directly or via some tacit approval of the actions of others.  It doesn’t take long in a history book of the 20th Century to find examples of this.  Even if persecution isn’t the outcome, the dehumanization is an incorrect Orthodox perspective.  If we fail to accept the fundamental humanity of all persons, what would be the point of the Divine Commission?
So, the book is worth reading for these elements, it is just important to be aware of those areas of concern I addressed earlier.  As I said at the outset, we do not sell books with warnings, so we avoid those texts.  This has even led us to not carry books I really like, such as this one, even when it is the only text in English on a core Orthodox teaching, simply because the way the text is written could easily lead to erroneous conclusions.
*It’s important to note that the analysis begins by saying that jihad does not mean holy war, by which, the author is pointing out that the word does not directly translate to “holy war”, but rather translates to the word “struggle” with the implication that it is struggling in the way of Allah.  However, that the term had the sense of holy war, is made clear shortly thereafter:
Muslims themselves have disagreed throughout their history about the meaning of the term jihad. In the Qur’an (or Koran), it is normally found in the sense of fighting in the path of God; this was used to describe warfare against the enemies of the early Muslim community (ummah). In the hadith, the second most authoritative source of the shari’a (Islamic law), jihad is used to mean armed action, and most Islamic theologians and jurists in the classical period (the first three centuries) of Muslim history understood this obligation to be in a military sense.