So you live in a land where there is a free marketplace of competition to sell most goods and services. In the USA this means even our schools and colleges that compete with public institutions. And where health insurance is concerned, we have no single payer system of socialized care. Banking, same way. Retailing, much competition prevails. In general, America has prospered when open competition forces suppliers to create, differentiate, and excel in their particular product or service line. We generally have free and open bidding for buyers.
So is this a good thing or a bad thing?
How many of us like the idea of a monopoly where one giant corporation or a few giant corporations get to decide which products and services are allowed to enter the marketplace? And at which price? Would it be okay so long as that monopoly is not public, like the government, but only private, like Exxon-Mobil to name but one big supplier? Or do you somehow think our freedom depends on being able to pick and choose? No monopolies allowed.
Which is better: plenty of competition or no competition at all?
Choice made? Then let’s move on to the question of religion. Better to have a monopoly on religion, say, Christianity? Or better to have free competition among different religions? And within each different religion, is it better for that faith if buyers (i.e., believers) must choose between conservatives or nothing, or should there be both conservatives and liberals displaying their wares? Should there be open discourse or exchange of ideas, or is it best to segregate ourselves according to narrow doctrines?
Got that one answered? Then move on with me to the question of scriptures. Better to have many or few? Better to have only one translation or many? Better for only one interpretation of what these scriptures mean, or several possible interpretations? And because these scriptures point us to God, as they do in the 3 Abrahamic faiths of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, then do we read in them a God open to competition or One who is closed?
Using the Christian scriptures as an example, what does the Old Testament prophet Elijah reveal about God? If you’re interested in knowing, I’ll invite you to turn with me to the book of I Kings, chapters 17-18. I’m not going to proof text here with a single verse or two nor paste the entire 2 chapters into my post. So check this out for yourself. Won’t take you that long if you start on I Kings 17:8. The first miracle this prophet performs happens not in Judah or Israel but rather in the foreign province of Phoenicia, in a small town called Zarephath. In the home of a foreign widow and her orphan son. Elijah’s most substantial miracles on their behalf turns this woman into a believer, as noted in the last verse of chapter 17. “Then the woman said to Elijah, ‘Now I know you a man of God and the Lord’s word from your mouth is true.’”
Turn the page. Next chapter, you’ll notice that some time later on Elijah is told by God to return to Israel’s King Ahab, a man who with his wife, Jezebel, worshiped the Baal god and who had essentially caused Elijah’s exile in the first place after murdering most of Yahweh’s other prophets. So here’s Elijah now inviting King Ahab to rally his own prophets of Baal and meet him atop Israel’s Mount Carmel. Definite home court advantage for the Baal team. Yet, God was telling Elijah to have an open competition there between these several hundred prophets of Baal and himself, as Yahweh’s prophet. “Then Elijah approached all the people and said, ‘How long will you hesitate between two opinions? If Yahweh is God, follow him. But if Baal, follow him.’ But the people didn’t answer him a word.” — I Kings 18:21.
As we go on with the story, we find that Elijah doesn’t go about asking for a level playing field so he can compete freely and fairly. Nope. Make it as unfair, as unlevel, as at all possible. Each would receive one bull to be slaughtered. Afterward each would be placed on a pile of wood that would be burned to sacrifice the bulls. Neither the prophets of Baal nor Elijah would be allowed to start a fire. Instead, they would only pray. Side by side comparison between Baal who would answer the prayers of his many prophets, and Yahweh who would answer the prayer of his lone prophet, Elijah. Baal could go first. Even take all day if necessary. Oh, and to make it even more interesting, Baal’s wood must be dry and easy to ignite. Yahweh’s wood must be drenched in water, four one gallon pots of water to be exact. Well, why not make it eight? Okay, let’s go with twelve? Enough water so the servants of King Ahab would be literally standing in water with the bull and the wood and the rocks supporting them.
If you’ve read ahead a ways to see what happened, you’ll notice the story ends in verse 39 when after Yahweh manages to ignite the wet wood in answer to Elijah’s prayer, the people switched sides and worshiped Yahweh instead of Baal, who’d wasted all day trying to get his damn wood, dry as can be, to ever burn.
If you don’t believe that story, there are others in scripture that reveal a similar pattern. God welcomes, even encourages, open competition. Side by side comparisons. Freedom of religion in a marketplace dominated not by Yahweh but rather by foreign gods given every opportunity to win. Jesus especially reveals a God who welcomes foreign competition. In fact, he thrives on it where, among his own home-folks, even his miracles don’t stand much of a chance.
By means of church history, we also come to learn that apart from competition, the state church tends to die out. Worst that can happen to Christians is for them to get their wish granted for a faith monopoly. That is the curse of death! History proves this is so.
Which brings us to the final question about western Christianity. Take American Christianity in particular. Better to declare the USA, for instance, a Christian nation? Better to start closing mosques in our neighborhood or to discourage participation in other religions, including use of their religious customs of attire? Wheaton College thinks so. Or will it be better, as the Bible reveals, for us to do side by side comparisons to help people decide for themselves? I think open competition in religion is good, but what do you say?
My next post in this blog will be to explore the type of competition that God is, I believe, calling us to offer to all faiths and even those with no faith. Spoiler alert: it has nothing to do with the burning of any animals, but it does have everything to do with starting a different kind of fire.