“Ask a Priest: Is it OK to recognize the beliefs of other religious traditions?”

Q: I always felt that it was very interesting that the First Commandment has to even mention “other gods.” Is it fair to assume that there are lesser gods than the Lord? It seems like odd phrasing, when God / Moses (as a vessel) could use a more total choice of words. I know the translation between the original Hebrew text may sometimes end up bumpy, but being that it is the First Commandment I would like to believe that it would be of chief importance to get that right. So, is it bad to recognize the beliefs of and practice other religious dogma with others of different belief as long as you still find your own personal faith in the Lord himself? -P.T.

Answered by Fr. Edward McIlmail, LC

A: The verse you refer to is Exodus 20:3. It reads, “You shall not have other gods beside me.”

A footnote in the New American Bible version online points out: “Beside me: this commandment is traditionally understood as an outright denial of the existence of other gods except the God of Israel.”

A fuller appreciation of the verse is a little more complicated. Among the ancient audience who heard this verse were Israelites who likely believed in the existence of the gods of other nations. They lived among polytheists (those who believe in many gods) and the move toward belief in the one true God took time to develop. This is not because the others gods ever existed. Rather, it was because the ancient Israelites were, so to speak, spiritual infants, and it took time for them to accept the revelation that there was only one God. God, speaking through Scripture, met the Israelites “where they were” and slowly educated them about himself. He eventually revealed the deepest mystery of himself — that he is a Trinity of three divine Persons — with the coming of Jesus Christ.

Now to your other question (which I hope I understand correctly). It is OK to recognize the beliefs of other religious traditions. Other belief systems exist, no doubt. What isn’t OK for a Christian is to practice other religions. This would violate the First Commandment.

The reason is simple. Jesus was the fulfillment of God’s revelation to the world. There is no other savior but Jesus (for more reading see the Holy See document “Dominus Iesus”). There are no other gods — unless we mean the metaphorical gods of money, power, pleasure and fame that tempt people in every generation.

I pray that you keep focused on the one true God, as revealed fully by Jesus Christ.

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