Saturday, April 03, 2010

It's Easter Saturday and we are getting ready for tomorrow.  This is the last in the series on God.  I think this is a good day for it.  Happy Easter everyone!

6. The Question of God: The Answer is Christ

In what we have been saying about God so far, the assumption has been that it is within the Christian faith that the answer to the question of God is to be found.  This seems to rule out any contribution that other religions may want to make.  In these relativist days, however, to suggest that there might be only one way, one truth, and one life to follow, if you are to come to God is considered arrogant and bigoted.  In what follows, I will attempt to explain what I think our attitude to other religions should be and, at the same time, bring our series on the question of God to a close.

Firstly, we need to acknowledge that individual members of other religions are often good, kind people whose commitment to their faith is every bit as sincere as is that of Christians to theirs.  Indeed, the commitment of some members of other religions puts Christians to shame.  Furthermore, the contribution that some people of other faiths make to the general well-being of human beings leaves many Christians far behind.

Secondly, we also need to acknowledge that Christians, past and present, have, on many occasions, got things horribly wrong.  On an individual level, we have not followed the example and teachings of Christ; our lives have not witnessed to him; and we have frequently been guilty of hypocrisy and sin.  On a corporate level, the Church has much of which to repent.  The Church has to accept guilt for its instigation of, involvement in, and complicity with injustice, exploitation, violence, and a general inhumanity.  Our behaviour, at times, towards those of a different religious belief to our own cannot be defended.  And should not be.

Thirdly, though, we ought, perhaps, to make a distinction between the Christian religion and the revelation of God in Christ.  Religion is what we human beings do.  Sometimes, we will get it right and our religion will be a faithful enactment of the teaching of Christ.  It will express our obedience to and worship of our Lord.  On other occasions, it will be entirely neutral, neither good or bad in itself, but capable of becoming either.  On still other occasions, we will get it entirely wrong, and rather than the Christian religion being something good or even just neutral, it will become something bad, even demonic, reflecting our continuing sinfulness, rather than our obedience to God.  On most occasions, it will be a blend of all three.

So, as an example of the good, we might cite the bravery and sacrifice of the early Christian martyrs, who stood firm against paganism and persecution at the cost of their lives as they proclaimed the Gospel of Christ.  As an example of something neutral, we might cite synodical government (or any form of Church government for that matter).  There is nothing wrong with it in itself.  At times, it might be a useful way to enable the Church to serve God.  At others, it might prove a complete waste of time and a barrier to the Holy Spirit.  As an example of something wrong, we might cite the systematic persecution and torture of one group of Christians by another at the time of the reformation.

To say that the truth is to be found in Christ is not the same as saying that the truth is to be found in Christ’s disciples.  It should be.  Sometimes it is.  Often it is not.

Fourthly, however, no matter how much we may recognize and acknowledge our failure and sinfulness, both individually and corporately, as Christians, we cannot compromise on what God himself has revealed to us in Christ.  For the Christian, what God has spoken to us in Christ is an absolute standard and completely normative in matters of faith and practice.  No matter how much we may go wrong in the process, our aim as Christians must be to be faithful to Christ both in what we believe and in how we live.

God is to be found in Christ and in Christ alone.  This was a central tenet in the preaching of the Apostles and the Early Church Fathers.  The Apostle Peter, when speaking to the Jewish authorities, says:

‘There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved.’  (Acts 4:12)

It follows, then, that because God has revealed certain things to us in Christ, we cannot believe other things that contradict this revelation.  For example, we cannot believe that Christ rose from the dead and agree with Muslims, who do not.  We cannot believe in a God who is personal with whom we can communicate and agree with Buddhists, who do not.  We cannot believe in one God who alone is worthy of worship and agree with Hindus, who do not.

Some of the most basic Christian beliefs are absolutely incompatible with the beliefs of other religions.  We might agree on some things, but that does not alter the fact that we disagree on much more.  We might be able to work together in some areas, but that must not be at the cost of revealed truth.  If we claim to be Christians and recite the creed each Sunday, then, for good or ill, we are also saying, like it or not, that the other religions cannot be right, no matter how good or nice individual members of them may be.  In this respect, we need, humbly, to have the confidence to believe what our faith teaches us to believe.

When we declare our faith every Sunday in the Creed, we are declaring faith in one God and one Lord.  It is an inevitable consequence of this that there is one truth and that that truth is to be found in Christ.

But why all this emphasis on Christ?  It is because the question of God is ultimately not solved primarily by argument, debate, and discussion, necessary though they are.  And we do not find God by a consideration of the evidence, important though it is to examine it.  The answer to the question of whether there is a God is to be found in Christ.  Personally, we come to know this God for ourselves as we encounter him in and through Christ.  This is an encounter that everyone can have, and which everyone must have, if they are to answer the question of God for themselves.

We are about to celebrate Easter.  Easter tells us that God took pity on us, that he had mercy on our ignorance and our inability to find him on our own by our own efforts, and that he came instead to find us and show himself to us.  When we look at Christ, we are looking at God.  Philip, one of Jesus’ disciples, said to him:
            ‘Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.’
Jesus reply to him says everything that needs to be said:
            ‘Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.’  (John 14:8-9)

May each one of us find for ourselves the answer to the question of God in the only place that it can be found - in Christ. 

Thursday, April 01, 2010

5. The Question of God: The Problem of Which God

Church leaders have expressed concern recently at the extent to which people are turning from Christianity to new age religion, astrology, and the like.  It should come as no surprise.  For years now, the church has gone soft on traditional Christian belief.  It has encouraged people to reinterpret Christian theology and to bring it up to date.  If we do not seem to believe in our faith, it is no wonder that society at large should decide not believe in it either.  All that our attempts to make Christianity relevant have done is to drive people back to what used to be believed before Christianity ever came on the scene.  It is rather ironic that young people should see pagan beliefs as more relevant to them than Christianity.  So much for the desire to be modern.

The problem, though, is a real one.  There can be little doubt that religion is back on the agenda.  Interest in spirituality is high, but the choice of faiths and the variety of spiritualities on offer is bewildering.  When it comes to religion, we are faced with a religious supermarket.  It is perhaps no surprise that people are adopting a pick ‘n’ mix approach to religion.  A bit of Christianity, a helping of Buddhism, a smattering of astrology and - hey presto!- instant religion.

It was not always so in Britain.  It was always the case that the world was full of different religions.  There have always been many competing religions, and Christianity has always had to struggle to be heard on the world stage.  It was once the case, however, that the average believer in the pew could choose to ignore the existence of other religions.  Living in Britain in the 19th century, you were unlikely to encounter any other religion besides Christianity.  This is emphatically not the case today.

Firstly, we see and hear of other religions on our televisions and radios; we read of them in books, newspapers, and magazines.  The world has become a global village, and all of us are increasingly aware of what is happening in other parts of it.  We are conscious today of a variety of religions.

Secondly, immigration has seen the arrival in Britain itself of other world religions.  We do not have to go to the Indian sub-continent to meet Hindus or to the Middle East to meet Muslims, members of these and other religions as well are now British citizens, living and practising their faith in most major British cities.  To drive through some cities, in the 1990’s, is to see not only the church and cathedral, but also the temple and mosque.

The question, then, is a real one.  Which god?  Which faith?  And, why my god?  And, why my faith?  Christians have to determine their attitude to other religions more so today than ever.  Broadly, one of three basic types of approach can be adopted.  All we can do here is summarize them.

Firstly, there is the pluralist approach.  This sees all religions as, in principle, equally valid.  Each religion in its own way expresses the human search for God and represents what has been discovered about God.  On this approach, no one religion can be said to have all the truth.  Consequently, our task is not to convert, but to listen.  We, as Christians, certainly have things that we can share with members of other faiths, but we have things to learn from them as well.  Inter-faith dialogue, joint services, and a search for common ground characterise this approach.

Secondly, there is the inclusivist approach.  This is probably the most common approach amongst Christians at the moment.  On this approach, the Christian faith is seen as the most complete revelation of God.  But that does not mean that we should completely disregard other religions.  They may not be in as full a possession of the truth as us, their understanding may be partial, but what they have is valid in as far as it goes.  We still want members of other religions to come to faith in Christ, but we recognize what is of value in their religion.  They may not have as much as us, but that does not mean that they have nothing.

Thirdly, there is the exclusivist approach.  Nowadays, this seems bigoted and intolerant, but, traditionally, it has been the approach of the Church to other religions.  On this approach, Christianity is the only true faith.  All other religions are in error.  They may be honourable attempts to discover God (equally, they may not be), but in any case, they are still wrong.  Anything that is true in another religion is true only inasmuch as it agrees with Christianity.  So there is nothing Christians can learn about God that they cannot learn from their own faith.  Our task, then, is not to listen to members of other religions, it is to convert them.

What are we to say about all this?  More than can be said here!  The following are brief observations.  Firstly, as Christians we can safely reject the first approach.  To say that all religions are equally valid goes against so much Christian teaching as to render it incompatible with Christian faith.  Furthermore, to argue, as some who take this approach would, that all religions are essentially saying the same thing is not only wrong, it is silly!  The different world religions do not agree with one another.  Indeed, they frequently contradict each other.  The person who thinks that all religions are the same does not know much about religion.

Secondly, Christians have to avoid intolerance.  There is no place in the Church for bigotry.  We must recognize the sincerity of those whose beliefs and practices are different to our own.  We also have to recognize with shame that many members of other religions live better lives than we do.

Thirdly, though, the issue is not whether Muslims, for example, are sincere or whether Hindus live good lives.  The issue is one of truth.  We live in an age which hates the idea of truth.  Everything is relative.  We do not like to think that there is one truth.  We prefer to think that there are many different ways each one right for the person who chooses to take it.  We want to allow different beliefs and alternative lifestyles.  As Christians, we have tended to follow the spirit of the age and have gone, instead, for a faith that emphasizes feelings and individual fulfilment.  What matters is what matters to me.  What is true is what is true for me.  But that is not Christianity.  What is true is what God says is true, irrespective of whether I experience it, feel it, or believe it.

The Bible stresses the importance of truth.  Jesus said: ‘you will know the truth and the truth will set you free’ (John 8:32).  Christians believe that God has revealed the truth in Christ.  Christians make many mistakes, they fail often, but that does not alter the truth of God’s revelation of Himself in Christ.