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.

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