River Wissey Lovell Fuller

Anglican newsletter

February 2008

Keith debates the Christian view on other religions.

February 2008 Newsletter

A prospective Catholic missionary was asked (perhaps a hundred years or more ago) what he proposed to do when he arrived in darkest Africa. He said he would bring Jesus to the natives. He was asked whether all non-Christians were damned. He said he did not believe so, but that he did believe that all who rejected Jesus were damned. So, his questioner continued - if he told the people about Jesus and they did not believe him, then by that fact they would be damned? He agreed. The questioner wondered if it was right for him to go among innocent people, tell them about Jesus and thereby condemn them to eternal damnation.

There are many Christians who think they have THE answer and that all other religions (quite apart from other Christians!) have it all wrong. I am not so sure that I am quite that smart nor do I think that God has picked me and maybe a few other like thinkers to reveal his true self to, while leaving everyone else in relative ignorance.

Even the main stream of Christians in a country like England may think that Jews and Muslims are just not getting it right and that Hindus and Buddhists and Sikhs and the other non-Semitic religions are just totally beyond the pale. Again I can't be quite that sure. It only becomes clear again (ie after the initial creation stories) in the Bible that there is only one God when we come to the story of Abraham. Interestingly God promises Abraham that his seed will cover the world and then he repeats that promise to Abraham's two sons Israel and Ishmael. Israel is the progenitor of the Jews and Ishmael is the progenitor of Islam. The Jews gave rise to Christianity. Jesus was a Jew well versed in the Jewish scriptures and continually referring to them and to the God of the Jews.

So Islam, the Jews and the Christians all claim the same initial revelations of the same God. Their religious dogma and practices have diverged and involve to some degree a denial of the validity of each others modern religions. BUT they do have the same God, they do all subscribe to the same moral codes, based on their religious traditions and teaching. None of them are fundamentally wrong. I am bound to conclude that all of them are to some degree mistaken in their understanding. Given that God continues to reveal himself to us (actually I am not sure that the Jews and even more the Muslims accept that there is a continuing process of revelation), then it is not surprising that our concept of God develops over time and, hopefully, we become a little wiser and more sophisticated as the generations pass.

I am led by this type of thinking to wonder if God's revelations are limited to the favoured Semitic religions. Although it may well be so, it would contradict our understanding of God, as revealed to us, to assume that he is ignoring the great body of mankind. Even despite the success of the three great Semitic religions to proselytize and spread their beliefs throughout the world, they still do not include the majority of mankind. So I find myself forced by my understanding that our God is a loving and generous God to believe that he finds ways to talk to people who have never heard of Jesus or Mohammed or Israel. If he talks to them, then they must (because they are humans) find ways to talk about him and to give him a name. I have no idea how this all works out and how, say, Hindus (an animist and multi-theist religion) recognize and worship the same God that I do, but then I am not as smart as God, who famously works his miracles in way we can't fathom.

I know that many Christians who read this will wonder how heretical I am prepared to be. After all we read in the New Testament that Jesus is THE way, the truth and the life, that HIS name is the only name. I absolutely believe that that is true for me and for many others, but, yet again, I don't believe that God is limited by my understanding of what he has done, wants to do and can do.

I am afraid that many of us are in the same bind in which the missionary to Africa found himself. For all I know the Bishop of Rochester is right and there are Islamic no-go areas in some of our cities. For all I know there may be Christian no-go areas also (we all know of the problems that some quasi-Christian sects have produced in the last few decades). Where I think he was wrong was in emphasizing that they were Islamic, even though they may well be so. But people who are misled in their thinking are misled - it is not the way of thinking from which they have been misled that should be held up to scrutiny, but the teaching, the leadership that has led them astray.

I believe that we are all God's people and that we are denying that son/daughtership if we say that we are fundamentally better than some others. We have to drop the religious arrogance that says we have it right and that, therefore, every one else has got it wrong. At different times in history, Christianity has been involved in terrorism claiming to be acting in the name of our Christian God. Nowadays we ask that that history not be held against us - it was a time of error, for which we cannot now be held responsible. Maybe parts of Islam are involved in terrorism, invoking the name of their Muslim God; maybe Israel is involved in terrorism in Palestine, invoking the name of the God of Abraham and Jacob. That does not make their religions wrong, only some of their misunderstanding adherents.

My mother, not untypically, used to take the view that those of her relatives and friends who do not respond to her letters to them, do not deserve another letter until they DO respond. But she wants to communicate with them. She has learned that id she wants to communicate then she must get on with it - it is her responsibility. If I want to talk to my children, it is silly for me to wait for them to call me, when I can as easily pick up the phone, send an email or tap out a mobile message as they can. If it means that I am always the one to initiate a conversation, then so be it. [Actually, we believe that God is doing this all the time.] If we want to create good relations with people of other races, of other religions, then it is up to us to approach them with our hands out and open - it is no good waiting for them to come to us. Especially when we stand back from those that we have allowed to come to our shores and settle here, we do ourselves no favours, quite apart from them.

The danger for us in our small villages in West Norfolk is the belief that these issues are not really present for us so we do not need to take up a position. However, in all probability, we are merely microcosms of larger communities. It is just that if 1% of a population of a million is 10,000 - a sizeable potential ghetto - then 1% of a population of 1,000 is only 10 people, who may be wholly invisible to almost all of the other 990 people there. But we do all have our unfortunate ones amongst us - and it is right that even if we are not all able to reach out to them, we should all be generous in our thinking and, if possible, in our actions.

One of the more recent trends in Christian thinking is to regard God as very much a personal God who deals with each one of us on a one to one basis. Your feeling for your God may be subtly (or even considerably) different than your neighbour's - but that is probably because you and your neighbour are different. My relationship with each of my children is different - it has to be if it is to be truly meaningful. By the same token my relationship with my Father God is different to anyone else's - it is especially my relationship with him and it is, of course, flawed by reason of my dishonesty with him, just as my family relationships are flawed by the little dishonesties and failings of which I as much as any one else is guilty. I have no right to think that someone else's relationship with God is not as right as it can be, just because it is different from mine. And if I call my mother 'Mum', and you call yours 'Mother' and one of my daughters calls hers 'Titch', then she is still our mother. God is still God and you must talk to him using the name that is special between you.

Licensed Lay Minister

Keith MacLeod

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