By MIKE AWOYINFA
I am reading this provocative book which I brought from Cape Town titled God is Not a Christian by Archbishop Desmond Tutu. You know him, the outspoken Nobel Peace laureate and the first black Archbishop of Cape Town. I have nothing to say than to invite you to join me as I bring you excerpts from this thought-provoking book about God, Christian faith and other religions. Your comments are welcome:
Most Christians believe that they get their mandate for exclusivist claims from the Bible. Jesus does say that no one can come to the Father except through him, and in Acts we hear it proclaimed that there is no other name under heaven that is given for salvation (John 14:6; Acts 4:12). Those passages seem to be categorical enough to make all debates superfluous. But is this all that the Bible says, with nothing, as it were, on the side of inclusiveness and universality, and does the exclusivist case seem reasonable in the light of human history and development?
Fortunately for those who contend that Christianity does not have an exclusive and proprietary claim on God, as if God were indeed a Christian, there is ample biblical evidence to support their case. John’s Gospel, in which Jesus claims to be the exclusive means of access to the Father, right at the beginning makes an even more cosmic and startling claim for Jesus, as the Light who enlightens everyone, not just Christians. (John 1:19) In Romans, St. Paul points out that everyone stands condemned as under sin before God—both Jew and Gentile (Romans 3:9). This, which is central to the teaching he intends to convey, is found in an Epistle focused on the wonder of God’s free acquittal of all. God’s grace, bestowed freely through Jesus Christ, would be untenable if there were no universality about God’s law… An important hermeneutical principle calls us not to take the Bible texts in isolation and out of context, but to use the Bible to interpret the Bible, thus helping to ensure that our interpretation is read out of the Bible in exegesis and read into the Bible with our peculiar biases.
To claim God exclusively for Christians is to make God too small and in a real sense is blasphemous. God is bigger than Christianity and cares for more than Christians only. He has to, if only for the simple reason that Christians are quite late arrivals on the world scene. God has been around since even before creation, and that is a very long time.
If God’s love is limited to Christians, what must the fate be of all who existed before Christ? Are they condemned to eternal perdition for no fault of their own, as they must be if the exclusivist position is to be pushed to its logical conclusion? If that were the case, we would be left with a totally untenable situation of a God who could be guilty of such bizarre justice. It is surely more acceptable and consistent with what God has revealed of his nature in Jesus Christ, and it does not violate our moral sensibilities, to say that God accepts as pleasing to him those who live by the best lights available to them, who are guided by the most sublime ideals that claim that all truth, all sense of beauty, all awareness of and desire after goodness has one source, and that source is God, who is not confined to one place, time, and people.
My God and, I hope, your God is not sitting around apprehensive that a profound religious truth or a major scientific discovery is going to be made by a non-Christian. God rejoices that his human creatures, irrespective of race, culture, gender, or religious faith, are making exhilarating advances in science, art, music, ethics, philosophy, and law, apprehending with increasing ability the truth, the beauty, the goodness that emanate from him. And we should also join in the divine exultation, rejoicing that there have been wonderful people such as Socrates, Aristotle,
Herodotus, Hippocrates, Confucius, and others. Isn’t it obvious that Christians do not have a monopoly on virtue, on intellectual capacity, on aesthetic knowledge? And wonderfully, it does not matter. Is God dishonored that Mahatma Gandhi was a Hindu? Shouldn’t we be glad that there was a great soul who inspired others with his teachings of satyagraha, who inspired the Christian Martin Luther King Jr. in his civil rights campaign? Do we really have to be so ridiculous as to assert that what Mahatma Gandhi did was good, but it would have been better had he been a Christian? What evidence do we have that Christians are better? Isn’t the evidence often overwhelming in the opposite direction?
Don’t we have to be reminded too that the faith to which we belong is far more often a matter of the accidents of history and geography than personal choice? If we had been born in Egypt before the Christian era, we would have been perhaps worshippers of Isis, and had we been born in India rather than in South Africa, the chances are very, very considerable that we would have ended up being Hindu rather than Christian. It is worrisome that so much should be made to depend on the whims of fate, unless it is to make us more modest and less dogmatic in our claims. God can’t want people to be Christians and then seem to stack the odds so very considerably against them and then proceed to punish them for their failure. Such a God is too perverse for to want to worship him. I am glad that the God I worship is other than this…
Many Christians would be amazed to learn of the sublime levels of spirituality that are attained in other religions, as in the best examples of Sufism and its mysticism, or the profound knowledge of meditation and stillness found in Buddhism. It is to do God scant honor to dismiss these and other religious insights as delusions, which they patently are not. We make ourselves look quite ridiculous, and our faith and the God we claim to be proclaiming are brought into disrepute. I have met great exponents and adherents of other faiths, and I stand in awe of them and want to take my shoes off as I stand on their holy ground. I have no doubt that the Dalai Lama is one such, and you can’t but be impressed by his deep serenity, and the profound reverence that Buddhists have for life which makes them vegetarian, refraining from all killing, and constrains them to greet you with a profound bow as they say, “The God in me greets the God in you,” a greeting which we Christians could make our own more truly since we believe that every Christian is a tabernacle of the Holy Spirit, a God-carrier.
To acknowledge that other faiths must be respected and that they obviously proclaim profound religious truths is not the same things as saying that all faiths are the same, however. They are patently not the same. We who are Christians must proclaim the truths of our faith honestly, truthfully, and without compromise, and we must assert courteously but unequivocal that we believe that all religious truth and all religious aspirations find their final fulfillment in Jesus Christ. But we must grant to others the same right to commend their faith, hoping that the intrinsic attractiveness and ultimate truthfulness of Christianity will be what commends it to others. That as they see the impact Christianity has on the character and the life of its adherents, non-Christians would want to become Christians in their turn, just as in earlier days pagans were drawn to the church not so much by its preaching as by what they saw of the life of Christians, which made them exclaim in wonder, “How these Christians love one another!”
I am not aware of any major faith that says human beings are made for a destiny other than the high destiny of being in uninterrupted communion with the divine, however this may be defined, whether the summum bonum, the greatest good, is to be absorbed into the divine, or to exist as distinct for all eternity in nirvana, or paradise, or heaven. I am not aware that any faith has declared that it is acceptable that human beings should be victims of injustice and oppression. On the contrary, we have been able to walk arm in arm with adherents of other faiths in the cause of justice and freedom, even as fellow Christians have vilified and opposed our witness.
I hope I have done enough to convince diehard exclusivists that the Christian cause is served better by a joyful acknowledgment that God is not the special preserve of Christians and is the God of all human beings, to whom he has vouchsafed a revelation of his nature and with whom it is possible to for all to have a real encounter and relationship.