From untruth, lead us to reality
From darkness lead us to light
From death lead us to life
(from the Hindu scriptures, ‘Brihadarankaya Upanishad’)
As our sermon series ‘Faces of Inclusion’ begins today, my task is to offer some reflections on the subject of theological and religious pluralism. How are we to relate to people whose understanding of God, The Divine, The Absolute, differ from our own – whether they are part of the Christian family or members of other religious traditions?
Often creating barriers between people are the trappings that grow up around systems of belief, clouding the vision of the One whom they seek to make known. It is a bit like looking through a window at a glorious view but seeing the glass rather than the beauty that lies beyond: Or worse, seeing your own reflection looking back at you. The problem for any system of religious belief arises when it loses sight of its fundamental task to point people beyond itself to the Divine Presence from whom life’s purpose and meaning is derived.
A second and related problem is that God will, by definition, always transcend even our noblest attempts of definition and description. As soon as any religion – or, indeed, any theological strand within a religion – reaches the point at which it believes God has been completely encapsulated in its creeds and doctrinal formulae, it has moved into the realms of idolatry: the deity created in its own image and confined within the limits of human understanding. But God will not be trapped within religious dogmas.
Theological diversity should not, therefore, threaten or surprise us; neither should the fact that within all the major religions God has many names and titles. No single title can be sufficient, and poetry and metaphor inevitably come into play in the human quest to express the inexpressible.
Quoting Belden Lane, Marcus Borg highlights this provisionality of language when speaking of God:
We must speak, yet we cannot speak without stammering . . . [Language about God] stalks the borderlands of the limits of language, using speech to confound speech, speaking in riddles, calling us to humble silence in the presence of mystery.
And yet, so often in the history of the religions – including our own – believers have used their particular orthodoxies to exclude others who do not assent to a particular set of propositions about God. The results have been devastating – with persecution, conflict and appalling acts of terror conducted in the name of religion.
It is with tragic arrogance that religions and intra-religious groups set themselves over and against each other. Tragic because the deep-seated yearning for encounter with the Divine is something that has been evident across the breadth of cultures for as long as humanity has walked on the earth. As the great psychologist Carl Jung puts it:
I cannot define for you what God is. I can only say that my work has proved empirically that the pattern of God exists in everyone, and that this pattern has at its disposal the greatest of all energies for transformation.
Religion, of course, does not exist in a vacuum but emerges from particular contexts. Geography, history, culture, politics, nationalism, patriarchy and power are just some of the complicated factors that shape the way religions develop and also how we see those whose beliefs are different from our own. Yet, when distilled to their essence, the world’s great and diverse religions have much in common and, at their heart, a longing to faithfully serve God and neighbour and build a just and peaceful world. This must surely be of more importance than the external trappings of religious worship and devotion which will inevitably vary according to culture, time and place.
Now what I am not suggesting is that all religions are the same. Religious pluralism is not about removing the distinctiveness of religions by blending them all together. To do so would be to lose the particular contribution that different religions make to our understanding of God and how we should live our lives. It is more about being open to the fact that God will not be confined by the boundaries that religious systems seem compelled to draw. For us as Christians, that means being open to God being at work in those of other faiths as well as our own.
This can be somewhat disconcerting for Christians who feel such an approach to be a denial of the centrality of Jesus Christ, but it need not be so. Believing in Jesus as the one in whom God’s very nature was uniquely revealed in a human life, in whom the kingdom of God was made present and in whose risen life we participate, is the essence of our faith. For many, including myself, this is the bedrock of Christianity and the basis from which our engagement with people of other faiths takes place. But holding fast to our beliefs about Jesus and his teaching does not mean rejecting the presence of God in other faiths.
In the gospel reading we can learn much from Jesus’ meeting with the Samaritan woman about encounter with those whose theological and religious views differ from our own. A key point to bear in mind in this story is the animosity that existed between Jews and Samaritans in Jesus’ day. Their mutual hatred of each other was, like so many inter-religious feuds, based on an historic falling out, in this case a schism that took place centuries earlier. It had festered across many generations.
Here was Jesus, breaking all conventions by not only stopping in a city of the despised Samaritans but also talking with a Samaritan woman. With no love lost between Samaritans and Jews the woman finds herself struggling with this unexpected encounter. Jesus is, after all, a Jew. In the conversation, which begins with discussion about a practical need – Jesus is thirsty and wants a drink – he then connects with the woman’s spiritual needs. She eventually recognises Jesus as a prophet but still struggles with the relationship between the rival claims about religious truth held by Jews and Samaritans.
‘Our ancestors worshipped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem’ (v.20).
‘You’ in this verse is plural so she is stressing the difference between Jesus’ religious tradition and her own as a Samaritan. She sets up a contrast; an either/or situation suggesting that only one of them can be right, and there is an implicit question in her response along the lines of ‘How can God work among those who believe differently from us?’
There is something going on here about the claims of superiority that beset religions. ‘Our places, our practices, our beliefs are better than yours’ are implied by the woman. We could add to that ‘Our theology, our liturgies’ and so on. Interestingly, as a man of his time, Jesus also buys into this to some extent in his response recorded in v.21:
‘Woman, believe, me the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews.’
None of us believe in a vacuum, and Jesus was no different. But he was able to see beyond the trappings of religion to what comprises the very heart of authentic religious belief. He continues:
‘But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. God is spirit and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth’ (vv.21-24)
At the root of much of the distrust and bad blood between religions, and between those with different theologies within religions, is the tendency to compare the best in one with the worst in another despite the obvious fact that no religious tradition – our own included – has an untarnished record of goodness and light. Similarly, there is a common tendency to focus on the differences that exist between religions rather than on shared values and concerns.
There is no denying the reality of those differences. For example, the essential Muslim and Christian understandings about Jesus are not reconcilable. But there are those in both religions who live lives faithfully seeking to worship God in spirit and truth, and therein lies the key to understanding the heart of religious pluralism.
Somewhat ironically, in an age where inter-religious encounter, respect, and dialogue seem to be growing, that cannot always be said of factions within the Christian tradition and not least in our own Anglican Church. Globally, nationally, locally, Anglicans are in disarray. Conflicting and entrenched views produce much heat but little light as protagonists stop listening to each other and resort to animosity towards each other that bears no resemblance to worshipping God in spirit and truth.
I am not for one moment wanting to understate the significance of the debates taking place – all of which can be traced largely to the way in which the Bible is understood and applied – for liberal, conservative, evangelical, catholic, or any other brand of Anglican. But all of us must surely keep before us the need to avoid drawing boundaries or setting limits around God’s presence in those with whom we disagree. It is all too easy to exclude the other in practice while using the rhetoric of inclusivism.
The fact of the matter is that Christians do not always agree with each other, and that has been so since the earliest days of our faith. Just read the Acts of the Apostles to see what I mean. The challenge is to bear witness to the world about living with difference and sometimes having to acknowledge significant disagreement, but at that point doing so with good grace rather than with anger or patronising contempt for the other.
Theological pluralism no less than religious pluralism is an inevitable feature of the human quest do discern the mind of God and how to live faithfully in the world. We can never encapsulate God within a single, unified system of belief, but through the lenses of diverse religious perspectives and theologies we can discover more about the one whom Jesus calls us to worship in spirit and in truth.
Perhaps we would do well to remember the profound truth to which our reading from Ephesians points: our standing before God, our encounter with the Divine is all about God’s grace. God accepts us in our weakness and frailty and keeps on loving us, even when we get things wrong. How different the church would look if its competing factions could appreciate that generosity of God given to all and reciprocate in the way they treat those with whom they disagree. Yes, it would be easy to despair but we are an Easter people and Alleluia is our song. We live in hope.
Having begun this sermon with a prayer from the Hindu tradition, let me now close with something from the Reformed Jewish Prayer Book of 1977:
‘We are children of many traditions, inheritors of shared wisdom and tragic misunderstandings. In that which we share, let us see the common prayer of humanity; in that which we differ, let us wonder at the freedom of humanity; in our unity and our differences, let us know the uniqueness that is God’.