Posts Tagged ‘interfaith’

Lunchbar: Don’t all religions lead to God?

May 2, 2009

Lunchbar yesterday was on the question of “Don’t all religions lead to God?” – certainly a topical question raised by the discussion I went to on Wednesday. I thought the speaker dealt with the topic well – making several points that I think bring a lot of clarity to this discussion:

The Elephant is not silent

If you’ve read or heard anything about whether all religions lead to God or not, chances are you’ve heard the parable of the blind men and the elephant. The moral of the story is that all religions have a bit of the truth, and none of them can pretend to have the whole truth. Religious teachers are like blind men describing the bit of the elephant they are in contact with, but none of them realise the whole truth about God. The problem with this parable is that it is told from the point of view of someone who can see, and realises that the elephant is an elephant and not a wall, rope or tree. The moral relies on the assumption that it is we who are in the position of true knowledge and can see that which the adherents of any one religion cannot see – that they are really all describing the same God, despite their protestations to the contrary. But how are we in this position? How can we have our eyes opened to see what the elephant is? To be in this position of knowledge, we actually need God to reveal himself – while he has done decisively and definitively in Jesus Christ.

The Mountain can’t be climbed

Another common parable is that where the various religions are like many paths all going to the summit of the same mountain. Again, the problem is – how can we know this? To someone on any of the paths, they are in no position of vantage to see whether any of the other paths are going the same way that they are going; it is only visible to someone in a helicopter hovering over the mountain and looking at the different people walking along different paths. These kinds of parables are often thought to typify a humble approach to religious truth by saying that we are all really going towards the same God. But are we really being humble to claim that we have such a position of wisdom and knowledge that none of the adherents of various religions have?

Much more damagingly, this parable implies that it isn’t really that hard to get to know God – it’s just a mountain we can climb up by our own efforts, oin whatever way we like. But this isn’t the case. We often treat the idea of knowing God like it’s paying a visit to our grandparents – we can just turn up whenever and they aren’t going to turn us away. In fact, it is more like going to visit the Queen: we can’t just rock up at Buckingham Palace whenever we feel like it, but it can only happen on her terms, at the time and place she has appointed. In the same way, we can only approach God on his terms.

The trouble is that none of us are good enough for God to accept us – he is holy and we are not. Even if we consider ourselves to be very good – we don’t really realise how we stand before God. Our good deeds don’t outweigh the bad – it’s as if a husband were to say to his wife on their first anniversary “Honey, I’ve been such a good husband; I’ve been faithful to you 364 days this year.” Does that make up for the one day he was unfaithful? No! And with us and God, it’s more like we’ve been faithful one day a year and unfaithful the other 364. We can’t be accepted by God by ourselves; the mountain can’t be climbed. Which is why we need God’s rescue provided in Jesus Christ.


One of the questions which was asked by the audience was whether a Christian society would be a tolerant one. The speaker’s answer highlighted an important point about the nature of tolerance. There are essentially two types of tolerance – the classical kind where we defend the right of people to hold beliefs with which we disagree, and the pluralist kind where we feel unable to disagree with any beliefs, and hold them all to be equally valid. The second definition of tolerance is ultimately self-defeating, as we must hold all beliefs to be equally valid, except the belief that all beliefs are not equally valid. Hoever, a view of tolerance compatible with Christianity is the classical view, and commends coexistence with other religions without condoning those other faiths’ beliefs or practises. It is in this way that a Christian society is tolerant.

Judaism, Christianity, Islam: “Distinct and Undivided”?

April 29, 2009

I’ve just got back from an inter-religious discussion event organsied by the Nottingham University Jewish Society (J-Soc) called “Distinct and Undivided”. Three clerics (a Progressive Rabbi, an Imam and a Vicar) from London were holding a public conversation about relations between Christianity, Judaism and Islam, during which the audience could also ask questions. There was also a (kosher) buffet served afterwards, so I managed to get some falafel and salad as well, which is always a bonus.

The conversation itself did raise some interesting points, but I felt that the “ground rules” given at the beginning really impoverished the discussion and prevented these points being fully developed. The Christian speaker started by drawing a distinction between a “debate” and a “dialogue” and said that the event would be the latter – which he then went on to define in a very Hegelian way: thesis, antithesis, synthesis. This didn’t bode well, I felt!

The approach taken by the Jewish Rabbi and the Christian Vicar in particular was fairly pluralist – the question of conversion came up and they both tried to say that it wasn’t their aim to convert people to their own religion, but that people should just celebrate who they are. The vicar did concede that the New Testament seemed to command mission but that it needn’t be taken literally or prescriptively: The “Great Commission” is only a few verses, after all, and it apparently reads “make disciples of all men” – so if we are to take it literally we should not evangelise to women. Of course, this is a parody of what “taking the Bible literally” actually means, and the text actually says “make disciples of all nations”! Another question from a J-Soc member pulled the speakers up on their apparent readiness to disregard their own scriptures in order to maximise the common ground between the different religions, which was an absolutely valid point: The Rabbi then admitted he did not consider the Torah to be the word of God; and the vicar made appeal to “you can interpret it how you like” line. By this stage I was developing more respect for the Imam, who at least held that the Qur’an was entirely true and divinely inspired, although he too seemed ready to reinterpret “problem texts” when questioned on the penalty for apostasy. The approach the three speakers were using for interfaith dialogue was really exemplified by their answer to a question on whether unity within a religion (intramural debate) or relations between different religions (extramural debate) was more important: the answer was that all religious debates are intramural; after all, Christians, Muslims and Jews all worship the same God.

In fact, after the event, chatting with some of the other people from the audience, I got the distinct feeling that none of the adherents of any religion felt that this was a good approach. The first thing a guy from J-Soc said to me was that the Rabbi didn’t represent his views, or the views of 90% of British Jews – and I wanted to add that I did not agree with the vicar’s insistence that Christ was not the only way to God. Christian, Jewish and Muslim students seemed to be unanimous that at least two of these three religions must be wrong – since they are fundamentally irreconcilable. To model the kind of approach to interreligious dialogue given by the Rabbi and the Vicar really does mean you have to compromise on core doctrinal points of your own religion. But why not take the Imam’s approach of holding your own religion to be true and seeking to be consistent with that, and then talking to those of other religions from that perspective?

For a Christian, such an approach must not compromise on the uniqueness of Jesus Christ, and his divine-human identity. He must not be conceded to be a mere prophet, or teacher, or just one of many ways to God. The New Testament’s bold insistence on the universal validity and need of the gospel must be given full force – and we must not abandon the hope that our non-Christian partners in interreligious discussion will be converted. Of course, and I shouldn’t need to say this, nobody can be compelled by argument or pressure to trust Christ – but it should be something we prayerfully hope for.

From this perspective it is possible to have authentic friendship and relationship with an adherent of another religion – the differences between our religions are honestly highlighted and given full recognition, as well providing us with a chance to talk about common points of contact. In some ways this is harder than the kind of pluralism that pretends diverse faiths can all be equally valid – because it involves tolerating the right of someone  to believe what we believe to be wrong.  Tolerance of people’s right to false belief is great, and a Christian thing to do, but it doesn’t mean we cannot criticise that false belief. None of the religious students I spoke to objected to this kind of approach – it seems we don’t want syncretism, or postmodern acceptance-of-everything-as-true, but real, honest debate.

And with that in mind, come along to Lunchbar this Friday (1st May) where the speaker will be addressing the question “Do all religions lead to God?”. 1.00-1.50pm, Portland Building Atrium. Free lunch included etc etc.