Excerpt from book “God is not a Christian” by Archbishop-emeritus Desmond Tutu

From: http://southerntimesafrica.com/ 

“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 debate 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 1:9).

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 sin. Sin involves, in Paul’s view, the deliberate contravention of God’s law. There is no problem about the Jew who has received the Torah and constantly infringes it. But what is the case with regard to the Gentile, the pagan who seems to be bereft of a divine law which he could break and so stand justly under divine judgement? If he has received no law, then he patently cannot be adjudged in the wrong before God.

Paul then declares that the Gentile too has received the law which resides in his conscience (Romans 2:15).

Every one of God’s human creatures has the capacity to know something about God from the evidence God leaves in his handiwork (Romans 1:18-20); this is the basis for natural theology and natural law.

Immanuel Kant spoke about the categorical imperative. All human creatures have a sense that some things ought to be done just as others ought not to be done. This is a universal phenomenon – what varies is the content of the natural law.

Paul and Barnabas invoke the same principles in their discourse at Lystra, where they were thought to be divinities (Acts 14:15-17). In his speech before Areopagus, Paul speaks about how God has created all human beings from one stock and given everyone the urge, the hunger, for divine things so that all will seek after God and perhaps find him, adding that God is not far from us since all (not just Christians) live and move and have their being in him (Acts 1: 22-31). Talking to pagans, Paul declares that all are God’s offspring.

An important hermeneutical principle calls us not to take 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 not read into the Bible with our peculiar biases.

A related principle calls us to ask whether what we are saying is consistent with the revelation that God has given of himself finally and fully (as Christians believe) in Jesus Christ. What I have tried to say here is that the text, ‘No one can come to the Father but by me’ need not be interpreted to refer only to the incarnate Logos, for there was also the pre-existent Logos, as the Gospel of John attests (John 1:1).

This would then mean that the preincarnate Logos would lead people to the knowledge of God, a revelatory activity that antedates Christianity. Does not Hebrews assert that God in sundry times and in diverse manners spoke to the fathers in the past through the prophets (Hebrews 1:1).

If this is not the case, we must ask some further awkward questions. Whose divine writ runs where that of the Christian God does not run? What is then the fate of those who lived before Jesus was born on earth? Were they totally devoid of knowledge of God? How could they be blamed for something about which they could do nothing? How could they have been expected to have knowledge of God through Jesus Christ long before Jesus Christ existed?

Jesus himself hold the Law and Prophets – that portion of the Bible we call the Old Testament – as authoritative; that is, as revealing in certain respects the will of God, as when Jesus appeals to the creation  narrative about the indissolubility of marriage (Matthew 19;3-6). He quotes it with approval when he exhorts those who are pharisaical in their call for external religious obsevancies to discover what the text ‘I desire mercy not sacrifice’ means (Matthew 12:7)

How could those who predated Jesus Christ have come to the knowledge of God as is now attested to by their acquaintance with the divine will unless we accept that the preincarnate Logos was active in God’s wlorld long before Christianity saw the light of day?

God is clearly not a Christian. His concern is for all his children. There is a Jewish story which says that soon after the episode of the drowning of the Egyptians in the Red Sea, while the Israelites were celebrating, God accosted them and demanded: ‘How can you rejoice when my children have drowned?’

The Bible makes the position of those who make sweeping exclusivist claims for Christianity even more untenable when we ask some further questions:

What about Abraham? Did he have an encounter with God when he decided to leave his people to go where he knew not? Was it a delusion, or did he in fact discern some command? The existence of the people of Israel, ultimately the existence of the Christian church and our heilsgeschichte – ou salvation history – proclaim that he was not deluded.

What about Moses? Did he meet with God at the burning bush and receive a commission to go down to Pharaoh or not? It appears that his theophany was genuine, for the Exodus did happen and God gave his people the Torah and accompanied them in the wilderness for 40 years, then took them into the Promised Land.

If all this did happen, then which God was responsible, if not the God and Father of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ? We claim as monotheists, in narratives such as those about Abraham and Moses, that it was possible to have an authentic religious experience in which people encountered God long before the Christian dispensation.

This must surely mean that persons were able in some way, perhaps inscrutable to some but clearly due to divine graciousness, to come to God and to have a real profound relationship with God many centuries before the advent of Christ.

That Christians do not have a monopoly on God is an almost trite observation.

We would have to dismiss as delusion and vanity the profound religious and ethical truths propounded by such greats as Ezekiel, Isaiah, and Jeremiah; we would have to be willing to jettison, for example, the ‘suffering servant’ songs.

And how could Jesus claim to have to fulfil and not to destroy what had been proclaimed and foretold in non-Christian scriptures and in the life of a non-Christian community?

And how can anyone hope to understand the New Testament, and thus Christianity, apart from the Old Testament?

How can there be any validity in the typology of the New Testament where, for instance, Jesus is described as the second Adam, as our Passover, as the Son of David, as the Messiah, as the Rock, unless we concede that these adumbrations, these foreshadowings in the old dispensation, referred to authentic encounters with the divine?

And how is it possible for God to have created human beings, all human beings, in his own image and not have endowed them all with some sense, some awareness, of his truth, his beauty, and his goodness? If the opposite is asserted, it would call into question the capacity of the creator.

The Bible, as we have seen, asserts what seems the reasonable position: that all God’s human creatures in some sense have the divine hunger referred to by St. Augustine in his famous dictum: ‘Thou hast made us for thyself and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in thee.’

Once we are compelled by the weight of the evidence to concede that perhaps God somehow revealed himself to the Jewish people, and that it was possible in some sense for the Jewish people to have to come to God, then it is quite unacceptable to make this a unique exception.

After all, these same people were able to speak about non-Israelites as being called by God, as when Isaiah spoke of Assyria as God’s rod to visit his anger on his recalcitrant people, or when he referred to Cyrus, a pagan non-Israelite king, as Yahweh’s anointed, Yahweh’s Messiah (Isaiah 10:5; 45:1-4).

It would be difficult to make sense of the indictments of an Amos  or a Jeremiah pronounced against pagan nations unless there was a sense in which they too came under the purview of Yahweh and were expected to know of the demands of Yahweh!

It must surely be more sensible to maintain that God was, and is, accessible to all his human creatures and that people did have a real encounter with this God before the Christian dispensation. This surely does more honor to God’s goodness, mercy, and justice than the opposite opposition.

To claim God exclusively for Christians is to make God too small and in a real sense is blasphemous. God is bigger than Christians 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 they have been able to discern.

It is no dishonour to God for us to 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 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, the 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 knowhow? And wonderfully, it does not matter.

Is God dishonoured that Mahatma Gandhi was a Hindu? Shouldn’t we be glad that there was a great soul who inspired others with his readings 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 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 me to want to worship him. I am glad that the God I worship is other than this.

We must not make the mistake of judging other faiths by their least attractive features or adherents. It is possible to demolish the case for Christians by, for instance, quoting the Crusaders, or the atrocities of the Holocaust, or the excesses of apartheid. But we know that that would be unfair in the extreme, since we claim them to be aberrations, distortions, and deviations.

What about Francis of Assisi, Mother Teresa, Albert Schweitzer, and all the other wonderful and beautiful people and things that belong to Christianity? We should want to deal with other faiths at their best and highest, as they define themselves, and not shoot down the caricatures that we want to put up. 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 o 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 constraints 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 thing as saying that all faiths are the same, however. They are patently not 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 unequivocally that we believe that all religious truth and all religious aspirations find their final fulfilment 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 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 for all to have a real encounter and relationship.” • (God Is Not A Christian – Speaking Truth in Times of Crisis. By Archbishop Desmond Tutu will be published on 5 May 2011 by Rider Books. 237 pages, including index. £12.99 hardback. ISBN 978-1-8460-4251-5)

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