Monday, June 6, 2011

The God of Jesus Christ or the God of Gandhi?

God is Not a Christian is a provocative title for a book by an Anglican Archbishop - Desmond Tutu - which might be excused on financial grounds, the publisher wanting to sell books and the writer wanting to earn a crust, but begs a few questions on theological grounds. In an excerpt (from a talk originally given in Birmingham) ++Tutu writes this:

"Surely we can rejoice that the eternal word, the Logos of God, enlightens everyone -- not just Christians, but everyone who comes into the world; that what we call the Spirit of God is not a Christian preserve, for the Spirit of God existed long before there were Christians, inspiring and nurturing women and men in the ways of holiness, bringing them to fruition, bringing to fruition what was best in all. We do scant justice and honor to our God if we want, for instance, to deny that Mahatma Gandhi was a truly great soul, a holy man who walked closely with God. Our God would be too small if he was not also the God of Gandhi: if God is one, as we believe, then he is the only God of all his people, whether they acknowledge him as such or not. God does not need us to protect him. Many of us perhaps need to have our notion of God deepened and expanded. It is often said, half in jest, that God created man in his own image and man has returned the compliment, saddling God with his own narrow prejudices and exclusivity, foibles and temperamental quirks. God remains God, whether God has worshippers or not.

This mission in Birmingham to which I have been invited is a Christian celebration, and we will make our claims for Christ as unique and as the Savior of the world, hoping that we will live out our beliefs in such a way that they help to commend our faith effectively."

I find this to be a curious mixture theologically speaking. God is at work in the world through the ages fulfilling his plans, without reference to Christ ... but then there are claims to be made 'for Christ as unique and as Savior of the world.' No doubt a longer reading of ++Tutu's theological writings would connect the dots in one flowing theology of salvation. But here it is difficult to understand why God needs Christ to come into our world to save us. The difficulty is accentuated by reference to God as the 'God of Gandhi', not in the sense that God is the God of every human, but in the sense that God is the God of this very holy man. If Gandhi, without reference to Christ is holy, then what need of Christ as Saviour and Lord?

But was Gandhi holy? Does he match up to ++Tutu's description and injunction when he writes,

"We do scant justice and honor to our God if we want, for instance, to deny that Mahatma Gandhi was a truly great soul, a holy man who walked closely with God. Our God would be too small if he was not also the God of Gandhi".

The thing is this: there is reason to deny that Gandhi - the real Gandhi, not the Gandhi of myth and movie - was not a truly great soul, a holy man who walked closely with God. Reading this, for instance, we find a case being made for Gandhi being just another frail, fallible man, who made some disastrous and painful mistakes, through his own stubbornness and shortsightedness, and who did not in the end transcend his own culture and its structural injustices (especially with reference to the Untouchables). In sum: Gandhi needed Jesus Christ as saviour as much as anyone in this life.

God is greater than our ability to conceive God and God is at work in the world in ways we do not see. But God is simply the God of Jesus Christ. God is not the God of A.N. Other. There is no other God than the Christian God. The privilege of Christians is both to know this God (for God has graciously disclosed himself to us through Jesus Christ and provided Holy Scripture for us as witness to that disclosure) and to make this God known in the world.

The paradox of God is Not a Christian being written in South Africa is that it would not have been written at all if through the ages Christians had settled for the view that God was at work in the world making people holy without reference to Jesus Christ. On that basis the gospel would be the message of a tiny sect in Judea and Galilee, likely not surviving beyond the end of the second century A.D.


Father Ron Smith said...

YES, Peter, I do believe that our God and Father is also the God and Father of Mahatma Ghandi. I'm sure he, too, was saved by the Sacrifice of Christ on the Cross. After all, he was much more charitable towards 'outsiders' than some of our fellow 'Christians'.

After all, Ghandi did say: "If only you Christians could be more like Jesus, perhaps more would come to believe in Him."

Peter Carrell said...

Hi Ron,
I am sure God and Gandhi would have an interesting conversation on judgement day, especially when the conversation turned to Gandhi's refusal to allow his dying wife to be treated with penicillin, his propensity in old age to sleep naked with young women, and his strange lack of charity to the untouchables. None of that makes Gandhi any worse a sinner than me. But it cautions me against believing that God might treat him differently to others because of a perception on our part that he was better than some people.

In the end if Gandhi is saved it will be solely - as you rightly imply - on the basis of the Sacrifice of Christ on the Cross.

Bryden Black said...

The God of Jesus Christ or the God of Jesus followers - or others again?!

That contrasting question too places the onus back upon ourselves to save ourselves, if it’s only the latter. For the former graciously takes our fallen humanity, redeems/ransoms it, and grants us to participate in his own renewed humanity: we did after all celebrate as Anglicans the feast of the Ascension last week, hey! But precisely NOT in an involuntary capacity: as humans, God honours the creature so made by inviting them to participate in such a redeemed and renewed life - or not. “Those who have ears to hear, let them hear!”

It was after all also the late John Macquarrie who strenuously objected to the likes of Karl Rahner’s “Anonymous Christianity”, as exemplified by Tutu here, on the basis that an element of the glory of the Christian God was just that - his honouring of humans’ existential freedom.

Anonymous said...

Tutu was an orthodox Anglo-Catholic who wandered off the reservation a long time ago, but (to mix my metaphors), still dines off the reflected glory of his righteous and brave opposition both to apartheid and the grosser violence of the 'necklace' mobs. His later championing of gay causes and his ever more strident condemnation of Anglican traditionalists has given him more street cred with secular liberals in the US, but the South African Church is not with him much any more. Tutu could never have been called a profound theological thinker.

The view of Gandhi he reflects is both cartoonish (similar to 'inspirational' materials you could find in school textbooks 30 or 40 years ago) and woefully short of facts, as you illustrate, Peter. It is telling that modern India may have made an icon out of "Mahatma" Gandhi but has systematically rejected nearly all his ideas.

Peter "Palaiologos"

Father Ron Smith said...

"Tutu could never have been called a profound theological thinker."

- Peter the Greek -

Aha! So that's why they gave him a Nobel Prize. When you, Peter, have done so much good for the oppressed in your little world, perhaps I'll be able to listen to your opinion.

Bishop Desmond tut is still an Anglo-Catholic. He at least knows Jesus in the Eucharist - which is more creditable that sitting in a study throwing brickbats. His action for justice speak louder than your words of condemnation.

Andrew Reid said...

Hi Peter,

Desmond Tutu was one of my spiritual heroes growing up. I remember seeing him on TV bravely advocating for the rights of South Africa's indigenous people, and enjoyed reading his books on the subject. Which is why I'm so sad to read statements like this from him, which unfortunately have become more frequent in recent years.

This view neglects the Bible's perspective that "all have sinned and fallen short of God's glory", and that "our righteous acts are like filthy rags". I don't claim to be a "better person" than Gandhi, Desmond Tutu or anyone else. I don't claim to know everything about how God will judge. But I trust in Christ, the one and only perfect human being, who made me alive when I was dead in sin and transgressions, and whose Spirit is enabling me to do the good works he has prepared.

I just keep coming back to the question:
Why would God send his Son as an atonement for sin if there was any other way we could be saved? And the Bible insists he was sent to save the whole world, not just Jews and Christians.

How I wish Desmond Tutu would proclaim the good news of grace and forgiveness through Jesus as boldy as he advocated for equal rights during South Africa's dark days.

Andrew Reid

Kurt said...

Love is the Way the Truth and the Life. No one comes to the Godhead except by Love.

Kurt Hill
Brooklyn, NY

Anonymous said...

Read again, carefully, what I wrote, Ron. I wasn't aware there was a Nobel Prize for Theology - maybe that's what Obama won in February 2009? (The world hasn't been more notably peaceful since, so I doubt it was for peace.) I don't know how closely Tutu hews to Anglo-Catholicism today - probably not very closely, as he seems to make his religion up as he goes along. Well, others have trod (and left) the Anglo-Catholic road before - Richard Holloway was an Anglo-Catholic before he embraced the gay cause, and then atheism. Tutu isn't that far down the raod, but it's clear the South African Church isn't following him.

Peter "Palaiologos"

James said...

Peter, Bryden, and Peter, you nasty conservatives are always doing the same thing. You simply don't get the profound message, that science is about facts, and religion is about meanings - and we are religious folk, not scientists.

So we really have to look at the deeper, underlying meaning of Ghandi's life. Say that the "supposed facts" - science's territory - tell us that Ghandi was a incestuous, pedophilic racist who effectively killed his wife in denying her medication, while hypocritically taking medication himself.

This has no relevance whatsoever for us as to who Ghandi really is - by this I mean, The living Ghandi, the holy Ghandi who is With Us, The Ghandi who Loves Us as if we were his Only Child. This is the true, underlying meaning of who Ghandi is; not the superficial, literalist world of trivial "facts" - as if we judged all of our values on the basis of black and white, yes and no answers, or could somehow measure Ghandi with a measuring stick.

An enlightened, inclusive, and spiritual mind knows: The ugly, villifying article is wrong in drawing our minds to the trivial, the irrelevant, the tawdry world of those fundamentalist literalists who would have us believe that things which unseemly persons allege happened more than half a century ago should somehow define and determine our thoughts and imaginations.

The real Ghandi is the Ghandi of Ghandi the Movie.

The Real Ghandi would never refuse his wife medication, get tumescent while sleeping naked with his young female relative, or make racist remarks.

We know this in our hearts. It's what the Real Ghandi tells us. Anyone who's cultivated a spiritual understanding of things, and liberated himself from the backward of fundamentalist literalism can sense this. Thousands of reliable persons with impeccable moral judgment agree: Ghandi would never do these slanderous things some fanatical right-wingers are alleging.

So just stop reading the awful writings of these literalist so-called "historians" and just watch the movie, okay?

Father Ron Smith said...

James, don't put all your efforts into practising satire. It is just not one of your gifts. Why is it that conservative fundamentalists always seek the bad in people, ignoring the good that God has managed to do through them - despite their obvious faults? I guess it's protestant guilt!

hogster said...

In the sense that there is only one true God it is fair to say that God (as in the God revealed in the scriptures) is the God of Ghandi. However, such a fact does not have saving implications, on anyone unless they declare the one true God, and scripture would argue the God of salvation, theirs.

James said...

Fr. Ron,

My comment above is a bit rich and overladen with adjectives. Nonetheless it's worth asking: who's the target of the satire? It's not Mahatma Ghandi.

It's about Christology.

Kurt here is telling us:
"Love is the Way the Truth and the Life. No one comes to the Godhead except by Love."

This (I think) is true; in a way though it's also a bit revisionisty, as it's taking John 14:6 and replacing "I" (Christ) with "Love." There are understandable reasons for doing so - one being the difficulty of grappling with the uniqueness of Christ as the sole mediator to the Father.

But if we're not careful in how we explain ourselves, when engaging in this kind of substitution, we are close to giving the impression to those in our pews that we believe something like the following: that Jesus is dead, and churchmen (and to some extent, laypeople also) are crafting for us various illusory "meanings," to, for a time, order our lives and provide us comfort. When we enter religious language, it's a bit like strolling through the stately pleasure dome of Xanadu betwixt the groves of lollipop trees. It is not real, it is not concrete. It may in some sense be "more real than real" in that it provides us more occasion to reflect upon things than our humdrum, day-to-day concrete existence. But very soon we realize that "more than literally true" means: "a powerful ideology intended to shape our being into what the church believes is good for us and itself."

So "More than literally true" means, true like walking through a movie set with its cardboard buildings and plastic props, when we get close to it - it's all about whatever the movie is trying to teach us, whatever that message might be. That message may be profoundly true - then we re-arrange the props, modify the script, and we have a movie with yet another, different message (possibly the very opposite of what the first was telling us).

In a church setting, Jesus becomes the main, most important prop that shows up somewhere in every movie. Signification is regulated with respect to Jesus - we tend to portray this signifier positively, doing good things. But we have great freedom in writing our movie scripts, for whatever kind of message we like, as long as Jesus shows up somewhere, and is one of the "good guys" and not one of the "bad guys."

For Trinitarian Christians, it's essential that we make clear that there is no message, really. Jesus Himself is the message and is the meaning. We do have important messages - but these are all messages which must faithfully point to Jesus Himself - and their relative values all collapse before Him and who He is. So we do not tell people a story about Jesus to motivate them to social justice; rather, our commitment to social justice is part and parcel of our facing Jesus - which derives its whole and entire being from Jesus Himself.

If we wish to be Trinitarian Christians, it's essential that we learn to distinguish ourselves from this kind of thinking - and the "Jesus is dead" Christology of Marcus Borg and Katharine Jefferts-Schori.

Kurt said...

From the Catechism of the American Episcopal Church:

Q. What do we mean when we say that Jesus is the only Son of God?
A We mean that Jesus is the only perfect image of the Father, and shows us the nature of God.

Q What is the nature of God revealed in Jesus?
A God is love.

James said...

Excellent, Kurt.

btw., above wasn't meant to "single you out" if it came across so ... rather moving on from your comment on the importance of good and clear teaching.

Blessings to you.

Father Ron Smith said...

James. Commendations on your love affair with Christology. I guess that ought be the primary pre-occupation of all 'Thinking Anglicans'. My own thinking about Christ is very deeply embedded in my practise of meeting up with (and receiving) Him in the community Celebration of Eucharist, where Jesus promises - in the words of Scripture - that this is the way we will 'remember Him' until his coming again.

I find that, in certain circles, there is much more talk about Jesus than actual 'communion' with Him - in the way He set before us, on the day before his death. No amount of scholarly research, or pious thought, can possibly evoke the Spirit of Jesus more efficaciously than the 'method' by which Jesus chose to present Himself amongst His disciples: "DO this to remember me!"

James said...

Fr. Ron,

Thanks for this, and YES.

"I find that, in certain circles, there is much more talk about Jesus than actual 'communion' with Him - in the way He set before us, on the day before his death."

I also find the Eucharist tremendously important, and I'm particularly happy with the way that Anglicans, in general, do it ... compared with other churches. I do think this is one of our great strengths.

Ministry must be incarnational - exercised by followers of Jesus. We must also have good teaching. But going yakkety yak about teaching all the time without following Jesus has been (and is) a great problem with certain groups at certain times. It's also been one of the factors in making impoverished teaching more attractive.

Though it should also be pointed out: ethical perogatives apply to teaching as well (and perhaps: ethical perogatives apply especially to teaching - and not only "content" - given James 3:1).

Blessings to you.

Father Ron Smith said...

Dear Peter (and those of your correspondents who criticise any spiritual convergence with other religious faiths);

What do you think of the significance of the present visit of His Holiness the Dalai Lama? Do you think there was negative spiritual energy connected with his visit and the discourse he gave at the arena today?

Perhaps more importantly, what do you think of his being greeted and accompanied onto the platform by your Bishop? Do you think this was counter-Christian, or in any way to be deplored? Tell us. We're interested.

Peter Carrell said...

Hi Ron,
I know very little about the visit of the Dalai Lama, apart from what I have read in the paper, so on the basis of that and some plausible assumptions, I respond in this way:

I assume Bishop Victoria was invited to have a role in proceedings as a fellow religious leader and as the preeminent Christian leader in Christchurch (being an 'Anglican town' and all that). In taking up that role she was acting courteously, graciously, and hospitably.

Was there 'negative spiritual energy' associated with his visit? I detected none.

Did his visit do our city good? Hard to say. From reports some people were inspired and encouraged. But his reported remarks offered no sign of superior wisdom being given than was already here before he arrived. Those reported remarks suggest he offers much the same as all 'positive' thinkers. In a way he is reminiscent of Joel Osteen, a leading preacher in the States of Christian positivism.

Do you have any insight into what it means when the Dalai Lama prays for Christchurch? I have always understood Buddhism to involve no belief in a deity, so I am unsure where Buddhist prayers go and who hears them.

Father Ron Smith said...

"I have always understood Buddhism to involve no belief in a deity, so I am unsure where Buddhist prayers go and who hears them."

Do you not believe then that, irrespective of where the Dalai Lama's prayers are directed, that the God of All Creation would not hear them? After all all even Dalai Lama shares the humanity of Jesus.

By the way, it was a lovely picture of Bishop Victoria's radiant smile in the presence of H.H. today!

Peter Carrell said...

Hi Ron
The point of asking about a Buddhist praying is not what you and I think may happen to the prayers but what a Buddhist thinks is happening.

Father Ron Smith said...

I'm sure, Peter, that you've read the writings of that eminent spiritual Father and Cistercian monk, Thomas Merton (his dad was a Kiwi). He had something really heartening to say to Christians about the spirituality of other faith communities - especially the Bhuddists.

Brother David said...

You are right Peter, there is no supreme deity in Buddhist practice. What some refer to as prayers are usually the vocal repetition of teachings that Buddhists hold to be truths, often the teachings of Gautama Buddha himself.

The basics of all Buddhism is the same, the teachings of Gautama Buddha, but there are a number of Buddhist denominations today and their traditions and rituals are particular to each. The Dali Lama adheres to the Tibetan form of Buddhism, of which he is the supreme spiritual leader and were it not for the Chinese occupation of Tibet, he would also be the supreme civil ruler as well.

Everything Buddhists do is to move toward the goal of the elimination of suffering in this present world.