On Being Unique
I was involved recently in a church service that was a little outside my normal range. It was to be run by a minister with whom I don’t have a lot in common, and I had a minor task to perform near the end. A few days before the event I received an order of service, and was alarmed to note that it included an item listed as “Multi-faith hymn”.
I should make a few things specific at this point. One is that I understand that our age regards tolerance more highly than conviction, and I have no real wish to be intolerant. Another is that I have been a member of various inter-faith dialogues, and I have always observed the preparedness of Muslims to be visible Muslims and of Jews to remain unapologetic Jews. I have applauded them for that, and sought to remain specifically Christian alongside them. But if I regard inter-faith dialogue as civilized, I regard inter-faith worship as oxymoron. All of Jesus’ teaching points unequivocally to singularity. So does the thrust of the Old Testament law. And even if none of it did so, I would have to wonder why Jesus gave his life for the redemption of sins if there existed another, less agonising way of addressing it.
So I made my representations over this multi-faith hymn, and was mollified to see the order of service duly adjusted so that it simply read: “Hymn”. The actual hymn was so bland as to be inoffensive in itself: it was the declaration that disturbed me. A bridge too far.
So that was all right, until the day of the service and the wretched hymn was announced, before it was sung, as “the multi-faith hymn”. Then the situation was worsened when the minister said later, in another context, “We must not judge those whose path to God is other than by Jesus Christ.”
Well, I don’t have any wish to judge people, being very happy to leave that delicate task to God who alone knows all you need to know to do it properly. But I do have a major wish to dissociate myself from the idea that there are ways to God “other than through Jesus Christ.” Ways towards God, if you like, but not some smorgasbord of ways to God by circumventing Jesus. God did not give his son to provide another option.
CS Lewis once expanded on this in, if I remember correctly, Surprised by Joy. In it he said something like, “The question was not to find the one simply true religion among a thousand simply false religions. It was rather, ‘Where has religion reached its true maturity? Where, if anywhere, have the hints of all the insights been fulfilled?’” That is, there are hints of insights all over the place and we should be glad for them all, but only one fulfillment and that is in Jesus.
I have had occasion this month to be reading about the tenets of Buddhism, and specifically their Five Precepts. As a moral code they read very well, and anyone following them would be enriched and ennobled. But as a pathway to salvation they fall sadly short, in that they direct the traveller inside himself to find enlightenment, and I know that inside myself is a great shortcoming. I look to God to draw me out. The Buddhist who denies God seeks light within. They have good precepts, which are graciously expressed, but there is no God to lead me to or to enable me to overcome my own shortfall.
Islam seems to be the reverse. “God is great”, “There is one God” — and you’d better obey his laws. Here’s a faith with God but no grace, in contrast with this other faith with grace but no God. Only in Jesus have the hints of the insights been fulfilled, full of grace and truth.
So I don’t want to be a multi-faith man, nor to sing a multi-faith hymn, nor to talk about ways to God other than through Jesus Christ. I want to affirm all I can affirm of the good I see in other ways, and to know when that good has reached its end, and to affirm that the way to God is through Jesus and it has to be through Jesus, because God is Jesus. In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
Photo by Welou via Flickr. CCL, some rights reserved.