Monday, 18 August 2014

Meditation: RELIGIOUS CERTAINTY? by John de Gruchy


John 14:1-7
James 2:14-19
You believe that God is one; you do well.  Even the demons believe -- and shudder.
Jesus said: "I am the way, and the truth, and the life.  No one comes to the Father except through me."

These words of Jesus trouble many people, especially in the way they are interpreted within some circles --  that Christianity is the only true religion, the only way to know and come to God. This conviction is often expressed with great confidence, but it can be a dangerous certainty, a sign of insecurity not faith.  So beware of "true believers!"   "You believe that God is one; you do well."  But "even the demons believe -- and shudder." 

In my lectures to first year students I used to inform them about the words scholars use describe different beliefs about God or gods.  Those who believe that there is one God are monotheists; those who believe in many gods are polytheists; those whose views about God keep changing as one fades away and another comes into focus, are call henotheists; and those who don't believe in any god or gods, are atheists.  The Bible insists that there is only one God; as does the Quran.  For that reason monotheistic religions over the centuries have regarded polytheistic religions, like the ancient religions of the Egyptians, Indians, Greeks, Romans and the little known Yazidis in northern Iraq that are in the headline news at this time, as pagan.  This is the reason given by the IS militant Muslims today for slaughtering them on the plains of Nineveh, along with infidel Christians who, according to them, are tritheists who  worship three gods.  For these true-believing fighters, there is only One God, Allah is his name and Mahomed his prophet, and those who do not believe that, including Shiite Muslims, who don't believe it in quite the same way, must be put to death by the sword or the machine gun.  There can be no argument about it.  There can be no half measures, no doubts, no questions asked.  The holy book says it is so, therefore it is so.  Of that they are certain. There is only one way to the one God.  Their way.

Such religious certainty has caused more pain and suffering in the history of humanity than I care to recall.   It is a fundamental reason why religion has a bad reputation.  It has led to wars of religion, to sectarian violence, to Inquisitions and Crusades, all in the name of the one God.  Christian crusaders were no better than the Islamic State fighters in Syria and Iraq today.  In response to the call of the Pope, Christian knights spread terror across the eastern Mediterranean, pillaging, raping and killing Jews, Muslims as well as Orthodox Christians in Constantinople.  They then slaughtered the inhabitants of Jerusalem including children, and destroyed the city in a bloodbath.  Not only was Christianity the only true representative of the one God, but Roman Catholic Christianity was because the pope was the vicar of Christ, the only way to the God.  This God, they were certain, was the true God who licensed them to kill those who disagreed unless they became Christians like them.  But even if we do not kill our religious opponents,  we Christians too often turn Jesus into an idol, "our God," condemning everyone who does not agree with us.  Jesus is "our Jesus" not yours!   So what then, does John's gospel mean when we are told that Jesus is the way, the truth and the life, and that no one comes to the Father (not God, please note) except through him?  Is that not a certainty which we must affirm in order to be Christian? 

I am not a relativist who thinks there is no such thing as truth.  In fact, to believe in God as I do is to believe that there is ultimate truth.  But that means that every other claim to certainty must be relative, including my limited knowledge of the God in whom I believe.  Let me explain the difference.  Over the centuries scientists have continually told us that they are certain about some things which later scientists tell us they are no longer so sure about.  Certainties change, and are therefore no longer certain.   At one time we were certain Father Christmas existed, but that certainty disappeared when we saw our parents putting presents under the tree.  People were certain it was God's will that women should not be ordained Anglican priests and bishops; now there are both. There are equally things that we once regarded as certain, but do so no more.  Those who cling to such "certainties" even when they are no longer, are  insecure people who live out of their fantasies.  And the more insecure they are,  the more dogmatic they become.  They are not people of faith in the one God revealed in Jesus as the Father.

People who cling to certainties that lead them to attack others are not people of faith in this God Jesus reveals, they are people who have created a god in their own image in order to give them a sense of identity, of superiority, of being the chosen ones, of justifying their ambitions whether personal or political. They cannot tolerate difference.  They reject all ambiguity and alternative ways of seeing things.  And so, when driven to extremes, they kill those who are different and those who see things differently to them.  History is littered with people like this, and our own times are no exception.  Even in Hermanus there are, I am told, Christians who have advocate the obliteration of the Palestinians in Gaza because they believe that is God's will.

When John the evangelist tells us that Jesus "is the way, the truth and the life," he does not mean that Christianity as a religion is the only way, has the only truth, or alone brings life.  Christianity is not Jesus, nor do we have a monopoly on the one God.  No.  As Christians we believe in Jesus as the embodiment of a way of life that leads us to trust in God as the Father who embraces and gives life to the whole of creation.  Jesus' way is that of respect and compassion for the other, the way of embrace not exclusion.  This is the certainty of our faith that makes relative all our other certainties that exclude and discriminate against others, or even kills them in the name of the one God. This is the way, the truth and the life that is revealed in Jesus.  As Christians we trust this truth about the one God in whose image we are all created.  That is what we believe, the certainty by which we live, and the good news we proclaim. 

But this is not a certainty that makes us superior, or gives us privileges and rights; it is a certainty that challenges us not to trust certainties that make us secure in our own ghetto's and dogmas, certainties that tell us that it is right to hate and despise others who disagree with us.  The good news that we have come to believe is revealed in Jesus is that the one God is the Father of all, the mother who like a hen wishes to embrace everyone.   Because we believe this is the truth revealed in Jesus, we do  not reject people who disagree, we reject ideologies and religious claims that promote hatred, war, and  crimes against humanity made in God's image.  If you "believe that God is one; you do well."  The truth is, "evens the demons believe" that!  What the demons do not believe is that this one and only God loves everyone, not least those who find it difficult to believe that he exists.

John de Gruchy
Volmoed 14 August 2014

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