God Is Not A Christian: And Other Provocations
NOBEL LAUREATES, 6 Jun 2011
Archbishop Desmond Tutu, 1984 Nobel Peace Laureate – TRANSCEND Media Service
God Is Not a Christian – Speaking Truth in Times of Crisis by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, May 2011, Rider Books, 237 pp.
A collection of some of Archbishop Tutu’s key speeches, sermons, lectures, letters, and exchanges over the past 30 years.
‘God is clearly not a Christian. His concern is for all his children. To claim God exclusively for Christians is to make God too small… God is bigger than Christians and cares for more than Christians only.’ – Excerpt
Amazon’s description of the book:
In this essential collection of Desmond Tutu’s most historic and controversial speeches and writings, we witness his unique career of provoking the powerful and confronting the world in order to protect the oppressed, the poor, and other victims of injustice.
Renowned first for his courageous opposition to apartheid in South Africa, he and his ministry soon took on international dimensions. Rooted in his faith and in the values embodied in the African spirit of ubuntu, Tutu’s uncompromising vision of a shared humanity has compelled him to speak out, even in the face of violent opposition and virulent criticism, against political injustice and oppression, religious fundamentalism, and the persecution of minorities.
Arranged by theme and introduced with insight and historical context by Tutu’s biographer, John Allen, this collection takes readers from the violent apartheid clashes in South Africa to the healing work of the Truth and Reconciliation Committee; from Trafalgar Square after the fall of the Berlin Wall to a national broadcast commemorating the legacy of Nelson Mandela; from Ireland’s Christ Church Cathedral in Dublin to a basketball stadium in Luanda, Angola. Whether exploring democracy in Africa, the genocide in Rwanda, black theology, the inclusion of gays and lesbians in the church, or the plight of Palestinians, Tutu’s message of truth is clear and his voice unflinching.
Excerpts from The Hufffington Post:
My first point seems overwhelmingly simple: that the accidents of birth and geography determine to a very large extent to what faith we belong. The chances are very great that if you were born in Pakistan you are a Muslim, or a Hindu if you happened to be born in India, or a Shintoist if it is Japan, and a Christian if you were born in Italy. I don’t know what significant fact can be drawn from this — perhaps that we should not succumb too easily to the temptation to exclusiveness and dogmatic claims to a monopoly of the truth of our particular faith. You could so easily have been an adherent of the faith that you are now denigrating, but for the fact that you were born here rather than there.
My second point is this: not to insult the adherents of other faiths by suggesting, as sometimes has happened, that for instance when you are a Christian the adherents of other faiths are really Christians without knowing it. We must acknowledge them for who they are in all their integrity, with their conscientiously held beliefs; we must welcome them and respect them as who they are and walk reverently on what is their holy ground, taking off our shoes, metaphorically and literally. We must hold to our particular and peculiar beliefs tenaciously, not pretending that all religions are the same, for they are patently not the same. We must be ready to learn from one another, not claiming that we alone possess all truth and that somehow we have a corner on God.
We should in humility and joyfulness acknowledge that the supernatural and divine reality we all worship in some form or other transcends all our particular categories of thought and imagining, and that because the divine — however named, however apprehended or conceived — is infinite and we are forever finite, we shall never comprehend the divine completely. So we should seek to share all insights we can and be ready to learn, for instance, from the techniques of the spiritual life that are available in religions other than our own. It is interesting that most religions have a transcendent reference point, a mysterium tremendum, that comes to be known by deigning to reveal itself, himself, herself, to humanity; that the transcendent reality is compassionate and concerned; that human beings are creatures of this supreme, supra mundane reality in some way, with a high destiny that hopes for an everlasting life lived in close association with the divine, either as absorbed without distinction between creature and creator, between the divine and human, or in a wonderful intimacy which still retains the distinctions between these two orders of reality.
When we read the classics of the various religions in matters of prayer, meditation, and mysticism, we find substantial convergence, and that is something to rejoice at. We have enough that conspires to separate us; let us celebrate that which unites us, that which we share in common.
Surely it is good to know that God (in the Christian tradition) created us all (not just Christians) in his image, thus investing us all with infinite worth, and that it was with all humankind that God entered into a covenant relationship, depicted in the covenant with Noah when God promised he would not destroy his creation again with water. 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.
Excerpts (from The Southern Times, South Africa):
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 Barnabs 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.
While he is an Anglican Archbishop emeritus and thus unflinching in his religious beliefs, Tutu also places great value on religious inclusiveness and interfaith dialogue. Born in Klerksdorp, near Johannesburg, South Africa, in 1931, Tutu initially followed in his father’s footsteps and obtained teaching qualifications. However, following the introduction of Bantu education in 1958, he decided to enter the ministry. He was ordained to the priesthood in Johannesburg three years later.
Then, in 1978, he was persuaded to leave his job as Bishop of Lesotho to become the new General Secretary of the South African Council of Churches (SACC). It was in this position, which he held until 1985, that Tutu became a national and international figure. The SACC is committed to fulfilling the social responsibility of the Church, and as its chairperson, Tutu led a formidable crusade for justice and racial conciliation in South Africa. His tireless work was recognized in 1984, when he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
He became a key mediator and conciliator in the difficult transition toward democracy. In 1996, he was appointed by President Nelson Mandela to chair the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the body set up to probe gross human rights violations during apartheid.
Following the presentation of the Commission’s report to the President in October 1998, Tutu has been visiting professor at several overseas universities, and he has also published several books, the latest of which is entitled God has a Dream. He has set up a private office in Cape Town, near his home.
This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 6 Jun 2011.
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2 Responses to “God Is Not A Christian: And Other Provocations”
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A beautiful article (or compilation) indeed! This embodies what in Sanskrit called ‘Ekam Satya Vipra Bahudha Vadanti,’ translating nearly exactly,Truth is One, but different people speak in different voices. Or, in what Jainism is called Anekantavada (Truth or God has different aspects, the learned known all, and the ‘blind’ touch only one aspect). And comes to mind Mahatma Gandhi, who says religions are like beautiful flowers in a beautiful garden, and the goal of all religions is same – the realization of God!
Yes, it is both a beautiful article and a beautiful compilation! And thank you, the TMS editor, for selecting this book for the TMS this week!
Humanity might need “religions without (any kinds of) borders.” In that regard, I wonder if Tutu has ever read Neale Donald Walsch’s “Conversations with God” vols. 1-3? I wonder if he has ever read Prof. Galtung’s “Globalizing God”? http://www.transcend.org/tup/
God is love that brings peace to all creatures.