The elephant in the room
A number of blind men were taken into a huge tented enclosure by a king.
In the room was an elephant. The blind men were individually led to different sides of the elephant and asked to describe what was in front of them. One feels the elephant’s leg and says ‘its a palm tree’, another felt its tail and said ‘its a rope’ and so on. They all had different explanations, but the wise king could see the truth, that they were all touching the same elephant.
I get this a lot.
Whether or not it is any longer a social convention not to talk at dinner parties about politics, religion or sex, the only one I find people really don’t want to talk about is religion, until, that is, they discover, that you are a vicar, in which case, it is open season! And I am delighted….no really…I am very keen to use every occasion social or not, and regardless of social convention, to talk about the Lord. Indeed, I think I have had a pretty boring evening, if I don’t!
Anyway, let’s imagine that we are at a dinner party; you are a guest and the person sitting next to you has said to you ‘Oh you go to church, don’t you, don’t you think that all religions are basically the same, different understandings of the same God, they are all paths up the same mountain?’
Imagine that he or she goes on to tell you the story of the blind men and the king, and that if only the blind adherents of different religions could see what the wise king sees: that all religions are focusing on different aspects of the same eternal truth but the truly wise man can see that they are basically all the same; how would you reply?
Well, I suppose that a starting point is: Jesus loves the person you are talking toand so should you – any discussion at all is to lead them to know Jesus Christ, not to prove that you are right. In 1 Peter 3:15 we are required to respond with ‘gentleness and respect’ when asked to give the reason for the hope that we have. This is quite difficult to do when you are sober but more difficult to do when you have been drinking, the main reason why I stopped drinking 8 years ago! But it is definitely worth taking the conversation forward, think of it like fishing on the Itchen, gently casting your fly….
You might say: of course in the area of ethics, many of the world religions have some similarities: the golden rule, for example, appears in Confucianism, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism and Hinduism in either its negative ‘don’t do unto others that which you would not want done to yourself’ or positive form ‘do unto others that which you would want done to yourself’.
And clearly Christianity doesn’t have a total monopoly on wisdom: humans are made in God’s image and so we would expect glimpses of ultimate truth in the religions that humans have developed.
One God, Many or Any?
Having got that out of the way, perhaps you might want to say, firstly ‘but don’t you think that if all religions were really the same they must all at least believe that there is a god?’ Surely there is a difference between:
atheist religions – like Buddhism which believes that nature is all there is
pantheist religions – like the American Indian religions and some modern Western religions and some aspects of Hinduism which believe that ‘all is one’ that there is no distinction between god and nature – indeed, no distinction between good and evil
polytheistic religions which believe in more than one god: the gods of ancient Rome and Greece and Hinduism whose many gods may or may not be different from worshipping forces of nature – Apollo was the Sun
and mono theistic religions – like Judaism, Christianity and Islam which believe in a god who is ‘super’-natural and acts from outside nature – into nature
There are two Alex Peases
Secondly, if we agree that we are talking about religions, where there is a single separate and revealed god: Judaism, Christianity and Islam, then if all those religions were leading to the same god wouldn’t God’s basic character be revealed to be the same?
Just because one group of people name something as ‘God’ doesn’t mean he is the same as who we regard as ‘God’.
There are two Alex Peases at least in the world: One is a female high school basket ball player in New Jersey, and then there is me!
Just because you call both ‘Alex Pease’ doesn’t mean that they are the same person. She and I are totally different people with different likes and personality traits, when you say ‘Alex Pease’, it is good to know which one you are talking about!
To know whether religions are the same, you would have to know the fundamental character of the god portrayed in each of them and you would have to know when you get to the fundamentals, what each god wants of us, why he has created us and how we can draw close to him.
Also its worth pointing out that one of the problems with the wise king and the elephant analogy is that it assumes that the king can see everything, but only the religious adherents cannot; but actually all of our knowledge of the universe is incredibly limited and it is arrogant to assume that any of us can see everything; we are all, of course, all only partially sighted, but we need to make the best sense of the world that we can.
The Way the world is – the way that humans are
My contention is that the Christian world view makes more rational sense of the universe, of the way the world is, and presents a better solution to the way that it is, than atheism, pantheism, polytheism or any of the other world religions or systems of thought.
Any religious system, any system of thought, which seeks to explain the world needs to be able to address the problem of Human Wickedness, the question of evil and the sheer wickedness that devastates human existence and causes so much suffering. You only have to turn on the TV or open a newspaper to see the brutality, lust, greed, corruption war, marital breakdown, rape, hatred, bitterness oppression and indifference to the needs of others. We can look at what happened in Rwanda, as a particular example: two races living relatively happily together many of them members of the same churches turning within weeks to brutal murder of friends and neighbours, mainly with machetes….
When we look at the worlds religions, they deal with this issue of endemic Human Wickedness in very different ways:
Confucianism teaches that humanity is basically good; but to suppose that wrong words, deeds, thoughts and attitudes are solely the result of external pressures or, for example, of a lack of education is profoundly unrealistic and denies responsibility for individuals and if we believed it, our prisons would be empty.
Buddhism does not help much either. In Buddhism there is no supreme being, so no idea of sin, no-one to whom we are responsible. You inherit moral capital debt from previous lives and you add to it or reduce it by your actions in this life, so there are endless rules for acquiring merit but there is no ultimate judgment for evil and indeed the aim of all existence is the cessation of all desire and the eventual elimination of the self as you disappear as a single drop into the vast ocean.
Hinduism is similar, but speaks of reincarnation rather than rebirth; no belief in a personal god but rather in Brahman, an impersonal ultimate reality and the same chilling doctrine of karma, the law of moral consequences which means that the suffering people experience on earth is a consequence of their actions in a previous life, so does not deserve sympathy. So if you are born disabled, it’s your own fault, for what you have done in a previous life, this is one reason why it is so difficult to eliminate poverty in India.
Islam is far more realistic: it recognises a Supreme Being; it recognises that he is both compassionate and holy; it realises that sin, human wickedness, has to be punished, but because Allah is unimaginably great and entirely separated from creation human beings cannot enjoy intimacy with him. Sin is not seen as breaking God’s heart, but as rebellion against his will, to which Islam requires submission. Islam has a legalistic system embracing five essentials: creed, prayers, almsgiving, fasting and pilgrimage to Mecca and on Judgment Day the good you have done is weighed in the scales against the bad and you may or may not find mercy.
Accordingly, the Muslim has no assurance that Allah, however compassionate, will accept him into the delights of paradise; a Muslim can have no confidence in God’s forgiveness in his own individual case. Unless he has been told that in his martyrdom, as in a suicide bombing, he will be assured of an immediate translation to the delights of paradise. Sadly I think that this is may be why so many of the suicide bombers with dysfunctional or even ‘Western’ pasts are so easily manipulated into believing that martyrdom will make amends, to rebalance the scales of salvation in their favour. Evidence of this in the Times today in an article written about a French reporter who infiltrated a terror cell. The terrorist leader tells the journalist that heaven awaits if he carries out a suicide attack.“Towards paradise, that is the path,” Oussama says with a smile.“Come, brother, let’s go to paradise, our women are waiting for us there, with angels as servants. You will have a palace, a winged horse of gold and rubies.”
The Christian understanding of human wickedness is far more profound than a weighing of scales.
Firstly, Jesus recognises the endemic nature of sin in the human heart In Mark 7:21-23 Jesus says: ‘For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, fornication, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, pride, foolishness. All these things come from within and they defile a man’
This sin is like an endemic weed that keeps popping up even though you try so hard to eradicate it, however moral the individual, it springs up when it is least expected for all of us. The gospel says that God is heartbroken, when his creatures sin because this is, in essence, rejection of Him. He cannot say, that it just doesn’t matter.
It offends against moral justice if there are no consequences for the wicked. Hitler, Stalin or the sadistic murderers of the modern Middle East, is God going to do nothing about them? What they have done? He must deal with this evil as he is the moral ruler of the universe. But on the other hand, as Islam rightly understands, he is compassionate, full of mercy and kindness.
So in God’s holiness He must condemn evil, but His love goes out to the sinner. How can this colossal contradiction be resolved?
God himself took the penalty of the condemnation of sin, when he came to earth as Jesus Christ. So God is both just– the penalty was paid and loving-he took the condemnation rather than us. So you and I can be justly forgiven, if we take advantage of his sacrifice and we can have the confidence in this forgiveness denied to the adherents of other religions
There is no compulsion about taking advantage of this as one writer says ‘God will not have conscripts in his Heaven’and what Jesus has told us is demonstrated to be endorsed by God and to be true by His resurrection from the dead. He correctly said “I am the way the truth and the life. No-one comes to the Father, except through me” John 14:6
Not ‘a’ way – ‘the’ way. He said that there is a way and he is it. When he said ‘no-one comes to the Father except through me’ he meant ‘no-one’. Or to put it another way ‘no-one’. The Christian claim is exclusive.
In passing we should note that salvation is not about sincerity – because we can be sincerely wrong. I can sincerely believe that my bank account is in credit but my bank manager may show that I am in overdraft, I can be sincerely wrong. Salvation is ultimately a question of truth.
But how will God deal with our wonderful Muslim/Buddhist/Hindu friends; those do sincerely do not believe in Christ?
It is not for us to know and so it is not right for us to speculate. As Bishop Lesslie Newbeggin wrote ‘we must not by the way we act pretend that we can limit the grace and mercy of God. All we know is that the last day will be a day of surprises both for the saved and for the lost’ Matthew 25:31
So while we can be confident that Jesus is uniquely the Way the Truth and the Life equally we must not be hostile towards those who God may in his infinite mercy welcome into his kingdom on the last day.
About 18 years ago the penny dropped for Lucy and I on this point about Christianity giving a unique view into how God can address human wickedness.
Fortunately the penny dropped for both of us at the same time. We were on an island in the Philippines a perfect holiday resort taking some time off from working in Tokyo in fact we were in the middle of the Alpha Course which we had signed up to in Tokyo.
Everything was perfect weather, food, hotel, staff even the children were a delight but Lucy and I were arguing, arguing. It dawned on us both at the same time that we were the problem, not collectively, but individually each of us was the problem; that what the Alpha course had taught us about the nature of humanity, the nature of human wickedness that nature of sin was true; that Christianity that it made more sense of the way the world is than anything else, that it made more sense of the conflict between us than our environment. We couldn’t blame any of our surroundings on the problems we were facing as a couple, we were effectively in paradise. I could not blame my work, Lucy could not blame my attitude to my work; the only solution was to take Jesus’s hand and let him lead us out of the crisis and he did.
It was then that we recognised that we were Christians and a long journey later, here we are today. We now have a fantastic marriage but it could easily not have survived the focus on causes, like in Confucianism, had been part of the problem; the self denial as in Buddhism would not have helped; the obedience of Islam would not have helped either as the anger buried alive would have exploded very destructively later.
So if you have managed to turn your theoretical conversation at dinner into the story of how you became a Christian you are doing really well!
Because at the end of the day your story is more powerful than any reasoned argument.
At the end of the day, its all about the heart: God’s heart and yours.
But don’t all religions lead to God by Michael Green (from which I have borrowed much of the material in this talk)
The Gospel in a Pluralist Society by Lesslie Newbigin
The Book of Y life the universe and elephant dung by Peter Meadows and Joseph Steinberg
‘Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus’ and ‘Answering Jihad’ by Nabeel Qureshi
‘Atheist delusions’ by David Bentley Hart