Thursday 4 March 2010

Defending and Objecting to Uniqueness and Finality

The Archbishop of Canterbury gave a sermon in Guildford defending the uniqueness and finality of Christ. Given his power of reasoning, it is something I listened to on the sound file and have tried to summarise. Parts of his delivery when typing (and pausing the sound) were extremely difficult to summarise, and it was no use trying to just reproduce his words as they would not then explain in a way to comprehend them, so I have in those places tried to capture what I think he was saying or would be saying. So here goes, and then comes my response as someone who does not believe in the uniqueness or finality of Christ or, perhaps, anything near the same.

Two texts are familiar: John 14:5 I am the way, truth and life etc., Acts 4: 8 is the name of Jesus Christ etc. is the stone you builders rejected, now the cornerstone and salvation found in no one else.

These are powerful and heavily charged texts: Christian conviction that in Jesus Christ is truth about God and humanity. Not living into this and accepting it has consequences: either the finality of Christ (nothing more to know) or uniqueness. But these are problematic for many today. Not just regarding people of other faiths but also in general about how Christians communicate what they believe and what God is doing. In last 40 years or so the problems of the classical interpretation of text is difficult on 3 bases, objections:

First difficulty is moral. What kind of God is it that makes God dependent on a chancy matter - those who never heard about Jesus, or those who heard but didn't understand or haven't waited to find out, or those before Jesus. A just God is it who punishes people for not being in the right place at the right time?

Political objection: if Christ has finality, doesn't it give a perfect excuse to shut up anyone who says differently. Crusading and colonialism showed contempt towards a large part of the human race, and carried prejudices about the superiority of our culture.

Philosophical objection - every truth is spoken in terms of its own culture and times. Is ane vent in the Middle East 2000 years ago applicable to everyone everywhere? It lifts something out of the level of human conversation and becomes inhuman and unsustainable.

In one form or another these are the objections, what people say: that makes a Christian a bigot, intolerant, exclusive. It sits very badly indeed not just with a plural society but with a liberal and democratic society.

Plural has a plurality of meanings. Not just religious plurality but also of lifestyles, philosophies and options - options the most telling of all. The ideal becomes the choice that makes you comfortable. Truth and finality isn't allowed to arise.

Powerful objections - if to commend faith in this social cultural context.

One could give up on finality of exclusive of Christ. Tackle this Later. Step back a little first to look again at the texts and what is and isn't claimed.

John does NOT say that unless you hold these propositions to be true there is no life for you. Without a vital relationships with Word of God made flesh you will not become what you are made to be - a fullness of human destiny. It is about a unique relationship with Jesus. No one comes to the Father except through me: if you are to be reconciled as a son or daughter with the God that Jesus calls Father then it is in association with Jesus and walking his way, not repeating what he says but following him.

Peter in Acts says that for you to find life and healing you must turn to one who is rejected and despised, and YOU is underlined. So to those who crucified Jesus, in order to be rescued from the trap you put yourself, the name you must draw on is the one you killed.

This is not to evacuate texts of traditional meaning, but to note how both texts challange to change your life. What is the way to the Father? In John the father is discovered (not shown, pointed at). In Acts turn towards the one you've rejected and there you find your hope.

Difficulty is when 1st and 2nd person statements become abstract 3rd person statements. But they do presuppose 3rd person statements of a kind.

Both texts take for granted that we are deprived of the knowledge that leads to life as human beings, locked in patterns of troubled behaviour, and that we need rescue, and we need to be set free. Christians were created to be sons and daughters of the heavenly father. Something about human beings is true universally: our orientation to relate intimately and intensely to the source of all things. That is what we are made for, we are designed for that relationship and we become free in that relationship: free to echo and imitate the self-giving love of that God day by day.

Depends on believing in God, that in God's own self is already that pattern of relationship, in Trinity - clutching on to Christ, held by the Spirit; not in our hands or actions or ideas but in what the eternal Son and Spirit bring about as a gift. This is what the New Testament is claiming.

Not just Christianity in relation to other religions, but true for human beings. Or do people have different destinities? Becoming a child of God is good for some but not for others?

The unfairness is not God deciding if you don't believe then you're out - that moral objection, but unfairness would be in not trying to share the human possibility, or having no access at all to mysterious truth of one's own being. If emphasise trinity rather than human effort, it isn't just the relationship of people to son and father that is going on, but God having revealed himself in Jesus Christ and revealed himself in that action. Those who don't encounter it directly and we can't know how they relate to Jesus and the father.

Political objection also turns around differently. If the action of God is to bring relationship to father, then clearly cultural expressions do not themselves make a difference. And you can't enforce by human power. God does not need protecting by human beings. You can end up being more critical about exercising human power (than the objectors). If there's a living relationship then you will be sceptical about a cultural force to guarantee relationship - because it puts humanity where God belongs.

Philosophically there is not a sacred form of words that tells all Christians what they need to know, but rather to say about something in human nature that is absolute: we don't in fact have a complete relativism. We don't say all right to racism to torture and to tolerate them. We assume ethical similarity whatever cultural differences.

Ultimately there is coherence and convergence: are humans so different that what is right is for some but not others? That's what happens if you let go of finiteness and uniqueness. What constitutes full humanity varies in the world? - we ought to be uncomfortable about that. Talking of the nature of God and Jesus Christ is also talking about humanity made in the divine image. Uniqueness and finality is then because in Jesus Christ a new phase in entire human history is opened: a community represents on earth a new creation, a restored humanity. Now on earth a community proclaims God's will for universal reconciliation and God's presence leading us newly to full humanity. That happens from life, death and resurrection of Jesus. Uniqueness: yes, a new historical epoch and moment can only happen because of the one event of the narratives around it. Finality: Christians claimed and will still that when God calls you as simply a human being into relationship of intimacy (enjoyed by Jesus in an eternal intimacy in the moments and persons of the being of God) then you understand something about God that cannot be replaced or supplemented - as if just an interesting theory about God and humanity.

Christians claim a destiny and dignity for all human beings; in relationship with Jesus, the Word made flesh that is fully real.

This possibly answers moral, political and philosophical questions. If we say less than a claimed uniqueness and finality then the questions are equally serious and difficult - giving different destinies for different human beings. Finality of Jesus is finality of human beings, reconciled, a universal fellowship?

Are there problems in finality and uniqueness for dialogue and learning, making for intolerance? Are all others going to hell? In true dialogue Christians expect to learn, to become different from the encounter, even if not to change Christian minds. There is conviction and confidence. The confidence allows learning (but not change convictions).

When alongside, Christians expect to see in Jew, Buddhist and Hindu (etc.) humanity something that challenges and enlarges the Christian - a gift from their humanity. Famous statement in the Qur'an that says God did not elect to make everyone the same; so God makes us to learn in dialogue. To learn from others is not to compromise: infininte truth in F S& HS cannot be exhausted; one can come from dialogue as confident as before about the Trinity and Jesus's finality. Yet discipleship is enriched.

A good dialogue between faiths is to see what another face looks like when turned to God, because something is realised in that encounter. Does belief in uniqueness and finality mean no hope for the other?

Christians are reluctant sometimes to leave things to God, as if God hasn't read the proper books, and to be protective to God. Speaking for himself Rowan Williams will let God be the judge as to how much the faith outsider has turned to Jesus or the Father. A Christlike aura of a life might be there for a person who's atheist, agnostic, Muslim...

Gavin D'Costa says how you can encounter with an outsider something so central to the gospel you are trying to communicate. You then pray that that demonstrated relationship is what it seems to be. Jesus doesn't demand a precise profession of what you mean, but his presence changes life. Some do recognise and some don't; something changed among the lepers from an encounter with Jesus. This all needs some hard thinking and hard silence, and not to be premature.

Belief in uniqueness and finality (for all the assaults on it today) remains a way of speaking about hope regarding the entire human family. Christians should be suspicious of bullying and an inhuman attack on those of other faiths. God save us from that, but also God save us from nervousness about our own convictions, that humans find their peace in Jesus and that destinies and dignity converge and destiny is found. The root is in that conviction that there is no boundary around Jesus. What he says, does and suffers is liberatingly relevant to every human - past, present, future.

There is a need to reconnect Christology, the Trinity and anthropology. Jesus as unique and final allows us to do that. It allows a generous desire to share and a humble desire to learn with the other and patience to let God work out his purpose.

So there are three core objections people like me make. But there are not. They - the moral, political and philosophical - are objections about consequences. The first two objections are actually historical and scientific. Firstly, the objection is that history and its methods does not allow us to say that these crucially and critical events happened: a coming from God (in whatever sense), a life lived as God on earth, and the demonstrable signs of that (not proofs - not miracles as proofs but signs) and the uniqueness of a killing and especially the miracle of a transformed body that was actually Jesus that made his body and presence what matters, as much as his teachings. And even if there can be an overcoming of the historical method objection, there is the scientific objection: that these miracles as signs, including the big one of resurrection, cannot and did not happen. The texts that say otherwise are culturally derived, about a people who believed all manner of things, generations after, who placed these concepts in their other concepts about a world coming to an end and about their future.

Now the Archbishop asserts but doesn't discuss this, but instead discusses a relationship - one that he identifies in the Godhead, which is pure belief, but which allows for a pure realised humanity and a community that can claim this humanity and apparently demonstrate it. This relationship he supposes is ethical, which raises the question about ethics and lived lives. Well, it is the other way around - it is the lived life ethical - if we can imagine it (and again we don't know Jesus has this any more than anyone else, known or unknown) that then allows a God-projection. We just do not know enough to claim this uniqueness, but even if we do it becomes a mistake to focus on the person, the being, rather than the relationship. If it is about relationship, then it is about an actual, earthly relationship, and not some platonic projection that is superfluous to an actual relationship imagined. See, if it is about humanity, then it must always come back down to humanity.

Of course there are moral, political and philosophical objections, and Christians can tackle these as they wish. But I haven't even got to them. Neither has, say, Jim Al-Khalili. And here is a more critical philosophical objection: if, like me, you understand life as emerging according to evolution, then the very being of humanity is itself an accident, a coming about. Now it may all be potential realised, if we suppose consciousness is less varied than embodied forms, though there may be more and indeed other potential yet to be seen. So, then, relationship becomes about embodied consciousness, one to another, and about avoiding pain in the other and striving for fulfilment in reciprocal arrangements. This is the point of liberty and democracy. And what fulfils may indeed differ and vary: why should fulfilment have a pure form in the heavens? Again, it is superfluous to what is, and what has come about through the local, the chance, the environmental.

My approach to religion then must be against such Platonism implicit in the Archbishop's address, against that need for one and need for uniqueness and finality. It is about our accidental coming about, and, yet, here we are, then, about our indeed qualities-of-relationships as conscious and embodied humans, and the reflection upon these. We can draw on religious myths for the work of thinking again and acting better, but they serve us and not we them. Do it that way and the objections fall away, including those that object when there is a lack of uniqueness and finality (which depend on beliefs that are anti-evolutionary, anti-scientific and suppose more about history than can be demonstrated). The objection to the objection is that there is no pure form to goodness, because goodness has to be in situation, and may never be free of qualification, and it varies. And as soon as it varies, that oneness is gone. That's life: life in its fullness is therefore life that is strived for and difficult, and the Christian myth says something about that, like an insight. But that is what it is: a limited insight.


Gary Paul Gilbert said...

Excellent, Adrian! Rowan takes a long time to say very little. He is committed to certain formulae, such as the uniqueness and finality of Christ, but he says one shouldn't be committed to certain verbal forms. And he wants to be open to other cultures. So he must find a way to assert uniqueness and finality in a nonthreatening way. He treats this as if it were an empirical question, when it might better be seen as a rhetorical or grammatical issue. As a Christian leader he must find some use for the word "Jesus." He has committed to using "Christ," "uniqueness," and "finality." But he can soften their application.

I agree with you that this Platonism is ridiculous in a world of evolution.

I find it all still very condescending. I am happier with the view that different groups tell different stories and leave it at that. Reminds of dual citizenship, where some countries require the new citizen to renounce previous allegiances. Some countries refuse to recognize formal renunciations, so a person can have two citizenships. Both are different language-games and are not necessarily contradictory. One can be affiliated with both nations.

I think religion can be like that too. There is no contradiction between someone who affirms Jesus and one who doesn't. One is not haggling about facts but simply expressing different attitudes toward life.


Pluralist (Adrian Worsfold) said...

Yeah, quite.