'The finality of Christ in a pluralist world'
Tuesday 2nd March 2010A lecture given by Archbishop Rowan Williams, during a visit to the Diocese of Guildford.
A transcript of the lecture follows:
The two texts in the New Testament which clearly express the issue we're reflecting on this afternoon, are familiar ones. Let me just remind you of them.
'Thomas said to him, "Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?" Jesus said to him, "I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.
(John 14: 5—6)
'Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to them, "Rulers of the people and elders, if we are questioned today because of a good deed done to someone who was sick and are asked how this man has been healed, let it be known to all of you, and to all the people of Israel, that this man is standing before you in good health by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead. This Jesus is 'the stone that was rejected by you, the builders; it has become the cornerstone.' There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved.'
(Acts 4: 8—13)
And so out of these two powerful and heavily-charged texts comes the classic Christian conviction: what we encounter in Jesus Christ is simply the truth. It is the truth about God and the truth about humanity. Not living into that truth and accepting it, has consequences because this is the last word about God and God's creation. So we speak of the finality of Christ. There's nothing more to know. Or we speak of the uniqueness of Christ. No one apart from Jesus of Nazareth expresses the truth like this.
That is what is so problematic for so many people in our world today. It's not just a question about people of other faiths (though it's partly that). It's also a question about how we in general communicate what we believe, and about what we believe God is doing in the world. And in the last forty years or so, the problems around the classical interpretation of these texts have been more and more highlighted. They fall into three broad groups, and in the first part of what I'm going to say I just want to look at the kinds of objection that have been raised to those classical interpretations of the texts.
The first difficulty is moral. What kind of God is it who makes salvation or eternal life dependent on what's always going to be a rather chancy matter? What about all those people who never had a chance of hearing about Jesus? What about all those who have heard about Jesus but have not understood or waited to find out? What about the generations before Jesus? What about the whole realm of non-Christian culture untouched for centuries by the Christian gospel? Can we believe in a just God who -- in effect -- punishes people for not being in the right place at the right time? This is a moral objection based on the character of the God we say we believe in. But increasingly there's been a second set of objections which I'll call political.
If you claim that Christ is the final truth about God and the universe, doesn't that give you a perfect excuse for trying to shut up anyone who says different? Isn't this part of the justification for crusading and colonialism and wicked things like that? Isn't it a recipe for contempt towards a large part of the human race? Doesn't it simply enshrine with a theological surround or mount, prejudices about the superiority of our culture?
And that connects with the third group of objections and difficulties which you could call philosophical. Every truth is spoken in the terms of its own culture and its own times. What could we possibly mean by saying that truth expressed in the Middle East two thousand years ago was a truth applicable to everybody, everywhere? Wouldn't this be to lift our claims right out of the realm of ordinary human conversation to claim something inhuman and actually indefensible and unsustainable?
In one form or another, those are the great objections that have been mounted to traditional Christian doctrine in recent decades. In one form or another you will probably hear them among the ordinary people with whom you converse about the faith. These are ordinary people who are not particularly easy or relaxed about the idea that there might be a truth beyond all change. These are also people who are uneasy about the perception that believing in absolute truth necessarily makes you a bigot and intolerant and exclusive towards those of other convictions. In other words, belief in the uniqueness or finality of Christ in the way it's usually been understood is something that sits very badly indeed not just with a plural society (whatever that means) but with a society that regards itself as liberal or democratic.
Plural. It's appropriately a word with a plurality of meanings. It's not only about a society in which there is a plurality of religious conviction (which is more and more the world we live in) but also a society with a plurality of lifestyles, philosophies and options. The word options is perhaps the most telling of all. This is a world where really the ideal for many people is simply to be presented with a choice which makes you comfortable. And the question of truth or finality isn't really allowed to arise.
These are powerful objections. And if we're to commend the Christian faith in our own social and cultural context we need to be very sure what we're commending and how to meet some of these objections. It's possible of course that you may feel the objections don't need to be met and the answer is to give up on the uniqueness or finality of Jesus Christ. For reasons I'll try to explain a bit later, I don't think that's a very sensible or useful strategy. But before I get there, let me step back a little and look again at the New Testament texts and invite you to think a little bit further about exactly what it is that the New Testament does and doesn't claim.
What the New Testament does not say is, 'unless you hold the following propositions to be true there is no life for you'. What it does say is, 'without a vital relationship with Jesus Christ who is the word of God made flesh, you will not become what you were made to be. You will not live into the fullness of your human destiny.' And it's this claim -- not so much about unique truth in a form of words but about unique relationship with Jesus -- which I want to explore a little with you.
'No one comes to the Father except through me', says Jesus. In other words if you are to be reconciled as a son or daughter with the God that Jesus calls 'Father' then it is in association with him and in walking his way that that becomes a reality: walking his way, not just having the right ideas about him, not even just repeating what he says, but following him. Then if we turn to Acts put into slightly plainer English, what Peter is saying to the authorities in Jerusalem is something like this: 'If you are to find life and healing, you must turn towards the one you rejected and despised; because there is no name on which you can call for rescue, except the name of the one you crucified'. I emphasize the word 'you' there. Peter is not preaching in the abstract. He is saying to those who crucified Jesus, 'If you want to be rescued from the trap in which you have locked yourself, the only name on which you may call for rescue is the name of the one you killed.' And that is the conversion or repentance he asks for.
Now I say this about the texts before us not to try and evacuate them of the meaning that has traditionally been given, but to note how both of them in their different way are presented as a challenge to change your life. What is the way to the Father? The Father cannot be shown as an object in the sky - something you can point to. The Father is discovered as you walk with Jesus towards cross and resurrection, and the challenge in Acts is the challenge, 'turn towards the one you have rejected and there you will find your hope'. The difficulty comes when we try and translate those 'challenge' statements into abstract and general statements; when we turn them into third person rather than first and second person statements. There lies a great deal of our difficulty, I would say.
But of course they do pre-suppose third-person statements of a kind. And both those biblical texts with which I began take for granted something like this: we are in fact deprived of the knowledge that could lead to life as human beings, and we are in fact locked in patterns of destructive behaviour. We need as a matter of fact, rescue. We need to be set free to be what we were created to be - and we were created to be something in particular. We were created to be sons and daughters of the heavenly Father. So part of the New Testament claim is actually that there's something about human beings which is true universally; an orientation, a magnetic 'drawing-towards' the source of all things, and a capacity to relate to the source of all things, not simply as someone who obeys or thinks, but as someone who is related intimately and intensely; like a child to a father. That's what human beings are made for. That is where the deepest springs of our humanity are to be found. We are designed for that relationship because in that relationship we become free. We become free to be ourselves, free to love the God who made us and who has saved us, free to echo and imitate the self-giving love of that God in our life day after day. That's what we're for.
And that depends in believing that God in God's own self is already a pattern of loving relationship: the Trinity of Father, Son and Spirit. There is for all eternity a place for us to stand. There is not only the Father, but the Son and the Spirit. We can step into the stream of the divine life by clutching on to Christ and being held there by the Spirit. And this is a reminder – once again – that to grow into what we were designed to be, is not something in our hands depending on our actions or on our ideas. It is something which the eternal Son and the eternal Spirit bring about as a gift.
That, I believe, is what the New Testament is claiming. And the questions that it puts to us are questions not only about the position of Christianity in relation to other religions, but a question about whether we believe there is something that is true in, and for, all human beings. Or do human beings have different needs and different destinies? Ought we to be saying that what is good for this group is not good for that group? Ought we to be saying that to be a child of God is fine for some people but not for others? Put in those terms, the first of the problems that I started by identifying, looks slightly different. The unfairness is not in God arbitrarily deciding that if you don't believe that, you're out. Unfairness would be not trying to share that human possibility as broadly as possible. It would be unfair if there were somehow no access at all to that mysterious truth of our own being. And if we emphasize the work of the Son and the Holy Spirit in this, rather than human effort alone, we may well understand that what we see of people's relationship to Jesus and the Father isn't necessarily all that's going on. There is a truth about human beings. God has revealed it in Jesus Christ and revealed himself in that action. That's what we know. And how those who don't encounter that mystery explicitly and directly, are related to Jesus and the Father, we can't know and we'd better not pretend that we do. The unfairness would be in saying that there is no access for some at all, or in saying that we don't have to bother to share.
But you can also see perhaps how the second, the 'political' objection, might look different. If we're speaking about the action of God through the Son and the Spirit to bring about a relationship to the Father then clearly how that is culturally expressed – the words and the forms that it finds – are not of themselves what make a difference. And this mystery of growing into human fulfillment and fruition through the Son and the Spirit is not something that can be enforced by human power. It belongs to the act of God. The more you believe that God really is God, the less you believe God needs to be protected by human beings from the consequences of his own recklessness. And so you may find yourself emerging with a more critical attitude to human power and local culture and cultural superiority. You may find that there's more critical edge if you take something more like the classical belief. But at the very least, if you truly believe that what the New Testament is talking about is a living relationship with Jesus in the Spirit brought about by the gift of God, you will look a little bit skeptically at any claim that this or that cultural or political force can guarantee it. That would be to put humanity where God belongs.
And that again may help us a little bit with the philosophical objection. What's being claimed is not that there is an absolutely sacred form of words that tells us everything we need to know, guaranteed and stamped from heaven and sent down to earth. It is to say that there is something about human nature which is beyond change and negotiation; something about the way we are as humans. Complete relativism about human beings is not actually something that can be sustained. It's not something any of us assumes. We don't in fact talk as though it were alright for some races to be discriminated against or for some people to be tortured. We assume that there is a solid, human foundation of dignity. We assume that what's good for me and for my neighbour is at the very least going to look quite similar at the end of the day, whatever cultural and local differences there are.
And so there are ways of responding to and tackling those three great problems that I began with. But at the heart of this is the question I've already touched on: 'do we believe that ultimately, what is good for human beings is somehow coherent and convergent? Are human beings so different that what is right for one to grow into is not right for another? Because that, I think, is one of the difficult consequences of letting go of a doctrine of finality or uniqueness – the idea that it's right for some parts of the human world to think of their destiny as becoming sons and daughters of God, but, elsewhere in the world, that's neither here nor there, as there will be another definition of what constitutes full humanity. I think we ought to be a bit uncomfortable about that. But for that discomfort to make sense we have to make the connection that sometimes we forget. That is, when we're talking about the nature of God and of Jesus Christ we are always also talking about humanity made in the divine image. We can't pull those apart.
So, 'uniqueness' and 'finality': we believe as Christians that because of Jesus Christ a new phase in human history – not just the history of the Middle East or of Europe – has opened. There is now a community representing on earth the new creation, a restored humanity. There is now on earth a community which proclaims God's will for universal reconciliation and God's presence in and among us leading us towards full humanity. That is something which happens as a result of the life and death and resurrection of Jesus. Uniqueness, yes, in the sense that this 'turning of a historical epoch', this induction of a new historical moment, can only happen because of the one event and the narratives around it. And finality? Christians have claimed and will still claim that when you have realized God calls you simply as human being, into that relationship of intimacy which is enjoyed by Jesus and which in Jesus reflects the eternal intimacy of the different moments and persons in the being of God, then you understand something about God which cannot be replaced or supplemented. The finality lies in the recognition that now there is something you cannot forget about God and humanity, and that you cannot correct as if it were simply an interesting theory about God and humanity.
We claim that there is a basic dignity and a basic destiny for all human beings, and we claim that in relationship with Jesus the Word made flesh becomes fully real. Expressed in those terms it is I believe possible to answer some of the moral, political and philosophical questions. And as I've indicated, to say any less than that leaves us with what I believe to be equally serious moral, political and philosophical questions. If we realize that not saying what we have said about Jesus involves us in saying there might be different destinies and different levels of dignity for different sorts of human beings, then, in short, to affirm the uniqueness and the finality of Jesus Christ is actually to affirm something about the universal reconcilability of human beings: the possibility of a universal fellowship.
Does this then create problems for dialogue and learning? Does it make us intolerant? Does it commit us to saying, '...and everybody else is going to hell'? First, in true dialogue with people of different faiths or convictions we expect to learn something: we expect to be different as a result of the encounter. We don't as a rule expect to change our minds. We come with conviction and gratitude and confidence, but it's the confidence that I believe allows us to embark on these encounters hoping that we may learn. That is not to change our conviction, but to learn. And I think it works a bit like this. When we sit alongside the Jew, Buddhist, Muslim, Hindu, we expect to see in their humanity something that challenges and enlarges ours. We expect to receive something from their humanity as a gift to ours. It's a famous and much-quoted statement in the Qur'an that God did not elect to make everybody the same. God has made us to learn in dialogue. And to say that I have learned from a Buddhist or a Muslim about God or humanity is not to compromise where I began. Because the infinite truth that is in the Father the Son and the Holy Spirit is not a matter which can be exhausted by one set of formulae or one set of practices. I may emerge from my dialogue as confident as I have ever been about the Trinitarian nature of God and the finality of Jesus, and yet say that I've learned something I never dreamed of, and that my discipleship is enriched in gratitude and respect.
I've sometimes said that in a good dialogue between people of different faiths, part of what happens is learning to see what the other person's face looks like when it's turned to God. Because something will be given or realized for me in that encounter and I mustn't shut out that possibility. And does our belief in uniqueness or finality commit us to saying that there is no hope for those outside the family of faith – whether someone of another faith or of no faith? We Christians are very reluctant sometimes to leave things to God to sort out. We have often a vague feeling that God hasn't read the proper books. And sometimes we feel rather protective towards him and make sure that he knows the right policy. I find – speaking for myself – that I'm very content to let God be the judge of how anyone outside the visible family of faith is related to Jesus or is turned towards the Father. There are lives – and we've all encountered them – marked by some of those things I would say are central to the Gospel and for which the person involved has no words. There are lives in which you can say, 'what is going on there has so Christ-like an aura about it, that I would be very foolish to say it has nothing to do with the act of God through the Son and the Spirit.' And yet the person may say, 'I'm a loyal Muslim; I'm an Agnostic; I have no idea what you're talking about when you talk about Jesus'. I am, as I say, content that God should decide what is going on.
In a recent book on this subject the Roman Catholic theologian Gavin D'Costa who teaches theology at Bristol, talks of how you can encounter in someone outside the family of faith things that are so central to the Gospel you are trying to communicate that you are bound to recognise the echo and pray that the relationship which seems to be at work there, really is what it seems to be. Jesus in the Gospels does not round on those to whom he preaches and those whom he heals saying, '...and I now want a precise profession of what you mean by faith'. Jesus' presence changes things and changes lives and evidently some recognise what's going on and some don't.
You may remember the story of the ten lepers in Luke and the one Samaritan leper who returned to give thanks. I don't actually imagine that the nine not so grateful or articulate lepers suddenly discovered that evening that they had leprosy again. They had encountered Jesus and something had been changed and they had no words for it. That may perhaps be one of the places where we need both some hard thinking and what I would call some 'hard silence'; a stepping-back from the urge to solve things prematurely.
In short and in conclusion, belief in the uniqueness and finality of Jesus Christ – for all the assaults made upon it in the modern age – remains for the Christian a way of speaking about hope for the entire human family. And because it's that, we are bound to say something about it. We are very rightly suspicious of proselytism, of manipulative, bullying, insensitive approaches to people of other faith which treat them as if they knew nothing, as if we had nothing to learn and as if the tradition of their reflection and imagination were of no interest to us or God. God save us from that kind of approach. But God save us also from the nervousness about our own conviction which doesn't allow us to say that we speak about Jesus because we believe he matters. We believe he matters because we believe that in him human beings find their peace. Their destinies converge and their dignities are fully honoured. And all the work that we as Christians want to do for the sake of convergent human destiny and fullness of human dignity has its root in that conviction that there is no boundary around Jesus – that what he is and does and says and suffers is in principle liberatingly relevant to every human being; past, present and future.
The challenge is partly re-connecting our christology (what we say about Jesus and the Trinity) with our anthropology (our sense of what belongs properly to human beings); and rightly understood, I think that the belief in Jesus' uniqueness and finality allows us to do this. And, rightly understood, I believe it also allows us to encounter both the religious and the non-religious other with the generous desire to share, and the humble desire to learn, and the patience to let God work out his purpose as is best in his eyes.
© Rowan Williams 2010