Friday, June 13, 2008

The Bible and Other Faiths 10

For previous entries, just click on The Bible and Other Faiths label at the end of this post.

A New People

The gospel challenges religion. It makes us face up to the truth of universal sin and the impotency of our self-righteousness. As we reflect on how the gospel shapes our engagement with people of other faiths, we ought to let it examine ourselves as well. The gospel as found in the New Testament offers a unique diagnosis of human problems which in turn need to be brought to bear in all discussions about other faiths.

Having made that clear, IG wants to tackle a different question: how the NT shatters ties between people, power and land, the triad that characterises so much of religion. For the cross offers radical answers to old questions: blessing is now available to all peoples, true power lies in weakness, and this new community does not derive their identity from state or land. Yet this is not a case of being so other-worldly that the world right now doesn’t matter. Here’s a great quote from IG: “We might picture Caesar’s kingdom as filling a two-dimensional plane. The kingdom of God is not, then, a separate kingdom within that plane, but a third dimension that intersects with every point on it.”

IG now briefly walks us through the NT with an eye on tracing the theme that God’s blessing to the nations has come in the person of Jesus Christ. Matthew introduces us to the son of David and Abraham, and yet it was the Magi, foreigners of a different faith, who first recognise him as king of the Jews, and the end of Matthew climaxes with Jesus’ declaration to make disciples of all nations, as He is Lord of all. Mark’s gospel appears to be written for a Gentile audience, and while they don’t stand out, there are plenty of accounts of Jesus’ encounter with Gentiles, and it is the Roman centurion, standing at the cross, who cries out, “Surely this man was the Son of God!” Luke-Acts should be taken together, where Jesus interacts with various non-Jews, and the gospel goes from Jerusalem to Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth. John is different. There are not many references to non-Jews, yet the prologue immediately establishes Jesus as the universal life-giver, and in John 12, a significant point in the gospel, Jesus cries out, “The hour has come!” referring to his imminent death on the cross, at precisely the point when some Greeks desired to see Jesus. Taking into account the teaching of the NT as a whole, we recognise that this was always God’s plan, to include non-Jews into his kingdom.

“Working this out was not easy, because including the Gentiles disrupted the ties between religion and a particular people and culture”. Galatians deals with the big question of circumcision and ritual purity, which leads to Paul’s great explanation of the function of the law and the importance of faith, all the while insisting this is not actually new by pointing back to Abraham’s relationship with God. Loving our neighbours as ourselves, through the Holy Spirit, is now the basis of our actions. Galatians refuses to link faith in Christ with a particular culture or set of rules.

The “true Jews” are people without nation or land, and IG turns to 1 Peter to illuminate this. Those who believe and trust in Jesus are the new temple where God dwells. Land is no longer a key issue, for Christians are “aliens and strangers in this world”. The Christian’s allegiance is now first and foremost to God, but this does not require a Christian state. Instead, they should strive to be obedient citizens of the state, again, a radical suggestion considering that the early Christians were suffering persecution! But why? Part of the reason has to lie in the fact that the Messiah is for all peoples, and he has come to rescue people not from their enemies, but from their sins. His ‘sword’ is of a different category. Furthermore, their calling as God’s people is for the purpose of mission – like Israel, they are to glorify God amongst the nations.

God’s kingship is a big theme throughout the NT. In Revelation we will see the Lamb of God upon the throne, judging all the nations. Jesus would have surprised his hearers, though, when he preached the Sermon on the Mount. No mention of an ethnic, political or national kingdom is to be found there. The meek will inherit the earth, not the conquerors. It is purity of heart and the recognition of the need for mercy that is important, not religious laws. The new way of doing politics is peacemaking. Jesus consistently refused political power, and he is called “King of the Jews” only when he is on the cross. Jesus kingdom was not of this world, but it did challenge the kingdoms of this world, as Herod and Caiaphas both perceived. Going back to Revelation, the final vision is of a new land, where all the kings of all the nations will come, there will be no more temples, and the people will be under the direct rule of God (Rev. 21-22).

IG goes back to Acts to dwell a little more on the question of how this new heavenly kingdom interacts with the earthly powers. Right at the beginning, Jesus promises a different kind of power, people and land. The power is that of the Holy Spirit, the people they are to be are witnesses, and land is now redefined not just to mean Jerusalem but the entire earth. The coming of the Holy Spirit in Acts 2 can be read as a reversal of Babel: people don’t build religion to gain power in the land, but people in every land should now hear of the good news of Jesus Christ. This is the pattern of Acts. The bold preaching of the apostles leads to persecution at the temple. Their prayers recognise God as ruler of all, including over the political powers of the day, and they ask for power in the Holy Spirit. The church is willing to sell land, and indeed, abuse of land leads to disastrous consequences (Acts 5). Stephen himself confronts the people-land-power triad in his impassioned speech, where he argues that the temple was no longer necessary.

Acts emphasises the gospel encounters over political encounters, it is the Holy Spirit’s work that Luke is interested in. But “Paul and the other disciples live within the two-dimensions of Caesar’s kingdom as well as in the third dimension of God’s kingdom.” Paul and John stand before the Sanhedrin as Jews and Paul stands before governors and kings as a Roman citizen. But Paul will continually preach the kingdom of God and not about earthly powers. Elsewhere in the NT, especially in Revelation, the link between religion and power can be a dangerous one. The mark of the beast is the abuse of power, wealth and self-sufficiency, and these are the traps religion can fall into. A religion becomes “beastly” when it becomes to closely associated with a powerful leader, or a totalitarian state. Revelation suggests that this sort of religion has its origin in Satan’s schemes. The good news is that we are assured of God’s victory over Satan!

Graeme Goldsworthy has succinctly defined the kingdom of God as “God’s people in God’s place under God’s rule”. IG has been using a similar triad of people-power-land throughout this book in her reflections on the biblical story, missions, and other faiths, but I think it is only in this chapter that I’ve begun to understand why she has taken this angle and how much insight such an approach could provide. I think she’s largely on the money about how much this triad actually informs our understanding of religion in this world. It’s a pity that in this chapter she could only offer a survey as she appears to have much more to offer! My only tiny quibble is that the last subsection of this chapter could have been organised better.

Reflection questions:
What is salvation? What do the Jews of Jesus’ time / people of other faiths / you want to be saved from?

According to 1 Peter, what are the marks of the new people of God?

Nationalist religion, political religion, legalistic religion…how could a God-given religion go so wrong? What might be the results in your context of living by the Beatitudes in relation to people of other faiths?

Where do you see religions linked with land and power in the world today? Where does the Holy Spirit kingdom meet the political powers in your country?

Facing Samaritan Religion

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Anonymous paul maurice martin said...

I wish the whole world could be saved from people's preconceived notions as they want to impose them on others on the assumption they must be correct because, one way or another, they happen to have gotten into their own brains. This goes for both political ideologies and believers who identify the whole substance of religion with recitation of their doctrinal formulas.

We need a more flexible kind of intelligence and a more generous, expansive sort of motive if we're to remain viable as a species long term.

2:56 pm  
Blogger BK said...

Hi Paul,

Thanks for your comment. I had a look at your website. I admire your tenacity fighting what must have been a difficult medical condition. Congratulations too on the publication of your book!

I certainly agree that I have no wish to be associated with a kind of intolerance where the beliefs of others are arrogantly shoved down your throat! Nonetheless, I hope too that the same kind of generosity will be extended to the millions of adherents of major religions around the world. I am not sure, for eg., that many of them hold the beliefs they do simply because these beliefs "they happen to have gotten into their own brains", as if it was a matter of personal taste. I might even say that this is a "preconceived notion"! ;-)

Muslims, I'm sure, would want to argue in defence of the authority of the Quran, just as Christians will want to defend their belief that Jesus is the Saviour of the world based on what they believe are reliable historical documents. Now they could be mistaken, but surely it is better to entertain and discuss such truth claims by putting them on the table (done in a gentle spirit, of course!) instead of disallowing them a place on the table in the first place.

True dialogue and true tolerance happens not when we flatten out these distinctives. Indeed, flattening them out only achieves the opposite effect, as ironically, we end up identifying the whole substance of religion with recitation of my own particular doctrinal formula: "Faith should only be about our particular experiences of it". Rather, true tolerance is when we learn to respect those with whom we disagree. Rather than saying, you have your experience and I have mine and leaving it at that, we work hard instead at understanding each others beliefs better, strengthening our own convictions conscientiously, even having a willingness to say when you think something is wrong, but without being unnecessarily belligerent about it.

From a book excerpt on your website, you write: "It will be a sad commentary on how we handle our inherited traditions if religion proves more a source of division than a force of great-hearted mutual inclusiveness as the world becomes one." I agree. But I hope it's clear that if we are to honour our inherited religious traditions, merely stressing the sameness of these religions does not honour any of them. But, especially as I come from a country where there is a diversity of religions, we can all work at respecting each other as people. As a Christian myself, this flows out of my belief that everyone is made in the image of God and therefore has dignity.

Sorry for a long reply, but I hope you take it as a compliment!

9:17 pm  

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