Excerpts for God Is Not a Christian : And Other Provocations


God is Not a Christian

And Other Provocations
By Desmond Tutu

HarperOne

Copyright © 2011 Desmond Tutu
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9780061874628


Chapter One

God Is Clearly Not a Christian
Pleas for Interfaith Tolerance

Nothing epitomizes Desmond Tutu’s radicalism (using the word radical,
as he likes to say, in the original sense of getting to the root of an
issue) more than his views on the relationship of his faith to the faiths
of others. This chapter combines remarks he made over four occasions,
revealing a refreshing, inspiring, and, yes, radical perspective that has
become particularly pertinent to the post-9/11 world.
This is an excerpt from a sermon preached at St. Martin in the Fields
Church on Trafalgar Square, London, during a meeting of leaders of
the world’s Anglican churches after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the
end of the Cold War, drawing on the Christian scriptures as the basis
of his approach.1
Isn’t it noteworthy in the parable of the Good Samaritan that
Jesus does not give a straightforward answer to the question
“Who is my neighbor?” (Luke 10:29). Surely he could have
provided a catalog of those whom the scribe could love as himself
as the law required. He does not. Instead, he tells a story. It is as if
Jesus wanted among other things to point out that life is a bit more
complex; it has too many ambivalences and ambiguities to allow
always for a straightforward and simplistic answer.
This is a great mercy, because in times such as our own—
times of change when many familiar landmarks have shifted or
disappeared— people are bewildered; they hanker after unambiguous,
straightforward answers. We appear to be scared of diversity
in ethnicities, in religious faiths, in political and ideological
points of view. We have an impatience with anything and anyone
that suggests there might just be another perspective, another way
of looking at the same thing, another answer worth exploring.
There is a nostalgia for the security in the womb of a safe sameness,
and so we shut out the stranger and the alien; we look for
security in those who can provide answers that must be unassailable
because no one is permitted to dissent, to question. There is a
longing for the homogeneous and an allergy against the different,
the other.
Now Jesus seems to say to the scribe, “Hey, life is more exhilarating
as you try to work out the implications of your faith rather
than living by rote, with ready-made second-hand answers, fitting
an unchanging paradigm to a shifting, changing, perplexing, and
yet fascinating world.” Our faith, our knowledge that God is in
charge, must make us ready to take risks, to be venturesome and
innovative; yes, to dare to walk where angels might fear to tread.
This talk also comes from a forum in Britain, where Tutu addressed
leaders of different faiths during a mission to the city of Birmingham
in 1989.
They tell the story of a drunk who crossed the street and
accosted a pedestrian, asking him, “I shay, which ish the other
shide of the shtreet?” The pedestrian, somewhat nonplussed,
replied, “That side, of course!” The drunk said, “Shtrange. When
I wash on that shide, they shaid it wash thish shide.” Where the
other side of the street is depends on where we are. Our perspective
differs with our context, the things that have helped to form us;
and religion is one of the most potent of these formative influences,
helping to determine how and what we apprehend of reality and
how we operate in our own specific context.
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 with-
out 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 worshipers or not.
This mission in Birmingham to which I have been invited is
a Christian celebration, and we will make our claims for Christ
as unique and as the Savior of the world, hoping that we will live
out our beliefs in such a way that they help to commend our faith
effectively. Our conduct far too often contradicts our profession,
however. We are supposed to proclaim the God of love, but we
have been guilty as Christians of sowing hatred and suspicion; we
commend the one whom we call the Prince of Peace, and yet as
Christians we have fought more wars than we care to remember.
We have claimed to be a fellowship of compassion and caring and
sharing, but as Christians we often sanctify sociopolitical systems
that belie this, where the rich grow ever richer and the poor grow
ever poorer, where we seem to sanctify a furious competitiveness,
ruthless as can only be appropriate to the jungle.
Tutu’s most detailed theological argument for interfaith tolerance was
made to fellow Christians in a 1992 lecture in memory of the Roman

Catholic archbishop of Cape Town, Stephen Naidoo, with whom
Tutu had worked closely in defusing conflict in the city in the 1980s.
Most Christians believe that they get their mandate for
exclusive 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 exclusive 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 judgment? 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 Barnabas invoke the
same principles in their discourse at Lystra, where they were thought
to be divinities (Acts 14:15–17). In his speech before the 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 17:22–31). Talking to pagans, Paul declares
that all are God’s offspring.

(Continues...)



Excerpted from God is Not a Christian by Desmond Tutu Copyright © 2011 by Desmond Tutu. Excerpted by permission of HarperOne. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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