Friday, 15 July 2005

A matter of life or death

Some myths of course we haven’t believed for a long time. Few of us really thought that Britain was somehow exempt from terrorist attack. Nor did we seriously expect that on each and every occasion security forces would be able to prevent an atrocity before it happened. But the myth that many of us held until this week, and which we have now painfully had to relinquish, was that terrorists are radically different from you and me. As I write, the backgrounds of the four suicide bombers are beginning to become clear. From what we can tell at this stage these were ordinary young British men. Born and brought up in this country, educated here, from unremarkable law abiding families. Outwardly at least their interests were the same as those of many of their age and sex.

Chillingly, that closeness is not defined to their backgrounds. For those of us of religious conviction it is equally present in their motivations. Christianity is founded on the story of a man who gave up his life for the sake of others. Faith relativises death in two ways. Most religions declare it neither to be the end nor the most important factor to be considered. I guess that the bombers were like us too in wanting (and this is rightly especially prevalent among young adults) to feel that they were part of something huge – even the outworking of God’s plan itself. The motivations of the original crusaders (who detonated the first suicide bomb a thousand years ago) are not so different from those of these young men.

It’s only after having recognised our similarities that we should go on to focus on the differences. I am helped enormously by the comment of a brother bishop some years ago. He drew an illuminating distinction between “theologies of life” and “theologies of death”. Both are present in Christianity. Both have their place. And in any one of us both will be operating at the same time. One or other however will be the dominant.

Theologies of death focus on temptation, sin, the battle between the divine and the demonic. The central symbol is the cross with Jesus hanging bleeding on it. The world is the entity that nails him there.

Theologies of life by comparison focus on love, forgiveness, the rich abundance of God’s creation. The cross remains the central symbol but here it is empty. Christ is risen, gone before, leading his people. The world, and the rich diversity in it, is itself a pointer to God’s glory.

Those who detonate bombs killing themselves and innocent travellers are operating from within a theology of death. We are closer to them than is comfortable whenever we allow our faith to be more rooted or expressed in what we oppose than in what we affirm. As the scriptures reiterate again and again the mission of Jesus was to bring not death but life. If we are to seriously distinguish ourselves from terrorism it is a theology of life that must predominate, whatever the particular matters being debated.

Faith leaders are rarely to be found with rucksacks full of explosives strapped to their backs but when we propound theologies that place God’s creation under the control of the devil or we declare humanity to be utterly depraved and make that the lynchpin of our position we are ultimately providing the ideological underpinning for actions that in themselves we rightly abhor.

Posted by David Walker on Friday, 15 July 2005 at 11:08am BST
You can make a Permalink to this if you like
Categorised as: just thinking
Comments

The simpering simplicity of the reference to the Crusaders is typical and, as usual, fails to place this belated counterattack in the context of more than 1000 years of more-or-less continuous and vicious Islamic agression (including the prior conquest of the Holy Land, North Africa, etc. by Mohammed's "suicide bombers"). However, this is not the article's worst fault. The pejorative references to what is called the "theology of death" is far more simple-minded and damaging. Christianity is and harmoniously unites (God be praised!) both a "Theology of Judgment" and a "Theology of Life"--to try and separate these two or to denigrate one for the benefit of the other is to do violence to the nature and depth of our faith and the sacrifice of Christ. Thus, the author falls into the same trap as those he condemns--he tries to divide what is inseparably united and succeeds only in creating an unbalanced monstrousity.

Posted by: Steven on Friday, 15 July 2005 at 2:44pm BST

I think the balance between the two is already unbalanced and that is why we have people willing to die or at least face whatever punishment for the crime.

Maybe it's idealistic and maybe it's simplistic but sometimes we need those things. Believe it or not we can get weighted down in theology and complicated thought.

I was talking to someone the other day who mentioned a book or a talk that they had heard the hypothesized what the world would be like if our religions did not have an after life component to them - that we live our life here on earth and that's it. Strangely enough, it is possible that life might acutally be more sacred. There would be more consideration around the choice for abortion, the choice for euthanasia, around war, around suicide bombings. Maybe it's too idealistic, but it is a thought about how we use the thought of eternal life or some sort of after life.

I do firmly believe in the message of the resurrection. Life on earth is not the end. But the hpothesis did give me some food for thought about how we speak of the after life and judgement and how we work around the commandment of thou shalt not kill.

Posted by: AMNicklin on Friday, 15 July 2005 at 6:34pm BST

"... we are ultimately providing the ideological underpinning for actions that in themselves we rightly abhor."

Oh groan! More liberal guff about how it is wrong to disapprove of anything that they approve of.

How come they always think that "conservative" disapproval will lead to violence and persecution, but that "liberal" disapproval won't ?

Posted by: Dave on Friday, 15 July 2005 at 10:12pm BST

I find your comment tremendously depressing, Steven. If there's any "Theology of Life" (or any Christ-likeness) in it, I can't see it. :-(

Posted by: J. C. Fisher on Saturday, 16 July 2005 at 5:46am BST

This article creates a category ("theologies of death") into which one can place both a Christian who emphasizes Jesus' crucifixion and a Muslim who is a suicide bomber. This is only slightly more meaningful and useful than creating the category of words that have a "ci" in them (i.e., "suiCIde" and "cruCIfixion"). Either device equates things that have no actual similarity.

A suicide bomber is nothing like someone who resolves to know nothing but Jesus Christ, and Him crucified; who takes up his cross daily and follows Jesus; who deems himself crucified with Christ yet alive.

Posted by: DGus on Saturday, 16 July 2005 at 4:31pm BST

Dear J.C.-

My comment was probably too heated. After all, the author does, at least, give lip service to the idea of balance. However, it is obvious that he does not believe in it to any great degree. Otherwise, he would place just as much emphasis on the dangers inherent in overemphasizing what he calls the "theology of life" to the exclusion of what he (pejoratively) calls the "theology of death". Still, there are elements that can be worked on there.

As to your opinion of my response, why seek to be insulting? Wouldn't it be easier and more productive just to repond to the points made?

Posted by: steven on Saturday, 16 July 2005 at 11:24pm BST

It wasn't meant to be an insult: it was grief, talking.

The world is in *profound trouble*, and Mr. Walker is, in my estimation, looking for a way *through*.

Instead of offering other perspectives of *hope*, respondents (like yourself) have chosen to attack him.

To Christians: everyone is NOT going to become Christian.

To Muslims: everyone is NOT going to become Muslim.

(Plenty want nothing to do with either of us)

We're going to HAVE TO LEARN TO LIVE TOGETHER. How?

Please, folks, in the name of the too-many dead (Christians, Muslims, not to mention Jews and others) already, let's look for solutions, and not just provide more partisan finger-pointing.

Posted by: J. C. Fisher on Sunday, 17 July 2005 at 12:18am BST

Dear J.C.-

OK, I see where you're coming from. However, my response was not so much motivated by the author's desire to make Islam "a religion of peace", but by the way in which the author seeks to tar Christianity with the same brush and destroy the balance of our faith.

Actually, as my last post indicated, I believe the author is on the right track vis-a-vis Islam. It is a human "religion" created without the balance innate in the divine revelation of and in Jesus Christ. It is true that Christians often destroy this balance, but that is our fault--not God's fault. Islam on the other hand, is a man-made creation and is, therefore, naturally and fundamentally lacking in balance. What balance it has comes from the teachings Mohammed borrowed from the Judeo-Christian fountainhead and/or has been gained in the centuries since Mohammed.

So, ultimately I agree in part--Islam can only be improved by seeking to make it more balanced. This will require us to strive to encourage Islam, even as we try to make ourselves, more Christ-like. This will not make Islam equivalent to Christianity, but it will (at the least) help to keep it from degenerating to the level of its origins.

However, this is as far as I can go in the author's direction. I do not believe we will help Islam by striving to model an imbalance in the opposite direction, but by striving to immitate the balance of Christ.

Cordially,
Steven

Posted by: steven on Monday, 18 July 2005 at 2:23pm BST

Wrote Steven: "(Islam) is a human 'religion' created without the balance innate in the divine revelation of and in Jesus Christ. It is true that Christians often destroy this balance, but that is our fault--not God's fault. Islam on the other hand, is a man-made creation and is, therefore, naturally and fundamentally lacking in balance."

I couldn't disagree more with Steven, as an Anglican who values the Catholic tradition. Read Vatican II's Nostra Aetate (28 Oct. 1965), para. #3: "The Church has also a high regard for the Muslims. They worship God, who is one, living and subsistent, merciful and almighty, the Creator of heaven and earth (here the conciliar document quotes Pope Gregory VII's Letter 21 to Anzir -- PL 148, col. 450ff.), who has spoken to men. They strive to submit themselves without reserve to the hidden decrees of God, just as Abraham submiited himself to God's plan, to whose faith Muslims eagerly link their own. Although not acknowledging him as God, Muslims worship Jesus as a prophet, his virgin Mother they also honor, and even at times devoutly invoke. Further, they await the day of judgment and the reward of God following the resurrection from the dead. For this reason they highly esteem an upright life and worship God, especially by way of prayer, alms deeds and fasting... The sacred Council now pleads with all to forget the past, and urges that a sincere effort be made to achieve mutual understanding; for the benefit of all men, let them together preserve and promote peace, liberty, social justice and moral values."

As an Anglican rooted in the catholic, patristic tradition, I do not think that the incarnation of the divine Logos in Jesus Christ was a solitary, unrelated occurrence, totally unique. Rather, I see it as the culminating point of what God has been doing in all history. Here I take my lead from St. Athanasius, often regarded as an exemplar of orthodoxy. He related the incarnation to God's immanence in the world. "There is a sense," to quote John Macquarrie, Rowan Williams's predecessor as Lady Margaret Professor of Divinity, "in which the whole cosmos embodies the Word or Logos." Why shouldn't the word be embodied in human beings? Argues St. Athanasius: "The philosophers of the Greeks say the world is a great body... If then the Word of God is in the world, which is a body, and he has passed into it all and into every part of it, what is wonderful or what is unfitting in our saying that he came in a man?" (De Incarnatione, 41). So, the incarnation provides a good starting point for a theology of mediation on the assumption that the Christ event was not an anomaly in world history but is a characteristic of God's relation to his creation. Therefore, as Christians we should not deny that God may have chosen to be present in other divinely chosen human beings, although we ascribe a special uniqueness to the Christ event. As Christians, we are saved by Jesus Christ alone.

Posted by: John Henry on Tuesday, 19 July 2005 at 9:22am BST

Dear John Henry:

Ironically, I find very little to disagree with in your paragraph beginning "I couldn't disagree more with Steven . . ." Frankly, others have said what I have said and far better. However, the fact that Islam reflects many of the truths of God, and the fact that the Holy Spirit works in the wider world outside of the Christian Church does not negate the special revelation and accomplishment of Jesus Christ in his teaching, life, death, resurrection and ascension. Islam denies Jesus is the incarnate Son of God, denies many of his teachings, denies his death, denies his resurrection, and etc. It is, therefore, incomplete and unbalanced for these reasons if for no others. My stated position relates to the balance and perfection of God's revelation in Jesus Christ--this is not something the Church Catholic ever would or could disagree with.

In your paragraph beginning "[a]s an Anglican rooted in the catholic, patristic tradition . . ."--I'm not sure what you are trying to accomplish. I disagree with nothing you have quoted. However, you seem to use the authorities quoted to try and establish something quite different from anything they could have intended. Overall, you seem to be trying to make the Catholic Church (and catholicism generally) appear to be something it is not--i.e., some type of pluralistic religious philosophy. Nothing could be farther from the truth and I cannot imagine the Fathers of the Church, who struggled to uphold the truth of Christ against the other religions of their day, arguing that all religions are equivalent, that Islam is on a par with Christianity, and that Mohammed is on a par with Christ. So, if you are arguing for the general equivalence of world religions, and particularly for the equivalence of Islam and Christianity I agree that you are completely at odds with what I have said. If not, please clarify.

Cordially,
Steven

Posted by: steven on Tuesday, 19 July 2005 at 4:38pm BST

Steven,

Obviously, yours is the Barthian view that denies that non-Christian religions are paths to salvation, although Karl Barth was not fully consistent in that he held that members of other faiths and human beings in general can be saved by Christ, even though they do not realize it.

The position which Anglicans and Roman Catholics (since Vatican II) have held, which is my own view, is open to the idea that non-Christian religions are paths of salvation, though they may contain beliefs which give inadequate or incorrect views about the nature of God and the way God is working his ultimate purpose out. Gaudium et Spes and Nostra Aetate (1965), following Karl Rahner, teach that God speaks to everyone in some way, and often speaks through their own religious traditions, so that saving grace is present to all people, although often unrecognized. Yet the unknown God has become known and recognizable in Jesus Christ. If God seriously wills that every human person achieve eternal life, it seems probable that grace must be at work in the heart of the unevangelized. Christ being the summit of divine revelation, the Church has a mission to proclaim Christ, while engaging in inter-faith dialogue and becoming itself enriched by it.

A third view, which I reject, is that all can be saved by their own faith apart from Christ, Christ being no longer the Way, the Truth and the Life, as represented by John Hicks, who adopted a 'pluralistic hypothesis', the Christian way being but one among many religions.

In Christ,

JH

Posted by: John Henry on Tuesday, 19 July 2005 at 7:03pm BST

Dear John Henry:

Thanks for the clarification. I think you may have missed my point. I was not arguing whether salvation might be possible outside of the church. That has little to do with the propositions in the article at issue or what is being discussed. (Even though it is a very interesting subject for discussion in its own right).

In response to the problem of terrorism, the author of the article seems to argue that--for want of a better word--the "gentler" aspects of Christianity should be promoted and the "harder" aspects of the faith should be avoided and/or ignored. My belief is that this would be a gross distortion of the Faith, and that we will do better at "balancing" Islam by modeling and promoting a balanced faith than by seeking to be "unbalanced" in the opposite direction (as the author seems to propose). It is our job, so to speak, to immitate Christ and to strive not to err either to the right or the left.

This will not, of course, be easy. And, there is certain to be disagreement on where the center lies. However, to ignore and/or denigrate either side of the Faith is to do violence to the Faith as a whole. I cannot believe that this is the approach the Lord would have us take at any time, much less in the battle against terrorism.

Cordially,
Steven

Posted by: steven on Tuesday, 19 July 2005 at 10:45pm BST
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