Now there are a varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who empowers them all in everyone.
1 Corinthians 12:4–5
Bishop Desmond Tutu might be rightly esteemed just for the fact that he has refused to become a cynic. He lived entrapped, but not muzzled, under decades of oppression during South Africa's apartheid regime. He's witnessed brutality few live to tell of, much less speak redemptively of.
He's also seen factions, marked by hatred and often drenched in blood, employ the language of religion to make their case and incite passionate resolve. No faith tradition has been exempt from the practice. Christians, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, and Buddhists have all invoked religious viewpoints to justify violent actions, all finding an infinite wellspring of motivation in their belief that they have divine sanction.
It's therefore understandable why Bishop Tutu would offer the provocative comment—provocation being what ties the thoughts of his latest book together—that "God is not a Christian." He's leery (and weary) of entertaining the very notion of a single faith tradition claiming supremacy with respect to its understanding of the divine because he's seen so much horror proceeding from religiously-charged conflict.
Pastor Mark heralded Paul's words last Sunday that there is one Body of Christ with many members whose God is the Lord because there is one God. Bishop Tutu offers a counterpoint that there is one God with many faiths, none of which he argues, embody the nature of God to a degree that makes other embodiments superfluous or substandard.
In the excerpt of his book, he makes two arguments for this more expansive view. One, he attributes the disparate belief systems and faiths to accidents of history and geography. One's faith allegiances often correspond to where they were born. Since Muslim belief tends to be concentrated in where that belief has already existed—the same phenomenon borne out in other faith communities—it seems to Tutu that religious belief is more a function of social situation than divine revelation. Therefore he concludes the sooner we dispense with the idea that our particular faith tradition stands above others, the sooner we'll jettison the impulse to act imperiously or viciously on the basis of allegedly divine directive.
However, while few would argue with the notion that innumerable wars and conflicts have been circumscribed by religious sensibilities, it does not necessarily follow that religious ideas ought be reduced to merely local viewpoints. There's a latin phrase, abusus usum non tollit, which means "abuse does not take away proper use" (HT: Jack Collins). That many have recklessly employed religious categories as the basis for unconscionably vicious action does not invalidate certain truth claims simply because they derive from a religious outlook. To apply consistently the principle Tutu outlines would mean we should dispense with an appeal to pure reason as a source of authority on the basis that committed nihilists and atheists consigned more people to death in the last century than in any previous century. That men have acted outrageously armed with allegedly rational arguments, stripped of all religious pretensions, does not mean we discard all future appeals to reason to guide our choices. Abusus usum non tollit.
Bishop Tutu's other argument for refusing to ascribe to Jesus supreme insight into God (cf. Heb 1:3) is that in his view too many Christians have dismissed the religious sensibilities of others out of hand. They've hastily disregarded others' viewpoint—whether religious or irreligious—and sought only to proclaim the supremacy of their own. On this count Tutu makes a helpful point. Our pastor has sprinkled a simple directive in many of his sermons on what true evangelism entails: truth and trust. We do not compromise our commitment to the truth simply to prevent offense. Though many faith traditions provide wisdom and yield composure and solace to those who hold to them, if our greatest need is reconciliation with a holy God then their benefit is only like that of giving an aspirin to someone suffering a headache from a brain tumor; its palliative, not curative. That said, until we've sought to genuinely understand another's beliefs we've created no real trust, the necessary context for truth-telling. How can we say we bring them a message of an eternal love if we're not willing to love them enough to understand their perspective?
So while the venerable bishop is right to chastise a whole spectrum of responses by Christians across the centuries—from insensitivity to indiscriminate use of force—Tutu concedes too much for the sake of preserving peace.
Now perhaps you agree that Bishop Tutu takes a far too expansive view. His is not a new argument and the above responses to them aren't original with me. But before you nod your head in agreement, ask yourself: Is your life in the church—the character of your investment in her—indicative of a belief that there is one church for many, or that the church is just one of many? That is, do you see her mission and your place in her mission as directed toward bringing the goodness of God to all peoples, or just to keep the faithful safe and at peace?
Let me put it a bit more concretely. Is the Body of Christ for your marriage, or is it for your marriage for the sake of the world? Does the church exist to nurture your children, or does she exist to nurture your children for the sake of the world? Is the church for the good of your business, or is she for the good of your business for the good of the world? Psalm 67 begins, "May God be gracious to us and bless us, and make his face to shine upon us, that your way may be known on earth, your saving power along all nations" [emphasis mine]. The wisdom found in other traditions notwithstanding, this one Body of Christ with all her varieties of gifts, services, and activities exists for the sake of the whole world. She is not one of many sources of the Good News, but the one body with the greatest news.
Yet, if we're not careful we may unwittingly embrace a vision of the church more akin to Bishop Tutu's than the Apostle Paul's, contenting ourselves with creating a little safe haven whose ultimate purpose is to protect itself whether anyone else ever becomes part of it or not. That is the church with only local relevance—a church in its most cynical version.
What does your participation in the life of the church reveal about your belief about her mission?