A comment on Guy Elsmore's series Speaking about God in a parish of many faiths
by Brenda Watson
from Signs of the Times No. 57 - Apr 2015
There appears to be much truth in all three approaches to other religions: exclusive, inclusive and pluralist.
Christians should witness to the uniqueness of Jesus; they should acknowledge the validity of the way in which God communicates with people of other faiths; and they should celebrate the fact of the differences as people seek to worship God. Yet rightly Elsmore drew attention to criticisms of each. Moreover, if the three approaches need each other, how do they cohere?
It may appear easier to forget about intellectual problems and focus instead on praxis which Elsmore notes as common to all three approaches. He asks whether any speaking of God is 'a luxury when there are questions of appalling poverty and injustice to be addressed'.
He notes how in a vigil during the invasion of Gaza there was a 'shared sense that in our solidarity we were standing on holy ground'. Such experience is central to valid inter-faith development. But should it preclude theological engagement?
We do have to love God with all our mind as well as with all our strength and heart. We should not give the impression that belief doesn't matter, for this would imply contempt for our cognitive powers. Moreover, it ignores a major reason for terrible abuse of religion. The menace of Islamic fundamentalism and violence, for example, is under-girded by a religious faith that has become tied, hand and foot, to an implacable certainty of creed handed down by scriptural authority as well as by revered leaders.
It might seem that playing down the significance of belief would challenge a mistaken mind-set most effectively. Elsmore quotes Paul Knitter's view that truth should not and cannot be seen as propositional, definite and eternal, and his conviction that religious language is more like 'love language'. I cannot quite agree because this could give the impression that whether what it signifies is true or not is unimportant. It can appear uncomfortably close to Nietzsche's nihilistic comment: 'there are no eternal facts, just as there are no absolute truths.' (Human, All Too Human: A Book for Free Spirits trans. R.J. Hollingdale, CUP 1986 p.12f). In fact I think there is confusion at work here. Philosophers make the distinction between epistemology and ontology, between the claim to know and what is there to be known. The uncertainty regarding knowledge, to which Nietszche drew attention, refers to epistemology, not ontology. The proper inference from this is that our claims to know must be acknowledged as partial and provisional, but not the reality thus claimed to be known.
Wouldn't the most fruitful route to challenging dubious certainty and possibly mistaken beliefs lie in strongly focusing on the role of uncertainty regarding belief - a major theme recurring throughout Vol.55 of Modern Believing? Our enormous intellectual, emotional and moral limitations mean that to presume that we can have absolute certainty about anything is questionable. Do we not need to renounce the extraordinary desire we all seem to have for absolute certainty? In many areas of life we just accept uncertainty and this doesn't prevent us from getting on with our lives - even finding the
uncertainty exhilarating. Think of the weather, the state of the economy, political events throughout the world, success in exams and career prospects, our health, length and quality of life etc. So why imagine that our understanding of God should be different? God is Mystery and for humans to assume their ways are God's ways is perilous indeed. Yet religion so easily has given the impression of a required stitched-up certainty which it ought never to have done.
Perhaps the denial of certainty about religion by secularism is providential. The 'not-knowing' theme, for example, of the best-selling novel by Donna Tartt, Goldfinch, is an insight marvellously expressed in theological terms by Rowan Williams in his recent book Finding God in Mark. Instead of being perplexed and worried by problems in Biblical scholarship such as the 'Messianic secret' and the strange original ending of Mark's gospel, he sees Jesus' reticence and secrecy as essential - the only way he could communicate the reality of God without being thoroughly misunderstood through our conflation of human conceptions of power and our image of God.
By clarifying the impact of our limited experience and capacities, people can be relieved of the dreadful seeming necessity, as they see it, of always being right. It can enable a deep quality of openness and capacity for change. This can be done without the necessity to blame people, oneself or others. It merely accepts the conditions of our finitude and gets on as best it can within those limitations. But importantly it helps to keep people humble, avoid dogmatism, be genuinely interested in the experience of others and resist the temptation to feel superior to them.
Nor does it collapse ontology - what is the case - into epistemology - what I understand is the case. It will allow us helpfully to speak about God in multi-faith contexts but not in the one-directional manner of the phrase 'Speaking about God to people of other faiths'. The preposition needs changing from to to with.
Exclusive, inclusive and pluralist approaches to other religions are all partly right and partly mistaken because conceptually we cannot express anything adequately. The on-going-ness of life, the fluidity of our experience, and the complex meaning of words which cannot easily be conveyed to others means that great care is needed in reliance on specific creeds.