Does it matter what religion someone follows?

Sermon for King’s College Cambridge
Sunday 28 February 2010       Lent 2

Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16
Romans 11:13-24

Does it matter today whether a person is a Christian or a Jew, or a Muslim or a Hindu, or a follower of whatever religion you care to mention?  Does it matter whether or not someone follows a religious understanding of life?  In our globalized, inter-connected world we are very aware of the multiplicity of world-views that are on offer.  How are we to choose between them?

Nearly two thousand years ago, the apostle Paul, speaking of his own Jewish people, wrestles with the fact that many of them had not accepted Jesus as the true Messiah, and he yearns for the day that they do.  He says, in his letter to the early Church in Rome, ‘For if their rejection is the reconciliation of the world, what will their acceptance be’.  Paul thought it mattered a great deal whether or not people accepted the message about Jesus.

In the early 21st century, religion is well and truly on the global and political map as a major force in human affairs.  In my view this question of how we see the multiplicity of world-views is one of the biggest issues of our time – and how we answer it has profound implications at social, political, moral and theological levels.  So, in short, it does matter how we understand our lives.

I want to offer three reflections based on today’s bible readings on how we might approach these issues.

The first is the importance of the pursuit of truth and the development of good theology.

In his densely argued letter to the Romans, written towards the end of his life, and seen by some as his profoundest reflection on the meaning of Jesus, Paul wrestles to find the language which will best express his understanding.  At times it can seem convoluted, such as in his writing about the non-acceptance of Jesus by many of his fellow Israelites.  But there is no doubt that his driving aim is to express the truth of Christ as he sees it.

Now, of course, we need to tread very carefully in the domain of truth claims.  They can be, and are, much misused.  There are those who see such claims as merely the attempt by one group to exercise power over another by arguing that their account of reality is the true one, and therefore all should follow it.  But if we become overly sceptical about the possibility of the pursuit of truth we lose something essential to our common humanity.  St Augustine of Hippo in the 4th century described humanity as ‘the community of truth’.  In a very different time and culture, Francis Bacon, the philosopher and politician, in the late 16th and early 17th centuries said, ‘The enquiry of truth, … the knowledge of truth, .. and the belief in truth … is the sovereign good of human nature’.

One of the limitations of our age is the view that science has become the paradigm for the pursuit of truth, with its emphasis on the need for empirical evidence and clear reason.  I have a background in physics and philosophy so am well aware of the tremendous insights into reality which modern science has brought us and continues to bring.  However, I do not see it as the only framework in which issues of truth can be explored.  We learn much via great art, literature, music and indeed theology which also takes us into the realms of truth.    The novelist, Iris Murdoch, has said, ‘Art … is the telling of truth, and is the only available method for the telling of certain truths’.  Neils Bohr, the great physicist, who explored the wave- particle duality of sub atomic matter, once commented that, ‘the opposite of a true statement is a false statement, but the opposite of a profound truth can be another profound truth’.

So a thoughtful exploration to find deeper understandings of truth is the first essential for navigating our way in the multiplicity of world-views.

The second is the recognition of the importance of good dialogue and communication.

There are plenty of situations in life when we simply do not listen, or understand what is being said to us.  It may be that we do not want to listen; it may be that something is being said too quickly; it may be that it is not in the right format to be taken in.  Every good teacher knows that different people learn in different ways, and a multiplicity of methods of communication is needed if we really want to get the message through.

There are some excellent examples of good communication and dialogue between people of different faiths, including some based here in Cambridge.  I chair the national Christian Muslim Forum which seeks to promote events which will enhance our understanding of our various traditions.  I am very aware in that work that it is being done against a background which is often deeply negative and fearful.  Creating the right climate for honest and open exchange is a crucial task in many areas of life today.  It needs to be worked at and cannot be taken for granted.

We also need to remember that much good communication goes far beyond words.  Often people stand or sit in profound silence together in the face of the mystery of life.  There is a strong tradition in most faiths that the deepest mysteries of life and God cannot be expressed in words.  The impact and widespread popularity of the Carols from Kings at Christmas shows the ability of music to communicate in a way that takes us to a much deeper level.  And I am pleased that the BBC has decided to broadcast an Easter service from this Chapel and pray that this also will be a means of profound communication of deep truths.

As well as the pursuit of truth and the importance of good communication and dialogue, I suggest there is a third theme which will help us as we try to navigate our way through a world of multiple faiths.  And that is the necessity for basic faith or trust in God.

This may sound rather naive, but in the Old Testament reading from the book of Genesis we hear how Abraham was told that he should live in God’s presence and be blameless.  At the heart of Christian faith, and many other major faiths, is the idea that there is a deep Reality who is the Source of all Being, who is our Beginning and our End, and whose nature is Love.  Faith is not a naive acceptance of unbelievable dogmas, but rather, as the philosopher and theologian, Keith Ward has expressed it, faith is ‘a sort of insight into the nature of reality which does not increase our ordinary factual knowledge, but sets all our knowledge and experience in a new perspective … in the light of Eternity’.  Faith is about basing our lives on the reality of the God whose nature is love and seeking to live them in that light.

This journey of faith, as Abraham only knew too well, contains much that is mysterious, unknown, and uncertain.  The great French priest, Abishiktananda, who sought to live out a form of Christian monasticism in India, which drew also on Hindu traditions and insights, once said, ‘Faith .. is to realize the presence of that fundamental love which makes us to be’.

Christianity, more than other major world faiths, emphasises orthodoxy – right belief.   Perhaps one of the things we need to recover in the 21st Century is the importance of orthopraxis – right living.  Abraham was told to live aware of God’s presence and to ‘be blameless’.  One key element of the journey of faith is to seek to live a life of love – in accordance with the Great Commandment to love our neighbours as ourselves, a version of which is found in many faiths.  As we proceed through the season of Lent, in which we especially reflect on the manner of our lives, we would do well to remind ourselves of this central tenet of Christian faith and life.  As St Augustine put it, ‘we do not come to God by navigation, but by love’.

So I would want to conclude, perhaps not surprisingly for a Church of England bishop, that it does matter how we understand our lives.  We live in an extraordinarily interesting period of human history in which we cannot fail to be aware of the multiplicity of world-views on offer.  Instead of seeing them as a source of conflict and confusion, I want to suggest that if we are committed to following our faith, whatever it may be, with a real desire to explore the deep truths of that faith, in open and honest dialogue with others, then we will discover even deeper truths about our lives and existence.   For me, as a Christian, the fullness of God is known in Jesus Christ and I would want to argue that some understandings of God and life are less than satisfactory or simply wrong.  But I seek to follow that way journeying with, arguing with, and working with people of many traditions, with a deep understanding of the ultimate oneness of God, who is the Source and Goal of All.

And so to God, who gives life to all things, who alone has immortality and dwells in unapproachable light, to him be honour and eternal dominion.  Amen.