Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Inclusively fanatical (August Synchroblog)

This is a bit late. Click 'full post' for text.

Tim asked the very cogent question: what's the difference between fanaticism and radical unconditional commitment? I think this gives a good way in to a brief discussion of inclusivity and exclusivity with respect to Christian faith.

My answer to Tim is: it is all about where your attention rests. In other words, radical unconditional commitment is all about - in the healthy sense - loving God with all of your self: heart, strength, mind and soul. I think the difference with fanaticism is that fanaticism has stopped paying attention to God and has become embedded in the rivalrous process of competition with another human being, or group of human beings. Instead of the wondrous awareness of the presence of God - with consequent humble attention and awe, drawing us onward into the deeper enjoyment of the Truth (who is Personal not Propositional) there is the agon, the painful contest for supremacy. Instead of the emptying out and taking on the form of a servant, there is the dominance of the will and the urge to mastery. Which is of course rooted in fear and spiritual imbalance.

So what does it mean to claim the truth for a particular position? Which is a different way of saying - who is included, and who is excluded? One of the things I've pondered recently was the story of the American priest who claimed to also be a Muslim. Clearly the particular truth of that situation can't be gleaned from a long distance away (and I note with interest that her Bishop has intervened) but it raises issues of principle. Is it possible to be a Christian and a Muslim at the same time?

It might help if I outline my own answer to the 'problem of other faiths'. I'll do this through some summary statements (which I'm not going to argue for here - pressure of time and all that):
- I believe that Jesus is the way, the truth and the life, and that no one comes to the Father except through him;
- I don't believe that this is a matter of the words that we say; it is a matter of the shape of life that we act out (Mt 7.21) (and this doesn't undermine the priority of grace, but that's a whole other argument);
- that shape of life is incarnate in Christ; that is, he shows us what it means to be human and what we are called to be like (he embodies the standard of judgement);
- I believe it is possible for people using different language to live out that life. In other words, given that all things are created through Christ, I believe that Christ is present throughout the world, and that people of other faiths can exhibit the Christ-life;
- what I mean by the Christ-life is pretty much what St Paul describes: "the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit. Let us not become conceited, competing against one another, envying one another."

I agree with Rowan Williams (not a surprise): "While we cannot accept Islam as the final revelation, it is nonetheless possible that God has given great gifts to individual Muslims and that through their devotion, we may yet learn something of what obedience to God looks like." I think it is perfectly possible for a Muslim or a Buddhist - or an atheist! - to display the fruits of the Spirit and to 'do the will of the Father'. The difference, I would argue, is that we acknowledge Christ; in other words, what is implicit elsewhere is explicit in Christianity.

Is this exclusive? Classically, the discussion about other faiths leads to three possible positions: exclusive (my truth is the only truth); inclusive (my truth includes other truths); or pluralist (the different truths are equivalent). What I'm arguing for falls pretty clearly into the middle option. I don't have much time for pluralism (or syncretism) simply because I think there are real and concrete differences between the faiths on some things. But I want to round off these remarks by saying something more about the exclusive position - for it is the exclusive position which is fanatical, in the bad sense with which this discussion began.

To my mind there is all the difference in the world between:
- claiming the truth, pursuing the truth, and admitting 'I could be wrong but this is where I'm walking'
and
- this is the truth and if you don't agree then you're wicked, evil and have smelly breath as well.

The difference is that the former recognises the inescapable logic of radical commitment to something (which is what pluralism avoids, or cannot see), yet remains open to insights from outside its own sphere of expertise; the latter is closed and has lost sight of what is most important - in believing that it has captured "the Truth" for its own exclusive possession it has in that very act lost touch with it.

This is the trap into which I fell when discussing the atonement last week. I don't recant from what I said, but the tone was all wrong - I had been dislodged from my spiritual centre and was starting to mud-wrestle. In particular, I was tempted to remove post #3 - but I'm now minded to leave it up as an honest record of my state of mind at the time. One conclusion I've reached is that, principally because of my spending quite a lot of time researching evangelicalism (with the desire to build common ground and unity) I'm quite a long way out of my comfort zone spiritually. Going to the monastery yesterday was a real infusion of light and peace and oxygen. I need to remember that when I become aware of the warning signs.

Anyhow, there will be more on that in due course, no doubt.

In the meantime, I'm going to finally pick up on Sally's tag about three apologies. There are three things for which I'd want to apologise as a [Western] Christian:

- embracing imperial culture under Constantine;
- embracing a scientific attitude in the Middle Ages, thereby distorting communion and the faith and initiating every mistake that then followed; and
- all the ways in which Christianity fed the Holocaust, which I see as the fruition of the foregoing, but the evil is so large it deserves a specific repentance.

How can Christianity claim it has sole access to the truth when it has a record like that?

Other synchroblogs this month:

David Fisher asks Why are we exclusive?
Steve Hayes is blogging his thoughts “Christianity inclusive or exclusive?
It’s a family affair comes Jenelle D'Alessandro
John Smulo will be adding his thoughts
Cobus van Wyngaard is contemplating Inclusivity within claims of heresy

Erin Word shares some thoughts on The Politics of love
As does Julie Clawson
Mike Bursell asks the question Inclusive or exclusive: you mean there's a choice?"
And Sally shares her thoughts here

And while we're on the subject, have a read of this.

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