by Brenda Watson
from Signs of the Times No. 58 - Jul 2015
Both/and not Either/or is a principle I've found enormously helpful. It denotes the truth of paradox, that there is truth in all positions but not the whole truth in any.
Thus in the last Signs of the Times (April 2015), Merryn Hellier is obviously right about the meaninglessness of theological disputation in situations of dire poverty, but that doesn't mean that theological questions are meaningless and shouldn't be raised in different circumstances.
Mother Teresa, Martin Luther-King, Desmond Tutu, and hosts of other deeply religious people who take theology seriously, have campaigned with remarkable energy for the improvement of the lot of the poor and vulnerable. It is not a situation of either care for the poor or concern for theological belief. Rather, it is concern for reaching, as far as possible, true theological belief and living that belief in one's life with integrity. The world needs both searching religious commitment and genuine response to the needs of others.
What counts, of course, is the quality and substance of the religious faith affirmed. Trying to imprison the Spirit within divisive formulations of words generates the opposite of real concern for truth and encourages a mood of competitiveness which is simply irrelevant and inappropriate.
I am inclined therefore to agree with Evelyn Underhill's statement that 'there is no essential difference between Brahmin, Sufi and Christian mystics at their best'. A recent visit to the Sikh holy place at Amritsar vividly posed this question for me: why did Nanak's insight end up in creating a new religion? He saw clearly that God can be worshipped in many ways, whether as Muslim or as Hindu. He did not try to stamp out forms of worship because he could see they are necessary aids for human-beings who cannot directly apprehend the Divine. But he saw also their temporary and subsidiary status. The same question can be asked about the separateness of Christianity as a religion. Was it meant to be so? Some means of bearing witness to Jesus was and is needed, but should these be artificially cut off from how other people think and live?
Do we not need to sit lightly by our various creeds, means of worship and organization in order not to hide the Lord whom we say we worship from others? I suspect that churches with their feuds and ill-considered dogmatic positions get in the way of the evangelisation they intend. The cry should always be 'Back to Jesus'. But this opens rather than closes the need for thoughtful discernment as to who Jesus was and what he wished and wishes to communicate. Many kinds of perspectives are needed to reach any convincing understanding of these questions. Instead of dogmatic statements we need exploratory and humble searching for truth in love.
Discussion with people of other faiths can greatly aid us in this task if we adopt a general approach of both/and not either/or. There can be wonderful moments of coming together. I think of an occasion in India 40 years ago when I debated with an Advaitin professor at Madras University in which we found that the Christian doctrine of the Trinity could be expressed in terms of the brahminical Sat, Cit, Ananda (Being, Consciousness and Bliss).
Yet, as with Evelyn Underhill's statement, it is a question of agreeing and not-agreeing, because although there is so much in common, there is also distinctiveness. Sat, Cit and Ananda do not adequately sum up the Christian doctrine of the Trinity - they go some way towards elucidating its meaning, but relating this to Jesus requires a lot more reflection. The doctrine of the Trinity, awkward as it is, arose as an attempt to make sense of experience: that Jesus was and is in some sense God, that Jesus nevertheless addressed God as Father and that the Spirit enables his God-like life to continue in the world. Of course as mathematical sense it is nonsense, but it accurately summarises Christian experience of the living Jesus Christ, as Jesus of Nazareth and yet as cosmic Lord, and the special power of the Spirit which enabled the followers of Jesus to move forward in witness to Him.
As such, creeds should not be taken too seriously. They are like all generalisations in speech, and like all institutions and organizations in management - essential and unavoidable but all, to some extent, faulty and inadequate; allegiance to them should always come with a health warning!
Nevertheless there is also a place for statements of shared values. None of us can claim to be beyond the need for some sense of identity, and all communities need rallying focal-points. Jeyan Anketell's attempt to construct a 'believable creed' is important. What is necessary is that those focal points are as true and meaningful as we can make them.
Here is my attempt at a creed which signifies what is special about a Christian understanding of the world, and which can, I think, reach beyond the boundaries of specific churches and be meaningful in today's world. Does it make sense?
We believe in God as that Transcendent Reality upon which the whole physical world depends.
We believe in Jesus as the trustworthy manifestation in human form of the nature of God who by his cross gave us a sign which overturns all purely human notions of power and control.
We believe that God's Spirit can be at work in every aspect of life and in everyone who is willing to search for understanding humbly and openly.
We pledge ourselves to seek to live according to the nature of God as revealed in Jesus.