I once heard an old cleric pronounce : "Once a priest, always a priest. You may be a rebellious priest, a doubting priest, an apostate priest, even a wicked priest, but you're still a priest. It's what you've become, like it or not." The same can be said about being baptized. No matter how far one may fall short of the baptismal promises, nobody can 'un-baptize' themselves. There is a secularist organisation giving certificates to anyone wanting to disassociate themselves formally from their Christian origins. You can re-invent your image, abandon or change your religion, but you can't change the fact that water was poured over you in baptism, any more than you can deny that hands were laid upon you in ordination. It remains part of your life story.
Even if religion has no place in our lives, it does not disappear from the world. Systematic attempts by atheistic communists to eliminate it failed. Religion, even indifference or hostility to religion plays its part in answers given to the question: 'Who am I?'. Through stories, rituals and moral obligations, religion expresses values and beliefs about the cosmos, origins and destiny, what it means to be human. It marks with meaning the seasons, and the passage of time between births and deaths. It concerns what we regard as sacred and ordinary, divine and human, spiritual and material.
The influence of religious belief on human behaviour is a paradoxical mixture of positive and negative signs. Situations where religion cohabits with oppression and ill-will produce people who are an antidote to evil. The church in Nazi Germany produced Bonhoeffer and Niemoller. South African apartheid produced Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu. The same institutions and systems of belief seem about to raise both godly and ungodly people. Why?
Underlying the externals of any religion, true or false spiritual paths can be discerned. A true spiritual path has beliefs and practices which bring a person into a living relationship with the divine source of all that exists. It allows them to develop as individuals in relation to others in community where 'shalom-salaam' is lived and valued. It gives an orientation to life, an awareness of the beauty and interconnectedness of all things. It nurtures and guides the free will towards life in 'shalom-salaam', and intimacy with divine life. A false spiritual path promises, but can never deliver the totality embraced by 'shalom-salaam'. A false path leads away from complete fulfilment. It makes for relationships of unhealthy dependency rather than freedom, gives an illusory security. It idolises power. It paralyses the will to seek truth and justice. It alienates the human from the divine.
Do all spiritual paths seek the same goal, as some believe? A metaphor much used today is of one mountain of divine truth with many ways to the summit. Due to migration, the practices of all the main world religions and their cultures are now found dispersed across the world. People can easily investigate spiritual paths other than the one they inherit, and can visit the sources of a religion in deciding which path to follow. Nobody is obliged to remain in the tradition of their forebears any longer. We can examine and choose the path which is right for us. The image of a 'supermarket of world religions' reflects the current ideology of consumer freedom of choice in matters of the soul.
The wise consumer knows that not all goods on sale are quality products. The choice that meets today’s need may not give ultimate fulfilment, despite its attractions. Religious cults and sects which appeal to, then enslave and even kill their followers are a sobering reminder. How do we know and decide if any ascending path leads to a dangerous dead end? Is there a higher truth which embraces us, and frees us to look beyond the immediate appeal of a choice to be made?
Learned thinkers of different cultures remark, often independently, that in the valued teachings of the great world religions, there are similarities of ethical precepts, notions of how the true and the false can be discerned, techniques for spiritual development, attitudes to creation and human relationships. Huxley coined the phrase 'perennial philosophy' to describe this universal inheritance. Does each religion express this 'perennial philosophy' in its cultural context? Are all true spiritual paths capable of reaching the same goal?
The ascetic and mystical aspects of a range of religious traditions, regard the realm of the divine as beyond concepts, best approached through loving silence. There seems to be common ground on which holy men of all faiths walk together. But holiness is not such a common experience. In applying religious teaching to everyday life, the question remains: how do I choose between offers of spiritual paths, and discern the validity of warnings against false ones?
These are important questions, but the decline in religious belief and practice in modern industrial society poses a more serious question. "Do we need religion at all?" Humanism and secular materialism have influenced people's self-understanding and behaviour globally. Can 'shalom-salaam' be attained by pursuing an ethical path without religion? Is spirituality merely a concern with one's aesthetic and emotional life? We come across people who are 'good' by the highest moral criteria, living apparently without God and religion. Seekers of a spiritual path must learn to live with such challenges contradicting their cause. It is an antidote to narrow vision.
Anyone wanting to follow the spiritual path proposed by Jesus, must live with the knowledge that arguments in its favour are far from watertight, and supporting evidence never quite sufficient. It is based on the experience of being human, more than on a system of thought. The faith of his disciples offers no guaranteed certainties. It entails risk, doubt, trust and surprise. Churches basing themselves on the teachings of the Bible and historic agreements of early Christian leaders claim contentiously (some would say arrogantly) that the spiritual path of Jesus offers all kinds of people the possibility of ultimate fulfilment, and the means to reach it freely in many varied ways, whilst anchored in a unique relationship with God, as Jesus makes God known.
Jesus alone is described as one, "in whom the fullness of the Godhead dwells" (Colossians 1:19). ‘The human face of God’, as Bishop John Robinson put it. To regard all human beings as 'sons of God', in the sense that a spark of the divine fire exists in everyone, is an ancient idea. But to speak of Jesus as the Son of God here implies something different, the identification of one human being with the unseen, unknowable God. Jesus declares who God is, in terms all can understand. Arguments alone will not convince us. We can find out if he tells the truth by testing Jesus’ invitation to know God by making a relationship with himself.
The New Testament contains many exploratory statements about who Jesus is. None on their own is complete or definitive. Churches have long argued about what it means to say that Jesus is uniquely the Son of God. Even though this assertion is found in the New Testament, it was three centuries before the widely agreed document called the Nicene Creed appeared. Even then, its text was not easy for non-experts to understand. Consent to its adoption was not universal. Churches in different cultures have long had problems being sure they understood each other when speaking of God and Jesus. Yet, Jesus stands out for people of all religions and none as a model of humanity and faith.
For Christians, he is more than a teacher, a healer, a wonder worker or an exemplary believer. His life’s purpose was to declare that God's universal reign of 'shalom-salaam' is arriving on earth now. He called his message 'good news'. He lived, taught, healed, endured rejection, betrayal and death at the hands of opponents to his spiritual path of 'shalom-salaam'. The account of his death by crucifixion exposes human failure to live by truth and justice, yet it points to an unique disclosure of inexhaustible divine compassion and forgiveness through Jesus. His death is not the end of him, it is the climax of his work.
The 'good news' proclaimed by Jesus takes on a completely new dimension, in the light of his come-back from death, raised to life by divine power. By this means, his suffering is shown to have value and purpose in the mind of God. It gives us a glimpse of the reality of existence beyond our ability to comprehend. The deeper meaning of all his teaching and miracles depends on the fact of his resurrection. It is the reason Christians give for declaring that he is the Son of God, that his path is trustworthy and true. Jesus has been worshipped as Son of God since very early in the Christian era. This is the basis of a new understanding of the relationship between humankind and God.
For his followers, this has consequences in all areas of life. Christian teaching reckons that in Jesus and his story, a sound foundation exists for working out who we are in a changing world, and what it means to be human. Other religions and secularism raise the same challenge differently, and much is to be gained by hearing properly what they have to say. Dialogue about religious truth requires that we re-state our faith in new ways, and find shared experiences on our different spiritual paths.
In St. John's Gospel Jesus is reported saying: "I am the Way, the Truth and the Life: nobody comes to the Father except through me." (John 14:6). This needs explanation if it is not to be misleading. Jesus spoke of God as his Father. He proposed the same trust and intimacy with God for all people, through their relationship with himself – the human face of the divine unknown.
Sadly, some Christians use this saying in ways that devalue other spiritual paths and their followers. This is hardly in keeping with Jesus’ attitude. He proclaimed God’s limitless generosity and compassion. He was quick to recognise faith in people outside the circle of conventional believers. He criticised religious folk whose actions lacked faith, and who excluded others. He taught how a truly faithful person was recognisable by their openness and generosity. His persistent inclusiveness and indiscriminate love for people, in imitation of God's fatherhood, is the real force behind this saying. The words and actions of Jesus guide us away from narrowness of heart and judgement.
Through two millennia, the credibility of the Gospel has been transmitted across differences of time and culture. Jesus' teaching method encouraged people to link their search for God's meaning and purpose, with their own experience of life, rather than seeking out timeless abstract generalisations. With creative imagination, the story of Jesus can be re-told to make sense in any time and place. It lives in the very act of being translated.
The main source of his story is in the unique presentations of the four Gospels in the Bible. The word ‘gospel’ is Anglo-Saxon for ‘Good News’. The Christian approach to sacred texts, and authority they have is unusual. The crucifixion story relates that Pontius Pilate had an inscription nailed to the cross of Jesus : "Jesus of Nazareth, king of the Jews". (John 19:19-22), written in Greek, Latin and Hebrew, the three languages used in Palestine at the time. As it was (and still is) a multi-cultural region, this determined how any message should be communicated.
Jesus spoke Aramaic, a Palestinian dialect of Syriac. Hebrew, with common Semitic roots, was the language of Temple and Synagogue. Greek was used in business communities spread across the empire. Latin was the language of colonial rule. It is likely that Jesus and his disciples were acquainted with these three languages, even if they mainly used Aramaic. Thus, from the start, his teaching crossed boundaries. This was symbolised in the story of the coming of the Spirit at Pentecost (Acts 2:1-11), when all present heard the Gospel in their mother tongue. Enquirers did not need to learn another language to get the message. This affirms the unique value of personal identity. None of us need discount our personal history, language or background, however proud or ashamed of them we may be.
Translation is so basic to Christian communication that the texts of the New Testament in Greek are not regarded in the same way as the Arabic of the Qu'ran or the Sanskrit of the Vedas. The texts of the latter are regarded as sacred, untouchable, unique words directly from God. For the most part, Christians recognise the words of scripture as being of human origin, conveying messages and meanings of divine origin which transcend barriers of language.
The declaration of 'who Jesus is' was made first, not in writing, but in vernacular preaching, based upon oral sayings, stories and Hebrew scriptural texts. Fragmentary reports of those who had known and accompanied Jesus were written down in Greek and perhaps in Aramaic, but not immediately. Eventually they were compiled into continuous narratives by various church communities for their own needs, then later passed on, translated if required. Thus, there is no one original source of the writings Christians hold sacred, nor is there a doctrine that there should be any such ideal text.
Scripture texts now in use are compiled from different sources dating from the middle of the first to the early second century. These have a substantial, if imperfect, degree of consistency. Working out the best versions and interpreting them is an art and science still advancing after eighteen hundred years. Christian sacred scriptures are not a rigidly fixed piece of data, though many believers have a tendency to treat them as if that were so. Scholarly work on ancient manuscripts over the past two hundred years has produced a 98% reliable text, on which most Christians are agreed. But, the task of research remains incomplete and open to new findings.
Greek, Latin, Syriac, Slavonic and even Tudor English versions of the Bible have acquired the status of sacred texts accorded to Islamic or Hindu original scriptures, but this is a historical cultural anomaly. Re-translation, saying what is meant in a new ways, is essential to deeper understanding. Texts are examined scientifically, but their meaning does not come to life apart from the faith communities which live under their authority and regard them as God's Word. The earliest believers saw no need to preserve perfectly the integrity of their sacred texts, as they thought the world would soon end. The story was told by guaranteed witnesses, the apostles of Jesus and their successors. To start with, this visible testimony was what mattered. The first actual sacred texts used by Christians were the Jewish scriptures.
When the world didn't end, new writings emerged as an aide-memoire for teachers and preachers, or as messages circulated between churches. From the start Christian writing, mission and community life were intertwined. This gives particular vitality to how Christians use (and even abuse) the Bible. In discovering who Jesus is, it doesn’t make sense to examine scripture in isolation from the church. Belief is expressed in texts for worship, personal devotion, hymns, music and art. The meaning of the written record comes alive, not just in being read out, but also in being translated and interpreted, so that it makes sense for those who don’t know ancient languages or their culture of origin.
Archaeology has provided some substantial evidence of the historicity of biblical stories and their setting, and this has helped with interpretation. The scientific methods which gave us more reliable original texts have also raised new and interesting questions. Now that the Bible can be compared with the sacred scriptures of other ancient Near Eastern religions, it may not seem so unique as religious literature. The world, at that time, just like ours today, was also a 'supermarket of religions' in which there were choices of belief and lifestyle to be made. From its tiny insignificant beginnings Christian faith dispersed itself and took hold across the empire and beyond its borders along trade routes, even within its first hundred years. Doesn’t this suggest that there was a distinct, attractive originality to the Good News of God and the person it proclaims?