In the final interview I had to assess whether I was a suitable candidate to train for the Anglican Priesthood I was asked to tell a joke. That is not all I was asked of course. But I was asked to do this and so I told the following joke:
‘An Orthodox Christian monk, a Charismatic evangelical, a Catholic Nun, a liberal Anglican, a Baptist pastor and a Methodist Lay preacher, all walked into a bar. …’ as I remember the interviewer raised an eyebrow at this point which I was please about ..
‘I went on …. each pulled up a stool, sat down, looked at one another and ordered a drink (some alcoholic some non-alcoholic one would assume). As the bartender poured the drinks he smiled and said to them all ‘tonight let’s not talk about God’. And so they all had a lovely time that night.’
The punch line was that the irony of the situation was how people’s beliefs about God can be a source of real tension which otherwise would not be there. How sad that this should be the case.
It is not a new problem. St Paul in his letter to Rome highlights that there is the potential for squabbling and division over the way in which we practice our religion.
Imagine that on that night in the bar the drinkers had not heeded the bartender’s suggestion. Let us assume that in fact each individual had talked at length about their particular denomination and how it understood the Divine. It might not have been such a lovely evening.
This is what St Paul is addressing in his letter to the church in Rome and I believe what Jesus is saying in his parable about forgiveness. We are asked as christians to be nice to each other and not to criticise .. it’s that simple … and yet from the start the Church has had problems with it.
In Rome there were believers from all sorts of backgrounds and experiences and cultures .. some went to temples, some ate certain foods, some were slaves, some were Roman citizens .. how they expressed their Christian faith had not completely overcome such traditions .. so some still fasted on a Friday .. some were sacrificing animals in the temples .. some washed in the ritual baths each morning .. others did so only on special days of the year.
Overcoming differences is a feature of life whether religious or not. Of course the bartender’s solution is not a long term one. The idea that the most peaceable solution for facing different beliefs and practices in faith is not that we do not talk about God at all? This has however been a solution in our culture for many years .. not to talk about religion and it has done us no favours at all. We have become a rather faithless society.
The solution St Paul offers in his letter to the church is better .. to accept that there are many ways to worship and honour God and not to pass judgement on one another. If one christian wants to sit and pray before an icon, if another wants to shake a tambourine in praise and worship, if another observes Lent through fasting and abstention while another makes a pilgrimage to a holy place .. in all this we must not pass judgement but give thanks that all are welcome before God.
In fact if we impose our rules and traditions on others then we fall into the trap of the servant who treats his slave differently to the way his master treats him. God gives us freedom to worship in the way we want and not how God wants. Freedom is our gift and it is what we must give to others.
The solution to differences of practice and even belief then is not to stop talking but to talk in such a way that all are seen to honour God if what they do they do with sincerity and conviction. This is what St Paul says v 5-6 of Romans.
I think there is a useful image to help us grasp this Biblical truth that our revelation of God and how we worship God is always limited to an extent .. it comes in the form of a story often told on Indian sub-continent where religious pluralism is well-established. It is the story of the blind men and the elephant and goes something like this:
‘Six blind men were asked by their King to determine what sort of thing an elephant was by feeling parts of the elephant’s body. An elephant was brought into the room and standing in a row each blind man steps forward to feel the beast in front of them. The blind man who feels a leg says the elephant is like a pillar, a strong and sturdy column of the sort to hold up a temple roof ; the one who feels the tail says the elephant is like a rope, perhaps best used to hold back the curtains of an entrance; the one who feels the trunk says the elephant is like a tree branch, strong but pliable; the one who feels the ear says the elephant is like a hand fan, such as an attendant would use to cool the King; the one who feels the body says the elephant is like a wall, unyielding and vast; the one who feels the tusk says the elephant is like a solid pipe, or like the horn used to call people to prayer each morning. The king explains to them ‘you are all quite right but the reason every one of you is telling it differently is because each one of you has touched a different part of a very large beast. The elephant has all the features you mentioned but none of them exclusively.’
In a sense I think this image reminds us of why St Paul and Jesus call us to be tolerant with one another in how we understand and worship God. We all have our own experience of God and so we respond in different ways to that revelation. Perhaps Jesus is like the King the one who sees and knows the truth in its entirety and who calls us to talk about and put together the pieces of what we experience and see of God in the world. In order to do this we must talk and share, we must embrace and forgive, we must respect and tolerate so that as each of us share our piece of knowledge we all come to know the whole picture a little better.
To be church we must not stop talking about our differences but rather talk and then be nice to each other as we each express our faith in different ways. Let us continue to talk and be nice to each other so we can see God amongst our difference. And I don’t mean just nice to each other here but nice to our brothers and sisters in different traditions so that we .. like the people in the bar .. can enjoy one another’s company and not lose all that we have in common at the expense of things we do differently.