It may surprise some to know that this week I started ordination training by focusing on other important religions in the world today, and how Christians engage theologically with them.
From a practical point of view this is partly because I’m doing two years of study, and missing out some of the initial modules that some of my colleagues are studying because I have hopefully covered some of the material in Reader Training. “Inter-faith Theology” is a second year course on the Oxford Ministry Course, and one that because of my mixed-mode MA modules I won’t be required to submit a portfolio for.
I have never lived in a particularly multi-faith community, but as I boot up my rusty brain, I thought I’d share a few thoughts about my own faith, sparked by a recent article in the Independent that I was pointed to by a tweet from Fr Richard that said “really important stuff on the difference between Islamic and Christian views of revelation.” Except for me it wasn’t differences in our views of revelation, but differences in our views of what is sacred.
Selina O’Grady posits here that the difference in recent reactions to a scrap of papyrus and a badly made film (which I don’t feel I need to see, and to which I’m not linking), are at least in part due to the different beliefs Muslims and Christians have about their scriptures. She states that
Islam treats its sacred text as outside the pressures of history… The Bible is human as well as sacred.
I have for some years tended to describe the Bible as a collection of stories about ‘God in action’. But by stories, I do not mean, as Ms O’Grady suggests that these scriptures are ‘myth, an “as if” story.’
For me, the Biblical narrative is about real events and people, but they are related by humans at specific points in history, who have viewed those events through particular lenses of culture, ethnicity and language.
Some Old Testament scripture was written to describe events that occurred thousands or millions of years ago (depending on your views on creation), significantly after the events they try to describe or interpret. As Christian’s we inherited these from our Jewish forbears.
Even some of the ‘stories’ in New Testament scripture, including the Gospels, would have relied initially on word-of-mouth to transmit them. Others were written to specific communities or people with particular problems and needs (like the Corinthians).
So my faith based on Biblical descriptions of what others like Thomas saw for themselves, and declare with them that Jesus is ‘My Lord and my God’ (John 20:28). But none of this makes scripture ‘sacred’ as far as I understand the term.
If something is ‘sacred’, it pertains to the divine and is exclusively devoted or dedicated to that deity – according to the dictionary at least.
Obviously I would agree that the Bible is about God, and his continuing revelation of himself to humanity. But whereas both the Qur’an and the prophet Mohammed (pbuh) appear to be sacred to Muslims to the extent that they cannot be critiqued (and I’m very willing to stand corrected on that), I don’t regard the Bible as sacred to the extent that we should not engage with it using the full range of our intellectual abilities.
However, the sort of speculation to which Ms O’Grady refers, and which is also reflected on here from the viewpoint of a feminist theologian, doesn’t seem to me to have any bearing on the Biblical narrative. The scriptural record does not include details of Jesus’ marital status, as far as I am aware, because it is not pertinent to the Christian faith. I believe God created Jesus as without sin, but does a possible marriage change this? No, I don’t think it does. This I suspect is why I don’t feel threatened by a papyrus that may, or may not, change our understanding of Jesus earthly life. What is important about who Jesus was, is never-changing, not ‘ever-changing’ as Ms O’Grady suggests.
So, the celibacy or otherwise of Christ, has no influence on my faith in the Jesus revealed through the writings of the New Testament as crucified and risen. Yet, is even he, really sacred?
What I’m wondering is whether the Christian understanding of Jesus as the means of God’s grace, in fact means that nothing is sacred, except ourselves! Because as Christian’s we are the ones that should be exclusively dedicated to Jesus as our response to God’s love and forgiveness.
I suppose in a spiritual way our identity in Christ gives us a sacred nature which is sacrificial rather than untouchable and out of reach, echoing the life, death and resurrection of Christ.
So, perhaps that’s it. What is sacred in Christianity is OUR response to Christ, his death and resurrection, as testified to in the New Testament, and as the means of our relationship with God.