A pandemic is not the time to begin showing love for fellow humanity, it is an important time for us to continue loving and caring and demonstrating solidarity. A pandemic, however, is not an occasion for lowering the bar on theological conversation and for confusing or conflating essential understandings of God.
Justin Welby yesterday tweeted something that no Anglican Archbishop or Christian leader should ever tweet. He has given us an example of how not to exercise religious ecumenicalism. He said,
“Pope Francis has called for a day of prayer for an end to the pandemic on 14th May, and a day of good works. People of all faiths are seeking God’s intervention at this time. Let us pray for God’s mercy, in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. #PrayForHumanity“
I’m sure the tweet will go down like a treat among religious progressives who have already given up almost every distinctive aspect of Christianity.
I’m sure it’ll also be a hit among some irreligious types who think it’s fantastic that the religions of the world are leaving behind differences and are working together.
However, beneath this appealing facade is something dishonest and dishonouring to God. The Archbishop of Canterbury’s tweet was unnecessary, unhelpful, and untrue.
The problem isn’t to do with prayer or encouraging Christians from around to pray about the COVID-19 pandemic. Many millions of Christians around the world have been praying through this pandemic and will continue to pray. It is entirely right to pray, for God remains Sovereign over the world today. There is no event in the world, significant or small, that escapes his attention and concern. He is the God of whom the Lord Jesus said, “ Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they?”
The Archbishop of Canterbury’s tweet is going considerably further than encouraging Christians to pray to God. He appears to be adopting the position established by the Second Vatican Council toward world religions when as an Anglican (and Christian) leader he ought not. There are two key problems here: first, what are we suggesting by calling people from different faiths to pray together, and second, are people of all faiths praying to God?
Yoking is more than a metaphor
My question is, what does the Archbishop of Canterbury’s message communicate to people about God? The fact that he ends the tweet with, “Let us pray for God’s mercy, in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit”, doesn’t make up for what he says earlier in the tweet. It’s almost as though he’s trying to appease Christians, hey this is what I mean by God: the Father, the Son and the Holy, while at the same time offering what is a best a murky statement about other religions and how they view God.
To begin with, what is Welby (and Pope Francis) communicating by the ecumenical call to prayer? When I invite someone to pray with me, I am signalling that there exists some spiritual commonality between us and that this union is adequate for us to share in this activity together. I am implying a spiritual union with the other person as we together address God. Justin Welby is calling for and therefore implying that we (regardless of faith) can share in the some spiritual activity together as though we are united in this task. However, do Christians share spiritual union with other faiths?
“Do not be yoked together with unbelievers. For what do righteousness and wickedness have in common? Or what fellowship can light have with darkness? 15 What harmony is there between Christ and Belial? Or what does a believer have in common with an unbeliever? 16 What agreement is there between the temple of God and idols? For we are the temple of the living God” (1 Corinthians 6:14-16)
People of different faiths have (or should have) freedom to exercise their views about prayer and to pray on any day they choose. But a Christian leader inviting and encouraging global prayer between religions suggests an alignment that is clearly discouraged in the Bible, and even forbidden.
Playing pretend about prayers to the same God
Justin Welby has also suggested that “People of all faiths are seeking God’s intervention at this time.” By using the upper case for God it implies that all these religions are praying to a true and real God. That Welby uses the noun in the singular, suggests that we are all ultimately praying to the same God.
Does a man say to his wife, “well, so that I don’t make all these other people feel left out and call me mean words like ‘exclusionary’ and ‘bigot’, let’s have everyone join us in bed tonight”. By the way, that is one of Bible’s metaphor’s to describe how awful it is when we betray God.
Do people from other religions pray to the same God as Christians, or do their own version of god have merit such that these prayers are efficacious?
“Half of the wood he burns in the fire;
over it he prepares his meal,
he roasts his meat and eats his fill.
He also warms himself and says,
“Ah! I am warm; I see the fire.”
17 From the rest he makes a god, his idol;
he bows down to it and worships.
He prays to it and says,
“Save me! You are my god!”
18 They know nothing, they understand nothing;
their eyes are plastered over so they cannot see,
and their minds closed so they cannot understand.” (Isaiah 44:16-18)
I am not trying to establish the case here that the God of the Bible is real and living (although I am convinced he is), but that the Bible makes a sharp distinction between God and the rest. The teaching of the Second Vatican Council may give room for thinking all religions are somehow drawing toward the same God (it is from this Council that arises the current Pope’s predications toward religious pluralism and syncretism). However, neither the Christian Bible nor basic human reasoning can support this thesis. For example, Hindus believe there are millions of different gods, while such thinking is abhorrent to Muslims, Jews, and Christians who are monotheists. The Bible reveals one God who is Trinity: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Both Muslims and Jewish people find this objectionable and irreconcilable. Indeed this is the case.
God was pretty clear when he announced the first two of the 10 Commandments,
“You shall have no other gods before me.
“You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. 5 You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, 6 but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments. (Exodus 20)
God’s insistence on there being only one God continues throughout both the Old and New Testaments.
“I am the Lord, and there is no other;
apart from me there is no God.
I will strengthen you,
though you have not acknowledged me,
6 so that from the rising of the sun
to the place of its setting
people may know there is none besides me.
I am the Lord, and there is no other.
7 I form the light and create darkness,
I bring prosperity and create disaster;
I, the Lord, do all these things.” (Isaiah 45:5-7)
“For this is what the Lord says—
he who created the heavens,
he is God;
he who fashioned and made the earth,
he founded it;
he did not create it to be empty,
but formed it to be inhabited—
“I am the Lord,
and there is no other.” Isaiah 45:18
And it is Jesus Christ who has revealed God to us,
“All things have been committed to me by my Father. No one knows who the Son is except the Father, and no one knows who the Father is except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.” (Luke 10:22)
“No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is himself God and is in closest relationship with the Father, has made him known”. (John 1:18)
Not only does the Bible describe there existing only one living God, but his person, nature and attributes are unlike the many deities that have been suggested and worshipped through the millennia. For example, while some religions claim that their god(s) loves, only the Bible speaks of ‘God is love’.
I doubt if Justin Welby believes that all religions worship the same God or that other gods are capable of answering prayer. I suspect the Archbishop is simply trying to be careful with his words, and so avoid offending anyone. However, that is the problem. It’s one of the chief issues confounding Christianity in Western nations. We aim to be unclear on any Biblical doctrine that causes offence and we’re super keen to use catchwords that find common ascent and praise in the culture. We shouldn’t do theology in this manner and we certainly shouldn’t exercise prayer and religious activity in this way. Why add to peoples’ confusion about God? Why turn beautiful and vital Christian beliefs into sludge?
We love our neighbours and friends from other religions by treating them with respect and kindness, not by conflating their god with God, or pretending that we are somehow engaged in the same activity. We affirm to the death our shared humanity and imago dei, and we engage in gentle but robust conversation to persuade people about the truth and goodness and grace of Jesus Christ, but we do not play the game of ‘we’re all in the same family’. More importantly, we love God by honouring his name and nature and character as he reveals himself to be, not by cavorting with a religious version of illogical identity politics; that road ends in denying God’s unique being and qualities. If I wouldn’t treat my friends in such a way, why do we think it is okay to do with God?