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Grace, Order, Openness and Diversity: Reclaiming Liberal Theology by IAN BRADLEY

May 4, 2017

Whether intentionally or not, the initials of the title spell ‘good’.

Ian Bradley presents fundamentalism, born a hundred years ago in the United States of America, as the great twentieth-century heresy and aberration. He identifies and seeks to reclaim for the twenty first century a liberal theological tradition existing in Christianity, Islam, Judaism and the other major world faiths. This liberal heart is found in their scriptures and was often to the fore in their foundational stages but has more recently been overlaid with conservative reaction, fundamentalism and fear. He defines this liberal theology in terms of the four values of grace, order, openness and diversity which he suggests can be read by Christians as key attributes of the three persons of the Trinity and of God in Trinity as a whole. This book counters the growing influence of narrow, exclusive judgemental religious conservatism with a powerful reassertion of the liberal gospel of God’s grace, goodness and generosity.

By grace Bradley means ‘overflowing  mercy, love and forgiveness’, which he attributes particularly to God the Father.  Order is particularly attributed to God the Son, ‘represented in classic Christian theology as the personification of Logos or reason.’  To God the Spirit he attributes openness, ‘often envisaged as breath or wind blowing away staleness and constantly revealing new truths and insights.’  Among these three distinct persons of the single Godhead Bradley finds room for his concept of diversity.

I don’t agree with him that ‘The Bible is seen by liberals as a human document whose primary validity lies in the fact that it records the experience of persons who are open to God’s presence. The Bible is not a revealed text’ , nor with his emphasis on the ethical implications of Christianity; nor with his championing of euthanasia.

And liberals are not known for their ‘tolerant attitude towards those who disagree.’

He prefers the religion of Jesus to the religion about Jesus and he holds up Unitarians as models of liberalism despite his championing of the doctrine of the Trinity.

He rightly points out that the churches pushed for the decriminalisation of homosexuality and that they are now pushing in the opposite direction

He is not knowledgeable enough about other religions, though he tries to be e.g. ‘Indian religions’ turns out to be merely a sect within Hinduism.

He also misunderstands the connection between Pharisees and rabbinical Judaism – he is simply out of date on this.

While I know what he means when he says that the goal of creation of the Garden of Eden, it is a city in the book of Revelation.

Although Muslims don’t use the notion of humans being ‘made in the image of God’, they do have the notion of man as God’s caliph.

I wish he wouldn’t use the colonialist spelling of ‘Koran’.

Quotations:

Liberalism receives a rather good press in the Bible, especially in the Authorized Version. The book of Proverbs promises that ‘the liberal soul shall be made fat’ (Proverbs 11.25) and Isaiah that when the king reigns in righteousness, ‘the vile person shall be no more called liberal, nor the churl said to be bountiful’ (Isaiah 32.5). Enlarging on this theme, the prophet observes that ‘the instruments of the churl are evil: he deviseth wicked devices to destroy the poor with lying words. But the liberal deviseth liberal things; and by liberal things shall he stand’ (Isaiah 32.7-8). The sole reference to liberal practices in the New Tes­tament is also highly positive. Paul tells the Christians in Corinth that they will glorify God by their ‘liberal distribution unto all men’ (2 Corinthians 9.13).

There is, indeed, a strong case for saying ;that a broadly liberal outlook distinguished Christian thought in its original and early form and that narrow conservatism constitutes the  innovation and departure from tradition. This is true, for example, in

I respect of the approach to the scriptures. In the early Church and throughout the Middle Ages, the Bible was treated allegorically and broadly seen as a collection of stories, metaphors and models the meaning of which was to be interpreted using the human faculty of imagination. The notion of scriptural literalism and inerrancy is com­paratively modern — the product partly of the Reformation’s emphasis on Sola Scriptura and even more of the pernicious influence of conser­vative North American Christians in the twentieth century, especially those who promulgated the literal authority and inerrancy of the Bible among the ‘fundamentals’ of the Christian faith in the 1910s and who established the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy in 1977.

In other doctrinal matters, several of the voices that speak to us most and eloquently from the early Christian centuries have a edly liberal hue. The insistence of the early apologist, Justin r (c. 100-165), that those who lived before the time of Christ and wed other faiths will be gathered up in the economy of salvation find their place in heaven and that all who live according to reason are participants in Christ as the eternally existing divine Logos, antici­pates much liberal Christian thinking about other faiths and about the Importance of reason and order. The Greek father Origen (c. 185-254), often seen as the first systematic theologian, took what would nowadays be described as a historical critical view of the Bible, pointing to its allegorical rather than literal truth, believed in the uni­versal salvation of all humankind, and regarded the prime mission and purpose of the Church as the pursuit of truth and wisdom rather than the salvation of souls from damnation. He resolutely eschewed the notions of penal substitution, propitiation and vicarious atonement which became so dominant in the later medieval Church.

The somewhat neglected group of seventeenth-century divines led by Benjamin Whichcote (1609-83) and known as the Cambridge Platonists emphasized divine love over divine justice and established six principles which remain fundamental to liberal Protestantism:

Christianity is a religion of the heart — true religion is comprised of faith in God and love of human beings.

Tolerance of other beliefs, far from being a sin, is a Christian duty.

The use of reason is paramount in arriving at a knowledge of God in contrast to both the ‘superstition’ of Rome and the ‘enthusiasm’ of Geneva.

Christians should have a passion for the unseen along with a delight in the seen.

Human beings are marked by original righteousness as well as original sin.

Christian beliefs should be propagated and defended in a gentle and eirenic spirit in contrast to the narrow and bitter partisanship common among many Christians.”

Milton stands as the father-figure of the radical English Protestant dissenting tradition with its commitment to liberty, tolerance and open-mindedness. This devout if unorthodox Puritan championed divorce 300 years before it became legal in Britain and in Areopagitica (1644) penned one of the most powerful and eloquent apologias ever for religious toleration and the principles of free speech and a free press, valuing ‘the liberty to know, to utter and to argue freely according to conscience above all liberties’.

If German academics supplied modern liberal Protestantism with its foundations of biblical criticism, emphasis on the historical Jesus a strong ethical imperative, nineteenth-century British thinkers, predominantly clergymen from the established churches of England Scotland, developed two of its other main themes, synthesis convergence with the theory of evolution and moral revulsion inst theories of penal substitutionary atonement.

Not that Barth should be entirely blamed for the de-liberalizing of twentieth-century theology. I recently came across a moving and for me quite unexpected and revelatory remark which he made in the last few months of his life. It contrasts with many of his earlier pronouncements and stands as a wonderful expression of the heart and soul of liberal theology from one not normally numbered among its enthusiasts: Being truly liberal means thinking and speaking in responsibility and openness on all sides, backwards and forwards, towards both past and future, and with what I might call total personal modesty. To be modest is not to be sceptical; it is to see that what one thinks and says also has limits.”

strongly syncretistic flavour and a clear commitment to itijihad, some­times spelled ijtihad, the struggle for truth through dialogue, learning and independent reasoning. In this early period Muslims sought wisdom from many sources, not least Syriac Christians, and there was an openness to science, mathematics and philosophy. The ninth-century Muslim prophet, Abu al-Kindi (801-73), declared, ‘We should not be ashamed to acknowledge truth from whatever source it comes to us.’33 As with Christianity, after two or three centuries orthodoxy hardened and religious leaders asserted their authority. By the early twelfth century the door to itijihad was closed and Islam had become much more monochrome and antagonistic to debate, with Abu al-Ghazali (1058-1111) teaching that revelation must prevail over reason and predestination over free will.

In his superb sourcebook, Liberal Islam, Charles Kurzman charac­terizes liberal Islam, a term which he takes from the Indian legal scholar Asaf Fyzee, as opposition to theocracy, support for democracy, guaran­tees of the rights of women and non-Muslims in Islamic countries, defence of freedom of thought and belief in the potential for human progress. For him this tradition, which has been generally ignored by Western scholars, emerged, like the post-Enlightenment liberal Chris­tian theology associated with Schleiermacher, in the eighteenth century with its founding father being Shah Wali-Allah, the head of a religious seminary in India, who emphasized the power of human reasoning and the cultural contextualization of Islam.”

Fazlur Rahman, born in Pakistan but based in Chicago, argued in Islam and Modernity: Transformation of an Intellectual Tra­dition (1982) for a new exegesis of the Koran based on the principles of historical criticism and the sense of its overall moral and social objec­tives. Mohammad Arkoun, Algerian-born Professor of Islamic Thought at the Sorbonne in Paris, called for a new humanism, a much greater intellectual rigour in Islam and an acceptance of multiple interpreta­tions of the Koran and other sacred texts.

Judaism presents a similar picture. More than adherents to the other two Abrahamic faiths, Jews have always had a liberal and anti-funda­mentalist bias, enjoying wrestling with the difficult texts of the Hebrew Bible, relishing ambiguity and paradox, disputing and arguing with God and having no desire to proselytize or convert others. In the words of Jonathan Sacks, Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew congregations of the Commonwealth:

Jews don’t read the Bible. We sing it, argue with it, wrestle with it, listen to it, and turn it inside out to find a new insight we have missed before. It is God’s invitation to join the conversation between heaven and earth that began on Mount Sinai and has never since ceased.

to another factor at work in the current ascen­ancy of conservative evangelicalism, the tendency of liberals to be upine in crucial church debates and let the conservatives dictate the genda. Writing about his own church’s General Assembly, he notes that the forces of reaction are usually well organised when it comes to vital debates, while too often those who take a more liberal view are absent, either because they are away attending to their parochial work or simply because they have not been alerted to their duty . . . The result of all this is that, increasingly, decisions are made which do not, I feel, really represent the bulk of our membership.’… bishops always give in to them and never to liberals. This is because if they look like disappointing the conservatives, the bishops are threat­ened with a split or schism in the church. Offended liberals, on the other hand, will not leave the church but will carry on supporting it, albeit a little more grudgingly.’

Since 2006, in response to evangelical lobbying, the Highland Theological College, avowedly conservative evangelical in its ethos, has also been recognized and approved by the church for ministerial training. Glasgow International Christian College, a former Bible college, is likely soon to be accorded similar recognition, and there is even a possibility that the university faculties might no longer be used for training minis­ters. A church which has always prided itself on giving its clergy a broad, liberal education in institutions where they mix with those of different theological perspectives and of no faith, is switching to training ministers in colleges where the teachers and fellow students come from one single narrow theological tradition.

Historical theology, more than systematic or philosophical theology, has always had a strong pastoral and practical and a distinctively liberal hue. John Webster rightly identifies of the main characteristics of post-liberal theology that it is less historically minded and engages much more with philosophy the old liberal theology. One might imagine that a mind trained steeped in history would incline towards conservativism, but more than not it is profoundly liberal. …… Divorcing academic theology from history and making it ever more philosophical has rendered it more dogmatic, harder-edged and less pastoral. A key element in any reclamation of liberal theology must be the promotion of historical awareness which, with its sense of the importance of context and change, is the antithesis of fundamentalism and literalism.”

A greater sense of history and the breadth and generosity of spirit that goes with it would also help rescue liberal theology from the somewhat strident and obscure byways into which it has been diverted in recent decades. Theologies driven by and focused on the agendas of feminism, liberation, queer theory and post-modern relativism, however liberal in intention, have all too often been detached from the life of the churches and the believing majority and pursued predomin­antly in narrow academic circles. They have pushed progressive theology in an increasingly partisan and recondite direction and provoked a conservative backlash and the assertion of a new and equally narrow neo-orthodoxy in response.

Theology is not the only academic discipline that has moved in a narrower, more conservative direction in recent decades. The tyranny of specialization, encouraged by government-led initiatives like the research assessment exercise, has meant a retreat from breadth, teaching and learning and a concentration on ever narrower research. In Britain, at both university and school level, liberal education as it has traditionally been understood is under assault. The very first definition of liberal in the Oxford English Dictionary is ‘of those arts or sciences that were “worthy of a free man”, opposite to servile or mechanical. Later of conditions, pursuits, etc. “becoming of a gentleman”‘. It goes on to say that this essentially historical definition is ‘now rare’ except of education. Sadly it is all too rare even there now, having been all but destroyed by an academic culture which values depth over breadth, research over teaching and audited outcomes over learning. The plaudits, the prizes and the promotion in universities go to those aca­demics who spend their time researching in ever narrower areas and writing articles in learned journals which — and this seems almost a matter of congratulation — will be read by one or two people w happen to share the same specialist interest. life of the churches and the believing majority and pursued predomin­antly in narrow academic circles. They have pushed progressive theology in an increasingly partisan and recondite direction and provoked a conservative backlash and the assertion of a new and equally narrow neo-orthodoxy in response.

Theology is not the only academic discipline that has moved in a narrower, more conservative direction in recent decades. The tyranny of specialization, encouraged by government-led initiatives like the research assessment exercise, has meant a retreat from breadth, teaching and learning and a concentration on ever narrower research. In Britain, at both university and school level, liberal education as it has traditionally been understood is under assault. The very first definition of liberal in the Oxford English Dictionary is ‘of those arts or sciences that were “worthy of a free man”, opposite to servile or mechanical. Later of conditions, pursuits, etc. “becoming of a gentleman”‘. It goes on to say that this essentially historical definition is ‘now rare’ except of education. Sadly it is all too rare even there now, having been all but destroyed by an academic culture which values depth over breadth, research over teaching and audited outcomes over learning. The plaudits, the prizes and the promotion in universities go to those aca­demics who spend their time researching in ever narrower areas and writing articles in learned journals which — and this seems almost a matter of congratulation — will be read by one or two people who happen to share the same specialist interest.

In the words of Rashi, an influen­tial eleventh-century commentator: ‘in the beginning, God sought to create the world through the attribute of justice, but He saw that it could not stand. What then did-He do? He took justice and joined to it the attribute of mercy.’

For Muslims, mercy is the pre-eminent char­acteristic of God. The word occurs 200 times in the Koran quite apart from its appearance at the start of chapters.

In Indian religions the idea of divine grace is central to the Saiva tradition which emphasizes the soul’s progress from bondage n. It is conceived in terms of two concepts — akti, translated grace and power, which starts the whole process of evolution on to accomplish the flowering of creation and lead the soul to liberation, and Arul, the love that is neither merited not and from which God gains no benefit. It is this grace that a person’s last karma and liberates the individual from the cycle and death.

atonement theory that suffering was needed, the more suffering the better and the most suffering the best of all. Unfortunately, this has been the mainline tradition, and has been made into dogma by evangelical Christians. It creates a mercantile Christianity with God as the major debt collector

many of the great hymn tunes of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries which d, expansive, sweeping and open in their melodic and har­monic structure while also clearly conforming to defined laws and es of composition and harmony. Many of the texts to which were set and sung, particularly in the nineteenth century, are also broad and liberal in their sentiments. In my experience these suit modern liberal theological texts much better than the late twenti­eth-century melodies specifically written to accompany them

Just as a framework of security and stability is needed for the child to grow and achieve true freedom, so order is necessary for creativity, debate and the free exchange of ideas in an atmosphere of tolerance and respect. The words ‘Order, order’ periodically delivered by the Speaker of the House of Commons are not intended to stifle argument and free speech but rather to keep it in Within the civilized, ordered bounds that are necessary, if not essential, for the flourishing of liberal democracy.

 The central motif of the Exodus experience is of God leading his people on to an open future. This theme carries on through and until the end of the New Testament when the Holy One declares: ‘Behold I have set before you an open door, which no one is able to shut’ (Revelation 3.8).

This emphasis on openness is fundamental to the concept of salva­tion as it is expressed in the Hebrew word Yasha from which the name `Jesus’, understood as ‘he who saves’, is derived. Yasha means to become wide or spacious — its opposite, sara, means to be narrow — and it came to mean rescuing people from being confined and restricted. Psalm 74 uses the word Yasha to describe God’s work in creation liber­ating and ordering formless matter. There is a theme running through the Old Testament of God making people’s lives broader and more spacious: ‘the Lord in majesty will be for us a place of broad rivers and streams’ (Isaiah 33.21). Unfortunately the Greek word soteria which came to be used for salvation in the Christian context has very different connotations. Rather than emphasizing liberation from a cramped and narrow existence it means deliverance from imprisonment in the physical body and rescue from the burden of material existence. Sadly, this has become a prominent theme in Christianity, with the attendant consequences of an obsession with sexuality and a strong conviction that the physical is evil. We need to recover the Hebrew idea of salva tion implicit in the term Yasha as liberation from all that cramps a impedes life in place of the narrow concentration on saving souls fro damnation that goes with soteria:

Viewed in the light of continuing revelation and of his own promise, `When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth’, Jesus’ statement, ‘You shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free’, discussed in the previous chapter (page 87), takes on a new an broader perspective. So does his other saying about the truth recorded John’s Gospel and so often cited as a proof text for Christian exclusiveness: ‘I am the way, the truth and the life; no one comes to the Father, by me’ (John 14.6). Many scholars now regard this as a Johannine in potation provoked by particular divisions within the Church at the time this Gospel was written. But even if we take it at face value as a gen saying of Jesus, his self-description does not necessarily carry a cl exclusivist meaning. The truth is one of a trinity of attributes that J ascribes to himself which overall suggest openness. This is certainly case with his description of himself as the way, with its connotation of journeying and seeking, and the life with its message of abundant vitality and energy. If Jesus is saying here that no one comes to the Father other than by his way, then that is the way of openness and vulnerable The truth in this context is not an intellectual proposition but ra embodiment in human life of the true character of God, wide and spacious in his mercy and grace. In the words of Edward Schillebeeckx `the God of Jesus is a symbol of openness, not closedness’.

The role of the Spirit here is crucial. Keith Ward has helpfully pointed to the fact that all scripture is God-breathed, or theopneustos as it is put in 2 Timothy 3.16, but not God-dictated. He draws an analogy with the spirit o breath of God sweeping over the waters of the formless void creation. ‘So when scripture is God-breathed, it becomes, by the action of the Spirit, a source of life and wisdom. That does not mean that God actually dictated it, so that there are no human errors or no differ points of view or no developments of understanding in the to Quoting Romans 7.6, Ward urges us to read the Bible in the knowledge ‘ that ‘we serve in the new way of the Spirit, and not in the old way of the written code’.

It is in the new way of the Spirit in which we live, and all written codes, including that the Bible, must be judged, and sometimes found wanting, by the test of whether they point to the liberation of new life in the Spirit, or rather to the bondage of some written code, even if it is in the Bible itself, from which Christ has set us free.”

the statement by Imam Muhammad Ashafa that ‘scriptures have metaphorical as well as literal meanings’

The road to Emmaus, with its story of gradual realization and walking alongside one another, is a more potent metaphor of faith for many now than the road to Damascus with its sudden blinding moment of conversion.

which is clearly designed to provide an explanation for why there are different languages and why the human population is spread out across the globe, has long been taken as indicating that cultural and linguistic diversity was not, in fact, God’s original intention but rather an after­thought representing a departure from God’s preferred plan for unity and uniformity. In this reading, God’s action at Babel in scattering people across the earth and deliberately confusing their language was seen as an angry punishment imposed on erring and recalcitrant humanity. It seemed to show God’s strident ethnocentricy and pes­simistic view of cultural pluralism and has reinforced attitudes of exclu­sivism and monoculturalism. In the words of Madeleine Bunting, `Babel became a trope for all western cultures’ most profound pes­simism about possibilities of diversity and the freedoms of the city.”‘

Significant recent work by both Jewish and Christian scholars has substantially reinterpreted the message of this story. A good example is to be found in Jonathan Sacks’ prophetic book The Dignity of Differ­ence. He points out that the people on the plain at Shinar who form the centrepiece of the story are seeking both uniformity and Godlike power. Their intention is to create a man-made environment — the city with its tower reaching up to the heavens — that will replicate the structure of the cosmos, but where humans will rule, not God. For Sacks, this represents an attempt to impose man-made unity on divinely created diversity. God’s actions at Babel establish diversity or difference at the heart of human life. The division of humankind into a multiplicity of different languages, cultures, nations and civilizations is motivated by a desire to teach the importance of difference and the worth of the other in the face of human arrogance and pride. It marks a crucial turning-point in the biblical narrative from the universal to the particular in respect of culture, ethnicity and language, paralleling the similar pro­gression we have noted in respect of the world of nature and biological evolution. It is important that the universal comes first and that God’ covenant with Noah is with all humankind, and indeed all living thin When God moves on from this universal covenant to establish a particular relationship with the people of Israel, it is not in an exclusive spirit but rather to reinforce the importance of diversity.

 God, the creator of humanity, having made a covenant with all ity, then turns to one people and commands it to be differ-in order to teach humanity the dignity of difference. Biblical monotheism is not the idea that there is one God and therefore one one faith, one way of life. On the contrary, it is the idea that creates diversity.’

ore radically, Theodore Hiebert has recently argued through 1 linguistic analysis that the Babel story shows cultural and linguisti­c diversity to be God’s design for the world rather than a punish-t for it. The theme of the story is that, if left to itself, the human would preserve a uniform culture and a single language. God intervenes to diversify culture first by multiplying languages, so creating a polyglot world, and then by dispersing the human population. There is element of punishment involved, rather ‘God’s introduction of tural difference through linguistic and geographical diversity is pre­sented as God’s intention for the world’. Far from having a pessimistic message about cultural and ethnic pluralism, the story of Babel in fact presents an optimistic view of it as divinely inspired and ordained.”

The story of the tower of Babel is immediately followed in the Hebrew Bible by the appearance of Abraham, whose name in Hebrew means ‘father of multitudes’ and who is acknowledged as biological and spiritual ancestor by Jews, Christians and Muslims today. Abra­ham himself is not a Jew, a Christian or a Muslim — he epitomizes both unity and diversity, pre-dating the separation of humanity into distinct ethnic and religious identities and straddling the move from the univer­sal to the particular which comes with the divine decision to relate with humanity through one chosen people. As in the realm of nature, so in the realm of cultural, religious and ethnic identity, the Hebrew Bible describes a progression from the universal to the particular. This is most graphically illustrated by the identity of the partners with whom God successively enters into covenant — first with all humanity after the flood (Genesis 9.1-17), then with a particular family through Abraham (Genesis 17.1-27), and thirdly and finally with a particular people in the covenant with Israel on Mount Sinai (Exodus 31.12-18). There is undoubtedly a tension in the Hebrew Bible between the themes of uni­versality and particularism, represented in the ethnocentricity displayed in the divine choice of the people of Israel. There is also a sense of purposeful progression from the one to the other motivated by God’s preference for diversity. Indeed, it is diversity that links the universal with the particular and provides a bridge between them. In the words of Sacks: ‘Universality – the covenant with Noah – is only the context and prelude to the irreducible multiplicity of cultures, those systems of meaning by which human beings have sought to understand their rela­tionships to one another, the world and the source of being.'” He goes on: The God of Abraham teaches humanity a more complex truth than simple oppositions – particular/universal, individual/state, tribe/ humanity – would allow. We are particular and universal, the same and different, human beings as such, but also members of this family, that community, this history, that heritage. Our particular­ity is our window on to universality, just as our language is the only way we have of understanding the world we share with speakers of other languages. God no more wants all faiths and cultures to be the same than a loving parent wants his or her children to be the same. That is the conceptual link between love, creation and difference. We serve God, author of diversity, by respecting diversity.

The exegesis by Sacks and others of the stories of Babel and Abraham is extremely important in countering the exclusivity and eth­nocentrism which can so easily be read into the Hebrew Bible’s account of the divine election of a particular people. There are other themes a stories within it which point to God’s ongoing relationship with them beyond the chosen people of Israel. Particularly important is the way which what have been called ‘the pagan saints of the Old Testament are incorporated into God’s covenant. These are of two kinds: th like Abel, Enoch and Noah who precede God’s covenants Abraham and Moses; and those like Job, Melchizedek, Lot and Queen of Sheba who are contemporary with the Israelite dispensation but outside it because they are non-Jews and come from other nations. Two of the Bible’s most heroic women, Tamar and Ruth, are Israelites. The first is a Canaanite, the second a Moabite, yet each has a place of honour in Israel’s history, and both are ancestors of its greatest vid. The Hebrew Bible witnesses repeatedly to the holiness of `pagan saints’, who are often described as ‘walking with God’, clear about their inclusion in God’s covenant. For the great scholar of religion, Jean Danielou, they are the prototypes of the on of pagans and the prophets of cosmic religion who demon-that God is concerned with all humanity in its diversity and not a chosen portion.

other key theme in the Hebrew Bible is that of the stranger in our . It is striking that whereas in the whole of the Pentateuch there is one reference to loving your neighbour as yourself, the command ‘love the stranger’ occurs no fewer than 36 times. A typical example in Leviticus 19.34: ‘The stranger who sojourns with you shall be to as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself; for were strangers in the land of Egypt.’ The inescapable emphasis here on the imperative of reaching out towards and embracing the other. Perhaps the most striking testimony to the value of religious diversity d pluralism in the Hebrew Bible is contained in that great passage which looks forward to a peaceable kingdom where men will hammer their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning hooks (Micah 4.1-5). Micah ends his inspiring vision of the peaceable kingdom with the words that ‘all peoples will go forward, each in the name of its gods, while we go forward in the name of Yahweh our God’. The prophet envisages the nations of the world streaming to Mount Zion in order to learn the ways of God. As a result of their encounter with Yahweh, they will learn the ways of peace and harmony, how to love and embrace the stranger and the other, but they will not give up their diversity or their own beliefs. Rather, they will continue to follow their own religions just as the Jews remain committed to their beliefs. Religious and cultural diversity rather than unity is the hallmark of the ideal peaceable society realized by following God’s ways as envisioned by the prophet.

His admiration for the faith of the Roman centurion leads him to reflect that ‘people will come from east and west and sit at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, while the sons of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness’ (Matthew 8.11-12). That remark echoes a common theme of Jesus, that narrow, judgemental religious bigots are often furthest from the kingdom of God, while those seen as outsiders and outcasts are often closest to it.

William Sloane Coffin observed, ‘To say that God is defined by Christ is not to say that God is confined to Christ.’

William Cantwell Smith, very sensibly remarked that ‘no one should have any views on interreligious questions until he or she has talked with members of other communities; and preferably, not until he or she has friends among them’.”

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