Reaching into Redemption Meditations: 36. Islands of Belief
Acts 17:22,23 Paul then stood up in the meeting of the Areopagus and said: “People of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: to an unknown god. So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship—and this is what I am going to proclaim to you.
Different Approaches: In Athens the apostle Paul was distressed to see the city was full of idols (Acts 17:16) and when he was given the opportunity, in this pagan city, he used an approach we see him using nowhere else – because it fitted the time and place. Today in the West, we are living in a time when the majority have put aside their Judeo-Christian heritage and basically anything goes. The result of that is that attitudes and practices are being accepted as normal in the world that a hundred years ago would have been considered unthinkable. If you read sufficiently – and I am not advocating wide reading today – you will find that much in paperback is unwholesome and literally anything goes. Some have suggested that we live in a day where there is a market place of ideas and the world believes that no one has the right to claim their ideas are better than anyone else’s ideas. For this reason I believe we need to come up with a different approach to communicate with the rest of the world, ideas that just may scale down antagonism, so may I introduce you to my idea of ‘islands’.
The ‘Island Approach’: Islands are a familiar tool of novelists and so there is nothing original about this. Imagine a large expanse of ocean if you like, and in it, in fairly close proximity, are a number of islands. Now in reality, in the world at large (the earth I mean) there are many different nations and many different cultures, and we accept their differences. We may struggle with some practices found around the world, e.g. the Hindu practice of a wife being required to die on the funeral pyre of her dead husband, or traditional Islamic female circumcision, but mostly we accept different countries have different cultural beliefs. In our own Western countries we take it as perfectly normal that we have different political beliefs and that it is completely legitimate to work to convert people to our particular party’s beliefs. The same is not so of religious belief in the West. Perhaps we need to challenge that a bit more.
Now each of my ‘islands’ are places of different beliefs. On my island we are Christians following the Christian faith. Over there, there is a small island where atheists live. (There actually aren’t that many of them in the total world population). Over there, there is an island of Hindus. Over there, there is another island populated by Jews. There are thus a number of islands with different religious faiths and, contrary to the wrong beliefs of many of the non-faith islands, these ‘faith islands’ are definitely not the same as each other. Over there, there is a large island of agnostics, unsure what to believe, and next them an even bigger island of people with no beliefs (they say) and who seem little concerned about it.
Remove defensive antagonism: Now I want to suggest that if we see the world as made up like this today and if the mantra of the world, that all our beliefs are all equally acceptable, is true, then I suggest that each of these islands should exist without any feelings of being under threat from other islands and equally should not feel antagonistic towards other islands. Now some of you are going to start to feel uncomfortable at this point and want to shout about the uniqueness of Christ and of our faith, and I would be the first to agree with you, but please understand I am simply putting forward a tool for communication that is not belligerently, aggressively and arrogantly antagonistic.
Sharing Dialogue: On each of our islands – and ours is no different – we will have a set of beliefs about the world and the way to live life in the light of those beliefs. In this approach it is legitimate to say, “these are our beliefs, these are the ways we live, what are yours?” Dialogue is finding out what you believe and sharing what I believe. Now I happen to believe that the system that is on my island is in fact the best, but if I do, then I need to say why it is in an intelligent and coherent manner, and then invite other islanders to explain how their islands work and show that they are equally good – or not – without them feeling threatened. I don’t believe they will be able to do that, but it is a good way to communicate with openness to one another.
Beliefs on my Island: Each one of us on our ‘islands’ have a system of beliefs and we are all different, but it is not that simple. For instance, my wife and I come from the same perspective, the same island, and yet if you were able to peer into our minds and see every single thing we’ve ever thought, every conclusion we’ve ever drawn, every belief in minute detail, we would not be identical. Our ‘big-belief patterns’ (there is a God who made the world) are the same, and that is our island. Our island is different from someone with different ‘big-belief patterns’; they have their own island (that may be there is no God, it is all pure chance). The fact that we may inhabit the same island with other people, doesn’t mean to say we will have identical beliefs. Thus, although we are Christians, you and I may have different understandings but when Jesus commanded us to love one another that meant we should be open to one another, share our hearts with one another and look for unity within diversity. That we’ll need to look at in the next study as we pursue this redemption theme further.
The Faith Dimension on my island: The Bible is the basis for belief on my island. Some people are certain about that, others have question marks but essentially, we refer back to it in making our arguments. But there is something important we have to accept about the Bible. To start with, I am utterly convinced that, with all the available evidence about the Bible, it reassures me that I can rely on what I have as being as close to the original as makes no odds and is worth my hours and decades of study, and it leaves me believing it is the ultimate source of truth about the ‘why questions’ of life.
However, having said that, we have to recognize that this is a statement of faith that cannot be ‘proved conclusively’. Note also that is also true of scientific conclusions about the ‘why questions’ as any honest philosopher of science will agree. We have, to take a basic example, the knowledge of something we call gravimetric pull, but there is no way of explaining why such a thing exists. Coming from a faith background adds a sense of humility to our discussion. The boldly arrogant about their beliefs, also tend to be ignorant about the beliefs of others or even the outworking of their own. Arrogance and ignorance tend to go together. May we be humble and secure enough in our faith to be open to listen to those from other islands, and possibly learn something from them.
Back to Redemption: Oh yes, nothing has changed, we are still working towards redemption. On my island we believe, as this whole series has suggested, that there is a God who is in the process of redeeming all of us. From our perspective it would be lovely to think that every other island will be emptied, and everyone dwell on our island, but the lessons of the Bible, especially in respect of free will, suggest this will never be like this on this earth in time-space history. However, in this amazingly changing world in which we live today, if we think creatively, it is just possible that we might be able to cross boundaries and show others, who are no longer putting up their defensive barriers through this approach, that our island is in fact the one worth being on. As we communicate between the islands, without losing anything of our uniqueness, our goal is to communicate with grace and truth. These following ‘studies’ are, therefore, not only for us, to sharpen us up in these things but maybe, as we approach these subjects with sensitivity, to win over some from other islands, or at least equip you to communicate with them without raising their defenses in order that that might happen.
And So? I am simply suggesting a paradigm that hopefully enables us to dialogue with others of different beliefs and different outlooks without raising their defenses. It says don’t come in attacking mode but come with humility and openness that doesn’t provoke others to put up resisting defenses, but just possibly enable them to listen to us without hostility. This approach will be particularly valuable, I believe, when we come to consider viewpoints that are at odds with our own and I will seek to show this in some of the studies that follow. In the background, remember the words of the apostle Peter: “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect.” (1 Pet 3:15) or as the Message version puts that end part, “and always with the utmost courtesy.” I would thus encourage you to think about this approach and see if we can use it to achieve those ends. May it be so.