George Armstrong: It's time for the religions of the world to unite

Different faiths can work together to promote noble values.

Christianity will have to understand Jesus as one prophet among many, religious and secular. Photo / AP
Christianity will have to understand Jesus as one prophet among many, religious and secular. Photo / AP

Religions are beginning to see one another as interoperable partners rather than as rivals. This sense of competition was seen in a headline in the Herald on Tuesday, October 2: "Christian faith losing out to other religions". It's hard for the New Zealand media to accept the idea of religions in partnership because it doesn't fit the New Zealand secular stereotype of secularity's own traditional religion, Christianity. It's not the media's fault entirely. The last time I arranged for Muslim, Jewish and Maori speakers to address my parish congregation, reporters asked whether I had "lost my faith" and the local bishop and his top committee discussed me behind my back.

But I was no heretic. Until the 1960s and among such notables as Pope John XXIII and Bishop John Robinson, the conventional wisdom of Christianity may have been that Christianity is the one and only way to heaven and salvation. That sense of superiority fitted well with Atlantic imperialism but it has been changing - fast.

It's not just Christianity that is having to adjust. It's the powerful West and its new, more modest role now that China and India and indigenous peoples worldwide are increasing in significance and prominence. Africa, moreover, is a whole continent full of indigenous peoples who are themselves on the brink of comprehensively rejecting centuries of exploitation from outside. The world will not be saved simply by religions but by all its peoples, together with their religions, coming to their senses and caring more for their planet and for one another.

It's therefore not even only the West but all the peoples of the planet who have to forge new tolerances and appreciation and interfaith and intercultural partnerships. Any decent religion will have love, humility, awe, justice and peace at its centre. There's plenty of that at the heart of the major world religious traditions. And there's plenty of it at the heart of the great political and diplomatic traditions of our diverse peoples.

If no one religion has a monopoly on truth, love and power, does that mean that religions have to readjust radically? In the case of Christianity, yes. Christianity will, for example, have to understand its central figure, Jesus, as one prophet amongst the many other prophets of human history, religious and secular. Jesus is still seen by unreflective Christianity as the one and only way. That is no longer tenable. It may be painful for Christians, liberal or conservative, to readjust themselves radically to this realisation.

For myself, I am not interested in any internal crusade amongst my fellow Christians for doctrinal reform around the figure of Jesus. Such a shift will happen mysteriously and not because some persuasive writer, preacher or teacher thumps pulpits or writes books or appears on television or goes viral on the internet. Christians, myself included, will go on finding in Jesus the very core of our life, the central dynamo that drives us. But our self understanding about that will change, guided as ever by the sacred writings generated around this same Jesus. He has much more to him than we Christians ever imagined.

I can expect a teacup storm to greet ideas like those expressed here. But these ideas will be seen by most readers, many Christians among them, who have persisted in reading this far, as simply the common sense of our age. A United Religions is going to have to catch up with and work alongside a United Nations.

Dr George Armstrong is an Anglican priest and teacher.

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