Showing items filed under “The Rt. Rev. George Sumner”

The Mystery of the Religions

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Who has not been impressed by the asceticism of Hinduism, the monotheism of Islam, the wisdom of Hasidic Judaism... surely God is up to something there. What is God up to in the profusion of religions? A popular answer in modern times has been pluralism: they are all roads up the same mountain, choose the one that suits you.

But this is surely wrong. First it takes little notice of what they distinctly and actually say. Second, it is not tough-minded enough to note how religions are also capable of child sacrifice, ethnic cleansing, caste, etc. Third, it has the convenient ring of consumer choice...

We honor other religious traditions by taking their own claims and practices seriously. We realize they are radically different from Christianity, although there are shared or overlapping areas.  Given these core differences, it poses no problem to recognize that each can have a variety of true claims from which we can learn. 

The religions, taken as a whole, are both impressive and horrendous - like the human being. And that, in light of the question of faith, is significant. Paul in the early chapters of “Romans” says that the divine law is written in our hearts, and that religion itself serves to leave us “without excuse.” It is the ambiguity of religions, raising a question they leave contested, which is most significant.

To one already Christian the religions serve various purposes - chastisement for sin, moral edification, dialogue partner. But here on the portico they serve precisely in their evocative ambiguity to provoke the question of faith, and which raise the question of which religion is true. 

Romans 2

14 (Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law. 15 They show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts sometimes accusing them and at other times even defending them.) 16 This will take place on the day when God judges people’s secrets through Jesus Christ, as my gospel declares.

Vatican II, Nostra Aetate

  1. In our time, when day by day mankind is being drawn closer together, and the ties between different peoples are becoming stronger, the Church examines more closely her relationship to non-Christian religions. In her task of promoting unity and love among men, indeed among nations, she considers above all in this declaration what men have in common and what draws them to fellowship. 

One is the community of all peoples, one their origin, for God made the whole human race to live over the face of the earth. (1) One also is their final goal, God. His providence, His manifestations of goodness, His saving design extend to all men, (2) until that time when the elect will be united in the Holy City, the city ablaze with the glory of God, where the nations will walk in His light.(3) 

Men expect from the various religions answers to the unsolved riddles of the human condition, which today, even as in former times, deeply stir the hearts of men: What is man? What is the meaning, the aim of our life? What is moral good, what is sin? Whence suffering and what purpose does it serve? Which is the road to true happiness? What are death, judgment and retribution after death? What, finally, is that ultimate inexpressible mystery which encompasses our existence: whence do we come, and where are we going? 

How We Really Decide

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There are people who spend their lives thinking about the questions about God, either as theologians or philosophers.  We should add that these people are as divided in their conclusions as people in general!  But most people do not have this luxury or inclination.  But just the same they do make decisions about whether to be Christians, and furthermore how seriously to take their Christian life.  Everyone has that question before them, and the opportunity it presents (as well as the demands):  ‘everyone who seeks finds; knock and it shall be opened to you’ says Jesus (Matthew 7:8).  How then do people with ordinary obligations in the world make such decisions?  Some actually decide based on other factors: for example, social pressure or conformity, the desire for a moral upbringing for one’s children, a political preference, ethnic affiliation.  God can use these too, but they are incidental to the decision whether or not to become a follower, a disciple.

It is the whole person who is summoned by God in and to faith.  By a convergence and an alignment of what we think, feel, will, and hope, we make the great decisions of our life.  Something similar could surely be said for deciding to take up some challenging work, or to marry.  Philosophers talk of a ‘cumulative argument,’ the way the pieces come together for us and reinforce one another. We meet  someone who impresses us, wrestle with grief in the face of a loved one’s death, we regret things, read something that opens a vista, are troubled by evil in the world, and are built up by the community we find in Church. At the intersection things come together.  One dimension may be most important when we begin, but over time another may rise to greater significance.  The great Anglican (and then Roman Catholic 19th century theologian John Henry Newman said we had an ‘illative sense,’ a kind of collective intuition based on just this kind of conglomeration of senses and judgments.  The mind, heart, soul, and will in concert can make deep judgments.

Let’s be clear what we aren’t saying, especially in relation to reason.  We aren’t saying that reason doesn’t matter because the world is utterly irrational, or because religion is just a matter of personal feeling.  But we are also not saying that you could simply deduce your way to God, nor that your faith can be proven.  Rather we are saying that thinking, questioning, and testing are part of the picture.  But our reasons are of many kinds.  By analogy people nowadays speak  for example of ‘emotional intelligence.’  In short, people do make informed decisions, but of a unique kind, because the question being answered is distinct indeed.

One last point: what, you might add, about the power of the Holy Spirit in all this? Precisely so - faith is a gift, and so the work of God and not of ourselves.  But God does this work through many avenues in our minds and hearts, the conjunction of which I have been describing.

Deuteronomy 6:4-5: Hear, O Israel! The LORD is our God, the LORD is one! 5"You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might 

Newman, ‘An Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent’: "The mind ranges to and fro, and spreads out, and advances forward with a quickness which has become a proverb, and a subtlety and versatility which baffle investigation.  It passes on from point to point, gaining one  by some indication; another on a probability; then availing itself of an association; then falling back on some received law; next seizing on testimony; then committing itself to some popular impression, or some inward instinct, or some obscure memory; and thus it makes progress not unlike a clamberer on a steep cliff, who, by quick eye, prompt hand, and firm foot, ascends, how he knows not himself, by personal endowments and by practice, rather than by rule, leaving no track behind him, and unable to teach another."


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