March 2020 – Pastoral letter – Religions

On our sixth day in India we caught the 6am train from Jaipur to Delhi. A train journey seemed less overwhelming after so much time spent in road traffic, gridlocked and noisy and colourful and relentless amidst the endless throng of people. For several days we had spent time on the roads amidst buses, cars, lorries, motorcycles, Tuk Tuks, each capable of going fast but all going slow, five or six lanes of creeping traffic on three-lane highways. Train travel seemed so much less stressful.

On arrival later that morning we were met in Delhi by bus, and so began a day of sightseeing. Delhi is a city in seemingly constant change. Its older parts still reflect something of the staggering opulence of the Mughal period. Meanwhile New Delhi, built by the British, with its avenues of white plaster Lutyens bungalows, amidst avenues of Jamun and Ashupal trees, forms a marked contrast. To add to the mix, there is now a more recent Delhi of modern high-rise blocks sprawling and splashing outwards in relentless growth.

Our early visits that day would be religious in nature. The first stop was at Lakshmi Narayan Mandir, a Hindu temple built in 1938. Our guide, an exceptionally well-read and knowledgeable young Hindu man, explained that this temple was fairly typical of modern temples. After shedding shoes, visitors approach a stunning marble entrance, whilst gazing up at impressive maroon spires. The temple is more popularly known as the Birla Mandir, and within its precincts are several shrines at which offerings are constantly brought by the faithful.

Within the temple there is a main shrine with images of Vishnu, one of the principle gods of Hinduism, together with his consort Lakshmi. Lesser or subsidiary shrines are found in the courtyard, many of them bearing inscriptions from Hindu texts. We watched for a while, spectators, as locals brought their offerings to these shrines, where they were accepted by the various ‘priests’ on duty.

Later, our guide sought to provide us with a succinct summary of what was very much his own religion. He explained that, essentially, those who follow the way of life that is characterised as Hindu should ‘do good’, and if they act in such a way then ultimately this ‘will come back to you in goodness received.’ However simplistic his explanation, he undoubtedly provided a fair representation of the religious outlook of many of his fellow countrymen. Do good, and you will experience good.

From this impressive 20th century Hindu temple, we then travelled to the spectacular 17th century Jama Masjid, the largest Mosque in India. Built by Shah Jahan, who also built the Taj Mahal as a tomb for his favourite wife, this remarkable and vast building has three imposing black and white marble domes framed by colossal twin minarets. Access to the Mosque is up an immense flight of sandstone steps and into a grand courtyard in front of the Mosque itself, where as many as 20,000 can be accommodated at Friday prayers.

Commenting on the diversity of religions in his own land, and throughout the world, our guide suggested that all religions were essentially the same, like the same salad but with different salad dressings. Undoubtedly this was a reflection of his own admirably humane acceptance of those around him, whose religious outlook was different from his own. The question is: was he correct? Is it right to simply lump all religions together and say that they are ‘essentially the same’?

Whilst I admired, and would wish to reflect, his humane acceptance of others, I beg to differ with his notion that somehow all world views are essentially the same. Do we really want to argue that the religious fanaticism that motivates suicide bombers or religions requiring child sacrifice are all equally valid? When Mary Slessor went to Africa she was confronted by many religiously-motivated customs which were dreadfully barbaric and which gave rise to appalling suffering. One such belief surrounded the birth of twins. The rigidly held belief was that the father of one of the infants, if a mother had twins, must have been an evil spirit and so the mother was guilty of some gross sin. It followed that one of the twins must be possessed by an evil spirit.

Consequently, after birth, both infants were seized, their backs brutally broken and, after being stuck in a calabash or water pot, they were removed through a hole in the wall of the hut, not the doorway, and left in the bush to be eaten by insects or wild animals.

Subsequently the mother who had given birth to twins (and then had them forcibly snatched from her) was shunned as a wicked woman who had consorted with an evil spirit, and the poor woman was left to scavenge a lone existence in the jungle.

Mary Slessor devoted herself to saving such twins and caring for their mothers. In doing so she was acting on her own Christian world-view, which elevates the value of human life, and ‘imposing’ it in opposition to that which prevailed around her. Was she wrong to do so? Is it equally valid to kill twins as it is to value them?

It is naïve, and downright factually inaccurate, to suggest that all religions are the same. To press the point, Buddhists doesn’t believe in a personal God at all, whilst Christians do.

On the day that we visited the magnificent Birla Mandir, watching the Hindu faithful bringing their offerings, pledged to do good that good may return to them, and then visited the vast gathering spaces of the Jama Masjid where the followers of Islam dutifully knelt to offer prayers, I was struck afresh by the utter uniqueness of the Christian message of the grace of God. Salvation cannot be earned, it is a gift of grace.

Let me be clear: I can be humanely accepting of the followers of other faiths without letting go of the wonder of the central and distinctive Christian message of the grace of God in Jesus Christ, and without letting go of my conviction that they need to hear about that grace.

There is a wonderful story about how C.S. Lewis happened upon a conference on Comparative religions in the university. Experts were debating and discussing whether there was anything unique about the Christian faith. They began eliminating possibilities. Might it be belief in the Incarnation? It was pointed out that other religions had different versions of gods appearing in human form, which, however different from the incarnation of Christ, could be seen to echo it. Surely then it might be belief in Resurrection? Again, other religions had accounts of return from death, however less robust than the Easter story. The debate continued for some time until C. S. Lewis wandered into the room. “What’s the rumpus about?” he asked, and was informed that they were trying to identify whether Christianity said anything unique. With a flash of characteristic insight, Lewis responded, “Oh, that’s easy. It’s grace.”

Lewis had brought a protracted and confusing discussion to an immediate conclusion. The conference felt compelled to agree with the accidental interloper. He was right. The notion of God’s love coming to us free of charge, no strings attached, is unlike anything in any religion. Indeed, it seems to go against every instinct we have. The Buddhist eight-fold path, the Hindu doctrine of karma, and the Muslim code of law — each of these offer a way to earn approval. Only Christianity dares to make God’s love unconditional. Grace costs everything to the giver and nothing to the recipient.

The Gospel is a message of grace, which means it is not like religion at all. The Christian message is not a demand, it is a gift. Grasp this by trusting the Giver and you taste true joy, the joy of being loved unconditionally.

Your minister,

    Martin Thomson