St Alban Cheam
22 August 1999
Is: 51: 1-6; Rom. 12: 1-8; Matt. 16:13-20
My eldest son works in the Millennium Dome in Greenwich where I live.
One of his assignments is to collect and prepare materials for what is called the Faith Zone.
The idea behind the Faith Zone is that it should portray the influence of the different major religions in our society on life at the beginning of the Third Millennium.
A few weeks ago my son's Supervisor came up with a new idea. Why not ask a whole lot of young people from various different cultures and religions each to name the guiding principle which they believed to be most relevant to the present day.
By doing so the Supervisor hoped that he would he would present her with a really ace collection of up-to-the-minute ideas which could then be tastefully displayed in large type on a set of display boards with appropriate photographs to illustrate each of the principles being put into practice.
Unfortunately it didn't work out quite like that. Not because the young people were lacking ideas – indeed they had plenty of those – but because all the ideas they came up with for applying to the present day society turned out, on closer inspection, to be hundreds if not thousands of years old.
The misunderstanding behind the Supervisor's quest for "new values" or "new moral principles is a very common one at the present moment. It's worth looking at it more closely: and as we do so we find that it grows out of two misconceptions each of which, in a curious way, is the mirror image the other.
The first misconception is to suppose that "values" or "moral principles" or whatever you like to call them are constantly changing and vary significantly from one generation and culture to another.
The truth is almost exactly the opposite. Take any culture, any civilization that we know anything about and you will discover that the values which it holds in common with other cultures whether they have come before and after it, outnumber the ones in which it differs by a factor of something like a thousand to one.
Of course you will get local aberrations every so often. However, the very fact that they are seen by others (and later by the people who once espoused them) as aberrations shows that they are precisely that. After a few years, or more probably a few months, the people who so enthusiastically embraced these supposedly "new" values discover for themselves that they simply don't work. Moreover a slight knowledge of history will reveal that they never have worked. An example is religious persecution. The more you persecute a faith and try and stamp it out the more it continues to grow and prosper – as the Roman Emperors and the the Soviet Dictators found to their cost in the case of Christianity!
The second mistake is to suppose that, once a value has been agreed upon, then everyone from then onwards will somehow inherit it as part of his birthright. The truth is the exact opposite as anyone who has brought up children will be painfully aware. Such values have to be implanted, taught, instilled (whatever word you like to use) into every single person born alive.
The average baby is as near a value-free creature as exists in this world. Of course the baby has the potential for learning moral truth, just like it has the potential for learning the alphabet or the times-table. But the popular assumption that everyone has a ready-made set of values bred into it is pure moonshine.
So, when people say things like "You'd have thought that mankind would by now have learnt better than to go to war and fight with each other" they are ignoring the fact that what we're dealing with is not an abstract like "mankind" but men and women who, by nature, are anything but "kind".
Which brings us to the heart of the problem which lies behind all those attempts to "mix and match" different faiths together in the hope that they'll all turn out to be much the same in the end.
For although it's true that we can explore the values which we hold in common, Jews, Muslims, Sikhs, Christians and the rest, and perhaps, as I said a moment or two back, be pleasantly surprised to find how much we do hold in common and which can enable us to make our multicultural multi-ethnic neighbourhood a more pleasant and wholesome place to live in, it's when we come to look at our respective beliefs that we begin to realise that there is, in practice, an unbridgeable gap between us.
It's when we have reached the limit of practical co-operation along the lines of our shared values – respect for life and property, the care of the elderly, law and order and the rights and duties of parents and children towards each other that we come to a grinding halt.
For the really important questions in life like What is it all About?, Why are we here? What will happen to us when we die? depend, one and all, not on practising particular virtues, but on what we believe and their value of beliefs is critically affected by whether such beliefs are true or false.
So for example if God really revealed to Isaiah that "A law will go forth from me and my justice for a light to the peoples" then those who believe, as Christians, Muslims and Jews do, that God reveals himself to chosen individuals at particular times, in particular places and in particular ways will find themselves on one side of the fence; whilst those who don't believe that their god or gods reveal themselves in this way will be on the other.
Equally, if St Peter was correct when he said to Jesus "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God" we Christians (who believe as he did) will find ourselves sharply divided off not only from Sikhs and Buddhists, but Jews and Muslims as well who believe that, whoever Jesus was, he wasn't that.
Thirdly, if St Paul was right when he said "We, though many, are one body in Christ and individually members one of another it's going to put yet another stretch of clear water between ourselves who profess that faith and others who do not. For one thing it means that our relationship as Christians with one another is of a completely different kind from that of our relationship with everyone else, even members of our own family unless, of course, they happen to be Christians too. Faith in Jesus Christ is more like being a member of a body, said St Paul, rather than belonging to the same club or neighbourhood, St Paul insisted.
Moreover, we Christians place our faith, rightly or wrongly, in someone who is not merely "another great teacher" of which the world has known many, but in someone who was and is and who claimed to be, God himself, a God with a date in comparatively recent history and about whose life and teaching we know far more than any one else of that time or for many years afterwards.
Most critically of all, if the claim that this person actually rose from the dead three days after being killed, and appeared to many witnesses happens to be true then it means that "becoming members of his body" means that we can confidently expect to share in his resurrection. So here's another belief which puts a whole ocean of clear water between Christian and other beliefs.
For if we're wrong about this then, as St Paul said, "we are of all men the most miserable. If Christ is not risen then our faith is vain and we might as well eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we die.
But just suppose for a moment that we have got it right.
Well, in that case it means, doesn't it, that the values that we espouse, the moral principles we practice, will not so much be different from those of other faiths but set in a different context and viewed from an entirely different angle.
If we are "living in Christ" then we shall start seeing things through the eyes of Christ, and what we hear will be "through the ears of Christ" and there is no reason to suppose that Christ's ears and eyes will see and hear things in the same way as our fellow men do.
Most importantly, we shall have, as St Paul said, the mind of Christ who, "though he was in the form of God did not count equality with God as a thing to be held onto at all costs, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant and... humbled himself and became obedient to death even death on a cross".
It would be hard to imagine a belief more alien to late 20th Century secular man than that. And yet, if Christians are right, there is not other way of salvation available to us than the one which God, in Christ, offers us.
Return to Sermon Salad
Return to Trushare Home Page