God and religion

Dear Friends,

By the time you read this, we may have been overtaken by events. I hope not, but what follows is offered simply by way of a personal reflection on the current crisis over Iraq. The media make constant reference to 'interests' - described as 'the national interest' or 'our interests', or more broadly as 'western interests', and defined in political and economic terms. So far, so familiar. The confrontation with Iraq is about power politics, oil, the Israeli-Palestinian dispute and 'the war on terror'. But a faith community like ours has other 'interests'. They are theological ones. They are about God. From Harran in what is now modern-day Iraq, Abraham - the father of the three great faith traditions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam - journeyed around the fertile crescent to settle in the land of Canaan. Our inheritance is linked with his. So is our present.

Towards the end of last year I read a wonderful book by the Chief Rabbi, Dr. Jonathan Sacks, called The Dignity of Difference. In the aftermath of 11 September 2001 and the 'clash of civilisations', it is an impassioned plea from the leader of the Orthodox tradition in Judaism for us to make space for a God who delights in diversity. He reminds us that there is a difference between God and religion: God is universal; religions are particular. He affirms that God has spoken to humankind in many languages: through Judaism to Jews, Christianity to Christians, Islam to Muslims. But he has learnt to say that as a faithful and believing Jew. Not surprisingly perhaps, he has been accused of heresy by some of his co-religionists. But the way in which he sets out his case for the way in which God deals with our distinctiveness as well as our common humanity as people of faith in a globalised world is compelling. There are those who argue that religion is part of the problem. The Chief Rabbi offers some hope that it might be part of the solution. As you consider his arguments, you may care to reflect on what they imply for you as a faithful and believing Christian.

I think that this, ultimately, takes us to the heart of the present crisis. Indeed, I suspect that it is the theological issue of the twenty-first century. It is therefore important for all of us who pray, read the scriptures and reflect upon the way in which we practise our faith as Christian people. Meanwhile, we shall all be considering the news reports and TV pictures, listening to the language of 'regime change', 'just war criteria' and - God help us - 'collateral damage'. And we shall be wondering about the presence of God in human affairs and in his beautiful though battered creation in worship and preaching, commitment and witness, and in the daily struggle to be more fully human as God intends.

Best wishes
Yours ever John
March 2003

©John Swarbrick