Don Watson on the evangelists, and the God, we need


I’ve been slowly making my way through some old editions of Meanjin. A thoroughly enjoyable experience. Came across this lovely essay by Don Watson. It concludes with these good words:

‘We need a revival. We need more evangelists on the road. I mean real evangelists and a real God: not those unctuous neophytes and sanctimonious suburban lay preachers with their nice God. We need fiery preachers with a fiery God. Man and God in hot competition. Only then can we be assured that one day something funny will happen to those honey-tongued hypocrites in the United States athletics team. It will be very unpleasant for them you can be sure. And the irony will be — the really funny part — they won’t know what hit them’.

– Don Watson, ‘The Joke After God’. Meanjin 46, no. 2 (1986), 235.

[Image: Source]

John V. Taylor on the universal Spirit and the meeting of faiths

John V. Taylor’s The Go-Between God: The Holy Spirit and the Christian Mission is a profoundly insightful book. Throughout the chapter on religious pluralism, titled ‘Meeting: the Universal Spirit and the Meeting of Faiths’, Taylor reminds us that religion is not the fabrication of theologians with their dogmas but a particular ‘tradition of response to the reality the Holy Spirit has set before their eyes’ (p. 182). Those engaged in inter-faith discourse, even the kind of which John Milbank (in his essay, ‘The End of Dialogue’) rightly refuses to pretend mean ‘anything other than continuing the work of conversion’, will make no headway, Taylor insists, unless they first understand that such traditions of response are both deeply ingrained and dynamic cultural ideas, as well as being attempts at fundamental meaning-making. The first challenge of inter-faith conversation, therefore, is to ‘pay attention to the real conviction that underlies the precise point at which disagreement appears and then try to turn mere confrontation of opposites into a real and possible choice’ (p. 187). In other words, it is to identify the crisis – or, more properly, the crucis – which must be entered into.

Taylor draws upon the work of Kenneth Craig who argues that the contradictions between Muslim and Christian fidelity can be seen to arise from the different ways that Mohammed and Jesus responded to the same situation; namely, being under threat of death. Jesus ‘bowed his head to what was coming’; Mohammed ‘raised his army and marched on Mecca’ (p. 188). (BTW: my colleague Graham Redding drew attention recently to this same fundamental difference, a difference which at bottom reflects two different ideas of God’s nature, on TVNZ’s Q&A program). So Taylor:

But what a strong case Mohammed has! He takes the theology of power seriously. And more often than not, when confronted by the same choice, the Church has taken the Prophet’s way rather than the Messiah’s. Looked at in this way the basic difference between Islam and Christianity becomes an open option, for the Christian no less than for the Muslim – a choice on which we are still making up our minds. The gulf between us is seen, as it were, in cross section. Both I and the Muslim may go forward either on the one side or the other. I said ‘cross section’; for it is nothing less than the cross which is now demanding our decision. (p. 188)

The ‘evangelism of the Holy Spirit’, Taylor insists, ‘consists in creating the occasions for choice’ (pp. 188–9). Enthusiasts of the Gospel ought to be the first to welcome the lesson of the Epiphany story of the magi, not primarily their great learning or the store of their religious experience, but rather the question which they carried, or, rather, which carried them; namely, ‘Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?’ (Matt 2.2).

Taylor continues:

I believe that the search for Christ’s relevance is a truer and less static way of describing the aim of dialogue than is the older talk about the one word and light which has inspired other religious systems. For it is not in the propositions, regulations, rituals or traditions of a religious system that his universal presence is to be found, but always independent of these phenomena in the uncontainable unattained to which they point, in the questions [people] ask about them, and the protests [people] make against them. It is as judge and saviour of the religious tradition itself that Christ’s relevance to each religion will be found. It is not so much that he is the culmination or crown of every religion … but that in him each religion will be brought to fulfilment in terms true to itself, through crisis and conversion. (p. 190)

Taylor proceeds to say that the eternal and universally-present Spirit, who is uniquely present in Christ but ‘present through the whole fabric of the world’, has been at work ‘in all ages and all cultures making [people] aware and evoking their response, and always the one to whom he was pointing and bearing witness was the Logos, the Lamb slain before the foundation of the world. Every religion has been a tradition of response to him, however darkly it groped towards him, however anxiously it shied away from him’ (pp. 180, 191). While salvation can only ever come ‘as an interruption, a revolution, a new creation’ (p. 192) of God, Taylor has no doubt that ‘as the Holy Spirit turns Muslim or Hindu or Marxist eyes towards the living Christ, the half-truths in their traditions of response will be completed, error will be shown up, disobedience condemned, all evasion of God brought to a halt, and his Son crucified afresh. And out of all that a new Jesus-centred Hinduism, a new Messiah-centred Islam, a new Christ-directed Communism, will be raised up’ (p. 192).

While there are claims made in Taylor’s chapter that I think warrant some challenge or at least some further teasing out, Taylor’s ‘Spirit-centred theology of missions’ (p. 196) has much to commend it, and I found myself needing to sit again with this chapter and wrestle with some of the very questions that I believe Taylor is inviting the church to wrestle further with. Would that more theological books demanded as much of the reader!

It is what Taylor coins the ‘second dimension’ of the Spirit’s work that I find most stimulating to muse about (to borrow a phrase from Jean-Jacques Rousseau). While the first dimension of the Spirit’s work concerns ‘the level of individual response to the magnetism of Jesus Christ’, and which includes ‘individual conversions from one culture to another’ (p. 192), conversions which are often, as Taylor concedes, extremely costly, the second dimension bears witness to the way that the Spirit works in ways entirely unplanned and unforeseen by the Church, an ‘incidental by-product’ largely out of sight ‘like the submerged mass of the iceberg’ (p. 194; PT Forsyth’s readers will recall the use of that same image in his theology). This dimension of the ‘strategy of God’ refers to ‘something that is beginning to happen within the very life of … other faiths themselves, a ferment, a subtle change, brought about by the influence of Jesus Christ upon them, far beyond any conscious impact that Christians are making’ (p. 194. Italics mine). Might these not be counted among the ‘little lights’ of which Barth spoke, the ‘little lights of creation … that … are not passed over or ignored, let alone destroyed or extinguished, but integrated in the great light’ of the Creator (CD IV.3.1, 156)? To be sure, God is not the God of individuals only, but also of nations, movements, histories. And those who would discern the movements of God would do well to not be fixated with the micro or with the personal (one of pietism’s traps), but to also think in centuries, as Forsyth encouraged, and with a large map of a borderless world before them.

I’ll give Taylor the last word, a word that bespeaks the freedom of grace, the determination of love, and the indispensible gift of the disciples’ costly witness:

For Christ is not the property of us Christians and if we rejoice when the Holy Spirit opens [people’s] eyes to his glory, we must at that moment remember how often the church has blinded them, and pray that we be not once more a stumbling block.

But of one thing we can be certain: there would be no such ferment, no response at all, within the body and fabric of these other great faiths, if those who, one by one, through the past century and a half, have been touched by the magnetism of Christ, had not paid the costly price of public confession and baptism with all that that entailed. For this peculiar faith to which we are committed has no power and no appeal whatever except the power and the appeal of the cross. In the confrontation of many faiths, all our dialogue, all our witness, all our loving service of [people’s] need must point to that. But in order to point another effectually, we may often have to be on the cross ourselves. Whatever else the strategy of the Spirit may include, that part of it has not been taken from us. (pp. 196–7)

The finality of Christ in a pluralist world

During a recent visit to the Diocese of Guildford, Archbishop Rowan Williams gave a lecture (based on John 14:5-6 and Acts 4:8-13) on the finality of Christ in a pluralist world. The whole piece is well worth reading, but here’s how he concludes:

‘[B]elief in the uniqueness and finality of Jesus Christ — for all the assaults made upon it in the modern age — remains for the Christian a way of speaking about hope for the entire human family. And because it’s that, we are bound to say something about it. We are very rightly suspicious of proselytism, of manipulative, bullying, insensitive approaches to people of other faith which treat them as if they knew nothing, as if we had nothing to learn and as if the tradition of their reflection and imagination were of no interest to us or God. God save us from that kind of approach. But God save us also from the nervousness about our own conviction which doesn’t allow us to say that we speak about Jesus because we believe he matters. We believe he matters because we believe that in him human beings find their peace. Their destinies converge and their dignities are fully honoured. And all the work that we as Christians want to do for the sake of convergent human destiny and fullness of human dignity has its root in that conviction that there is no boundary around Jesus — that what he is and does and says and suffers is in principle liberatingly relevant to every human being; past, present and future.

The challenge is partly re-connecting our christology (what we say about Jesus and the Trinity) with our anthropology (our sense of what belongs properly to human beings); and rightly understood, I think that the belief in Jesus’ uniqueness and finality allows us to do this. And, rightly understood, I believe it also allows us to encounter both the religious and the non-religious other with the generous desire to share, and the humble desire to learn, and the patience to let God work out his purpose as is best in his eyes’.