Nobel Peace laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu yesterday thanked Pittsburghers who worked to end apartheid in South Africa and received an unprecedented dual honorary doctorate from the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University.We've discussed the matter of "pluralism" previously a few times, such as here. But, I thought some might want to talk about it yet again.
He also threw down a theological challenge on a doctrine that the worldwide Anglican Communion is threatening to split over.
In his sermon, he poked fun at the belief that only those who accept Jesus as their savior can enter heaven.
"Can you imagine that there are those who think God is a Christian?" he said to laughter from a mostly appreciative audience. "Can you tell us what God was before he was a Christian?"
...The church was filled with those who supported the archbishop's social justice concerns both now and 20 years ago, when black people couldn't enter white South African neighborhoods without a "guest worker" pass. He opened his sermon with thanks to those who had prayed, marched and gone to jail to protest apartheid.
"One of the great privileges ... is to be able to come to places such as this and say to you: We asked for your help. You gave it. We are free. Thank you, thank you, thank you," he said.
He spoke of marching side by side with rabbis and imams.
"They were all inspired by their faiths. I have yet to hear of a faith that says it's OK to be unjust," he said.
"Injustice and oppression isn't just evil, which it is. It's not just painful, which it certainly is for the victim. It's like spitting in the face of God."
He invoked his friendship with the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan Buddhist leader who has been exiled from his homeland for nearly 50 years. Although others would be embittered, the Dalai Lama is filled with "bubbly joyousness," he said.
"You have to be totally, totally insensitive not to know you are in the presence of someone who is holy and good."
He then asked, "Can anyone say to the Dalai Lama, 'You are a good guy. What a shame you are not a Christian'?"
His question drew laughs, but was a direct challenge to conservative Anglicans, who have long said that their deepest concern about the Anglican Communion is not gay ordination but the rejection of classic doctrines about Jesus. One of the most important is the belief that humans can only come into the presence of God if their sins have been forgiven, and that their sins can only be forgiven because Jesus died to atone for those sins.
After equating that with the belief that "God is a Christian," Archbishop Tutu spoke of a human family in which members must love one another even when some relatives are obnoxious. When Jesus said he would "draw all" people to himself, he meant both President Bush and the "gay, lesbian and so-called straight," he said.
He spoke of God having a dream -- and drew laughter when he acknowledged in an aside that Martin Luther King "might have said something like that, too."
"Please help me, says God. Help me to realize my dream," he concluded, to great applause...
In the comments linked above, I've said about all I can really say on the matter. However, maybe I'll emphasize once again a couple of my personal issues.
Note that these are my personal thoughts. I'm taking off the collar for a few minutes.
First of all, I simply cannot grasp this preoccupation some Christians have with heaven and hell. I'm sorry, but I cannot dredge up any enthusiasm for the topic. Yes, I believe in the resurrection. Yes, I believe there is an afterlife; that life is changed, not ended. But I don't think we can possibly imagine what that reality will be like. Yes, various authors, including some biblical authors, have tried to paint the picture for us. But I think that reality will be so drastically different from this one, that it is impossible to capture it in mere words, or even images.
I find Jonathan Edwards' sermon, "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" an amazing piece of literature, but a sickening example of Christian witness. We are told that those hearing that sermon were crying and even fainting from fear. If Christianity is about getting my ticket to heaven, and not much else, then place me with Bartleby the Scrivener, as "I would rather not".
Now those who root their understanding of Christianity in the cross will object to what I have just said. And, a discussion of "atonement" is important. We've had such discussions before, and probably will again. But that is not where my understanding of Christianity begins. The cross is a piece of that understanding; an important piece, but for me, not the starting place.
I begin with the Incarnation; the word became flesh and dwelt among us. That is the amazing part of the Christian story. That is what gets my attention, even when I'd rather not care.
You see, to me, most religion, and almost all "God-talk" is really just navel gazing. Arguing points that we claim as "Truth" that probably don't really matter. Concepts and ideas, proposed by those with too much leisure time. I'm not too interested. There's enough work to be done in this world to keep us all busy. Reflection on the next world seems, to me, to be a distraction from the task at hand.
But, the Incarnation, God made man, now that gets my attention. Why? Because seeing God moving within the created realm has been my experience. And, through the witness of those who have gone before me, which would include the authors of the sacred texts, among others, the fact that "the Kingdom of God is at hand" has been experienced by many throughout history. The chasm between heaven and earth has been bridged. That is the testimony of the texts. That is the testimony of my life.
The divine entering the material realm. God flowing through all things. Yes. That resonates with my experiences of those moments when reality slightly shifts, and we glimpse the glory underneath it all; that elusive "something more." Sometimes I'd describe such glimpses as heaven, when I find myself engulfed by that glory. Other times, when I am in a dark place, and distance myself from that glory, might be described as hell.
That's no pie in the sky by and by. It is only in this present moment that we encounter the living God. Our response to that encounter will decide if we find ourselves in heaven, or in hell.
An encounter with God is what Christianity is all about, or so it seems to me.
Ok, I'm putting my collar back on. The Church teaches many things about the afterlife. And when someone is facing their final struggle, it is the Church that I bring to them, as a representative of the Body of Christ.
Does that make me a hypocrite? Maybe. But at such moments, it is not my personal opinions that those in need are seeking. They are seeking the same thing we all long for; an encounter with God. The difference is that search is greatly intensified at such moments. In my understanding, it is at such moments that I must decrease, that God may increase. My personal opinions don't matter. Actually, they can get in the way of being a clear and transparent conduit of God's grace.
Now, if you all want to debate the Dalai Lama being in heaven, please feel free to do so. But I doubt if I will join you in such a discussion. I would rather not.
UPDATE: You can watch a video of Abp. Tutu's visit to Pittsburgh here.