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'God is bigger than Christians,' Tutu says

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Is God a Christian?

I must confess I had never asked myself that question. Then I heard about a new book about Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

Titled God Is Not A Christian: And Other Provocations, the book is a collection of sermons, speeches and interviews given by the well-known South African pastor, who rose to prominence in the 1980s as a vocal and determined opponent of apartheid.

According to Tutu, the answer to the question is no -- God is not a Christian.

"His concern is for all his children." he is quoted as saying in the book. "To claim God exclusively for Christians is to make God too small and in a real sense is blasphemous. God is bigger than Christians and cares for more than Christians only."

Some Christians might object to that line of thinking. Tutu anticipates their objection. For them, he has a question: "Can you tell us what God was before he was a Christian?"

In a 1989 speech to leaders of different faiths -- a speech included in the book, and now circulating widely on the web -- Tutu elaborated on this idea, beginning with a story of a drunk who crossed a street to ask a pedestrian a question.

"I shay, which ish the other shide of the shtreet?" the drunk asked. The pedestrian replied: "That side, of course!"

The drunk said, "'Shtrange. When I wash on that shide, they shaid it wash thish shide."

For Tutu, "where the other side of the street is depends on where we are. Our perspective differs with our context, the things that have helped to form us; and religion is one of the most potent of these formative influences, helping to determine how and what we apprehend of reality and how we operate in our own specific context."

His point, he went on to say, "seems overwhelmingly simple: that the accidents of birth and geography determine to a very large extent to what faith we belong. The chances are very great that if you were born in Pakistan you are a Muslim, or a Hindu if you happened to be born in India, or a Shintoist if it is Japan, and a Christian if you were born in Italy."

The lesson to be drawn from these accidents of birth, he suggested, was not to "succumb too easily to the temptation to exclusiveness and dogmatic claims to a monopoly of the truth of our particular faith. You could so easily have been an adherent of the faith that you are now denigrating, but for the fact that you were born here rather than there."

This realization, he stated, should make Christians open to learning from people of other faiths.

"We must acknowledge them for who they are in all their integrity, with their conscientiously held beliefs; we must welcome them and respect them as who they are and walk reverently on what is their holy ground, taking off our shoes, metaphorically and literally," he stated.

But that doesn't mean giving up one's own deeply held convictions, he added.

"We must hold to our particular and peculiar beliefs tenaciously, not pretending that all religions are the same, for they are patently not the same. We must be ready to learn from one another, not claiming that we alone possess all truth and that somehow we have a corner on God."

At the same time, he believes that members of all faiths should look for commonalities.

"We have enough that conspires to separate us," he noted. "Let us celebrate that which unites us, that which we share in common."

Tutu concluded his speech by saying "surely it is good to know that God (in the Christian tradition) created us all (not just Christians) in his image, thus investing us all with infinite worth... surely we can rejoice that the eternal word, the Logos of God, enlightens everyone -- not just Christians, but everyone who comes into the world; that what we call the Spirit of God is not a Christian preserve, for the Spirit of God existed long before there were Christians, inspiring and nurturing women and men in the ways of holiness, bringing them to fruition, bringing to fruition what was best in all."

God, he stated, "does not need us to protect him. Many of us perhaps need to have our notion of God deepened and expanded."

Is God a Christian? Tutu says no. What do you think?

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 25, 2011 J13

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