The following is an excerpt from Bishop Desmond Tutu’s new book God is not a Christian: And Other Provocations, and this series of quotes and paraphrasing was originally presented as part of a talk given in Birmingham in 1989. As you can probably see from its content Bishop Tutu was intending this for a mixed faith audience. I believe it makes some important points, and I present parts of the excerpt word for word in the hope that those convinced that they alone have the religious truth might ponder their position with a little more humility. For those interested in the entire text I suggest you buy a copy of the book.
The excerpt starts with the story of a drunk who crossed the street and accosted a
pedestrian, asking him,……….
“I shay, which ish the other shide of the shtreet?” The pedestrian, somewhat nonplussed, replied, “That side, of course!” The drunk said, “Shtrange. When I wash on that shide, they shaid it wash thish shide.”
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
From there Nobel Peace Prize winner Desmond Tutu goes on to argue that since it is only accidents of birth and geography which determine for the most part the faith we belong using examples like being born into a Muslim faith in Pakistan, Hinduism in India, Shinto in Japan and Christianity in Italy, all too often we can find ourselves denigrating the very faith we ourselves may have had but for the fortune of birth.
He goes on to caution against seeing the essence of Christianity in other faiths when they are often substantially different, nor claiming a monopoly on truth when in reality we may only be seeing a fragment of the truth. Since none of us can comprehend the divine completely we need to learn from one another’s insights.
He contends that what we call the Spirit of God is not a Christian preserve, arguing that the Spirit of God existed long before there were Christians. In his words: “ We do scant justice and honor to our God if we want, for instance, to deny that Mahatma Gandhi was a
truly great soul, a holy man who walked closely with God. Our God would be too small if he was not also the God of Gandhi”
..and ……” Many of us perhaps need to have our notion of God deepened and expanded. It is often said, half in jest, that God
created man in his own image and man has returned the compliment, saddling God with his own narrow prejudices and exclusivity, foibles and temperamental quirks. God remains God, whether God has worshippers or not”
Bishop Tutu then reminds his audience :”We are supposed to proclaim the God of love, but we have been guilty as Christians of sowing hatred and suspicion; we commend the one whom we call the Prince of Peace, and yet as Christians we have fought more wars than we care to remember. We have claimed to be a fellowship of compassion and caring and sharing, but as Christians we often sanctify sociopolitical systems that belie this, where the rich grow ever richer and the poor grow ever poorer,
where we seem to sanctify a furious competitiveness, ruthless as can only be appropriate to the jungle”
Although these sentiments give us a rich insight into the sort of thinking that led Bishop Tutu to the non-judgmental philosophy which guided the “Truth and Reconciliation Commission” in the post apartheid South Africa and no doubt influenced those who awarded the Bishop his Nobel Prize, it has been entirely predictable that a number of Conservative Christians have been most uncomfortable in Bishop Tutu’s re-iteration of this thesis and the blogs are running hot with condemnation of his suggestion that there might be good in other religions. Whether or not he will win over his critics is a moot point but for the record, I for one am convinced by his thinking which I find most welcome at a time when the Christian voice is often portrayed as shrill and exclusive.