Further on James McConnell and Islam

The three great monotheistic faiths, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, have many things in common, and perhaps the most significant is that they all claim exclusive truth.

That is to say, there are elements in each faith, belief in which is mutually exclusive, such as the differing views of Jesus between the three faiths – he cannot be solely a prophet, a false Messiah and the Saviour of the world all at the same time.  The three faiths thus stand in opposition to each other.

That perhaps is the lens through which we should see Pastor McConnell’s remarks, one where a Christian pastor who believes that Islam is not the way to God, but Christianity most certainly is, must out of integrity proclaim Christ as the only way and all other religions by implication false.

I then step back a bit and look at the big picture.

Perhaps through a different lens.

Maybe through the lens of St Paul.

Throughout the book of Acts, Paul is recorded as reasoning from the Hebrew Scriptures that Jesus is the Messiah with members of local synagogues. In Athens, a city with altars to every member of the Greek pantheon and at least one more just to be certain, he referred to their altar “to an unknown God” and quoted their own poets – he came to them where they were with absolute integrity, he challenged thinking, and proclaimed the truth as he believed it. Many people sneered and turned away, perhaps deeply offended that he was challenging their beliefs, but others listened and either wanted to know more or were converted.

Now, suppose Paul had started by telling everyone that the Greek pantheon was satanic and heathen.  He would have lost his audience before he’d even started.

It would have been worse had he started with local Jews by telling them they were of the Devil. Now, Jesus did call the Pharisees children of the Devil, but that was only after they had heard and rejected his message, and he had also pointed out their hypocrisy in telling people how to live, but then not living up to it themselves. Instead, Paul reasoned carefully that Jesus was the fulfilment of the Hebrew Scriptures.

The lesson from Paul is this: remember that people who belong to faiths other than your own are your mission field. Christians, Muslims and Jews cannot be asked to deny their exclusive truth claims, and in the end we have to let people choose to be “wrong.”

However, if I, as a Christian, criticise a whole religion by reference to its most extreme elements, rather than remembering the vast majority of ordinary Muslims in Belfast and elsewhere whose only intention is to live quietly alongside their neighbours, working hard and honouring Allah, I should not be surprised if they take “gross offence” and I thus lose any chance to tell them why I believe that Christianity is the only way to God.

The same principle applies when talking to the non-religious. With them, I have to begin in a world with no concept of the significance of God, let alone “jargon” like sin, salvation and so on.  Start by telling them how awful they are, and you lose them because it’s something of which they have little or no concept, and you’ve just dehumanised them.

In summary: this may be a free speech issue, but does the freedom to say what you wish come at the price of losing your effectiveness because you have lost more of your audience than you have gained by saying it?

{There could be a parable there for our politicians. Playing to the gallery of your own resulting in losing confidence from the other side.}