My experiences in the opening weeks of the academic year at the university have been both refreshing and eye-opening. It's been a long time since I've been able to have so many significant conversations with such diverse people. I had two such conversations yesterday at the Graduate School Researchers induction. 'Mary' is a PhD student in religion. Although from a Muslim country, she is non-religious. She took the opportunity to 'pick my brain' regarding the Christian faith. The greatest obstacle she faced regarding Christianity is the doctrine of the Trinity, and the accompanying doctrine of the deity of Christ. The idea of God being 'three persons' makes absolutely no sense to the Islamic mindset, since they, like the Jews, hold very tightly to strict (unitarian) monotheism. So I gave her my 'Siamese triplets' illustration to help her make some sense of the very perplexing doctrine...along with an explanation that when we speak of God, we can only speak analogically, as our human metaphors ultimately break down. Imagine a set of Siamese triplets, with their brains and neurons wired together. While they are three persons capable of engaging in relationship with one another, they have immediate access to each others' thoughts, feelings, intentions, etc. They do all things together. Furthermore, they love one another perfectly, and their intents and motives are in perfect alignment. Here we have a relationality in God that is not found in Judaism or Islam. Yet there is also perfect unity and harmony not found in any polytheistic system. In short, the triune God is LOVE...and uniquely so among the world's religions. This was the first time I've used the analogy with one who is not a Christian...and it worked well!
'Allan' is an Italian doing his PhD in biology. His grandmother is a Catholic, his mother is a 'Christian', and his father 'hates the Catholic church'. A is an atheist. Above all else, he hates the political dominance of the Catholic church in Italy. Among other things, we discussed evolution, intelligent design, Blaise Pascal, and the sins of the church. He had expected me as a Christian to reject evolution on principle. My response is twofold. First, it is quite impossible to be certain about about prehistoric events. Most people think that evolution is a 'scientifically proven fact' (three words that simply do not belong together, as the discipline of science is not designed to prove facts!), when in fact it is a theory that is unfalsifiable and unverifiable. Second, I am open to the possibility that evolution may have happened. Our lack of certainty about prehistoric events cuts both ways. I realise that many Christians would think me a 'heretic' for failing to firmly reject evolution. But the plain fact of the matter is, nowhere in the Bible is the issue ever raised. It would be ridiculously anachronistic to suggest that Moses rejected Darwin! [Interestingly, the idea was widely discussed well before Darwin.] When we repent of our idolatrous fundamentalist traditionalism and apply sound principles of interpretation to Genesis (e.g. asking things like "What was Moses trying to communicate, by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit?"), we realise that biblically speaking, 'evolution' is a non-issue.
A very interesting thing happens when you tell a non-Christian that you are open to the possibility of evolution. There is a brief moment of cognitive dissonance: "I've always thought that Christians just blindly believe what they've been taught by the church. But here I am, face to face with a Christian who thinks for himself...an oxymoron...Christians don't think...yet this one seems to...no, he's only Christian by name...well, no...he seems quite serious...What am I supposed to do with this?" Suddenly, he realises that someone can be a Christian and still speak his language and think on his wavelength and live in his world. He gives you credibility and a listening ear. He also offers his honest thoughts without dismissing you and without fearing that he will be dismissed. Respect happens. Engagement follows. And I achieved this without ever conceding that evolution actually occurred!
I could tell you much more about my conversation with Allan. [And yes, I did press the issue of the need for a 'creator', and the inadequacy of impersonal explanations, if not in those exact terms.] But far more important than our stimulating intellectual discussion was the issue of repentance...mine! He has seen many caricatures of Christianity, not only in the media as is common in the West, but also in institutional and personal forms. I had two messages for him. First, "when you think of Christianity, please don't think of the (Catholic) Church, or the Pope, or the 'hypocrites' you've come across. Think of me. Let me be a 'face' of Christianity for you." Second, "I acknowledge that we, as Christians, have done wrong. We have committed atrocious sins against society and against the world. I repent on behalf of the Church and Christianity. We need your forgiveness."
'Mary' wants to learn more about Christianity. 'Allan' wants to have more thoughtful conversations. I am thankful for the opportunities to engage with other travellers along the path. They didn't have to be theological conversations. It just so happened that yesterday, theological living took the shape of these conversations. In a world saturated with caricatures of Christ, people want the real thing. They need a face with a heart behind it in which they can see a faithful portrait of Christ. And many of them also need words with reason behind them, in which they can hear the voice of Christ. They need to see the image. As Christians, it is our vocation to become and to be the image of God to the world.