to listen to the audio only recording of the sermon here
A little girl held tightly to her grandfather’s hand as together they walked toward the centre of town. Suddenly a tall, beautiful, woman dressed from head to toe in a long black flowing gown appeared in the street just ahead of them. The woman’s flowing gown gave the impression that she was floating rather than walking. Beneath the black flowing cloth which covered the woman’s head, was an elegant face encased by restricting starched white material. Below the smiling woman’s face, hung a slender silver cross. The little girl tugged on her grandfather’s sleeve and asked, “Who is that, Grand-dad?” The little girl’s grandfather explained, “That my dear is a witch! Now mind you behave yourself or she will take you away and boil you in her stew pot”. The little girl squeezed her grandfather’s hand tightly and resolved to stay far away from witches no matter how beautiful they looked.
I couldn’t have been more than about four years old when my grandfather and I encountered that Roman Catholic nun on the road in Belfast, Northern Ireland. I can’t tell you how many times as a child in Belfast, I was warned to behave myself or the nuns would come and take me away. Later I would learn that the threat of nuns was often used by protestant families to keep children in line.
For generations, Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland have spent most of their fighting with their neighbours about how to love God that they’ve barely had time to love God and they’ve never really learned how to love their neighbours. When I was growing up, I was taught that there are good religions and there are bad religions. It wasn’t very complicated; our religion was a good religion and everyone else’s religion was a bad religion. My parents left Northern Ireland to avoid the warring madness between Protestants and Roman Catholics euphemistically known as the “Troubles.” I know all too well the mess we humans can get into when we forget that there is more than one way to live and move and have your being in the MYSTERY that we call God.
For just over ten years now, congregations that identify themselves as “progressive” have been celebrating Pluralism Sunday. Pluralism Sunday was conceived as an opportunity for churches to celebrate religious diversity and affirm that there are so very many pathways into the MYSTERY that we call God. I must confess that nun/witch that I encountered in Belfast all those years ago has haunted my preparations for this Pluralism Sunday. Life seemed so much simpler back then.
Back then, I trusted the authority figures in my life to tell me the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. In Belfast, I encountered only two pathways, one was orange and was green. My people, travelled the orange pathway, we were the good travelers. As for the other travelers, the ones who walked upon the green pathway, they were the bad travelers, the dangerous ones that I was taught to fear. When we left Belfast and settled in Canada, I learned very quickly that there were so many different travelers, who walked pathways that come in a kaleidoscope of colours.
Last month, I returned to Belfast to attend a festival of pyrotheology presided over by our friend Pete Rollins. Belfast has changed a great deal since the 1999 Good Friday agreement. The uneasy peace agreement may have put the Troubles to bed, but there are plenty of orange and green ghosts who lurk in shadows along the pathways traversed by those who still bear scars from the wounds inflicted by that old-time religion. Those battle-weary orange and green ghosts live in me even thought I have the privilege of living here in Canada, where we have for decades championed multi-culturalism. As Canadians, we tend to swell with pride at our society’s religious tolerance. While we can indeed point to the multitude of religions that co-exist in this country, the concept of religious pluralism pushes us beyond mere tolerance toward acknowledgement of the differences that exist between various religions toward a better understanding of other religions so that we might learn to respect the integrity of other religions and learn to work together to build a better world. Most of us have figured out how to be tolerant of other religions, only a few of us have dared to undertake the challenges of religious pluralism.
Peter Rollins himself insists that, “When we encounter someone who has practices and beliefs that are different than our own we generally have one of four responses. The first response is where we try to consume the other. Which means that we take their differences, their beliefs and practices and we try to make them conform to our own. If we can’t do that, the second response is often that of vomiting out. If I can’t domesticate the other, I want to get them out of my community. I don’t want to be confronted with them. The third response is toleration, where I can socialize with you as long as you keep your strange beliefs and practices behind closed doors. And finally, the fourth response is a kind of dialogue where we can sit down together and talk about where we agree that between the different streams of our beliefs there is an ocean that we share.”
I dare say that most of us can see our own lives moving us through the various stages that Pete describes. I can remember being encouraged by the church to consume those who were deemed as other. Indeed, most church evangelism programs are all about consuming the other, making them believe what we believe. Sadly, too many of us have practiced versions of vomiting out the other. Now if you don’t think you are guilty of vomiting out the other, of not wanting to be confronted by the other, I’d ask you to consider your reactions the last time a Jehovah’s Witness came to your door, or how about that raging fundamentalist who might try to convince you that the end is near. Or what about a person whose religious practice involves the wearing of a burka? We might not want to admit to it, but if we are really honest, I suspect that we have, as Pete puts it, vomited out the other, simply because we couldn’t be bothered dealing with their otherness. I suspect that most of us pride ourselves on being tolerant of others and many of us have sat down on the odd occasion and actually entered into dialogue with someone our religion has defined as other or we have at the very least learned something about what we share in common with the other. Tolerance and dialogue are perhaps the ideals we strive for.
Pete Rollins wants to push us even further. Pete insists that there is a problem with all four of these responses those who have been thought of as “other”. According to Pete, “The problem with all of four of these responses is that in each of them, “I am right” and I am judging you. In the first three, I am right, and you are wrong and in the fourth, we are both right.”
- I am right and you are wrong, so I will consume you and make you conform to my beliefs.
- I am right and you are wrong, so I will vomit you out, I don’t want anything to do with you or your beliefs.
- I am right and you are wrong, but I will tolerate you and your beliefs. Live and let live. I’ll live over here and you can live over there.
- We are both right as long as we focus upon those things that we agree upon all will be well.
Pluralism challenges us to move beyond all four of these responses to the other. As Pete puts it, “… in a genuine encounter with the other, at first I see you as weird and monstrous.
But then when I take the time to see myself through your eyes, I experience my own beliefs and practices as strange and monstrous. My beliefs on marriage, or my beliefs on God, or culture are no longer something that are just right. But I begin to realize that they are contingent and historical and can be questioned.”
Pete encourages us, and I believe that pluralism will mean that we will need to create spaces and experiences that help us to begin encounter the other, so that we can see one another through one another’s eyes. Pluralism requires and encounter with our own otherness. Now I know that sounds a bit flakey. How do we go about encountering our own otherness? How do we even begin to see how strange and even monstrous our own beliefs and practices may be? Well, if we are open and honest in our encounters, I think we will find that it is not so difficult to see our own otherness. But actually, encountering the strangeness and indeed the monstrous nature of our own beliefs and practices can be so disturbing that all too often we shut down these kinds of experiences for fear that they might actually transform us in ways that will change our beliefs and practices.
About fifteen years ago now. In this very sanctuary, some of us had just such an encounter with our own otherness. It happened when one of our former musicians brought her granddaughter to church for the first time. This little girl was about 6 or 7 years old and she had never ever been to church before. All through the service, she watched and listened to the strange and unfamiliar way in which we conducted ourselves. She was really well behaved. Like every Sunday here, we celebrated the eucharist. Like always, I told the story of Jesus last supper in the way in which that story has been passed down from one generation to another. The only problem is that this little girl had never ever heard the story before.
I told the story, straight out of the old green book: “On the night in which our Lord Jesus was betrayed, he took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to his disciples and said, “Take and eat this is my body given for you. “Do this for the remembrance of me.” Again, after supper, he took the cup, gave thanks, and gave for all to drink, saying: This cup is the new covenant in my blood, shed for you and for all people for the forgiveness of sin. “Do this for the remembrance of me.”
Suddenly, in a loud voice a little girl declared, “EWE, I’m not drinking blood!” The silence was palpable. I stopped for but a moment before stumbling on, “For as often as we eat of this bread and drink form this cup, we proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes again.” As the congregation, recovered themselves they declared, “Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.” And the little girl, just in case we hadn’t heard her the first time, declared, “I’m not drinking blood and I’m not eating that!”
A few chuckles, masked the reality of the mirror which had been held up before us. We carried on, as if in denial of our otherness. We ate and drank the body and blood of our saviour Jesus Christ, as if such an act was not strange or monstrous. Sometimes, encountering our otherness can be denied, covered over, or suppressed. To this day, I still give credit to that little girl for piercing my careful held beliefs in such a way as to make it impossible for me to continue practicing the way I always practiced my beliefs. That piercing was in many ways just one of many that has transformed my beliefs and changed my practices. Somehow, we can tolerate children piercing our reality. The challenges that come from full grown adults, we aren’t always so willing to accept.
Pluralism challenges us to move beyond ignoring, or suppressing, or rejecting, beyond the acknowledgement of our differences, beyond dialogue about the things we hold in common, beyond tolerating those things that disturb us. Pluralism challenges us to encounter in the other our own otherness and in the reality of our own otherness to risk being transformed. It occurs to me that any faith that is not up to the task of being transformed is no faith at all but rather just one more tribal ideology that we cling to. As we humans continue to evolve, the challenges of pluralism will continue to transform us. Our faith will, if it is any kind of faith at all be transformed again and again and again.
These days, when we celebrate communion, I tell the story, as it has evolved from generation to generation and when you declare the MYSTERY of our faith: “Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ comes again and again.” I hear a transformed declaration, for which I give thanks to a little girl, who showed us our otherness, “LOVE has died. LOVE is risen. LOVE comes again and again.”
Pluralism is not an easy challenge to rise to. Pluralism does indeed challenge our beliefs and practices. Pluralism might just transform us. But if we have any kind of faith at all, that faith empowers us to change, empowers us to be transformed. Empowers us to declare the MYSTERY of our faith: “LOVE has died. LOVE is risen. LOVE comes again and again, and again.”
Thanks be to the MYSTERY in whom we live and move and have our being. The ONE in whom we are transformed to be LOVE.