‘What are we to make of Jesus Christ?’ This is a question, which has, in a sense, a frantically comic side. For the real question is not what are we to make of Christ, but what is He to make of us? The picture of a fly sitting deciding what it is going to make of an elephant has comic elements about it. But perhaps the questioner meant what are we to make of Him in the sense of ‘How are we to solve the historical problem set us by the recorded sayings and acts of this Man?’ This problem is to reconcile two things. On the one hand you have got the almost generally admitted depth and sanity of His moral teaching, which is not very seriously questioned, even by those who are opposed to Christianity. In fact, I find when I am arguing with very anti-God people that they rather make a point of saying, ‘I am entirely in favour of the moral teaching of Christianity’ — and there seems to be a general agreement that in the teaching of this Man and of His immediate followers, moral truth is exhibited at its purest and best. It is not sloppy idealism; it is full of wisdom and shrewdness. The whole thing is realistic, fresh to the highest degree, the product of a sane mind. That is one phenomenon.
Rostrevor Declaration: A meeting of significant members drawn from different churches and faiths on “Higher quality of disagreement”.
Like most other Western countries the island of Ireland is experiencing many challenges as it struggles to manage the growing diversity of communities within it. While the cultural and social fabric of our society becomes more rich and colourful, the relationships between some of our faith groups, reflecting a global trend as religious conflicts grow around the world, are becoming or in danger of becoming more tense. As global populations shift and more people are displaced by violence, war, climate change or simply lack of opportunity, it is likely that the religious demography will continue to change.
The growth of Islam in Ireland, North and South has challenged some of the historically Christian characteristics of the Island and its peoples; as, within both Christianity and Islam, and to some extent Judaism, there are traditions which see themselves as conservative and orthodox, and which makes claims to truth which are “particularist” or in some cases wholly “exclusivist”. The tensions between faith communities are reflective of what is happening globally as Christian, Muslim and Jewish leaders and their followers experience a fear of the other, which contributes to polarisation and radicalisation.
On the 10th March, 2017 a gathering of 30 significant members of the three Abrahamic faiths came together from Ireland North and South and Britain to pursue a conversation not with the aim of seeking, still less enforcing consensus, but rather fostering a Higher Quality of Disagreement. The gathering built some improbable relationships which bridged the divide between the groups of believers and created a sense of common purpose and an environment conducive to addressing contentious but common concerns.
Some principles were agreed as an outcome to our first gathering which have and will continue to be refined through further discussions which are distilled and the rolling report will be referred to as the Rostrevor Declaration :
- The Scriptures of all three faiths, Jewish, Christian and Muslim, encourage us to treat others as we would like them to treat us. As members of faith communities we have a responsibility to act according to the scriptures and actively remind other members of our communities of this scriptural wisdom and thus deserving of respect.
- We encourage members of faith communities to remember that members of all faiths were created in the image of the heavenly Creator.
- Our places of worship should be regarded with respect and be places of safety and hospitality.
- We need to re-humanise rather than dehumanise community relations by reminding members of our believing communities of the positive characteristics of other faiths while protecting total academic freedom and respectful free speech as given in international instruments [Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and Articles 9 and 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights] and biblically proclaimed in 1 Peter 3:15.
- We will actively build mutual respect by advocating for the safety, freedom and well-being of one another, which includes standing up for the liberties of followers of other faiths to worship, manifest their faith and change their religion in this land and beyond, and we will speak out and be activists wherever we see persecution at home or overseas.
- We will help to reduce fear between our believing communities by advocating and facilitating education and understanding among and between the communities.
- We will encourage members of our communities not simply to speak the truth but strive to live it with integrity.
- We are committed to building friendship between members of our faith communities and letting the mercy of the heavenly creator inform how we relate to each other.
A third meeting took place at An Cuan in Rostrevor on 18th January 2018, bringing together faith leaders, politicians and artists to reflect on the theme of the Epiphany in Christian tradition and the relevance of the feast for our world today.
The meeting brought to a close this series of gatherings and at the same time began to explore how the Rostrevor Declaration could be implemented and applied to specific issues such as Brexit, the integration of asylum seekers and strengthening the Good Friday Agreement.
When you were a child, who or what did you want to be when you grew up? As a child, I dreaded the Christmas visits to aunts and uncles. Every year they would ask me the same question: “What do you want to be when you grow up?” I hadn’t a clue. In many societies, you are expected to join the family trade or you may become an apprentice to a master craftsman. That’s how my grandfather Lewis learnt his trade. My great-grandmother paid a local carpenter to take Lewis on as a young boy and teach him carpentry skills. I still have his articles of indenture. My grandfather became his pupil, a learner. Then when he too became a master craftsman, he took on my father who became his disciple. I broke the family tradition although I’m pretty good at putting Ikea furniture together. The greatest tragedy in life is not death, but life without meaning, without purpose. Many people go through life without ever discovering God’s purpose for their lives. We are not an accident. We were created for a purpose. We were made to have meaning.
“When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.” 16 So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger.
17 When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, 18 and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them. 19 But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart. 20 The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told. 21 On the eighth day, when it was time to circumcise the child, he was named Jesus, the name the angel had given him before he was conceived.” (Luke 2:15-21)
There is one word that best describes the night the Lord Jesus was born – ordinary. The sky was ordinary. An occasional gust stirred the leaves and chilled the air. The stars were like diamonds sparkling on black velvet. Fleets of clouds floated in front of the moon. It was a beautiful night – a night worth peeking out of your bedroom window to admire – but not an unusual one. No reason to expect a surprise. Nothing to keep you awake. An ordinary night with an ordinary sky. The sheep were ordinary too. Some fat. Some scrawny. Some with barrel bellies. Some with twig legs. Common animals. No fleece made of gold. No history makers. No blue-ribbon winners. They were simply sheep – sleeping silhouettes on a hillside. And the shepherds? Peasants they were. Ancestors of today’s Bedouin. Wearing all the clothes they owned. Smelling like sheep and looking just as woolly. True they were conscientious, and hardy as well, to spend every night outside guarding their flocks. But you won’t find their staffs in a museum. You won’t find their writings in a library. No one asked for their opinion on social justice or the meaning of the Torah. They were anonymous, simple, ordinary people.
I was recently invited to give a series of lectures in a dozen or so universities across Iran and dialogued with Islamic scholars in Qom. The Q&A session after each presentation was a lively affair – longer in fact than my presentations. The most frequently asked question concerned the reliability of the Bible. What did I think about Dan Brown’s book, The Da Vinci Code? Apparently more than a billion people worldwide believe the views popularized in the Da Vinci Code.
They believe the message of the Bible has been corrupted and distorted, that Jesus is not the Son of God, but a prophet and that he did not die on the cross or rise from the dead.
They believe that in 325AD the Emperor Constantine commissioned the writing of the New Testament we now have which portrays Jesus as a divine figure. Dozens of other “gospels” were censored or destroyed. Constantine actually summoned the Council of Nicaea to end disunity caused by the Arian controversy. Arius taught that although Jesus was the Son of God, he was less than the Father. The Council was attended by around 300 bishops. The Arian Creed was soundly rejected. The Nicene Creed was accepted by 298 Bishops. 2 were against. (i.e., over 99% in favour). The Council of Nicaea recognized Jesus as “begotten not made, of the same substance (homousios) as the Father.”
Israel, Palestine, the Promised Land, the Holy Land, the very name we use says as much about us and our presuppositions and aspirations as about this inscrutable, hypnotic, exotic location. Historically the birthplace of the Judeo-Christian heritage, it is today claimed by two peoples, the Jews and Palestinians, its holy sites shared, at times uneasily, by three religions, Jewish, Christian and Moslem, often in close proximity as at the Temple Mount in Jerusalem or the tomb of Rachel in Bethlehem. Baraba Tuchman summarises some of the reasons why this place holds such fascination to so many,
More blood has been shed for Palestine than for any other spot on earth. To Protestant England it was not only, as Lord Curzon said, “the holiest space of ground on the face of the globe,” the land of the Scriptures, the land of the Crusades, the land “to which all our faces are turned when we are finally laid in our graves in the churchyard.” It was also the geographical junction between East and West, the bridge-head between three continents, the focal point in the strategy of empire…
Few countries attract so much media coverage, or arouse such intense religious feeling and political controversy. Yet it has been the same for countless generations. Why have people for millennia, longed to live here, or make a pilgrimage to this land? What is the fascination this land has over so many people around the world?
The term Jihad tends to be associated with Islam – indeed for some, the two words are synonymous. But the fact is violent extremism is found in all religions. I could easily quote Islamic or Jewish leaders who justify the use of violence in the name of God, but I will give you one example from a well-known Christian. Following the tragedy of 9/11 and destruction of the World Trade Centre in New York, multi-bestselling author and Christian journalist Anne Coulter, wrote,
“We don’t need long investigations of the forensic evidence to determine with scientific accuracy the person or persons who ordered this specific attack. We don’t need an “international coalition.” We don’t need a study on “terrorism.” … We know who the homicidal maniacs are. They are the ones cheering and dancing right now. We should invade their countries, kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity. We weren’t punctilious about locating and punishing only Hitler and his top officers. We carpet-bombed German cities; we killed civilians. That’s war. And this is war.”
In my opinion, too many evangelical leaders have also been quick to endorse Mr Donald Trump’s threat to “totally destroy North Korea.” Thankfully, many Christians in the USA as well as Europe and Asia repudiate views such as these as a gross distortion of Christianity and grave insult to the teachings of Jesus the Christ.