Tuesday, 10 April 2007

A complex relationship

Over the weekend, my niece and I had one of those pointless arguments that you can have sometimes with a two-year-old:

Me: Did you know Aunt M. is my little sister, just like B. is your little sister?
Niece: No, she's my godmother.
Me: Yes, she's your godmother, and she's my little sister.
Niece: NO! She's MY godmother!

I often wonder if God sees some of the disagreements between followers of different religions in the same way.

Taking just the major monotheistic religions - Islam, Judaism and Christianity (in all their different forms) - there are some things that we all seem to agree on. There is a God. God loves us. We should love each other. We should try to do what God wants us to do.

This is the way I used to put it to the people who would come to me in China confused because two different groups had each said theirs was the only true way: imagine that you met my sister, my oldest friend and one of my tutors from university.

Each of you sees a different side of me, and each of you knows different things about me. It would be pointless for you to argue about whether I was a sister, a teacher, a friend or a student - because I'm all of those things, and many other things besides (daughter, aunt, granddaughter, niece, colleague, etc). What you need to know is what my relationship is to you as an individual, and then get to know me in that way, because nobody can know everything about me.

Of course, it's possible for people to tell lies about me, or to claim to know me when really they know nothing about me. It's perfectly possible to have an argument about whether I'm, for instance, a teacher (yes), an accountant (also yes), a secretary (also yes - I've had a varied career), a nurse (no, that's something I've never done) or a prostitute (absolutely not - no way).

It's even possible to imagine someone using my name to get something out of other people: "Oh, I was talking to her earlier, and she said if you could lend me £100 she'll pay you back next week." Such false claims are obviously to be rejected, as is the claim of someone who has never met me that because they have no proof that I exist, I obviously don't.

But if I, a mere human, have so many different facets, how many more facets are there to God, who is omnipotent and omnipresent? If God has revealed one side of himself to one person but kept another side hidden, which is then revealed to the second person, then whose view is 'correct' - the first person's, or the second?

I think the answer must be that they're both 'correct'. It would be wrong for my mother to claim that I wasn't her daughter, and it would be equally wrong for my student to claim that I wasn't her teacher - but that doesn't make me two different people, or make the core part of my personality any different.

Maybe when someone comes home to the Catholic Church, it's because God has chosen to reveal Himself to them in a way that reveals their own 'correct' relationship to Him.

They might already have been aware of God's existence in a vague kind of way (maybe as a distant uncle, or even a favourite uncle), but one day they find that He is actually their long-lost father, and they begin to develop a relationship with Him as father and son or daughter.

Or maybe the long-lost father has not been in their life at all, and the son or daughter learns that a complete stranger (of whose existence they were previously unaware) is actually their father, with all that this relationship entails. The thrill of discovery may or may not be instantaneous - the son or daughter may even reject this stranger who claims to be their father at first - but the relationship develops gradually, and interaction with other members of the family, family photographs and stories help in that development.

I have to think of it this way, because I truly believe that the Catholic Church has it 'right'. The teachings of the Church help me to develop a loving relationship with God and they give me a road map along which I try to move in my journey towards eternal life with God.

But I also know people who are not Catholic but have equally sincerely held beliefs and strive at least as much as I do, and probably more, to live in the way that they think God wants them to live.

Maybe some of them have been told things that are just plain wrong, and we shouldn't sweep their errors under the carpet. But maybe some also have a relationship with God, but one which is different from that which we have as Catholics. Same God, different relationships.

In any case, I don't think we'll be alone with Him in Heaven. And thinking of that last joke I told - try googling "They think they're the only ones up here". You can find practically every Christian denomination named in that punchline - and we each tell the same joke against ourselves.


Simon-Peter Vickers-Buckley said...

You need to be careful here...

yes, he grades on a curve, but, there is nothing that any other "religion" possesses of the Truth that the Church does not possess. Also, the assumption you make that errors are sincere is a bit much for me. Some are, some aren't...

Mac McLernon said...

NHNJ, unfortunately it's not as simple as that... there are many of our beliefs which are in direct contradiction: one is true or the other, they can't both be true, or even both partly true...

We, as Catholics, believe that Jesus is the Son of God. Muslims and Jews consider that belief not just wrong but actually blasphemous.

We can respect people of other faiths for searching for the truth, but they would probably consider that view patronising, if not downright insulting.

Whatever stops others from recognising the truth (and it is often our own behaviour as "Christians") we must always remember that there is an absolute truth. We are not all just seeing different parts of the truth.

newhousenewjob said...

I knew this would generate some disagreement. If you read again what I said, I was very careful to say that where a belief is misguided or wrong, we must acknowledge that fault and not sweep it under the carpet. And I certainly don't assume that all errors are sincere - if I did, I would be much more forgiving of the chap I bought my house from.

But where followers of another religion are seeing part of the absolute truth, we can't say that they are entirely misguided - just that they're not getting the whole picture. And yes, it goes without saying (or maybe it doesn't) that saying that they are not ENTIRELY misguided doesn't mean that they're not misguided in any respect.

I haven't linked to it all, because this isn't that sort of blog, but I did a fair bit of reading before I posted this - speeches of JPII and BXVI, the Vatican II decree on ecumenism - and while my analogy may be overly simplistic (it has to be for my simple mind to grasp it), it doesn't actually contradict anything that I've read.

newhousenewjob said...

I appreciate your comments, though, and hope you can see that you're actually pushing on an open door - I agree with what you say, but don't think you'd totally understood what I was saying.

I'd also appreciate further comments on this, as I realise it's a bit controversial - if there are any priests reading this, I'd particularly be interested to hear your thoughts (and corrections if you still think I'm totally barking up the wrong tree).