A challenging after-dinner question that had to be left unanswered

Should its proneness to cause conflict disqualify all discussion of religious issues?

I addressed the Edmonton branch of the Royal Commonwealth Society last week an organization I had never previously heard of. It is dedicated to principles preserved for the last 150 years by what in my youth was still known as the British Empire. It later became the British Commonwealth of Nations, and is now known simply as the Commonwealth of Nations. The Edmonton branch were a curious group of about 100 people, gracious, courteous and perceptive, two thirds oldsters and one third people in their 20s, to 40s. But what intrigued me most was an unusual question posed for me by one of the latter group.

I didn’t write it down; I’m paraphrasing, but it went something like this: “Mr. Byfield, if you had to sum up the basis of all your thoughts on society and education into a single sentence, what would that sentence say?” I told him that since his question concerned ultimate realities, my answer would have to be religious, and would be the verse from the Fourth Gospel, often cited by Evangelical Christians: “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”

This, however, did not satisfy my questioner. He said that the trouble with a religious answer is that religion involves conflicts, with each denomination asserting itself as the “True” one. He would prefer that all religious authorities and leaders be studied and a synthesis made of them all that was not (as far as I could understand him) yet another religion.

I did not attempt an answer to this because we were running out of time, and I knew that any further discussion could not be done summarily. So I thanked him for a good question and let it go at that. But I was not happy doing so, because I know his thoughts are shared by many people. True, this is supposed to be a column on education, but religious issues certainly underlie much of the current educational controversy.

Let me make two points. For one, the questioner proposes to make a study of all the great religious leaders — let’s say Brahma, Buddha, Confucius. Mohammed and Christ — and make a synthesis of their teaching. But what would this involve? He would surely retain for his synthesis all those teachings which he regarded as worth preserving, reject all those he regarded as less worthy. That is he would adopt, for example, the duty of society to care for those who cannot care for themselves, or the right of people to express honest opinions on any subject. But he would reject the slaughter of non-concurring “infidels,” or the duty of a wife to throw herself on the funeral pyre of her husband.

But notice what is going on here. When he accepts some practices and rejects others, he must be invoking some standard by which all moralities can be assessed. What the Hindus do here is very good, he will be saying, but what they do there is very bad. This mysterious standard, by which he is judging all the great religions of the world,. must somehow be superior to those he’s assessing. Where does that standard come from, and how does it achieve such overwhelming authority?

Philosophy has an answer for this. It is called “natural law,” a sense of right and wrong implanted in all sane people throughout the world. It appears in every society, and the striking thing about it is not the differences it manifests in various societies, but the astounding similarities. That is one common quality. The other is that few if any human beings actually obey the natural law. We recognize it, we honour it, and we consistently violate it. But the very existence of such a universal law argues for, not against, the existence of a universal God.

The other point is more important. In one central and decisive way, Jesus Christ differs from all the other great religious teachers. The blunt fact is that in every historically credible account of him, he talked, assumed and acted as if he were God himself, reduced to a human life and enduring a human death. It was for this bald assertion that he was ordered executed on a charge of blasphemy, and blasphemy it certainly was, unless the assertion were true. But the claim is not confined to that one incident. It permeates his whole ministry. He consistently forgave people their sins. What an outrageous thing. If I cheat a man, that man can forgive me. But along comes this fellow who had nothing to do with the incident and he pronounces me forgiven, in fact he acts as if he was himself personally injured by my offence.

“Before Abraham was, I AM,” says Jesus, applying the unmentionable name of God to himself, Abraham having been dead no one knew (or knows) how many hundreds of years. And when the disciple Philip asks Jesus to show them God, the reply is absolute: “The man who has seen me has seen God.” says Jesus. The animals sacrificed for centuries in the Temple rituals were soon viewed as prefiguring the sacrificial death of Christ. Forty years after Jesus’ death, the Temple itself was reduced to rubble. Its introductory purpose had by then been fulfilled, said the Christians. The victim had come, served, suffered and risen from the dead. To Christians, what he taught was important, but what he did was even more important.

To get back to my questioner’s point, it seems that to lump Jesus in with these other great teachers overlooks an unavoidable reality. None of them even by the remotest implication ever suggested he was God, and all would have been horrified at the mere mention of such a thing. In this sense, Jesus does not belong on the list. If he thought he was God and he wasn’t, then he was crazy– not a bit crazy, but totally. Or in the words of St. Augustine, he was “either God or not a good man.” Which would certainly disqualify him as a “great moral teacher.”

Anyway, please excuse this departure from past practice, but I thought the man’s point called for response.

*There is an unintended disclosure here. When PRISM was first released, it was emphasized that it did not represent governmental policy, but only that of the ATA. It is here described by the ATA as a joint development, meaning that its contents may now be regarded as expressing the official view of the Department of Education.

Ted Byfield was founder and publisher of Alberta Report news magazine, general editor of Alberta in the Twentieth Century. a 12-volume history of the province, and general editor of The Christians: Their First Two Thousand Years, a 12-volume history of Christianity. His column on education appears in The Christians.com, a web journal. He has recently authored two little books on modern pedagogy: Why History Matters and The Revolution Nobody Covered. You can order both copies here.

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4 thoughts on “A challenging after-dinner question that had to be left unanswered

  1. Ted:

    Good to know you’re still kicking; even better to realize you’re still asking tough questions and answering them, at least in some fashion! Be well, old friend.

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  2. Everyone is religious or has a worldview, even those who claim there is no God, the humanists or atheists, whose doctrine is that man is the measure of all things, man determines truth, or in the words of the American Humanist Association, “Good without God”. The age-old conflict began in the Garden of Eden when the tempter enticed Adam and Eve to eat the fruit and disobey God so that they will be “like God”.

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