If I were God I’d make myself clearer. That’s a big call! Way too big for me. But I can understand the sentiment. Why doesn’t God simply prove beyond all reasonable doubt that he exists? Once and for all. No questions. No ambiguities. No contradictory evidence. Just clear, obvious, proof.
I guess the obvious question is, what would such clarity look like? What would I consider persuasive? What would it take for you to be convinced of the existence of God? And then, which God are we talking about? There are so many religions, so many claims about God, how can we possibly know which is the right one, if any of them are?
In this little book, John Dickson takes us on a pathway through the maze of ideas about God. It’s been popular for years to argue that all beliefs are really different paths to the same end. This could be for a couple of reasons. Firstly, so much blood has been spilled through religious conflict, that there seems nothing to be gained by highlighting differences that could cause more conflict. Secondly, sorting out the differences takes research, time and effort, and not many people are prepared to do this. It’s easier to stay preoccupied with trivia.
John demonstrates that religious pluralism has obvious and fatal flaws. How can Hinduism and Buddhism possibly both be true expressions of reality. Hinduism has many gods, while classical Buddhism rejects the notion of any god. Christianity believes that people are saved by the mercy and grace of God, whereas Islam argues that people are saved through ethical and ritual obedience. Christianity claims that Jesus is the Messiah who fulfils the promises made to Israel, and yet Israel still awaits a Messiah. The Koran claims that Jesus was neither crucified or resurrected, while Christianity hangs everything on these events. A quick assessment of these claims highlights the bankruptcy of pluralism. It could be that none of these religions are true, but there is no way they can each be true.
This is a scary prospect in a world committed to tolerance. However, John offers us a better understanding of tolerance.
True tolerance, then, is not my willingness to accept the position of another, it is the more admirable ability to treat with respect a person with whom I deeply disagree. A tolerant Muslim, for instance, is not one who accepts as valid the Buddhist doctrine of ‘birth and rebirth’, it is one who, while rejecting such a teaching, is able to remain respectful and compassionate toward Buddhists themselves. Again, the tolerant Christian is not one who accepts as valid the Hindu claim that there are many gods, it is the one who, while denying polytheism, is able to treat Hindus with the honour due to them as fellow members of the human race. In each case there is an informed awareness of the contrary position of the other and a generous commitment to respect and value the person who holds that position. (p38-39)
Such an understanding of tolerance opens the way through the maze of ideas. We can be intellectually rigorous and culturally sensitive in a way that overcomes bigotry and discrimination. We don’t have to paint over differences but can be freed to respectfully discuss, and argue, and explore and persuade one another.
This book argues that Christianity is to a large extent a ‘verifiable’ religion. This is not to say that it’s true, but that it’s founded upon public, historical, evidence. It makes claims that can be tested through historical, archeological, literary, and critical scrutiny. The implications of this are important. If none of the places, dates, names or events pertinent to Christianity could be attested anywhere else, there would be good grounds for being suspicious as to it’s truth claims. If it could be demonstrated that Jesus never lived, was not crucified, or did not rise from the dead, then Christianity could hardly be trusted as the way to God. As it is, Christianity makes some dangerously verifiable claims and invites people to check them out. No tricks or mirrors – just open investigation. This is a book that invites such scrutiny.
The heart of the evidence for Christianity lies in the documents of the New Testament, much of which were written shortly after the events they describe. Consider, for example, the following incident recorded in the Book of Acts. In AD 50 the city of Athens in ancient Greece was a melting pot of ideas. All kinds of claims were made about religion, and there were many ‘gods’ being promoted. Into this confusion, the Apostle Paul sought to bring some clarity by directing people to the evidence concerning Jesus. You can read what he said and the reaction it evoked…
22 Paul then stood up in the meeting of the Areopagus and said: “Men of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. 23 For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: to an unknown god. Now what you worship as something unknown I am going to proclaim to you.
24 “The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by hands. 25 And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything, because he himself gives all men life and breath and everything else.26 From one man he made every nation of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live.27 God did this so that men would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from each one of us. 28 ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’ As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’
29 “Therefore since we are God’s offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone—an image made by man’s design and skill. 30 In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. 31 For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to all men by raising him from the dead.”
32 When they heard about the resurrection of the dead, some of them sneered, but others said, “We want to hear you again on this subject.” 33 At that, Paul left the Council. 34 A few men became followers of Paul and believed. Among them was Dionysius, a member of the Areopagus, also a woman named Damaris, and a number of others. (Acts 17:22-34)
Some sneered, some followed, and others were keen to find out more. If you’d like to find out more, this little book by John Dickson will help point you in the right direction.