Earlier this year, at a worship service during the Feast of Epiphany, a priest in the Church of England had a Muslim student read a passage from the Quran. The passage included an expression of the Muslim belief that Jesus is not the son of God. Once the news spread there were, of course, many complaints from others in the C of E.
It’s an almost perfect thought-experiment in epistemology. Epistemology is the study of how we know what we know and on what grounds we justify our beliefs. The outcry against this particular priest was that his highest commitment ought to have been to God, and Jesus as the son of God, but it turns out his commitments were to something else. His epistemology was not rooted in Scripture, but in some other understanding of ultimate reality.
I’m guessing the priest believes the way we love others is not by remaining faithful to our own beliefs, but by relaxing our hold on those beliefs. This would likely be viewed as tolerance or forbearance or love. In this “epistemological framework,” any belief is seen as negotiable relative to the ultimate belief in the need for all of us to co-exist peacefully. Any idea that divides — including the idea that Jesus is the son of God — must be jettisoned in favor of the ultimate value placed on “unity” and harmony. Tolerance, in this way, becomes the same as believing nothing in particular.
Here’s where Jesus is different, not just from the priest, but from what typically happens in the hot-headed culture wars. (Hatred and Tolerance are just two versions of the same cheap and easy epistemology.) Jesus remains faithful to a very narrow view of what is right and wrong, true and false; but is almost inconceivably wide in whom he loves and the generosity of spirit that accompanies that love. Yes he stands his ground. But what makes him remarkable is the way he stands his ground. Think of the Rich Young Ruler (Mk 10:17-27). Mark, most likely using Peter as his source, tells us Jesus “looked on” the man and “loved him,” then delivered to him what was probably the hardest news and sharpest confrontation of the man’s life. The man goes away sad (that’s on him), but he doesn’t go away unloved. I imagine somewhere down the road that love changed his life.
This is what the priest needs to do: 1) hold to the divinity of Christ without compromise: 2) love the surrounding Muslim community as Christ loved those who opposed him. It brings to mind Chesterton’s old saying: “it’s not that Christianity has been tried and found wanting, but it has been found difficult and left untried.” The orthodox road before the priest is simply difficult, too difficult apparently, and he has chosen the cheap and easy way out. The wide way out. The road is narrow that leads to life. You will want to ask yourself if you are actually on it.