Hello, and welcome back to my bookshelf!
Today we’re talking about Desmond Tutu’s God is Not a Christian. This book was a coursebook for my History of Christianity course in undergrad.
I can’t stress how fabulous this book is. It is filled with religious musings of the brilliant Desmond Tutu on the nature of religion, Christianity, and what it means to be a Christian in a world where so many religions exist.
In a talk he gave in Birmingham, UK (my favorite city in the world), included in the book, he brings up the point that for so many of us, what religion we follow is an accident of birth. We are usually raised in the religion of our parents, and if we switch, it is often to the predominant faith of our friends, neighbors, or culture. In some places, certain religions are enforced by the state, or illegal to practice within a nation’s borders.
He talks in that same section about how insulting it is for Christians – as so many do – to say that practitioners of other faiths are just Christians without knowing it. If you’re a Christian, how would you feel, knowing that Muslims or Jews were sitting around somewhere saying that you Christians were really of their faith, but just didn’t know it?
The essential point is the things that Christians hold the most dear – God, the Spirit, divine love and mercy – exist outside the realm of Christianity. They were around before Christians ever came to be. Christians, like other faiths, don’t have a monopoly on divinity, and if you are truly a Christian, that requires respecting the faith of others on their terms. They believe what they believe no less than you believe what you believe.
I think the critical thing he gets at in this book is something I remind people constantly: spirituality is universal and divine, but religion is man-made. Even if you believe that those who created your religion were inspired by God, you have to concede that man is flawed, and if you look back on the history of whatever your religion is, those men running things have made choices that clearly were no inspired by God. Let’s not forget the Pope Pius XII had his actions in regard to Hitler, just to name one that could be nearly universally agreed upon. If we look at our religions rationally, they are flawed.
And yet, people haven’t left the Catholic church in droves because of Hitler, or the Crusades, or things like that (although I do know someone who didn’t let his children be baptized into it for the stuff with Hitler, but that’s a rarity). I didn’t see a mass exodus from the Muslim faith after 9/11, and the comparisons could go on.
The fact is, while faith is important to everyone, the really critical things in Christian faith are love, forgiveness, mercy, grace – things where doctrine and the beliefs of the other people around you are irrelevant. You care for your own soul, and that includes loving everyone, all of God’s creation.
The fact that Desmond Tutu had to say that, the fact that it isn’t just a given, is the part where we should all be looking inside of ourselves. Because no matter what our spiritual and religious beliefs, there is no reason not to love our neighbor.