A House of Many Mansions

Mark Bratton
Sunday 18th May, 2014

Easter 5A - Readings: Acts 7: 55-end; John 14:1-14

As I have said before, I was born in Beirut, Lebanon, of non-churchgoing parents. Lebanon is one of the most religiously diverse countries in the world. As a small boy, I tried to puzzle out the differences between Roman Catholics, Greek Catholic and Maronite Christians, Sunni, Shi’ite and Kharijite Muslims, the Druse (were they Muslim at all?), and to the south of the South Lebanon border, lay the Jews of the state of Israel. Lebanon was an extraordinarily cosmopolitan country and I grew up regarding these different faith communities as parts of great civilizations, rather than mere repositories of beliefs and practices, that seemed to conflict with each other. Kamal Salibi, the foremost historian of Lebanon, has entitled one of his books A House of Many Mansions, his attempt to tell the story of this fragmented and assorted nation – how this highly-artificial country, a function of European diplomacy, came, and continues to be, an identifiable presence in the world. As a young body, I took religious pluralism for granted. It was only later, as committed Christian that I began to address the question of ‘truth’: if Christianity is ‘true’, how can the other religions be?

In the Gospel of John, Jesus makes a number of tremendous truth claims. They are familiar to those of us who have journeyed with John through this season of Easter - Eastertide. God so loved the world that he sent his only Son that all who believe in him should not perish but have the light of life (3:16). If the Son sets you free you shall be free indeed (8:36). I have come that they might have life and life in all its fullness (10.10) and in this passage, “"I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father except through me” (14:6). These things are written that you might know that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that in him you might have life (20:31). On the face of it, Jesus is not claiming to be a way to the Father, but the only way, thereby, presumably, cutting off other ways to the Father. When you put this together with, say, the gate imagery and are told that those who attempt to enter the sheepfold by some other route, are thieves and robbers, it all sounds rather unpleasantly chauvinist. How can one claim the special truth of Christianity in the face of the special truth that others claim for their religions and philosophies?

A few decades ago, a Church of England vicar called Alan Race described three possible attitudes to other religions: exclusivism; inclusivism; and pluralism. Exclusivism is the view that salvation is through Christ alone, available only to those who have heard and responded to the Gospel. Inclusivism is the view that while salvation is through Christ alone, it is possible for God to save them without have responded to Jesus in this life. Pluralism is the view that all ethical religions lead to God. The strength of exclusivism is its clarity. Jesus is the only means of salvation and because of this, Christians must share the gospel as widely as possible. The weakness of exclusivism is that it seems narrow, loveless, and counter-cultural. The strength of inclusivism is its generosity - it tries to take other religions seriously without compromising basic Christian convictions about Christ’s uniqueness. The weakness of inclusivism (although it could be strength) is that it is somewhat agnostic about the fate of those who do not respond to the Gospel and more ambivalent about the urgency of mission. The strength of pluralism is that it gives equal value and respect to the religions of the world. The weakness of pluralism is that it is actually exclusivist as a worldview and self-defeating. It is claiming absolutely that there are no religious absolutes.

“In my Father's house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?”

When Jesus says, ‘My Father’s house has many mansions’, who’s being invited to stay?’

I think it would be a mistake if we thought that Jesus was advocating a rigidly exclusivist position in our passage.

Firstly, Jesus simply does not address the question of world religions. How could he have? Many scholars believe that John wrote his Gospel soon after the synagogues began expelling followers of the Messiah Jesus, from the ‘house’ of Israel. Therefore, Jesus’ words are one of encouragement. He is talking inclusively, rather than exclusively. His disciples have a relationship of intimacy with God notwithstanding their expulsion from the ‘House of Israel’. The Greek word that the Gospel translates as ‘mansion’ or ‘dwelling’ refers to the ongoing intimate presence of God with the disciples as opposed to a physical space. This continues to be possible through the Spirit of God after Jesus’ ascension. From the point-of –view of John’s Gospel, we are already in Pentecost, because wherever Jesus is with us in Spirit, we are at home with God.

Secondly, the whole tenor of the Gospel is inclusive. The very first chapter of the Gospel – known as the Prologue – is actually a riff on a piece of Jewish wisdom literature called Sirach that describes God commanding Wisdom to descend and dwell amongst the people of Israel. However, John extends this to embrace the whole cosmos. In Chapter 3, as we have seen, Jesus tells Nicodemus that God so loved the world that he sent his Son into the world.

Thirdly, Jesus is the new creation, the Word (the Logos) who was in the beginning with God, was God, and re-creates the universe by entering it and dwelling within it and human hearts. The Logos is the principle of divine reason and creative order, which underpins and frames the whole world.

For my part, I find it difficult to reconcile the tenor and testimony of John’s Gospel with a rigid exclusivism. The Logos of God is universal in scope revealed in the refracted light of many religions and worldviews, but supremely embodied in the man from Nazareth.

The distinguished Swiss theologian, Hans Kung says: “No peace among the nations without peace among the religions; No peace among the religions without dialogue between the religions; no dialogue between the religions without investigation of the foundation of the religions.” Perhaps the great challenge of the 21st century will be how the great religions relate to each other. However, if we are going to rise to that challenge we will need to get to grips with our own faith. When as a young man, the great American monk, Thomas Merton, met a Hindu sage by the name of Bramachari and asked him for a book list of world religions, he was advised to read the greats from his own religion first. The best way to understanding another religion is by plumbing the depths of your own tradition. The problem with a pluralist approach is that it tends in reality to be indifferent to all.

Secondly, we must ensure that we do not judge other religions practices according to our own ideals. That would be unfair.

Thirdly, we should commit ourselves to developing a working knowledge of another religion, perhaps beginning by visiting a place of worship, or reading an introductory book.

In the final analysis, all good religion is about peace, shalom, the fullness of life which Jesus came to bring. This hope is not a Christian monopoly. However, as Christians, we affirm that this hope is perfectly embodied and realized in the life, death, resurrection and ascension and promised return of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Christ is risen; he is risen indeed alleluia

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