/ 1 April 2010

Our Lord is perfect, but we are imperfect

Doubt and certainty, reason and religious conviction, the meaning of suffering and the Last Judgment — Archbishop Desmond Tutu moves between homely anecdote and high theological abstraction in a wide-ranging interview with Drew Forrest

You once described your experience of God as being of “a dark light or light darkness”. Can you elaborate?
It gets to be a very personal, individual thing because ultimately, it’s a love affair, it’s as intimate as a love relationship. One of the things that happens is that there are many moments when you are with your beloved and words are superfluous; sometimes you just sit together and feel that you’ve communicated in a way that’s quite profound, a great deal better than if you’d used words. It becomes, as they say, ineffable — although it has common features with the experience of other contemplatives, Buddhist, Hindu, Jewish, who speak of it in the same language.

Have you ever had religious doubts or has any event ever shaken your faith?
No, I’ve never had any doubts — I’m very fortunate. But I’ve been angry, when I would remonstrate with God. I remember, for example, when I was chaplain at Fort Hare University and the students went on a sit-down strike in front of the administration building. The authorities told them to choose representatives to negotiate with them and they refused, because they knew that those chosen were almost always punished as ringleaders.

The upshot was that all the students were expelled, driven out without ceremony or food, just bundled on to the train; the chaplains had to run around trying to find loaves of bread for them to eat. The next day I went into the chapel and was bawling my heart out and saying to God: “What the heck are you doing? How can you let evil triumph in this way? How can you let the students who were demonstrating justifiably suffer like this?”

He has spent his life dealing with serious issues, but Archbishop Emiratus Desmond Tutu has never been shy to show there is a lighter side to religion. (Photo: Mario Anzuoni, Reuters)
Did you resolve the argument?
My favourite prophet is Jeremiah, and one of the things about Jeremiah is that he’s a cry-baby. He says: “God, you’ve cheated me; you called me to be a prophet, but all I do is condemn people I love deeply. But when I say I’ll keep quiet and not speak up on your behalf, your word is like a fire in my breast — I can’t hold it back.” You may remember there was a time when (apartheid-era police minister) Louis le Grange said: “The trouble with Bishop Tutu is that he talks too much.”

Do any doctrines trouble you? You seem supremely non-judgmental — what is your attitude, for example, towards the doctrine of the Last Judgment and the eternal punishment of sinners?
Remember that the way things are described in the Bible is imaginative, because no one who has experienced them has come back to tell us about them. When people speak about judgment and use images of fire, anguish and suffering, they are using symbols of what is most painful for human beings. The pictorial images are an attempt to describe the indescribable.

What I can’t accept is what you find in the book of Revelations: a kind of gloating by the redeemed, who look on the suffering of the damned and seem to enjoy it. I can’t believe that’s true. It stinks in a way of revenge, of a wrathful God who clobbers sinners. I think that evil is its own punishment in some ways. Being separated from God is the greatest anguish and pain we could ever experience.

It is not the doctrine of the church (laughs), but I agree with (the early Christian scholar) Origen that God’s love is so overwhelming, so incredible, that even the devil will ultimately find it irresistible and be redeemed by it. This is the doctrine of universalism that ultimately God will be all in all.

It is my belief that the love of God is such a tremendous, immense thing that no one will be able to resist its attraction, its gentleness and compassion ­- almost its non-judgmental quality.

In the parable of the lost sheep it is the obstreperous old ram, not the 99 nice lambs, for which the Good Shepherd goes in search. God invests most of his resources not for the good, but for the evil, the ostracised, the marginalised, those who are regarded as riff-raff.

What would you say to people who have lost their faith, or who have insurmountable intellectual difficulties with doctrine? Is it possible to reason one’s way towards faith?
When people have lost their faith, you don’t clobber them; many of them are already suffering anguish. You have to say to them that it’s not something you can force; faith is also a gift, and one has to learn to be open to it. One can show that faith is not unreasonable, not contrary to reason. God is, after all, the source of all truth, including scientific and philosophical truth, and truth is never self-contradictory. In fact, we’d find life impossible without faith — in ordinary life we all demonstrate a great deal of it.

When someone gets up in the morning, for example, they assume that they’re going to walk on firm ground, they take it for granted that the law of gravity will operate and that they won’t float away. Another example I like using is flying in a plane. Have you ever heard of someone asking the pilot: excuse me, I’d like to see your pilot’s certificate? We don’t even think about it, but that is an act of faith. We take it for granted that the pilot has the necessary competence.

How do you respond to the recent wave of scientific scepticism personified by biologist Richard Dawkins? Are advances in such fields as evolutionary genetics rendering “the God of the gaps” increasingly irrelevant?
(Laughs) I constantly say to myself: how wonderful God must be to have such intelligent people who discover the great secrets, the mysteries of the universe. The God that I worship is not apprehensive that someone is going to make this or that discovery which will make him superfluous, but one that gave us freedom (to disbelieve).

That real autonomy makes it possible for us to perpetrate atrocities like the Holocaust; he doesn’t intervene to stop us making bad choices. As parents, we come to realise how impotent God can feel: our children make wrong choices and there’s nothing we can do about it. This God has given us a universe with all of its mysteries, all of its laws.

Looking at the history of the world, one sees almost all the people we admire, worship even, have been people of one faith or another — Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, the Dalai Lama, Mother Teresa … It seems to me that that is one piece of evidence, in a range of others that I have referred to. Even with nations, it’s quite interesting that almost all those that have prospered have seemingly been driven by faith in a God of some kind. It seems to me that faith in a supreme being has consequences for how a nation gets to operate.

What reason is there for believing in divine providence, particularly given the mountain of suffering in the world?
I responded to that a little when I spoke about our freedom of choice: most of the suffering in the world is caused by human beings. There are natural disasters, but even there you see that in places where they build proper housing, such as San Francisco in the United States, there are fewer casualties during earthquakes than in a country like Haiti.

We can’t claim to know everything, but we do know that we have a God who is captured in the name “Immanuel” — God with us. In the book of Daniel, when three are thrown into the fiery furnace, he doesn’t give advice from a distance — “Hey guys, you’ve got to wear protective clothing!” The king sees four in the furnace; this is a God who enters our anguish and pain. And this is demonstrated by God’s incredible act of becoming a human being, who ends up on a cross, who is not protected from the human condition, who says that suffering can ultimately be redemptive.

Far from suffering being a reason for doubting his existence, it makes me almost tremble at the wonder of a God who is omnipotent, who owns everything, yet is ready to share in every aspect of our existence and does not pull rank.

Archbishop Tutu has never had any religious doubts, but there are times when he has been angry and ‘would remonstrate with god”. (Photo: Brian Snyder, Reuters)

Does Christianity embody timeless truths, and how much should it adapt to different times and cultural settings?
There are truths that don’t change — that God is God; for us, God is Trinity; God is community; God takes the initiative, always; God is a god of grace; those are truths that are not going to change. And for us it is also true that there are no barriers in the church. The church is for all in the world, not just a special coterie of people. And that each individual human person is of infinite worth, created in the image of God. Those are timeless truths.

What about the ethical interpretation of the Christian message, doesn’t that shift? Haven’t views on matters such as homosexuality changed?
Yes — but when you look back and say why have we come to this particular view, you say that our understanding of the Gospel has expanded, but that the Gospel remains the same.

Is it meaningful to talk about being a Christian given the bewildering doctrinal, and even ethical, fragmentation of the faith?
Of course, yes, we have to bow our heads in shame that we human beings have shattered the unity of the church. But we must keep remembering that in John’s Gospel Jesus prays that Christians will be one, with a unity that is like his unity with God the father. We have fallen desperately short of this.

In one of his wonderful letters, St Paul responds to the Corinthians, who have written to him asking about certain questions. He doesn’t answer these at the beginning; instead, he deals with their disunity and shows that that is a contradiction, talking about the church as a body.

That shows how important this question of Christian unity is. Your stricture is well deserved: we have torn apart the body of Christ to such an extent that it has damaged our credibility. When we talk about reconciliation and reunion, people could very well say: “Physician, heal thyself.”

Where do other faiths fit in? Do they merely represent error, or at best partial truth?
No, no — not for me. God’s truth is so profound that no one religion can ever encompass it. We Christians are still trying to understand the mystery, the depth, the profundity of Christ. The Bible itself says some extraordinary things — John’s Gospel says this is the light that lightens everyone; it doesn’t say only Christians.

You’d have to be crudely blind to say Gandhi was not a good man because he was not a Christian; that’s flying in the face of facts. I can’t imagine that when he gets to heaven, God will say to the Dalai Lama: “You’re such a wonderful guy — what a shame that you’re not a Christian!” The scriptures say that God is the source of truth, all truth, and some of the most profound truths have come to us from non-Christians. I mean, Einstein was not a Christian, yet the theory of relativity is accepted everywhere. If you see that truth comes from God, he cannot be the God of Christians only.

I myself would say that we have to be the best that we can be. For us, the truth embodied in our lord and saviour Jesus Christ is the highest truth, and the best way of evangelising people is to be an incredible Christian, a wonderful person, so that your life is your sermon.

How do you respond to the frequent objection that organised religion has historically been, and continues to be, one of the world’s most potent sources of hatred and violence?
There’s a great deal of truth in that; there’s no use pretending otherwise. But remember, also, that it is adherents of organised religion that have been some of the most wonderful human beings ­- Mother Theresa, Albert Schweitzer, you can go on. In Jesus’s parable of the wheat and the tares, the weeds, he’s saying they will all grow together, and it’s only at the end of time that a proper separation is going to be made. The church is holy, but it is also becoming holy. Our Lord is perfect, but we are imperfect.

Has your illness and the proximity of death changed your faith in any way?
No — but when I was first diagnosed with prostate cancer it concentrated my mind very much. I realised that I’d taken many things for granted: my wife’s love, the laughter of my grandchildren, the sunshine. I found a new intensity in life, that one had to be thankful for each moment —