Seeking God Outside Our Camp – A Reflection on the Hook Lecture

For the 2016 Hook Lecture (originally planned to take place last November), Lord Bhikhu Parekh discussed the role that religion plays in today’s multicultural society.

Lord Parekh has helped shape the British understanding of multiculturalism and is now patron of the Commission for Religion and Belief in Public Life. In his lecture he explored the different ways that religion can play a positive role in politics and society, as well as some of the challenges that this raises.

There were a couple of moments that stood out for me.

One was the idea of interfaith dialogue being active, working together for a common goal in addition to talking together. In response to a question from the audience Lord Parekh insisted that when he talks about interfaith dialogue, it means more than “two people in a Cathedral” talking, but should also include activities, pursued together for a common good.

The other moment that caught my attention was the idea of the Church, in this case the Church of England, the state Church, being an older brother to other faith groups.

The recognition being that Christianity does have a privileged position in British society, both through its history and through its place within the establishment, and rather than separate Church and state, or disregard that history it should be the responsibility of the Church to use that position to speak on behalf of all faiths.

This idea didn’t initially sit easily with me. Should the Church not be advocating on behalf of Christians and Christian values? Should the Church not be allowed to express some level of self-interest?

But I was also reminded of a story from the book of Joshua. To call it a story may be exaggerating; the whole event only covers three verses. It would be more accurate to describe it as a moment. A small step on the way to the more familiar story of Joshua and the people of Israel taking Jericho.

Now when Joshua was near Jericho, he looked up and saw a man standing in front of him with a drawn sword in his hand. Joshua went up to him and asked, “Are you for us or for our enemies?”

“Neither,” he replied, “but as commander of the army of the Lord I have now come.” – Joshua 5:13-14, New International Version.

Or to put it in another context

“I am not altogether on anybody’s side, because nobody is altogether on my side, if you understand me: nobody cares for the woods as I care for them” – Treebeard, The Two Towers by J. R. R. Tolkien.

We often enter these debates assuming that God is on our side, that we, the Church, are God’s side. We see the Kingdom of God lying somewhere within the Church, and so to seek the Kingdom of God means, or at least includes, protecting and representing the Church.

With this view of the Kingdom of God to act as a representative of all faiths would be a compromise of the Church’s mission. Diluting the call of the Kingdom with voices from outside the Kingdom.

But this view of the Kingdom doesn’t mesh well with the Joshua story. Here we have the leader of Israel, God’s chosen people, following God’s instruction, pursuing God’s promises and he encounters someone who is a physical manifestation of God’s Kingdom, and goes “So you’re on my side, right?” to which the angel replies, “Not necessarily.”

What if God’s side lies somewhere outside of us? What if the Kingdom of God is something that we have to continue to seek to align ourselves with?

This question is especially important when thinking about multiculturalism.

It’s easy to equate Christian values with Western values, to imagine that God is middle class and British, with a strong stiff upper lip. To place God in our camp, to imagine him to be like us.

But, of course, God is not like us. He does not settle in our camp, he invites us to seek him in the wilderness, outside of any camp but his own and to seek to care for the things that he cares for.

So, how do we, in the language of Treebeard, care for the woods as God cares for them? Where do we find the plants of God’s forest?

Towards the end of the story of Jonah, the prophet finds himself sitting on a hill watching over the repentant city of Ninevah (in what is modern day Iraq), complaining to God about his grace and compassion to these people who clearly don’t deserve it. “Why would you choose their side?” he might be asking.

In response God provides a plant, something to give Jonah some shade from the scorching desert sun. Then he takes it away. God sends a worm to eat away at the tree until it is destroyed. Jonah, not breaking character, is furious.

But God said to Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry about the plant?”

“It is,” he said. “And I’m so angry I wish I were dead.”

But the Lord said, “You have been concerned about this plant, though you did not tend it or make it grow. It sprang up overnight and died overnight. And should I not have concern for the great city of Nineveh, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left—and also many animals?” – Jonah 4:9-11, New International Version.

Clearly the Ninevites were also are part of God’s wood.

Returning to Lord Parekh’s idea of the Church being an older brother to other faiths, is it possible that in seeking to speak on behalf of other faiths, as well as our own, we may hear God’s voice more clearly and deeply outside of our own camp? Could it be that we can only, fully, care for the things that God cares for when we look outside of our own interests to the needs of the stranger?

Article by Lawrence Cockrill, Media and Events Coordinator

If you would like to listen to the Hook Lecture you can watch the video here or listen to it in podcast form here.