Monday, November 30, 2009


I’m thinking about staircases today.


More specifically, a sketch of staircases I saw in Lesslie Newbigin’s The Open Secret (following Walter Freytag’s The Gospel and the Religions) which tells me how I can dialogue with people of other faiths here in Taiwan:


In Taiwan, a stock answer someone will give you about religion is that “all religions are good”, “all religions are the same”, etc. They all help us to do good, be better people, etc. I heard this again just this past weekend from an elderly Taiwanese speaking man with whom I was enjoying tea.

So, for example, Christianity may be represented below by the staircase on the left while Buddhism points to the right:

crossless stair

This view, actually, is not too far from from what Newbigin says:

The staircases represent the many ways by which humans learn to rise toward the fulfillment of God’s purpose. They include all the ethical and religious achievements that so richly adorn the cultures of humankind. But in the middle of them is placed a symbol that represents something of a different kind – a historic deed in which God exposed himself in a total vulnerability to all our purposes and in that meeting exposed us as the beloved of God who are, even in our highest religion, the enemies of God. The picture expresses the central paradox of the human situation, that God comes to meet us at the bottom of our stairways, not at the top; that our real ascent towards God’s will for us takes us further away from the place where he actually meets us. I"I came to call not the righteous, but sinners.” Our meeting, therefore, with those of other faiths takes place at the bottom of the stairway, not at the top. “Christianity” as it develops in history takes on the form of one of those stairways. Christians also have to come down to the bottom of their stairway to meet the adherents of another faith. There has to be a kenosis, a “self-emptying.” Christians do not meet their partners in dialogue as those who possess the truth and the holiness of God but as those who bear witness to a truth and holiness that are God’s judgment on them and who are ready to hear the judgment spoken through the lips and life of their partner of another faith. (page 181)

Quoting further from Newbigin:

Obedient witness to Christ means that whenever we come with another person (Christian or not) into the presence of the cross, we are prepared to receive judgment and correction, to find that our Christianity hides within its appearance of obedience the reality of disobedience. Each meeting with a non-Christian partner in dialogue therefore puts my own Christianity at risk.

The classic biblical example of this is the meeting of Peter with the Gentile Cornelius at Caesarea. We often speak of this as the conversion of Cornelius, but it was equally the conversion of Peter. In that encounter the Holy Spirit shattered Peter’s own deeply cherished image of himself as an obedient member of the household of God…(p. 182)

We are, in the end, “not the exclusive possessors of salvation, nor as the fullness of what others have in part.” Nor are we the answer to the questions they ask. So why then do we dialogue and share about our faith? Ours in the end is a humble task:

The purpose of dialogue for the Christian is obedient witness to Jesus Christ, who is not the property of the church but the Lord of the church and of all people and who is glorified as the living Holy Spirit takes all that the Father has given to humankind – all people of every creed and culture—and declares it to the church as that which belongs to Christ as Lord. In this encounter the church is changed, the world is changed, and Christ is glorified. (p. 183).

Here’s my refinement to the simple diagram above, with each staircase representing a different religion (yes, atheism is a stair too):


And finally, my Christmas version… The Word became flesh and dwelled among us:

christmas stairs3d2

Thank you, Father God, Son, and Holy Spirit, for coming into the world as a defenseless baby in the lowest and meanest of circumstances. Thank you for meeting me at the very bottom of the stairs, in the gutter, so to speak. Thank for guiding me to the light, just as you directed men and women to the infant Jesus in antiquity. On the basis of your light, power and strength, continue to change me Father, Son, and Holy Spirit!

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