This little sketch has really spoken to me lately — especially as we move closer to Good Friday and Easter. It comes from a book I’ve just finished by the late British missionary, Lesslie Newbigin. After decades as a missionary in India he returned to Great Britain to find it a thoroughly secular country that itself called out for missionary work. He brought his years of thought and the depth of his encounter with other faiths — especially with Hinduism – to his thinking of Christian mission in a secular and multi-faith world.
This little diagram sums up how he sees where the church needs to encounter and dialogue with other faiths. The stairs represent the high and rich religious achievements of all religions and ethical systems. It is easy to assume that true and rich dialogue will therefore happen at the highest rungs of the ladder of human religious achievement. This is like the often quoted proverb that humans are all climbing the same spiritual mountain by different routes and all will eventually meet at the summit.
Newbigin suggests otherwise. For the Christian, he says, we understand that God meets us at the bottom, in the valley. Not in the place of human success but in the place of human failure and brokenness. The place of the cross. To begin the dialogue and encounter we must get off our high horse “as one who possesses the truth and holiness God”. Rather we begin with self emptying.
It is in this meeting at the bottom where he says that Christianity has something unique to offer. At the bottom — at the place where people do the worst to each other — we believe God meets us and makes the place a place of transformation. That is the central message of the cross of Jesus we have to share as Christians. And further, paradoxically, we witness that this place of failure and death turns out to be a place of new life — because God meets us there.
It seems to me that for too long Christians have preached down at others from the heights. Now the work is to walk down the stars in the way of self emptying that we see in Jesus. (See Philippians 2:6-8) To draw close to those who suffer and carry a cross . . . whoever they are. And God knows there’s enough sadness in the world and in people’s lives to come down close to meet people there. And yet we do so in faith that this also is the place where they and we will meet God. And that will make all the difference.
That is my experience. Is that your experience as well?