Victor Chan is the Dalai Lama’s man in Vancouver, arranging the Buddhist monk’s visits to that city. In a new book, The Wisdom of Compassion, Chan documents those visits, especially an encounter between the Dalai Lama and South Africa’s Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu in Vancouver in 2004.
I haven’t read the book, but the reporting of that meeting gives us an illuminating example of how the mainstream media covers religion. The headlines on stories about the book contained this eye-catcher: “God is not a Christian, says Tutu.” An excerpt appeared online at The Huffington Post and created quite a buzz.
Desmond Tutu, a man of admirable courage, was indispensable to the dismantling of apartheid in South Africa and the subsequent truth and reconciliation commission. Yet as a theological thinker, Archbishop Tutu is rather unimaginative and predictable. On any controverted question, he reliably takes the position adopted by the fashionable view of the secular liberal consensus. So when he declared in 2004 to the Dalai Lama that “God is not a Christian” it was perhaps newsworthy given that he is a Christian clergyman, but it was not new. In fact, it is not even that remarkable, for God is not a disciple of Jesus Christ, which is what a Christian is. If Archbishop Tutu was to say that Jesus Christ is not God, or that He did not reveal who God is to us, that would be something different, for it would mean that Archbishop Tutu is not a Christian.
The archbishop did say something remarkable in that encounter, but it was not what was highlighted in media reports.
“The glory about God is that God is a mystery,” Tutu said. “God is actually quite incredible in many ways. But God allows us to misunderstand her but also to understand her.”
This too was given wide play, noting that the reference to God as “she” produced wild applause in the audience.
“I’ve frequently said I’m glad I’m not God,” Tutu continued. “But I’m also glad God is God. He can watch us speak, spread hatred, in His name. Apartheid was for a long time justified by the church. We do the same when we say all those awful things we say about gays and lesbians. We speak on behalf of a God of love. The God that I worship is an omnipotent God. He is also incredibly, totally impotent. The God that I worship is almighty, and also incredibly weak.
“He can sit there and watch me make a wrong choice,” Tutu continued. “But the glory of God is actually mind-blowing. He can sit and not intervene because He has such an incredible, incredible reverence for my autonomy. He is prepared to let me go to hell. Freely. Rather than compel me to go to heaven. He weeps when He sees us do the things that we do to one another. But He does not send lightning bolts to destroy the ungodly. And that is fantastic. God says, ‘I can’t force you. I beg you, please for your own sake, make the right choice. I beg you.’ ”
When Tutu speaks about God not being Christian, or God being “she” or about how Christians are beastly to gays and lesbians, it is trumpeted as extraordinary and courageous, even though it is neither, as witness the laudations in the hall.
What is remarkable though is that Tutu speaks about God’s respect for our freedom to the point of making Himself weak. Some may think it bold to say that God is “impotent.” From St. Paul onwards the Church has preached Christ crucified. That God makes Himself “impotent” before our freedom was commonplace in the preaching of the Fathers of the Church.
The news in the excerpt is that the impeccably liberal Desmond Tutu believes in hell. Hell means that God respects our freedom to the extent of honouring the consequences of our choices; a cosmos without hell is also without freedom. It is likely that Tutu’s comments about hell were not met with rapturous applause, which is a good sign, because the preacher who always gets rapturous applause is not a preacher at all, but a panderer.
The mainstream media prides itself on being bold in challenging orthodoxies, both sacred and profane.
The Huffington Post thought it was doing just that in highlighting the apparent Christian heterodoxy of a great liberal hero, Archbishop Tutu. But he was just echoing the secular liberal orthodoxy. The actual news was that, whatever his views on gender and sexual orientation, Tutu was perfectly orthodox on the reality, and necessity, of hell in his conversation with the Dalai Lama.
The headline should have been: “Tutu reminds the Dalai Lama about hell.”
(Fr. de Souza is the editor-in-chief of Convivium, a Canadian magazine of faith in our common life: www.cardus.ca/convivium.)