Three modern wise men

Feast of Epiphany, 6th January 2005

As we come to celebrate the Feast of Epiphany this new year most of us will be trying to get our minds around the still unfolding horrors from South East Asia. This tragedy has become the canvas on which our Christmas and New Year has been painted.

It is difficult to know what to say at such a time. Certainly this awful tragedy reminds us all of the huge uncontrollable power of the natural world. It is so easy for us to become at best complacent and at worst arrogant about the power we have as a species. The advances of science and technology are amazing and yet there was nothing that could be done on Boxing Day for those suddenly facing the power of the sea after a huge earthquake.

This natural disaster fills us with fear and vulnerability, maybe it would be good if we all became a bit more humble. What and when and where will the next one be? Some scientists reckon a huge volcanic eruption is due in the Canary Islands – devastating the islands, but potentially a side of a mountain could slide into the Atlantic setting off a tidal wave that would destroy the Caribbean and the east coast of the USA. Imagine the sadness and chaos that would bring.

What sort of religious issues does all this raise? Well in the spirit of Epiphany I would like to refer to three wise men:

First of all, the Archbishop of Canterbury – talking of pride, he says, “that is the determination to put yourself at the centre of everything, to deny you depend on others and others on you; to behave as if you had the power to organise reality to suit yourself in every way”. The tsunami and now its aftermath really should challenge the pride in us all – individually and corporately. We are dependent on others and they on us, it is heartening to see the response to give so spontaneously and readily to the disaster appeal without the need for gimmicky campaign or celebrity involvement.

Second wise man is Dr Badawi, Chair of the Imams and Muslim Council – he talks about the gravest sin in Islam being shirk – to worship anything other than God. “The worship of money, race, power, property, country and charismatic people is the modern version of idolatry that is shirk. Religion can turn into an ideology claiming to possess the whole truth and shedding the blood of those who disagree. This too is a form of idolatry or shirk.” He goes on to say freedom from shirk is the foundation of a contented life. Maybe one idolatry the tsunami can challenge is the illusion that we control our lives and destiny – life is precious and life is fragile. I wonder what are the idolatries in our lives? Security, success, family, wealth, popularity?

The third wise man is Rabbi Jonathan Sacks – writing last year he said that “today’s consumer society is the most self-centred civilisation since mankind first set foot on earth”. He also wrote, “luckily it can’t last, people do care about others, they do feel we have a responsibility to those in need. They do worry about the damage we are doing to the environment.” Writing on New Year’s day he seeks to answer the question why does God allow terrible things to happen to his people? He suggests the simplest explanation is that “natural disasters have no other explanation other than that God, by placing us in a physical world, set life within the parameters of the physical. Planets are formed, tectonic plates shift, earthquakes occur and sometimes innocent people die. To wish it were otherwise is in essence to wish that we were not physical beings at all – pre-programmed angels – God’s computers capable only of singing his praise. Rabbi Sacks goes on to suggest that “the religious question is not why did this happen? but What then shall we do? In synagogues, and churches and mosques and temples the world over, along with prayers, there has been a great response to give money to help the injured and bereaved and to assist with emergency relief work and then the long task of rebuilding.” He says, “the religious response is not to seek to understand and thereby accept, We are not God … instead we are the people” – all regardless of creed and culture – “that he has called on to be partners in the work of creation. The only adequate religious response is to say , ‘God, I do not know why this terrible disaster has happened, but I do know what you want of us: to help the afflicted, comfort the bereaved, send healing to the injured and aid to those who have lost their livelihoods and homes’. We cannot understand God, but we can strive to imitate his love and care.”

I guess the public response so far indicates that we are a religious people, the desire to give generously and quickly is a spiritual response which I think holds up a flicker of light and hope in South East Asia and here and throughout the world. There is a resonance to the powerful ending to the Vicar of Dibley on New Year’s Day – with a silent and simple commitment to fight world poverty. I strongly disagree with Christians who dismissed the fight for justice as not being spiritual.

Perhaps we are experiencing a sort of epiphany, that is, a manifestation of God’s love and care for his whole creation and all people. Our creeds and doctrines don’t matter, our traditions and ideologies are not that important, our differences seem somewhat pathetic in the face of such huge natural tragedy. A faith that narrows God down to its particular understanding of revelation flies in the face of reality. How we respond to our fellow humans needs at time of crisis is the most critical religious and spiritual question – not if we are saved or not, or born again, circumcised, or obedient to the Koran.

The three wise men perhaps have something to say to us – beware of pride, beware of idolatry, and do something to care and help.

David McCoulough
© St Peter's Church, Nottingham
Last revised 6th February 2005