Religion at 35,000 Feet

Article by   October 2006

There is something aleatoric about the content of these columns. Frankly, it depends on what has been buzzing around my head in the last seven days. And what is it this week? Well, a conversation with a Jewish lady who sat next to me on a flight from Toronto to Atlanta! I'd been upgraded--bliss! Post-conference numbness had set in following several addresses which I'd given having left my notes at home! I was ready for some down-time with a good book and some music. And all was well for the first three minutes. The doors weren't closed and the lady next to me said, "I'm separated from my husband..." I looked positively ministerial and tried to sympathize thinking that perhaps she needed some marital counseling--a prospect I didn't look forward to. Curious that she would just come out with it like that--to a complete stranger, I thought. I made a mental note: trouble.

But then she was gone, sitting next to another man three rows up. I discovered a little later that he was her husband! I sighed, relieved for a moment, only to be rudely brought to life again by another woman who had sat next to me and was asking me a question. I couldn't hear it--the music in my ear was rather loud.

I kept thinking, she wasn't supposed to sit next to me - I don't mean in the overall decree of God or anything like that; in that sense, it was God's divine overruling. No doubt about it! But Delta Airlines had placed her in another seat, but...

Never mind! It's not important why everyone played musical chairs, but I was much happier with the one who was 'supposed' to be sitting next to me. That lady was quieter!

"And who are you?" she was asking! "Well, excuse me," I thought, "you must be from New York!" [Sorry, but I've had it in for New York ever since having my laptop stolen in Newark airport, a few weeks ago!] And before you say anything, she was! Within five minutes I knew more about her than I cared to, including that she was Jewish and married to a Catholic husband. And they had a little girl - a 'jewlick' she added. I looked puzzled. "Half Jewish, half catholic" she explained. Yuk, I thought to myself.

And I knew what was coming. Two hours of "dialogue" when what I wanted to do was listen to Wagner on my ipod! Wagner! And she's Jewish! I switched the ipod off and quietly put it in my pocket without explanation.

"So what do you do?" she said again (after about 20 minutes of wholly uninterrupted monologue). I was tempted to give my usual William Perkins response: "I teach the science of living blessedly forever" line - Perkins taught theology at Cambridge in the early part of the seventeenth century. But we were way past needing some user-friendly introduction to the fact that I was a seminary professor and a minister. So I went for it. "I teach Systematic Theology" I said with an air of confidence.

For a moment, there was silence. And then came the expected reply, "And what exactly is Systematic Theology?" she said. So I began to explain, but do you have any idea how difficult it is to explain what Systematic Theology is to the average person in the street (or, in this case, in the air!)? But my passenger friend was no "average person" and whilst the subtleties of what I do passed her by, she got the point: I was religious! "Well, that's lucky," she said...." - not a Calvinist I noted - "I have been dying to ask what someone like you thinks of Islam."

At 35,000 feet on board an aircraft I wasn't sure I wanted to have a conversation as to my views about Islam to a Jewess, all within earshot of several other passengers, some of whose ethnicity looked..., you know what I mean! But fools rush in...

"It is always going to be difficult generalizing the entirety of Islam, but I take it you mean radical Islam," I said, "and separating religion from the state is going to be impossible because for them it is essentially one and the same. That's why dealing with it as one would another religion is going to be difficult. After all, they are holding a gun in one hand and a copy of the Qu'ran in the other." She positively warmed to my negative opinion. And so the conversation ensued toward the ever-emerging horizon.

I saw it coming and did my best to avoid it. "Why can't we all get along with each other," she said. "After all, we all believe the same God in the end." And thus she explained how they raised their daughter to find the truth out there for herself and to encourage whatever it was she embraced so long as it didn't harm anyone else (which ruled out Islam). "Don't you agree?" she asked.

What is a guy to say? As a Christian I believe in revealed ethical standards: some things are right and some things are wrong. These are so because God has revealed them to be so. And off I went, trying desperately to explain that there really is only one standard of what is true and what is right. And only one way to fellowship with God. I cited John 14:6 and Jesus's words about being the way, the truth and the life!

And as I spoke, it became clear to her that my view of God was narrow and confined and unaccommodating. And the shutters came down. In her mind, I began to think, I was little different from radical Islam - fundamentally intolerant of the views of others.

And that was my problem: how to make Jesus attractive whilst at the same time refusing to yield to the postmodern view that truth is something personal and essentially nice. I wish I could tell you I succeeded, but I didn't. And the conversation dwindled...until we were both silent and the flight attendant was giving us instructions about tray tables and electronic gadgets in the "off" position. And all I could do was pray. Silently. Forgiveness for stumbling words and mercy that God would overrule.

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