Timothy versus the Caliph
Can I really know that Jesus is the Way, the Truth and Life?
There is an old story about a conversation near the end of the 8th century between Timothy, the Patriarch of the Eastern Christians, and the Caliph Mahdi of Baghdad. For two days they debated whether Christianity or Islam was the true religion. At the end of their conversation, Timothy asked the caliph to consider whether anyone could know whether he had followed the true religion:
O our victorious King, in this world we are all of us as in a dark house in the middle of the night. If at night and in a dark house a precious pearl happens to fall in the midst of people, and all become aware of its existence, every one would strive to pick up the pearl, which will not fall to the lot of all but to the lot of one only, while one will get hold of the pearl itself, another one of a piece of glass, a third one of a stone or of a bit of earth, but every one will be happy and proud that he is the real possessor of the pearl.
In our dark world the conversation seems to end here, each of us grabbing our own stone but never sure if we have the pearl. Can I really know if Buddhism or Islam or Christianity is the real pearl? Or even if there is a real religion? Maybe all religions are just stones, making us feel better until the morning comes. Of course, the sincere believer in each religion will claim that when morning comes he will see that he has pearl, and then all the other seekers will be left in tears. But this answer does not satisfy me, nor did it satisfy the wise caliph, for it leaves us agnostic in a world hungry for the Way, Truth and Life. So Timothy responded to my objections and the caliph’s concerns:
As the luster of a pearl is somewhat visible even in the darkness of the night, so also the rays of the true faith shine to some extent even in the darkness and the fog of the present world. God indeed has not left the pure pearl of the faith completely without testimony and evidence, first in the prophets and then in the Gospel.
It is the beauty of Jesus, not the sincerity of the seeker, which gives the gospel its “luster.” God draws to the pearl the seekers who give everything they have to possess it (Matthew 13:45-46). And these seekers are forever changed, now sharing in the luster of the Jesus. Timothy explains, “It is by the brightness of such rays that the possessor of this pearl, which is so full of luster and so precious that it outweighs all the world in its balance, are known.” That sounds a lot like Jesus!
In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven. [Matthew 5:16]
For further study of this famous apologetic, see:
“The Way, The Truth and Philip Jenkins” by Alan Jacobs, First Things, March 2009, p. 13.
An e-version of the debate can be found at http://www.tertullian.org/fathers/timothy_i_apology_01_text.htm