Thursday 16 February 2012

True Religion

Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.
James 1:27
Continuing from my last post, about Jefferson (aka Jeffrey) Bethke's Why I Hate Religion But Love Jesus poem/video: the above Bible verse makes it clear that God, and by implication Jesus, is not against all religious behaviour. This is no criticism of Bethke - his is a poem not a carefully balanced argument - but it should be a starting point in considering how to respond to that poem.

The other useful reference point would be clarity about what we mean by 'religion' anyway - something which all the responses I have seen manage to forget.

A key point to consider is why that poem resonates so widely. Those who have publicly responded to Bethke seem to miss this reality: 'religion' has become a very dirty word, not just among young churchgoers, but within much of non-churchgoing society. I see it in New Scientist, a scientific magazine (really!) which has become outspokenly anti-religion over the past decade or so, and I see it as a general trend within the liberal end of the media, in letters pages, and in comments across the internet.

In many ways I can see their point:-
  • The US religious right has spent the past twenty years becoming increasingly vocal and influential with their rhetoric: anti-education, anti-science, anti-healthcare, anti-environment, anti-gay and now anti-women.
  • The attack on the Twin Towers by religious/nationalistic extremists, followed by other atrocities around the world.
  • The Middle East: the wars in Iraq - presented as religious 'crusades' - and Israel's unopposed flouting of international laws and standards.
  • Roman Catholic child abuse scandals. Some blame religion for the child abuse (unfairly: child abuse happens at least as frequently in a non-religious context); others for the cover-ups and for allowing abusers to re-offend elsewhere.
  • The Anglican/Episcopalian church tearing itself apart over equality of treatment for women and homosexuals.
  • Intercommunal violence between groups with different religious affiliations: Northern Ireland, Bosnia, Nigeria, and so on.
  • General partisan bickering within 'Christianity': protestant against catholic, evangelical against liberal, Calvinist against Arminian, little-enders against big-enders, whatever.
Responses along the lines of 'our religion isn't like that' honestly don't help.

"What if I told you, Jesus came to abolish religion?" -  I'd reply that there is no evidence to support that in the Bible. Equally, there is no evidence that Jesus came to start yet another religion: the Bible tells us he came to save the world, surely much more important.

It's not really that "Jesus and religion are on opposite spectrums"; comparing Jesus and religion is like comparing apples and aadvarks: what Jesus did and what religion does are qualitatively different.

"One is the work of God one is a man made invention ... because religion says do, Jesus says done." These two phrases make an important point ... one which can as easily be positive as negative.

The Bible tells us that Jesus came to save the world, to rescue humanity, to bring an end to sin (injustice, abuse, intolerance, hatred, that sort of thing). We are given the opportunity to accept what Jesus has done and to become a part of God's Kingdom, citizens in the new world that God is preparing. We can become Jesus' followers, disciples, children of God, however you like to put it. But that is a beginning not an ending.

Accepting what Jesus has done for us through his death and resurrection is the beginning of a journey, not the end. If we have become followers of Jesus then we need to live as such. Jesus has saved us, now we need to live in that salvation. God has done, so we must do. As the apostle Paul wrote to the church at Ephesus:
For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith ... created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.
If religion is the doing, then religion is intended to be the way that Jesus' followers respond to God's grace. Religion is humanity's answer to God's mercy.

But humanity is fallen, we may be saved but we remain part of a world that has gone horribly astray. Some followers of Jesus take their eyes off him and miss the point; many others want to follow God but have never met him. We try to live out God's love together and it often goes wrong.

Religion is not binary true/false, bad/good. Religion is a spectrum, from more true to God's way to less true. It covers those who don't know Him and are trying to do their best in their own strength, through those who are desperate to be Jesus' disciples but don't really know how, and those who just want an excuse, a fig-leaf for their own hatreds and intolerance.

Religions support the poor and they encourage repression of the poor; religions promote love and they preach hatred; religions stand up for education for all, and they oppose teaching of truth. Religions can be a blessing or they can be a curse ... just like any other human activity.

Religion is not the real problem, fallen humanity is the problem. And for that Jesus is the solution.

Friday 10 February 2012

Love Jesus, Hate Religion, Tickled By People

There's a poem by Jefferson Bethke, Why I Hate Religion But Love Jesus, gone viral on the internet in the past month. Especially amongst church teenage groups. Most of whom were brought up in church. What I would call 'religious kids'. You have to smile.

Also fun are some of the responses to the video. Religious people giving religious responses which mostly show that they just don't get it. You can see a good selection in a post on the Sojourners' God's Politics blog, Follow The Meme: lots of sincere people making lots of good points in defense of their religions.

I think one job of a poet is to make people think: Bethke has clearly succeeded in that. Another job is to move readers into seeing a different perspective, a bigger picture. The responses linked to above don't really seem to do that: they just stay defensively hunkered down in their old perspective. That's a shame. It's not Bethke's fault, it's just how these responders choose to react.

What Bethke's poem fails to do, in my view, is to help the opposite pole see a bigger picture. It challenges those inside the religious establishment to look beyond their walls, but I see no challenge to those outside the church to look inside: to see past the stereotypes, the media headlines, the loudmouth spokespeople, and to see the mostly-ordinary men and women trying to live out their faith together in the day-to-day realities of life.

Nick Mason, on his blog New Ways Forward, recently wrote an article about the need for us to define ourselves more by what we affirm and less by what we oppose:
Eventually we must break away from the pull of finding our identity in conflict and opposition, and be for something.

There will be things that need to be spoken out against from time to time, but perhaps it is more important, and more effective, if we spend our energy creating something beautiful, powerful, and transformative.
Eric Metaxas, at last week's US National Prayer Breakfast, gave a long (although entertaining) illustration of the positive side of the difference between religiosity and active faith that comes from the heart, using the examples of Wilberforce and Bonhoeffer.

There are around about a dozen churches here in Caversham, filled every Sunday with lovely people singing and praying to God. Meanwhile there are around about another thirty thousand people who are not doing this, and who don't see any meaning or relevance for such activities in their lives. The church-goers are focussed on their church, as an organisation, as a building, as a set of practices and behaviours which they find helpful, even life-giving; the church-abstainers wonder what they are on about.

What would Church look like if it was for the thirty thousand? How could Jesus be embodied in the lives and fellowship of those who need something more, or at least something different?