The Real Religious Divide

IMG_2852This is rather off topic but it’s something that has been brewing for a very long time.

I’ve long had a problem with organised religion.  Oddly, despite that, I read Philosophy and Theology at university.  I used to tell people that it was because I liked arguing with Christians.  That was perhaps partly true but also rather flippant.

In truth I suspect it was partly because R.E. lessons were one of my formative influences. Not so much R.E. per se but specifically the parables and moral teaching of the New Testament.

Forget St. Paul and the epistle writers that followed him, working out their own stuff and pursuing their later agendas.  I was really taken by Jesus’ teaching.

This may well be the point where you switch off and go; ‘Crazy bloody God-botherer!’

Listen – I don’t go to church and I don’t identify myself as a Christian (and I’ve not met quite as many people who should identify themselves as Christian as that do).  I really don’t care all that much about the bits where Jesus is hailed as ‘Son of God’ or where bits are worked into the text to persuade the yet to be converted that faith will salve their worries and ease their journey from life through death to ‘the other side’.  That always struck me as a way of, at best, helping people with their fears for the here and now and with the imponderability of death and at worst a ‘buy one, free one,’ ‘sign up now get an exclusive deal,’ ‘act now or miss your chance’ exploitation of people’s vulnerabilities.

The teaching I was taken with was a simple, moral guide to how to live better, not the invitation to buy into the cult of Jesus that grew up around him after his death.

Take this from The Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5:38)  “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’  But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn your other cheek to them as well.  And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well.  If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.”

The Sermon on the Mount (and this is the theology student coming out here) is one if the texts we can most confidently ascribe to the historical Jesus.  Why? Because when rendered back into Aramaic it’s cadences, rhetorical devices and figures of speech sound natural and, above all, because it’s good, plain, radical advice for living in keeping with the teachings of a radical, table-overturning, uncompromising but compassionate figure like Jesus of Nazareth and not the small-p political insertions of later writers.

Then there’s the repetition throughout the synoptic gospels (ie Mark, Matthew, Luke) of this thought (this from Matt 22) where Jesus was asked: “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

IMG_2842Take a good, hard look at this stuff, because it’s a major challenge to the selfish, consumerist, materialistic, planet-destroying way we live now.

It is not without precedent. Jesus’ teaching fits into a tradition that encompasses that of Hillel, a rabbi who lived in the first century BC and who wrote: “What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow: this is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation; go and learn”

Simple really – the positive version, treat others as you’d like to be treated yourself, is often known as the golden rule and the negative (don’t do to others….) is sometimes dubbed ‘the silver rule’. Swathes of scripture, Christian, Jewish and other, is simply an extrapolation of this principle.

Strange then that so many so-called Christians (especially in the US) seem to get no further than the ‘an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth’ bit and completely ignore the bit right afterwards where Jesus basically says ‘that’s bollocks’ (albeit in Aramaic and a bit more politely).

And this is the reason I did theology and this is why I feel it’s important to argue with many sections of communities that identify themselves as Christians because at the core of Jesus’ teaching (and in rabbinical traditions such as Hillel’s and in other faiths) there is a simple, radical challenge to live better, more generously, more truly in a way that will make us and those around us happier, and it’s worth arguing with them to keep that from being obscured.  As someone wittily observed there are a lot of so-called Christians who are very quick to get very Old Testament with anyone who they don’t like but who always expect to be treated themselves in the best New Testament manner.

And it’s the reason that I have a bit of an issue (actually quite a serious issue) with organised religion where that organisation interposes itself between the individual and that moral gateway (call it ethics, call it God – I’m not sure the naming of it is any more important than letting choosing the name of your band become more important than the music).

Religious organisations can do a lot of good.  We tend to want to get organised to help people; to house, clothe and feed the less well off for instance, and we do that through secular as well as religious organisations.

IMG_2845But I draw the line at two things – where religious institutions stop being guides and start being gatekeepers (only I/we can tell you how to be saved, you must come through us) and when the institution becomes important of itself especially when it becomes more important than the message (as with any number of cover ups of heinous behaviour in order to protect the reputation of the institution).

Which is why, by and large, I prefer disorganised religion. For all the majesty of ceremony and the links to earlier generations the great institutions of faith give us, the most majestic thing of all is the simple realisation, captured in the parables, that we simply have to treat one another decently – just how we want to be treated ourselves. Frankly anything that gets in the way of our apprehension of that strikes me as just gilt on the lily.  But that’s just my way of seeing things. It may not be yours.  The question is; in so far as my beliefs and your beliefs don’t hurt anyone else can we just accept and respect each other’s right to follow different paths?

And that brings me to my final point, the one I really wanted to make all along.

Most of the world’s great religions subscribe to the golden rule and most of them have both adherents who do their best to follow it and plenty that don’t pay a blind bit of attention.

So surely the real divide is not between Muslim and Christian, Hindu and Buddhist or between people of faith and those with none, but between, on the one hand, people of all faiths and none who want to get on with one another, who respect one another’s right to their beliefs in so far as they don’t hurt others and who wish one another well on their journey through life, and on the other hand those who don’t.

The labels become somewhat irrelevant – Islamo-fascism, hindu-nationalism, Christian fundamentalism, pseudo-Buddhist weird shit, and all that nonsense from the far right of the Zionist movement – it’s all the same authoritarian attempt to force other people to comply with your world view based on the word of the God of your choice which, because it’s God, becomes unchallengeable and unimpeachable.

There is a ‘them against us’ – but the dividing lines aren’t delineated by faith but by attitudes to others.

Perhaps we should be less hung up on the labels and more concerned with the principles of tolerance and respect, charity and kindness than with ritual, liturgy, dogma or fundamentalism.

So until those obsessed with the form and not the substance of organised religion can get their moral stuff together forgive me if I stick with disorganised religion. After all it only looks disorganised to someone whose mess it isn’t.

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5 Responses to The Real Religious Divide

  1. As a Ministers’ wife ,practising Christian, once married to a Muslim in a former life, I can only say “Amen”. I am grateful that Jesus is for the “sick” not the “well” and the most challenging bit of Scripture for me is “to forgive others as I want to be forgiven myself.

  2. Perkins says:

    Fantastic piece Kent. Your point about the Sermon on the Mount is very well made (and I was interested to hear of Hillel). The Rev. Celia shares your outlook, which is why I have found myself so much at church these last few years and had my boys baptised in the Church of England despite my Catholic upbringing. I get very cross with my father’s rants about gay marriage & abortion because it is very easy for a 70 year to hold such views – they are unlikely to be the kind of “sins” floating in his orbit. It would be far braver and challenging – and Christian – for the Church, any Church, to return to the anti usury doctrine of the Middle Ages. That would be radical and worthy of the name Christ-ian. And don’t forget Matthew 19:24! You’d make a great vicar, despite your dislike of organised religion. In fact, the C of E is the perfect Christian mess, and all the better for it. Pretty much anything goes. From High Tory to radical socialist. It just needs all the steering it can get in order to return to itself. And of course it is not the only way but it has an important contribution to make to the little we have discovered about how to live on this mysterious old orb.

  3. Andy. says:

    Hi Jonathan, really appreciate your honesty and can agree with much of what you said.
    Please may I very respectfully point out that there is a major difference between religious observance, and real heart change. Jesus is looking for real heart change.
    I suppose that in the world I live in I am constantly meeting people whose lives have been changed by Christ Some were in extremes of wealth, or poverty, success or disaster but all have found in Jesus what was missing.
    Notice, they may not have found it in our church which is far from perfect, but in Him.
    You are right to observe that religious organizations do a lot of good. Think, Salvation Army, TEAR Fund, Christian Aid, Cafod, Christians Against Poverty, Teen Challenge, Bettel UK, the list is endless. And many committed Christians give ten percent of their gross incomes to support these groups. The founders of OXFAM were Christians. The founders of the RSPCA were Christians. Please forgive me if I sound defensive, but if the church as a whole were to remove itself from social care in Britain I know of no group of people who would be able to take over its role.This both Blair and Cameron have admitted.
    The church I serve is black majority,(i am white English, a SUSSEX BOY). We have 53 nationalities, every age group you can think of and we care deeply for our city of Leeds.
    Each year we give tens of thousands of pounds to help change the lives of people, who are Prostitutes, on drugs, children in poverty, or have no food. All the groups that politics and government fails every year.Volunteers give thousands of hours to help.
    It is ORGANIZED FAITH that is making a difference.
    Thanks for your blog, its excellent. Thanks for the great photos, I sincerely look forward to reading it. Perhaps when journalists have formed the groups that give the money and volunteer the time that very ordinary Christians do, away from the limelight, I might rest a little easier with some of the things you imply.May I suggest a piece on the time you have spent seeing some of these church based activities in action?
    Have a great week,
    an avid reader, Andy. .

  4. Hi Andy,
    actually all the things that you refer to in terms of what churches do are things that do recommend organised religion. It’s not the sole preserve of religious groups but religious groups are amongst the most committted and the most effective in ministering to the most vulnerable and most needy in our society.
    As I say in the piece above my real reservations about organised religion are when religious organisations insist that a person’s experience of the divine can only be mediated by them. The other reservation is when the institution (it’s continuance, its reputations etc etc) becomes more important than the principles it represents and those principles are sacrificed to the needs of the institution. The obvious example is cover ups of sexual abuse. These are very specific concerns and they don’t apply to every religious organisation.
    Then there is something far more personal which is my difficulties with Christian doctrine (as opposed to Jesus’ teaching) and that is I am far more interested in the immediate template for living that Jesus offered than on the theology of Christ’s divinity and the implications that has (that it somehow ‘guarantees’ the validity of his teaching – which to me rests on its integrity rather than any promise of eternal life in an unknowable future). So when you say that ‘Jesus is looking for real heart change’ this is the point at which I respect your experience of your faith and hope you can accept mine – I don’t experience Jesus in the way I believe you do as a living ‘actor’ with whom we interact. This preparedness to respect – and indeed celebrate – difference is the key for me – because we live in an age where people of different faiths and none are being pitted against one another. I see the true divide as being between those who can live in mutual respect and those who can’t tolerate any deviation from the true faith as they interpret it. Your faith clearly leads you to do wonderful things and if I don’t share your experience of the divine in quite the same way it doesn’t mean that I can’t be grateful that you do.
    So please don’t think I don’t value the work that churches do (and yes, you’re quite right, journalists don’t stick around and provide people material help and emotional support very often). That wasn’t what I was trying to say. All the best
    Jonathan

    • Andy Lancaster. says:

      HI and thanks Jonathan, I understand your point entirely and wholeheartedly agree.

      Thats why I love the writings of people like Dallas Willard, or Scot McKnight.
      Authentic Christianity is following Jesus and doing what he said. Religion can be a terrible block on this happening.
      Its this real Christianity (I agree) that is so often missing. The problem for defensive old reactionary’s like me is that the word religion is sometimes used to mean Christianity. Authentic Christianity is not simply a religion. It is a life style.

      I think my last paragraph was very harsh and I apologize for it.

      All I can say is, that out of the limelight, there are literally millions of people round the world simply trying to live as Jesus calls them to. I am trying to be one of them!!

      Thanks again sincerely for the blog, I have really enjoyed it since i discovered it while looking for a recipe for green tomato chutney! God moves…etc!
      Take care, and have a great week, Andy.

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