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.”
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.
But 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.