With the Papal visit to the UK taking place this week, there has been much comment in the news about the state of the church, about the problems of religion (and by that they mean traditional organised religions - in particular Christianity) and why the Papal visit is wrong as only a minority have any religious faith.
Now many of these critics - in fact most of them - are what we called secularists. Secularism says that those of religious belief should be in a separate group of people, and although people should be free to express it they should keep it private and separate, and that governments should be free of religious input. Many secularists say that schools of religious faith are bad as they force religion on people from a young age, and think we should have schools which again encourage the distinction. Many secularists believe the scientific explanation of the world, and that something is only true if proven scientifically or historically, if there is hard evidence. They often believe we should all be educated as though these are facts, and that religions don't have evidence to support them so can be taught almost as alternative views to the world to their, correct, proven one. They believe they have the right to impose this view of the world on people because it’s the proven, correct one. Some are very aggressive and confrontational in their views, and are constantly attacking religious people for how wrong they are and criticising them at any turn, as they think they have that right given their opinions are in fact, proven facts.
Any of these types of thing sound familiar?
Dividing people into groups, looking inwards, trying to covert people to their point of view, sometimes agressively, have a system for funnelling their believes through and claim to have evidence for their beliefs. The very things that many of them accuse 'religious' people of doing. Interesting.
Now, lets look quickly at religion.
Here are a couple of dictionary definitions of religion:
'a set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature and purpose of the universe'
'a specific set of beliefs and practices generally agreed on by a number of persons or sects'
The dictionary definitions do mention God, but only on general terms. It doesn't say they always have to involve some higher power or god of any kind whatsoever. So actually, when you look at the real definition of a religion, then essentially anyone who has any particular worldview, or opinion as to how we got here, or has any kind of belief in a way of life and a number of people agree with it, then its a religion. I'm guessing many of you know now that Jedi is now an official religion, as so many people have declared themselves such.
Well when you look at it that way, secularism sounds a lot like a religion, which would make its followers 'religious'. In fact, it pretty much means that all of us are religious in one way or another.
So back to secularism then.
Secularism is in my opinion the religion of our culture. This religion has many gods. It tells us that we are gods, but in fact the real gods are multinational corporations, television and advertisers, all telling us what to think, what we need, how our lives are lacking and will be made complete by purchasing certain goods. We go to places of worship - shopping centres for example - and because we are decieved into thinking we're in control, and we are free of control from outside forces. We think we are living how we want, no rules or boundaries apart from ones we set for ourselves
Secularism encourages us all to be individuals and that we all have the right to do and live however we want, as long as its not illegal and doesn't hurt anyone else. Oh, and as long as its not morally wrong.
It has no real, authoritative evidence for where these morals originally came from, it claims they come from our human nature, or previous cultural backgrounds or through evolution. But it actually provides no moral compass or basis for living in itself, and even its supporters recognise this.
However, there are subdivisions of this worldview. One is called consumerism, which is almost a relgion in itself, it could be argued it is the evolution of secularism, or a denomination of secularism.
Secularism - and consumerism - ultimately says that although we all have rights and freedoms as human beings, our worth comes from what we produce, from our status, wealth, achievements, character and talents. We don't have any intrinsic value, we have freedoms and we should all have equality of opportunity and choice. But what happens on a cultural level is that this encourages individualism and ultimately consumerism. In the end the concept of community is lost, there is little trust, people become very cyncial and the gap between the better off and worse off gets bigger.
Sound familiar? Yep, that's the world we live in ladies and gentlemen. Secularism is so great that a culture which is essentially founded on it is falling apart.
Not for me thanks.
Now, onto the way of Jesus, the Christian faith/worldview.
As I have said before, much to common misconception (even by some of its members), the way of Jesus is not a religion or religious system in itself, and you can't try to control or explain it fully through a systematic theology. Religion and theology will help explain it, in theory and concept, but it is not the boundary of it. Its not the practice of the Christian faith, its can't explain God fully and is merely about the theory. It helps us see in part, but not fully. Obviously with the definition of religion used above then Christianity is a religion. But the religion of Christianity is merely the theory, it is the concept of the Christian faith that we try to live.
Religion is a way to explore and understand the Christian faith, but it cannot fully explain it. It doesn't cover everything that the Christian faith and following Jesus is about.
Put it this way, religion is part of the Christian faith. But its only part of it.
Christian faith isn't just a set of beliefs about the universe. Its not just a set of practices or rules. If that's all it is, then it's just a club. Its just something you do as part of your life. That's the view of faith secularists have and encourage and that has become more and more prevalent even in some churches and Christians.
That, friends, is not what Jesus talks about in the Bible, its not what the scriptures speak of and its not what the early church modelled at all. This view encourages the view that there are distinctions between physical (bad) and spiritual (good), and that heaven and earth are separate places, and that heaven is somewhere we go where we die.
Nowhere in the scriptures does it say that if we believe in Jesus then when we die we go to heaven, and that that place is somewhere else.
It doesn't say that.
Yet somehow we've got this idea in our heads,
Let me explain this a bit, because this gets to the heart of the Christian message. The concept of Christianity as a set of rules we follow, and about us believing the right things so we go to heaven when we die (heard that before), is partially encouraged and even in one sense supports secularism but it also in Christian circles comes from a concept of faith which ignores how God originally made the world and starts with the fall. This way of seeing faith essentially begins the story in Genesis 3 with the fall and separation of heaven and earth. It ignores Genesis 1 & 2, where there is no distinction between heaven and earth, they are the same place. Everything is created good, not perfect, and given the ability to make more of itself. Human beings are invited to be co-creators and participators in God's plan for the world. In Revelation when Jesus comes back we see this in action. What started as a garden has become a city - a collection of gardens.
In this view, then what Jesus says about the kingdom of Heaven being here and now makes more sense. It makes the miracles have more sense, every time Jesus is showing them what the kingdom of Heaven is like. Endless provision. No death or sickness. In each act Jesus is bringing a sign - John even calls them as such - of what it will be when heaven and earth are the same place again. Paul talks about the cross being about Jesus reconciling to God all things in Heaven and earth. The literal translation reads 'all things'. The New Testament has several verses about the restoration of all things, reconciliation of all things and renewal of all things. Once again, all things means, literally, all things.
So there is no split worldview.
Heaven is a separate place right now, but only until Jesus returns. Following Jesus then is accepting the invitation through the cross to join in the great restoration project of God for heaven and earth, and playing our role in that. Its bringing the way of Jesus into our everyday, and seeing Jesus in the everyday, the common, the creation, the physical, in anything. It removes the need for the 'Christian' label - all music, art, created things have a glimpse of God in them and God can be found in all of them.
The action isn't somewhere else, its here.
This might help explain it further. In Old Testament times before Jesus, people could only hear from God through Priests, who were the only people allowed in the presence of God, behind the temple curtain.
However, when Jesus died the temple curtain was torn in two. It allowed the presence of God out, and broke down boundaries between God, His people and His creation. It allowed us to be able to meet personally with God and to see and experience Him in anything, anyone, anywhere, if we are only looking for Him.
The cross was about restoring all things to how they were in the beginning, when Heaven and earth were the same place, where there was perfect harmony between man and God. Every act is a spiritual act, everything is spiritual, God can be found anywhere.
Every time we do something which reflects the nature of God - even if we don't believe in Him - brings a bit of heaven to earth. Every time someone chooses the way of Jesus, it brings a bit of heaven to earth.
There is no distinction.
And God calls us not to do this alone, but in community. There are numerous 'one anothers' in the gospels. Jesus says to love one another - and ultimately, if everyone does this, then we will never be in need, we will never have to fear and we can all live at peace together. In harmony with each other and God - and the Bible says that's how it ultmately will be. So then there will ultimately only be one 'religion' and it won't be a religion as we use the term today.
It will just be how things are.
The role of church is, in this context, to reflect this to the outside world, to model this to the rest of creation and to be outward looking. Loving one another by definition means a church has to be outward looking, mission focussed, community focussed. It needs to be opening people's minds and hearts about how to see Jesus in the everyday and how better to bring Jesus into their every day, and be Jesus to the people around them. The role of church is to be a collective outpouring of this type of faith into the community around it, and to provide a support network, a place to be discipled, trained and encouraged in how to follow Jesus and discover Him in their everyday, about how to be Jesus in the everyday and how to see Him in the everyday. To break down the barriers in our communities that society has put up. Not emphasising our differences, not preaching at people and telling them what they aren't, but demonstrating with their actions that they have a different view of the world, that there is a better way to live and see the world. Showing people who they really are and that they are loved, valued and accepted as they are, where they are, and demonstrating that through our actions - both big and small.
The way of Jesus is about love, community, trust, serving, forgiveness, justice, grace and putting the other first. It is about non-violence, peace, and tells us that we all have a role to play in the restoration of the world to how it was originally intended.
It tells us we all have infinite and inherent worth from the moment of conception, without any stutus, talent or achievement. That no matter who we are or whatever our background or history, we all have inherent value and worth, and even if the worst happens we are never alone. It encourages us to take responsibility, but provides support, comfort and forgievness when we are in need or have messed up.
Religion can only partially explain this. The religion of Christianity helps us understand God better and know what the core beliefs around the way of Jesus are. Just like science explains the how of the universe and understand dimensions of God's creation.
But it cannot fully explain away the way of Jesus or the message of Jesus. It has boundaries, it's limited. God has no boundaries or limits apart from those He sets for Himself. And no matter how vast our imaginations are, we will never be able to fully explain or understand God completely, no matter what label we put on Him. Religion can tell us facts about God and about what followers of Jesus believe. But it can't fully comprehend, understand or explain them.
That's why when secularists and the like criticise the church or religion they miss the point. Christians and followers of Jesus - the church - aren't God. They aren't Jesus or the Holy Spirit. They are people who are trying to follow them, and by definition aren't perfect. The church do need to be better witnesses to our faith, and live our the true Christian life, not the boxed up, legalistic, tradition and cultural-based version of it. And the secularists and critics need to look beyond the church to the heart of the message of Jesus. The values of love, peace, justice, mercy and forgiveness. Those are at the core of the kind of world Jesus wants us to live in and bring to this world.
Finally of course, secularists need to have their eyes opened to the irony of their comments.
Secularism is a religion, and the dominant religious worldview of our culture and has been for decades.
Given the breakdown of community, rise in crime, increasing division and cynicism in our culture and above all the breakdown of families, increases in divorce rates and single parent families, and the continuing huge gap between rich and poor in our culture in that time, and the increasing lack of any moral compass in our culture, I would say its not really working. Would you?
In my opinion there is a much better way which makes much more sense. People just need to open their eyes to see it.