Who cares what we believe?

This is the third in a series of blog pieces describing the place to which my faith journey has taken me. Out of these scattered thoughts, I am constructing a new creed, or rather I should say WE are constructing a new creed because these are not original thoughts. They arise from discussions, books, doubts, hopes and a profound feeling of HOPE for the emergence of a new kind of Christianity.

For each of these posts, I will try to follow the same format;

An introduction.

A look at the old paradigm.

A look at the new.

Finally, a ‘statement of faith’

Ironic, huh, given that am writing a creed? But what does it all matter, really? Who cares what you or I believe? What difference does it make to anything?

I think this might be an appropriate moment to step to one side from all this creed making to ask the question once more- what is the point of faith? Would we not be better off without all this defining and categorising of what is, after all, essentially unknowable and ineffable?

What makes people (like Patrick Hamilton, above) willing to die to preserve what they choose to believe?

Consider how much time and energy we have wasted in the past trying to map correct doctrinal positions on a huge range of complex social and theological issues; marriage after divorce; the virgin birth; homosexuality (particularly this one); what happens when we die; leadership by women; predestination; original sin- I could go on and on.

Does some of this not remind you of the so-called medieval debates about how many angels might fit on the head of a pin? (Although it turns out that this might have been fake news.)

I ask again; does any of this matter?

You shall know the truth…

This is the answer that I grew up with. Faith was mostly about defining propositional, correct, bible-based ‘truth’.

It went something like this; we were told that God was the answer to all our questions about life. We were often given those questions, pre-formed, followed by a set of answers so we could be sure to have ready ammunition with which to answer other people’s… questions. The whole nature of faith was set up as a kind of information exchange, known euphamistically as ‘The Good News’. If people were told the Good News in the correct way they must surely be convinced. If not, then they were in effect choosing hell over heaven, and who in their right mind would want to do that?

Let’s pause for a moment and consider the words ‘Good News’. Even as a young man, I always considered it a hard sell. The ‘Good News’ went something like this; 1. We are all sinners and so will be going to Hell. 2. But God so loved the world that he sent his son Jesus to die in our place. 3. If you accept Jesus as you personal Lord and Saviour then this escape clause will apply to you. Good News indeed.

We will return to this subject later, but I would argue that the theological thinking that fueled this kind of religion has given us a whole lot of problems;

  1. It places evangalism (saving souls from eternal damnation) as the single most important action for Christians. (Contrast that with the example and teaching of Christ, who seems much more concerned with acts of love, and had very little to say about saving souls.)
  2. It sets up a narrow gate through which people can enter (making frequent use of the ‘narrow’ passages in the Bible.) This becomes an us-and-them, dualistic thing in which ‘we’ are good and ‘they’ are bad. It sets up a kind of faith-as-opposition. Faith-as-warfare. (Contrast that with Christ’s way of radically including outsiders and seeking peace with enemies.)
  3. The business of religion becomes focussed on the next world, rather than this one. Good works are useful only as much as they might save souls. (As opposed to Christ’s way of living a life motivated first and foremost by active love.)
  4. The business of religious is to follow a narrow religious code that confirms that we are one of ‘us’ rather than one of ‘them’. (Remember that they called out Jesus for hanging out with tax collectors and prostitutes.)

This kind of religion leads us down problematic paths- consider what is happening in the USA at the moment under president Trump. The good Chrsitian majority is solidly behind Trump, because he is seen as being ‘God’s Choice’ – not because people necessarily like him, or approve of his immoral and boastful life style, but because he offers the best way to deliver on a narrow agenda. His trashing of environmental protections is not a problem, nor his inflamatory language about immigrants and his rampant Islamophobia, so long as he protects the elect and their ability to dictate on certain moral choices. It is a religion that puts itself on a war footing to protect its own ‘religious freedoms’ but somehow manages to entirely miss the point.

Those of us that grew up in and around protestant evangelicalism in this country will nod wisely at this, as if the American bible belt religion is different- but let me tell you, it is not. It is the same. The language used, the songs we sing, the codes of belief. It is all the same. The major difference is one of scale, which lends the American religious institutions power.

So- back to that question again- does it matter what we believe?

Or, as John Lennon famously suggested in his song ‘Imagine’, what if there were no religion at all- no belief systems to ascribe to- would things not be better?

…and the truth will set you free

The answer to Lennon’s question is of course entirely personal, but it must also depend on what we mean by ‘religion’.

Take Jesus, for example. He seemed to be struggling with exactly the same kind of thing- perhaps it might be useful to think a little about his religious and political reality.

There is an interesting discussion in one of Brian McLarens books (The secret message of Jesus) where he talks about the crisis facing the Jewish leaders at the time of Jesus birth and early life. Jewish culture and history had been overwhelmed by an invading force. The Roman Empire had annexed Israel, and set up its headquarters in Jerusalem, the city of God. All good Jews awaited the coming of Messiah, who would overcome this evil empire and establish a new Kingdom.

But Messiah seemed to be taking his time, and in the waiting the different stratifications and sects within Judean society adopted fixed positions, partially in response to the crisis. Here are some of them;

Essenes. The Essenes all but gave up on Jewish society. It was too sinful, too decadent. They withdrew to the desert, where they sought to establish new communities based on austerity, religious observance and piety. The trappings of Jewish society were spurned, and the Essenes focused their effort and attention on the study of scripture, and the coming Kingdom of Heaven.

What their response to Jesus was, it is not clear. They may have been scandalized by his engagement with ordinary life and ordinary people. They may have been appalled by his apparent party-going, feasting and drinking with unclean and debauched individuals. They may have struggled to understand what he meant by statements like The Kingdom of God is here.

Pharisees. The Pharisees were the evangelicals of their day. They represented to new, they were a working class protest against the upper class Sadducee orthodoxy. They popularised a way of faith that seemed in direct repsonse to the disaster of Roman invasion and occupation. They espoused the strict observance of rigid religious codes and laws. They evolved complex legal systems to give shape to every situation, built from the raw material of the Laws given to Moses. Ritual purification through sacrifice and attendance at synagogue and temple was expected of all Pharisees. They also eagerly awaited Messiah, who they saw as heralding a new pure and glorious Jewish Kingdom.

For these Pharisees, the reason that Messiah did not come was because of the sinful state of the nation. Every where there was impurity. Sexual immorality, political compromise and accommodation with the enemy, unclean and unworthy people. So they set out on a mission to clean up society.

Jesus seemed to have no time for the Pharisees at all nor they for him. Rather he was seen to hangout with impure and unworthy individuals and to break all sorts of religious laws. He taught a perversion of correct doctrinal law, and kept going on about love and forgiveness.

Jesus suggested a radically different path. A radically different New Kingdom.

Herodians. The Kings Herod (there were quite a few different ones) were puppet rulers of a Roman province. Their power came from compromise and political maneuvering. They also had a dreadful reputation for debauchery, incestuous relationships, and murder. Their followers were largely the Jewish ruling class. They were pragmatic realists who may not have liked the situation that the nation found itself in, but recognized the futility of struggle, and the need for peace and stability.

Jesus threatened stability, because people said he was Messiah. But confusingly, he did not seem to be setting himself against the Romans. He told people to continue to pay taxes, and even HEALED family members of Roman soldiers.

But there was all this talk about the NEW KINGDOM, which was clearly treasonous…

Zealots. The Zealots wanted the nation to rise against the oppressor. They lived with the stories of David and Jonathan, who fought in the power of God. If but a few would rise up, surely this would herald the coming of Messiah? After all, was this not the PURPOSE of Messiah?

Jesus invited a Zealot into his inner circle. A man called Judas Iscariot. He seemed to have many of the attributes of a revolutionary. But his message of peace and the loving of enemies found no allies within the ranks of the Zealots.

If there was a New Kingdom, then where was the King, and where were his armies?

Does this have any relevance to the the debates about faith and belief today? I think it does.

  • We might seek to remove ourselves from sinful culture entirely, giving up on this world, and look to the next (like the Essenes, and like the American Evangelicals)
  • Or we might seek to hold back the tides of immorality and impure doctrine, to defend the faith (like the Pharisees and like some of the dwindling British Evangelicals)
  • Or perhaps we should just realize that Church has to accommodate and compromise with the changing world about us (like the Herodians, and like much of state organised religion)
  • Finally, perhaps we could fight a Guerrilla warfare against the opposition. We could start to see the enemy as less than human, and that all is fair in the holy game of war (like the Zealots, or Islamic terror movements or other Christian groups in our history such as the Covenanters.)

So, religious belief (theological fomations made popular) can get us into a mess, but they can also lead us out again, as we seek new expression of truth. New ways to imagine and engage with the ways of love.

That kind of truth can literally set us free. Free that is from a different kind of truth that might have become a prison for ourselves and for others. Think about this for a moment…

If truth no longer sets us free, perhaps it is not a truth at all. Perhaps it has become ‘religion’, managed by the power of a priesthood whose tenets and codes have to be called out in to the open. Repeatedly. Generationally.

Because there is no final version of this kind of truth- rather there is good, and better. There is now, and there is where we are travelling towards.

(A)theism

I think that what I a proposing here is a kind of faith that is driven by principles rather than doctrinal detail. A faith that accepts that what ever it thinks it knows about the divine will be limited and incomplete. A faith that knows its truth to be not fully true, so will always be seeking something deeper.

If you want to read more about this kind of truth thing, you might like to make an adventure into some of Pete Rollins’ writing, particularly the rather wonderful How (not) to speak of God. In this book he kind of makes these points;

The life of faith is a life of contradiction. Therefore all things we think we know about God, when we really stop and think- we do not really know after all.

All the tenets of faith we were given as absolutes are (not) true.

Faith is formed as we learn to become faithful betrayers of our inherited traditions.

Faith is formed as we  learn our status as (A)theists, because belief is a very human construct in which we manage our uncertainties and incomplete understandings by making qualitied statements.

Like this one.

I beleive that belief matters, because our actions are shaped by our belief, for bothgood and ill, but truth, wherever we find it, can easily become a trap that concretes us into our comfort zones. The way of Jesus was often to confound our limited formations and call us to journey towards new, better ones. He also showed us that all doctrine should ALWAYS be subjected to the primacy of love.

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