The “R” Word

In March 2011 I sat down to complete my UK Census form. For the most part it was straightforward and uncontroversial, but then I reached a question and my heart sank. I had to make a decision about whether to lie or to express my beliefs.

I chose to lie.

What question could cause me such a dilemma? Why would I lie? Here is the question:

20 What is your religion?

  • No religion
  • Christian (including Church of England, Catholic, Protestant and all other Christian denominations)
  • Buddhist
  • Hindu
  • Jewish
  • Muslim
  • Sikh
  • Any other religion, write in ____________________________

Ever since I was saved, and for a short while before that, I’ve had it drummed into me, from preachers, from God’s word in the New Testament, and from the Holy Spirit’s influence within my heart and mind – that I don’t have a religion, I have a relationship with God through His Son and my Lord Jesus Christ. My faith is in Him, and my relationship with Him is what persuades me to do things that the world might consider “religious”. But to me, religion is the law, religion is doing what I’m told out of fear of consequences, religion is following traditions for their own sake, or to fit in to a group. It is so many wrong things.

I wrote about religion in my John Lennon post. I referred to what I consider to be Jesus’ response to that religion which I just described, found in Matthew 23, from verse 13. I don’t want any part of religion, and I don’t want to be thought of as religious.

I haven’t read any of his books yet, but whenever I’ve heard Richard Dawkins speak about his atheism, I can only recall him rallying against ‘religion’, rather than particular faiths. Yes, he will use an Old Testament example of his “evil God” idea, but the main thrust of his argument seems to be against religion in general, and the way he thinks it stops people from thinking critically or objectively because it forces people (especially vulnerable children) to accept blindly and unconditionally what the religious leaders tell them.

This isn’t the Christianity I recognise. I am expected to test the spirit of those who teach (2 Corinthians 11:3-4, Hebrews 13:9, 1 John 4:1). I am expected to give the reason for the hope I have (1 Peter 3:15).

Maybe there was once a definition of religion that concerned itself with obedience to God’s commands out of the love of God – a reflection, or consequence, of our faith, rather than being its own purpose. Maybe this is the religion we see mentioned in the Bible, for example in James 1:26-27. But the definition in common use today seems very different.

So I was strongly tempted to answer the Census question with “No religion,” but I realised that this would be a hollow kind of protest against a poorly worded question. And I would be reducing the official count of Christians in the country, which definitely felt like a foolish thing to do. So I chose to read “religion” as “faith” and answered it accordingly.

I’m reminded of my Census quandary every time I read or hear the word “religion” in the media. And it still troubles me. But why do I have such a problem with the word? Am I just making a big fuss over nothing? Am I getting tied up in an argument about semantics and does it hinder me when I want to spread the good news of Christ’s sacrifice for our salvation? I think probably yes, and I think I need to get over it. I include “Religion” as a category for my posts because I think it is something people will search for. It hurts a bit to do so, but perhaps I’m making a start in my rehabilitation.

What do you think? Words are important, and we need to use them wisely, precisely, to be properly understood. Has religion become a barrier between man and God? Does the word “religion” and its connotations form another kind of barrier? Or is it commonly understood in a more positive light than I see it myself?

Imagining John Lennon as a Christian

I don’t know everything he said, and of course even less so everything he thought, or how his views and beliefs changed throughout his life, but I think it’s reasonable to say, from my limited knowledge, that John Lennon didn’t consider himself a Christian. he gave quite a strong hint in 1966 when he said:

Christianity will go. It will vanish and shrink. I needn’t argue about that. I’m right and i will be proved right. We’re more popular than Jesus now; I don’t know which will go first, rock ’n’ roll or Christianity.

But I was thinking about “Imagine” yesterday, and the idea came to me… I wonder whether there would be much negative reaction if one of today’s popular Christian songwriters were to pen these words:

Imagine there’s no countries
It isn’t hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too
Imagine all the people living life in peace

You may say I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one
I hope some day you’ll join us
And the world will be as one

Imagine no possessions
I wonder if you can
No need for greed or hunger
A brotherhood of man
Imagine all the people sharing all the world

You may say I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one
I hope some day you’ll join us
And the world will live as one

I’ll grant you that there probably isn’t enough direct reference to God, Jesus or the Holy Spirit in there, but look at the words. I’ve omitted the first verse for obvious reasons, but we’ll return to that later. In the lyric above I can see echoes of so much of what Jesus said during his earthly ministry.

Imagine there’s no countries… I think of Luke 10:25-37, the parable of the good Samaritan, which Jesus tells in answer to the question “Who is my neighbour?”

Nothing to kill or die for… in the sermon on the mount, Matthew 5:43-44, Jesus says

You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you.

Also consider the description of the new heaven and new earth in Revelation 21:4

He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.

And no religion too… no religion! Yes, read what Jesus had to say about religion, the soulless hypocritical show of tradition and law; the total opposite of the relationship with God, our Father, that Christ exemplifies. You can find his statement on the subject in Matthew 23:1-36. He doesn’t sit on the fence.

Imagine all the people living life in peace…

“Blessed are the peacemakers, For they shall be called sons of God.” (Matthew 5:9)

Imagine no possessions… no need for greed or hunger… in Matthew 6:25-34, Jesus exhorts us not to worry about such things as clothes and food, which we will be provided with if we first seek God. This is straight after He warns us not to serve mammon – money. Also look at His instructions when sending out the apostles to preach the gospel and heal the sick, the simple lifestyle described through Matthew 10:9-10.

I hope some day you’ll join us, And the world will be as one… A brotherhood of man, Imagine all the people sharing all the world… it reminds me of Jesus’ prayer for unity in John 17:20-23:

I do not pray for these alone, but also for those who will believe in Me through their word; that they all may be one, as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You; that they also may be one in Us, that the world may believe that You sent Me. And the glory which You gave Me I have given them, that they may be one just as We are one: I in them, and You in Me; that they may be made perfect in one, and that the world may know that You have sent Me, and have loved them as You have loved Me.

I also think of Paul’s description of the church in 1 Corinthians 12:12-26, which starts:

For as the body is one and has many members, but all the members of that one body, being many, are one body, so also is Christ. For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free—and have all been made to drink into one Spirit.

It seems that the kind of world John Lennon is imagining looks very similar to the one that Jesus pointed to, and that Christians are praying for and working towards.

So what does he have against Christianity? Why is he so convinced that it will go? Maybe the answer is in that first verse, the one I can’t imagine Matt Redman writing…

Imagine there’s no heaven
It’s easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us only sky
Imagine all the people living for today

Lennon is looking for a world where everyone lives for today. In itself I don’t see that as an un-Christian way of living. Jesus taught us not to worry about tomorrow, not to store up treasures on earth. The difference is that Christ tells us to store up treasures in heaven. But Lennon doesn’t want heaven or hell, because (in my opinion) he doesn’t want to face the consequences of those places being real. It’s too difficult to live by the all the rules that have been written down in scripture, and if the consequence of breaking those laws is eternal damnation, well I can understand why that would worry him.

This world view seems to be laid bare in his song “God” in which he finally claims “I just believe in me.” Self-reliance and self-determination are sweet incentives to draw you into atheism, but they are delusions, and truth is rather that “No man is an island entire of itself.”

The fact is that it is too difficult to live by God’s laws, and be “righteous” by ourselves. We can all look at our lives and see so many reasons why we don’t deserve to go to heaven. And that’s because we simply don’t. We’ve disobeyed the eternal, omnipotent ruler of the universe so many times and that makes us deserving of eternal punishment.

But God loves us and understands our weakness, our imperfection, our inability to live up to His standard. So He’s given us an escape route, another chance, he offers us salvation in the form of Jesus Christ, sent not only to show us the perfect example of how to live, but in His death to take the punishment that would otherwise be ours. Accept Jesus as your Lord, and your Saviour, and you are clothed in His righteousness, accepted by God.

You don’t have to imagine no heaven and no hell. You can live for today without fear of tomorrow. You can live in peace, in a brotherhood of man, eliminating greed and hunger. You can do it without nationalism or xenophobia, and without religion. All you need is love – God is love. (1 John 4:16)

A Final Word…

While I was researching the notion that “Imagine” is an atheist anthem for the purpose of this blog post, I came across the following article which runs along very similar lines to my own, but with (mostly) different scriptural references. You might be interested to read the opinion of a Professor of Theology and Public Issues and compare it to mine – I’m never likely to be a professor of anything!

http://www.odt.co.nz/opinion/opinion/141124/faith-and-reason-imagine-really-atheist