Wednesday, November 29, 2006

The difference between Christianity and religion

I venture that the last thing Jesus wanted to do was to start a new religion. Further, I suggest that Christianity has in fact become a religion, whether Christians choose to admit it or not. This leads me to conclude that on the whole, Christianity is missing Jesus' message.

Let me explain. Jesus was a revolutionary. Jesus wanted to right our relationships not only with God, but with others. His vision was the Kingdom of God, a radical new culture and society in which people experienced and enjoyed life as God had intented. This would be a life of freedom, love, compassion, kinship and kindness. It would free people from thinking about things wrongly, and from treating each other wrongly as a result. Jesus called people to follow his vision and believe in it, live for it, suffer for it, and even to die for it. And why? Because it is the only way the world will ever be free from the hurt of people's wrong thinking and wrong behaviour, and it is the only way we will ever experience such a world. Continue to live in this way, even into the new life after death promised to those who live in this way. This was the message of Jesus.

There was nothing particularly religious about his message. To the contrary, Jesus opposed the religious systems and thinking of the day. He opposed it because it missed the point of loving others, and even loving God. Jesus know God doesn't want people to concentrate on rituals, rules and propostional theories, but on loving others in a way that fits those called "children of God". Jesus didn't want to put in place more rituals and rules, but bring a whole new way of life that is built on the principle of love for other people.

What can we see of Christianity today? Thankfully, there are many followers of Jesus who have remained true to his message, and live according to it by loving others. Surely, these Christians deserve great commendation, because they increasingly seem to be a minority. It seems that more commonly, Christians have made Christianity a religion based on rules, rituals, and propositions.

Surely not! I hear you say. We are not saved by following rules! We only need to:
1) Accept that we are sinful and need Jesus to save us from hell
2) Believe and trust that Jesus paid the price for our sin on the cross so that God would give us access to heaven
3) Recieve the free gift of salvation.
4) Show our gratitude to him by praising and worshiping him.

And surely rituals aren't part of Christianity today? We merely go to church, sit in the pew, sing songs repeditively, close our eyes, lift our hands and mouth "Jesussss" quietly. We make our Christian network feel completely foriegn and religious to those outside Christian circles by the sort of language we use and the things we talk about - but that's not a sign of any rituals, is it? The secular world, who have not grown accustomed to our rituals, often see Christianity as being full of rituals.

These two things may not be the worst, for modern Christianity has born a whole new kind of religion - a religion based on propositions, doctrines, and beliefs. Of course, these things are necessary foundations for living in the way of the Kingdom of God - we need to see things more like Jesus did, think more like he did, and believe things more like he did. But these ideas are not the goal. They are not the message. They are not loving God and loving others.

Modern Christianity has made ideas, doctrines, beliefs and propositions more important than the practice of following the way of life Jesus urged us to follow. It has become so focussed on the glamourous, exotic, and esteemed "beliefs" that Jesus' down-to-earth, every-day, flesh-and-blood message has often been left aside. This is why I call modern Christianity a religion, because it has forgotten its cause and instead filled its vision with philosophies - as if philosophies were the point of the gospel.

Let me venture something even further - that propositional ideas, theories, doctrines and beliefs matter only in the extent that they affect how we love God and love others. Now I see many people who put Christians to shame in how they live, for they follow Jesus' message more faithfully than many Christians. Does it matter that they do not share the "Christian" doctrines of propitiation, soteriology, escatology, trinity and grace, when they have understood Jesus' message better than many Christians who believe these ideas? Far too many of the perspectives, ideas and doctrines in Christianity today bear no correlation to how we live - I dare say some even promote the very opposite of what Jesus wanted. These ideas don't matter because they aren't part of Jesus' message to love God and love others.

It is little wonder, then, that so few people in the world outside of Christianity are inclined to "convert" to Christianity these days - to attend our religious services and believe our religious ideas. They see it for what it is, religion, and people today want more than religion. But I wonder what would happen if Christianity regained the original focus that Jesus had, and began again to live as Jesus lived and love and Jesus loved. If Christianity returned to the simple, non-religious message to love that Jesus taught, perhaps it would be something worth other people believing in once again. I hope so, because it has made all the difference to me.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Ambiguity of Christian language and the science of faith

I’ve noticed recently that many people don’t explain what they mean very clearly. This lack of clarity is rampant in Christianity. Here, analogy and metaphor seem to dominate conversations and doctrine.

For example, I hear people often talk of “God working in us” or doing things “in God’s strength” – but very few people ever actually try to spell out what these actually mean. These “loaded” phrases encapsulate much more than the simple English interpretation (which often doesn’t make sense). Even single words become “loaded” with meaning that is sometimes quite different to the normal English usage. For example, I heard “grace” used to mean things like “favour”, “blessing”, “forgiveness” and “tolerance” – all in one Sunday morning service yesterday. These are only two of the endless examples.

For some reason, Christians don’t use language that is particularly clear. Now it’s fine if the people someone talks to share the same idea of all the words and phrases – but what if they don’t? I think this happens often, and people don’t realised that their using the words and phrases to mean slightly (or significantly) different things. This opens up room for misunderstandings (especially with people unfamiliar with the terms). More commonly, though, I find that when pressed to describe some of the loaded terms clearly, Christians either use other loaded terms or simply say “it’s a mystery.”

It is this last response that troubles me. Most Christians these days have no problem with the idea that they don’t clearly understand their Christian faith and how it “works”. It’s “beyond our ability to understand”. It’s “the unfathomable depth of the gospel”. We “don’t need to understand it, just believe it”.

But if you don’t understand what you believe, then you don’t really know what you believe. If you can’t explain it clearly using normal English language, then you don’t really know what your faith really is. And this is exactly what we see – Christianity is terribly confused by the dozens of different groups who all use loaded terms differently. Many Christians think Christianity obviously doesn’t need to be clearly understood because Christians obviously don’t clearly understand it.

I think Christianity can be understood and explained in clear and non-jargon language. And I think it should be. We can apply clear language in the sciences, mathematics, law, and countless other professions – why not speak clearly about our Christianity?

Yes, why not? Here’s why - because I’ve found that sometimes Christians don’t actually like the clearly stated versions of their beliefs. They find it necessary to be deliberately vague and endlessly caveat their beliefs, lest they actually say something definite. So, for example, when talking about “grace” they may say things like “We are so sinful and yet God graciously overlooks what we do”, but then need to caveat that with “but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to imitate Jesus”. Then they need to caveat that with “but we shouldn’t strive, we should let God work in us to change us into his likeness”. Then caveat that with, “but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.” Then, noting that “trying” is a lot like “striving”, they might add, “but it should be because we love God for saving us, and not to try to please him so he gives us eternal life” and “plus, all our good works count for nothing anyway.” Then, noting that that makes imitating Jesus seem useless, they might say, “It’s lucky God is the one working in us then, isn’t it? We just have to be open to him.” Then, noticing their lack of Christ-like-ness, they cheerfully respond “Isn’t it so good that God is in control, so it’s all working together for good anyway!” and perhaps link back to their first idea about “grace”.

I’ve seen conversations like this many times. I think Christians aren’t clear about their beliefs for two reasons: 1) they don’t understand them clearly 2) if they did they wouldn’t actually agree with half of the ideas they believe. It is this second one that I’ve found by simply trying to restate what other Christians say clearly back to them, to clarify what their saying. They say something, I clarify it, and then they disagree with it. It’s fascinating and sad all at the same time.

I’ve learned that many Christians don’t like my scientific, engineering approach to Christianity. I like to pin ideas down, lay them out clearly, and see and understand how they work. The Christian faith to me is a bit like learning to play the piano, a skill that you learn through practice that ultimately changes how you do things. I like to figure it out. Many Christians don’t share my view, though. Many Christians seem to approach Christianity like a piece of modern art. They look at it and think, “wow”, and that is enough for them. They don’t feel the need to clarify and explain the mechanics of Christianity because they don’t think Christianity works that way – they don’t see it as being a way of life. Instead, they see it as something added to their lives that benefits them. They think that by trying to figure it out and learn the “skill” of Christianity, I’ve missed the point because Christianity isn’t supposed to be “figured out” but simply “accepted” (this is modern “faith”, of course).

So, is Christianity more like a piece of art or something that you don’t need to understand, or more like a skill that is learned and understood and developed? If people view it as the former, there is no problem with vague descriptions of it that are open to interpretation. But if it is like the latter, then unless we are clear about it then people won’t be very skilful at living as followers of Jesus. Is Christianity something you need to understand to live by, or something you can accept “by faith” without understanding? Should Christianity be clear? Should it make sense?