Tuesday, 8 February 2011

RELIGION OR RELATIONSHIP?

According to Dr Patrick Dixon, the futurologist, the recent events in Tunisia and Egypt mean that countries such as Syria, Iran, and Saudi Arabia are all now at far greater risk of popular uprising. Dixon’s views cannot be easily dismissed as he has had some 13 million visitors to his web page (www.globalchange.com), 3.5 million video views, is the author of 14 books, and is reckoned to be one of the 20 most influential business thinkers in the world today. Dixon’s views would appear to be shared by Barak Obama and David Cameron, who are concerned that regime change in these countries will lead to them ultimately being taken over by militant Islamic extremists … with the obvious threat to world peace.

Although David Cameron was at pains to distinguish between the religious and political aspects of Islam, in his recent speech at the 47th Munich Security Conference, he is clearly na├»ve in believing such a division is possible. Islam is, and always has been, as much a political movement as a religious one and sees no real division between religion and politics, indeed for a Moslem the political element is a key dimension of true religion. The aim of every true Moslem is to ultimately see the whole world governed by Islamic ideology and law. In many respects this is not too dissimilar from the idea of a State Church ideology held by Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant (primarily at the time of the Reformation) Christians. (The exception to this were the ‘evangelical Anabaptists’ who were seen as the ‘left-wing of the Reformation’ and wanted to carry the reformation of the church further than Luther, or later Calvin, were prepared to do.) Now faith should influence the way we vote, and even which political party we support, so it has a religious dimension, but that is not the same as saying that religion and politics are head and tails of the same coin. Indeed, I would want to argue that, religion is indeed the cause of much of this world’s problems. The tragic religious conflicts between countries such as Armenia and Azerbaijan, Serbia and Bosnia, and Israel and Palestine are only a few examples of what happens when religion and state are united and not separate. Jesus, however, did not come to shore up religion … indeed most of his criticisms were reserved for the religious. True Christianity is not a religion but a relationship … and relationship with God in Christ … and a relationship with other people as a result.

When Jesus began his public preaching and teaching ministry, his first recorded words (to a couple of fishermen standing by their nets) were, ‘Come, follow me … and I will send you out to fish for people’ [Matthew 4:19]. Nothing about being religious, nothing about observing all kinds of religious rules and regulations, nothing about any kind of fanaticism … just a simple invitation to follow Jesus, as a person and in a particular way of living. Jesus calls them saying something like, ‘Here, after me.’ This call clearly points to a lasting association … Jesus is not inviting them to a pleasant stroll along the seashore but inviting them to a life of discipleship, a life of personal attachment to, and relationship with, Jesus himself. To this Jesus adds a promise. Follow me in this way, he says, and ‘I will make you fishers of people’. What we have here is a somewhat cryptic saying, a ‘condensed parable’ if you like. At this early stage these fishermen could not have known Jesus well, nor could they have had any depth of insight into his mission … but clearly fishing for people had a greater dignity than fishing for fish so in this allegorical connecting of their present and future ways of life they must have discerned that Jesus was inviting them to a way of life that was very worthwhile. It is no longer a question of taking fish from the lake, but drawing men and women up out of the abyss of sin and death, of mere religion, of an empty and wasted way of life, catching them in the great net of God.

Political systems are essential for the smooth running of national and international affairs … take away politics and you are left with anarchy … but any political system, in and of itself, is at best simply a framework. It is what that framework supports that is important … the values and virtues that make society a good society. Religion, in and of itself, does not necessarily provide the answer. Whilst the word ‘religion’ is used on occasions in the New Testament to signify ‘the reverential worship of God’, it is more often used to signify ‘religion in its external aspect’ … the politics of religion if you like. Sadly, as a result, all of the world’s great religions have too often been characterised by pride, exclusiveness, legalism, intolerance, violence and bloodshed. What a contrast to the lifestyle Jesus espoused and modelled, and wants us to espouse and model also. When the religious people of Jesus’ day ganged up on him, and attempted to entrap and discredit him with a trick question about God’s commandments, Jesus told them that basically there were only two things God requires of us, namely that we should ‘Love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, and mind … and love others as we love ourselves’ [Matthew 22:37,39]. What God requires of us is not simply a personal commitment of our lives to him, through Jesus Christ, but a lifestyle modelled on Jesus himself: loving God and others, being inclusive, accepting others for what they are, doing the right thing, tempering judgment with mercy, being a people of peace, exercising a ministry of reconciliation, and so on. It is this kind of life, rather than a ‘religious’ life, that draws people to God and ultimately makes a difference.