Sunday, March 30, 2008

entering the fray

Some of you have probably been paying attention to my recent post on "the purpose of religion". Chrisp was probably right when he said that no-one would have the strength to wade through 25 posts, and perhaps I should have stormed in with the pepper spray and called it quits.

However, I've not had time to respond for a while, but have some thoughts of my own. So to quote the wedding service I attended yesterday, "for richer for poorer, for better, for worse...", I shall now make an attempt to distill some of my thoughts.

I was hoping to tag a comment on the end but there seem to be some technical difficulties with that, so I'm taking the rather brave step of putting it all in a whole new post. On the plus side, some of you probably wouldn't have bothered scrolling down anyway, This would have been comment number 26 on this post, so I hope you'll forgive me if I don't respond to everything, if I've missed something important, or if I've grasped the wrong end of the stick. All sorts of issues have arisen, and I will try now to address one or two points.

Firstly, I'm not happy with the way that the debate degenerated and became unnecessarily personal. I like to keep an open mind, but I am nonetheless disappointed in this case. Scott, I think I've been critical of your posting before, and although I don't want to point the finger squarely at you, I'm not exactly impressed. I hate it when people uphold expectations of the way others should behave (as even Christians sometimes get it wrong, believe it or not), but at the same time, your behaviour hasn't exactly been a great Christian witness. For a start, I'd expect a bit more humility, and although the debate has been heated, may I remind you that you are afforded the luxury of thinking about what you write before you hit 'post'.

Anyway, moving on. The first issue which I'd like to think about is the idea that as a Christian I am "duty bound to explode the theories of others". I couldn't agree more that Christians should stand up for, and defend their faith. In fact, I would go one further and note that we are called to preach the Gospel and "make disciples of all nations". I'd also agree that it's often good to engage in debate, but "duty bound to explode the theories of others" sounds as though it's bordering dangerously on the blinkered, arrogant, and "Bible Bashing". For a start, if someone has a theory that there is no God, I cannot disprove them. If I could, I wouldn't have any 'faith' per se.

It's all part and parcel of the issue of accepting that other people have a different viewpoint. As a Christian, I believe that accepting Jesus is important for everyone, not just my fellow believers. Of course I find it sad when friends choose not to believe, and ultimately, if I believe that I am right, then yes, logically, I must believe that others are wrong. But no amount of bashing them over the head is going to change that. If it could, someone would have got there before me and we'd all be believers by now. Indeed, when Jesus sent people out, he didn't say "stay there and explode their theories until they've seen the light", he said "if they don't accept you, shake the dust off your feet and move on". Obviously, this doesn't mean that I should neglect my duty to stand up for my faith and preach the message, and neither am I about to abandon friendships with those who disagree with me; however, at the end of the day it's important to remember that as Christians we might claim to be "saved by God", but not "JP who repeated himself until it got through our thick skulls".

Another issue which has arisen from this debate seems to be that of setting Christians apart from other religious people. I disagree with whichever anonymous person said that to do this was questionable; is my judgment as questionable for not thinking that as an atheist you must have exactly the same views as Joseph Stalin? There are times when it is acceptable to view all "religious" people as a whole. There are, after all, some things which hold true across the board. But at other times, a distinction must be made. Buddhists don't believe in a God as such, and so the nature of my 'religion' is fundamentally different. Muslims believe that to get in to heaven you must live a good life such that the good outweighs the bad. As a Christian I believe that I can't get to heaven on my own merit, but that God will welcome me anyway if I repent and accept him. I could go on. Furthermore, when entering in to a debate like this, as a Christian, I am going to see it more from that viewpoint than any other. It's just the way these things go.

I don't deny that you don't have to be a Christian to live your life in a particular way. Neither do I deny the fact that Christianity hasn't been immune to corruption. As I said above, even Christians get it wrong, and the self-centredness I talked about in my original post creeps in at all sorts of levels. That classic "please sit somewhere else because this is my pew and I always sit here" is just one (perhaps trivial) example.

However, whoever made the point that fundamentalist Christians aren't known for blowing themselves and others up did actually make a fair point. Just because a religion has demonstrated extremes with such devastating consequences doesn't mean that all religions must form such extremes. Furthermore, although atrocities have been committed by religious people "in the name of God", talk of "Holy War" and "Jihad" is usually peppered with talk of "receiving glory for being a martyr" and on that basis my point stands that it's not belief in God which is the problem, but the self-centredness of humanity.

Finally, back to the issue of worshipping God. I can see that from an atheistic "god-less" point of view, the idea of putting a god first is difficult. But look at it from another point of view. I believe in a God who created the Universe and all that is in it. A God who created the people around me. A God who wants us to enjoy his world. A God who loves us and likes us to relate to Him. A God who answers prayer. A God who has given an assurance of life eternal. On that basis, to rank anything above God is foolish and illogical.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Socks and Helium Balloons

I think that perhaps Gareth was right, when he implied that this post is perhaps in danger of causing a riot. Underneath it all there is an interesting debate going on, and I shall wade in with my thoughts in due course, but there’s been another small drought in this Corner of the Blogosphere recently, and I feel that I should address that issue first.

If you were the one who received a random text last Wednesday reassuring you that I was wearing Wednesday’s socks I apologise for the inconvenience. It was an ‘in joke’ (he says, trying not to admit too obviously to the fact he has Days of the Week Socks, on the basis that it might not be A Good Thing). However, as per the second half of the message, if you did happen to have a cold, I do genuinely hope that it’s better.

Wednesday was a particular day of Faux Pas for me, but it was all quite amusing. Being Holy Week (the week preceding Easter), I took part in a church service that evening as part of a series looking reflecting on the events leading up to Jesus’ death and resurrection*. The service was great, though that’s a slight digression from this particular anecdote. The fact is that I was in church. The other fact you need to know as I set the scene is that it was someone’s birthday and as a result, they were in possession of a couple of helium balloons as we mingled after the service.

One thing lead to another and one of the balloons ended up being released, coming to rest way up under the vaulted ceiling. For several reasons, this was not good. At the best of times, it isn’t especially desirable to adorn the ceiling of a church with a bright pink balloon, but it was particularly bad during Holy Week. It is, after all, meant to be a fairly sombre time of reflection. Furthermore, the following day was Maundy Thursday, when the church is symbolically stripped of all decoration during the evening service.

So, we had to get the balloon down. Cue an hilarious 20 minutes, as we endeavoured to achieve that aim. At this point, some of you are probably thinking that my faux pas was letting the balloon go in the first place, but you’d be wrong – it wasn’t anything to do with me. Instead, as we were experimenting with various different things, concern was raised that the Contraption wasn’t long enough. I couldn’t help opening my mouth and making the obvious comment. Evidently, such innuendo is not particularly appropriate in church, and despite a few stifled laughs it was as though the aforementioned balloon was made of lead. “I don’t think he should have said that” came the voice behind me…

Ah well. All’s well that ends well, and with the help of some masking tape, we extended the Contraption and provided a way of attaching it to the balloon. Cue some balancing in the pulpit followed by jubilation as the objective was achieved.

*digressing slightly, I think that such reflection is important. It's been said that you can't celebrate the joy of the resurrection without thinking first about the preceding events.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Alleluia! Christ Is Risen!

I expect that the Anglicans amongst you are thinking "He is Risen indeed! Alleluia!"

Happy Easter!

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

the purpose of religion

One of the things which featured in the recent debate on this post is the idea that “religion should be about improving oneself”. This has got me thinking; ‘religion’ of course takes many forms, but in the vast majority of cases I disagree with this.

To paraphrase MarkC, religion is certainly something which as a by-product might help with “improving oneself”, but however you measure self-improvement it is not the sole point, certainly not in the Judeo-Christian case.

In fact, if your sole aim is to “improve yourself”, why waste your time playing around with the trappings of religion? Most religions are based around the idea of faith in God, and that, surely, is the point.

Considering Christianity specifically, Jesus said “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself” and so ‘religion’ should not be in danger of becoming all about worshipping God; rather, the worship of God has (in theory at least) been at the centre since the outset.

Of course, as has been said here before, faith has to be put on to action, and I believe that “loving God with all your heart, soul and mind” should have positive practical consequences in the way in which you live your life, especially if you then follow the second commandment to love your neighbour as yourself. Maybe some of you would place this under the category of “self-improvement”.

On this note, I’m intrigued by the anonymous comment that “[worship is used] in often destructive ways that can cause problems of intolerance, hatred and even division within a family.” Demonstrating hatred, for example, does not fit with loving God and your neighbour as yourself and should not, therefore, be a direct consequence of worship.

But then I wonder if this is where making religion about improving oneself is actually a cause of the problem. Religion is often said to be responsible for many a conflict, but I think that in the vast majority of cases it’s not the religion itself, but the way in which the practise of it has become self-centred. The moment that you start thinking about what you personally can gain from something, loving God and loving your neighbour begin to get left at the wayside, and often that is when problems arise.

I also think that it is the cause of problems in another more subtle way. If you believe that religion should be about improving oneself, does this mean that you place expectations on others? Do you, perhaps unfairly, expect those who are “religious”* to behave in a certain way, and adhere to certain standards? I wonder if this, as much as anything, is a cause of the aforementioned family divisions.

Incidentally, I've been thinking about this post for a few days, and I went to a conference on 'Worship'. That too has got me thinking, and if I can find time I shall distill some of my thoughts here. But for now, I shall leave it here.


*I don't like that word especially, as it has all sorts of misconceptions associated with it, but it will do here.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Things are looking up...

Two things have happened in the few minutes since my last post, which have brightened my morning considerably. Firstly, the woman who was filing her nails with impressively annoying volume is no longer sat behind me (and consequently my teeth are no longer gritted and my blood pressure is no longer rising).

Secondly, I have procured a copy of the Metro. This is always a Good Thing, but I was particularly amused by today's front page. There's a sequence of photos showing some bloke trying to drive his car at apparently excessive speed across a flooded bit of road. He failed, and somehow, if that wasn't embarrassing enough someone's decided to tell the nation's commuters...

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If I turned and stared, would you get the message?

It's amazing what irritating things one has to experience as a commuter. I only wrote here recently about the amorous Germans I encountered on my way home, for example.

Today the woman behind me is filing her nails. She's been doing so for some time and it's making one of those noises which makes me want to grit my teeth. In the scheme of things, I guess nail filing isn't abnormal but I'm wondering just how many fingers this lady has. Blood is starting t boil.

Incidentally, it's been great to watch the debate on my previous post. I've been very busy recently, but I'll wade in with my penny-worth before long. Watch this space.

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