Losing my religion

The word “religion” can have different meanings. At its simplest, it means “belief in and worship of God or gods” (Oxford Dictionary). But more precisely, religion is often seen as a designated set of beliefs and rituals by which people relate to a god. Thus religion (implying dogma and restrictions) is often contrasted to spirituality (emphasising freedom and feelings).

Like many other people, I have lost my religion, or a large part of it. Many others have lost their faith in God as well, though I haven’t.

This movement is one of the stories of our times.

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Evangelical, Liberal and Progressive Christianity – three diverging paths

There’s a lot of new, and sometimes scary, ideas flying around the christian scene these days. What are we to make of them??

Where is Protestant christianity heading?

If you have doubts and questions about your form of christian belief, perhaps another form has something to offer. Check out a few ideas here.

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Modern western evangelicalism – easy religion for comfortable christians?

I’ve been thinking for a while about modern western evangelical christianity. Not what some people may see as the worst of this belief system – televangelists, conservative politics and a focus on sexual ethics – but the mainstream.

My initial christian experience was in this culture and belief, and while I have moved on in many ways, I still share many of its values. But it’s starting to look way too comfortable to me.

Let me explain.

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Which Jesus did you worship this Christmas?

Jesus is such an important and admired character in world history and western culture that everyone seems to want to claim him for their tribe. So there are many different versions of Jesus for us to believe in.

Shopping mall Jesus

This is the most obvious Jesus, and the easiest to see through. Two months before Christmas, supermarkets and shopping malls began stocking Christmas goods and playing the infernal muzak Christmas carols, and it isn’t long before nativity scenes begin to appear. A cute baby, a beautiful madonna mother who can’t find a room at the inn, lots of fluffy animals and a cast of rich kings and poor shepherds – what’s not to like?

This Jesus wouldn’t say anything against the commercialisation of his fake birthday, and he is apparently happy to help move product off shelves and maximise end-of-year profits.

Most of us buy into this monetary worship by spending up big buying presents which are generally in excess of needs, but while we like the story, we know the real story in the gospels has nothing to do with profit. This Jesus is only a faint shadow of the real person.

Cosmic sacred Jesus

The carpenter Jesus of the gospels becomes in Revelation a cosmic Jesus to be worshiped. This Jesus is perhaps best “seen” in grand Medieval cathedrals, with their soaring spires emphasising how far God is above us mere mortals. Inside, the same point is made with the cathedral clearly divided into “God’s end”, where only the priests can minister, and the people’s end.

This Jesus has risen far above his humble earthly beginnings among farm animals, and is now so distant that many Catholics seem to think that his mother is more likely to hear them, and some Protestant televangelists and megachurch pastors seem to think he isn’t watching their sleazy and materialistic behaviour.

This Jesus certainly reflects some important Biblical teachings, but he’s a long way from the Jesus of the gospels.

Cosmic hippy Jesus aka progressive Jesus

Cosmic hippy Jesus used to be popular, and he still puts in an appearance sometimes today in a new guise as progressive Jesus. This Jesus is all about love, though not always the sort of love described in the Bible; he accepts everyone and condemns no-one. He’s definitely left wing politically, caring for all the alienated and repressed people, such as refugees, the LGBTQI community, oppressed indigenous communities and victims of war and violence. He is much admired by people who are spiritual but not religious. In fact, he never enters a modern western church, and if he did, they wouldn’t recognise him.

The new progressive Jesus is not as extreme as cosmic hippy Jesus, and built on a better understanding of the New Testament. But he still definitely emphasises love and acceptance over judgment.

I have a lot of affection for this Jesus. I share a lot of his values, including most of the ones I’ve just mentioned. And this Jesus can be found in the pages of the gospels. Sort of. But the Jesus of the gospels did judge and criticise, and his love was often a tougher love than cosmic hippy Jesus ever exhibits.

Reformed evangelical doctrinal Jesus

This Jesus is almost the opposite of cosmic hippy Jesus. Sure he loves everyone, but he sends many of them to hell. Yes he loves everyone, but good doctrine matters, and he’s not going to accept any sloppy doctrinal thinking.

This Jesus came for just one thing – to die on the cross to divert God’s righteous wrath from our sinful rebellious selves onto himself, and you might well wonder what the rest of his life was all about – why did he bother with all that teaching about the kingdom of God? He’s a stern and serious Jesus and you’d better get on the right side of him if you want to go to heaven. And it would probably help if you were politically conservative and ignored all that historical Jesus talk against materialism and about non-violence and caring for the poor.

Reformed evangelical doctrinal Jesus is closer to the Jesus of Paul than to the historical Jesus of the gospels. Somehow, this Jesus seems true up to a point, but very truncated and missing so much.

Jesus the apocalyptic prophet

This Jesus is the one believed by many New Testament scholars. He’s based on historical study and is right at home in first century Jewish religion and culture. He fanned the hopes of many repressed Jews that God was finally going to remove the yoke of the hated Romans and bring in his kingdom on earth. And of course this meant the king would be a Jew and rule in Jerusalem, and the Jews would be top nation.

This Jesus envisaged this massive reversal of fortunes happening very soon, within the lifetime of his followers. But it didn’t happen – he failed – and his followers had to invent a new story of atoning death, resurrection and a spiritual kingdom to make sense of this failure.

This Jesus is built on historical facts and makes sense of much of the gospels, but it misses some key gospel hints and is built on naturalistic assumptions – understandable for secular historians but surely an unsafe basis for understanding someone like Jesus. When a man establishes a religious community that goes on to cover a third of the world, you’d want to think twice before you call him a failure – perhaps it is your understanding that has failed.

Will the real Jesus please stand up!

Which of these, if any, is the “real” Jesus?

I want to suggest that all of them contain some truth, but all miss some very important things.

I want to suggest we need to go back to the historical Jesus and understand why so many scholars see him as an apocalyptic prophet, and to find that there is good reason to think he was all that … and much more.

I suggest we all need to see whether the Jesus we worship, or reject, is consistent with the historical Jesus of the gospels, or lacks that fundamental foundation.

Next post I’ll suggest some things we should learn from the scholars, and a few places where we can legitimately and truthfully go beyond their somewhat limited and careful picture of Jesus. And learn why we should be wary of fully embracing any of the pictures of Jesus I’ve outlined here. And hopefully also see a few ways we can each have a more accurate picture of who Jesus is, and can be for us today.

May you ponder these things and grow in understanding this Christmas, so that we may all “see him more clearly, love him more dearly, and follow him more nearly”.

Graphic: Wallpaper cave

Is this the most important thing you could do as a christian?

Thirty five years ago my life was changed after listening to a talk on prayer and spiritual warfare.

I had been converted as a teen in a Presbyterian church where doctrine was regarded as the most important thing and God was known to be sovereign, ordaining everything according to his good purposes. But this doctrine left little place for prayer. After all, if God knew everything, he already knew what was best without me advising him, and if he was good and all-powerful then he would assuredly do the good thing whether I asked or not.

So I rarely prayed in my everyday life. Until 35 years ago, that is.

This blog is mostly about better understanding the Bible and postmodern culture, following Jesus in a world far removed from when he lived, and being a better and more faithful church. But all of these are means to the end of “seeing Jesus more clearly, loving him more dearly and following him more nearly”, and so playing our part in his mission of seeing God’s kingdom established on earth.

And for me, what I am writing about here is the most necessary aspect of that mission.

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How a deep and growing divide is killing Protestant christianity – or maybe renewing it!

Right from the earliest days, there have always been disagreements within the christian community. Some are resolved, but some lead to major splits, new denominations or new doctrinal positions.

I have the feeling that a major, and probably irreversible, divergence is brewing in the western Protestant church, between those we may label “evangelical” and those we may label “progressive”.

Both evangelicals and progressives generally hold to the core truths of christianity as expressed in the Apostles Creed – the trinity of God the father and creator; Jesus the incarnate son, teacher, healer, dying saviour and resurrected Lord; and the Holy Spirit living within each believer. But there are some distinctives of these two viewpoints which I think will continue to lead to divergence and separation.

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500 years later – a new reformation

This post is a revised version of my 2014 post The new Reformation.

Martin Luther with iPhone

Martin Luther is examined for heresy.

500 years ago, Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the Wittenberg church door, and, it is often said, began the Protestant Reformation.

40 years ago I came to the conclusion that the church in the western world was, in the next few decades, going to go through changes as significant as the Reformation. I felt we had moved away from the truth in several important areas – inward looking and hierarchical churches with structures that hinder rather than help the mission of Jesus, dead orthodoxy in many christians’ lives (including me), and failing to heed Jesus’ teachings on non-violence, acceptance and the perils of wealth – and God surely wouldn’t allow this to continue unchecked.

I think we are now in the middle of this new reformation, and here are some of the signs I see.

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Christians and homosexuality – is there a peaceful way forward?

Difficult issues series

This has been perhaps the most difficult post I have written.

I’ve avoided writing about this issue because it is so divisive, and because I wasn’t sure I had anything worthwhile to say.

But while I don’t pretend to have a solution to the argument between the traditionalists and the progressives, I can’t help feeling that there should be some things christians of goodwill from both sides can agree on, and which might ease the tensions a little.

There is also the issue of how the secular world sees christians – surveys show that the perceived anti-gay emphasis of christians is a major barrier to non-believers ever seriously considering the claims of christianity.

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