May 252014

religious or spiritual

I have just been looking at a fascinating article posted by Tom Shakespeare – Is it better to be religious or spiritual? – on the BBC Magazine site.

He is commenting on the difference between those who would claim to be religious and those who would claim to be spiritual, and the idea that there are many people seeking spirituality outside of the context of organised religion. He challenges this approach, arguing that many people seeking spirituality retain the trappings of religion while leaving behind the sense of relationship which many people find in religious groups. He thinks this is a consequence of the growing sense of individualism in our society which ends up with us no longer being challenged to work towards a better world for everyone.

He clearly states that he doesn’t want the beliefs which go with a “pick’n’mix” spirituality:

I don’t want to be required to have faith in a supreme being or miracles or reincarnation, or any entity for which there is no scientific evidence.

But he does find value in organised religion due to the relationships and connections, traditions, disciplines and teaching which it provides.

Without religion, the danger is that an individual thinks that he or she is the centre of the universe. Religion asks more of you than just to look after yourself.

Its an article well-worth reading but I wanted to comment on a couple of specifics – one on a point made in the article itself and another on a question it raises for those seeking to live in a Christian community.

1) In his article he makes the following statement:

The word “religion” is thought to derive from Latin “religare”, to bind or connect. I think that sense of a connection is the key point. Religion offers a bond between individuals and it helps them form a connection to the wider universe.

I think this statement is valid (although some see “religion” being derived from “re” + “legere” – which means to “reread”) but I want to comment briefly on this from a Christian perspective (which is not the sole focus of the original article). For the Christian faith, I think the implications are wider. The rebinding or reconnecting which was in view is, I believe, primarily related to

reestablishing by worship a lost or broken intimacy between God and worshippers

(Dictionary for Theological Interpretation of the Bible)

It is, however, interesting to note that the term doesn’t appear extensively in the Bible. There are just five occurrences in the New International Version (Acts 25:19, 26:5; 1 Timothy 5:4, James 1:26, 27) with only one of these (the first) relating to questions of faith with the remaining four looking at how it works out in practice with relationship to others.

A true understanding of Christian religion – in my view – does depend on a belief in, and relationship with, God from which flows relationships with, and care for, others and the environment in which we live.

2) But I think his article is challenging to those who meet and worship and work in Christian communities as to whether we do so to get the benefits he refers to or whether we do so, primarily, due to our relationship with God.

He suggests that many people who go along to church on a Sunday morning are:

going through certain rituals, and value membership in a community of folk trying to lead more meaningful lives, but their belief in a supernatural being is minimal or non-existent

And this raises a question which is important for us to think about.

When we – those who meet regularly as Christians – are together in our “religious services” is our priority and focus firstly on God and what He wants to say to us and how he wants to change us? Or is it on meeting with our friends and seeing what has been going on since we last met?

Interestingly enough, we recently asked ourselves this question in the church which I have the privilege of leading and we said that when we meet together these should be times:

  • Which are centred on God in worship and where we appreciate and rejoice in who He is, where we focus on Jesus and are empowered by the Spirit
  • Where what we believe and our experiences of life should come together in powerful and transforming ways
  • Where we meet together as family to love, support and encourage each other
  • Where we participate in being refreshed and renewed from the challenges and difficulties of life
  • Where we are prepared and equipped to live on our frontlines (places where we live out our faith each day)
  • Which provide opportunities for us to be challenged in our faith or to come to faith

From what Shakespeare wrote I expect he would align himself with some of these – but not most.

For those of us who meet regularly as Christians it is worth asking ourselves the question “Why?” from time to time.



May 242014

voting count

As the political parties respond to the local election results and as we wait to find out what happened in the European elections, we have an opportunity to think about how we engage with our society uk council electionsand with our elected leaders.

A couple of books I have been reading recently provide some interesting insights regarding the nature of government and the responsibility on Christians to engage politically, socially and in many other dimensions.

In Creation, Power and Truth, Tom Wright speaks about God’s desire for the world he had created to be ‘ordered and structured’ and how God calls human beings to be his agents and representatives in it. Within the story of creation and redemption, Wright (p60) suggests a three-stage process:

  1. That God does intend the world to be ordered and, in his time, he will achieve this
  2. Until that time, not wanting the world to descend into chaos, God uses ‘human authorities, even when they don’t acknowledge him’ to bring some degree of order and structure
  3. That God’s people have a ‘vital calling’ to speak truth to those in power and to remind them of God’s purposes and plans

His ideas provide a way of positioning ourselves – in relationship to God’s plan and current power structures – and challenging us as to whether we are fulfilling our role as “consciences to the powerful”.

We see many examples of this sort of role in the Bible with:

  • Prophetic voices in the Old Testament challenging the king and his actions – such as Nathan with David in 2 Samuel 12:1-12, Elijah with Ahab in 1 Kings 18:18 and Isaiah with Hezekiah in Isaiah 39:3-7
  • Jesus speaking to the authorities of his day – criticising the religious leaders in Matthew 23 (and elsewhere) and challenging the Roman authorities to think about the reality of power in John 18:33-38
  • The early disciples recognising that their primary responsibility was to God and that they were prepared to challenge those in authority on that basis – Acts 4:18-21

But for many of us, the extent of our involvement in the political life of our society extends to exercising our democratic right to vote.

In his book, The Crucified God, Jürgen Moltmann speaks (pp330-331) about five ‘vicious circles of death’ which feed upon themselves and each other:

five interlocking circles

  1. The circle of poverty – which affects so many in so many different ways, individually and within and between communities
  2. The circle of force – where those who suffer poverty are often dominated by those in power
  3. The circle of racial and cultural alienation – as people, and groups, are robbed of their identity and treated as objects to be manipulated and exploited
  4. The circle of the industrial pollution of nature – where we exploit and abuse the wonders of God’s creation which we were called to steward and care for
  5. The circle of senselessness and godforsakenness – as people lose all hope and sense of purpose as a result of how they are treated

Some of these have been highlighted in the recent election campaigns, they are all things which are seen and experienced continually and we look, among other things, for those in positions of power and authority and influence to do something about them.

But Moltmann doesn’t stop at articulating the problem, as he sees it, rather he goes on to offer suggestions as to how these interlocked, vicious cycles can be broken to bring freedom

five broken circles

He calls (pp332-335) for a society where:

  1. Economic sufficiency and social justice are available to all so that people can be liberated from the circle of poverty
  2. Each person is able to participate in the process of decision making so that they are no longer subject to the forceful control of others
  3. Each person is recognised as valued and important so that the issues associated with alienation are addressed
  4. Nature is seen not as an object but our environment where its needs are understood
  5. People experience meaning and satisfaction which (Moltmann argues) can only be found in the indwelling presence of God

While some would argue with the specific details of the solutions Moltmann outlines, I think that the type of society for which he is calling is one that many of us would aspire to. But what are we to do?

I suggest two things:

  1. We heed the encouragement of Paul to Timothy to pray for those in authority (1 Timothy 2:1-2)
  2. We take seriously the responsibility (advocated by Wright) to hold our leaders to account, to point out to them where their rhetoric, actions and objectives are not in line with the sort of society advocated by Moltmann, and to suggest where there are better ways of discharging their responsibilities as God’s stewards




May 012014

A news bulletin has just been published regarding a barrister lying to the police in a case they were investigating.

lying barrister

And it brings up the question of the relationship we have to the truth. Is speaking truthfully something which we are passionate about, is it something which is our normal practice or is it a tactical choice depending on the situation we are in.

I still remember the shock of being told – many years ago – by a colleague that he was planning to lie to our customer in the meeting we were just going into. He felt it would produce the best result and that was all he was interested in.

We see many instances of lying in many different forms:

  • children to stop themselves getting into trouble
  • friends to avoid being embarrassed over some action they are now ashamed of
  • company representatives to try and get an advantage over a competitor
  • advertising statements which mislead or misrepresent in order to attract
  • politicians as they seek to defend a particular position
  • criminals trying to avoid conviction
  • partners to keep secrets from those they love
  • parents to their children as it is sometimes easier than telling the truth

We tell ourselves that it is socially acceptable and understood, we comfort ourselves with the idea of a “white lie” but what do we lose in the process?

When Jesus was talking to his followers about whether it was right to take an oath he challenged people with these words:

Let your word by “Yes, Yes” or “No, No”

There is a sense here of reliability, of confidence, of trust in what someone is saying. If we know someone who consistently means what he / she says and speaks the truth then we are more likely to believe them and our relationship can be strengthened as it is built on solid foundations.

Jesus said of himself:

I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. (John 14:6b)way, truth and life

Jesus was the way to God because he was the truth of God and the life of God – and he came to impart these to his followers.

When Jesus was on trial before Pilate he spoke about the importance of truth and that he had come to proclaim it:

“You are a king, then!” said Pilate. Jesus answered, “You are right in saying I am a king. In fact, for this reason I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.” (John 18:37)

He acknowledged that he was a king, he also spoke about his reason for coming into the world was to testify about truth. The implication, surely, is that his kingdom, his realm, is one of truth.

The challenge here for Christians, for those who are seeking to live as citizens of his kingdom, is whether we are prepared to live “on the side of truth” in the big things and the small things of life.

What would it mean to us, what would it mean to our country, if we were more consistently prepared to do so?