thoughts on faith, justice, politics and philosophy

Month: July 2012

Subversion: A God Who Undermined Religion

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The Law, as much as we look upon it through the eyes of those under grace, was the first big step in the divine plan to undermine the systems of evil. The first step was Abraham – God came to Abraham in a way that totally disregarded the religious practices of the day.

You can skip this paragraph if you’ve ever watched Rob Bell’s ‘The God’s Aren’t Angry’ – and if you’ve not seen it, it comes highly recommended…

When Abraham was a young man, he would have learned the ways of his father. He would have learned how to work the land, how to care for the cattle, how to treat slaves, how to do everything, including how to worship the gods. You wanted it to rain? You gave this much of that crop to this god. You needed sun? This god needs this kind of crop this regularly and in these amounts.

That’s just how things worked. The religion of the day said that you appeased the Gods and they poured out their favour on you and your crops.

Then God spoke to Abraham, and God said “leave your father’s house”. That didn’t just mean leave the building. It meant leave behind the way of life that you know. It meant to start again with no assumptions about the world around you, relying on some sort of voice that claims to be a god. And everyone back then knew that gods didn’t speak. That would be crazy.

This God takes the religions of the day and turns them on their head. He looks at the corrupt systems and says ‘no’.

A little while later God’s own way of communicating with his people is in jeopardy. The Pharisees have created a systematic abuse of a process God put in place to help people realise that they could live in harmony with God and with each other. So God disrupts religion again.

The system? sacrifice. The disruption? Jesus.

You can’t sacrifice if God has already made the biggest sacrifice of all (the firstborn son being a powerful image in the culture of the day). So if you can’t sacrifice, what can you do? Simply believe. That’s not a religion, that’s just a belief. No processes, no methods, no systems, no set prayers, no alpha courses, no welcome packs, no mass, no confessionals, just belief.

So we have a God who undermines religion itself, casting aside the need for anything more than believing that we are loved. Let’s fight the temptation to build a religion around that and instead learn to live in the reality that we are all loved and accepted by God.

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Eternal Life

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I’ve really struggled recently with the concept of eternal life. My grandfather passed away this year, and I’ve been close to people with other life-threatening illnesses. Death has been on my mind a lot. If I am honest, I would say I am probably kind of scared of death at the moment. Not only does the thought of not being alive scare me, but the thought of eternity scares me too – I can’t work it out. I can’t comprehend it nor box it in – and that’s not nice.

Yet if it is the way things are, then I need to be at peace with it. I tried to roll with the idea that this life is all there is, but I couldn’t square it with my understanding of the world around me. It just wasn’t enough. Rob Bell has some interesting thoughts around eternal life in his book ’Love Wins’. He talks about the word aeon and how we translate it as “eternal” in terms of a period of time, but that it could also mean an intense, deep, but finite period.

That’s not to say that we don’t go on to live forever – that is of course something possible even if incomprehensible. The interesting thing is that Jesus promises eternal life – but does Jesus mean a life forever, or a life fulfilled – shalom as the hebrews would have called it?

I think perhaps both.

A friend of mine suggested to me today that it was interesting that many of those who lived daringly in the name of Jesus died young – many a martyr, people such as Martin Luther King, and so on. Perhaps they discovered the true eternal life – the shalom opened up to us through Jesus. Perhaps that meant that they didn’t need to experience a long life. Perhaps there’s more to life than the length it has.

The same is true of illnesses. We spend so much time and money in trying to prolong our lives, instead of trying to live them out in such a way as to live them fully – Jesus said “I came that you might have life and have it to the full“. He didn’t say “I came that you might live for a really long time”.  I’ve seen this played out in reality recently – the choice of quality over quantity.

It isn’t something that sits naturally. But I think it makes sense. I just don’t feel like it does yet…

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The ‘Liberal’ Paradox

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Being someone who does a lot of (perhaps too much) thinking, I like to know that my news source is either unbiased or as obvious in its bias as possible, so that I can know the angle that it is covering the news from. Sadly, the former is impossible – for there is no such thing as a lack of bias, even to the divine (toward the poorest – God is always on the side of the oppressed).

The latter option is preferable, which is why I shun options such as the Daily Mail, The Sun, or indeed the Times. The BBC makes effort to be impartial but makes no effort to show its bias. However, the Guardian and the Telegraph newspapers are both opinionated and open about their opinion. I read both, but I’m generally left leaning, so I prefer to read the Guardian (because we all prefer to have our own opinions backed up rather than challenged).

The one thing that frustrates me about the Guardian, however, is the very thing that causes me to read it in the first place. The liberal slant that the Guardian takes is one of tolerance, justice for the oppressed, championing of minorities and championing the poor – all attitudes I believe that Jesus would have been comfortable with.

So why does this frustrate me? The very liberalism that allows the Guardian to speak out against the established system also allows the Guardian to speak out against religion.

I know what you’re thinking.

“But Ben, don’t you despise religion? You’re always going on about that”

You’d be right. However, whilst the paper will challenge religion time after time – and rightly so in my opinion, this simply seems to encourage its ‘liberal’ readership to show that they are not tolerant after all. They despise religion, they despise faith, they refer to God in the context of the tooth fairy and generally have an attitude not too dissimilar to religious fundamentalist beliefs on atheism.

It’s a great irony that the champions of freedom of speech and of freedom of expression and belief are so, well, religious about their hatred of anything religious, and it really winds me up! The great paradox of liberalism is that it is illiberal towards those who disagree with it, and I don’t like that.

I sometimes wonder if God is the ultimate liberal (ooh, yes, I did just say that. Have that, Conservative Christianity!). What do I mean by that? Well, God is tolerant of all sorts of beliefs, ways, thoughts, deeds, ideas, practices, religions and so on. The whole reasoning behind the life, death and new life of Jesus was to point out to humanity that there was nothing that could be done to earn the love of God. A love of God that is ours in spite of who we are.

Now that’s something to aspire to…

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The Answer Is Within

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Yesterday I went to see my housemate in his school play (he’s 11). He was two different characters in the play The Wizard of Oz. There was a beautiful line in the play in which one of the characters says he isn’t even sure if The Great Oz is real, and they then find out that he is, and one of them says “If only we could see him!”

At that point, my housemate looked at me and winked, referring to my ongoing uncertainty about the divine, and a conversation we had earlier in the day where I was saying I wish I had been around when Jesus walked the earth, as I felt like that would have left me with half a chance.

What’s interesting is that when they come face to face with the Wizard of Oz, the characters are left disappointed, let down, scared, confused and bewildered. They return from their quest for the witch’s broom to discover that the Wizard is not who they thought he was. He is not an all-powerful, commanding, feared being. He is simply a man behind a mask. Yet the protagonists realise that they already had what they were looking for – with his help. So he is essential.

It got me thinking – I wonder if that is how it is with God. We see God as this almighty, all powerful character who we need in order to get by in life, when in reality God wants to enable us. He wants us to see the potential within ourselves. It’s not that the Wizard was not there – simply that he wasn’t who they thought he was. So perhaps it is with God. We have an understanding of who God is, and when we discover he is something different, we aren’t so happy.

Perhaps that’s because we react in the same way to the protagonists in the play. We are disappointed, dejected, hopeless, lost. Yet the Wizard was essential to their plight – he was able to show them the way to what they wished to discover about themselves. I’m not suggesting that God wants us to be self sufficient, but perhaps the way he wants to do things is very different to what we – what I – expect, and that’s why I have been left feeling disappointed.

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