Sunday, 30 August 2015
Is religion good?
The other evening I listened to an interview with a well known Christian singer song writer and one of the questions to her was, 'So how can we keep Jesus and religion apart?' It was a depressingly familiar take on the usual dichotomy between religion (bad) and spirituality (good). Surely (I thought to myself, switching channels) we need to have Jesus and religion as connected as we can?
People sometimes say to me 'I'm not very religious', which is code for 'I don't go to church and I think I might feel uncomfortable if you start talking about religious things to me (usually in the context of preparing a funeral). At least you know where you are. Was Jesus religious? Yes. He identified as a Jew, was brought for religious dedication at birth, taught in the synagogue and knew the Jewish Scriptures inside out. He prayed, taught and lived God.
The Letter of James, which was set as a reading this morning in church, doesn't shy away from the word: 'Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world' (James 1:27). It's not a warm fuzzy spirituality developed in your front room with the latest diet/self help book, but sustained practical action for people whom society has forgotten, along with the implication that the pursuit of holiness is not to be neglected either.
Are we religious in Britain? The secularisation thesis posited that as the technologically advanced Western world increasingly turned away from formal affiliation to the Church, religion in Britain would die out. In the 60s, it looked like this might come true, but several things hadn't been factored in. One was the rise in interest through the 60s and 70s in Eastern religions; another, the advent of politicised Islam, and finally the effect of waves of immigration to places like the UK from other parts of the world where religion was still alive and well. All this of course continues today.
So far from dying out in Britain, religion in daily life is instead complex and multi-faceted. A speaker at New Wine who is a journalist pointed out that in Fleet Street, the attitude towards religion is changing rapidly. Religion can no longer be ignored - clearly it makes a life changing difference to millions of people. In fact, in the history of the world, not to be religious is actually a strange 21st century Western anomaly.
As Graham Ward helpfully shows, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BuXjPFLpWK0 today religion is on the news agenda and in the cultural domain more than ever before and people are having to make complex decisions about whether religion is a force for good or evil. I suppose it's like food - there's good food and bad food; but bad food is not a reason to stop eating. As the practical, often acerbic and no-nonsense Letter of James points out (Martin Luther called it the Epistle of Straw), don't drop religion; just make sure your religion is good religion.