Tuesday, 25 November 2014

True and false religion

I saw the Lord seated on a throne, high and exalted, and the train of his robe filled the temple. Isaiah 6:1

The angel of the Lord appeared to Moses in flames of fire from within a bush. Exodus 3:2

We are often told that people are wide open to the idea of the “spiritual” - the “religious”, the “numinous”, call it what you like - but they have no time for “organised religion”. And so the churches are emptying while they pursue their quest elsewhere.

Well yes, organised religion (I detest that word with all its negative connotations, but sometimes you have to make do) can be a curse, no doubt about that. It can become a habit, almost a drug or a prison. I heard of a minister who, having conducted his last service before retirement, never entered the doors of a church again. His religion had, presumably, been operating on auto-pilot and when the plane eventually landed he couldn’t run away quickly enough. 

But while recognising the dangers of such barren religiosity, it is worth asking what people who “have no time for organised religion” actually want. Unorganised religion? Disorganised religion? 

I suspect that what they are in fact looking for is private religion - that is, religion they can practice with minimal interruption to their normal routine, and without having to bother about burdensome responsibilities. "I want the feelgood factor, but not the cost of commitment" - I hope I’m not judging too harshly, but that, in reality, is what such people are saying. Putting it even more bluntly, private religion is essentially selfish religion. 

It is, after all, far easier to burn incense at home in a dimly lit room, or sit meditatively in an empty church, or scan the stars on a solitary hillside walk than it is to help with the washing-up at the end of a service, or play table-tennis with the local yoof on a Friday night after a hard week, or turn out on a cold evening for a difficult church meeting. But these things, in reality, are a large part not only of what organised religion is about, but, more to the point, of what true religion is about. 

True religion is inescapably corporate and unashamedly down-to-earth. Yes, it starts in a personal, intimate encounter between the individual and God. But it never ends there. Christian baptism, for example, the sacrament of initiation, is initiation not only into Christ, but also into his community. You cannot become a Christian without becoming part of the body of Christ, the church: it’s part of the “package”. By choosing Christ you choose the church. 

And the church is not some nebulous, mystical entity. No, it is people - and, very often, precisely those people you have to learn to love, even if you do not particularly like them: that man with the maddening habit of talking too much, that woman who never stops grumbling. And it is responsibility: working, serving, sacrificing. 

This is not to dismiss the reality or the importance of the numinous: God forbid! There are indeed precious times of intimacy with God, even of awe and wonder. But it is to locate those times precisely where they belong - in the sheer ordinariness of life in general, and of religious observance in particular. 

Moses had an encounter with God in a bush that burned but wasn’t consumed. A numinous experience if ever there was one. But where did he have it? Out in the fields while he was getting on with his day job of minding his father-in-law's sheep. And what did it lead to? Work. Responsibility.

Isaiah had an awesome vision of God that changed his life for ever. Where did he have it? Well, it’s not made explicit, but mention of “the temple” suggests he was going about the normal business of worship. And what did it lead to? Work. Responsibility. 

Luke 4:16 tells us that Jesus went to synagogue every Saturday, "as was his custom". Perhaps he didn’t always feel like it; but he went, obeying the call of, yes, organised religion. In the days before he went to the cross he did plenty of praying and agonising; but we also find him kneeling down and washing the smelly, dirty feet of his disciples. Not much numinousness there. 

"I want God, but I don't want organised religion." It sounds fine. Who, in their senses, wants to be like those poor saps on the leadership team of a church, with difficult people to deal with, tricky decisions to make and long agendas to work through? 

But, sorry, you can’t have it that way; God is simply not available on those terms. True religion is about rolled up sleeves as much as about bended knees. Get used to it!

Almighty God, thank you that you meet with us in the nitty-gritty of everyday life. Help me to rejoice in routine activities, whether explicitly “spiritual” or down-to-earth “practical”. Amen.

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