Following Jesus in today’s religious climate

We hear from the prophets of secularism that religion is finished. However, the evidence shows it dominating the world’s political agenda. The fear of terrorism in the name of religion, with its attendant expense and inconvenience, is universal; unprecedented numbers of refugees flee violent extremism; debates about multiculturalism – what it means and whether or not it is a good thing – increase in intensity.  And rather than diminishing, the tensions are increasing. Alongside heart searching, uncertainty and condemnation of the atrocities within Muslim communities, strict dress codes are more evident, and young people continue to be drawn to the idea of a Caliphate imposed by force.

Most of these concerns relate to Islam, but we also see the growing impact of religion elsewhere. The Pope is arguably the most famous living person on earth, and certainly one of the most influential, drawing vast crowds on his international tours. Hindu nationalism grows stronger in India. In America and even in secular Europe, conservative Christianity of various hues attracts large numbers of young people, especially within new church communities. The rise of atheism and professedly non-religious groups is also at heart a religious phenomenon – it takes as much faith to declare there is no God as it does to assert that there is.

I have recently become a trustee of the St Philips Centre in Leicester – an organization set up by the Church of England to help Christians respond to the presence of other faiths, and to encourage healthy relationships between different faith communities. Given the current religious climate, what should the priorities of such an organization be? How should those of us who are committed to following Jesus Christ respond?

Mainstream Christianity has sometimes been reluctant to take faith seriously. Some say this is one of the strengths of the Church of England. Not without success, it has sought to defuse religious extremism by both formally affirming the traditional creeds of the Church, and by embracing a wide range of beliefs and opinions without raising too many questions. Much the same could be said about other denominations. When the default position of most people in England, whether believers or not, was to be “Church of England” this may have had its merits, but in the face of the religious challenge of today the weaknesses of this kind of compromise are increasingly apparent.  The time has come when the underlying message of Christianity has to be taken more seriously by those who claim to be Christian.  We need to ask ourselves what our faith means:

  • Why is belief in God reasonable?
  • What kind of God do we believe in?  In spite of the claims that every religion worships the same God, there is a world of difference, for example, between a God who dictates his final and unalterable message to humanity in classical Arabic and one who shares our human experience in order to win our allegiance.
  • What kind of book is the Bible?
  • What kind of twenty-first century lifestyle is required of those who take following Jesus seriously?

Answers will not be straightforward, but that is no reason for avoiding such fundamental questions.  To do so is to surrender the ground to extremists of all kinds.

Religion is not going to disappear. We need to work out what believing in Jesus means, and not to be afraid of defending it in the face of challenge. We do it respectfully and with humility, ready to learn from others, but unless we do, we leave the religious landscape open to destructive spiritual forces. In short, we need to return to our Christian roots in the character of Jesus.

Peter Shepherd (December 2015)

To bomb or not to bomb?

Congratulations to Jeremy Corbyn for allowing the Labour Party a free vote on the Syrian bombing resolution.  Party discipline is important if there is to be stability in Government, but there are limits when it comes to matters of principle and conscience.  Politicians are often accused of hypocrisy, and when personal conviction is sacrificed for the sake of party unity and the desire for power, it is easy to see why.  When anyone is forced to choose between arguing for something they don’t believe in or resigning, insincerity is almost inevitable.

One of the refreshing things about the Parliamentary debate over bombing Syria was the sincerity and seriousness with which it seems to have been undertaken.  The adversarial atmosphere of the House of Commons is one of the least attractive aspects of our political life.  It reduces MPs to party fodder, baying at each other, scoring cheap points and fighting a kind of outdated class warfare.  Can we have a bit more honesty and openness please, so that we can take the whole thing more seriously?  Everyone knows that members of a party, or even a Cabinet or Shadow Cabinet, do not agree on everything, so why not let them say so?  Clearly if disagreements happened often enough, resignation would become inevitable, but in general, admitting to variety of opinion is a strength, not a weakness.  What a step forward it would be for all parties to be a little more relaxed about brandishing the whip and allow their members to speak openly without fear of being called traitors.

On the question of the bombing itself, the crucial issue, it seems to me, is not the civilian casualties that will result.  Tragically, that always happens in war.  It’s happening on a grand and cruel scale in Syria already, and will continue until peace and security is re-established.  Neither is it a question of the military significance of our contribution, or whether or not it makes us safer in Britain.  Our contribution may not be decisive, and we may be no safer from terrorist attacks now than before.  Clarity about the outcome and our “exit strategy” will never be achieved, and to demand it is an argument of despair.

The crucial issue is whether those who believe in freedom and democracy should demonstrate they will not tolerate violence and terror, and are resolved to defeat it.  There is a need for nations who are committed to these principles to stand together, in spite of other differences they have. And when one country that shares our values, and to which we are closely allied, is the victim of terrorist violence and asks for help, there must be strong reasons for not doing so.

Military action is always dangerous and unpredictable, but in a dangerous and unpredictable world, it is sometimes necessary for democratic countries to take it.