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)