What actually matters beyond ourselves and those we care for? Has society outside that small unit ceased to exist for us? Is this the truth, that beyond me and mine nothing much matters?
Even if it is all about me and mine, and for you, all about you and yours, we still have to admit we exist in a universe that poses multiple questions. These relate to the existence of life, morality, the balance of nature, atheism, truth, religion and a vast array of other subjects all of which provoke debate. We are often dissatisfied with the conclusions of those who have taught us right and wrong, good and bad. This natural process of growing up and forming our own opinions may cause us to question, examine and even reject what we have been taught. I hold views on all of the above, but the one that heads the list for me is Truth. A word that led me directly to questions about faith. Is faith a ludicrous cop out? To the majority of people not birthed in religious belief, agnosticism or atheism may seem the best options. But whichever way we look and from whatever angle all the great questions remain: how, when, why and by what or whom and for what purpose, if any. Is there a definitive answer: a Truth to be discovered? Because if there is, then finding it must be the greatest adventure of them all. To know how and why we exist and in what context? Is it by random chance or designed and purposeful? These are probably philosophical questions but for me it is a matter of faith. And there are loads of choices, far too many; and just to make it more difficult there remains the real possibility that none of them are true.
My own story is that I was brought up the religious route, as a Christian of the Roman Catholic variety. For various reasons I developed a love / hate relationship with religion. It left me feeling really bad about myself, a state of being for which I largely blamed myself. And maybe for that reason I could not, and worse still did not even want to dismiss it from my mind. I was born and bred into Christianity and it took me a long time to realise it was not what it is believed to be. A revelation which eventually led to my abandonment of Roman Catholicism. At root the Christian faith is not a set of Commandments or a prescribed way of life defined by its religious practice. I now know the Christian life can be lived out in a myriad of different ways. How can that be? Because you only have to look at nature to realise whoever or whatever put it together does not make clones. Nature it seems majors on extremes of diversity. The human genome for example is set up to produce endless variety. No two people are the same: individuality is written in code and hard wired into us. Consequently, my relationship with God will be entirely personal on the one hand and part of the family of God on the other. He may choose one individual to become an astronomer, a second to spend their life helping the helpless and a third to be an Olympic athlete, like the gold medal winner Eric Liddell. At the 1924 Summer Olympics in Paris he refused to run in the heats for his favoured 100 metres because they were held on a Sunday. He was a devout Christian who took Sunday observance as a day of rest very seriously. Instead he competed in the 400 metres held on a weekday, a race that he won. He famously said these words, memorably spoken by the actor playing his part in the film Chariots of Fire.
“I believe God made me for a purpose, but he also made me fast! And when I run I feel his pleasure.”
In saying that, Liddell links the pleasure he feels with a pleasure he intuitively believes God feels as well. His running therefore becomes a joy doubled. God experiencing, seeing, feeling and rejoicing as his child expresses the divinely given gift of speed. God is not remote from us, he loves us, and we are made in this loving image; which is no doubt why we love watching our children do well. Liddell was a man who would not compromise his faith for anyone or anything. Those seeking to persuade him were some of the most powerful men in the Olympic movement and the British government. He faced them all down, being prepared in the name of Christ to walk away from the glory on offer. St Paul is another example, initially a fierce hater of Christianity. A persecutor who was suddenly dropped from his horse, blinded and called by God to be an apostle. You may argue that this is violent coercion, and to a degree it was; but his free will was never crushed. His life and his words bear witness to his individuality in everything he says and does. His sight is restored and he chooses to follow the one who called him. You may find Christianity as you have experienced it a massive turn off. I was brought up on ceremonial and priests and incense and a strict regime of religious practice. In the end I reacted against this form of my faith. Does that make it wrong? No, of course not, for many this way of life is a mark of the respect and awe owed to God. It does little for me which is why I worship in a very different kind of church community. As far as this goes it’s just my opinion against another. My view is that the ceremonial often associated with Church is to some large degree the result of man’s attempt to resurrect the religion out of which it was born: a type of Temple, priesthood and sacrifice orientated religion. I am sure that even those committed to this kind of religious experience: priests, monks, nuns would agree that this could be stripped away, and all the essentials of the Christian Faith would remain. Which is why faith communities founded on scripture alone can thrive in any environment. Because this kind of Christian Faith is robust, proved by the fact that persecution and martyrdom have tended to cause growth rather than loss to the church. No one knew this better than Paul who brought more people into the faith he had hated and persecuted than any other of his fellow apostles. He was a phenomenon.
During his travels Paul came to Athens to preach. He found among the many idols on display a statue to an unknown god. This god about which nothing was known he used to preach about Jesus. His Greek audience listened to a sermon in structure and content not unlike any gospel message you might hear today. The Athenians were interested, a few may have later converted, but the great majority it seems returned to their endless debates. My impression of philosophical discussions is that the last thing those taking part want to do is come to a conclusion. Christianity forces the issue. Confronts you and me just as Paul confronted the Athenians. He told them about the one true God to whom the myriad of gods of this world are just dross and imaginings, objects or ideas formed in the image of their creators. When we set ourselves, or our opinions, or our favoured group up as mini divinities, right in our own eyes and subject to no one we become another false expression of the unknown Greek god: just another idol. We have our gods, billions of them; we make them up much like the Greeks, but they at least had the modesty to look outside of themselves. We are creating a Selfie generation, making ourselves gods. Individualism is what we think we are creating: the My Space, My Kingdom world. It is all about ME! Don’t tell me about a revelation directing Me towards a God who made Me and holds me accountable for the life I have been given.
Consciously or unconsciously we are building a social media dominated society which lives and breathes idolatry; inward looking, self-seeking, self-serving and self-promoting. It centres around us and we have many ways of creating and embellishing our image. But all idolatrous societies have a god who rules above the others: in Greece it was Zeus. And for us perhaps the coming apogee of all this is the Mother and Father of all Big Brother States. A creation built on the longings to be free of ancient traditions about true and false, just and unjust, lawful and unlawful, normal and natural, good and evil. Out of this hatred of the past a great number of protest groups have arisen, each relentlessly articulating their demands. Like spoilt children who can never be appeased. Each of these have produced something which has been incorporated into the image of the beast being formed; like the thousands of golden ear rings out of which Aaron, the brother of Moses made the Golden Calf. An object of worship, but not religious as normally understood. This was uninhibited party time, with dancing, carousing and the loss of all restraint. Does that sound familiar?
When complete, whatever it is that has raised itself to dominance will place itself as arbiter of all things without even so much as a nod to the Creator of the World. We have become little different to those who carved out of wood or formed out of precious metals objects of worship. It is horrifying to see the lengths people of this generation will go to make themselves into something else, at the worst extremes creating an image false from concept to fulfilment: the look being everything. We were made to look beyond ourselves, but have come to think we know better. We can contemplate changes unavailable to any generation before us. We can remake creation in our own image: different by design. Any change being superior to being what I am.
I was recently asked what I thought the Christian response should be to those around us who seek gender change. What would I say to a person who has chosen a gender rather than accept the one into which they were born? It used to be so easy, it was either male or female and they stayed that way throughout life. My wife has given birth to six children: three boys and three girls. In those days the midwife would pass the newborn child to the mother and would proclaim you have a boy, or a girl. The conclusion made on the basis of either a penis or a vagina. That may still be how a modern story begins, but by the age of say ten another choice may be under consideration. What, if asked, do I as a Christian say to that person having reached adulthood? I freely admit I do not really know. The fact that some babies are born with elements of both male and female sexual organs is a tragedy and a reality which cannot just be skimmed over with pious sadness. Nor can the confusion that seems to be growing in the minds of so many regarding their sexuality. Any sense of stability in these areas has gone. The impact is undeniable and knowing what to do or say or write is for me an unsolved problem. I have written in more detail about this subject in other articles. However, this I do know; a Christian who excuses something that goes against what God has said to be true and good cannot speak for Him. But a Christian who forgets he is a sinner is in no position to judge anything. So, it’s a tricky and humbling position, because here am I preaching to you, and I am a sinner.
All I know for sure is that Jesus desires above all to bring us sinners into a state of grace, and he does this by forgiving and restoring on the basis of repentance. We have to acknowledge our sin. We have to turn to Jesus and say sorry. A Christian cannot say a sin is anything less than something which separates us from our Maker. We are asked to love, we are told to weep with those that weep, and to carry one another’s pain and sorrow. We should offer prayer, comfort, hospitality, kindness and understanding. What we cannot say is it is OK to make an idol of ourselves or to change a commandment of God in order to make us feel comfortable in our given body.
We are free to be whatever we want to be, but if Christianity is true we make our choice at a cost. You and I are the fruit of a Tree of Life. Not the Darwinian model but God’s Tree of Life. We belong not primarily to ourselves but to our Maker. When that fruit, you and I, falls to the ground at the end of its life it leaves a seed with the potential for new life. That is a kind of parable for you. Death is not the end of your story, you were created to be born again.
There is no easy or soft way around these things, but there is a loving one, and the loving way is to speak the truth in love. Anything less just covers the problem for a while but never touches its root or changes the life. Jesus is kind, just read how he dealt with the accused woman dragged out of a bed having just committed adultery. Standing while shaking with fear before a group of religious zealots longing to see her stoned to death. Jesus saved her. He did so with those famous words addressed to the woman’s accusers. “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.” Shamed, they each, one by one turned and walked away.
His parting words to her however were “Go and sin no more.”
For her Jesus was a Saviour. He can be exactly the same for you as he has for me and was to her.