Thursday, 1 April 2004

A whole different Ball Game?

In your opinion, which of the following 5 statements is most similar to the sixth statement? Or, if you are not happy with any of them, think up your own football analogy (or any other for that matter) which is a better 'match'.
1.      Can you be a footballer if you don't believe in grass?
2.      Can you be a footballer if you don't believe in goals?
3.      Can you be a footballer if you don't believe in balls?
4.      Can you be a footballer if you don't believe in the team?
5.      Can you be a footballer if you don't believe in competition?
6.      Can you be a Christian if you don't believe in God?
You may think that the answer is a very obvious 'NO'.  But that is to beg rather a large number of other questions:
What do we mean by 'a Christian'?
If we mean 'someone who believes in God' then the answer to 6 is obvious.
However, many people's normal use of 'Christian' means something like: a person who leads a good life - who is thoughtful, honest, unselfish and generous to others.'  You don't have to believe in God to be that.
Another definition of a Christian, perhaps the most literal one, is: a follower of Christ'.  Sounds promising, but suddenly we are confronted by a host of other puzzles to solve: the four gospels and St Paul all give us differing interpretations of who Jesus was and it's quite possible that they all differ from how Jesus understood himself.  So how are we to interpret him 2000 years later?  And what is the relationship between 'Christ' as worshipped and spoken of by 'the Church' and Jesus of Nazareth, the first century Jew?
The distinctive thing about Jesus was not that he believed in God.  He obviously did, but then so did your average first century Jew.  The distinctive thing about him (in my opinion) was his radical reinterpretation of God's 'kingdom' (as he called it) and therefore his radical reinterpretation of God.  The religious people of his time thought he was going much too far to the point of blasphemy - one of the reasons he ended up on a cross - one that we should never forget.  So, going back to question 6 …
What do we mean by God?
The Almighty - who, as almighty, is presumably behind everything that happens in this world, the evil and the good?
A kind fatherly figure who is there for us and bails us out when we need him (but for some reason occasionally goes off duty while innocent children are suffering!)?
An idea (within our shared consciousness - in other words our language) which holds our highest aspirations?
A way of speaking of the 'Life Force' or the sheer wonder of existence.
The depth dimension within each one of us - our real potential?
The struggle for justice - overturning corrupt power and liberating the oppressed?
The list could go on, but is perhaps best ended with a Chinese proverb:
If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him."
In other words, if you think you have finally found the divine - Beware.  It is not the divine that you have found - it can only be an idol which if you embrace it as the final answer will only lead to your ruin.  Our religion is a journey and never a destination (in my opinion!).
Popular forms of religion often seem to have a lot in common with popular forms of superstition.  That is to say that for all their piety and expressed belief, they are actually more about us and our need for security and meaning than anything else.  True belief needs at least a healthy dose of atheism to purify it of all the dross that so easily accumulates. 
Where does all this get us?  It gets me to a point where I want to echo the advertising for the launch BBC4: "Everybody needs a place to think."  I don't want the Church to be a place where we find 'Truth' in an easy to open package.  Instead I want it to be a place where there is space, for everyone who wants it, to think through the questions and issues that are most important to them; where they can do so with the help of the best of the resources available in the Christian tradition and in the company of a community of people who are going to give them honest and loving support.
I hope this article will have provoked some thought and if so I hope they are thoughts that you will pursue.  And I would be interested to hear what you think - whether you think along the same lines I do or not.

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