Yesterday I went to a Theology talk on the theme of Christian Identity, entitled ‘What on earth is a Christian’! It was an interesting exposition I thought. It was given by Rev Greg Hoyland, who is lecturer at York St Johns. He told us that Theology is a way of life, which you inhabit in the way you think, do, believe and behave. We were in the Post Christian and Post Modern era, so where did the church fit in? He explained it from his own perspective first. He reminded us of the identity people seek as to what is being English. Kate Fox as an Oxford Sociologist described the English as experiencing an identity crisis, since there has been an influx of different cultures and nationalities. She was aware of how embarrassed we have become about our own customs, such as our celebration of Christmas, in case we upset the different belief systems now here.
He explained the mixed messages from the Media about what it is to be a Christian or religious. On the one hand no one comments on the fact that the 60th wedding anniversary of the Queen is commemorated with a service or that Madeleine’s parents would go to pray, as those events are ‘normal’. On the other hand religion is reported as a problem, extremists blowing themselves up and killing others, as it is seen as dangerous and a potential threat! Such contradictions in the media can confuse people. In 2006 the Guardian did a survey about religion, and 82% of the voters thought that religion made society more dangerous: yet the census told us that 71% of people regarded themselves as Christian. After Rowan Williams felt it would be inevitable that some aspects of Sharia Law would have to be incorporated in the laws of the land, such as recognising Muslim marriage in the same way that the Jewish marriage is already recognised, but the media showed horrific aspects of the law in some countries. Images on the television of a public execution, a flogging and a man whose hand had been cut off triggered more negative feelings towards the Muslims; once again religion was regarded as dangerous. All religions can be seen then as dangerous and divisive.
People will see number of books such as the one by Richard Dawkins, which is called ‘The God Delusion’: such an image can unconsciously infiltrate peoples’ minds, so that they receive the message that Christians are delusional. The media promotes religions as normal, dangerous or delusional. Do we see ourselves as those sorts of Christians? Greg did not recognise himself in any of those media terms and nor do I. People often thought he would be offended by things because he was a Christian when he was not. I can remember my pupils at school swearing and then apologising to me, as they knew they shouldn’t. On the other hand they would ask me to pray for issues or ask me if I were praying, so they did grasp something of what my faith meant.
Are we living in a Post Christian era? Yes church attendance is low but many say they believe in God, but not the church. They do not see the relevance of the church itself as an institution. Greg quotes from Alan Jameson, who wrote about a churchless faith, in which he followed people who had been in positions in responsibility in the church, but who had left the churches, yet still believed. It seems, he explained, that it was the institution of the church which was problematic rather than their belief in God. He argues that post accident road side shrines for the dead use Christian phrases, so how can society really be post Christian? He points out how fewer people are joining organisations such as scouts, guides or trade unions or political parties than used to. There is not such a desire to be part of a communal activity, as Robert Putnam described in his book about social disengagement. In such a context of people’s reluctance to join organisations, the church is holding up better than some.
Perhaps he argues, using ideas from the Belgian scholar Leon Bovee about interrupting tradition, we need to improve our ineffectual transmission of the Christian life, by taking the tradition from the previous generation and rediscover Christianity as a new experience or invention: in other words we need to rediscover faith in Christ for ourselves in each generation. It reminds me of my mother’s conviction that God did not have any grandchildren only children. We as Christian parents can share our faith in Jesus with our children, but each child has to come to faith and experience Christ for him or herself.
We are now a global urban population, and individuals can feel anonymous in the vast number of people around them. Many people are seeking ways of re-establishing their identity. In the past people did not need to do this deliberately but now people feel they have lost their identity and need to rediscover who they are? Why do people join or leave the church or why do many stay in the church? Such questions are difficult to answer. We as individuals need to be understood in social terms, as we relate to each other. Our identity has to do with belonging. He quotes from A. K. Williams, who in his book ‘True Wilderness’ describes the fear of utter isolation, utter abandonment or utter absorption. We are afraid of being isolated, ostracised from our fellow human beings and alone, but we do not want to lose our individual identity by being taken over by society so completely that we cease to exist. We need to fit in and yet keep our own individual identity within the community. The idea of Trinity can be seen as a social notion. We are created as human beings to be individuals in community, yet retain that part of ourselves which is essential ‘me’, and belong in the community. We need the otherness of God to find our identity and see who we are. Bovee the Belgian scholar said, ‘I exist so you exist.’ We need otherness to establish our identity. In dialogue with people we create our identity in the space in between.
Martin Luther established in the reformation the need for individual faith. Now individuals have the responsibility to find faith through the scriptures. The dominance of the church as we have known is over, to many it is regarded as a declining institution. We need new ways of being church for those around us. We think of the church as an organisation or institution. As human beings, he argues, we cannot help organising. Revivals led to new life in the church, which then became organised into denominations, Methodism and Pentecostalism to name two. House churches soon are organised too!
Greg suggests that Jesus came to abolish religion not to invent a new religion! However a few years after his death and resurrection the church organised itself. The New Testament was standardised as part of the organisation. Greg feels that Jesus must weep at the level of organisation, when the church was meant to be an organism. Jesus wanted an organism which is balanced where we can find the space to be ‘me’, belong and have to the opportunity for self development. Greg feels that Jesus had wanted it to be a place of honesty, where people would be free to share and be themselves. We need to make the church more hospitable. He feels in the end that two words sum up who we are as Christians, Jesus and Truth. The Hebrew root of the word Jesus is a military term, which means save from the battlefield, where they were hemmed in by their enemies. Jesus means spaciousness; he is one who gives us room to be ourselves. Institutions tell us what we have to believe and what to do. Jesus creates space for us to grow; it is alright to make mistakes as we can learn from them and grow. Truth, he explained, was to ‘unhide’. Jesus wanted us to come out from behind the barriers we build to protect us, as Adam and Eve did after they disobeyed God. The church is to give us the space to ‘unhide’ and discover who we are in relation to Jesus. How can we make the church more spacious as Jesus originally intended?
Greg likes to reflect on Peter’s reaction to the Transfiguration of Jesus; had he built three tents they would have become places of pilgrimage or organisation, when Jesus was already moving down the mountain to get on with his ministry of teaching, loving, accepting and healing. The church requires us to conform and toe the party line. Greg saw a potential conflict at times between the church and individual faith, which could be seen as connected by a rubber band. The rubber band would stretch and might split so that the individual could drift away from the church or it could pull the individual back sharply so that he is totally taken over by the organisation. God should not be defined, as he is beyond description, although Jesus shows us God’s love and acceptance. His final challenge is as to whether the church will survive in its present form as an organisation or will that disappear? After all there is now a thriving on line church and many people like my beloved, who are restricted in what they can do, live more through the on line community of friends like those on ‘My Space’. I feel challenged by the talk as I too see Jesus as an innovator, who wants us to be ourselves as God created us to be; we need space to discover our potential and where we can be honest about our struggles, so that we can grow as believers. May we indeed be prepared to give others more space to be themselves?