Religion, always a choice

If you look at religion in the Bible its role changes and adapts. To begin with there are men of faith, like Abraham, who lead their family. Then there was Moses who created a new country, leading slaves through the desert and instituting a set of laws for the almost the first time in history. Then there is a settled society and finally a new way with Jesus. In the UK we tend to think of religion as just Church on Sunday. But in Jesus time, the religion infused the whole of society, in truth people rarely went to synagogue on Saturday but just on the feast days. Synagogue was attended by the important families to discuss business and for the teachers of the law who were the leaders of the society and kept order.

Religion could be defined as a way in which humans connect with God or whatever spiritual entity you believe in. That relationship can be in whatever situation we find ourselves in. Winston Churchill was a man who was brought up to read the bible and pray by his nanny. He rarely went to church. But he had a sense of the evil of fascism from 1913 and a sense of destiny to save London, England and the Empire from an early age. It was this non-churchgoer that led the resistance against evil, while the church preached appeasement.

People tell me that God is dead and that they have disproved his existence somehow. I have yet to see the evidence. In my view religious belief is a personal experience and you would need to destroy everybody’s individual beliefs to achieve this goal, but why would you. I cannot remember the number of times that people have told me that science disproves religion as if it is a mantra that explodes a delusion in my head. People who say this are ignorant of both science and religion, the pantheon of enlightenment polymaths who mused on these issues and never reached a definitive answer show up that lie. There is also the old chestnut of religion causes wars. People have said this to me and just as I am about to talk constantly on the relationship between religion and wars for 17 hours, the conversation changes.

Politics is always the cause of wars. Bad politics causes wars, especially when politicians or leaders become intransigent or greedy wars happen. Religion can create these two attitudes. But generally speaking religion is about peace. The people who fight religious wars have lost touch with the principles that it was about. This is the problem with religious wars. They start as principled and those principles are betrayed in the fighting.

The main reason for the theory of religion causing wars, in my experience, comes from the 16th and 17th Century wars in Europe. It was basically a struggle between Catholic and Protestant and it was between the authority of the Pope and the new ideas of democracy springing from Luther’s revolution. By the 18th Century people were more interested in trade, empire and enlightenment philosophy in the UK. But the years between 1715 and 1815 were the second 100 year’s war between Briton and France. The casualties were enormous, especially by the Napoleonic period. The British won and greatly expanded their empire. But at least they stuck to their principles which were to kill the French in battle to make more money through trade, slavery and industry.

Religion has always had the potential for being exploited and manipulated. Holy people can be naïve and trusting and it only takes a small number of people to destroy the work they do.

Religion has the capacity to enlighten, inspire, emancipate and liberate. But it is an individual experience and people do not always appreciate it being shared. Toleration and coexistence are the most important gifts that I personally believe in when it comes to religion. In terms of society it can bring shared spirituality, community, charity and an ethical code, which leads to order in society.

Almost always when children grow up they are taught an ethical code. It may be religious, of the local community or just particular to that family. As you grow into adolescence you start to think for yourself and maybe break away. As you grow into adulthood you start to think for yourself and create your own code. Ultimately we all have that decision to make. For those that bring us up, the difficulty is in how much control do you have over that decision-making process. Too much control is oppressive and can lead to rebellion, not enough can lead to licentiousness or a weak foundation to one’s life.

In history there was a crucial event that shaped the whole of European development. In 312 AD, on the night before the battle of Milvian Bridge, Constantine who was fighting for control of the Roman Empire is said to have seen a vision of the Christian symbol Chi-Rho in the sky. He decided to paint the symbol on the shields of his soldiers. He won the battle and decreed that the empire would now be officially Christian. At the time about 10% of the Roman Empire was Christian, most of the rest were the traditional Roman pagans.

If you look at current evangelical doctrine, it always asserts that to become a Christian is a personal choice. But Constantine was forcing the religion on the whole empire. It would have been difficult for the leaders of the church to fight the Emperor on the basis of a theological point that he could not understand. Maybe the Christians were seduced by the thought of victory or being freed from the persecution they had suffered for 300 years.

If you look at the Roman Catholic Church that came out of these events, there are a number of personal observations I would like to make. It could be that the Christian leaders felt that out of charity for their neighbours, they would design the new church to be Christian, but in a pagan style. The figure of Mary mother of Christ was raised to promote the female side of God, there were the saints who were representative of the pantheon of the Gods, and the Lords supper changed from a community meal to a sacrifice on an altar and the priesthood was celibate. Now these are purely personal observations from someone who has never had a Catholic experience. I would never wish to insult Catholicism, write it off or deny its spiritual power. But the central point is that Constantine denied freewill to the people of the Roman Empire and the Christian leaders may have tried to make the best of it.

Henry VIII broke from Rome in the 1530’s as a political move. He started the Church of England and became the head. This was inspired by his need to produce a male heir, which his first wife had failed to do. He needed to divorce and find another wife. Henry was the son of Henry VII whose claim to the crown was weak, but his marriage to Elizabeth Woodville joined the York and Lancaster clans and ended the War of the Roses. Henry was a devout Catholic, but a politician first, but he had to fight to keep hold of the crown and if the Pope would not help, he had to take matters into his own hands.

Edward VI inherited the throne, he was a Calvinist. But on his death Mary was a devout Catholic who regarded Protestants as heretics and had some burnt at the stake. Elizabeth was a Protestant, but more driven by politics than religion and managed to stabilise the country. Many religious conflicts continued with the Stuarts and the Commonwealth under Cromwell. By 1715 it was all over and we were to have no more Catholic monarchs and concentrated on trade.

But the Church of England through many changes of monarch and doctrines enforced on them, had become a broad church capable of absorbing different beliefs. There were those who were neo-catholic and those who were austere protestant. But it had developed into a broad church.

In the 21st Century, the Church of England caters for Charismatic and Conservative Evangelicals, Post Evangelicals, Anglo-Catholics, Catholics and Liberals. But while they should and could be united, they divided by having the same doctrine and ethics. This is particularly difficult when the Church is spread over much of the Commonwealth in a period of history of rapid social change.

This broad church is unique and should promote tolerance and coexistence. To do this I believe it needs to divide by country and to have defined strands of faith that have their own doctrine and ethics. I have written about this in “The Church of England, the future not the past.

Constantine’s actions in 312 may have appeared driven by faith, but were they misguided? Religion and spirituality ultimately should always be a choice, both for the individual and for a community.

Those that head any Christian Church can never dictate individual doctrine or ethics. They can never intercede between God and humans. That is for the individual in their personal relationship with God. Church leaders from an assistant youth leader right to the top are there to serve and facilitate that direct relationship. Their personal beliefs are not necessarily relevant, as long as they can empathise and manage the organisation.

Religion’s role should ultimately not be to tell people what to believe, but to facilitate the individual journey. Now there are some that need to follow and will need to be led. There are those who can have an individual faith. Discerning the nature of that relationship takes faith, wisdom and good management. Changing from one that is under spiritual authority of another human, to being independent spiritually is about our personal development and our spiritual journey.

What followed from the Battle of Milvian Bridge was the establishment of the Roman Catholic Church. Its doctrine was mostly defined at the Council of Nicaea. This established the Trinity as the basis of the Christian Church. That established God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit as equal in the Godhead. This is what I believe and probably always will.

Other religion’s view of Jesus is that he was a great man or a prophet, but that he was not the Son of God. Yet they are rarely able to engage with his teaching. I assume Judaism may feel threatened by Christian insistence on him being the Messiah. You can hardly blame them. Islam sees Jesus as an important figure, but I don’t see that it has been able to incorporate its teaching into its religion. Hinduism has absorbed some Christian teaching, after the Hindu renaissance of the late 19th Century. Gandhi was one of the greatest believers in Jesus teaching. But Jesus being both man and God makes no sense in the Hindu context. Some say that Buddhism and Taoism have similarities with Christian teaching.

In the Bible, Jesus says in the Gospel of John “I am the way and the truth and the life. No-one comes to the father except through me.” John 14:6. Should that way be monopolised by Christians, be they Evangelicals, Catholics or any State Church? Should it be conditional on acceptance of the Trinity? It is understandable that Christians will hold fast to their faith in these dark times. But for the love of Jesus can we not relax our grip on the Trinity and choose to doubt just a little bit. When we do that we can allow people from other cultures to share Jesus within their own context.

Jesus can be appreciated in different ways, more than just through the Christian Church. If Christians want to share what they have found in him, then they need to allow freedom to find him through other religions. To offer advice and instruction, love and wisdom. Not to insist on the need to join our club, church or religion. To adhere to that is politics.

We need to keep politics out of religion as much as we need to keep religion out of politics. True freedom in Christ is when his mysteries can be found in any context and any culture.

Moving on from past mistakes, righting the wrongs of history takes forgiveness. Lack of forgiveness carries resentment on to the next generation. Jesus knew all about forgiveness, but it does not mean he is the only way. There are other teachings on this site and elsewhere that can help with forgiveness.

We need to forgive everybody even those no longer with us. From our family and from history.

We need to forgive by all means necessary and we need to have the faith, the courage and the imagination to allow people to coexist.

Conway-Laird (2017)



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