Beyond religion (3)

1 Jun

The last two months I have been trying to write further on this theme. Here are just a few ideas indicating the direction of my thinking.

Tom Frame (Losing my religion)  offers a detailed analysis of what he calls unbelief in Australia. It's really about patterns of church attendance and the increasing proportion of people who tick 'No religion' on the census.

Frame engages with a wide range of literature and eventually offers his sketch of what will happen in the future, when (as he sees it) believers will become a minority. He envisages a situation where religion may become marginalized and extremism may develop. He pleads for a more open, respectful dialogue. While there is much to value in his work, I was disappointed that he did not engage with many of the issues he hints at. From the outset he suggests that an appropriate understanding of religion involves 'believing, belonging and behaving', but his own analysis spends all its time on belief. And his prescription for the future says basically nothing about how believers might better engage with the other two 'b's: especially in terms of Christian formation and Christian community.

I've also worked through John Selby Spong's latest—which he says will be his last, Eternal Life: A new vision. Beyond religion, beyond theism, beyond heaven and hell. I have to admit I have never been a fan of Spong, but I found it interesting to compare these two Anglican bishops. Both from the same church, with such radically different theologies, it would seem. Spong's argument is for a kind of spirituality which focusses on 'human consciousness' as the highest development (such as—well, yes—himself!). This heightened human consciousness allows us, he says, to see through religion, to see how it is a natural but inferior form of consciousness, in fact a form of manipulation generated by our fear of death. There is a trenchant critique of religion here—much of which is deserved, but it is all very one-sided. In the end, Spong claims that there is yet a God, whom we know through this developed human consciousness. What is more, he declares that he has in his study for this book developed a new appreciation for the Gospel of John, a text he previously did not like because it seemed to him to present a Christ imposed from above, from a God 'out there'—the very God Spong rejects as unthinkable and whom he sees as the source of all the bad things in religion. But now he finds the Jesus of John's Gospel to be the ultimate human being, who is so deeply self-conscious that he knows and relates intimately to God. (I find myself marvelling at both these readings of John.)

So what Spong offers us 'beyond religion' is, in my judgment a re-run of 19th century theological liberalism, of which Karl Barth wrote so cleverly, that when it speaks of God, it really speaks of human beings, but in a loud voice. I do not find much hope in Spong's offering in place of 'religion'. It offers nothing to address the hunger of the world, for food, for shelter, for peace, for justice, for anything that would make any difference to anything much at all. And as for the spiritual hunger of the world? As a former student of mine once observed: this is a theology for a sunny day. After that …

So I came to wrestle with my own challenges: beyond religion, what? I have turned again to Bonhoeffer. It s not coincidental. I had just read Keith Clements' wonderful new book The SPCK Introduction to Bonhoeffer. It's a superb book, the kind of book a person can write who has been on top of their subject matter for 40 years. It's not dense, but is packed full of insight, with just enough detail to be a really good resource.

Bonhoeffer's idea of 'religionless Christianity' has also inspired another great new book, with that title, by Jeff Pugh. But this idea is best understood as arising from Bonhoeffer's earlier theology, and especially his teaching on discipleship, his Ethics, and his own experience of 'becoming a Christian' years into his religious life as a pastor and theologian. What this really meant for him is the clue to his religionless Christianity. It is about life-style in discipleship community. That is, it's about belonging and behaving. This is the stuff Frame never seemed to get to.

So the article I've written addresses the 'bad news' about the decline of religion, and the Good News: the invitation to move beyond religion into the life of discipleship. It's exciting, challenging, and hopeful: because it is grounded in God, not human inwardness nor all that focus on 'the church'.

3 thoughts on “Beyond religion (3)

  1. Frank I’m interested to see this article and what it says about ‘religionless Christianty’. I wonder if its possible to have Christianity without religion, to separate the two. While i don’t have a difficulty with the idea of wanting/trying to live a life that “loves mercy, seeks justice and walks humbly” I sigh. These days it seems i have a kind of allergy to the term “Christianity” because for me it to carry overtones of “them” and “us”-ness of a particular normative view that is excluding/exclusive/superior (even as it proposes we bring people to its truth and way of life). I wonder if it is possible to have discipleship/community belonging without a sense of superiority and pride of belonging to something “special” …. Is it then possible “to walk humbly”. Do these misgivings make sense to you. I don’t know the answers but I do wonder. I will be interested to read the article. Dorothy

  2. I agree with you Dorothy.
    I have always questioned those who set religions on one side and Christianity on the other. As if Christianity is somehow ‘pure’ or free from whatever it is they or we think we mean by ‘religion’—usually something negative. It’s a bit more complicated than that.
    My sense is that we need to clarify these negative uses of the term, as opposed to a fairly descriptive usage. In a purely descriptive sense, of course Christianity is a religion.
    Then if we sort out whatever it is we find irksome about ‘religion’, the question is whether any of the religions is or can ever be free of that.
    The Bible uses the term ‘true religion’ at times, clearly recognizing false or idolatrous tendencies or possibilities. This is a special theme in the letter of James. And he (James) sees true religion as something at least to be committed to, even if we will always perhaps fall short of it.
    So if, as I argue in my paper (will send you a draft …) we focus on the ethical and life-style commitments which Bonhoeffer identifies as discipleship, we then have to ask whether these can be followed without any ‘religion’ elements in the negative sense, or does Bonhoeffer mean without any of the ‘descriptive’ sense of religion.
    It all depends on what we mean by, and in which sense we are using the term, ‘religion’. I am intrigued to research further into what Bonhoeffer meant by it.

  3. Thanks Frank, will look forward to reading your article. Think perhaps I need to know more of what Bonhoeffer was saying. I respect the fact that his theology was birthed from (or perhaps matured in) substantial physical, emotional & existential challenge. So often i think I would like to sit such people down in the context of our world to hear them further develop their theology in our contexts … sigh! perhaps that is sheer laziness on my part and they have done enough to make sense of their own worlds: i guess that is our work to do.

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