The Difference between Religion & Christianity
Having been a Christian for over half of my life, and certainly consciously living as one since I was about 30, I have pondered on the nature of belief, and the way people live as Christians. Like many people, even those who might be considered atheist, I have thought often about the difference between religion and Christianity. Is there a difference? I believe there is.
In the heart of every person, those of average intelligence, virtually every person on the planet, there is a sense of conscience, a sense of right and wrong, and an inner voice that tells us when we are uncomfortable, when we feel that something is wrong, and when we are unsure of a particular viewpoint or way of life. It doesn’t mean that each pang of conscience is necessarily absolutely correct, but in general the small still voice at our centre often speaks the truth, when we might not see the truth at all. For a long time in the West, in the nations that are at least I suppose nominally Christian, there has been a tradition of Christian belief, a tradition of organised Churches and religion that has more or less been suffice for those living as Christians. I think for most people, Christian or not, the view of Christianity and Christian living in the West is that people go to church, sing a few hymns, perhaps become a little ‘touchy-feely’, and so get their religious ‘hit’ for the week. It is to many people, an uninspiring and maybe even false image, but it is an image of Christianity, certainly in the British Isles that seems to hold sway.
Historically, religion has been used to justify every sort of injustice, wars, genocides, racism, class systems, slavery, colonisations, enforced labour and many other horrendous injustices meted out from human beings to other groups of human beings. This goes for Christianity, or perhaps more correctly those nations under the auspices of a Christian culture and heritage, as with most other world religions too. The end result of such activities in the present day and modern world we live in is a divided world, a world that is full of division, injustice and wretchedly unequal wealth and resource distributions. Are we certain that God is somehow blessing injustice? Are we certain that crusades and ‘religiously inspired’ wars are from God at all? Is this not something that we can do all by ourselves?! During the days of the British slave trade, when men and prominent families made absolute fortunes, there were arguments put forth that somehow slavery was good, that Black men, women and children would be ‘christianised’ where they were shipped to, amongst other reasons, and that it was in someway and somehow a divinely sanctioned or certainly divinely blessed trade. The assumption being that God was, at least, turning a blind eye. The popular opinion among slave traders and those who made money under this system was that it was a just and honest way for a man to make a living. In the modern world, at least our sensibilities, for the most part, have changed. The wretched assumption underlining the slave trade, one that surprisingly might still be held today in similar circumstances, is that it somehow more or less was sort of right, as long as we don’t challenge it, and given a sheen of Christian respectability, it couldn’t be wrong, could it?! If religion could justify the slave trade, and other injustices, are we certain then that God always justifies evil and injustice?
I believe implicitly that God does not bless any form of injustice, however large or small, and that human beings as a whole will bend and twist even the Bible, what is good itself, to excuse and justify their own often very selfish actions. If we are honest, about our dealings with others, with our family, friends, spouses, work colleagues and other people, and our most important dealings with God, we will probably come to the conclusion that even the best of relationships are flawed to some degree. And if we are also honest, we will probably accept that because of this, most of the world, the people in it, and most societies are at best disordered and at times unjustly run. In poor countries, this is often only too obvious, in wealthier societies there are perhaps degrees of subtlety. Some of this is unavoidable; none of us are perfect, and we all make mistakes. But there are degrees of injustice and evil in the world, and there are many imperfect human relationships in the world that allow one person to prosper and others to be exploited, sometimes mildly and in many instances extremely. If the world after all is one big family, we can at times be awful to each other, to put it frankly! And if our relationships with those close to us are at times strained and even non-existent, how does this bode for us all when we step out into the wider world, with people we don’t know? The result of human indifference can be seen everywhere, and the fruits of indifference, which I suppose include greed, injustice, selfishness, intolerance amongst many others. It can be a very cruel world. But the point I wish to make, is that it is not God that condones this, it is only too human! Those who are religious may use their ‘beliefs’ to justify their greed and exploitation or their sinful ways, and those who are sceptical or disbelievers, may either blame God for human evil, or be disillusioned with what they may see at best is hypocrisy masquerading as religion. It is also possible that many people who do believe deeply in God see religion, certainly aspects of organised religion, as missing the point, and being at worst just as worldly as any other social structure or institution.
Throughout the Bible, throughout the Bible ‘story’, which I suppose really is a story of God’s love for man, and humankind’s usual half-hearted, at best, love for God, there appears not too far under the surface a much deeper story, a much more relevant understanding of human nature, God’s nature, and the nature of the spiritual life and spiritual reality. It is this, at times hidden, nature that is the truer picture of God. It is less than abstract, but harder to pin down as something absolutely tangible, without reflection, a degree of honesty, and perhaps the understanding that as believers we are on a journey, a long term journey, where as we progress we grow accustomed to the growing light ahead. It is finding God between the lines, between the pages, of the book we think we know so well! It is finding a living, breathing, actively participating God, who does certainly endeavour to walk with us and keep us company, even in our worst and most troubling moments, and a God who literally came down to earth!
As a Christian, I am sometimes confused at the often conflicting views about God, Jesus, Christianity and the Bible, and I am occasionally perplexed at the way Christians behave, both on an individual and more corporate level. There seems to be, even amongst some Christians of long standing, an unspoken set of values, values which at times appear to be contrary to all I have ever read in the Bible! The practise of Christianity, both in the US and the UK, at times baffles me completely, and makes me wonder what is the value of being a Christian, if ‘Christian’ life is at odds with Jesus’ teaching. I wonder if many Christians are being only too religious, when they really should be living as Christians.
I am brought to the issue of Saul, who became Saint Paul. It is Saul, as a religious zealot, a Pharisee, who helped persecute and hunt down the early Christians, who embodies both religion and Christianity. Whilst Saul sinned grievously, he did so ignorantly, but he was also fired up zealously in his role as ‘righteous’ persecutor, within a group Jesus often spoke out against. It was the religious hierarchies of the day that finally murdered Jesus on the cross. Is this meant to tell us anything? Anyway, whilst Saul was busy on another persecution run, he was struck down, and blinded by the light! What happened exactly is open to conjecture, but Saul, who became the Christian convert Paul, went from being a religious bigot to a man chastened by his previous lifestyle, and perhaps the most famous spokesman for Jesus. What a change! In his first incarnation, he had even signed death warrants, as a changed man, he became one of the rocks of the early Church, and one of the rocks of the Bible. Here is a man who underwent a profound, life changing and lasting experience, which changed him and his character so fundamentally, that he might as well have been a different person. If God can take a man like Saul, and ‘remake’ him again as Paul, there is truly hope for us all. And remember, that Saul was educated in scripture, and scrupulous in keeping the Law, as he and his sect saw it in any case. But this never stopped him from sinning, even sinning grievously and heinously! More lessons to learn. Sometimes our most fervent religious leanings may very well fall far short of even an adequate level of conduct, understanding and service to God. In a nutshell, Paul represents the before and after of Christian conversion, and being religious or living as a Christian. Saul was a religious bigot, a nutter, who couldn’t see the spiritual wood for the trees, Paul was a man who put his faith in the Lord, and never looked back. The difference is this; the religious Saul was a man who thought he could do no wrong, whilst the Christian Paul was a man who tried to do what was right. It is a subtle difference, but it is truly all the difference in the world.
Saul doesn’t seem to reflect, his actions are the actions of someone we might say bent on trouble and out to cause suffering and grief; so much for a religious man! Paul on the other hand is a reflective man, a man most certainly chastened by his former lifestyle, and compelled to put it right and to preach the beliefs and the Gospel he once despised.
More and more, I have come to believe that religion, even at best, is the outer packaging, the ritual, the routine, the many and varying religious apparels, and that the relationship between an individual and God is the more important inner reality. It is this inner reality we as Christians live each day, or should, and the relationship that we should be working on each day, in a real and lasting way. It is a relationship with a living being, the God who will shape our lives, set our destinies and guide our every step. It is a thrilling, fulfilling, joyful, wonderful and exciting experience. It is the most important relationship in every Christian’s life, or certainly should be.
It is the ‘inner reality’ that really lasts, when most everything else passes away. If we reflect on our lives ten, twenty, thirty or even fifty years ago if we are in our senior years, we might marvel at the way we lived, the friends we had, the lifestyle we adopted or fell into; we might also be ashamed, saddened, but also perhaps gladdened at happy memories. Whatever the case, it is highly probable we are living different lives today. What remains of times past, what we should hold onto, are in the end to a point the most valuable things; friendship, happiness, peaceful relationships, memories of good holidays, perhaps also a relationship with God, and so on. What clothes you wore, what you ate, the things you bought are less relevant; they are not really part of our happiness at all. The ‘inner reality’ is the spiritual reality, the often unseen reality that we can miss in the mad whirl of modern life, and the mad whirl of the ‘consumeristic’ West, and more and more the whole world. The inner reality is the one we know ourselves, within ourselves, it is what really makes us tick, and depending on how we approach life, the one that drives us, sets us on the path we take, how we live, behave, what we wish to do, and the spark in all the choices we make. It is, in spiritual terms, a God-centred reality. And, as you grow accustomed to God’s light, it is the reality that more and more you want to live in. It is a multi-faceted reality, not particularly religious, but one where we see through the prism of God. It is this reality that is at times at odds with what is perceived as Christianity or religion, and how often God is presented or portrayed by those claiming close relationships with Him. All Christians should be chastened by how people calling themselves Christians have acted before today, and should endeavour to find the real ‘inner reality’.
Religion is often man seeing God in our image, when in actual reality we are very much created by Him in His image. We should never forget this, and should not attempt to see God as an appendage of our lives, rather that we are an appendage of Him. This is an important point to note. As with other forms of life, and other social, religious and political structures, Christianity has its fair share of ‘angles’, by this I mean there are perceived to be varying kinds of Christianity. These take such forms as ‘Right Wing’ Christianity, ‘touchy-feely Jesus-we-love-you’ Christianity, an elitist Christianity, fundamentalist Christianity and there is certainly a sense in Britain that Christianity is merely an accessory of the Class system. There is also amongst some Christians the idea that religion is part and parcel of a ‘self-righteous’ conviction, that if a person is a Christian, or say they are a Christian, they can do whatever they like. We see this in other religions too, and at this time it appears to be growing more and more prevalent in the world. But for Christians, where our beliefs are distorted to make even lies appear the truth, we need to take care. Great care in fact.
I sometimes think, being humans, we overcomplicate matters! Instead of living simple and peaceful lives, we have to go and make things complicated, awkward, tiresome and complicating! I feel now that I want my relationship with Jesus to be a real, lasting, intimate but also ultimately simple relationship, one that is based on mutual love. All the other things outside of this may have their place, but I am not so personally concerned about them. In my own life, and with those around me, I hope that I can be real in my relationships to God, others, and also be true to myself. Jesus came down to earth to simply do what was right, surrounded by the effects of human societies that only seemed to succeed in doing what was wrong. In all the mad chaos of the world, the politics, the intrigue, the global trade, even religion itself, Jesus stood out simply by being a non-sinful man, by doing what the world was really crying out for, living in the truth. In Jesus Christ, God came literally ‘down to earth’, lived and went amongst us, and He allows us to be ourselves, unfettered by any kind of pretension, so that we can have a fuller life in Him. I will finally say that much of religion is largely man made, whereas a Christian relationship is from God. There is a difference!