I have quite often heard people say that although they believe in Jesus, they have no time for ‘organised religion’. Well, quite apart from the usual clergy joke that anyone who has been to their church couldn’t mistake it for anything ‘organised’, there’s a series of serious points to be made here, some of which follow from my earlier post on ‘being saved’.
I am not sure what it means to ‘believe in Jesus’ outside of the context of Christianity. What Jesus is this? Is this the Jesus who reveals Himself in the Bible? Well, that Jesus is the one revealed to us through the book brought together by the Christian Church; it is its foundation document, although Jesus Himself is its foundation. If the idea is that you can read the Bible and have it all instantly explained to you by the Holy Spirit, that seems to me a nice idea, but entirely unscriptural. It would also be more convincing if the Holy Spirit seemed to be telling all those who believe in this fashion the same thing.
My dear friend, Servus Fidelis, provided me with a most interesting link here to the phenomenon of people who describe themselves as ‘spiritual but not religious’. I would agree with the author, James K Firtpatrick, who says that for some people, this can be a way into Christianity as they try other faiths or spiritual practices, find there not what they want, and so move on until they find Christianity. As he puts it: ‘I would argue that we must keep in mind the role of grace in our spiritual lives when dealing with this group’. As he reminds us: ‘ Successful missionaries know how to nurture this non-Christian spiritual yearning; how to build upon a quest for the divine in life. Ordinary’. This, I think, is something close to what Rob has written here about interacting with those on a spiritual quest.
But there is another sort of person who holds to this view, who is not open to such dialogue because they have decided that they need a faith which allows them to behave as they feel they need to behave. This means that no dogma and doctrine are essential to them, as these things interfere with their ‘personal freedom’. They argue that it is enough to be ‘good’ and ‘moral’, without defining what they mean by those things.
What is lacking in both approaches though is the recognition that God is real. He is not a construct of our imaginations with whom we can negotiate. He is the all-powerful Creator of Heaven and Earth who, through the Law and the Prophets, and latterly through the Incarnation and the New Covenant, has revealed to us what it is we should be doing to live the sort of life which will allow us to grow in His image. All of this is transmitted to us through the Church which Jesus established. It may well be that some individuals get a direct message, although this is not what we are shown in Scripture, where it is a relatively rare phenomenon.
As we come to God, in whatever way we do, we need a community to help us grow, even as we need a prayer life and spiritual practices. The Good News here is we don’t have to make this up anew, there are wonderful Christians who have been where we hope to follow, and they have left us prayers, meditations and other writings which help us to do so. This is because, for me at least, and I know for many of us, there has been no one-off conversion experience where I passed from unbelief to belief, but rather a gradual growth on a long journey. For me, Christianity is the essential part of my own pilgrimage. I know nothing beyond what the Church teaches me. I lack the ability to turn to those whom God has set in authority above me and to tell them they are in error. Perhaps if the Spirit spoke to me directly, I might do that. But I believe He is speaking to me – through the medium of the Church which, has passed through the ages carrying with it God’s message.
I know that here we have many definitions of precisely what that Church is, and I am not, as most of you know, one of those who feels she can say, with any authority, it is x or y. I see it where I see Christians do what Christ told us. So often, so many forget that He said that people would know we were His by the love we showed each other. That, I hope, I can do here and outside.