Setting a bad example

Setting a bad example

Forty blogs of Lent

Day 4

In Wednesday’s Metro* there was an interview with philosopher and atheist Alain de Botton.

He has sympathies with the way that religions operate. He says, “I think there are a lot of things that religions get up to that are of value to non-believers – and one of those things is trying to be a bit better than we normally manage to be.”

What he dislikes about religion is that, “In a religious framework, what’s in it for you is that you are not going to Hell.”

That’s an interesting take from the person ho is popularising philosophy. And I think he has it wrong. In my years of churchgoing I have heard very few sermons about going to Hell. Few, if any, mention hell at all. The idea that we have to be good or we will burn is one that was opposed by the reformers, Martin Luther’s slogan, “Salvation is by grace alone,” goes completely against it.

The recorded words of Jesus do mention Hell, but not as often as you’d think. Among his most remembered words are these, which to me sum up Jesus’ philosophy.

“Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn,
for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek,
for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful,
for they will be shown mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart,
for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers,
for they will be called children of God.
10 Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

11 “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. 12 Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

Short easy to remember sayings, sound bites if you like, but with enough depth to study in depth. If you want to study religion as philosophy then you can do a lot worse than start here. It has a lot in common with what de Botton is saying about self improvement, without any mention of the dreaded Hellfire.

But theproblem is that there is very little philosophy in the Bible. It is, in the Old Testament, the story of a people trying to follow God. Many Psalms talk about the relationship of the poet with God, and prophets talk about rules as being detrimental to either serving God, or serving other people. It’s a warts and all portrayal, God’s people often get it wrong – very wrong. It is not about the rules so much as the relationship, in the Old Testament of a nation and their God.

The new Testament uses this as a springboard. Jesus summed up the Jewish law not with a list of things not to do, but with a couple of do’s. DO love God. DO love others in the same way that you love yourself. It’s about attitudes and it’s about relationship.

Which is where I have to part with de Botton’s view of religion. Christianity is about us having a relationship with God. The death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the pivotal event around which the New Testament revolves, removes the barriers to that relationship, we make ourselves better not on our own, but with God’s help. Without this relationship any philosophy, no matter how good, still falls short.

Yet people outside Christianity do not get this impression. Too many focus on the bad things. Hellfire preachers far from frightening people into faith do that faith a big disservice, it takes the focus away from the love of God. It is these people who have set a bad example.

Examples of Christians getting it right are all around us. The charities supported by the company I work with (we’re fined £1 for not dressing smart on dress down Fridays) have among them Hospices and St George’s Crypt in Leeds. All Christian based. I recognise many of the charities that Comic relief are involved in from things the Church is involved in. The relationship with God showing itself in relationship with others. In doing so we are improved, not self improvement, though the results ma look the same, but improvement in relationship with God.


*Metro is a free newspaper provided for users of public transport.