The changing face of Religion
Religion is not what it was! That seems to be the message of my second week studying Faith Debates. It is not disappearing, even though the secularisation theory said that when a society modernises religion will decline. But religion is changing, church attendance is declining, in Britain and Europe anyway, though perhaps not elsewhere. There is a growth of alternatives like ‘new age’ spiritualities, and phenomena like ‘believing without belonging’ or even ‘belonging without believing’ seem to be more obvious. People seem to be picking and mixing elements of different religions to suit their personal tastes. However, there is also a growth of fundamentalism. Both are going on at the same time.
Quakerism is also not the same as it was when it began over three hundred years ago. But there are some things that remain central, like the living out of your faith – known as ‘Testimony’. There used to be lots of different testimonies, things that were expected in Quaker behaviour, like speaking truthfully, being honest, not taking oaths, abstaining from alcohol, refusing to serve in the armed forces, living in a ‘plain’ manner, treating everyone with the same respect, (using Thee and Thou to everyone regardless of status) and so on. There still tends to be a list of testimonies, Simplicity, Truth, Equality and Peace are common (STEP) and usually a commitment to sustainability, environmental concern, is added. But the core is still that your faith has to be lived outwardly, your whole life is Testimony.
Quakers have a particular way of conducting their business, it involves deep listening to conscience (or the Spirit or inward Light) and to each other. No votes are taken, nor it is necessarily consensus that is aimed for, but discerning the ‘right way forward’ or ‘God’s will’. Now this high ideal is not always attained, but at its best it is a remarkable expression of corporate collaboration.
One could wish that there were more examples of such listening and co-operation in public life and more honesty, integrity, and concern for the poor and marginalised. This bears a striking relevance to the way we judge people in public life today. Being two-faced, or hypocritical, brings sharp condemnation. Politicians who offer public statements and then are found to act in a contrary way, in secret, face denunciation in social media. Those who represent the Church and who are found to have betrayed the standards of love and compassion find the judgement of society is severe. It is a matter of controversy whether Britain is ‘still’ a Christian country, but most people adhere to a set of values that includes respect and tolerance, compassion and fairness, neighbourliness and doing good.
A couple of odd instances from my experience this week, have some relevance. I participated in a bible study group looking at Paul the apostle. The opinions of those present ranged from one extreme to the other, that is from great admiration to abhorrence. His supposed views on the place of women in the
Church and the way he is thought to have ‘changed the Gospel of Jesus’ led to critical reactions. His reaching out to those who were not Jews and his encouragement to a life directed by the Spirit and not law led to praise. Interpretation of his writings is necessary and inevitable, so understanding his context is crucial. I particularly find helpful and challenging his poem on ‘love’ in the thirteenth chapter of his letter to the Christians in Corinth, as do many other people. His views on women, if they are his, do not sit easily with present attitudes. Particularly with the current scandals affecting Hollywood those who select Paul’s words out of context can have a field day finding evidence to condemn him.
The other experience which relates to the changing face of religion today is my decision to watch the Harry Potter films, from the first to the last over a period of a couple of weeks. What is the place of ‘magic’ in our thinking? Has it changed since the advent of computer generated images (CGI) on television and in film? The popularity of the J. K. Rowling’s books and films including the latest, ‘Fantastical Beasts and where to find them’, make me wonder if the place of mystery and magic is more significant for us now than it was in the heyday of the technological advances of the last century.
Whether everything that is emerging in new spiritualities can be called ‘religion’ is another question. But life is fascinating, and full of surprises. Some of them good!