The default setting of religion
As I type this, I have just returned from a morning break. Having been at my desk since sometime between 8 and 9am, I rose to make myself a coffee and stretch my legs before tackling the next task. I realised that I had not heard the result of the Scotland v Belgium Word Cup qualifier (O dearie, dearie, dearie me). In search of this information I turned on the TV only to find that the channel was not BBC 24 but featured Tony Robinson and his Time-teamers digging holes in darkest England. They were discussing the many human remains that had been found dating to the Bronze Age or early Iron Age (800BC ish) and in what way the burials, and sometimes the manner of death of the people concerned, pointed to religious belief and ceremony. Human beings, the evidence suggests, are instinctively religious. We question our place in the universe and live in the light of how we see our place in the universe. This is as true for those who subscribe to an atheist creed (there is no God) as it is for orthodox Christians. There is a faith and a certain outlook on the world.
Pondering this over my morning caffeine-fix, I was reminded of a message that frightened me witless whilst I was exploring (for which read ‘tampering’) with the software recesses of our laptop computer. ‘Error: click here to return to default settings’. I have come across a similar option when trying to re-tune the Television, a task I find I have to re-learn each time I am required to do it. In the tedious search for the ‘re-tune’ option, I invariably stumble over one that says ‘reset to factory settings’, which means the same thing as ‘default settings’. The default settings, or factory settings, are the settings of the equipment when it comes out of the box, fresh from the factory, and brand spanking new. It is the way it is made. This is its ‘natural’ set-up.
The default setting for human beings seems to be the pursuit of religion. We are incurably religious. We should be clear: this does not mean the same as attending church. I was informed recently that 150 years ago, around the time our church building was constructed, around 50% of the population would attend church. Today that figure is nearer 6%. But many people who do not attend regular services of worship are nonetheless religious, in that they follow certain core beliefs. These are typically about pursuing or keeping a certain moral code which, in some vague sense, they believe operates as a kind of insurance policy for the afterlife. Provided we ‘don’t do anybody any harm’ the gates of paradise will open, or our virtue will secure our access to the Elysian fields of the here-after, or whatever.
The fact is that religion involves accepting the prevailing advice of a given religious outlook and by striving to keep that advice, our existence beyond death will somehow be secured, or, if no afterlife is envisaged, our current life will somehow be validated. That advice may be about following certain moral rules, or certain religious practices or a particularly contemplative life or an especially firm conviction about there being no god (atheism). For others, you should discover what ‘is right for you’ in some progressive voyage of self-discovery. If you are Richard Dawkins then you look to science to provide you with the motivation to ‘be good’. It is fascinating that an atheist finds it necessary to explain his motivation for ‘being good’. The evangelist for atheism is seeking to win converts to a code which will tell them how to live. Sound familiar? It is religion.
The Kirk Session has recently been studying Timothy Keller’s book and DVD ‘Gospel in life’ in which he helpfully explores the difference between ‘religion’ and ‘gospel’. The point is very stark. Religion is NOT gospel. Christians are not proclaiming a way OF life, but a way TO life.
You see, there are those who, like the Pharisees of old, insist on a life of moral conformity. So they see themselves as good, and those who don’t share their stark adherence to a moral code are to be despised.
On the other hand, and perhaps more common today, there are those who see themselves as ‘modern’ and ‘progressive’ and determined to discover what is ‘right for them’. Above all, they despise those who think they are better than others or have discovered ‘the truth’. The irony is that they think they are better than the likes of the moralistic Pharisee-types whom they dismiss as judgemental. They know better than to be judgmental. Really? In fact they are not different. They think they are better than others who, in turn, think they are better than others….
To quote Timothy Keller: “The gospel does not say, ‘the good are in and the bad are out’, nor ‘the open minded are in and the judgemental are out.’ The gospel says the humble are in and the proud are out. The gospel says the people who know they are not better, not more open-minded are in, and the people who think they’re on the right side of the divide are most in danger.”
Religion gives us advice about how to live, gospel is good news about Jesus. The difference could not be more stark. The default setting of human beings may be religion, but religion is typically anti-gospel. Gospel tells us not what we should do but to whom we should go. Gospel is good news that Jesus has intervened for those who come to see that they cannot save themselves.