|A PLAIN GUIDE TO
Christianity as a Way of Life
Most people think of Christianity as first and
foremost a religion. But is it? Perhaps religion is merely a way of
nurturing something more fundamental - that is, a way of living based on
the person of the historical Jesus. If so, perhaps religion must
eventually be put in its place - as servant not master.
two thousand years Christianity has been defined as a religion, one
amongst many. But beneath the surface of doctrines, rules and group
solidarity runs a silent river of life, seldom acknowledged but
nonetheless flowing steadily.
That river is a way of living,
prefigured by Jesus of Nazareth as pioneer of a radical approach to
humanity's ultimate concerns. It has been there from the very beginning.
Most Christians think of Jesus of Nazareth as the original source of the
river. But that isn't what he claimed, even though his followers claim it
The earliest stratum of history about
Jesus is unequivocal. Jesus the Jew could not and did not claim to be the
source of life. For him, only God could possibly be that.
Once layers of interpretation in the
gospels have been stripped away to reveal the bare bones of history,
Jesus' stand is clear. He urges his listeners to "Trust God" (Mark 11.22);
it is God, not Jesus, we are to love with everything we've got (Mark
12.28-34); and only God knows "the last things", the secrets of the
universe (Mark 13.32-36). Jesus calls attention to God, not to himself.
Little in Paul's letters contradicts
this. Paul, a regular Jew who probably never met Jesus, used Jewish
theology to teach and manage the new groups he founded. For him, an
"apostle displaced in time", Jesus is the source of authority. But he
speaks about the God of his ancestors as the prime mover, not Jesus.
Despite the ambiguous use of the Greek kurios (which sometimes
refers to God), the sense in Paul's writing is overwhelmingly that Jesus
is a way through to God. But it is God who reigns supreme.
Jesus as an object of religion was born
in the gospels. In the centuries which followed them, his followers
created an ever more elaborate religious framework around him. The early
Church Fathers gradually forged Jesus of Nazareth into a cultic object.
They lived in times when religion was woven deeply into the minds and
hearts of the vast majority. It was a fundamental way of perceiving the
The separation of Christianity from life has had the most profoundly
negative effect upon the world. Simone Weil thought that
Never since the dawn of history, except for a certain period of the
Roman Empire, has Christ been so absent as today. The separation of
religion from the rest of social life, which seems natural to the
majority of Christians nowadays, would have been judged monstrous by
Unfortunately for us, they used as the
basis for their theology what then seemed to them the best and most
detailed source - the Gospel of John.
In a natural process of building
interpretation upon interpretation, John's Gospel (early second-century at
the earliest) shows us a Jesus myth more developed than in the other
Gospels. If Jesus had been a pop-singer, the author of John's Gospel would
have been his agent and promoter. Almost none of this Gospel can be
regarded as recounting "what really happened." It is mostly not history
(though it may contain some). Few, if any, historians accept the bulk of
it as an account of actual events.
The once-giant Christian ecclesiastical
machine which developed over more than a millennium no longer rules the
minds and hearts of nations. It is being replaced by the first truly
non-religious society in the history of humankind. That is, religion
itself, as a primary way of looking at life, no longer has the grip it
In the West - which I suggest will, for
better or worse, continue for the foreseeable future as a change agent in
global cultural norms - religion is changing rapidly. To a majority of
Westerners, religion in the traditional sense is mostly irrelevant. Some
are actively hostile. But most just don't care.
Some main reasons might be:
- We are irrevocably separated from the
past by now being able to see ourselves as part of one world.
Communication and transport have shrunk our planet to, in Marshall
McLuhan's words, a global village. "Religion" is now perceptibly a
planet-wide phenomenon of many kinds and shades. The "We're right,
you're wrong" religious approach is increasingly untenable. Along that
road lies blood and torment, as we know all too well both from our
history and from present-day events.
- Almost all societies today rest upon
an increasingly integrated body of knowledge derived from rational
questioning and analysis, and not from institutional authority.
Religious constructs and metaphors, once touted as "the truth", carry
less and less weight.
- There is an increasingly widespread
understanding that humans not only can be deceived by others, but can
deceive themselves. A large body of psychological theory and evidence
requires scepticism of perceptions as a basic life-attitude in a way
never before known
. Pronouncements on the basis
of revelation have limited force in such an intellectual climate.
- R H Tawney in 1926
 argued that Western society
has fundamentally changed the way it perceives happiness. Gone is the
supposition that this world is necessarily a "vale of tears". Hope of
deferred gratification has been replaced by belief that, given the right
conditions, heaven (of a sort) is possible on earth. The mythical fall
of mankind and the cosmos into sin no longer rules. It follows that
every aspect of God's creation must be good. Such perceptions are
fatally weakening religion insofar as it promises happiness deferred to
- Growing awareness and knowledge of
genetic, psychological and social forces has weakened to the point of
destruction a formerly deep sense of sin and its consequences. Religion
as a set of beliefs and rituals offering refuge from the possibility of
eternal torture have less and less relevance in the minds of most.
- We now have more knowledge of the
past than ever before. It's true to say, for example, that we know more
now about the Roman Empire than anyone living in it ever knew. It's
almost impossible to credibly assert revealed knowledge in such an
environment - particularly "knowledge" derived through holy writings
which have themselves been revealed as the creation of humans
Each of the above points could be
expanded. They illustrate the possibility that as religion as a positive
social force declines, so will traditional Christianity.
This is not to say that religion must
die. That doesn't seem likely. Recent surveys have indicated that religion
of various sorts is alive and well - but in the West especially of a
"mix-and-match" kind rather than the monolithic institutional religions of
A relevant religion must, it seems
to me, reflect the way people experience life now. We no longer experience
life as our ancestors did
The difference is fundamental, not incidental. It is radical, not
cosmetic. Just as the first Christians interpreted Jesus in terms of their
own world-view, so also must it be possible for new Christians in the 21st
century to do the same. Traditional Christianity cannot be made or
moulded into a form relevant to the future upon which we are advancing.
If, then, the religious practices and
teachings which have served for two thousand years are increasingly
defunct, what is to take their place?
Answers will no doubt emerge over time.
In the meanwhile the idea of religion as a sine qua non must be
replaced. In my view, a vital change must be in the long-held proposition
that Christianity is first and foremost a religion. It may use
religion, but is not itself intrinsically a religion.
As a religion
Code - As a religion, the
Church has evolved a set of "right teachings". These lay down as
normative certain aspects of reality such as miracles and contact with a
transcendent or spiritual dimension. Also laid down are norms of
behaviour or ethics, sometimes in the form of strict rules. Breach of
these rules invites exclusion from the institution.
Cult - Various sections of
Christianity emphasise different metaphors (often called myths) about
God, Jesus, important people and the past. They all have rituals and
ceremonies, participation in which is required for entry into the Church
as an institution and for ongoing membership. A large proportion of the
institution's assets is directed towards cultic activities.
Conversion - Religious
experience is emphasised in many parts of the Church, often involving
deep emotional catharsis. Some sort of changed orientation towards life
in the world outside the institution is generally assumed for
participation (the Roman Catholic Church, for example); Conversion
generally demands submission to a higher authority, be it the Bible as
God's infallible word, or the Pope or bishops or synods as infallible
mediators of God the heavenly king to his subjects
As a way of life
A Christian way of living, one which isn't necessarily linked
to religion, is inspired by the person of Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus may
have, as it were two faces:
 The first is the traditional face of a multiple-personality Jesus
as built up by the Church over two thousand years. This is a sort of
"pick 'n pay" God, whose character depends much on the cultural
background in which God-metaphors have been developed. So, for example,
the Jesus of Eastern Orthodoxy comes alive through ritual and dogma;
that of the Society of Friends through ethics and experience; of the
Church of England through broad inclusiveness and alliance with the
State; of the Lutheran Church through the Bible and preaching, and that
of some American congregations through emotional expression using
 The second face is that of the historical Jesus, the person
revealed by New Testament records. This Jesus is revealed when we dig
behind the early interpretations which exist in the Gospels.
A person more user-friendly to today's average Western man and woman is
revealed. If a portrait of the Jesus of history suffers from limited
data, it gains immeasurably by becoming open once again to new
interpretations. This gain seems to me to be essential if Jesus is to
remain relevant in the near and far futures.
I find it difficult to isolate what might be some
axiomatic aspects of this Jesus because I am acutely conscious in so
doing that I risk merely projecting my personal psychology or social
persona onto him.
Nevertheless, it seems to me that certain axioms can
be derived from what we know of the historical person. I think it can
also be shown that these (and perhaps other) axioms, rather than
orthodoxy, have driven and enlivened the Church over the
So a Christian way of living ...
- ... derives from the historical person of Jesus of
- ... serves and nurtures life in all its forms;
- ... focuses ultimately on others;
- ... when necessary, puts the lives of others before
- ... can be chosen and pursued by anyone, at any time.
John Spong, a retired Anglican bishop, has written of how the Church
worldwide has attempted to suppress the new currents of life which spring
from Christianity as a way of life. He points out how the welling up of
spiritual nutrients at the Second Vatican Council was blocked by
successive waves of reaction. Brave scholars were mocked, vilified and
then neutralized by institutional pressures, including heresy trials. But
it seems that there is an "eternal human quest for wholeness":
... even Jesus ... is not an end in himself, as Christians have so
mistakenly assumed. Jesus is but a doorway into the wonder of God. The
first followers of Jesus were not called Christians, as if knowing
Christ was their goal; rather, they called themselves "the followers of
the way" as if Jesus was himself but part of their journey.
It may be, of course, that such a way of living is
difficult and perhaps nearly impossible without religious practices. But I
can perceive no intrinsic reason why that should be the case. Indeed, it
is likely that The Way of the future will exclude everything which today
is labelled "religious".
The implications of such an approach for Christianity
and in particular for the Church as a whole are no doubt many and varied.
Some Christians may see in these axioms a deadly threat to "the faith,
once and for all delivered to the saints", as they might put it.
Others will seize an opportunity to work out positive
implications for themselves in their current situations.
 Gateway to God, Collins Fontana,1978
 See The Historical Jesus
 Religion and the Rise of Capitalism
 See Revelation
 See Belief
 After Ninian Smart in the New Dictionary of Christian
 Jesus for the Non-Religious, Harper Collins, 2007