I’M NOT RELIGIOUS

I wish I had a pound for every time those words have been said to me over the last forty years since I was ordained. Quite often it’s been when I’ve been talking to parishioners about arrangements for baptisms, weddings and funerals.

And sometimes I’ve really wanted to reply: ‘Neither am I.’ – but then I’ve hesitated – because it might give the wrong impression. But what they really mean could be something like: ‘I believe – or I want to believe – that there’s something real about this God business, but I can’t be bothered with all the churchy things.’

And that’s a feeling I can identify with. I can see why many people don’t want anything to do with some of the idiotic things that Church people and their leaders sometimes say and do.

You’d be surprised at how many people think that I, personally, don’t believe in evolution; that every word of the Bible is fact; that all non-Christians are damned; that God causes earthquakes and makes people get cancer to punish them; that homosexuality is sinful; and that no woman can be a priest or a bishop. I could go on with a very long list if what I’m supposed to think – but, actually, I don’t – and nor do the majority of Christians in this country.

And this feeling of wanting to say ‘I’m not religious’ was reinforced when I heard about the obscure pastor in Florida who was threatening to burn copies of the Qur’an because Muslims were responsible for 9/11. The trouble is that some people start to think that all Christians are like that Florida pastor.

Well I can assure you that I have no intention of burning my copy of the Qur’an. I have to confess that it’s not something I read and study very often, but I got a copy some years ago because I thought it was important to understand more about the Muslim faith and its holy book.

As I understand it, Muslims believe that the Qur’an was revealed to the prophet Mohammed by the angel Gabriel during the last 23 year of his life in the 7th century. It’s said that the text existed in heaven before it was revealed to the prophet, and that its language – Arabic – is the language of heaven. I suspect, though, that – like all other sacred writings – its origins are human. They weren’t dictated by God – or angels – or anybody else.

The Qur’an is about the same length as the New Testament and it’s divided into 114 chapters – or suras. Muslims believe that the it’s God’s final message to mankind, and they’re supposed to recite a section from it five times a day, and learn as many verses as they can by heart.

If you read through it, you may be surprised by how much the Jewish religion and Christianity influenced its writing. It’s clear that Mohammed was very knowledgeable about what we call the Bible. There are many references to Old Testament characters – Adam and Eve, Moses and the other major prophets. And from the New Testament, John the Baptist, Mary and Jesus are very important too. Jesus is the greatest of the prophets before Mohammed – but, for Muslims, he isn’t the Son of God.

One of the problems with the Qur’an is that a lot of it can be interpreted in more than one way. That’s why the word ‘Jihad’ means an inner spiritual struggle to most Moslems, but to the extremists it means something like Holy War, and they use it to justify terrorism. And there’s no central organisation in Islam to say ‘This is what it really means’.

But then again – look at Christianity. See how many different interpretations there are of parts of the Bible. We do have some sort of central organisation in the Church of England– but we still have vast differences of belief and practice.

And in the wider Church – beyond the mainstream denominations – you have the lunatic fringe – the sort of people who call for the burning of the Qur’an.

Sadly there are as many – if not more – wild-eyed extremists claiming to be Christians than there are claiming to be good Muslims. Christian extremists may not fly planes into the World Trade Centre or become suicide bombers, but they are just as dangerous. Think of the right wing Christian groups in the States who, in the days of the Cold War, actively encouraged the dropping of nuclear bombs Russia because it would bring about the Day of Judgement. Absolute madness and nothing to do with the Gospel.

We have learned over the centuries that religion can be used to justify all kinds of cruelty and violence. Yet at the heart of almost every major religion and it’s sacred writings – including the Qur’an – is a message of peace, goodwill and understanding. It is human beings who have corrupted the major faiths.

Perhaps it’s nothing new though. In one of his letters to Timothy, St Paul confesses that he ‘was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, a man of violence.’ Brought up as a devout Jew, he thought it was his religious duty to hunt down and kill the followers of Jesus. He was an extremist. But he saw the light – literally – on the road to Damascus, and realised that he was wrong. God forgave him and he became the Apostle to the Gentiles – the greatest missionary of the early Church.

So – rather than burning the Qur’an, we Christians should be doing all we can to understand our brothers and sisters who follow the Muslim faith. Working and praying for peace, tolerance and justice. Praying too for those who are led astray by the false prophets and teachers in all the major religions – including our own.

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