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God in our image

It seems that western society is becoming less religious, but not necessarily less spiritual. The 2016 Australian census reported that 30.1% of Australians espouse “no religion,” an increase since 2011 and part of a consistent trend. Christianity in some form was acknowledged by 51.3%, but it is evident that we do not see half the Australian population in church on a typical Sunday. The other major world religions combined registered a total of 7.8%, leaving 10.8% uncommitted. Yet surveys of other beliefs and practices show that New Age spirituality and yoga, meditation and mindfulness are popular and growing. Obviously there are true atheists, but there seem to also be many on the fringe, professing some sort of spirituality, or belief in the supernatural or simply that this life is not all there is.

Spirituality and religion certainly overlap, but they are not the same. Religion implies some form of structure and community to one’s beliefs, adherence to a common framework of belief and praxis. How do people choose what beliefs and practices will inform and order their lives? Why choose one above another? I suggest there could be several reasons.

  • Someone may make a serious, objective study of the evidence for God and the supernatural, impartially explore a number of belief systems and either choose the one that makes the most sense, or reject theism and the supernatural altogether. I suspect that it is common to claim such an endeavour in support of one’s position, but I wonder how many have actually done this?

  • Many people are influenced by their family and environment growing up. There may be strong cultural ties to spirituality and religion. Good parents, in the interests of seeking the best for their children, try to instill a sense of values and this will be informed by their own beliefs. Children may readily grow up to accept those beliefs, if they see them bearing fruit in others’ lives, or reject them in response to perceived inconsistencies or restrictions.

  • People may be embraced by a community and find it welcoming and caring. They may suffer some trauma in their lives and turn to spirituality in a time of need.

It has been said that there’s a God-shaped hole in human beings, that there is an innate desire for spiritual refreshment, for seeking someone or something bigger than themselves in which we can trust. Some reassurance that this life is not all there is. Atheists may regard religion as a prop, insisting that there is no Father in heaven, nothing beyond this life. That we should be strong enough to proceed with life in our own strength and not conform to some pie-in-the-sky fantasies. There might be some validity to their argument if it could be demonstrated that humans flourish when we reject God and his moral compass. But that is demonstrably not true. We are innately selfish beings that have shown a high level of skill at corrupting every form of government from democracy to socialism to autocracy to republicanism to dictatorships to monarchies. When the Enlightenment tried to replace religion with human reason and scientific endeavour, the result was more efficient technological ways to commit the same old crimes against humanity. Enter a resurgence in “spirituality.”

Humans cannot help making gods, but we also don’t like being told what to do. The problem with belief in God is, that if he exists, if he made us and is good and wise, then he has some authority over us. We owe him allegiance. If God says, “Love your neighbour as yourself,” and we don’t want to, instead of considering whether God might have a point, that he might know something we don’t and be worth listening to, we reject him altogether rather than challenge our own desire for power over others. If the God who made us designed us to be happiest if we live a certain way, and we want to do our own thing and seek out our own pleasures, then rather than give his way a try, we reject it as too restrictive and deny his existence. The problem is, our favourite god is ourselves, and we are jealous gods who brook no competition.

Even if, for whatever reason, we decide that yes, it makes sense to believe in Someone or Something, we are naturally attracted to what suits our own worldview. So I can go “god shopping.” I can choose a benign, grandfatherly god who overlooks my shortcomings and sins and will let me into heaven with a wink. Or I can choose a righteous warrior god who will strike down the wicked (i.e. others, not me) so we his followers will be shown to have the upper hand. Or a god of personal enlightenment who will help me discover my true self. Or a god of action who will take on the greed and corruption in the world and liberate the poor and downtrodden by our hands (this god comes in a variety of political flavours). Or a disinterested god who requires nothing from me but will be there if I need him in a pinch, for a few favours in return. There’s also a range of established packages to choose from, and they suit a variety of tastes. Islam requires submission to the will of Allah, and prescribed works. Buddhism aims to free one from self. Hinduism invites worship of many gods. Judaism requires the keeping of the Torah. Christianity requires faith in Jesus Christ and his solution to our sin. All religions are not the same, and it’s an insult to all of them to claim that they are. Something is not true just because we believe it to be, whether we chose it from a selection on offer or made something up ourselves.

Here’s where biblical Christianity stands out. Its claims are simple. The eternal God who made the universe made humans in his image, designed to fulfill our need for godliness in relationship with him. We rebelled, deciding to make our gods in our own image, with Self as our chief god. Much as that offended, wounded and angered our Creator, he didn’t write us off. Instead, he addressed the underlying cause of our rebellion, our sinful, selfish hearts. Those hearts that corrupt even the best and most intellectually or emotionally satisfying attempts at religion and spirituality. The Creator himself assumed human form, lived among us, walked in our shoes, took our sins to the cross and crucified them there, in the very flesh in which sin normally reigned. We share in his victory over sin and death — the cause and result of all that is wrong with the world — not by rituals, rule-following or self-enlightenment, but simply by believing and trusting in him. Christianity itself has often forgotten this, the essence of the gospel. The counter-cultural gospel fixes the root of the problem in a way no other belief system does, not because of what we must do, or can do, but because of all that God has done for us. It’s not about me in my selfish pretensions, it’s about him in his power, wisdom and love, and that is both a tremendous relief and immensely satisfying. That’s why I choose Christ.

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