I was born and raised in a country that is predominantly of the Christian religious tradition. A century of Christianity based culture has left its mark on society. It would be foolhardy to consider myself not to be affected by Christian values instilled by my parents, the education system and society at large. Yet, I do not adhere to any Christian denomination or any other religion for that matter.
I do believe in ‘God’ however, and I do believe Jesus Christ has a special position in the divine constellation. To me, they are a reality. But does this make me a ‘Christian’?
I wonder that if I had been born in say an Arab country, within the realm of Muslim religious culture, how much my perspective would differ from the one that I have now. A lot, probably but then again, maybe not…
To me, there is a clear distinction between ‘faith’ and ‘religion’, a distinction that is often blurred, confused, corrupted even in conversations, literature, news headlines and public discourse. From my perspective, faith and religion are concepts of the divine with one clear distinction: one is human-made, the other isn’t.
Faith is a private and personal belief system. The belief in the divine that has dominion over all; The submission to, the acceptance and awareness of a higher authority from which all originates, and all will return to. Every person will express his or her belief in their own particular way, yet they’re all perspectives generated from within our mind and our hearts that affect our outward look on life.
Religion is a human-made belief system; a collective practise of observing rules and regulations based on interpretations of scriptures considered to be holy; books that were recorded by men, conceived by the divine. Religion is also an organisational structure. And then there is religious tradition embedded in religious culture. Faith and religion are not necessarily at odds with each other. Religion can help us understand the divine and educate us about the divine and in that way complement each other.
Unfortunately, religion has been and is still being abused for other purposes too. Do we need religion to have faith? I would argue: No. Do we have to have faith to adhere to a and practice a particular religion? I would say: Yes. Do we need religion at all? No, not necessarily. Do we have to have faith? Yes, absolutely, I would argue.
"Faith is personal and mysterious and individualistic and inexpressible and indefinable. Religion is merely the language that you can use to express what is fundamentally inexpressible, to define what is undefinable" - Reza Aslan
Language being an imperfect tool to express my most inner beliefs and values, my faith is mine and mine only. I have no desire to convince other people about my beliefs. I can only share what I hold to be true and learn from the perspectives of others. As far as I am concerned, both faith and religion are ways we make sense of our reality. They represent our world view, our moral code and drive our efforts to get ahead in life. At best they converge and complement each other. In the worst case, they are entirely at odds with each other.
Another distinction I would like to point out and argue about is the difference between religion as a theory, a moral value system, religious culture and tradition and how faith transcends these. Whether one is a person of faith, an atheist or a religious practitioner, the influence of religion has become synonymous to religious culture. It has profoundly influenced and affected the secular culture of the part of the world in which it is predominant.
In other words: European culture is a Christian based culture as much as Arab culture is predominantly Islamic culture, as well as Asian culture, is predominantly Buddhist.
I often wonder that if I had been born on the Arab peninsula or in China proper, how this would have affected my outlook on life. Probably a lot, in many aspects indeed, but I’m hesitant — on the verge of denial — where it concerns my faith.
Faith to me transcends culture. It is universal. All religious dogmas have in common the divine presence, whether incarnated in a singularity, a trinity or a plurality. On the other hand, faith, as an expression of a state of mind and as a state of being seems to supersede these incarnations. And yet religion has provided me with a vocabulary to express my faith in terms of language and concepts that otherwise would have been hard if not impossible to express.
How to express a feeling or a thought without the use of these tools? Religion provides us with a tool, a language to communicate abstractions in matters of faith with other human beings. Religion is filled with concepts, rituals and symbolism, faith, on the other hand, is individually oriented and single-minded. Faith is simple.
I do not consider myself being part of the Christian religion as represented by its Catholic or Protestant mainstream churches, nor any of its 40,000+ smaller denominations. I see too many flaws, incoherences, outright bigotry and hypocrisy in these religious constructs. And yet I do not feel the need to condemn outright and discard them. I will not be the judge nor the jury over them, but I fail to connect or relate to them.
I consider it to be human folly and hubris that the constructs erected in the name of the Father, the Son, the Prophet and the Teacher and other manifestations of the divine are somehow fully equivalent to personal expressions of faith. They are not.
‘God’, ‘Allah’, are titles, religious expressions, for the singular divine, that sprout from an occidental deterministic mindset. They have no moral superiority over expressions of the plural divinity that originate from a more holistic oriental world view. Regardless of its origin, I think all believers can agree that the divine fully encompasses us.
If however, religions were established in a vain attempt to contain or to even supersede the divine, then we’d better refrain from them. People claim that religions are control systems, designed to subdue humanity. I would argue that they were not set up in this way. This was not the intent of their founding fathers, although in practice many have deteriorated along the lines of control and abuse.
From my personal Christian based perspective, it is apparent to me that Jesus never established religion nor a church. He gathered people around Him, much like the Prophet and the Teacher did. The belief systems that sprout from them were developed after they passed on — by their followers.
When we read the Bible Gospel of ‘Revelations’, it states very clearly that all seven churches will be judged. 5 out of 7 will be judged as having issues, and the remainder is warned to stay on the right track. The very Holy Book on which a significant religion was established warns us for the shortcomings of its churches. Although the seven letters in Revelation are tailored to the named churches, these churches and their stated deficiencies can symbolise all churches in one respect or another. The instruction given to Revelation’s congregations is valuable to Christian groups today.
Ephesus - The Church that Has Abandoned Its Love for Christ and His Teachings (Revelation 2:1-7)
Smyrna - The Church that Remains Faithful Amidst Persecution (Revelation 2:8-11)
Pergamum - The Church that Compromises Its Beliefs (Revelation 2:12-17)
Thyatira - The Church that Follows False Prophets
Sardis - The Church that is Spiritually Dead
Philadelphia - The Church that Patiently Endured Despite Weaknesses (Revelation 3:7-13)
Laodicea - The Church with a Lukewarm Faith (Revelation 3:14-22)
In conclusion, religions can fulfil the need of the needy, but they are but a surrogate to the root, faith. Faith is a condition of the heart and a state of mind with a direct connection to the divine. It is the essence by which everything else comparatively falls short.