Reduction of faith to religion always the work of errant human beings


RITE AND REASON: In the penultimate article of a series prompted by the recent World Atheist Convention in Dublin, JAMES MACKEY looks at the gods of religions

A RELIGION arises when a prophet – or seer, as prophets were known – manages a more persuasive vision of God and of the relationships of God and world, as this is revealed through creation and as a whole to everyone born into the world.

For that is how the revelation of the one true God comes to everyone, as the opening of John’s Gospel declares.

Still a matter of reasonable faith at that stage, with profound implications for human morality and destiny, this faith becomes a religion when either the prophet (as in the case of Muhammad), or his followers (as in the case of Jesus) formulate that faith in terms of sacred scriptures and creedal texts, and in ritual and moral rules and practices.

The preservation and propagation of these are then placed in the hands of authorised leaders and governors of the community of believers.

In Jesus’s lifetime, the leadership of the Jewish religion belonged to the priestly caste whose “Vatican” was the Temple complex in Jerusalem. For Roman Catholics today it is the new priestly caste that rules with supreme power through the Vatican, an autonomous city state situated in Rome.

So while the original revelation in creation, with its ensuing rational faith, is the result of the ongoing act of God through the prophets, the reduction of this to the categories of a religion is always the work of errant and wayward human beings.

Which is what made the Irish philosopher, Bishop George Berkeley, opine that God did not have much time for religion.

Indeed the great prophets of Israel – not the in-house prophets of the high priest’s temple or the king’s court – always had trouble with the institutionalised religious version of the reasonable faith. Some, like Jesus in his turn, were executed for their trouble. For Jesus, in his own view of the matter, was called by God to be a prophet, not a priest, in Israel; in fact, he claimed to be the prophet of the end time of fulfilment that the foremost prophet of Israel, Moses, predicted.

Jesus’s perceived attack on his native religion is focused, in the case of the Temple itself, on the money-makers’ business in its precincts, the priests of Mammon then as now; and in the case of the religion at large, on his persistent breaches of what was perceived as Mosaic Sabbath law.

But the trial and execution of Stephen, a follower of Jesus, or “son of the prophet” as such followers were then called, offers a wider focus on this matter.

Stephen was executed for insisting that the only “house” that could contain the really real, perceptible, full and active presence of God to all, is creation as a whole. It was not the Temple sanctuary of Judaism (or, it would follow, the sanctuaries of any other religion); and he argued that the current version of the Mosaic “law” simply must be modified accordingly.

Indeed those human rulers of religions who would confine God’s real presence to their sanctuaries are, as like as not, to think of God as “their God”, and themselves as God’s only directly chosen “elect people”.

They are then in God’s image and likeness; and, unable to see how that conceit works both ways, they are thereby facilitated in casting divinity in their own image and likeness, as people who like to wield God-like power to dictate both the moral and ritual lives of all, under fear of punishment and promise of reward both here and hereafter.

Contrast that with the God of unconditioned grace whose first and all encompassing moral principle Jesus reads from the revelation in creation as follows: God sends the light and heat of the sun together with the rain water, the twin sources of life on Earth, to the good and the evil alike, and this is true of all life and all its evolving enhancement.

Therefore, we are to share life with all, never returning evil for evil, and all who would be leaders must be servants of all; never either applying or threatening punishment. For, as Patrick Kavanagh put it in Miss Universe, the best poem on creation ever written, “there are no recriminations in heaven”.

James P Mackey is visiting professor in the school of religions and theology at TCD, and Thomas Chalmers professor emeritus of theology at the University of Edinburgh. His books include Jesus of Nazarethand Christianity and Creation