Religion and defiance of the cults of power

Our rulers tell us that they are not religious. They may believe this to be true because in their self-justifications they make no use of the word ‘God’. Because they believe that we should do as they do, and be like them, our managerial classes believe that we should not be religious. Each of us is working with a slightly different definition of ‘religion’. Implicitly our leaders mean that we wrongly hold on to a tradition which they regard as old and mistaken, and which wrongly encourages us to hold out against the wave of the future, and to make trouble for those charged with leading us into future.

Christians use the word ‘religion’ to refer to whoever or whatever people acknowledge as source of their identity. We always use the word in awareness that our leaders wrongly consider it our religious duty to worship what they worship and obey them who intend to lead us towards greater conformity with it. They want our acknowledgement and obedience. Though they don’t put it these terms, they want our worship. Christians live with this awareness that something is demanded of them that they cannot give. We know that it is our religious duty not to give them the worship that, whether explicitly or not, they seek from us. We consider it our religious duty to worship only the God of Jesus Christ and so continually to question and turn away from every other power-claim. Ceaselessly questioning – that is the habit we gain through obedience to the God of Jesus Christ. When we question God himself, and ask questions about his motives and intentions and we call this lament or petition or prayer, all of which are intrinsic to our worship and our religion.

When our leaders demand that we should do as they do and believe what they believe, and give us no reasons that are sufficient, they are being religious. More than a simply political loyalty, they are demanding an absolute and religious obedience from us. Though they may never put it in these terms, they are insisting that we convert and become members of the cult of which they are the priests. When they say that they are not religious, they mean only that, though they are making divine claims for themselves, they do not wish to admit it. Perhaps they have never been presented with this description of their claims. We have not confronted them with the absurdity of the claims they make. Much of the time, of course, they succeed in keeping their claims implicit. But if we do not make explicit what they wish only to imply, we become complicit with them. We give our assent to entitlements that are taken without being made public. If we give assent or otherwise surrender power to political entities that demand obedience yet refuse to be accountable, not only do we become the victims of these ‘gods’, but we become their votaries and collaborators. Whatever political cult we do not describe and identify, and then reject and publicly separate ourselves from, continues to exert a power over us.

Some of our leaders may have become powerful enough to be unaccountable and so have become gods themselves. They are unused to receiving any judgment on their position, in particular any judgement informed by the conceptuality of ‘religion’, that is, the large pack of analytical tools shaped for use by Christian discipleship. Christian discipleship is, and always has been, voluntary; you are not conscripted into it: you can take it or you can leave it, for it is a faith. It is the faith that always puts questions to the holders of power. If our leaders have never received the charge that they are turning themselves into little gods, or into demons, this may well be because Christians have failed to put these questions to them. It may be our fault that our leaders have never had these questions put to them. They have not heard the challenge that the gospel puts, and of course wishing to remain unchallenged they are determined not to hear this gospel now. This is perhaps a Christian failing, for in Europe over the last two hundred years in particular, though Christians have been using the word ‘God’, they have seldom put to the holders of power the question of whether they acknowledge this God, the God of Jesus Christ, and consequently acknowledge the limits on their own power, or whether they claim a rival divinity for themselves.

Before that, Christians were more explicit. There are many gods, they said. There are many gods, but none of them are really gods. Not one of them is God. There are many powers – they are the Powers-That-Be – and there are many forces and influences. Sometimes we personify them and tell stories about them, but sometimes we regard them as forces of nature, physical and cosmological forces or fundamental principles. They are fate, and are hidden so deep in the background that we don’t even notice them. But, say Christians, there are all creatures; they are all parts of a complex and wonderful whole within which we are situated. They are the creatures of God the Creator. None of them have any ultimate status, we should not fear them, revere them or give them too much loyalty. They cannot be worshipped. We may however revere their Creator, the God who created them and maintains them in their proper order and function. Our worship of God does not make him greater than he is; it does not affect him and he is not dependent on it. God is a safe place to which the return all the praise which would be harmful when left heaped up anywhere else. This God, and no other, is worth our worship. It is safe to return to him, and only to him, all the credit. Our worship of him will neither aggrandise God nor belittle or distort us. But it does allow us to grow up to our full status as creatures and as appreciators and custodians of his creation. Our acknowledgement of God makes us companions of God, his juniors, his representatives, together and individually each of us almost like a second God whom God has summoned to stand before him.