Friday, April 28, 2006


I was in Hong Kong last week (speaking at a conference; it went well, thanks for asking) and one of the things that struck me about the place is the prevalence of religion in the city. I was staying near Kowloon park where the city's largest mosque is, and in my time sightseeing I saw a few of the temples in the city (including the one in the photo above) and passed a few churches too. This set me thinking about religion in general.

I am a Christian (as you may have noticed by now) but do not consider myself to be in any way religious. As that statement may confuse some of you, I'll explain...

As far as I am concerned, religion is the tradition and ritual and mindset etc., etc. which builds up around a belief, generally a belief in a deity or something 'spiritual'. The development of religion around a belief is not dependent on whether or not that belief is true. Also I would say that the belief itself is not religion, but it is the actions that accompany the belief which are the religious bits. For example, when asked, the majority of people in the UK say they believe in the God of the bible, but most of them don't do anything about it, like go to church or pray and so on.

One of the things that struck me about the differences between (for lack of a better term) western (including middle-eastern) religions and far-eastern ones is the nature of worship. The little temple pictured above seems typical of the far-eastern religions to me, it is a place where individuals go to offer their personal acts of worship or ask their personal prayers. The temple itself was only large enough to accommodate a maximum of about ten people. This is in dramatic contrast to the mosque a few streets away where the whole Muslim community gathers together for corporate prayer and worship. At capacity that mosque could house several hundred worshippers.

And yet, despite the differences between these religions, they both appear to me to lack the one aspect of Christianity that is most important to me. There was absolutely no evidence of relationship between the worshippers and their god(s). It was interesting to watch the people walking past the little temple in the photo. As people passed the door, most of them paused for a moment, made some sort of reverential gesture to the temple and then carried on walking. It seemed to me that these folk had little time in their lives for their gods, but hedged their bets by offering tiny homages to the gods as they passed the temple. I assume that the only time these folk have much time for their gods is when they need help with something, and then invest a little time in the temple by offering money, incense and a longer period of reverential gestures.

For me, Christianity isn't a religion. Its not about trying to persuade God to do things for me (how prayer is often perceived) or offering worship as an attempt to appease God so that He will turn away His anger from me and spare me from punishment. Rather it is all about a relationship with God - you don't generally need to persuade people who love you to do things for you, and people who love you are generally willing to forgive and cease their anger (if they were angry in the first place, which they probably weren't anyway) with only a simple 'sorry'. The thing about relationships is that you need to invest a bit of time to maintain them, that is what all the prayer and going-to-church stuff is all about, not doing these things out of some religious obligation, or because bad things will happen if I don't, but simply developing a relationship. Unfortunately most gatherings of Christians (or churches as they are known) have generally fallen into a certain way of doing things and have ritualised the whole thing, but we don't need to do it that way. Sometimes we need to look at what we do and strip away the old habits so we can develop the relationship with God which is hidden behind them.


At 10:36 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I really liked your thumb-nail statement of Christian faith. I agree that what we often offer is a sort of petrified version of that - and it seems to have little to do with relationship. But I wonder how you prevent a regular gathering of Christians going in that direction? I know they committed themselves to the apostles' teaching, the breaking of bread and to prayer. But things have a dreadful habit of falling into patterns of routine


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