Hope

You may be aware that it was recently ‘International men’s day’, and this year the focus was on raising awareness of the high levels of suicide amongst men – CVM fully supported this initiative and wrote a few articles and and even conducted a radio interview or two! I was sitting in bed the other night reading the news and noticed that we now have a record number of prison suicides in the UK since records of this began in 1978.

I started to read into this stuff a bit more and got in touch with the Howard League for Penal Reform, (who conducted the research) because I wanted to know how many of these suicides were men.

Obviously we’ve got more men in prison so we are going to expect to see more men than women in this equation but it still hits hard when you look at the numbers.

In 2015 there were 89 self-inflicted deaths in Prison, 84 of those were men, and in 2016 of the 102 self-inflicted deaths in 2016, 92 were men.

One of the fundamental things my Christian faith has instilled in me is,I think, core to understanding some of this. Hope. In the prisons I have been in (visiting of course), both in the UK and in Latin America there has been an overwhelming sense of hopelessness. Now of course I am not currently working in prisons, and this is based on what I have experienced in the past, but one of the counter moves I think we have as a Christian community is hope. We speak it, live it and even when we need a large portion of it ourselves we embrace it.

It is so easy for us to talk about hope in a Christian sense without the hopeless situation where it is forged and honed. I was reminded of King David’s hope as he found himself in some deep and desperate valleys of despair.

The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing.
He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside quiet waters, he refreshes my soul.
He guides me along the right paths for his name’s sake.
Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.
Psalm 23

Hope is part of the plan, it’s an anchor that bites in deep when everything else seems to be pulling away. Letters of hope, words of encouragements, visits and intentionality. Imagine a men’s group that decide to visit men in prison with the chaplaincy team, just intentional about being a source of hope, writing and not forgetting. As a church we can think outside of what we know and do at the moment, and as agents of hope, we can see lives rescued and men discover Jesus, the true meaning of hope.

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Image Credit: Kalle K

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Disappointment

It was three days before one of my marathons … I was ‘tapering’ (ie reducing mileage and upping carb intake) .. two gentle miles … a mile from home and I pinged a muscle in my leg. No marathon. ahhhgghhh … all that training, all that prep, all those miles .. literally 3 days before. Disappointed doesn’t cover it! No more comments on this …

We all look forward to stuff, and sometimes we get disappointed when it doesn’t quite pan out as we planned, but I reckon we also have to look beyond our personal disappointments and see the bigger picture … I was serving on HMS Chatham as the Executive Warrant Officer (effectively the RSM on the ship). We were deployed to the Gulf, on a routine 6 month deployment looking out for UK shipping interests etc. We left Plymouth in Oct 2004, due back in March 2005. Our long-term programme had us at sea for Christmas, but alongside in Dubai for New Year. Not too bad (someone had to do it!). We headed through the Straits of Hormuz, looking forward to New Year … when news started to come in about the tsunami that hit the region on Boxing Day.

We were the nearest UK unit to the effected area, down at the other end of the Indian Ocean …. so we waited to be re-tasked. But no orders were forthcoming from the MoD. So we continued with our programme, heading to Dubai. The guys were ready for a bit of a stand-down, let off a bit of steam, so were all looking forward to the run ashore, and would have been very disappointed had it been cancelled. But as we began to see pictures coming in of the devastation we all began to look beyond our run ashore and thinking that we should be getting down there. We went into Dubai, but rather than have a run ashore we stored ship. Big style! Also taking on some extra stores that would be helpful in a disaster relief scenario (we regularly trained for these things). We sailed on New Years Eve, and headed out to sea and back into the Indian Ocean, and when the order to sail to Sri Lanka finally came from the MoD we were already very nearly there! (Gutsy call from the Captain, but it worked!).

On our high speed passage down we saw more and more images of the scale of the disaster. When within range our helo did a recce and the reports and films brought home to us the reality of what we were facing. Having overcome the disappointment of losing the run ashore, there was a growing sense of disappointment and frustration … actually what could we do? The scale was massive, we were one relatively small warship with limited stores and supplies. So in the best traditions of the RN in all these situations we held a Church service the night before we arrived on task off Sri Lanka! In times like these most military men will attend Church services, and the Flight Deck was full as our Chaplain Tommy led the service and prayed for us all … in his talk he said this:

‘I know many of you are wondering what we can do. There is so much that needs doing. Where do we start? I know that all of us will get stuck in, and we will do what we can, where we are, with what we have’.

And that’s exactly what we did, in a small Sri Lankan coastal community called Batticaloa. We cleaned the mud out of the hospital, and had our doctor holding a clinic for mums and kids as that was happening. We put a fence up around an orphanage, we pumped salt water out of wells and provided manpower to shift debris. We also patched up a couple of fishing boats and shifted them back into the water. Our Royal Marine detachment recovered bodies. We worked on electrical power supplies and we played football with the kids! We stayed there for two weeks until other agencies arrived and took over. 280 sailors made a difference.

An incredibly worthwhile and rewarding time, that came out of disappointment and frustration. But it was those words of the chaplains that stuck with me .. when you feel so overwhelmed looking around at the needs in the world or in our local community … all we are called to do is do ‘What we can, where we are, with what we have’ … that may end up in effecting massive global change or it may end up with you knocking on the door of your elderly neighbour to see if they are OK… but surely we should be doing something?

In the Bible we read that when Jesus was murdered, his mates (called the disciples) were confused, disappointed and scared. They had lost sight of the bigger picture that Jesus had spoken about (just as we did to start with on board – more worried about the run ashore!). But once they became aware that the story wasn’t finished, and as Christians believe, Jesus had risen from the dead, that disappointment and fear vanished and they got on with telling others about Jesus. And that continues today, the Church exists to tell this story.

Image Credit: Greg Rakozy

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Stuff

I moved house recently. My wife and I are working overseas for three months, and before we left we packed up everything, sold half, put half in to storage, and left our home.

It’s only when you move that you realise quite how much stuff you’ve managed to accumulate. When looking for a house to rent, a garage was quite appealing to me. Fast forward a few years, and the garage became the bane of my 4-day struggle with our possessions.

Much of what we owned was useful – furniture, kitchen bits, clothes, books (although this is a point of debate) etc. – and I don’t think if you had come to my house you would say that we were living in great luxury, at least in comparison to the people around us.

But nonetheless, this stuff had grown and become a bother. There are a thousand and one things that we can buy to make our lives easier. If you have a TV, then you should have an Apple TV, maybe a Blu-ray player, and surround sound. And books need bookshelves, and the kitchen needs one of those little round things to measure spaghetti portions accurately.

But when we move we suddenly question if the accumulation of stuff in order to make life work a little smoother isn’t just a rouse, perpetuated by kitchen accessory sellers and Swedish furniture companies.

Of course, things are good. Possessions are useful. Yes there probably is a point where enough is enough, but purchased thoughtfully and used appropriately, the inventions and developments of the modern world are entirely good and proper.

I was musing though, as I was boxing up 19 USB cables and hard drives from a decade ago, about what our pursuit of stuff says about our modern culture. We have devices and contraptions to help us cook, help us sleep, help us relax, help us stay connected, and they all do their jobs reasonably well. Very intelligent people create things to help our lives work a bit better, but yet … but yet, we still aren’t eating well, sleeping well, or relaxed – and many of us feel alienated and alone.

Perhaps, then, the stuff that we own says something about a deeper problem that needs to be addressed. If we look past the particular benefits of one device, and we zoom out on our lives, what can we observe? What does it say when the very needs these modern conveniences are meant to address, still persist in the lives of those who purchase them?

More stuff doesn’t seem to be the answer – just ask the very wealthy – and a minimalist life of detachment errs I think too far the opposite way. So, if the physical world doesn’t provide adequate solutions to our felt needs, then instead of grabbing more or eschewing it all, perhaps we ought to ask ourselves if our deepest needs are therefore not physical, but rather spiritual. Because, as any good doctor will tell you, the beginning of the right answer to the problem starts with the correct diagnosis.

International Men’s Day 2016

So you might have seen that as well as this being ‘Movember,’ Saturday is International Men’s Day, a day that has been set up to recognise and explore the concerns and challenges that men face. This year the specific focus is; Stop Male Suicide.

international-mens-dayI am sure there will be some who think that International Men’s Day is just trying to do the old ‘if they have a day we want one too’ idea. But the point is that having a day to recognise issues facing men and a day to recognise the issues facing women is fantastic. To make this even more exciting, this week the House of Commons have met to talk about the issues facing men and International Men’s Day.

For over a decade CVM have been speaking about the issues facing men and in particular men in church, and have been supporting the church to respond with a long-term evangelistic strategy. We have seen thousands of men respond, lives dramatically transformed and taken from the very point of despair to an abundant new life. Part of the work of CVM has been to emphasise the importance of enabling the right conditions for men to be real, honest, open and share with other men what life is really like. The embarrassment of a dodgy prostrate, a marriage failure or redundancy that brought in the black clouds of depression.

This stuff is real, and what we have seen is that as we enable men to build friendships, to share their faith and lives whilst doing stuff they actually want to do (like eating, sport or burning stuff, did I miss anything?) men will talk, share and deal with things.

We have been building relationships with mental health experts to help produce resources later in 2017. These will help and equip our network of 500 men’s groups to support and signpost men who need to connect with the mental health charities that are available, but just don’t have the fight to get to that point themselves. The challenge is that the UK Christian church can be an incredibly positive force at the centre of this stuff, supporting, sign posting, loving and caring for broken men, lonely men, and men that just need to be part of a band of brothers to get moving again and get back in the fight.

For me, this is part of sharing the Good News of Jesus Christ, this is rolling up our sleeves and being willing to not just invite a bloke to church one Sunday, but journey right through the chaos, and invest in a long term plan to see a culture shifting amount of men discover real life in Jesus!

Faces

Have you ever had a young child, grandchild, niece or nephew, sit on your knee and unashamedly, closely inspect your face, kneading you like a piece of play dough? This is written for you.

Suppose I’m on fire with rage, smouldering with resentment, awash with satisfaction, bubbling with hap-hap- happiness or just horizontally laid back, floating above all emotions.

How much of it can I stop from showing on my face?

St Paul said we could reflect God’s glory on our face–even better than Moses did. (2 Corinthians ch 3 v 12-18). Perhaps he was speaking figuratively at least in part. But a lifetime of resentment and frustration can surely leave it’s real marks on people’s faces. There are unfortunately such things as habitual expressions. Perhaps a lifetime of the fruit of the Spirit can show as well.

What, despite all our efforts at pretence, do our faces say to those judges which are more difficult to fool than most others–the eyes of a child.

Read this slowly and you need to read it out loud:

Face Time

Your infant eyes, diamond bright,
Steel grey, ice white
Gifts of grace,
Set in the soft perfection
Of a cherub’s face,
Innocent, intense, intent,
Orbiting in-close, planet Grandpa’s Head,
Mesmerised they scrutinise
The landscape of my face.
Are there signals for your guidance,
Any words from my story
That read themselves to you
Unwitting reader, through your survey,
And despite my silence?
What have I laid down in my geology?
A fissured perma-frown of discontent,
Or smooth plains of sweet apology?
What has been the chief creator
Of my surface?
What, the dominator,
Flesh’s fires’ volcanic rages,
Spirit’s rain, reigned down my ages?
Data’s there, my life’s arranged it.
Is there yet the time to change it?

You then send in a surface probe.
Small fingers on an arm,
Seeking more than eyes can tell,
Investigate a lobe.
“Grandpa you’re so squidgy!”
And so you break the spell.

Lights, Camera, Action

So, the good ideas club was in full swing in the Chief Petty Officers mess on HMS Beaver … it was just after Live Aid, back in the mid-80s, and someone decided they would follow it up with ‘Run the World’ … where everyone would be encouraged to run for charity. We were in the Persian gulf on Armilla patrol, and we thought that it would be a great idea to join in. Have guys running everywhere on the ship at the same time, all around the upperdeck, bridge wings, flight deck … film it and send it to the BBC. Then I stupidly said ‘Why not start with someone running at the top of the main mast?’ – up and down the 6ft diameter radar platform. Good idea … NOT. We would start filming from the helicopter, focused on this bloke running on the radar platform, then pan out to see the ships company running everywhere. So that’s what we did. The resultant film was a masterpiece, started off on me, we all had to run for about 30 mins to ensure they got enough footage. So I ran up and down this 6ft platform ducking under the radar aerial every two steps for half an hour – the cameraman focused on me for 10 seconds, then panned down and I was never seen again. But I kept running. Life can be like that, especially with the Christian faith. Things never get noticed, acts of kindness, things you do for others, prayers that you say that others don’t realise you are saying, but actually that’s what God wants us to be like … he doesn’t want us to stand around spouting off about how good we are or what we have done. Jesus said this ‘Here’s what I want you to do …. find a quiet secluded place so you won’t be tempted to role play before God. Just be there as simply and honestly as you can manage. The focus will shift from you to God and you will sense His presence’. I thought that the camera would be on me, so I kept running. It wasn’t, but I kept going – to be honest if I had known I was not in shot I would have stopped running and admired the view from the top of the mast (and probably shouted abuse at the rest of the guys running around below me!). God wants us to keep going with our prayers, with doing good stuff, living a life style that he wants us to even though we KNOW that the camera is not on us.

Lets take an example that is very real to a lot of people these days … pornography. I know that loads of guys (and girls) watch it, but years ago when you had to go to a shop, or watch it on a video it was very difficult to keep it a secret … but now with the internet its so easy to watch hard core stuff on your own. In secret. No-one knows, and I know of loads of Christians who have a problem with watching porn. But no-one knows. The camera is not on them. The wife doesn’t know, the vicar doesn’t know, it can be completely secret. In those quiet places though, that’s where God is. In the secluded places, on our own. Lets put it a different way, a couple of years ago I bought a new car, well a new old one. A 1985 2.8 I Ford Capri. In white. Paid a good price for it. Runs well, looks good. Then I had to send it for its MOT. I took it to my mechanic who restores and race tunes old Escorts for some of the top rally drivers in the UK, so he knows his Fords. He rang me and said that it was a very good example, sound car. It was not like many he sees that look good, but underneath are all rust and filler. Rust buckets. I was chuffed with that. There is nothing secret about it, nothing rusting away under the paint job. That I think is what God wants from us … as a Christian I believe that God has taken all that stuff away and forgiven me for it, BUT and here’s the thing, I’m still a bloke, with all the challenges and temptations of life pulling me in every direction. My Capri is still made of metal and can rust unless I keep on top of it. Like when I was running on the stupidly small radar platform … I didn’t know the camera was off me – so I kept going, but if I’d known …. Have a think about what you do in secret … is it stuff that you are not proud of? Watch porn maybe? Visit Gambling sites? Secret drinking? Why not ask God to sort that out, He will forgive you and then you can start to have no hidden stuff except those times when you are talking with God …. And those times are just between you and God and much better than watching porn, gambling, drinking etc etc.

Which reminds me of when I was in a POs mess where porn always seemed to be on the video (yes, video .. before DVDs!) in the mess. I often had to be up in the middle of the night to fix stuff (I was the ‘command system maintainer’ and it was not THAT reliable) … they never realised that somehow their porn films ended up getting erased in the Video Cassette Recorder when I had been called out over night … what’s done in secret …. Cheers all!

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Give Thanks?

There is a famous song written away back in in 1976 by Elton John and Bernie Taupin called “Sorry Seems to Be The Hardest Word”. Some of the lyrics include:

It’s sad,
So sad;
It’s a sad situation.
And it’s getting more and more absurd.
It’s sad,
So sad.
Why can’t we talk it over,
Always seems to me;
That sorry seems to be the hardest word.

Maybe it’s just because I have passed the 40 milestone or maybe it’s because I am turning into a grumpy old man but I think these days ‘thank you’ or even a simple ‘thanks’ can be the hardest words to utter.

I first began noticing it during the summer when I was in London for a week as part of our holidays, I would stop in the street or in a shop to let someone pass, give up my seat on the tube for someone or just let someone in front of me in a queue. People struggled to even look me in the face far less say thanks. I was beginning to wonder if this was just a London thing……apologies to any Londoners reading this.

The following week we headed to Disneyland Paris and the pattern continued…..my grumpy old man syndrome was kicking in big style and it was really starting to bug me. I was looking forward to getting home to Scotland and for the usual Scottish gratitude to once again bring a smile to my grumpiness.

Boy was I wrong, perhaps after my holiday experience I was just more sensitive and aware but it seemed to get worse. Whether I was driving about town, walking through the town, eating in a restaurant or even in church, the whole act of gratitude and simply saying thank you was disappearing.

You see I don’t think it is just a London thing, it seems to be a society thing. Thank you seem to be the hardest words.

So my question is “How are you doing on the gratitude front?” You see as Christians we are meant to shine as lights so that others may see our good deeds and glorify God (Matthew 5:16). When we omit to show gratitude our light begins to dim and we start to blend in rather than standing out in the culture around us.

Thankfulness is a prominent bible theme and we are reminded in 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18 to be joyful always; pray continually; give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.

Are we standing out as Christian men and expressing our gratitude in all in things or are we in danger of being known as a group of grumpy old men?

Photo Credit: Rodion Kutsaev

Painting with the hair from a flies back.

So I discovered on YouTube recently this bloke, Willard Wiggins.
Wiggins makes pieces of artwork that are inside the eye of a needle, stuff so small that he works with a microscope to work his art.

To give you an idea, Wiggins once made an elephant sculpture from a grain of sand, and the tail on the elephant was a strand of floating dust he plucked from the air.

He paints his masterpieces with a single hair, plucked from a houseflies back! How incredible is that? I have trouble even seeing the words on my laptop let alone using a flies hair to paint with.

Well, maybe the best bit in this little story is that recently, Wiggins sold his life works to a collector for $20 million dollars. Doesn’t sound so weird anymore.

The point is here, I think that in the busyness we are in our are creating around ourselves we can miss the small stuff that can actually make a huge difference in our lives.

Elijah in the Bible was on the run after defeating the prophets of Baal. (An amazing story and if you haven’t read it go and have a look in 1 Kings 18:20-40)

So Elijah is threatened after this, and runs and he is feeling lost and needing some encouragement in the battle he was in. God calls him out of the cave to stand on the side of the mountain as God’s presence passes by.

A great wind ripped the rocks of the mountain, but nothing, then a huge earthquake rattle the stone beneath his feet, nothing. Then a fire broke but still nothing. Then the bible says Elijah heard a gentle wind, like a whisper and it was there he found the presence of God almighty pass by.

If you had shown me Wiggins’ artwork, and put a needle in front of me I wouldn’t of even looked twice. Too small, to subtle, something that tiny can hold the masters work. Surely?

In your busyness, created or self inflicted, what does this still, small voice like a whisper look like to you? Have you heard it? Would you hear it?

Setting aside time to be still and quiet, with no distraction, no music, no agenda, and just come before God almighty on his terms, to allow space to tune yourself to his voice is all that is needed. Mighty men have conquered kingdoms and overthrown great powers, by finding the smallest of voices, smallest of moments with the greatest of all.

Finish Strong

Training going well for my next race. Legs good, breathing good, feeling good. I’ve been having a think back over some of my previous marathons, and was reflecting on the second time I ran the Snowdonia marathon with a mate. This is a tough race, lots of hills and quite a challenge … the second time I managed a time of 4hrs 19 and 54 secs … of course the 54 seconds are important, pushing the time under 4hr 20 makes it sound better. My mate came in er …behind me. But he did a brilliant time and he finished. In previous races they used to list ‘DNF” alongside some numbers. Did Not Finish. Bit depressing that really when you have done all the training and for whatever reason you end up with a DNF. Which reminds me that being a Christian is ultimately knowing that you are going to finish – more on that later. Looking back at myself at Mile 23 I wondered if that was going to happen or whether I was going to just sit at the side of the road, cry like a Royal Marine in a spelling test and give up. But one of the great things about some (not all) marathons is that they give a finishers medal to all who get injured along the way. I like that. If you drop out because you haven’t done enough training maybe you haven’t earnt the medal, but twist your ankle on a carelessly discarded drink cup at a water station … that’s not exactly your fault is it? Life’s like that, if you have any level of faith in God stuff will still come your way that you can’t control … injuries, illnesses etc … that may knock you out for a while … but God being God does not count that against you, in fact he is more interested in how you deal with it than the fact it happens. So even if you do the last few miles in the back of the mini-bus, that finisher’s medal is still waiting for you from God …

Anyway, jumping back to Snowdonia. My mate and I made the mistake of driving the course the night before. Well, I say mistake, it just brought back to me the horror of the course. I had clearly remembered something horrendous occurred at mile 23, but had obviously banished from my mind the long climb at about mile 10. That depressed me seeing it from the car. BUT the worst thing was when we got to the point where the course headed off the main road, I just said to my mate ‘that’s where it goes up that hill, then flattens off’ ‘Doesn’t look too bad ‘. So off we went for a good nights sleep, up early and drove to the start at Llanberis. Now, I know of some Christians who pray that God will give them a car parking space before they enter a busy car park. I must say that I am not one of those sort of Christians … however when we arrived at Llanberis it was evident that we were later than we should have been. No parking spaces to be found from about a mile away from the start. We still drove into the centre, cars everywhere but on the off chance went into a car park as close to the start as possible. Hidden behind a van was … a space. We were not praying about a space, more like dripping and moaning about it …. but God … Makes you think …

We did our warm ups and the gun went. Steady pace up the first climb, moaned like mad at the climb at mile ten, but overall the scenery was amazing and the camaraderie of running the race with so many others was brilliant … enjoyable even! Then came to mile 23. Turned the corner and up the hill, it flattened out just as I remembered, then .. I may have said a vaguely unchristian word as the track continued off road … up and up … ‘Oh Dearie me – I don’t remember this’ thought I. Eventually it did flatten off into the final descent to the finish and that finishers meal (or in fact a slate coaster). You know what? I was so glad that I did not know (or been reminded) quite how bad it was at mile 23. If I had known maybe I would have sacked off the whole thing, or just worried constantly about it and I would have not enjoyed the rest of the run (and I DID enjoy it ) … I am so glad that God doers not tell us what is coming in this life, yes we can make plans, yes we can look forward to stuff, but ultimately we do not know what’s gonna happen the next second, let alone in a years time! If I did I can think of times when I would have probably given up or scrubbed round something or other, knowing what was coming, but having faith in God is being sure that whatever hits us at mile 23 or even tomorrow, God will see us through to the finish line and we will get the finishers medal …. If you don’t have that peace and assurance speak to a Christian mate, drop me an e mail or speak to a friendly (!!??) vicar.
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Are “most of the teachings of the major world religions the same at their core”?

Our world is more connected today than ever before. People and information move around with greater ease and speed than just a few years ago. With freedom of movement comes freedom of ideas. People, with their ideas, moving from one area to another introduce new ways of thinking, leading to a cross-pollination of philosophies and beliefs.

In Oxford, where I lived until very recently, there are people who believe in no God, or one God, or many God. Some even believe that they are God. It’s most likely a similar situation to where you are.

With the arrival of new ways of thinking, the incumbent philosophies are challenged and sometimes, as a result, modified. Our belief structures are tested. Now, at its core, a belief structure answers the basic questions of life. Questions like: Where have we come from? Where are we going? What in this world has value? What is my purpose?

You of course don’t need to believe in God, or gods, to have a belief structure. Atheists have a belief structure: they believe that there is no God. The way we view the world – our worldview – is shaped by the beliefs that we hold.

The many worldviews on offer, each with their own founders, holy scriptures, and traditions seek to address our world and our problems and provide us with answers. They all have different answers of course. The questions that we face are common to all but the answers are specific to the viewpoint offering them.

For example, the problem posed by the existence of pain and suffering is a universal conundrum; every worldview must address it. “Why does pain exist?” “If there’s a God, why would he/she allow it?” These questions are dealt with throughout history and across cultures.

I once spent some time in the Far East and in my time there I encountered the belief that pain is ultimately an illusion. With this as the diagnosis, is it any wonder that the solutions offered by that worldview centre around becoming aware of the reality of this illusion, and then seeking to escape from it? Likewise, a Muslim may express to you that the suffering of this world is part of the will of Allah. And Allah’s will is set. We see these religious beliefs shaping whole countries and cultures.

With time and repetition beliefs become habits and habits turn into culture. On one holiday to the Outer Hebrides I saw how the islands all but shut down on Sundays to observe the Christian Sabbath. You can’t buy petrol or pop into the supermarket and until recent changes in the last few years, planes and ferries didn’t run on Sundays either. The practices of the people in the Islands changed because of the belief system.

In this way, perhaps we could say that in some respects religion reflects culture. The way people behave – for example the way they dress – becomes a religious belief about how they ought to dress.

Thinking along this line, we might then be inclined to wonder if the differences in the major world religions are merely cultural, the result of distinct people groups forming their identity over many years?

The late Sun Myung Moon from Korea thinks so. He says this:

In 1984, I brought together forty religions scholars, instructing them to compare the teachings that appear in the sacred texts of Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, and other major world religions. The book that resulted from their efforts was World Scripture: A Comparative Anthology of Sacred Texts, published in 1991. What they found was that the sacred texts of religions convey the same or similar teachings more than seventy percent of the time. The remaining thiry percent are teachings that represent unique points of each religion. This means that most of the teachings of the major world religions are the same at their core. The same is true of religious practice. On the surface, some believers wear turbans, some wear prayer beads around their necks, others wear a cross, but they all seek the fundamental truths of the universe, and try to understand the will of the Divine One.

– Sun Myung Moon

Moon isn’t the only one to believe this. It’s quite a popular position today.

A Plurality of Beliefs

We live in a pluralistic society. A plurality of belief structures and moral codes can be found in our world; in your town, your workplace, your pub. Pluralism of course, as a reality, exists. But what about Pluralism as an ideal? Should we equally celebrate the many different approaches to life? Are they all equally valid?

Do all paths lead to God?

Throughout the history of the world we observe civilisations going to war because of different belief systems. Our united history of the clash of ideas doesn’t paint a pretty picture. ‘Can’t’ we all just get along?’, we might muse, hopefully. Well, historically speaking, no. Peoples have attacked, mocked, and ridiculed others for their beliefs.

Of course, there is a degree in flexibility with all of this. Some ideas we feel happier to hold more lightly than others. But there are plenty of areas that we just won’t bend on. Even the Romans, who absorbed the Greek pantheon of gods, found themselves at odds with the early Christians. Not because the Christians worshipped one man called Jesus as God, but because they worshipped him alone and didn’t recognise Caesar as a deity. At some point every religion, every worldview, claims exclusivity.

The Buddha, for example, was rejecting Hinduism. It was upon the realisation of the amount of pain and suffering that the young Siddhartha Gautama experienced that led him to reject the views he had in search of a better truth. Islam – coming around 500 years after Jesus – claims Judaism and Christianity were useful, but are now invalid and that the Quran is the only holy scripture delivered by the prophet Muhammad.

Many religions agree on so much. They say, for example that it’s good a thing to treat your neighbour well. Showing kindness to friends, strangers – this is a noble thing. And many people from differing religious find they can work together toward common goals such as alleviating poverty. But they differ on some pretty major points. Such as the existence of God or gods, the afterlife, which sacred text is right, how to obtain salvation etc.

For all religions to be true, all paths must lead to the same destination, however, even a cursory glance at the basic tenants of the major religions reveal that they propose some very different ultimate destinations.

Yes, there are some things that multiple religions agree on. And in addition, from the outside, many religions look like the hold the same structure. They might be formed in the same way, but made up of individual distinctions.

For example, many religions operate on the system, ‘If you’re good you’ll be rewarded with eternal bliss.’ All you need to do is lead a good life and you can be assured of a good outcome. But which afterlife are we promised? An eastern extension of self? A cloud in the skies with all our friends? And what exactly are the good deeds that we need to do? Specifically? And now we come to think about it, what exactly do we mean by good?

The more we delve into the complexities of each religion the more we realise that they offer different and distinct final realities with different and distinct paths that we need to follow to reach these realities.

So, what do we do?

What To Believe: 3 Options

When dealing with the plurality of religious beliefs we have I think three options to choose from.

All Religions are true: relativism

Our fist option is to say that all religions are equally true. There are many paths to take but one is not better than the other. It’s up to each one of us to choose which path we will take

To believe this we have to say that all truth is relative. That is, each viewpoint is equally true relative to the person holding it. We would have to reject the idea that absolute truth exists – that is that there are some things that are true for all people in all places.

Of course, relative truth exists. When I visited Nepal I found, to my surprise, that I was a tall man! If I were to be hanging out with my Nepalese friends and said, ‘Hey, I’m quite a tall person’ I would be completely correct – relative to the group.

But then I get on a plane and visit Norway. Now, if I were to make the exact same statement there I would find that I would no longer be saying something that is true. Even if I used exactly the same words and I was exactly the same height.

Because relative truth exists we might be tempted to place religions into this category. After all, if religious belief is relative to the individual holding it, then we can affirm their right to believe it without the need for us to believe it. This can avert conflict and lead to harmony.

It’s a lovey idea and seeks a noble cause. But the problem is that this position is unliveable. And besides, we don’t really live like relativists even if we want to say that is true.

In Oxford there are lots of bikes and I would cycle around a lot because it’s the quickest way around town. And as I cycled around I noticed that I, and the other cyclists always look for that bus, when the cycle lanes and bus lanes converge because we are absolutely sure that if there is a bus and we were to have an accident will always end up worse off.

Think about it, you always (try to) look before you cross the street because even if you believe that you are special and built like the Incredible Hulk, the truth of reality would correct you very quickly.

If we don’t care about whether our lives correspond to reality then we can choose any story for ourselves. But when our story bumps into other stories we face problems.

What we believe defines how we live. Not what we think we believe, but how we really live. Our actions betray our core convictions.

If there was no evil in the world and nothing bad happened to people, if there were no consequences to our actions, then believing in different narratives wouldn’t be an issue. But ideas have consequences.

Furthermore, to state that all truth is relative is of course to make an absolute statement. To categorically state that all truth is relative means that there is no truth which is not relative. If all truth is relative than that very statement must be relative and therefore not necessarily true for all people and people ought not to take us seriously if we say it!

So it emerges that relativism is unliveable. Well then, can’t we just be tolerant of other beliefs? But have you noticed that even tolerant people can’t tolerate the intolerant.

No religions Are True

Our second option is to declare that no religion is true. It was Ernest Hemingway who said that, “All thinking men are atheists.” This statement suggests that when rational enquiry is held all religions fail because they ultimately are irrational. All we need is a little education, a little science, a little knowledge and we’ll see that we have no need for a God.

But is this true? Oxford University is fortunate to some of the brightest minds in their respective academic fields make their home there. People like Professor John Lennox (Mathematics) and Professor Richard Swinburne (Philosophy) have held the chief positions in their fields in a University of international renown and they are committed to belief in God.

They are not alone. Throughout the sciences, the humanities, and the arts there are men and women dually committed to excellence in their field and at the same time publicly professing belief in God.

The atheist Thomas Nagel shows greater humility when he states:

“I want atheism to be true and am made uneasy by the fact that some of the most intelligent and well-informed people I know are religious believers. It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God and naturally hope that I’m right in my belief. It’s that I hope that there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that.”

We simply can’t write off religion because we don’t want it to be true. We need to investigate. That’s the second point.

One religion is true

The third option we have is to come to the conclusion that one religion, one worldview, is true. After investigation we can come to a belief that one of the many are true and we can put our faith in that.

We all put our faith in something. Faith is simply following the evidence where it leads. The atheist has faith that universe is rational and can be understood through enquiry. You don’t need to be particularly religious to have faith, you just demonstrate a commitment to live out your life in accordance with the views that you hold.

If we reject relativism as unliveable, and if we reject an outright rejection of belief as unfair, then we are only left with an examination of what we believe. The major religions of the world differ enough to be distinct, and require us to do more work than glibly asserting they’re all true, or they’re all false.

We believe for many reasons: cultural, intellectual, emotional … To come to a point of committed, enquired-of faith requires us to examine what we believe and why. This might lead us to reject some of our ideas if they fail to hold up to scrutiny, but that is another matter for another article.

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