At a secular university (most likely at any university, but this is not about any university), you are expected to be able to defend (in the sense of defining, logically explaining, supporting with evidence and/or logical steps originating from a proven premise, etc) what you think and believe, and why you think and believe it. At least this is my experience at UCT in Cape Town, South Africa, in the Humanities faculty. And although I’m going to talk specifically about the Department of Religious Studies, it is by no means limited to the department. Maybe I’ve just met all the nerds in the faculty, and I know I can’t place everyone under this banner, but Humanities (for those of us who actually want to be here and are not just doing a BA so we can slack off) is about receiving knowledge, challenging it, transforming it, and updating it. Nothing is fact; everything is under trial, and we are the judges. I’m not just saying this, either; the vice chancellor himself told us this on the first day. You kind of get into this mindset after a while, and it’s not surprising that people take it outside their lectures and tuts.
This semester, I am taking a religious studies course called Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. I knew going into this that it was going to be intense, and after just the first tut, I knew it like I know the sun comes up every morning. It was different studying religions that I’ve had very little contact with, that are not evangelist religions, and that are somewhere far, far away across the ocean. But this…this is intense.I knew going into this that I would be walking a very fine line between trying to be objective in the study of religion, and actually compromising on what is true and right. It was different, but already challenging, in the first semester, because we weren’t studying Christianity. Now, though, we will be, and after the first tut it’s clear that there are going to be some heavy discussions.
In the first place, saying you’re a Christian, especially in this course, is like sticking a sign on your forehead that reads, “Don’t take anything I say seriously because I’m one of those hypocritical, arrogant people who think they’re perfect and are narrow-minded and petty.” This is, and not without reason, the perception many people have of Christians and Christianity. We – and not even all of us anymore, but that’s a whole other story – are one of the very few (and I actually think the only one) faith groups who still stick to our guns; we say Jesus is the only way to God, period. Most, if not all, religions have for the most part evolved to say that you just do your thing, whatever works for you is right, there are many paths to God, or even that you are God. Unitarian churches are becoming more and more popular, and entire organizations have it as their mission to find commonality in all religions and make people tolerant of each other’s beliefs. Many Christians have even adopted this attitude, the one that is peaceful and “okay” and not horrendously intolerant.
Christianity is “intolerant.” It is politically incorrect, it is discriminatory, it is offensive. I say all this with a touch of sarcasm because these are human terms and human concepts, terms created to protect human rights which actually do not exist and which change according to what fad is currently popular in politics. The love of Christ is open to anyone and everyone, but demands our all.
But Christianity, at least the Christianity that is truly following Christ and having a personal relationship with him, is not a religion. Yes, there is a Christian religion, and it is no different from the Jewish religion or the Muslim religion or any other religion there is. Religion is, according to my lecturer, a way of thinking, a way of living, and a social behavior pattern. It is, in other words, a human thing. It is a way for humans to think, it is a way for humans to live, and a way for humans to conduct themselves socially. I completely agree with him. Religion is a human institution, created by humans, kept alive by humans, for humans. It’s a safety net and a driving force, a weapon and a tool.
Christianity, the real Christianity, is none of these things. It displays some of the same elements, but to study it in this way is to approach it from the wrong end. We do not have a religion because we have a doctrine, a set of rules, and popes and bishops and priests and whatever else. We are not spiritual, we are not righteous, because we follow God’s commands. We follow God’s commands because we are righteous. When we become Christians, we are cleansed by the blood of Christ, washed completely clean, and the Holy Spirit lives in us, making us righteous by his mercy, grace, and power; we cannot become righteous by trying to follow the 10 commandments. It is out of the strength he gives us, and more importantly, out of the love he enables us to have for Jesus, that we do what pleases God. It is not like an abused wife who does what her husband says because she fears him, or like the wife in a boring, dead marriage who does what she should because it’s expected; it’s like the wife who is both passionately loved by and is passionately in love with her husband, and who naturally does what she knows will please him, for the sake of pleasing him.
Fear and guilt no longer play a part, because we now have a relationship with the living God, who is our savior, father, and friend. We do what he wants us to because we love him, and because we want to please him. It is a relationship, not a religion.
So my dilemma in this course is: do I accept that there is such a thing as a Christian religion (which there is), and study it from that perspective, leaving everyone to their assumptions and opinions, or do I say something? Saying something would mean not only saying the actual thing, but also explaining it, meaning going into the heart of the truth – Jesus, the way, the truth, and the life. Meaning, of course, sounding like an intolerant, discriminating fool and/or lunatic. But that has always been the price, and it’s not even fine print. The New Testament writers make no secret of it that they faced serious trials, much worse than what we face now in westernized countries (for the most part). Having a tut group think I’m a non-functioning, narrow-minded, look-at-the-pretty-lights human being is much more preferable than being boiled in oil or crucified, upside down or right side up, or bring beheaded (probably the best way to go, if you have to pick one of these). But is it my place, in a course which objectively, almost scientifically looks at these religions, to say something?
I have clearly heard God telling me, since the beginning of the year, the following…though of course none of these are new revelations, but things rarely feel relevant to us when we’re not in a position to need them.
1. He is God. He does not need defending, he does not need to be stood up for.
2. The truth does not need defending or to be stood up for.
3. But the truth does have to be spoken.
In other words, it is not my place to fight with people, to get into niggling debates with them, or to prove that I’m right. It has nothing to do with me at all. It is my place – and not only that, but my responsibility and my, and every Christian’s, calling – to speak the truth; to tell of Jesus and his love; to explain in whatever words the Holy Spirit puts in my mouth what it’s actually all about…while, of course, acknowledging that the Christian religion is different and separate from following Christ. The purpose, after all, is not to tell people their ideas and preconceptions about Christianity are wrong. It is to, in the most familiar, most Biblical words, preach the gospel, in and out of season (2 Timothy 4:2), in all circumstances and to all peoples and nations (Matthew 28:18-20). We cannot convert people; that is something only the Holy Spirit can do, and the word convert has connotations that make me hesitant to use it now, so let me rather say transform. One human cannot transform another; only God can do that. We are the sowers of the seed of the gospel of truth, we are the carriers of the message. We can speak the truth, we can pray for others, we can ask for the strength and wisdom to live as Christ lived and wants us to live, and we can love through the power of the Holy Spirit and be his Body here on earth, with his Spirit who gives us life.