Monday, 27 February 2012

Are you a Christian? Gandhi, Jesus and Professor Dawkins

My sister contacted me the other day to tell me that she and my mum had been arguing over whether or not I was a Christian. She wanted me to settle the argument, to answer whether or not I was. By the way she contacted me by text, so my answer had to be brief. I said “well it depends what you mean”. She replied a little later to say “well we’ve stopped arguing now and have both agreed, that you are an awkward bugger”...well at least they’d stopped arguing about me, I thought.

No doubt the conversation had been kick started by the findings of the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science. During last year's census it conducted a survey on religious attitudes in Britain. It found that only 54% identified themselves as Christian, compared 72% in 2001. Almost three quarters who described themselves as Christian said they did so because they were born into the faith rather than it being their current belief. Only a third believed that Jesus was physically resurrected and that one in five did not believe in the resurrection, even in a spiritual sense. Almost half did not believe that Jesus was the son of God, while one in twenty five of those who declared themselves as Christian did not believe he existed at all.

The findings have concluded that most people who identify themselves as Christian turn out, when questioned on what they actually think, to be overwhelmingly secular in their attitudes on issues ranging from gay rights to religion in public life. It concludes that these people who identify as Christian are not actually Christian at all. The report triumphantly heralds the end of faith in this country and the victory of secularism.

During a a recent conversation on Radio 4’s “Today Programme”, between Professor Dawkins and Rev Giles Fraser, the former Canon of St Paul’s, Professor Dawkins announced triumphantly that an “astonishing number (of Christians) couldn’t identify the first book in the New Testament. In Professor Dawkins view people who identified as Christians and yet were not fully conversant with the bible and did not follow and subscribe to the teachings and or doctrines of the church were wrong to do so. Rev Fraser questioned these Rev 

Fraser: Richard, If I said to you what is the full title of “The Origin of Species”, I’m sure you could tell me that.

Prof Dawkins: Yes I could.

Rev Fraser: Go on then.

Prof Dawkins: On the Origin of Species...uh...with, oh God, On the Origin of Species. There is a sub-title with respect to the preservation of favoured races in the struggle for life.

Rev Fraser: You’re the high pope of Darwinism...if you ask people who believed in evolution that question and you came back and said two percent got it right, it would be terribly easy for me to go “they don’t believe it after all.” It’s just not fair to ask people these questions. They self identify as Christians and I think you should respect that.

I heard an awful lot of hysteria from all sides during the debate over the findings of Professor Dawkins foundation. I occasionally heard a little sense. My favourite quote came from Linda Woodhead, a professor of Philosophy and religion at Lancaster University. She said:

"There's nothing new in Richard Dawkins's findings about the British way of being religious. But it's always good to be reminded of the findings of a poll commissioned by his Foundation for Reason and Science: that most of us are not "true believers" in either religion or in secularism and that Britain is neither a religious country nor a secular one, but an interesting mix of both. That doesn't make us muddled, or woolly, or confused – it just makes us British."

 “It just makes us British” I love that.

What has always troubled me about the fundamentalists either of religion or secularism is that they believe that they have the right to define what makes a person a believer or not. I find such positions arrogant. Who decides whether a person’s is a believer or not? Who has the right to set the boundaries? Of course no one is immune from this; I know I’ve done it myself. I could be accused of it in a previous blog (naughty me).

Anyhow I'd just about given up on them all when something remarkable happened, during a debate between Professor Dawkins and the Arch Bishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams at Oxford University. The two men politely discussed “the nature of human beings and the question of their ultimate origin”. They also touched upon the meaning of consciousness, the evolution of human language and the Arch Bishop’s beard.

For most of the discussion the Arch Bishop quieltly listened to Professor Dawkins explanations of human evolution and said that he was inspired by the elegance of explanation for the origins of life and agreed with much of it. Professor Dawkins told the Arch Bishop "What I can't understand is why you can't see the extraordinary idea that life started from nothing - that is such a staggering, elegant, beautiful thing, why would you want to clutter it up with something as messy as a God?" Dr Williams replied that he "entirely agreed" with the "beauty" of Professor Dawkins argument but added. "I'm not talking about God as an extra who you shoehorn on to that."

And the something staggering happened, Professor Dawkins acknowledged that he was less than 100% certain of his conviction that there is no creator. At this Sir Anthony Kenny, who chaired the discussion, interjected: "Why don't you call yourself an agnostic?" to which Professor Dawkins answered that he did. To which the flabbergasted Sir Anthony replied: You are described as the worlds most famous atheist." Professor Dawkins went on to say that he was "6.9 out of seven" sure of his beliefs that the probability of a supernatural creator is very low.

Later the Arch Bishop said that he believed that human beings had evolved from non-human ancestors but were nevertheless “in the image of God” and added that the explanation for the creation of the world in the Book of Genesis could not be taken literally. Stating that “The writers of the Bible, inspired as I believe they were, they were nonetheless not inspired to do 21st Century physics,” he said.

Sanity at last after a week of madness. The God of surprises does indeed appear to be alive and well and at work in the most remarkable of places. I do wonder though if some people will now accuse Professor Dawkins of not being a proper Atheist and if others will claim that Dr Williams is not a proper Christian...I wonder what my sister and mum think...

We have now entered into the season of Lent, perhaps the most important period of the Christian calendar. For many Lent is about giving things up, it is about self sacrifice. It is about that central religious message of self giving love.

According to the Biblical accounts at the beginning of his ministry Jesus is “led by the spirit” into the wilderness, a place of transformation and temptation. He is taken to the pinnacle of the temple and to the top of a high mountain. Here he is offered the world, but rejects the allure of an easier showier more obvious path. Instead he chooses the road less travelled, the heroes path.

This is a universal tale; many of the great sages went on similar journeys, before embarking on their missions to heal their people. The Buddha had to leave the comforts of home, abandon his weeping family, shave his head and don the robes of a world renouncing ascetic when he began his journey to discover a cure for the pain of the world. Long before his revelations Muhammad use to retreat to Mount Hira, outside of Mecca, where he fasted, performed spiritual exercises and gave alms to the poor. He did this in an attempt to discover a remedy for the troubles of his time. When Ghandi began his mission he left the comforts of the elite in which he had lived his whole life and travelled India carefully observing the plight of the ordinary people.

During their own times in the wilderness the great sages found their answers. Through taking the road less travelled, the hard road, the difficult road, the answers came to them. They discovered the knowledge they needed to impact positively on their people in their time and place.

This is the spiritual life in its essence. It is often the hardest most difficult path and it can certainly appear to be the loneliest. That said it is the one where the answers are usually found.

Now none of these meanderings answers my sisters initial question I know. I promise I am not being evasive. I’d like to explore one of the more recent great sages Gandhi and his relationship with Christianity and specifically Jesus in an attempt to answer her question.

Gandhi saw Jesus as an ideal Satyagrahi, which is resistance to evil through soul force . Gandhi studied the Bible everyday for years and was greatly impressed with the New Testament particularly “The sermon on the Mount”. Like many Hindu’s it was the gentle figure of Jesus that he admired, who taught his followers not to retaliate and to resist violence. For him it was not the historical event of Jesus that mattered, but what the example of the message of his life had to offer humanity.  For Gandhi Jesus exemplified what it meant to serve your fellow humans and saw this as the guiding principle of his life. He saw the cross as being the perfect example of this sacrifice. 

He said:

 “Of all the things that I have read what remained with me forever was that Jesus came almost to give a new law – not an eye for an eye but to receive two blows when only one was given, and to go two miles when they were asked to go one...The message of Jesus as I understand it is contained in the Sermon on the Mount unadulterated and taken as a whole...If then I had to face only the sermon on the Mount and my own interpretation of it, I would not hesitate to say, “oh, yes, I am a Christian.” But negatively I can tell you that in my humble opinion, what passes as Christianity is a negation of the Sermon on the Mount...I am speaking of the Christian belief, of Christianity as it is understood in the west.”

Gandhi saw Jesus as the example to humanity, for Gandhi he pointed the way to liberation through self giving love. He believed that within all of us is this impulse for compassion and that this spark of divinity will one day burst into full flower and that Jesus was the personified example of this to every person. As he said “I believe that he belongs not solely to Christianity, but to the entire world; to all races and people, it matters little under what flag, name or doctrine they may work, profess a faith or worship a God inherited from their ancestors.”

So to answer my sisters question as to whether or not I am a Christian my answer is still the same, “it depends how you define Christianity.” For me, like Gandhi, Jesus is the example of self giving love that I aspire to. If being a Christian means following Jesus as the example to humanity then I am a Christian; if it means that I have to believe in the teachings of the established church then I am not. I am sure that by the definition of the fundamentalists of Christianity or Secularism then I am not. That said I do believe in the Jesus that Gandhi held up as the perfect Satyagraha. I see him as the embodiment of self giving love, as the example to us all. That said I do not see him as the only one, many of the great sages have also shown the way too and I also see those same heroic figures in my world today. We are all capable of being them.

Lent for me is about attempting to practise this in my life day by day. It’s not about giving up sweets or chocolate etc, it’s about giving of myself to life each and every day in whatever small ways that I can. It’s about practising non-violence not only with myself but others too, it’s about facing up to my own demons, those within and those without and about attempting to build the commonwealth of love here on earth. It’s about self transcendence; it’s about the full realisation of the truth that it is giving that we truly receive and that it is in these moments that we can know God.


  1. What a superb blog post. Wonderfully written.

  2. Lent isn't mentioned in scripture.

    1. No, but the practice of Lent is derived from the story of Jesus fasting in the wilderness, which is mentioned in the gospels.

      Incidentally, the term "scripture" refers to the sacred writings of all faiths, not just Christianity.

  3. I love the song - 'My Religion', sharing on Facebook :) Music isn't quite my divinity but I like the idea of 'combining one soul, one vision' where love is considered important. Thanks for writing this it was a subject very much on my mind recently. Just out of interest - how do you feel about church?

  4. Great read. Really very informative blog.
    Thanks for sharing it.
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