Over the last 8 weeks or so, my brother and I have had the privilege of engaging with a number of guys on an Alpha Course organised by my church, taking place at my house. I have appreciated the insights, honest questions and reflections by all in the group. Two guys in particular, who would describe themselves as non-believers and, in one case at least, would have described himself as a 10/10 atheist at the beginning of the course, have been prepared to come week-in week-out and ask awkward, honest and searching questions.
At the close of Alpha, both gentlemen emailed the group with their reflections on the course and raised some challenging questions that deserve to be taken seriously. I’ve included one of the questions below, and hope to give some indications of my views here and in subsequent posts. On a personal note, I’d like to thank them both for the pleasure of getting to know them and for the stimulating and thought provoking discussion.
The following question, by way of a analogy, in his own words:
Somewhere in Pakistan there are two brothers. These two brothers have faith and believe in God. They believe that Mohamed was a Prophet and that he received words directly from God which his followers recorded and then used and went on to create the Quran. The brothers believe that, during his lifetime, Mohamed went on a journey from Mecca to Jerusalem and then up to heaven. This journey was made possible by the use of a winged horse. The brothers completely believe that this event took place, even though during their lifetimes they have no evidence, whatsoever, of another similar occurrence. Their ‘principles’ tell them that it is true and that it happened. These two brothers were born and raised in Pakistan, a predominantly Muslim country. For whatever reason, at some point in their lives, they became believers, they became men of faith and being men of faith they needed and need, a ‘platform’ a well-defined story, a belief, an organised religion with a clearly defined structure and a local building where they can meet like-minded believers on a weekly basis, in this case a Mosque. Given the fact that the brothers were born in Pakistan, is it any wonder that they became Muslims? No, absolutely not. If they were men of faith that is exactly what they would become.
In order to spread the word they actively organise and take part in courses for individuals who are curious about their particular religion. Some people who attend these courses become believers, whilst others continue to question that particular brand of religion together with all of the other brands of religion.
Somewhere in England there are two brothers. These two brothers have faith and believe in God. They believe that Jesus was the Son of God and his words and travels, during his lifetime on Earth, were recorded after his death and included in the Bible. The brothers believe that after his death, he rose from the dead. The brothers completely believe that this event took place, even though during their lifetimes they have no evidence, whatsoever, of another similar occurrence. Their ‘principles’ tell them that it is true and that it happened. These two brothers were born and raised in England, a predominantly Christian country. For whatever reason, at some point in their lives, they became believers, they became men of faith and being men of faith they needed and need, a ‘platform’ a well-defined story, a belief, an organised religion with a clearly defined structure and a local building where they can meet like-minded believers on a weekly basis, in this case a Church. Given the fact that the brothers were born in England, is it any wonder that they became Christians? No, absolutely not. If they were men of faith that is exactly what they would become.
In order to spread the word they actively organise and take part in (Alpha) courses for individuals who are curious about their particular religion. Some people who attend these courses become believers, whilst others continue to question that particular brand of religion together with all of the other brands of religion.
This would be the case, of course, for any world religion or belief system.
I consider that I have the opportunity to stand back and view all of the various brands of religion with a certain amount of curiosity and question “why”?… [Such accounts could be listed that] would be a great deal longer than my arm, of other stories from other religions from around the world, over the centuries. I don’t see a problem with you having your faith, I just don’t see what you see and hopefully this email will assist you to understand what goes through a non-believers mind.
I think it’s fair to summarise these words as asking: “As a ‘man of faith’, if I had been born in a predominantly Muslim country would I now be a Muslim?”
This is a very good question, and cuts to the heart of what it means for me to be a follower of Jesus.
Jesus’ day and ours
We are privileged to live in a country in which many of our laws, customs and social norms have been heavily shaped by Judaeo-Christian world views. I believe UK subjects are the better for this. The UK is also today a multi-cultural, ethnically and religiously diverse place to live – we are also the better off for it. In my view, we can no longer describe the UK as a ‘Christian’ country, and could rightly be described as living in a ‘post-Christendom’ society.
This means that the choice to be a follower of Jesus is a conscious choice and not something we ‘fall into’ in our culture. If anything, followers of Jesus are under increasing pressure and attack from all angles – legally, socially, etc.
Our experience in twenty-first century UK is not unique.
First-century Palestine was different in many ways to our own culture. Jesus grew up as a Jew is a deeply religious society. But he also grew up in a cultural milieu of inter-connected and opposing world views politically, socially and religiously. Following Jesus, in Jesus’ day, was a conscious – and dangerous – choice. It was also a choice that countless thousands chose because they claimed to have found something in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus worth giving up everything for. What they had found in Jesus was worth pursuing with reckless abandon.
I have a choice. I could follow the teachings of Buddha, I could follow the teaching of the prophet Muhammad and Islam. So why do I follow Jesus?
I want people to follow Jesus, not to change their culture or reject their heritage. I want people to put their faith in Jesus – not in ‘Christianity’ per se. A follower of Jesus will look very different in Pakistan than it will in the UK – that’s ok with me. I stand with those who suffer for their faith in that country as in countless others across the globe because I want to stand and be counted as being willing to give up anything else in my life to be counted with Jesus.
I suspect that the prophet Muhammad did not intend to ‘start another religion’ any more than Jesus did – he considered Islam1 to be a return to the God of Abraham.
Our view of what God is like will shape the whole character of our faith. If God exists, how can we truly know what he is like? My answer is Jesus. Only Jesus fully reveals God the Father. Jesus is unique. I believe world history hinges on him. He was there at the creation of the world and that God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit have been conspiring since the beginning of time to bring us all to a place of experiencing and participating in the love of God.
I don’t have a crystal ball and cannot automatically assume that if I had grown up in another time or place that I would have met Jesus – but I do know from my experience that Jesus found me where I am right now, and know that he’s finding people across the globe who are willing to seek him. He’s shown me perfect love. And he’s showing countless millions of others, right now, what God the Father looks like. What I do know is that as I seek to pattern my life after Jesus I am becoming more loving, kind, joyful, hopeful and peaceful. I know God. And that matters whether I live in the UK or Timbuktu.
Jesus makes sense of my relationship with others and my relationship with God. Jesus is helping me more loving towards my wife and son. Whether in Pakistan or in the UK, that makes the world of difference.
The question for me is not whether I would be a Muslim if I had been born in another time or place, but whether I would be following Jesus. I respect the faith of others who do not share my own beliefs – but I can’t get away from the fact that it is Jesus that makes the difference.
I’m conscious that that may sound like foolishness to you – and that’s ok.
I respect people of faith, and those who have made a conscious and conscientious choice to claim none, as fellow seekers of true meaning in this life.
From this non-believer to you two believers, of whom I have the upmost respect, thank you for giving me an opportunity to ask why.
I know I will continue to keep questioning, and I have the utmost respect and thanks for your input and questions over the course of this Alpha. I encourage you to read that Bible you have been given and to keep asking why. I know I will.
- Islam means ‘submission to Allah‘ (Arabic for God). Translations of the Bible into Arabic use the term Allah for God. ↩