One word to describe religion

Question 222, from Tom

How would you describe religion, why we do it?
What is the point behind it? But on a universal religious preference. The challenge is that you have to describe all of that into one word.

What is very interesting when studying religions is how universal many of the key themes are. It is difficult to know how religions started – what prompted the first religious beliefs in human cultures – but there have been many hypotheses.There are a number of approaches to religion that seek to explain it as a social or psychological phenomenon that provides either a coping mechanism or explanation of events and circumstances in ways that make sense to human beings.

So in one word? AWE.

The world is quite big and humans are quite small. Human lives are relatively short and over soon. People are often afraid of things they don’t understand, and so seek to explain them. There is an aesthetic principle at work – humans can appreciate ‘beauty’ in a natural event like a sunset or in sandstone columns carved by winds. The sky at night is full of stars. Rainbows cut a colourful swathe across the sky. A new-born baby seems like a wonderful gift. All these things create a sense of awe and marvel and wonder and that leads to looking for reasons behind it, which in turn leads to belief in unseen powers shaping what is seen, which over time with the application of reason and, maybe, revelation becomes a religious belief system. When religious beliefs become institutions they often seek to encapsulate that sense of awe by building monuments like henges and cathedrals, recapturing the impetus that drives people towards religion.

For many Christians the universality of religious expression is testament to a shared, yet flawed, understanding of God that is apprehended through awe and a sense of the transcendent. This is reflected in the phrase in Ecclesiastes chapter 3, verse 11, that states God has ‘set eternity in the human heart’ – the ability to appreciate eternity leads to awe of the eternal God and this can be experienced outside the revealed Christian religion by all human beings.


Spells and divinations in the Bible about infidelity (cheating)

Question 221, from Gary

I heard tonight that somewhere in the Old Testament there is a “Spell, or Divination, that a man can do which will determine if your wife has cheated on you or not. It was said that doing this divination will give you an answer from God and his truthful wisdom. Have you ever read about this divination?

I heard someone talking about this question and I was curious if really is true and is it something we are allowed to do ? Where in the Bible can I find this ?

There is no such spell or method of divination contained in the Bible that can be conducted to determine infidelity. There is a ‘test’ that was apparently carried out by priests in the Tabernacle if a wife was suspected of being unfaithful. This can be found in Numbers chapter 5, verses 11-31. The woman in question ate a tainted grain offering, which had been mixed with dirt from the tabernacle floor, which would cause miscarriage, supposedly only if she was pregnant by another father.

Although the priest would pronounce a judgmental curse over the woman suspected of unfaithfulness (verse 21-23), this was not a ‘magic spell’. It does seem like a form of divination with the theory being that God would prevent harm befalling the righteous and therefore determining the facts of the situation. It has been suggested that tainted grain would contain ergotamine from fungus growing on grain or found on the tabernacle floor. Ergotamine has been known to induce labour and could possible cause miscarriage. This passage has therefore been used to argue that the Bible endorses abortion in some cases. This passage also underlines the highly patriarchal society of the ancient Hebrews as there is no test for men who are suspected of infidelity.

As the tabernacle-based religion and priesthood has been superseded, this test is no longer practiced. It should also be pointed out that this is probably a very unreliable way of determining a person’s faithfulness in a relationship and it would be wiser to base decisions on better evidence.

A ‘missional’ viewpoint on the EU Referendum

The UK is holding a referendum to decide whether to remain part of the European Union. There are claims and counter-claims about what is best for Britain, and it can be confusing to know who to believe. In this one-off article, Jon the freelance theologian, explores a good reason for the UK to stay as part of the EU.

In Acts chapter 16 there is a fascinating insight into the Apostle Paul’s missionary activities. It is one of the few places where it seems Paul has explicit divine guidance over where to go to preach the gospel. In verses 6 and 7 it says that Paul is prevented by the Spirit from entering the provinces of Asia and Bithynia, both in modern-day Turkey. He had already visited many of the key cities in Asia and it would have been natural for him to return to the churches there. However, he has a vision of a ‘man from Macedonia’, part of Greece. He realises this is a sign that he should leave Asia behind.

It’s interesting when considering the future of the UK in Europe to think about this incident in the life of the Apostle Paul as told in Acts. (more…)

Talk excerpt: “They tried to bury us but they didn’t know that we were seeds”

This is part of a recent talk at Glenwood Church, Cardiff. 

They tried to bury usI don’t really do inspirational books. Things like Chicken Soup for the Soul and feel-good stories and things like that leave me cold. I’m not a fan. So I surprised myself recently when I was in a shop and I picked up a book of ‘little inspirations’. I don’t know why I picked it up. But I opened it completely at random and I read this:

“They tried to bury us, but they didn’t know that we were seeds.”

In the book it said it was a Mexican proverb, and it has been used among activists in Mexico who are campaigning for greater social justice, and the Zapatista movement who have taken that campaign into armed struggle against the government. But it wasn’t a Mexican proverb first (more…)

Four questions about the Stations of the Cross

Questions 217 – 220, from Simon, United Kingdom

I want you to do a Q&A on the stations of the cross.

Sure, no problem.

Question 217 – What are they and what is their significance?

The stations of the cross, also known as the ‘Way of the Cross’, are found in some Christian traditions as a way of communicating the events leading up to the death of Jesus. Through art or statues they represent stages of the story of the last hours of Jesus’ life. Traditionally, worshippers would (more…)

The timing of the division between Israel and Judah

Question 216, from Mike

References to Israel and Judah in the Old Testament are made prior to the division into the northern and southern kingdoms after David. When did the distinction first come to be recognised either geographically or as a polity in the history of the Hebrew people? i.e. When did the Jews first started to identify themselves by the two names?

Generally, in the textual study of the Old Testament, there seem to be recognisable attempts to edit and explain much earlier documents, from certain points of view. The strands are referred to as JEDP, the Jahwist, Elohist, Deuteronomist and Priestly viewpoints. (more…)

Singing theology: changing lyrics and the meanings of songs

An opinion piece by Jon the freelance theologian

A few Sundays ago I tweeted a comment about how changing song (or hymn, if you prefer) lyrics annoys me, particularly if the change makes no sense.

The song in question was ‘In Christ Alone’, by Keith Getty and Stuart Townend, which usually features the line ‘And on that cross, as Jesus died, the wrath of God was satisfied’.  This refers to a particular doctrine of the atonement called ‘penal substitution’, which can be summarised as Jesus dying as a substitute for others to pay the penalty for sin that God demands. (The doctrine is a bit more complicated than that, to be fair, but we could be here all day if we go too deep into it.) (more…)