Can You Invent Your Own Religion?
The religion section of the Australian national census is mostly uncontroversial. Every five years, the Australian Bureau of Statistics asks every Australian whether they identify with any particular religion or spiritual belief. In 2016, 61% of Aussies were happy enough to tick a box saying that they identify with one of the ‘big five’ religions (Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Islam, and Christianity).
Back in 2001, however, the religion section of the census received some unexpected attention. No less than 70,000 people invented a new ‘faith’! Rather than identifying as Catholic, Anglican, Presbyterian, Muslim or Hindu, they put down ‘Jedi Knight’ on the census as their religion! If he paid any attention, George Lucas must have been pleased with the popularity of his Star Wars movies, even if many of the people who identified as Jedi Knights were simply enjoying the joke!
The whole episode, however, also raises some really interesting questions. Can you invent your own religion? And how do we work out which, if any, of the religions tells us the truth about God?
I have already suggested that we can trust what the Gospels say about Jesus as an historical figure. This, however, doesn’t necessarily mean that Jesus was right in what he said about God. It is theoretically possible that the Gospels provide an accurate record of Jesus’ wrong ideas. So, the question now becomes: what is the truth about God, and why should we accept what Jesus says about God, rather than following anyone else?
Which God is the real one?
The problem, of course – as the ‘Jedi Knight’ census results show – is that Jesus isn’t the only one who has ever had ideas about God or the gods. Indeed, according to the census, while most Australians still think that there is some kind of God or gods out there, we also have a wide variety of different ideas about what God, or the gods, might be like.
Some say this doesn’t matter, since all the religions basically teach the same thing. There is, however, only a grain of truth in this statement. The major religions do, of course, have some things in common. But on the most important question – the question about G/god – the major religions all say very different things. Judaism, Christianity and Islam agree that there is only one God. So far, so good. But serious Jews, Muslims and Christians strongly disagree about whothe one God is! While Christians insist that the one God exists in ‘three persons – the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit – and that Jesus himself is the key to understanding the identity of God, Jews and Muslims don’t accept that idea at all. They hold that Jesus was, at best, a prophet and, at worst, a dangerous false teacher! Hindus, for their part, affirm the existence of literally thousands of gods, which all reflect one godlike force known as ‘Brahman’. And to make things even more complicated, Buddhists – at least those who follow the most ancient Theravadan tradition – hold that there probably isn’t any god, but that if there is, we can’t know for sure and it doesn’t really matter anyway. So, the claim that all the religions basically teach the same thing about God doesn’t stand up under scrutiny. If you sit down with anyone who actually believes in the teaching of any one of the major world religions, they will quickly set you straight.
There is obviously a great deal more that could be said about the different world religions. For now, the thing to notice is this: if all of the religions say very different things about God (which they do), they can’t all be right at the same time! As soon as we start talking about God, then, we have to ask the question: which God are we talking about?
The Cosmic Santa & The Smite God
As important as the ‘big five’ religions are in the modern world, my hunch is that most of us don’t think about God the way any of the major religions do. If we think about God at all, most of us prefer to make up our own ideas about him (or her, or them, or it!). I’ve found that people often talk about God in one of two ways.
On the one hand, people often talk about God as if he’s a kind of cosmic Santa Claus: he’s big and friendly, but a long way away and irrelevant for most of the year. Maybe he created the world, but he’s now not directly involved in the things that happen here. Heaven doesn’t have much to do with life on earth. When we die, God will welcome most of us into heaven, because he is kind and forgiving. On this view, God is real, and kind, but mostly irrelevant.
I can certainly understand why people think about God like this. Many of us don’t feel like we’ve ever really had anyexperience of God. We can’t see, hear, taste or touch God, so it seems just too hard to find out anything reliable about him. It’s much easier to ‘believe’ in him like we ‘believe’ in Santa Claus: it’s a nice story, but it doesn’t have much to do with everyday life in the real world.
On the other hand, people also talk about God in a much more sinister way. They agree that he isn’t really involved in the world, but like the comic artist Gary Larson, they picture God sitting at his computer watching us, ready to hit the ‘SMITE’ button every now and then (Google it!). This God gets a kick out of hurting people. He keeps an eye on us only to punish us when we are least expecting it. According to this view, God is not only distant and uninvolved in the world – he is also cruel and unkind.
Again, I can understand why people think about God like this. We see reports on the news of people suffering from famine and disease. We hear of horrific natural disasters and heart-wrenching human tragedies, and we face difficulties and death in our own lives. It is easy to feel like God is out to get us.
Which, if any, of the many ‘gods’ on offer is the real God? How can we know the truth?
God In a Test Tube?
Our cultural tendency, at least in the modern West, is to turn to science at this point. The scientific method is so useful for understanding life in the world and making real progress that perhaps it can also help us find the truth about God?
On this most important question, however, science doesn’t get us very far. This is because science relies on observing things in the natural world and conducting experiments under controlled conditions. This scientific method is exactly the right method to use when we want to discover anything from the temperature at which water boils under different atmospheric conditions to the effectiveness of different vaccines in a global pandemic.
As any scientist will tell you, however, the scientific method has its limits. There are many important questions that science simply can’t answer. Whom should I marry? Is it OK to tell a ‘white lie’? What is the purpose of life? Science simply can’t help us here. The scientific method isn’t designed to answer these kinds of questions.
In the same way, we can’t put God in a test tube and conduct a science experiment on him. If we want to know if God is real and what he is like, we need to find some other way forward.
How Do You Get To Know The God Of The Universe?
Most of the religions teach that God is not merely some supernatural force, but a personal being. Many people seem to think about God like this as well. If this is anything close to the truth, it follows that the only way we will be able to get to know God is if he tells us about himself.
This is true in all personal relationships. We can often find out quite a bit about a person from a distance by observing their behaviour, looking at their social media profile or – if they have a public presence as a politician or a celebrity – watching and reading reports about them. But that is the point: all of this only gives us some information about a person. If we really want to get to know someone – who they are, what they stand for, their likes and dislikes, what really makes them tick – the only way to find out is if they tell us about themselves.
If God is a personal being, it follows that it is the same with him. The only way we can get to know a personal God is if he reveals himself to us.
One of the most striking things about Jesus is that he claimed to do just that: to know God in a way that no-one else does and reveal God in a way no-one else can. Here is what Jesus says in the Gospel of Matthew:
“My Father has given me everything, and he is the only one who knows the Son. The only one who truly knows the Father is the Son. But the Son wants to tell others about the Father, so that they can know him too.”(Matthew 11:27)
Jesus here claims to know God in a unique way – as the one and only Son of God, his Father. This claim is breathtaking: Jesus says that no-one else knows God like he does. Neither Moses, nor Buddha, nor Mohammed, nor Einstein. Certainly not you or I. Jesus’ knowledge of God his Father is unique. But more than that, Jesus says that he has come to reveal God so that we can know him too. If Jesus is right, this means that the best way to get to know God is by learning from what Jesus shows us about him.
One Impressive Life
But still, how can we know if Jesus is right or not? It is one thing to claim to know God and reveal God in a unique way. It is quite another thing for that claim to be true.
The biggest reason why I am convinced that we can trust what Jesus teaches is that God raised him from the dead. According to all four Gospels, Jesus was crucified under Pontius Pilate and buried in a tomb, but he did not stay there. God raised him to new life on the other side of the grave ‘on the third day’. Now, I recognise, of course, that sceptical readers may not find this convincing in any way. There is obviously a lot that needs to be said about Jesus’ resurrection, and we will get to that. For now, it is enough to say that if God really did raise Jesus from the dead, it would vindicate everything he said; it would be God’s stamp of approval of Jesus’ claims, including the claim that he came to reveal the truth about God.
There is, however, also a second reason why we can trust what Jesus said about God: it is his unparalleled life. While anyone can claim to know God as Jesus did, the proof of the pudding will be in the tasting. Does their life match up with the claims? And this is where Jesus really stands out. When you dig below the surface of any person’s life, you sooner or later find reason for disappointment. Selfishness. Hypocrisy. Moral failures. Even the best of us is fundamentally flawed.
But this doesn’t happen with Jesus. The more you dig, the more impressive he gets. He called on his followers to love and serve each other, and then he showed them how, at the cost of his life (Mark 10:45). He commanded people to love their enemies and forgive those who hurt them, and then, on the cross, he prayed for God to forgive the very ones who killed him (Luke 23:34). Even before you get to the amazing things Jesus did (the ‘miracles’), you can’t help noticing that his was one incredibly impressive life. At every point, Jesus’ life matched up with what he said about God.
All of this means that Jesus’ claim to know God is worth taking seriously. If you’re still reading at this point, then I guess you probably agree with me. You might not yet be convinced, but you may be willing to delve a little deeper.
But there’s one more thing to say. If God is real and personal, as Jesus said, then you will only get to know him if he reveals himself to you. This is why I encouraged you right at the beginning to start talking to him. So, if you’ve started doing that, why not pray again, right now, and ask God to show himself to you?