Religion, it seems, is back on the agenda. A recent column in the Daily Telegraph begins, ‘Could it be that … religion, which has taken a bit of a hammering over the last few decades in this country, is staging a comeback?’
The writer was John Humphrys, no lightweight in the world of journalism. His column describes what he terms a ‘surprising religious renaissance’.
Of course, Mr Humphrys is not talking about evangelical Christianity. It would be wonderful if he were – and perhaps someday, by the grace of God, we shall see secular columnists commenting on genuine spiritual revival.
Nevertheless, what journalists and others are noticing today is the re-emergence of religion as a force in Western society, at a time when the opposite might have been expected.
Answering his own question, Humphrys offers the following quite startling quote: ‘Prospect – the intellectuals’ favourite monthly magazine – seems to think so. It has an influence out of all proportion to its tiny circulation and a reputation for its rigorously highbrow approach …
‘Its front page recently carried the pretty unambiguous headline: “God returns to Europe”. Dr Eric Kaufmann of Birbeck College, who wrote the piece based on largely demographic evidence, said there is a religious revival “that may be as profound as that which changed the course of the Roman empire in the 4th century”.’
We should remember that religious affiliation – if not support – is strong in the UK. The 2001 census revealed that 72% consider themselves ‘Christian’ while only 10% claimed to have no religion. This statistic is repeated throughout Europe.
A recent Eurostat survey revealed that about three quarters of the EU’s 453.6 million citizens claim affiliation with a religious community, while 53% regard religion as a significant element of their lives.
Despite chronic secularisation, therefore, religion still exerts a sway in many people’s minds. At some level, men and women are prepared to identify with religious ideas and even religious groups.
New political groups
We ought not to be surprised. It is a consequence of man being made in the image of God. A tide of religious concern seems to be flowing as a reaction to our secular and materialistic Western lifestyle.
Evangelical Times (January and March) has reported how moderate Islam is finding a new voice and exhibiting new confidence in the West. In this issue we note that migrants from Poland and other EU countries are swelling Roman Catholic ranks in UK.
Despite static attendance, the Anglican church in Britain has acquired an unaccustomed aura of importance through saturation coverage of its internal conflicts. The Charismatic movement and Black Churches are thriving, while Church Growth and Emergent Church innovations from USA are taking root in Europe and paying numerical if not spiritual dividends.
In a wider arena, campaigners and new political groups are mobilising to fight moral decay at a national and governmental level.
The Christian People’s Alliance Council numbers among its members the magistrate who recently lost his fight for exemption from cases that conflict with his religious beliefs. North of the border, the Scottish Christian Party is recruiting candidates to run in Scottish Parliamentary elections.
Even Richard Dawkins’ efforts to ridicule God has backfired – leading even some fair-minded atheists to reject his simplistic arguments.
But in all of this, who or what occupies centre-stage? Certainly not God himself – who hardly gets a mention in all the media outpourings. And where God is named, the one referred to is not the God of Christian Scripture.
Religion is back on the agenda but there is little appreciation of the Triune God of the Bible or of ‘God with us’ in Jesus Christ. We are surrounded by gods, idols and religious symbols, but the true and living God is nowhere in sight.
Sounds familiar? That’s not surprising. There are notable parallels with Paul’s experience in ancient Athens (Acts 17:16-34).
Despite an outward sophistication, Athens was a city steeped in idolatry – a magnet for travellers, philosophers and storytellers. They gathered in the market place to debate new ideas, pass judgement and speculate on spiritual matters. Interest in religion is nothing new.
But when Paul ‘preached to them Jesus and the resurrection’ (v.18) he met ignorance and superstition. Proud of their culture, prosperity and accomplishments, the people had a form of godliness but without power.
Declaring the unknown God
Paul’s response to the spiritual blindness and intellectual barrenness of Athenian religion maps the way for the church today.
Rather than join their philosophical flea-market, Paul confronted his hearers with the historical reality of Jesus Christ, crucified and risen from the dead.
The cure for the religious speculation of our age must be the same – to declare the whole counsel of God, embodied in the person and work of Jesus Christ.
Seizing on their religious devotions, Paul preached a God who, being unknown, must be revealed (Acts 17:23). He presented God’s credentials as the creator of all things, the giver and sustainer of life (vv. 24-25).
He declared God’s sovereign power over life, death and human history – a sovereignty that has the gracious purpose that men ‘should seek the Lord … and find him’ (vv. 26-27). Paul condemns the folly of idolatry and, in God’s name, commands repentance unto life (Acts 11:18).
Finally, he warns of a day of reckoning when the risen Christ will judge the world in righteousness (v.31) – no doubt pointing out that the same resurrection that guarantees judgement will also declare righteous those who believe (Romans 4:25).
Paul understood how to react to the religious ignorance and rampant idolatry of his day. Do we? Specifically, do we preach ‘Jesus and the resurrection’? Are we proclaiming the same full and robust gospel – that God is the creator and sustainer of all things, and the sovereign Lord of human history?
Do our hearers understand that the living God has revealed his purposes of both grace and judgement in the man Christ Jesus – crucified for our sins, raised for our justification, and coming in glory to judge the world in righteousness? In the name of God, do we command men to repent and believe these things?
Let us have ‘understanding of the times to know what Israel ought to do’ (1 Chronicles 12:32). We shall never know the fulness of New Testament blessing until we declare the fulness of New Testament truth.