The Fear of the Lord is the Beginning of Wisdom
So … the government’s equality boss says that Christians are more militant than Muslims, and that atheists are busy mocking Christians and trying to drive religion underground. The chairman of the Equality and Human Rights Commission noted the changing face of Christianity in Britain, seeing Christians as fighting to protect an old fashioned style of religion incompatible with the modern world.
Of course, he is absolutely right as well as completely and utterly wrong. I suppose journalists and politicians have the luxury of using labels like ‘Christian’ and ‘Muslim’ and even ‘Atheist’ without having to unpack the complexities of the groups to whom these labels refer. The one thing that struck me, on reading the statements both by the Equality and Human Rights Commission, and the journalists reporting it, is that by using the labels in the way that they do, they are endorsing and promoting the very prejudice they claim to denounce.
‘Christian’ today could mean almost anything. It could mean a standard-issue Alpha-Course graduate, schooled in the correct facts of the Christian faith as conceived by privileged West Londoners. It could equally mean the privileged system where – despite poor-old-me syndrome of apparently persecuted Christians in Britain – we have Bishops in the House of Lords. Christian could also refer to the views expressed by the organisation ‘Christian Voice,’ who claim to speak out on behalf of all Christians in their opposition to homosexuality, and all manner of other bizarre moral standards. But then, Christian could also refer to Mother Theresa, to people who have given up their lives and their voices to serve others in self-giving love. People from all backgrounds of the social and political spectrum claim to be Christian, and adopt a Christianity inseparable from their other commitments in daily life. In the end, the label Christian is so widely embracing, it doesn’t actually mean anything.
And if that is true of the Christian label, how much truer is it of the label ‘Muslim’? Many of us here at Bloomsbury have worked alongside other Muslims, have got to know many Muslim people by eating together and studying Scripture together – not in the silly ‘all-roads-lead-to-God’ way, but in a genuine attempt to listen well to views with which we profoundly disagree. And for sure, even in Xchange – our Wednesday evening Bible study – we have witnessed “Christians” using the bible to justify mass slaughter of non-Christians, while the Muslims present responded with a grace we have always thought impossible without Christian commitment. On that occasion, what the equality commission claim, is right – Christians are more militant than Muslims. And … in some cases, it is doubtless true. But it does not follow that it is always true.
When you use labels like Christian and Muslim, and make any claim beyond the most open-ended and brief statement, you are bound to be speaking falsely. I don’t recall the last time I heard or read anyone saying “Christians believe…” or “Christians think…” without profoundly disagreeing. You cannot summarise people with statements. Christian is not a term Jesus ever used to describe his followers. The Jesus of the Gospels simply said “follow me” and let everyone else describe his followers.
On one occasion, Jesus was asked if he was a Christian. (Well, he was asked if he was the Christ). Now, if he’d done an Alpha Course and read the Daily Mail, he should jolly well have answered, “Yes I am, and I’m not ashamed to admit it!” But Jesus didn’t say that! He simply said, to those who asked him, “Look around. The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor."
In other words – look at the effects that I am having in the real world, and choose your own labels. That, it seems to me, is the way of Jesus. And that is the function of this evening’s reading from Proverbs. “The fear of YHWH is the beginning of wisdom”. Not fear in terms of shaking in someone’s presence because they’re about to slap you. Fear that is closer to what the Daily Mail might call “Respect.” Treating God as though he has something of value to say, and something of value to do with who you are.
It is this kind of Active-here-and-now engagement with God, that makes you who you are. Let other people worry about whether the product is wisdom, or love, or wholesome or Christian. Active engagement with God here and now, as alive, dynamic, living encounter. Let somebody else write the labels and leave them to it.
If, on the other hand, we are to define our Christianity by our assent to a bunch of statements about things we love – or, as is more often the case – things that appal us, what kind of label is that going to earn us? Probably the kind of labels we deserve. Bigoted, unthinking, old-fashioned. And it is hardly surprising that Christian should be another label that belongs in that list – and whose fault is that?
It seems to me, that if we take Proverbs seriously, and we take our Christian commitment seriously, it will leave the world struggling to find new labels. And when that happens, you know God is at work.
Of course, there will always be mockers. But leave them to it, says proverbs. If you correct them you invite only insult. Blog sites, Youtube clips and on-line articles are full of self-avowed Christians arguing with mockers … and those conversations never, ever, ever go anywhere fruitful. Leave them to it.
The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. Instead of trying to define your faith and agree with statements of faith or lengthy creeds or vision statement … forget it all, and focus instead with the living God who puts a question mark over every attempt to squeeze him into a literary box.
Here, at this meal, we are invited to engage with the living God, personally, communally. And if we really do engage with this God, the results will be unpredictable – and so will the labels that we deserve.
I wonder then, what label you deserve? Will it simply be ‘Christian’. Or will people look at your Christian life and see things like ‘love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, self control.’ Or will the labels read more like, ‘bigotted, brainwashed, busybody, Christian?’
In the end, who cares? If YHWH was in the business of dishing out labels, maybe its worth worrying what he would say. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. Here at communion, is the invitation to engage with the living God, here and now. This living engagement will have its effects… will those effects be in harmony with the story of Scripture? That is the only question that matters.