I read a brief summary this week of journalists reporting of the debate in France as to whether abandoned churches should be turned into mosques. The idea was raised by the rector of the Great Mosque of Paris and quickly shouted down by ‘Islamophobes’ according to one paper. I think it’s a really interesting question as to how church buildings should be used in the sad situation that their congregation has depleted. It raises a host of questions about the sanctity of space and the relationship between the spiritual and physical locations. But that’s not what struck me about this story. It wasn’t so much the issue at hand, but how it was reported that make me sit up straight.
According to the featured journalists, the issue is a practical one: the church is declining, church buildings are empty, whilst Islam is growing and Muslims need somewhere to pray. This seems a purely reasonable solution, and indeed it may be. But here’s the final line of the summary:
Wouldn’t they [right-winger opponents of the idea] rather see churches serve a religious purpose, than be turned into shops and markets? A bit of “pragmatism” would be a fine thing.
What’s your reaction to that?
I’d genuinely like to know! For me one thing stands out above anything else: the phrasing of the question shows where this journalist sees the real divide – not between Christianity and Islam, but between Religious and Commercial. In this phrasing of the issue Christianity and Islam are not two different conceptions of the world, reality, and the meaning of life, but are rather two residents of the compartment of public life known as ‘Religious.’ They’re not claims to truth, but life-style choices or community groups. To me this is a natural piece of logic from a secular standpoint.
Now, just to be clear, I’m not having a go at the journalist; this is not a judgement, it’s an observation. It’s similar to the visitor to our church recently who described themselves as a ‘mongrel’ and said (in an friendly, not critical way) that all religions should be mongrel. The assumption being that they all serve the same God so should just share from one another. It’s a naturally secular view, one that’s incredibly common in our pluralist society. In fact, perhaps the majority of people I meet as a church leader who are not yet Christian have an interest in God or the spiritual but don’t want to be, nor see the need to be, tied down to one specific religion. Afterall, aren’t all religions part of the same category just like Superdrug, John Lewis, and Tesco are all part of the category called ‘Commerce’? Can’t we just be pragmatic about this?
Yet if Christian beliefs about the existence of Father, Son and Holy Spirit; the creation of everything and the reality of sin; the salvation of Jesus through his death, resurrection and ascension; the reality of the Kingdom of God on earth right now; and the surety of Jesus coming back; are all true then these are claims that radically shape the nature of reality. Christians don’t have a different hobby, we live in a different world. The question for us is this: have we lost our confidence that what we believe may actually be true and do we live like it is?
The real divide is not between Religion and Commerce, but what world we think we live in. What do you think?