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06 January 2015

Beyond belief

Beyond belief

I suppose I first realised my orientation when I was about five years old. I didn't fully understand it at that age, but I knew that something was different.

Orientation is the best word I can use to describe it. It's core to who I am as a person. Realising my orientation has changed everything - my identity and relationships. It's how I see and understand the world around me. It's what makes me feel alive. Even though I believe this is who I'm made to be, it can be difficult at times. Sometimes I still struggle with it. It can be tough having an orientation that goes against the grain of the world around me.

In the West people like me are sometimes called names, prevented from taking certain public positions and increasingly it can seem like our freedoms are becoming limited. There are people like me in every culture around the world, but in some places we have to hide our orientation every day. In some countries, especially in Africa and the Middle East, people like me are persecuted. In fact, last year alone more than 100,000 people were killed just because they shared my orientation.

It's more than just a belief; it's who I am. So I can't detach it from my identity or my relationships any more than I can detach my head from my body. It's a deeply visceral thing: body, mind, soul and strength. My orientation affects what I do, say and think. It has profoundly changed the way I love and feel loved.

Now that I'm living out my orientation I don't think I could go back, even if I wanted to. I suppose I believe my orientation is somehow both an active choice and yet something far beyond myself. I'm not convinced it is bound by either nature or nurture. My name is David and my orientation is Jesus…

"The Christian faith is meaningless without the re-orientation of our identity from self to Jesus."

The 'orientation' of evangelical Christianity has always been Jesus – sharing his life and love with others. Yet I believe there is a danger from within and without of letting our Jesus-orientation be reduced to nothing more than a religious belief. This is particularly the case today in the West, where evangelical Christianity is understood primarily as a religious belief, a worldview or an issue of personal conscience. These things are true, but form only a part of the richness of a living relationship with the God of the universe. The Bible strongly warns against this reductionist approach to our faith. "Faith without works is dead," James 2, and: "If I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing," 1 Corinthians 13. The Christian faith without gracious relationships with God and others is an anathema. The Christian faith is meaningless without the re-orientation of our identity from self to Jesus. Our faith actually moves us far beyond ourselves and our personally-held beliefs to the point where we audaciously claim alongside NT Wright that “the gospel is public truth”. Jesus is the central part of the world’s history and destiny for all people and all creation.

Moving from this universal perspective closer to home, even a casual observer will notice that we at Evangelical Alliance Northern Ireland write lots about evangelical identity in Northern Ireland. This past year, our focus has been on reframing the narrative of evangelicalism away from one that is backwards and regressive to one affirming of life, relationships and human dignity. We also continue to graciously challenge the conflation of evangelicalism with Unionist and Loyalist politics and culture. Key to sharing the good news of Jesus in our specific context is helping people go beyond their understanding of faith as just a set of personal beliefs. Issues like parades, flags, the past, abortion and marriage are about more than belief. They all hinge around our identity and relationships – the very things that Jesus has transformed in his followers. Articulating belief and theology is increasingly important, but so also is the tangibility of everyday Christian witness - the visible re-orientation of life, identity, relationships and values. Maybe thinking of your faith in Jesus as your ‘orientation’ is a little jarring? Maybe it’s a little provocative? My point is simply that in a time of growing religious illiteracy and a place where evangelicalism carries some extra baggage, maybe it’s time for some new thinking and language as we communicate exactly what it means to follow Jesus?

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