I had a religious experience this week.
I'll be honest, it wasn't blinding light or a desert epiphany that stirred me, but the doorbell. Yes, I was accosted by a pair of Jehovah's witnesses.
And actually, it was quite nice.
They represent a religion separate from Christianity, but that doesn't mean they've got nothing to teach Christians. Here are three things I learned from our encounter.
1. These people are passionate
Perhaps what JW's are most famed for is their forthright evangelism. In 2016, the group reported a global average of 8.13 million 'publishers' – the name given to the group's active preachers, and it claims to be growing by 1.8 per cent every year. You can see them and their Watchtower stalls seemingly anywhere in the world. In this case, they weren't waiting on the high street but had come to my very front door, asking me if I believed in God, what I thought about the Bible, the questions and answers I had about existence.
From my experience, it's the kind of eagerness that's likely to thoroughly annoy most Brits, especially strangers, who'd rather be left to themselves than quizzed on the meaning of life. 'God-botherers', 'Bible-bashers'...people who like to share their faith don't generally get a great reputation. Evangelism can come across as arrogant, aggressive, and runs the danger of seeing people as targets and numbers, not people with stories to be heard but just 'sinners' who you need to 'save' by saying the right stuff.
But I was a little challenged by the gentlemen who came to my door: I too believe in 'good news' for the whole world but do little about it, in practice. I don't believe door-stepping my neighbourhood would be effective, so I'm not going to do it. But do I really just mean it would make me uncomfortable? That more than anything else, I want to be liked? Perhaps I'm backsliding: I have not the fervency and godly passion to get me out of the door, I lack the energy to want to go and save the world.
You can reject the JW approach (I'll take real relationships over random-encounters) but still be challenged. In an increasingly individualist world, desperate to trouble no one, these believers are really getting out there.
2. Encounter is powerful
Secondly, we actually just had a nice encounter at the doorstep, which is not all that common. My neighbours (and family) generally keep themselves to themselves. There are no street parties, alas. But though ringing doorbells to spread pamphlets is to my mind both annoying and ineffective, I was actually glad of the interruption in the day. We had something in common: belief in God, an interest in the Bible, and some crucial differences too.
It should be stressed, though not always discernible, JWs are not orthodox Christians since they reject the doctrine of the Holy Trinity. They teach that Jesus was created by God, not pre-existent with God as Christians believe. The Holy Spirit, rather than being a person of the Godhead, is more like God's 'applied force'. The focus is on God himself, named as 'Jehovah', a representation of the Tetragrammaton, God's Hebrew name given in the Old Testament (usually translated as Yahweh).
But even if just as human beings, we were sharing, talking about things that matter. How often do you probe the problem of suffering with your neighbour? So much of my life seems to be online now, with physical/social interactions becoming rarer through the ever-present, but ever-distancing, means of social media. Real people talking to each other, wondering 'so what do you believe?' is old fashioned, and quite refreshing for it.
3. The Bible is not the answer
I have to say though, I noticed one other key difference between our faiths. The man engaging me was confident about the power of the Bible to answer all our human questions. I was told to head to www.JW.org and see my puzzles answered with references to the Bible. As that website emphasises, the Bible is God's inspired guidebook for human life.
In fact, this gentleman ventured, even if God didn't exist, wouldn't we all have better lives if we followed the moral teaching of the Bible? I couldn't help thinking, 'Well, if you got past the fact that God isn't real so it's all meaningless, yeah...'
As is often said, Christians don't (or shouldn't!) worship the 'Father, Son and Holy Scripture'. The Bible is God's word but it points beyond itself to God. And Jesus chastised the Jewish leaders of his day: 'You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life' (John 5:39-40).
The Bible frequently doesn't make sense to me, but I do believe that Jesus, the God who became man, ultimately makes sense of life – not in the sense of answering all its questions but in giving it order, meaning, hope. People need God, not a manual. I don't see Scripture as 'Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth': its more a complex library of human words, albeit through which God has spoken and continues to challenge the Church today. It shouldn't be ignored – but if the God it points to isn't real, then its message is sad and untruthful, not inspiring.
At least, that's my opinion. JWs would say otherwise, and it's good that we live in a society where we're free to talk about that. I respect their commitment to their cause, and I'm glad too that they bothered to knock on my door, since we're too often so far from the people with whom we disagree. Thank God for them.
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