Faith and reason: Is 'Imagine' really atheist?

Last week, on December 8, barely two months after what would have been his 70th birthday, came another John Lennon anniversary, the 30th of his death.

Like 9/11 and the shooting of JFK, Lennon's murder momentarily stopped the world. The outpouring of grief it evoked, not seen again until the death of Princess Diana in 1997, was partly due to shock, but also a reflection of Lennon's influence in shaping modern culture.

Like it or not, the ex-Beatle provided the soundtrack to the lives of the entire baby-boomer generation in the West, while also articulating its frustration at world leaders' obsession with war and refusal to give peace a chance.

Lennon, of course, was no saint. Nor was he a leader with a strategy for realising his goals. But he was a man of vision, someone to challenge us not just to accept things as they are, but imagine, wish, that things might be better.

His best-known statement of his vision, his 1971 song, Imagine, is regularly described as an atheist anthem. With its evocation of a world with no religion, no heaven and no hell, it's easy to see why.

Lennon famously flirted with religions, but never committed himself to any. He was exposed to formal Christianity in his youth, but that only deepened his antipathy towards institutional religion.

The powerful "anti-creed" in his song God - "I don't believe in Bible, Jesus, Buddha, mantra" and so on - ends with an affirmation that nothing is worth having faith in except oneself.

Yet, without trying to conscript its author into the Christian camp, the similarities between the vision of a better world encapsulated in Imagine, and images of the "world to come" found in the Hebrew and Christian scriptures, are closer than might be expected.

Old Testament prophets Micah and Isaiah, for example, visualise a world without weeping or distress, when no-one dies before living out their full days, when all enjoy the work of their own hands and sit on their own patch.

The parallels between these images and Lennon's are not too strained. In Micah's vision, while there are still different nations, they no longer fight each other and no-one dies or kills in the cause of "national interest". As swords are beaten into ploughshares and spears into pruning hooks, so peace prevails to the extent that even wild animals no longer devour weaker prey.

As everyone enjoys a stake in society, building houses and inhabiting them themselves, planting vineyards and eating their fruit, so greed, hunger and selfishness are no longer abroad and the world is "shared".

Lennon's vision is taken to be the antithesis of a "religious" or "Christian" hope because it is totally focused on "this world", not the next. But the Old Testament visions are also profoundly "this-worldly".

Such is the impact of Christian books describing how life will be for people "left behind" on earth after believers are airlifted away, we might suppose the thinking behind them to be orthodox. But biblical pictures of the future are firmly grounded in this world, as Jesus' famous prayer, "thy will to be done, on earth as it is in heaven", serves to emphasise.

For the biblical writers, history reaches its climax, not with humans being transported to "where God is", but with God dwelling below. If some churches haven't been very committed to making the world a better place, a preoccupation with the next one could be a reason.

So John Lennon, a "goad" to the church to work harder for a more just and peaceful world? His song, which he once described as "anti-nationalistic, anti-conventional, anti-capitalistic", an evocation of the biblical vision of the "new Jerusalem"? Well, hardly. But the similarities are instructive.

In terms of a hope for "no more countries", does not St Paul's statement that "in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek" say something about the non-importance of national identities in the fellowship Christ came to create?

In terms of "no possessions", does not the supper Jesus instituted involve a sharing of bread and wine by people claiming to be interdependent members of one body?

In terms of "the brotherhood of man", is that so far from the Book of Revelations' view of history culminating in a "city", a "community of saints?"

And - paradoxically - is not Lennon's challenge to "imagine no religion" echoed in St John's reference to the new city having no temple? Is not Christianity's ultimate goal its own abolition, the eventual realisation of all that, at present, it can only represent, prefigure and anticipate in the most inadequate way?

What Lennon would make of our world today, still beset by conflict, greed and hunger, one can only imagine. But, nearly 40 years on from its composition, his evocation of a world without these evils is still a challenge to all, including people of faith.

Andrew Bradstock is Howard Paterson Professor of Theology and Public Issues at the University of Otago.

 

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