I was in Rome earlier this year. One morning, while meditating and reflecting inside the quiet yet reverent grandeur of St.Peter’s Basilica, I was reminded by a line I overheard constantly in my Pentecostal days and still to this day.
“Jesus is my Saviour not my religion”. I proceeded to write about it.
I wrote about how overly simplistic this line of thinking was, a common line thrown about about with little to no deeper contemplation on the connotations of the phrase in its entirety.
Of course we know that Jesus the Christ is our Saviour. But this is not where I took issue. The subtle connotations behind this line continued to bother me.
I proceeded to think deeper – where has this unabashed condemnation of religion come from? Is not Christianity, a relationship-centred religion? A Religion OF Relationship? Why not? The logic holds – it cannot be that we are expected to foster a relationship with the Divine without some form of deeper, enlightened religiosity and commitment. How else can a relationship develop and grow if one does not commit to the parameters of that relationship?
It then dawned on me that this isn’t a recent issue, with deep roots dating back to the rise of charismatic evangelicalism and fuelled by a narrow, pick and choose view of Christian history. Blurred by the inadequacies of past leaders and religious systems and muddied by the evil acts of people in the name of God, it is little wonder that the world has grown weary of Religion. Or at least, the part of religion that is seen. Against this backdrop of corruption and inadequacy, many have applied a “one-size fits all” approach to organized religion.
What is of note, is that it is only the few and far between acts of flawed religion that is being regularly propagated and shown to the masses by the media, and vindictive critics of religion. But tell me one thing – if the flawed acts of certain people within the Church and some of its blunders are being shown, repeated and popularized to near endemic proportions – why not show the good works as well? What about the billions of ordinary and extraordinary men and women who have lived out their faith in Christ, preaching the message of Salvation to people, beig martyred, slaughtered for their faith over the past 200o years? What of the huge developments to human society that organized religion has gifted us today – the University system, Hospitals, Education, Scientific advancements, Orphanages, Charities, Banking, Arts & Literature and all other things that this, ‘religion’ has pioneered – what of them?
This is what perplexes me about attitudes toward religion. The stupidity of it. The lack of honesty. The amount of common sense that is thrown out of the window for the gratification of a simple, easy to understand tagline.
It is true that during history, components of organized religion have caused harm, falsity and detriment to human advancement. But that doesn’t mean that, at least in the Christian context, that the entire thing is bad. If anything, it points to the human, flawed element that creeps in to anything man is part of. Case in point – The Catholic Church. Popes, Priests, etc have all tried throughout the ages and many times succeeded in bringing disrepute to the Church through grave and numerous sins. But they, along with their sins, came…and went. And yet – the Church and her people recovered, and still stands, a light on the lamp stand pointing to Christ. On the flip side, countless numbers of selfless men and women have served their fellow human beings, inspired by the example of the Church’s head and message – Christ. I mentioned earlier what the Church contributed to the formation of human development – it was these men and women who spearheaded the charge for reform and faithful duty. Where is the allusion to their acts of heroism and service to Christ and fellow man?
Never mind. Who cares right? They were only “religious”. The secular media doesn’t care about these silly Christians. Unless there’s a nice, juicy scandal – that’s when the inky knives come out.
Oh well, at least Christians do. Right? At least Christians can look up to them men and women as examples of faith and how to follow Christ faithfully. Right?
Seems like to many Christians nowadays, even honoring someone who has followed Christ and who has served others with all their hearts is a Catholic form of religiosity and paganism. Even having a picture or statue of them is seen as idolatry. I better take down that picture of my Grandfather in my living room then, lest I be accused of ancestor worship.
So apparently, these are one of the things about ‘religion’ which these people claim gets in the way of their relationship with Christ. I suppose then I shouldn’t honour anyone for doing anything good, or subscribe to any method of expressing my belief, lest it get in the way of my ‘personal relationship’ with Christ. See how frustratingly stupid this gets?
And so I was asked recently why I am so religious. I was asked why my relationship with Christ isn’t more important. My answer? Don’t be silly – My religion IS my relationship with Christ. How can it not be? The same religion that encourages me to pray everyday, spend time alone with the scriptures and reflecting on God’s Word, fellowship with other Christians at Church, serve and love others in my community – is that which deepens my relationship with Jesus. How else can one grow in Christ than in doing what He commands us to?
What strikes me is that, despite how much they despise “Religion”, most people would consider Evangelicals (aka “born-again” Christians) to be very religious. Indeed, the conservative political “arm” of Evangelicalism is commonly called the Religious Right. Yet, ironically, Evangelicals themselves often deny that they practice a “religion”!
You see, they define religion as: “a burdensome yoke of man-made rules and dead rituals; a futile attempt to please God and save oneself by good works”. So they insist that Christianity is not a religion but apersonal relationship with Jesus Christ. This “religion -vs- relationship” dichotomy is quite common in Evangelical circles, but is it legitimate? Is Christianity a religion or a relationship?
But let us examine this (annoying at best) issue at depth.
Why Are Evangelicals and many neo-fundamentalists Anti-Religion?
Among Christians, this aversion to “religion” is unique to Evangelicalism. Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy and mainstream Protestantism never tried to claim that Christianity is “not a religion”. The Protestant “reformers” (sic) did not object to the the term religion either; in fact, they all used it to refer to the Christian Faith! So why do modern Evangelicals find this term so repugnant?
It may, in part, be the result of past attempts to share the Gospel with people who dislike “organized religion”, . particularly pantheists, agnostics and atheists. Such folk would show resistance toward any discussion about Jesus and hostility to the prospect of becoming Christians. So perhaps Evangelicals started to tell them, “Hey, I hate religion as much as you do; I would never try to push that on you. I just want to tell you the Good News that Jesus loves you and wants a personal relationship with you. I’m not talking religion, but a relationship.”
(I often wonder how many people buy this line, and how many simply say to themselves, “Well, this guy believes in a Deity, follows the Bible with all its ‘do’s and don’ts’ and goes to church every Sunday –sounds like organized religion to me!”)
Yet we should not see this “Christianity is not a religion” argument as merely a deceptive ploy to get converts. Many Evangelicals honestly do have a tremendous personal aversion to “religion”! The word evokes in their mind images of oppressive religious authorities, empty, showy rituals, and, most of all, self-righteous hypocrisy. It all seems completely removed from the deep love they have for God and the joy they feel in living the Christian life.
In fact, when they talk about “religion”, they seem to equate it with “religiosity”, the mere external observance of rules and rites, without a heart open to God. If this is what they are really condemning, then they are certainly correct. Jesus Himself condemned religiosity in the strongest terms (Matthew 23), and God laments in the Book of Isaiah “These people come near to me with their mouth and honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me” (Isaiah 29:13). That is a very good description of “religiosity”.
What Does Scripture Say?
Yet it would be wrong to completely equate religion with religiosity, and thus conclude that all religion is bad. For the Bible itself does not condemn all religion! In fact, James indicates that there is a true expression of religion, which he defines as follows:
“Pure and undefiled religion before God and the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their trouble, and to keep oneself unspotted from the world” (James 1:27)
There you have it; Scripture clearly teaches that Christianity is a religion! When confronted with this verse, no one who truly wishes to be faithful to Scripture could fail to acknowledge that.
Does that mean that Christianity is only a religion, and not a personal relationship with Jesus? Of course not; it’s both!!! And there’s no reason why it can’t be both, since the two are not really in conflict, despite what some Evangelicals think. True religion involves a relationship with God, and it’s utterly wrong to try to have one without the other!
An honest reading of Scripture will show that God is not opposed to religion or to its “rules and rituals”. After all, He established just such a religion in ancient Israel! Torah, the first five books of the Old Testament, is full of all sorts of commands – six hundred and thirteen of them, to be exact! It also contains many detailed rituals involving sacrifice, purification, etc., all given to Israel by the Lord.
Yes, God established a rather complex religion, complete with ceremonies, clergy, heirarchy and plenty of “do’s and dont’s”. But He never intended it as a substitute for a relationship with Him. Rather, the ancient Israelite religion was meant to be an expression of their covenant relationship with God. The Lord does not seem to see an innate conflict between “religion” and “relationship”.
Nor was Jesus opposed to religion, for the Gospels tell us that He Himself observed the Judaism of His time. He kept all the Commandments contained in the Law of Moses (Galatians 4:4) and worshipped His Eternal Father every Sabbath in the synagogue liturgy: “And he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up; and he went to the synagogue, as his custom was, on the sabbath day. And he stood up to read” (Luke 4:16; also Mark 1:21; 6:2; Luke 6:6; John 6:59).
Our Lord also made the pilgrimage to Jerusalem for major festivals (Luke 2:41-42; John 2:13; 5:1; 7:2-10; 10:22-23) and celebrated the Passover Seder (Luke 22:7-15), a ritual meal complete with written prayers and hymns. No, Christ was not opposed to organized religion and rituals. Nor did such religious observances interfere with His “personal relationship” with God the Father; rather, they wereseamlessly integrated into it!
(When Jesus rebuked the scribes and Pharisees, He was only condemning the empty religiosity which a few of them exhibited. He was neither condemning the Jewish religion itself nor religion in general! Notice that He prefaces His strongest words against the religious leaders by telling the crowds to observe the teachings of the scribes and Pharisees because they “sit on Moses’ seat” [Mt 23:2]. That means they have religious authority over the people!)
After He ascended into heaven, His disciples followed His example. They went to the Temple daily to worship God until they were kicked out (Luke 24:52-53; Acts 3:1), and met daily in each others houses, then later in the catacombs. Scripture records the following about the earliest believers, right after Pentecost:
“So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls. And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers….And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they partook of food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people” (Acts 2:41-47).
According to this passage, the infant Church had doctrine (the apostle’s teachings), rituals (Baptism and “breaking of bread”), communal prayer and temple worship. Don’t those sound like the elements of a religion? Yes, and that is what they are. Yet theirs was a joyful religion, not a cold, empty religiosity; for it was part of their vital relationship with the Risen Lord. “The breaking of bread and the prayers” refers to the beginning of the Eucharistic Liturgy, the very heart of every Catholic’s relationship with Jesus Christ!
If God ordained the religion of ancient Israel, if Jesus observed it, and if the early Christians had religious rituals, then religion cannot be bad or opposed to a relationship with God. The whole “religion -vs- relationship” dicotomy is a human platitude invented by certain American Evangelicals. Christianity is not “either a religion or a relationship”, it’s “both a religion and a relationship”!
If true religion is not offensive to God, then we must reject the Evangelical definition of religion given at the top of this page. True religion would best be defined as A belief in the One True God which causes us to worship Him (both alone and as a community), obey His righteous commands and love our neighbor out of love and reverence for Him. We could also best define relationship with God using the following phrase from the Catholic “Penny Catechism”: “God made me to know Him, love Him and serve Him in this world, and be happy with Him forever in the next” (q. 2).
Notice how these two concepts perfectly mesh. Religion is belief in God’s existence, relationship involves knowing God; surely Christians must both believe in and know the Lord! Religion involvesworshipping God; relationship involves loving Him; should not all our worship be suffused with love? Finally, religion involves obedience and love of neighbor; relationship involves serving God in this life. The harmony here is just beautiful! There is no contradition between true religion and a relationship with God.
Beyond Religion and Relationship
But Christianity is even more than that; it’s a family. Having a “relationship with Jesus” is a good and necessary thing, but in isolation this can translate into a self-centered, “just-Jesus-and-Me” Christianity, which is not God’s plan for His children. We are not alone, but part of a great family, spanning Heaven, Earth and Purgatory. God is our Father, while Mary and the Church are our Mother. Jesus is our elder Brother in whom we are all brothers and sisters. The Holy Spirit is the great, personal Bond of Love in this family.
Christianity is most certainly a relationship, not just with Jesus, but also with the Father and the Holy Spirit. In addition to our relationship with each Person of the Eternal Godhead, we must also have relationships with the creatures He has made holy: our Mother Mary, the angels, the saints, fellow Christians on earth and the holy souls in Purgatory. That’s what it means to be part of a family; you have a relationsip with all of your relatives, not just one!
But Christianity is even more than that; it is also a sharing in the very life of God! We discuss this at length in the article Grace and the Divinization of Humanity. To be a Christian is to be a partaker in the Divine Nature (2 Peter 1:4)! In fact, that is the very basis of our relationship with God. We can have a relationship with the Father, Son and Holy Spirit only because we are in Christ, we share in His very life! This is also what makes us a family; we are all brothers and sisters in Jesus Christ because we are all joined to His Sacred Humanity and all share in His Divine Nature (in a limited way, as creatures, of course. We never become God by very nature. Please read the article to understand what I mean by that).
So yes, Christianity is a religion. It makes demands of us: Care for the unfortunate, Keep yourself unstained by the world, Bridle your tongue (James 1:26), Gather in Church every Sunday (Hebrews 10:25), Hear God’s word (Joshua 1:8), Obey Christ’s commandments (John 14:15, 21, 23-24), Be baptized (Acts 2:38), Receive Communion (John 6:53), Confess you sins (James 5:16) etc. These are not “dead works”; they are actually God’s work of grace within and through us: “For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God has prepared beforehand that we should walk in them” (Eph 2:10).
But Christianity goes beyond that; it is a family relationship and a sharing in the life of God. The “do’s and don’ts”, the “smells and bells” are just a part of a glorious whole, like any healthy, holistic and responsible relationship – their is joy, freedom and parameters of responsibility, obedience and trust. Need I mention this, but I am not in any way saying that religious structures and observances are more important than seeking a relationship with our Lord – that would be blasphemy. But to discount religion as a whole is equally harmful, for by doing so we eliminate any and eventually all parameters to learning the ancient truths taught by our Lord. Furthermore, we disconnect ourselves from the mechanism by which God chose to enter into a covenant with His people – the Church, the Body of Christ. At the same time, we must be mindful of our religiosity, that it may be to serve the single purpose of growing closer to the Father, that it may never be to serve our own purposes, or be reduced to a robotic, lost set of empty and repetitive rituals, but that always and everywhere, it may renew us each day, enlightening out hearts and minds to the eternal truths of our shared faith.
We are spiritual beings, created in the image of God and endowed with the dignity that is accorded to all His people.
May God give us the grace to see how it all fits together in His wonderful plan for His Church, which He founded on Peter’s leadership in 33 A.D., and which continues today in the spirit of his successor’s leadership, together with the people of God.
True Religion vs. Blind Religiosity: Know the difference.
“Christo et Ecclesiae ”