I Love Jesus and I Love Religion

The current mindset of much of the world is one of atheism, or, at best, a sort of apathetic agnosticism. A potential cause for the problem many postmoderns have offered is that “religion” is simply turning people off from the faith. They don’t like the rites, the prayers, the rituals, the commitments. A growing number of those who identify as Christians are taking the same stand. “I love Jesus,” they say, “but I hate religion.” You can buy any number of t-shirts with the now-common phrase “Relationship not Religion”  or even “Relationship > Religion.”

I hear you. I do. I am not a fan of hollow religious observance, either. I firmly believe everything a church does (and thus everything a Christian does for the sake of his/her Lord) should have deeply theological reasons behind it. When I say “everything,” I mean, “everything.” Everything from how much Scripture is read on a Sunday to what gets put out in the clothing program to how we decorate the sanctuary to the architecture of the building itself. On the individual level, how often we attend church, what songs we sing, what media we consume, how we treat our friends and ourselves . . . the list is literally endless. We must be thinking about these things from a Christian perspective. We need to understand why we do what we do, and we must do everything for a reason.

Somehow, we’ve lost sight of that. We’ve turned worship into a consumeristic “get people in the door” enterprise instead of a means of evangelism and discipleship. It’s easy to say we don’t like religion when we don’t understand what happens in the Mass, or hate repeating the same words in a praise chorus over and over again, or when we almost fall asleep listening to the pastor recite the same prayer or same sermon each and every Sunday. It becomes stagnant. It dies. It becomes “religion.” (Air quotes.)

Only . . . that’s not what “religion” means. That’s not what it means at all.

Somewhere along the way, the term got hijacked and cast in a totally negative light by atheists and believers (particularly evangelicals) alike. It’s used as a scapegoat by both groups, and both use “religion” to refer to the reason the world is in such sad shape. Atheists say religion holds us backs and keeps us from using human reason. The spiritual-but-not-religious crowd says religion keep us from truly loving Jesus and thus making a difference in the world. Frankly, I think they’re both wrong. I think deeply religious people are the ones who truly change the world. It’s hard to want to aid the inbreaking of the kingdom of God if you don’t think it exists. And as for the latter group, well, if you didn’t have “religion,” you wouldn’t have Jesus.

Let me explain.

A religion, in broadest possible terms, is a system of beliefs about what I’m going to call ultimates. It can be about a deity such as God, a pantheon of minor gods, the idea that everything contains divinity, or even that a particular way to think is the end-all-be-all which will unlock the secrets of the universe (as in scientism). However you believe you encounter ultimate truth about the universe, that’s your religion. Atheism is a religion in this way of thinking, too, because its belief about a deity is that there isn’t one; instead the universe claims the throne of the ultimate (as does science for many). Christianity is a religion, Islam is a religion, Buddhism and Sikhism and Baha’i and Zoroastrianism and paganism and . . . They’re all systems of beliefs about ultimates. About divinity and deity and the true nature of things.

Jesus was a deeply religious man.

All the rituals and rites and observances you don’t want to keep? Jesus celebrated his own version of them in his own time. He observed Passover and other Jewish festivals. He was concerned about personal holiness. He submitted himself to baptism. He attended and taught in the synagogues and the temple. He taught people how to encounter God in all things. He even instituted a new rite: Holy Communion, a.k.a. the Eucharist, a.k.a. the Lord’s Supper. Look at it this way: Jesus culminated one religion and established a new one right down to the rules needed to be in it and the processes and procedures, the rituals and rites, which adherents would need to follow.

Sounds like a pretty religious guy to me. Not like someone who would shy away from rituals and prayers and feasts and churches. It seems to me he embraced all of these and said, “This is the way you will draw close to me. I give you new things to do, new cycles and patterns of living which will reveal myself to you each time you live into them.”  It’s why we have bread and wine and why we immerse people in water: because God comes to us, reveals Himself to us, in these physical things we do, and in the doing, we proclaim Him to the world. These are the things which deepen and exhibit our relationship to the Risen Savior. These are the things we use to worship.

Do they themselves offer salvation apart from faith? Absolutely not, for salvation requires the grace of God, not the works of human beings. But they’re how we maintain our relationship with Him. I mean, you wouldn’t say you had a relationship with your boyfriend or girlfriend if you never went on a date, right? You wouldn’t have a solid relationship with your friends and family if you never talked to them or hung out with them. You wouldn’t consider yourself an employee of a place for which you never work. Why do we treat the God who wired us for relationship any differently? Why do we believe we can have the fullness of a relationship with God when we do nothing to stay in touch? Do nothing He’s commanded us to do? Never visit His house, never receive the Communion elements, never celebrate the birth and the resurrection and everything in-between?

Again, Christ has commanded us to do these things, and as he himself said, “If you love me, keep my commandments. . . . Anyone who loves me will obey my teaching. My Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them. Anyone who does not love me will not obey my teaching. These words you hear are not my own; they belong to the Father who sent me” (John 14:15,23-24). Just thinking about God, just saying “Yeah, I know he’s there, so I’ll try not to hurt anybody” will never be enough. You can’t be spiritual enough. And your relationship isn’t greater than the religion; the religion is the relationship, and that relationship will never be complete without the “religion” to go with it.

I love Jesus. I value my spirituality, and I treasure my relationship with the Triune God of grace and glory. And that’s precisely why I love religion. I could never come to God on my own terms. I could never do enough on my own; I couldn’t even know what to do. I could never know who He is without His revelation and His commands — without His religion. And for that reason, and because I know I have that personal relationship with a personal savior, I will stand boldly and proclaim myself a Christian, an adherent of Christianity, a member of the Christian religion.

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F.A.Q. #5: What about Other Religions?

We live in a world of many faiths. A basic glance at a world religions textbook (or a night watching T.V.) reveals a plethora of different religions: Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism, Confucianism, Shinto, and Sikhism are just a few of these. And each one has different sects, too. Islam is largely bifurcated into Shiite and Sunni camps; Conservative Jews worship differently than Messianic and Orthodox strains; and Christianity itself is fractured into some 3,000 separate denominations by some estimates. At the end of the day, what do we make of them all? At the end of the world, will everyone be saved equally — or is only one of us right?

Three main view dominate the discussion about the veracity and accuracy of world religions. Exclusivism, probably the most prominent, states that only one religion is correct is any sense (generally the religion of the one espousing said opinion). Only those who follow Allah will gain Paradise, for example. Or those who follow Torah. Or the gospel of Jesus Christ. Or the Eightfold Path and Four Noble Truths (although this one gets you to Nirvana). You get the idea. Generally speaking, Christianity is an exclusivist religion (notable exceptions to follow). Christians look at passages such as John 14:6 — “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” — and Acts 4:12 — “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved” — and declare the only path to eternal life with God is the salvation offered by the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Those who do not personally know Christ as savior are damned. On the flip side of exclusivity is the problem of “What happens if the missionary gets a flat tire.” If someone never hears about Christ, are they consigned to eternal punishment by default? Would God really deny them eternal life simply because they remained ignorant of the sacrifice of Jesus through no fault of their own? Difficult questions for the exclusivist to answer. With that said, this remains the dominant view (in my opinion) of most Christians and most persons of other theistic religions.

A bit more “lenient” mode of thought is inclusivism, which states that anyone of any faith will be granted entry into whichever concept of heaven turns out to be correct. If we say Christianity offers the true idea of eternal life, then the pluralist will say devout Christians as well as devout Jews, Muslims, Hindus, etc. will enter the Christian heaven after the end of the age. Christian faith per se isn’t necessary for salvation; all that’s needed is a dedication to some sort of faith. All faith is attributed to being faith in God/the true deity and thus rewarded. People without a religion or who only nominally adhere to any given faith still suffer from whichever schema of eternal damnation as might prove to be true (such as the Christian hell). Inclusivism thus retains the central notions of salvation and damnation, but it broadens the scope to allow anyone with faith to be rewarded appropriately. (A subset of inclusivism allows for multiple eternal destinies: Christians are saved to a Christian heaven, Jews to a Jewish heaven, Buddhists to Nirvana, etc.). Some Christian theologians have gone along with the Christian iteration of inclusivism. Perhaps the most well-known is C.S. Lewis. In the final book of the Chronicles of Narnia series, The Last Battle, Lewis saves all non-Narnians who still served their own religions well (all good deeds being attributed to faith in Aslan and not Tash, for example). Other theologians have followed suit.

The final main view of world religions is religious pluralism (not to be confused with the concept of pluralism which simply acknowledges the reality of a multiplicity of faiths). Pluralists, sometimes referred to as universalists, believe everyone regardless of faith — or the lack thereof — will ultimately be saved and granted eternal life/entry into paradise. A specific statement of faith or salvific experience is not necessary. As long as you’re alive, you’ll make it at the end. This school of thought has gained ground in some progressive/liberal theological circles, but it’s never been the dominant opinion of any theistic religion (that I know of).

I keep saying “theistic religion”; what does that mean? It means any religion which believes in a single god, whether it’s God/Yahweh or Allah. There are polytheistic religions containing a pantheon of gods (think Zeus and Apollo and that lot), and there are pantheistic religions (wherein everything is god — yes, even the lettuce in your salad, you deicidal maniac). Christianity is of course a theistic/monotheistic religion: we believe God is a single God who alone rules the cosmos.

As Christian theists, then, what do we do about other religions? Do we take the exclusivist, inclusivist, or pluralist stance? Which one most accurately reflects biblical truth?

My seminary philosophy professor summed it up well: we need to avoid denominational leanings and side with historical, ecumenical truth. In this instance, historical truth and interpretation reflects the exclusivist view. Scripture promises all will have a chance of salvation, and Paul speaks of creation itself as a general revelation of the existence and character of God. And even if the missionary gets a flat tire (in my own view), God will grant unreached peoples a chance of the salvation made possible through the cross of Christ. Other religions will ultimately fail and be exposed as false. In our contemporary society, this isn’t a particularly popular view, and many well-meaning Christians (and others) will attempt to remake God to suit their own convictions to allow for inclusivism or universalism. Historic orthodoxy, however, will continue to refute these claims, even if it means exclusivists are made out to be hateful, vengeful villains.

What makes other religions false, then? First of all, they fail to acknowledge the gospel of Christ. We live in a post-Incarnation age, and since Jesus has been born, dead, and resurrected, the Torah is insufficient for salvation. The Quran fails to recognize the true nature of God. (Allah would never condescend to have a son, for example. For this reason and others, I do not — and scholars of Islam agree — equate God/Yahweh with the Islamic Allah.) Since they do not mandate faith in Jesus Christ and acceptance of his offer of salvation through the Holy Spirit, other religions cannot save; they cannot be true. Speaking personally, a second reason other religions are false are because of their origin. I consider them all works of Satan, as he is the father of lies. Any deity set up over against the Judaeo-Christian God is a false god — and quite possibly a demonic entity trying to get people to worship it on the one hand and prevent them from worshiping God on the other. Nothing born of hell is beneficial to humanity.

I do want to note, however, that I’m not saying they cannot possibly hold truth. They can, and that truth comes from God. But they then veer from or pervert said truth, creating a false religion. Or a cult. Or both.

Ultimately, how you choose to view other religions is up to you. And we should always be open to dialogue between faiths, sharing truth across religious boundaries to better serve the one True God. In all things, we show the love of God towards those of other faiths, respectfully inviting them into a relationship with the only personal Savior on the market.

Frequently Asked Questions #2: “Can I do ___?”

Another question I routinely get asked is one everyone — myself included — has asked on numerous occasions: “Can I do ____?” This inevitably seems to lead to self-justification and nuancing of exactly what we were asking. “Oh, I didn’t mean that. Everyone does that . . . right? So what I really meant to ask was if I can do <minutely modified version of original action>. So, can I?”

Entire books have been written on this sort of thing, and most of them are directed at teenagers and young adults, it seems to me. Most people who grew up in church or around other Christians know you’re not supposed to have sex before you’re married, but that seemingly simple rule had caused gallons of ink to be spilled in attempts to pin down what exactly it does and doesn’t mean. If standard vaginal intercourse is right out, what about other specific intimate acts? And what happens after marriage? Does that give the married couple free reign to do anything they please, regardless of violence, humiliation, or other considerations?

“Can I do ____?” is an entire industry. The problem, of course, is it’s the wrong question to ask (or at least it is nine times out of ten, in my opinion). And we all know how perfectly useless it is to know the right answer to the wrong question. (I personally thank Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness for getting that message through to me.) When we make our religion a series of “thou shalts” and “thou shalt nots,” we turn it into a legal code. Legalism, the name we give to this sort of behavior, has always been a serious problem for Christianity, but it seems to have really blossomed over the last century or so. Certain theological movements and denominations can be worse for this than others, and it creates a bit of tension between Christians. (“They believe you can do X, but I think you can’t. I believe we can do Y, but they don’t.” You get the idea.) Denominations have undergone complete schisms because of this attitude. Legalism takes a religion based upon love and holiness and turns it into a set of rules. Then people who live by the rules without having a personal relationship with the risen Lord think they’re still okay soul-wise. It’s a serious problem.

I do want to be perfectly clear, however, about what I’m saying here. I’m not advocating for some sort of antinomianism or hedonistic/humanistic Christianity where anything goes. We do have rules, and we do advocate people follow them. The Bible makes this explicitly clear. The problem arises when the rules become the main thing. Jesus is the main thing. A relationship with God, personal holiness, saving faith — these are the main thing. The main thing is not legalism.

Similarly, I’m not jumping on the “Christianity isn’t a religion; it’s a relationship” bandwagon so popular among evangelicals today. It’s rubbish. A religion is a means of thinking about divinity and the interaction between humanity and deity. Christianity is definitely a religion, and Jesus Christ very much founded a religion when he and the Holy Spirit established the Church. The Christian religion has done amazing things as a religion, and it’s done horrific things as a religion. Regardless, it’s still a religion. Now, I understand what these guys are saying. They’re decrying the empty rituals, the hollow rites, the mindless adherence to church protocol which can come out of a religion being followed just because it’s a religion. I get that, and I’m on board with you 100%. Going through the motions — a form of legalism, if you will — won’t cut it, either, no matter how many times you flawlessly recite the creed, genuflect in front of the crucifix, or pray the Lord’s Prayer. All of these things must be done out of faith stemming from one’s relationship with God lest they be futile human actions. When infused with faith, all the trappings of religion come alive. So when I say the “Can I do ____?” question is the wrong one because it’s legalism vs. relationship, I’m not throwing out ritual, rite, ceremony, or anything else, even though they can become empty legalism themselves (as can about anything else).

With that said, legalism is still the wrong way to look at our faith. We don’t need to base our entire view of our religion on a yes/no dichotomy. Instead, we base it on our experience with Jesus Christ. As we grow in faith, love, and holiness, we draw closer to God. We more readily discern His will, and we’re more sensitive to the internal promptings — the “still, small voice” — of the Holy Spirit who dwells within each believer. In turn, this closeness comes out in the way we act. Instead of trying to walk a fine legal line, God shows us in our very thought processes and gut instincts what we should and should not do. God didn’t give us a thousand-paragraph legal code with two additional volumes just for footnotes (although I’m sure some people would argue the 613 commands in the Mosaic Law can come pretty close at times). What God did give us was a comforter, an encourager, and a moral guide. The Holy Spirit directs our steps the same way Scripture acts as “a light unto [our] path.” As we live in this grace-filled relationship, we occasionally stumble and cross a line, but mercy and healing follow as we ask them from a loving God.

The next time you’re tempted to turn a matter of faith or behavior into a “Can I do ____?” situation, stop for a moment. Pay attention to the promptings of the Holy Spirit. Set aside a legalistic mindset and embrace a relationship with the God of grace and love. Then act in a way which is biblical, is consistent with the will of God, and is respectful/loving of yourself and your fellow human beings. Above all, realize it’s probably the wrong question to ask anyway. The right question is, “Will this help or hinder my relationship with God?”

The right answer to the right question is something always worth knowing.