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.