Last week I posted the top 5 things I am tired of hearing in churches. One of my readers pointed out another one, so I’m reserving it for a future date. I think I may have to expand my list of migraine-inducing Church-ese. I need more than a sentence or two for today’s Hated Slogan: “It’s not a religion, it’s a relationship.”
Let me unpack that one. First, I don’t know where this idea that religion is bad came from. Religion isn’t bad. There can be people practicing it who do bad things. There can be damaging theology attached to it. There can be bad things done in its name. But religion itself is not bad.
The word “religion” means rejoining. I like that, because the practice of spiritual discipline, corporate worship, and God-honoring ritual are all things that should help us reconnect both to the Divine and to one another. Just like reclaiming the word Christian as being one who follows Christ, we need to reclaim the word religion as the practice of our faith in concert with each other.
Aside from that, I think that it’s the associations we’ve come to make that cause people to cringe. So much damage has been done by people who are not actually living out the principles of their religion, yet claiming it as their badge. That is unfortunate, but we’ve swung too far the other way. I see this happen all the time in “modern”-style churches. We’ve done away with anything that smacks of ritual or liturgy because some people might associate it with the negative religion of their youth. It makes it sound like it’s the ritual that’s bad, rather than the actions of the people carrying it out.
Not only that, eliminating liturgy and ritual makes it seem as though these practices are empty and meaningless, being carried out for the sake of “religiosity” rather than out of deep, profound honor and love for God. This is a misunderstanding of Jesus’ words to the religious leaders of his day. He never meant for anyone to stop being a deeply religious Jew. But he did intend to stop the practice of ritual without meaning. Eliminating the ritual doesn’t eliminate the problem, it just creates opportunity to make new problems (such as legalistic doctrinal purity).
Anyway, all of that is somewhat beside the point. Christianity is, indeed, a religion. It is no less of one than any other religion. It is our best attempt at understanding our Creator and our world. Claiming it’s not a religion is just silly.
As for the second part, what bothers me about it is that when we say we have relationship not religion, we assume that all anyone else has is empty ritual. It shows a basic lack of understanding about the faith of non-Christians. It’s rather flippant, based on the idea that, say, someone Jewish doesn’t actually relate to G-d. There’s this mistaken belief that what people of other religions do is nothing more than a set of prescribed activities intended to appease a demanding, angry Deity. Christians, without any more knowledge of other faiths than what they read in textbooks, have determined that they “know” how non-Christians live out their faith and what that means.
Announcing that we have relationship rather than religion is a way to separate ourselves from others. It’s a way to keep ourselves from having to deal with the uncomfortable truth that we aren’t the only ones who have deep faith and who believe that our spiritual practices bring us closer to the Creator of the Universe. It’s a lot harder to think that someone needs Jesus if that person appears fulfilled in his or her own religion. It’s a lot harder to evangelize when the other person’s religion leads him or her to acts of love and service. By deluding ourselves into thinking that non-Christians are practicing empty rituals and are incapable of real love for other people, we reduce them to someone we think we can “help” by introducing them to the true source of joy, love, and peace.
It certainly makes it easier to swallow the belief that non-Christians are destined to eternal conscious torment. After all, they didn’t really have a “relationship” with God, just meaningless “religion.”
There is beauty in religion. There is holiness in the practice of sacred tradition. In our home, we choose to honor God with the lighting of candles and the recitation of scripted prayers. My challenges as we enter this week are threefold:
1. Learn all you can about Holy Week and how it’s celebrated in different Christian traditions. Even if you’re not a Christian, this will be a chance to learn more about how some Christians choose to practice our faith. Afterward, look up the liturgical calendar (simple web search). Think about the Holy Days and how Christians have honored God using the various timelines.
2. Either this week, as part of your Holy Week celebration, or at some other time, try practicing some of the Christian rituals. Light candles, recite prayers, read certain sacred texts associated with a specific holiday or event. If this feels strange to you, try praying, telling God about your love and the honor you want to offer.
3. Learn about the holy practices of someone else’s faith. Find out not just what that person does in terms of religious practices, but how those things help that person to show reverence to God. Ask how a non-Christian person of faith relates to his or her Creator and what that relationship entails.
I promise, you won’t be sorry for taking this journey. Going deeper with God necessarily means entering into uncomfortable space. It often means you will have more questions at the end than answers. Embrace this, even if it’s scary. Real relationships often are, even those that are part of our religion.