True and False Religion (Part II): Is "Religion" Good or Bad?
IRPJ was given permission to re-blog Bruxy's original blog post from June 30, 2017 here. Although a prominent critic of religion, he offers here a balanced perspective that further clarifies what he does and doesn't mean by "religion" as a helpful addition to the IRPJ Blog's ongoing series on True and False Religion.
Sometimes I hear from someone who says, “I like your book(s), but I disagree with you about religion — I think it’s a good thing.”
Do we really disagree about religion? Or just about the word “religion”? Whatever the disagreement, I’ve seen both sides represented among a variety of Christian heavy hitters who use the word “religion” in apparently opposite ways. Consider . . .
"There was no religion in Eden and there won’t be any in heaven; and in the meantime Jesus has died and risen to persuade us to knock it all off right now."
—Robert Farrar Capon
"Religion is the antithesis of the gospel. Religion says, I obey in order to be accepted. The gospel says, I obey because I am accepted." —Timothy Keller
"In the secular West, the religious person may be the last rebel. So let me say it deliberately and with a hint of defiance: I’m not just spiritual, I’m religious."
"When we are in control of picking and choosing our 'spirituality' and our definition of truth, we can become a lot of things, but we do not become Christian, that is, we do not become like the Christ we follow. We become Christian by being bound together with a Christian tradition in the form of Christian religion. And I have willingly let myself be bound." —Derek Vreeland
And just to make it interesting, words like “religion” and “spirituality” are used differently, not just by Christians, but also by the world around us:
"Religion is believing in someone else’s experience. Spirituality is having your own experience." —Deepak Chopra
Now here’s the thing: I agree with every one of these quotes (even Deepak, which doesn’t happen very often). How can this be? It’s quite simple really: people use their words differently. We all know this, but for some reason, when it comes to “religious” conversations, we love to become word legalists. In our zeal for precision, we end up arguing about the words themselves.
Words are labels we slap onto reality to help us think about specific realities and communicate about those realities, but the words are not the realities they describe. “Dog” is not the reality that word describes, but a label for that reality. And sometimes, we use the same labels to mean different things, or we use different labels to mean the same thing. Like “trunk” — is that a large case, the stem of a tree, an elephant’s nose, or, in the plural, a boy’s bathing suit? Just by paying attention to the context and flow of any conversation, we can easily understand how a word is being used by someone. And we usually do this naturally and expertly. Until it comes to religion. Then we love to argue about words.
This has always been a problematic human tendency, and the Bible warns us about it. The apostle Paul says there are some arguments that are really just about the different ways we use word labels rather than about any real substantive disagreement. He writes to young pastor Timothy:
"Keep reminding God’s people of these things. Warn them before God against quarrelling about words; it is of no value, and only ruins those who listen" (2 Timothy 2:14; also see 1 Timothy 6:4).
This must be an important issue since Paul tells Timothy to keep on reminding his congregation about this very thing. There is a kind of argument that is more of a word wrestling match than an attempt to get at something really worth discussing. And this is always easy to instigate because people use word labels in a far more fluid fashion than word-wranglers want to admit. That is certainly the case with words like “religion” and “spirituality.” But Paul says that kind of debate is a useless waste of time, and worse, can actually do damage to those who hear Christians arguing when we should be blessing.
The positive side to all of this is that, for those of us who are willing to slow down and listen to the meaning behind someone’s chosen word labels, we will likely find ourselves in agreement much more often.
For instance, when I read books and blogs by people like Brian Zahnd or Derek Vreeland, quoted above, I find myself in complete agreement, even though on the surface we might sound like we’re saying opposite things. When they talk about the important value of Christian “religion”, they are talking about the life-giving traditions, practices, and people that bind us together as growing members of a family. They emphasize this in opposition to an individualistic and consumeristic “spirituality” that is life-draining because it resists attaching itself to Jesus and his people in any committed way. And to that I say amen!
So they use the word “religion” to refer to things that I affirm, even though I use a different vocabulary to affirm them. What they call “religion” I might call “discipleship,” “Christian practices,” or “spiritual disciplines.” I then use the word “religion” to refer to legalistic abuses of those same practices, or an idolatrous reliance on those practices to save us. Then I also talk about being “spiritual” in positive terms, to emphasize the inside-out, new heart nature of the new covenant, and to align my language (perhaps legalistically?) with Scripture (see 1 Corinthians 2:15; 3:1; Galatians 6:1; 1 Peter 2:5; where mature Christians are called “spiritual” people).
If we’re really listening, it shouldn’t take us long to hear what people really mean, behind and beneath the word labels they use.
Does James help us? James the brother of Jesus does use the word “religion” (threskeia in Greek) in a positive sense:
"Those who consider themselves religious and yet do not keep a tight rein on their tongues deceive themselves, and their religion is worthless. Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world" (James 1:26-27).
At first James seems to say be saying that gossip and slander can spoil our religion, which leaves the door open for understanding religion as essentially a good thing, when it is not polluted by hypocrisy. But then James goes on to define the religion that God accepts as pure and faultless – and it isn’t what most people mean when they talk about being “religious.” James is not referring to the spiritual disciplines of structured prayer, fasting, study, and liturgy, or to theological systems of belief. For James, the only “religion” that God cares about is helping the needy and not being influenced by the worst ways of the world around us. That’s it. I can’t help but think that James has just stuck his tongue firmly in his cheek while writing this. He has just redefined “religion” to mean living a life of love like Jesus. And if that’s exclusively how you use the words “religion” and “religious” (which almost no one does), then I’m in!
Jesus, on the other hand, never used the word “religion” to describe what he came to bring, or what it means to become his disciple. He did use a couple of “F” words though: faith and follow.
So the next time someone tells you, “I’m spiritual, not religious,” ask them more about it and enjoy the conversation. They might be saying something positive or negative, such as:
I refuse to be aligned with any one belief system because I like to make it up for myself as I go along.
I’m skeptical about organized religion because I’ve been burned in the past, but I’m still open to the idea of God.
I am a Christian.
And the next time you hear or read someone saying, “I’m not just spiritual, I’m religious,” ask them more about it or keep on reading and enjoy the conversation. They might be saying:
I’m a religious legalist who clings to forms and formulas because I’m afraid of change.
I like the stability and comfort my tradition brings me.
I am a Christian.