True and False Religion (Part IV): “Religion” in Two Senses
In a previous IRPJ Blog post titled “True and False Religion (Part III): Jesus Was Religious Too,” Brian Zahnd presented a convincing case that (a.) Jesus practiced religion (as a Jewish synagogue participant) and that (b.) Christianity is a religion. That is, religion is a human construct of faith practices in response to or in pursuit of the divine. Religion is not inherently good or bad, but can become either depending on how it is practiced.
One might think that as editor-in-chief of Christianity Without the Religion magazine, I would be inclined to offer a rebuttal. Rather, I resonate with Brian’s perspective and can confirm it from experience. Indeed, as an Orthodox believer, I practice my faith religiously. Instead of pushback, I’ll offer two observations on the use and misuse of that word.
First, the traditional sense of religion was indeed neutral until certain 20th-c. theologians added a pejorative sense. Most notably, active churchmen Karl Barth and Dietrich Bonhoeffer played religion off against revelation — well before the spiritual-but-not-religious craze. Even practicing Orthodox hierarchs (John Romanides and Alexander Schmemann) spoke of religion versus living faith. They weren’t rejecting the faith practices of historic Christianity or, significantly, the Church itself. If they weren’t denouncing Christianity or the Church, what did this second sense mean to them?
I believe they were collapsing pejorative adjectives (corrupt religion, lifeless/faithless religion, legalistic/moralistic religion) into the word religion. I think this was a mistake. The term religiosity would have better served to identify bad religion. But the fact is that definitions don’t prescribe what we should say—they describe popular use. In popular use, religion does carry negative connotations, so if someone uses it that way, I get it.
But critics of religion shouldn’t assume that my faith practices (worship, prayers, songs, candles, icons) are religious in that negative sense. The very act of condemning my religious practice, based purely on outward form, is religion in its most toxic form.
Second, I notice another equally pervasive problem. Even when religion is prefixed with a delineating adjective, some of those descriptors are tragically off-point. For example, at CWRm, we consistently clarify that our critique is against Christless religion. But the more common derogatory adjectives are now organized, institutional and hierarchical religion. Opponents of such religion may have experienced real spiritual abuse within oppressive structures. Fair enough. That’s bad religion. But I would add, others (like me) have endured equally toxic experiences through disorganized, unaccountable and anarchical religion (we’ll save #smash-the-patriarchy for another post). Shedding historic forms and structures (in the name of freedom) can make for more chaos and less depth, but ironically, also opens the door to patterns of control and spiritual abuse.
In such cases, my hierarchs and our structures have not perpetrated the harm, but served as a stable shelter from the stormy swirl. And for this, I’m most grateful to Christ, his Church and his religion.