Any Christian who has been in Christian circles has heard the phrase before:
“Christianity is about relationship, not religion.”
Like most modern church-y slogans, there is some truth to this statement. But unfortunately this has become the anthem for many 21st-century followers of Christ; and with it comes some negative consequences.
The “R” Word
In this article, “Religion” is defined as a strict commitment to specific beliefs and practices of the Christian faith. “Religion” has received a bad rap these days. Perhaps it is because the religious are usually depicted in popular media as narrow-minded and dogmatic (think of the pastor in the movie Footloose). Or worse yet, it could be that the rejection of Religion is an expression of our era’s individualism that rejects any institution handing down specific beliefs and practices that we must adhere to. Whatever the reason, many Christians grow up detesting Religion, with its rigid rules and seemingly lifeless repetitive practices. This leads Christians to explain that Christianity is about relationship — loving God and knowing Him — not religion. It all sounds so pure and sincere that many have thrown out the spiritually-necessary baby with the religious bath water.
The Bible is full of warnings against empty religious practices. Israel is to “rend (its) heart, and not (its) garments”1, referring to the Old Testament practice of tearing your own clothes to show religious emotion. The prophet Isaiah warns against empty practices by saying “you cannot fast as you do today and expect your voice to be heard on high”2. Likewise, much of Jesus’ chastisement of the Pharisees and Sadducees was over their empty religious activity, calling them “whitewashed tombs” that look beautiful performing their religious acts, yet are filled with death and unrighteousness3.
But the New Testament does not suggest that all religion is bad, or that following Christ has nothing to do with religion or religious activity. The New Testament indicates that the religion of Christ is one that includes activity such as caring for one’s family 4, controlling one’s tongue5, and looking after orphans and widows6. But not just that, Jesus practiced fasting7, and did not denounce fasting, but rather said “when you fast…”8; which the early church did9. No doubt prayer was a big part of the lives of the early church, as was reciting psalms and creeds, and of course the NT commanded sacraments of baptism and Eucharist (holy communion).
We see that religion is a necessary part of the Christian faith. Whatever our previous experience with religion is, we must put away this idea that Christ instituted some way of life that is free of religious activity.
The Tie That Binds
Someone may ask why we should care about keeping with religion or established religious traditions. For all of Christ’s warnings, is there anything to gain worth the risk of empty religiosity?
There absolutely is!
The word religion comes from the Latin word religare, which means “to bind”. Religion is the set of practices and beliefs that binds the community together as participants of the Kingdom of God. When we share in religious practices, we not only bless others and God, we strengthen our bond and commitment to the Christian way of life by this activity.
Thomas Aquinas reminds us that religious acts “are not offered to God as though he needed them,” but rather, “offered to God as signs of those interior and spiritual works which God accepts for their own sakes.”10. When one recites a Psalm, or prayer, or a creed, the act of reciting does nothing just because words are said aloud. But rather, the physical declaration is a sign of the inner prayer or confession. Similarly, fasting or kneeling does not make God except your prayers or service more or less. Fasting makes the reality of dependency on Christ, and kneeling, the submission, visible to the individual and community.
And somehow, these acts strengthen the commitment and connection to the invisible reality with the individual and the community. St. Augustine said, “I know not how it is that whereas such bodily movements can only be produced by reason of some preceding act on the part of the soul, yet when they are thus visibly performed the interior invisible movement which gave them birth is thereby itself increased, and the heart’s affections — which must have preceded, else such acts would not have been performed — are thereby themselves increased.”11
I’ve been told that the commitment a soldier has to the military life is as strong as they come; and it is because of the activity of the life they have to live. You cannot just get a group of people together, call them soldiers, and expect the commitment to each other and the life of a soldier to follow. Its takes the activity of a soldier, for better or for worse, to create the bond, the commitment, and even the lifelong identity as a soldier. In similar fashion, religious practices strengthen our commitment to the Christian faith in a way that pure armchair Christianity cannot.
There is a connection between physical activity and mental activity that we may never understand, but they move each other. The physical and visible nature of religious activity (kneeling, fasting, reciting, singing, etc.) reinforces the community’s bond with each other and commitment to their way of life and identity as a community.
It is naïve to think that all a Christian needs is an inner relationship with Jesus, or a personal faith, or a connection with God to live a faithful life.
Against Non-Religious Christianity
Difficulties arise when Christian communities lose their religious foundation. Without being bound to a specific way of life, individual Christians, and Christian communities are left to build a way of life on their own. What’s left is a Non-Religious Christian; one who searches for their own beliefs and practices (outside of any religious tradition) that define their Christian way of life.
Loss of Community
The first detriment caused by Non-Religious Christianity is that it breaks down community. If each can define the Christian way of life as we please, we have no reliance, concern, or value for each other’s beliefs and practices. We can do devotionals on our own, sing our own songs, have our own Christian morals, celebrate holidays our own way, etc. This way of thinking is obviously a product of our individualistic culture which believes individuals are free to redefine Christianity (or anything, for that matter) however we would like. But without being bound to a common way of life, we do not value community and are more prone to abandon it. Living outside of a communal life is bad in and of itself, but it also makes it easier for the individual to abandon the Christianity they are trying to follow. The community is necessary to encourage and strengthen the individual in living out the faith.
The second detriment of Non-Religious Christianity is it leads to poor Christianity. Most religious practices have been fine-tuned over millennia. When we abandon them, we start from scratch; or we try to model the Christian life after some other life style. Many churches that have forgone affiliating with a Christian tradition or denomination find themselves having to reinvent Christainity to become relevant or captivating to the Non-Religious Christian. We see churches create worship leaders who are entertainers and preachers who are motivational speakers, or offer worship experiences and styles to suit the non-religious’ liking. What we are left with is a shallow form of Christianity that is not worth being committing to12. The cultural trend is more and more Christians are losing their faith, along with their religion.
A Call to Recapture Religion
In conclusion, yes, there are plenty of warnings against empty religious activity. But let’s not abandon something of great worth because the possibility of abuse exists. Here at Post-Christian Era, we encourage (and will help) Christians to recapture classical spiritual disciplines, which include many practices that some may consider religious; practices such as prayer, contemplation, liturgical worship, charity, and fasting, among others. And we encourage doing so in and with a community of believers.
If you are in a state where you’ve lost the Christian religion, start by being open to religious practices of the New Testament and the Church. Most denominations or Christian traditions older than a hundred years have specific religious practices that we can learn from. Read the great church authors and their views on religion to give you a thorough perspective. And if your church does not offer any, build your own habits of Christian practices.
The simplest thing that our family started doing was following this daily Common Prayer book by Shane Claiborne book that is very new-to-liturgy friendly. And for preparing for the holidays, we’ve used Living the Christian Year as we celebrate the seasons of Advent and Lent. They both are liturgically-minded, so they involve “religious” activity, such as reciting scripture, prayers, fasting, etc.
These practices have their merit in expressing the invisible in a visible way, as well as becoming the glue that binds the individual to their faith, and helps define the community’s identity.
To go back to the earlier illustration of a group of soldiers being bound by soldier activity to the soldier’s way of life, I thought it was interesting that these Samoan soldiers of the US Army have displayed their connection to a community of Christian soldiers with their religious activity (singing hymns).
The binding of two ways of life and two communities (the Church and the Army) are on display here. I don’t think they would have the commitment to either if not for strict commitment to the beliefs and practices of the communities and ways of life.
May God help us keep the Christian faith, and religion!
- Joel 2.13a
- Isaiah 58.4b
- Matthew 23.27
- 1 Timothy 5.4
- James 1.26
- James 1.27
- Matthew 4.2
- Matthew 6.16
- Acts 13:2-3
- On Prayer and the Contemplative Life, Question 81
- Of Care of the Dead, Chapter 5, St. Augustine
- See Jonathan Aigner’s article about poor Christian worship: 8 Reasons the Worship Industry is Killing Worship