Does anyone like getting asked the question, “Are you religious?”
When asked this, does anyone ever enthusiastically answer, “YES!”
I only like getting asked that question because it gives me a chance to explain my faith.
One of my earliest insights as a young follower of Jesus was that Christianity is not about a religion; it’s about a relationship. In college I pretty much abandoned the use of the word “Christianity” altogether because it is so broad as to be practically meaningless and confusing.
This is not an uncommon way of thinking in evangelicalism. It is widely understood that our faith has primarily to do with the person of Jesus, not about some system of belief or ritualistic practice. At a minimum most would probably agree that a religion is not “the answer” to the world’s problems. Most would recognize that one can be scrupulously religiously observant and yet completely miss God. There is good and bad religious practice. I think most people would agree that there are bad religions in the world.
So it’s kinda weird to speak of “religion” in general as either good or bad.
You’ve probably heard evangelicals say,
“Religion is mans’ attempt to reach God, Christianity is God reaching down to man.”
Or “I’m spiritual, not religious.”
I’ve tended to argue that religion can serve as a positive cultural force, but I’ve tended to personally reject the observance of religious rituals, traditions, and practices as baggage. Yes, I pray regularly, but as a part of relationship with God – not as religious ritual. In the same way, I don’t consider talking with my wife to be a marriage ritual.
All in all, the word “religion” has been a pretty distasteful word to me for all of my life, even though, ironically, people who don’t know me well may tend to think of me as religious.
But…Hmmm…Maybe I don’t despise the word “religion” after all
However, I recently read some thoughts on the origin of the word “religion” that ring true to me.
…Etymologically, [religion] means something like tying back together – re-ligion:
re-ligamenting, re-ligaturing, finding the unifying reality behind disparate appearances, seeking oneness, integration, wholeness…
(Michael Ward, Professor of Apologetics, Houston Baptist University)
This sounds right to me because, for better or for worse, all the religions of the world seem to be concerned with restoring unity to our broken world in some way. There seems to be a universal recognition that things are not as they should be in the human situation, and that the problem is separateness – division between God and man, between man and man, and between man and nature.
However, conflict arises between religions and ideologies because there are vastly differing opinions as to how to accomplish the restoration of unity in the world. Unfortunately, history shows us that human beings are vulnerable to the temptation to externally impose unity onto each other. Of course this doesn’t work, but apparently many ideologues feel there is no other option. Recent examples include ISIS and the American left-wing Antifa.
The brilliance of spiritual rebirth
Among authority figures, Jesus is unique in His approach to unity and restoration in that He offers voluntary, internal change for the individual. He offers this to all people in the form of spiritual rebirth:
Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God…That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born if the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again'” (Jn 3:3, 6-7.)
Here’s an apostle of Jesus pithily describing God’s plan for unity and restoration:
In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace, which he lavished upon us, in all wisdom and insight making known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.
This describes the God of the Judeo-Christian scriptures taking initiative on our behalf, and providing a means for us to be reconnected to Him first, and ultimately to each other and to all of heaven and nature. In the very next chapter Paul refers to this salvation as a gift from God – not something that can be earned. (Eph 2:8,9)
Isn’t this what we all want? We really should tell people about this.
(Original illustration by Maxfield Parrish, circa 1921. Modified by the author.)