Too Much Religion
Too Much Religion
The trouble with our world in the present moment is that there is too much religion. And I don't mean just the Muslim part of the world. I mean our corner too.
Some definitions are in order. Faith is what a soul lives by. Religion refers to the practices that sustain that faith and the community obligations that carry it from one generation to the next. Religion is inevitable and maybe even necessary. But religion is also subject to all kinds of distortions, some of them destructive to the very faith it intends to undergird.
In common parlance when we identify a neighbor as "religious," we point to the Bible she carries during her exercise walk, to the frequency of her attendance at worship, and to the way in which she sprinkles her speech with "Praise the Lord." We admire such a one for her devotion even as we are careful to disassociate ourselves from what seems to be the ruling passion of her life... with good reason, perhaps, considering the excesses of those who in the name of religion see it as their duty to make the rest of us think and act like them.
Jesus is religious, yes, yes. He prays; he studies Scripture; he fasts; he goes to synagogue; and he tithes. Still it certainly cannot be lost on anyone conversant with Jesus' teachings that he conducts something of a polemic against religious hard-liners. Pharisees, they are called. Hypocrites, Jesus brands them. Pray, sure, but in private; know your Bible, by all means, but, remember, the devil can quote it too; fast, okay, but smile and don't talk about it; keep the Sabbath, right, but don't sacrifice mercy in the process; tithe, please, but hide your right hand's generosity from your left hand.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer posited many stimulating thoughts about the Christian faith. One that I continue to mull over from time to time is his suggestion that modern Christians must develop a "religionless Christianity." He didn't live long enough to pursue that theme, and he didn't provide us very many clues as to where he would go with it. But I suspect the idea started with the Sermon on the Mount and Jesus' evident concern about how the practice of religion can lead us away from true religion, which, as the Letter to James explains, is "to care for orphans and widows in distress."
That is, we need less religion and more humanity... or a religion that serves to make us more humane.
Again I cite Jesus. He comes into this world not to make us more religious but to make us more kindly, justly, and tenderly disposed to one another. The second greatest commandment, to his way of thinking, follows without missing a beat upon the first. Perhaps I'm making too fine a point of it, but I find it significant that Jesus comes preaching the kingdom of God, not the God of the kingdom. The emphasis always is on what God is doing with and for us and how we should get busy doing likewise for each other.
After all, why did God make us anyway? To praise him? Many there are who think that answer is right on target. We call them "religious." The logic of such divinity owes more to animism than to the Bible. That somehow we placate the Almighty (or at least make Him more kindly disposed toward us) by telling him how wonderful we think He is. Certainly the Psalms make a big deal out of praising the Lord... but more in the spirit of gratitude than as a necessity of faith, a reflex of the soul, if you will, when considering all that heaven has done for earth. For God does not need, nor is in anyway amplified, by our praise.
C. S. Lewis provides the most faithful answer to the question of why, why this whole enterprise of life? In his small book, The Four Loves (at least, I think it's the source: I tried but could not locate it), he declares that God makes us for love and for joy. That explanation is less severe than the Westminster Catechism which has young disciples memorize that "the chief and highest end of man is to love God and fully to enjoy him forever." My homiletics professor quipped that the Scots, for whom that catechism was produced, could have changed the line to read "to love God and full to enjoy himself forever"; but that's going a trifle too far.
If, as the Apostle Paul puts it, love is the main thing, that love which is self-giving and joyful; then the One, out of whose heart flows that love, and from whose mind and hands comes the great enterprise of human life, isn't so much concerned about getting us to love him as to embrace his love and pass it along. Good parents understand: how very pleasing and joyous it is when their children like and love and enjoy being with each other.
And Jesus taught us to name God "Father." For love of God we love each other, do right, seek justice, make peace, are reconciled, hunger and thirst for righteousness, turn the other cheek, comfort the bereaved, feed the hungry... well, you know, all of those good things "religious" people should, by Jesus, be doing.