Why Christianity is a Religion, and Not (Merely) a Relationship!

jesusbillboardDuring the first week of my introduction to philosophy classes, I make my students fill out a short questionnaire in which they are to describe their personal views on a variety of issues pertinent to the class, e.g., how do they come to make moral decisions, how does one know when they know something, and what do they take to be ultimate about reality? Obviously since religion is relevant to answering such questions I also ask them to state what role religious beliefs play in their own lives. Generally I get a variety of responses, but one type of response that I can always count on are students who tell me that they are some kind of Christian, but that to them Christianity is not a “religion” but a “relationship with God.” Beyond my class it has become almost cliché to hear among Christians, especially youth, omitting the term ‘religion’ from their vocabulary when describing their viewpoints on God or anything spiritual. The word “religion” is seen as a pejorative term associated with traditional worship styles (like singing hymns), legalism (like going to church), and law-keeping (like not having sex before marriage). It harkens back to something ancient (like before the 60s) when most groups and denominations had clerics who wore funny hats and robes, and when people were held accountable for committing sin by going to confession. “Religion” so defined is seen as antithetical to modern more “authentic” forms of piety, which have now moved beyond such dry and wooden conventions in favor of cultivating “personal relationships with God.”

So entrenched is this slogan in the minds of some that even in my survey of world religions class, I’ve had students tell me that they were surprised that Christianity would even be covered because, after all, it’s “not a religion!” Such naiveté is understandable given the fact that this platitude is echoed from pulpits, in christian music lyrics, and youth meetings all over the country with such ubiquity and regularity that indoctrination is rendered all but certain. In this post, I intend to demonstrate the rather trivial, but evidently not fully appreciated, fact that Christianity is a religion and exemplifies the same broad characteristics as every other major religion on the planet.

The world ‘religion’ is a notoriously slippery term. Etymologically it derives from the latin word religio, which itself had a fairly broad semantic range in classical latin. Cicero, for example, connects religio to the term relegere meaning to “treat carefully,” i.e., the careful treatment of those things pertaining to the gods. Augustine however takes religio to denote a “reconnection (religentes) to God made necessary through “neglect.” Lactantius uses the word in the sense of “binding oneself” (relegati) to God through acts of piety. All convey important aspects that are a part of modern definitions of religion. Within the domain of religious studies, the term is generally classified in one of two ways: (1) substantive definitions, and (2) functional definitions. A substantive definition is one that defines religion in terms of the specific contents of belief held among adherents. E.B. Taylor supplies a paradigm example where he writes that a religion essentially involves “belief in spiritual beings.” This is fairly general and able to accommodate a wide range of beliefs and ideas. Though it’s not overly clear what Taylor means by “spiritual” nor even if such a definition is adequate to explain traditionally non-theistic belief systems, such as Buddhism. By contrast then, functional definitions of religion speak of it in terms what a religion does for people, either psychologically, sociologically, or perhaps even spiritually. Consider the words of the famed sociologist Emile Durkheim:

Religion is “a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, that is to say, things set apart and forbidden – beliefs and practices which unite into one single moral community called a Church all those who adhere to them”

This definition de-emphasizes the contents of religious belief in favor of what religions are there to do. In this case religions unite persons together into a community for the purpose of expressing themselves individually and corporately in ways appropriate to sacred (uncommon) things. This would describe fairly well the type of things that religious believers do. If however, Taylor’s definition might be guilty of creating false negatives (e.g., Buddhism), Durkheim’s definition might be guilty of producing false positives. One could very easily think of groups and organizations that function in a very similar way to that described here (e.g., the NRA, ACLU, PETA, etc.). The truth about religion likely encompasses both aspects of the functional and the substantive forms. In general then, scholars of religion have identified a set of criteria that seem to account for most of what is identified as religion today, although there may be exceptions in individual cases:

(1) Religions involve a belief system of some kind, i.e., beliefs that fit together into an interpretation of the universe and human beings – in short, a worldview. Such beliefs usually are there to provide answers to the basic set of existential questions, i.e., those questions identified by Paul Tillich as being of “ultimate concern,” the answers of which provide a framework for understanding the meaning and purpose of one’s life as well as what must be done in order to realize that purpose: (1) Where did I come from? (2) What kind of thing am I (3) What should I do? and (4) Where am I going?

(2) This worldview is shared and expressed by other members of a community. An individual with a novel worldview does not (as of yet) constitute a religion. Individuals in the community rely on others to sustain and reinforce commitment to that worldview.

(3) There are what are known as central myths, which are (roughly) stories that function to explain how the world and humankind has assumed their present form. Myths may arise as a) truthful depictions or embellished or ideological accounts of historical events, as b) an allegory for or personification of natural phenomena, or as c) an explanation of ritual or tradition.

(4) There are ceremonies, traditions, and rituals (sometimes referred to as cultic practices) that express the beliefs of the group or commemorate (often through annual, weekly, or daily repetitions) the central myths affirmed by the group.

(5) There is a subjective understanding or higher plane of experience sought as a good in itself and not a means to some other good extrinsic to itself (e.g., liberation, inner peace, contentment, etc.)

(6) Often material elements (e.g., incense, flowers, music, clothing, food, architecture.) accompany traditional observances or rituals, are used a means to facilitate higher states of consciousness, or even in the adornment or veneration of sacred objects.

(7) There is a distinction between the sacred and profane. Some objects, beings, behaviors, spaces, or times must be set aside and treated unlike that used for other more common purposes of life.

What then do modern Christians mean when they attempt to distinguish their faith from other “religions” when they call it a “relationship.” Do they mean that do not have any beliefs or a worldview, or a set of answers to the basic existential questions? Clearly not. Christianity (or at least orthodox Christianity) affirms the existence of a God with a well-defined structure and set of properties. They affirm that Jesus is the Son of God who became incarnate to provide atonement for sins. They affirm that God created the world and everything in it, that the universe is ordered to his divine purpose, and that God is the paradigm of moral perfection and issues commands that exemplify his moral perfections.

Do they mean that Christianity is not to be practiced within the context of a community that exists to serve and facilitate fidelity to the shared worldview of the group? Clearly not. Jesus told Peter that he was going to build a church (i.e., an assembly or a group) here on earth. This group is later in Paul’s letters called the “body of Christ” among whom gifts are bestowed for the “edification and building up of the body.”

Do they mean that there are no central myths within Christianity? The answer again is obviously no. The creation story in Genesis 1 serves to explain the origins of creation in general, and in particular, human beings, who are said to be made in the image of God and given their purpose to rule over creation. In Genesis 2 the story explains why there is gender complementarity within the sexes and how a marriage involves bringing together both halves of the sexual spectrum into a “one flesh” union. The resurrection of Jesus is a story that explains why Christian celebrate easter, and the institution of the Lord’s Supper on the night he was betrayed, explains why Christians break bread on Sunday morning.

Do they mean that Christianity possesses no traditions or rituals? Although many in the church might attempt to characterize themselves as “non-traditional,” that would be a complete myth in the colloquial sense! If your church meets on Sunday morning, Saturday night, or at any other regular interval during the week, then this is a tradition. If your church takes communion, incorporates musical performances, baptizes converts, and has someone get up and teach to the group, then these are traditions. If you or your church celebrates Easter, Christmas, or observes lent, then you are participating in a tradition.

Do they mean that they do not seek to have any inward transformation or seek any higher plane of experience? This claim should be certainly rejected by those who in the modern church who see no other purpose for church services than to create and exalt “worship experiences” as the highest form of piety. One need only recite the lyrics of contemporary praise music to make the point: “I want to see you lord,” “I want to hear you,” “draw me close to you,” I want to “feel your holy presence living inside me” “fill me with your love.” Again many Christians will be surprised to know that such “worship experiences,” are not unique to Christianity [the reason why they will be surprised is because many either explicitly or tacitly believe that it is precisely in this way that they take their “relationship with god” to be unique from other religions, i.e., Christians are able to relate by way of inward communion directly with God (i.e., heart knowledge), where as those who practice other “religions” cannot or do not] In reality, every other major religion on the planet has in place mechanisms that are designed to bring the worshipper into subjective communion with the transcendent. In Hinduism it’s called reaching “samadhi” or “moksha,” in Buddhism it’s is called comprehending the “dharma” or reaching “nirvana,” in Sufi Islam it’s called absorbing “barakah.” There is nothing about relating to the divine through direct inward communion or experience that is unique to Christianity.

Do they mean that there are no material elements that facilitate higher planes of experience or accompany traditions or rituals? Again, this can’t be the case. If your church has a cross hung anywhere in the building, uses bread and wine for the Eucharist, or water for baptism, instruments to make music, decorations for Easter or Christmas, candles for advent, works of art on the wall, or a stage and/or a pulpit with chairs and pews facing it, then your religion incorporates material elements.

And lastly, do they mean that Christians do not draw any distinction between the sacred and profane? The answer is simple: if you believe that God is holy and you are not, then you do in fact draw this distinction. If you believe that the standards of conduct and behavior should be different in a church, than at a football game or rock concert, then you affirm this distinction. If you believe that human beings have an intrinsic dignity that must be respected because they are made in the image of God, i.e., you believe in the sanctity of life, then you draw this distinction.  If you believe that your baptismal font should only be used for baptisms, you’ve put aside Sunday mornings each week to come to church, you believe that marriage is a unique union between a husband and wife that should be permanent, monogamous, and exclusive, then you affirm this distinction.

All this is to say is that Christianity, contrary to popular opinion, is in fact a religion and is not substantively or functionally different than any other religion in terms of the broad features of religion itself. Christianity is different than other religions, not in virtue of the fact that it possesses some fundamental quality (relationship with God) that other religions lack, but because it affirms a distinct worldview, believes in a unique God, has different traditions, tells different stories, lays down different ethical standards, and proposes an alternative path to salvation. All major religions are attempting to connect to and relate with the divine in some way. Where they differ is on the nature of the ultimate reality itself and therefore which religious expressions will facilitate understanding of and union with that reality.

In a future post I will demonstrate that this caricature of Christianity is even actually unhelpful, harmful, and can be and often is motivated by a crude antinomian and post-modern impulse that is deeply subversive of true Christian discipleship.

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