We see but the reflection of a riddle. 1 Cor:13

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

The Paradox of Religion

"Let us not forget that in the Ancient World, and particularly in Ancient Rome, people of faith, the devotees of the invisible and unnamable God, both Jews and Christians, were regarded as atheists - justifiably so in terms of the then concept of religion: religion as a cult of state-recognized gods. When the Christians of the first centuries were asked by those around them what it was they were bringing: a new religion, a new philosophy or a new school of gnosis, they had no categorical reply. Yes, it was a new path to wisdom, but it was not a Gnostic sect. It was something like a philosophy, but a 'philosophia Christi', since gnosis and philosophy being 'wisdom of this world' were regarded by Paul the Apostle as folly. Moreover the term 'religion' -- i.e. a public cult in the understanding of those days -- was also initially accepted with reservations by Christians as a description of their 'way' and regarded as at best an analogous term; for them it was 'vera religio' in contrast with all that had been regarded as religion up to then. Throughout the Middle Ages Christians preferred the word fides -- faith (articula fidei, mysteria fidei, etc.) and used it more frequently than the expression religio." Tomáš Halík
Tomáš Halík was brought to my attention over at Faith and Theology. I have subsequently spent a little time at Halik's website reading his available essays. I am drawn to his heavily European philosophical sensibility and Catholic pragmatism. The above quote feeds into a continuing conversation around the nature and role of religion.

I was asked today what I think religion offers the world and I have to admit that I balked. Religion is not ultimately what I am about even though I am a minister of religion, work as a chaplain for an established denomination of a major religion and indeed count myself among the baptized members of the Christian religion. The thing is that when pressed, religion for me is the language of faith but is not necessarily the same thing as faith.

The problem is that religion at its worst, so often confuses and distorts our attempts to discern what is good and true. It allows people to become ghettoised and bigoted. It impinges on liberty and reduces the horizon of creativity. It has an uncanny knack of breeding resentment, hatred and fear of those that are different. Worst of all, it allows us to complacently believe we know and therefore own God.

Of course, at its best religion allows us to distill our experiences of the world and clarify what is primary and truthful. It promotes a selfless concern for others, particularly the most vulnerable. It offers therapy and catharsis for all the things that make numb, wound and deny, and inspires the most ecstatic expressions of humanity. It seeks to overcome the barriers we place between us. Best of all, it has proven a faithful way to draw nearer to God.

Religion is a paradox. It is both the very best and the very worst of what human beings are. What I wonder is whether we can do without religion or whether we necessarily persevere with it in spite of its inherent weakness. I wonder whether a religionless faith is possible.

As mentioned above, the early church understood itself in altogether different terms than the religious experience of the day. What does 'vera religio' (true religion) even look like? I am reminded of Paul's letter to the Romans where, after establishing the foundation of Christian faith, he commends the Romans to therefore present their bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is their reasonable worship. He then goes on to spell out what this offering means:
"Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honour. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’ No, ‘if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.’ Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good."
This is no establishment of religiosity but a clear commendation to a way of living - a way of being.

What continually strikes me is that instead of the religious expression of faith being the formative and sustaining stuff that allows faithful people to live in this way, religion has become the main attraction. It is a form of superficiality not dissimilar to judging someone by their appearance instead of seeking to uncover the truth of the person behind the veneer. Not that all religiosity is veneer, but it is the outward form of what ultimately is an inward reality that transforms and constitutes a new being.


  1. I wonder whether the experience of the worst of religion makes it difficult for a faith to continue untainted by that history. It seems as though so many, even those who assert a faith in God, confuse prejudice and sexists beliefs with a faithful discipleship. It seems to easy for the veneer to become the inward reality. Perhaps I am just feeling cynical this morning. Great stuff - plenty to ponder.

  2. That's it man. This is the stuff that's been going through my head for the past 20 years. Don't mind the faith - often can't stand the religion. But what's the option? Without the religion how would you communicate your ideas? Who would know? I think you need the structure religion provides to survive. Maybe get the message out better. Maybe make loud, clear, public statements condemning hate, bigotry and ignorance? But not at the church level, at the leadership level. Imagine if Jensen, on his numerous forays into public debate, actually spoke only of the positive, humane, loving facets of faith. Would that sell it better - or would that alienate many of the traditionalists? You're speaking my language brother, keep it up.


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