Religion for me is something that’s limited to a practice as one of the affairs of man. It’s a part of our experience, we eat, we sleep, we have politics, some people are republican, some people are democrat, and we have religions, some people are Hindu, some are Jewish, some are Christian. It’s an addition to the human experience.
I think that if something is true, as I believe Christianity is, then it cannot work like that. It is true outside of our experience, in fact everything we experience falls within that ultimate truth. It was here before we were. All of our reality must then fall within the ultimate reality.
Given that, then all of these physical things that we do in the name of religion, well how important could they be? They in themselves can only have a limited importance because they are limited to our existence. A religious ritual can be used to express something, or can be used to explain something higher to us who are of lower intellect, but it in and of itself cannot have any real power. So for instance, the well in Zam Zam, I regard going to see this well as part of a pilgrimage as religious. Maybe something extraordinary did happen there thousand years ago, and God did something miraculous. But to keep going there suggests there’s a belief that somehow God is still there, in that well. As if God stepped into our existence, and now we can have his holy presence in one place forever. But God is much larger than that, his existence pervades the whole earth. He is as near to me here in my apartment as He would be at that well. The same is true of that archway in the Vatican.
I think that where religion fails is that within religion, God becomes static, He becomes quantifiable almost, He becomes stagnant and rigid. But once a person realizes that God is a person, meaning He is personable, that we as people were built in HIS IMAGE and not the other way around, that we can’t quantify, contain, or collect Him, and that a relationship with Him can be as real and dynamic and exciting as a relationship between me and you, then religion turns to relationship. Within religion, I will perform all of these rites and live a certain way because I think that will get me to heaven, it’s all about what I do and don’t do, and I’m trapped by it. With relationship, I don’t have to perform these rites to reach God, or do these pilgrimages because I know He’s here, right beside me. Within Christianity particularly, I don’t live my life a certain way because I think it will get me to God. I believe that my sins are forgiven because of my faith in Christ’s sacrifice, I already have access to God, all that remains now is to spend time with Him, allowing Him to love me, and to teach me who He is, and who I should be, and learning to love Him back. It’s living because it involves a relationship with a living God.
Bono from U2 used an analogy of the cross to explain it. A cross has a vertical stick and a horizontal stick. He said within religion you’re always looking up to God, trying to reach Him, trying to be good enough to justify spending eternity with Him, or do whatever rites or practices your religion calls for. Ultimately failing because a being of spirit cannot be appeased by man-made rites and practices, and our poor attempts at holiness. That’s the vertical stick of the cross. Where Christ puts things right, is He changes things, so now we look across to God (horizontally), He’s right at our side, we can talk to Him, He’s not distant and far away, He cares, and the guilt of our sin is put away because of Christ’s sacrifice. The starting point is forgiveness, you don’t have to spend the rest of your life trying to earn it, the rest of your life is spent with God, as close as we can get to Him while we’re here, until He calls us home.
So it’s less about how often you pray, and more about how you pray. That’s so much of what Jesus had to say. Do you pray because you think the act of prayer somehow will justify you in God’s eyes, or is prayer really you, in conversation with your Father? Believing that He’s listening. There are two line prayers that would be worth so much more to God than ones that go on for hours in emptiness.
It’s less about what you do. That’s why Jesus says, murder is a sin, but hating your brother is a sin also. A hateful person can go through life doing nothing wrong, checking himself because he wants to look good in the eyes of men, or wants to think of himself as a good Muslim, Jewish or Christian person. But it’s about the heart. That’s the final distinction that I can think of between religion and what I believe is Christianity (which I think if understood properly is not a religion, I would rather call it a faith). Religion seems more concerned with the outside. The high priests of Israel complained to Christ once about his disciples not washing their hands before they ate. He told them it is not what enters a man that defiles him, but what comes out. Faith in God, Christian faith is concerned more with the inside. Our actions only mean as much as the heart behind them. That is why it is impossible to reach God on our own. Because while we are capable of changing our actions, we are not capable of changing our hearts, or our spirits as Christ put it. “Flesh is born of flesh, and spirit is born of spirit”. It is well within our power to change how we act in society, but if everyone’s honest and looks inside themselves there’s a deeper side to us that’s just not that good, and really is quite evil. No person can change that, it’s beyond our abilities. Only God can, only Christ can, only the Holy Spirit, wielding the power of the triune God on earth after Christ’s ascension to heaven, can change that.
Here’s a good example of a conversation showing the difference between a religion and what I believe to be Christianity.
“Then Pharisees and scribes came to Jesus from Jerusalem and said, “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands when they eat.” He answered them, “And why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition? For God commanded, “Honor your father and your mother,” and, “Whoever reviles father or mother must surely die.” But you say, “If anyone tells his father or his mother, “What you would have gained from me is given to God, “he need not honor his father.” So for the sake of your tradition you have made void the word of God. You hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy of you, when he said: “This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.” And he called the people to him and said to them, “Hear and understand, it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but what comes out of the mouth, this defiles a person.” Then the disciples came and said to him, “Do you know that the Pharisees were offended when they heard this saying?” He answered, “Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be rooted up. Let them alone, they are blind guides. And if the blind lead the blind, both will fall into a pit.” But Peter said to him, “Explain the parable to us.” And he said, “Are you also still without understanding? Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth passes into the stomach and is expelled? But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person. For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person. But to eat with unwashed hands does not defile anyone.” — Matthew 15: 1 – 20
This article was originally written as a Facebook note — it is one in a series of notes that has been compiled into a book called Fields of Grace. It is available as an eBook at Amazon