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Showing posts with label relationship. Show all posts
Showing posts with label relationship. Show all posts

Wednesday 25 April 2018

On Religion and Relationship

"Relationship, not religion." It is a concept one hears often, especially in Evangelical Christian altar calls, sermons, testimonies and conversations. It is also a concept that has resonated with me in the past. Had you asked me ten years ago to name my top five books, The End of Religion by Bruxy Cavey, a dynamic Canadian pastor in the Anabaptist tradition, would have been on the list. Cavey's thesis is that Jesus did not come to establish a religion, he came to do away with religion and replace it with something better: relationship. He laments how others then took Jesus' movement and built a religion around it, and calls people back to Jesus' model (as he understands it) of religion-free relationship with God.

Evangelical Christians' testimonies are often framed as a before-and-after picture. The "before" part of the story is sometimes framed in terms of atheism or at least a total disconnect with Christianity, but often the "before" portrait involves an upbringing or a phase of involvement with some non-Evangelical form of Christianity such as Catholic or high Anglican. Such testimonies frequently emphasise that the protagonist had been surrounded by "religion" but had never had a real encounter with God; had never given his/her life to Jesus. A "born-again experience," perhaps while visiting an Evangelical church or crusade, then initiates the transformation from "religion" (empty, lifeless rituals and rules) to "relationship" (fulfilling, exhilarating interactions with God).

Now, it is not my intention in this article to attack Evangelical Christianity, or to judge anyone else's spiritual journey or relationship with God. If, through a narrative like the one above, someone has turned from a life of nihilism and unbelief to a life of faith and love, that is wonderful. What I would like to point out is that this religion-vs.-relationship trope is a false antithesis, and that it often unfairly characterises Catholicism in terms of "religion without relationship."

As I said, in these Evangelical before-and-after testimonies, when the "before" story includes an upbringing in Catholicism with lots of religion but no relationship with God, the transformation to "after" invariably takes place outside the Catholic Church and involves an exit from Catholicism. Moreover, no testimony that I have heard offered a conciliatory remark like "But there are many Catholics who do have an authentic relationship with Jesus Christ." Thus, implicit in the testimony is the assumption that Catholicism is "religion without relationship," the foil to authentic faith in Jesus Christ.

Is this assumption well-founded? I think not. Just because you never encountered God in the Catholic Church obviously does not mean others don't. If you regularly attended Mass and received the Sacraments in the Catholic Church but never encountered God, could it be that the problem was not with the Catholic Church but with you? Indeed, I think any Evangelical would have to concede this point. Must one be at an Evangelical church or among Evangelicals to have a born-again experience, a relational encounter with the risen Lord? Evangelical theology answers with a resounding "No! God can and does call people to faith in Jesus in any circumstances of His choosing." Then, at least in principle, an Evangelical must concede that a person could encounter Jesus and have a relationship with Jesus in a Catholic Church. What is necessary for a relationship with Jesus to develop? Paul famously wrote that "Faith comes by hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ" (Rom. 10:17 ESV). Do people hear the word of Christ in the Catholic liturgy? Even if one contends that Catholic homilies and liturgical prayers convey false doctrines, there are three or four biblical passages, including a Gospel reading, heard at every Mass. Surely the public reading of the Scriptures suffices for one to hear what Paul calls the word of Christ, and respond with faith. (Or are the words of Christ Himself impotent, unable to evoke a faith-response without some Evangelical preacher expounding them?) Thus, the question is, if encountering Christ in a Catholic Church is in principle possible, and if you heard the word of Christ over and over in the Catholic Church, what prevented you from responding with faith and having a relationship with Christ? Was it not only your own unbelief? 

Perhaps then the "religion-vs.-relationship" dichotomy is a false one. However, it all depends on what one means by "religion" and "relationship." "Religion" has become something of a byword in Western culture. Population research reveals, for instance, that Americans increasingly self-identify as "spiritual but not religious". This seemingly does not reflect an Evangelical spiritual revival whereby people are abandoning the husk of religion and finding the kernel of authentic relationship with Jesus. For instance, while about half of the "spiritual-but-not-religious" crowd identified as either Protestant (35%) or Catholic (14%), this crowd has much lower attendance at religious services than those who identified as both spiritual and religious. "Spiritual-but-not-religious" thus goes hand-in-hand with reduced participation in corporate worship, which is not at all what the Evangelical "relationship-without-religion" vision calls for.

I suspect that the appeal of "spirituality" over "religion" in America lies in the ascendancy of individual autonomy. Don't label me! I am spiritual in my own way. I define what "God" means for me. By contrast, "religion" has the connotation of organisational structure, of group labels, of conformity to group norms. To declare myself "religious" is to allow myself to be boxed in. In this sense of the word, devout Catholics are definitely religious (since they submit to the teachings and authority of the Church), but then so (one would think) are devout Evangelicals, most of whom also insist on certain doctrinal and moral norms.

When Evangelicals use "religion" as a by-word, the antithesis of "relationship," they seem to be thinking in terms of the kind of religion for which Jesus indicted the scribes and Pharisees: an emphasis on rituals and rules to the neglect of relationship. However, Jesus is indicting a particular kind of religion, not religion itself. He himself does not set religion and relationship in antithesis: after rebuking the Pharisees for their scrupulosity concerning tithes while neglecting justice and the love of God, he does not say "Forget tithes and such things, and just love God!" He says, "These [i.e., justice and the love of God] you ought to have done, without neglecting the others [i.e., tithes]" (Luke 11:42). It is not either/or but both/and. Religion that is faithful to Jesus' teachings will always hold any "rules" in subjection to transcendent values like justice, truth and love. However, Jesus clearly does not condemn "religion" in principle, either for its rules (Jesus issued many commandments), or for its hierarchical organisation (Jesus founded the Church with himself as absolute ruler and the apostles as his deputies), or for its rituals (Jesus indisputably established the practices of baptism and the Eucharist, and also implicitly endorsed a liturgical calendar by observing the Jewish feasts).

The bottom line is that religion is good in the measure that it enables relationship with God and with our fellow humans, and bad in the measure that it hinders such relationship. If we strive for relationship that is devoid of religion, are we not chasing the wind? Are we not falling into the individualistic, subjective "spiritual-but-not-religious" snare that holds much of 21st century America in its grasp? 

Following Jesus Christ entails a direct personal relationship with Jesus Christ. It also involves participation in the mystical Body of Jesus Christ. This Body, the Church, exercises what can only be called religious authority (see my previous article on "binding and loosing"). And, like it or not, the corporate activities of the Church can only be termed "religious." Make no mistake, Christianity is unique among the religions of the world. But it is still a religion.