Thoughts on “Religion,” and How Not to Fix the World

Maxfield Parrish Humpty Dumpty, fall of man

Before the Great Fall

Does anyone like getting asked the question, “Are you religious?”

When asked this, does anyone ever enthusiastically answer, “YES!”

I only like getting asked that question because it gives me a chance to explain my faith.

One of my earliest insights as a young follower of Jesus was that Christianity is not about a religion; it’s about a relationship. In college I pretty much abandoned the use of the word “Christianity” altogether because it is so broad as to be practically meaningless and confusing.

This is not an uncommon way of thinking in evangelicalism. It is widely understood that our faith has primarily to do with the person of Jesus, not about some system of belief or ritualistic practice. At a minimum most would agree that a religion is not “the answer” to the world’s problems. Most would recognize that one can be scrupulously religiously observant and yet completely miss God. There is good and bad religious practice. I think most people would agree that there are bad religions in the world.

So it’s kinda weird to speak of “religion” in general as either good or bad.

You’ve probably heard evangelicals say,

“Religion is mans’ attempt to reach God, Christianity is God reaching down to man.”

Or “I’m spiritual, not religious.”

I’ve tended to argue that religion can serve as a positive cultural force, but I’ve tended to personally reject the observance of religious rituals, traditions, and practices as baggage. Yes, I pray regularly, but as a part of relationship with God – not as religious ritual. In the same way, I don’t consider talking with my wife to be a marriage ritual.

All in all, the word “religion” has been a pretty distasteful word to me for all of my life, even though, ironically, people who don’t know me well may tend to think of me as religious.

But…Hmmm…Maybe I don’t despise the word “religion” after all

I recently read some thoughts on the origin of the word “religion” that ring true to me.

…Etymologically, [religion] means something like tying back together – re-ligion:
re-ligamenting, re-ligaturing, finding the unifying reality behind disparate appearances, seeking oneness, integration, wholeness…

(Michael Ward, Professor of Apologetics, Houston Baptist University)

This sounds right to me because, for better or for worse, all the religions of the world seem to be concerned with restoring unity to our broken world in some way. There seems to be a universal recognition that things are not as they should be in the human situation, and that the problem is separateness – division between God and man, between man and man, and between man and nature.

However, conflict arises between religions and ideologies because there are vastly differing opinions as to how to accomplish the restoration of unity in the world. Unfortunately, history shows us that human beings are vulnerable to the temptation to externally impose unity onto each other. Of course this doesn’t work, but apparently many ideologues feel there is no other option. Current examples include ISIS and the American left-wing Antifa.

The brilliance of spiritual rebirth

Among authority figures, Jesus is unique in His approach to unity and restoration in that He offers voluntary, internal change for the individual. He offers this to all people in the form of spiritual rebirth:

Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God. (Jn 3:3)

Here’s an apostle of Jesus pithily describing God’s plan for unity and restoration:

In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace, which he lavished upon us, in all wisdom and insight making known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.
(Eph 1:7-10)

This describes the God of the Judeo-Christian scriptures taking merciful initiative on our behalf, and providing a means for us to be reconnected to Him first, and ultimately to each other and to all of heaven and nature. In the very next chapter Paul refers to this salvation as a gift from God – not something that can be earned. (Eph 2:8,9)

Isn’t this what we all want? We really should tell people about this.

(Original image by Maxfield Parrish, circa 1921. Modified by the author.)



4 comments on “Thoughts on “Religion,” and How Not to Fix the World

  1. Rod Lampard says:

    Good thoughts. I share in the same aversion of the word, but I’ve also come to understand that there is a difference between those who follow an empty ritual and those who live through, passionately it. I’ve been walking through Deuteronomy with my kids for homeschool. We’ve worked through Genesis, Exodus, Numbers, and through it all, we see a consistency from God towards those who cry out to Him. We also see a consistency in stubborn human hearts, where God’s law is recalled, but God is ejected, or at least not remembered. People can know God’s law, but not know Him. I think this defines the problem with religion that is devoid of His revelation. In this, I agree with Karl Barth, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and more loosely, Roger Scruton:

  2. Agreed! Here’s more from Michael Ward, the guy I quoted above. I think it’s quite insightful but I didn’t see a place to include it in my post:

    “Religion in this sense [re-ligaturing] is the opposite of analysis – from the Greek analusis: loosening up. There is a place for analysis, of course: we do often need to loosen things up, pull things apart, dissect. But analysis serves synthesis, doesn’t it? It’s not an end in itself…You cut open the human body to remove the tumor or the bullet or whatever it may be. Then you sew up the incision, religiously, to bring back health to the organism, health that depends on integration, health that won’t survive perpetual “loosening up.”

    • I was just about to ask whether you read Imprimis (because it seemed too coincidental that you gave an etymology of “religion” at the same time that the author in latest newsletter did) and in a response to Rod you went on to quote more of that article which confirmed my suspicion.

      Small world, isn’t it?

      Just to add something:
      I always tended to view “religion” in the same way as the etymology implied, namely, I tend to view religion as simply a “world view,” which is an attempt to make some unifying sense of the world (though, in practice, most people do not reflect on their world view nor attempt to unify the various phenomena of the world, often affirming conflicting propositions, like a person who affirms both atheism and moral realism, etc). Nor do I view religion as necessarily having anything to do with God (again, atheism is a religion having its ultimate metaphysical commitments, budhism is non-theistic, and so on).

      In any case, if someone were to ask if I am “religious”, I prefer to ask them to define their use of the term and move forward from there. Dennis Prager often reiterates that he prefers clarity to agreement and I’m of the same mind. Clarification of terms goes a long way to avoid misunderstanding or speaking past one another.

  3. Frank,
    Thanks for mentioning the source of my quotes! I absolutely meant to do that in my post and forgot. For anyone reading this, Imprimis newsletter is put out monthly by Hillsdale College. Usually the newsletter consists of reprints of lectures by excellent guest speakers. I love it. Sign up and you’ll get a perspective that you won’t hear in the mainstream media.

    I agree with your thoughts. I like your brief summary of why atheism is a religion. I’ve had several conversations with atheists trying to get them to acknowledge that theirs is a faith/religious position, but none of them will have it, for some reason!

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