If anyone considers himself religious and yet does not keep a tight rein on his tongue, he deceives himself and his religion is worthless. Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.
-James 1:26-27 (NIV)
On his Facebook page, a friend of mine posted this after getting a phone call critical of his position on a particular issue:
As a minister and preacher I am SO over religious bigotry and hatred in every form. Just another reason I hate religion. I'm sure I'm in the wrong profession.
I get what he’s saying, I really do. “Religion,” as a concept is sort of universally deplored in our culture. Belief in God is OK. Spirituality is fine. Even going to a church is OK, as long as that church is, well, as non-religious as possible. But “religion” — as an idea — seems to account for all the problems in the world. Terrorism, bigotry, greed, corruption — everything bad in the world, it seems, can be traced back to this bugaboo, “religion.”
Well, maybe I’m just being contrary, I don’t know. But I’d like to take a crack at rehabilitating this word “religion.”
It might surprise you to know that the word only occurs a few times in English Bibles. The word most usually translated “religious” includes the idea of ceremony — a “religious” person is one who is demonstrative and pious in worship. You can see why our word “religion” seems like a good translation; the way we most often use it, it’s also synonymous with organized worship. Religion is what goes on in church, and a religious person is one who is deeply involved in what’s going on in church.
By the way, this is one of the reasons why the idea of religion has such negative connotations in our world. Religion is thought to offer little to the world, outside of ironclad rules that only encourage people to be hypocrites outside of their Sunday services, or insufferable bigots, or violent radicals. That’s why our world thinks religion is to be kept private, segregated from our public lives.
So the New Testament does use this word a few times, a word that Christians and non-Christians in the New Testament world would have understood to be saying something about formal, organized worship services. But, at least in a couple of its occurrences, New Testament authors redefine the word. And they redefine it in a way that, I think, has a lot to say to my friend, and to others who, like him, find themselves at odds with formal religion.
In Paul’s first letter to Timothy, Paul tells his young apprentice that he should be teaching the adult believers in his church to care for their aging parents. The church should help those elderly widows who have no other means of support, but if there is family, he says they should “put their religion into practice” by caring for their parents or grandparents. He goes on to say that God is pleased by this kind of practical faith. So religion isn’t something that begins and ends in the stained-glass confines of a church service. If you see someone who’s all about that, then that’s not religion. Call it hypocrisy, if you want. But don’t call it religion.
James, the brother of Jesus, agrees. He would, of course, because Jesus had no misunderstandings about religion. If the gospels are any indication, Jesus thought religion had to do with serving, healing, welcoming, loving. Jesus practiced religion in the synagogue, sure — but at a clip of at least 20 to 1, he practiced religion at dinner tables, or traveling down the road, or healing the sick, or raising the dead. His congregation was the poor, the sick, the lame, the blind, the sinners — the marginalized. The people who might not be in the “religious” service.
So James sees religion kind of like his older brother. It’s not about the ceremony. God isn't impressed with the script, with the singing or the sermon, or the liturgy or the icons, or the robes and candles or the Dockers and PowerPoint. Religion, he says, is best exercised by controlling your tongue. Religion is best practiced where Jesus did — among the orphans and widows. It’s best lived out, not by barricading ourselves in a cathedral for an hour or two a week, but by keeping ourselves from being unduly influenced by the world around us.
See, when people say they hate religion, what we mean is that we hate pretend religion. Fake religion. We hate pale imitations of religion that are really just camouflage for our own agendas and priorities, or replacements for the kind of faith that changes us and changes our worlds, or a wider, easier path than the narrow way Jesus asks us to walk with him. We hate it when we see it in others, and those of us who consider ourselves religious hate it even more when we see it in ourselves. It’s the easiest thing in the world to turn up our noses at what others try to pass off as religion. It’s harder to come to terms with the fact that sometimes we can’t honestly say that our religion is the kind that gets outside the church walls and helps the people in our lives to experience the kingdom of God.
The danger is to think that the problem is with “religion.” It’s really a human problem, though, a problem of the heart. And we can’t control the hearts of others. All we can do is be honest about our own religion, look hard in the mirror and ask tough questions about whether or not the religion we practice is the kind that pleases God, the kind that he considers “pure and faultless.” Does it energize us to care for the hurting and disenfranchised around us? Does it catalyze a more faithful love for our families? Does it lead us into the world like Jesus: fully engaged, but not corrupted, fully involved, but not taken in.
And if we answer “no” to any of those tough questions, then may we have the grace and strength to practice our religion differently. May we seek out those to whom our religion should take us, and may we practice it in our neighborhoods, in our homes, at our tables, in our offices — in addition to in church.
That won’t make people hate what they think is religion less. But it will offer them an alternative to it. Not everyone will respond well to the kind of religion that pleases God — just ask Jesus — but it will still please him all the same. And that’s enough.
You don’t hate religion, you just think you do. So practice the kind of religion you love.