What’s the use in religion?
After some extremely negative experiences earlier in life, I’ve been the one to shun religion in favor of spirituality for the past few years. I’ve spoken of it in this space on more than one occasion. I did this after the realization that religion, especially as I see it in America, tends to be empty practice that takes place while ignoring the substance that should be behind it. Going to church without truly exploring God. Taking communion without truly remembering Christ’s redemptive act. Giving to the poor for a tax break instead of attempting to love them as God does. The list could go on, but you get the idea.
Similarly, I’ve shunned tradition, because its empty to me. I’ve maintained that tradition can be useful if those engaging in a certain traditional practice can remember why they’re doing what they’re doing. However, I would be so bold as to say that 90% or more of my experience has been that people are engaging in tradition for the sake of the tradition, because “that’s the way its done around here.” That disgusts me, because there’s not authenticity to it, no heart behind the habit. If you’ve forgotten why you’re doing it, then why do it?
So, in essence I’ve forsaken traditional mores and become significantly more attracted to engaging God in the most real way I can, as truly and legitimately as I can, with all of the flaws that are inherent in that, because I’ve come to realize that at least then I’m being real with Him, and that seems to be the starting point of really going anywhere with Him. I intentionally avoid practicing my faith the same way twice; i.e.: I observed Advent last Christmas, and meditated on the days of Easter one year while engaging in pure celebration the following year. I have to constantly change it up, because otherwise I’m just going through motions, and going through motions, after all, seems to be Pharisaical.
This morning, after some angst and a sudden epiphany, I’m wondering if there might be some middle ground.
After all, James wrote of a religion that is “pure and undefiled” in God’s eyes: taking care of orphans and widows in their distress, and keeping oneself unstained by the trash of our surrounding reality (yes, that’s a loose paraphrase). So, if there’s religious expression that’s okay with God, where does it lie? My answer to date has always been that its legitimate as long as you remember why you’re doing it. For me, that included only the rituals that God endorses in Scripture: baptism, communion, and marriage. He tells us what those are about, and its easy enough to remember why, although I find that I do need to vary the method by which I observe communion for me to truly do that.
So what about all the other “religious” stuff that I’ve ran from so intensely: attending church with a certain level of frequency, or reading Scripture with a certain regularity simply in order to do so. Those seem empty to me. Why go just to go, when I learn more with just me and God anyway? Why read just to read, when I’m still unpacking what I read two days ago? Doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense.
And yet, perhaps something resembling it does, because if I’m engaging in either of those with the intention of entering an environment or practice that turns my attention toward Christ and away from “besetting sins,” for example, then its not empty repetitive practice, but rather an intentional act to keep myself straight. So, suddenly making the time to find a Psalm to read every morning through the week isn’t just religion, its spiritual. Its religion with purpose, a response to His gift, which seems to be what He’s saying He likes about religion to start with.
So, perhaps a little more religion might be what the Doctor ordered for me, if its responsive and not repetitive. I still have to change things regularly, so I’m sure this will look a bit different in a few days or weeks or months, but for now its the right prescription.
Let’s find out what happens.