This week my Facebook newsfeed blew up with different people posting the video “Jesus>Religion” and responses varying from gracious to downright angry. I do not intend to respond to the video itself here, as it has been done well elsewhere (and is probably better done in a personal conversation). However, the video does call for understanding religion properly, and particularly, I believe, understanding the value of the word and concept “religion” in Evangelical Christianity.
The common Evangelical pronouncement, “I have a relationship, not a religion,” misses out on the great significance of religion. Of course, by religion, I do not mean works-righteousness hypocrisy. But the use of the word to indicate a set of beliefs and practices that multiple people ascribe to in common is incredibly valuable. Particularly, we must preserve the use of the concept and word “religion” as Evangelicals because it protects us from several of our key blind spots in the following ways.
“Religion” preserves community. I’ve written about this before. The claim that Christianity is solely about a personal relationship with Christ can drive us towards an individualistic mindset. While the individual is a vital component of the Christian faith, emphasizing it to the detriment of other aspects of following Jesus is dangerous. Religion, on the other hand, is always a community experience. You cannot just have religion by yourself, in your room. Religion is a communal practice as it points to a commonality that a group of people share. Safeguarding the use of religion reminds us of this communal nature, giving a healthy balance (not overriding) our emphasis on the individual.
“Religion” recognizes the importance of tradition. The community of religious believers extends beyond those whom we regularly meet with in a local setting. It also extends beyond the 21st century. I’m convinced that this is one of the greatest blind spots we have as Evangelicals. We forget that there have been Christians prior to us who wrote and thought and have shared their wealth with us in their writings. Being part of a religion, reminds us that we have a history that is greater than just the hear and now; a history that we ought to pay closer attention to (credit to Richie for bringing this point up).
“Religion” forces us to confront the realities of sin. Often dismissing “religion” also allows us to dismiss the wars of religion or the bad things that have been done in the name of religion. Since they were done by “religious” people, and we are not “religious”, we dismiss them by denying any continuity between them and us. However, this is too easy of an escape. Many who have been involved in such atrocities as the Crusades were sincere believers. Indeed, Bernard of Clairvaux who spoke in support of the Crusades also has much to say to us today about the nature of love in an overly sexualized culture. Was he right to support the Crusades? By no means. But should we just throw him out, and deny that he was an earnest Christian because he made that mistake? Our answer has to be more nuanced than a simple “yes”. To relegate such tragedies to religion, fails to recognize the pervasiveness of sin, something we have to wrestle with. Recognizing that we are a part of the broader religion forces us to reconcile with our history.
There are definitely other reasons to use the word religion to describe Christianity. I am all for recognizing the things that sets Christianity apart from other religions (of which there are many) but the value of remembering that Christianity is a religion, a set of practices and beliefs held by a community, is too high to deny we have one. May we reclaim “religion” and show the world what it can be – a group of believers sharing beliefs and practices to glorify God because of the Son, through the Spirit.