“You would love our church. It’s not religious.” Like the Energizer Bunny, that slogan just can’t be stopped among huge swaths of American Christianity. I used to tout it myself about a church I attended years ago. I eventually stopped saying it, but not because that church became religious. I became disabused of the notion that some churches were not religious. The truth is that all churches are religious, because they function in what is legitimately called the religious aspect of life.
Yet Christians may bristle at the mere thought of their churches being religious. For them “religion” is an offensive term because it smacks of dead ritualism on Sunday mornings, and they want no part of it. Look, I get it. That view took root in me during my childhood from an enforced church attendance and regimented liturgy every Sunday and during the week, not to mention the religious instruction in the Christian school until I was in my early teens. None of it spoke to me. Well, that’s not quite true. What spoke was: I can’t wait until I’m old enough to have a car and I’m outta here! Millions of Christians in America have their own versions of this story.
Nevertheless, there is a problem with treating the word “religion” as if it were always referring to a bad disease. Maybe in some ways and places it is. And that certainly would need to be addressed. But “religion” it is not fundamentally a bad thing.
Let me put it like this. The word “religion” simply refers to the way in which people express the commitment they have to God symbolically. It is about that aspect of life in which people explicitly express what God, or gods, they believe in, and how they approach that God, or gods, and the moral claims that God, or gods, makes on them.
So it is about rituals, sacred books, theology, explicit witness, devotional activities, such as prayer and worship, and the community that revolves around such things. Theologians, philosophers, sociologists, anthropologists, and in fact most people, use the word “religion” to describe such activities. And this is both an appropriate and legitimate use of the word. So it is about what Muslims do in their mosques or what Buddhists do in their temples or what Christians do in their churches. And so on.
The words “religion” and “church,” then, are in fact so hinged on mutual interests that to detest the former brings disservice to the latter. We really must get over our objections to the words religion and religious. This is hugely important. I’ll say why in the next post. And if you wonder what this has to do with blogging about wisdom, stick around. Sometimes you have to say a lot to say a little.
©2014 by Charles Strohmer
Image by Neil Girling (Permission via Creative Commons)
Thanks for this, Charles. You say, “[religion] is about that aspect of life in which people explicitly express what God, or gods, they believe in, and how they approach that God, or gods, and the moral claims that God, or gods, makes on them.” I’m glad you added ‘or gods’ here. Have you seen what James K A Smith has been saying recently about ‘cultural liturgies’ (including secular ones)? He writes about the shopping mall as temple. You can see and hear him at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vdVkXk3NADE. If you haven’t come across him before, I think you’ll find him interesting.
John, great to hear you here. Ah, yes, “gods.” Wasn’t it GK Chesterton who said something like: When people don’t worship God they don’t stop worshiping, they worship something else? That point seems to have been well accepted by most people throughout the ages until, what, the past couple hundred years or so in the West? Does that make us wiser, or more foolish, than the people of past ages? Apparently Smith gets this. Thanks for reminding me about his work.