Sunday, February 21, 2010

The F Word and the R Word

Recently, I’ve undertaken to explore the differences between faith and religion. I guess the greatest reason for doing this is because I’ve ceased to identify myself with the American Christian church at large. What I’m really looking for is an intermediate term that identifies me with Jesus the Messiah, but not with the American church and Christian Conservatism, and especially not with conservatives and republicans. They do not represent me as a Christian, or represent Christ either.

There are a lot of problems as I see them with the way we use the words faith and religion and how they compare with how they were used traditionally and originally especially in a Christian context. Western thought now often espouses the idea of a spiritual life separated from a work life, a sex life, a financial life, and the overall concept of life as it is. In Jesus time and in ancient thought in the near east in general, there was no such thing as a spiritual life, there was just life. It was expected that everything you did affected and was affected by everything you were and believed. Fortunately, thinkers today are in some ways returning to this mode of thought. Today, faith and religion are used almost interchangeably, and even some try to delineate them in ever more creative vocabularial gymnastics. Contemporary preachers are now heard describing religion as a bad thing, a set of rules, while faith is what we should do if we follow Jesus.

I myself find that I want to get away from those rules and focus on a more personal faith. Faith after all is only as efficacious as the object in which it is placed. However, I do want to associate myself with the orthodox Christian faith, and am definitely interested in the history of the church. One of the ways I’ve explored this is by studying the Mennonites recently. Since the inception of their tradition, they have been committed to non-violence (well, most of them, you know how it is.) Jesus said “Blessed are the Peacemakers” so, naturally, I assumed that meant that it was a good idea not to be starting wars and killing people. Apparently, according to the Christian conservatives, I was mistaken. I’ve come to understand a completely new (to me) meaning of the Beatitudes as well. For as long as I can remember, the beatitudes have been another list of things that you should do if you want to be blessed by God. This is not the correct interpretation. If the beatitudes are a new law, then Jesus did not fulfill the law, he made a new one. This stands in the face of everything Jesus actually did, to restore the universe to its rightful order. Read the text carefully, it does not say “Blessed are you when you do such and such.” It says “Blessed are you when you are such and such.” Blessed are you, fortunate are you when you are just as you are, broken, wrecked, and longing for a better way. This interpretational difference really codifies the difference between faith and religion for me.

Recently, a friend, in a moment of startling lucidity, explained it in this way. "There IS a difference between religion and faith. Faith is something that is very personal and is understood by an individual. Religion is an attempt by man to explain faith and allow a group to understand the faith of the individual." In some cases, I’d say it is an attempt to coerce or convince a group to understand the faith of the individual or even to fall in line with a certain dogma.

One of the unfortunate things the church is doing is getting the attention of the world, but in a bad way. The ones who are getting the attention of the world lately are the unfortunately conspicuous like Pat Robertson, Joel Osteen, and James Inhofe. Ask a non believer what they think of Christians and they will say “hypocrite.” Ask a non believer what they think Christians should be doing and they’ll say “helping the poor.” One of these things Jesus preached for, the other he preached against. Lately it seems, more than anything, that the world knows Christians for only one narrow set of political doctrines, being against abortion and gay marriage. Abortion aside, it’s not just good enough to be against gay marriage, but further to try to make it illegal, to take it so far as to desire to soil the great Constitution of this Union with the requirement that marriage be between only one man and one woman. Interestingly enough, the Bible only makes that stipulation for leaders of the church. Are politicians to be leaders of the church?

I want to be noticed by the world for positive things. The Christians who get noticed for the good they do today are those like Mother Theresa who live in poverty to help the poor. They notice those like Shane Claiborne who made national news by going to Iraq and comforting the people as the bombing started. They notice teachers like Rob Bell who like the Mennonites eschew words like “heretic” for words like “love” and “community.” The world sometimes notices people like me who believe so strongly in caring for creation that they decide not to waste water by pooping in it. That kind of radical lifestyle gets people’s attention. When you dare to be different in a positive way, the world takes notice.

For a while now, I’ve been saying that I am spiritual but not religious, because I love Jesus but I’m not a republican. But I’m not only spiritual; I also want to reach out to the larger faith movement of my day. And I do mean movement, I am a progressive, I believe in moving forward and making things better. It’s not a movement if it’s not moving. And it’s not a certain church or ideology that I follow. I follow progressive radical faith movements, like Mars Hill Bible Church who are doing and thinking of things so differently. I follow movements like Cornerstone in Simi Valley who decided to give up their nice building so they could devote more money to humanitarianism.

The truth is you can have faith and religion apart from one another. You can be faithful without belonging to an organized religion. And you can certainly belong to a religion, or be religious without having the faith. It’s like James talks about with faith and works. In a very literal sense, you cannot have faith without it being unconsciously outpoured through what you do. But you can have good works without even having the slightest positive attitude about it. People hear me say this and try to pass it off as legalism, but it is so much beyond legalism. Legalism says “You have to do this or you’re not in.” Faith says “People who are in do this.” You have to make your own conclusion.

One of the things I’ve come to realize is that non believers don’t really care what happens to me after I die. Much of evangelism has included as part of its message threats of hell. The thing is, when you use fear to motivate someone, you only motivate them if they are actually afraid. How does a person fear hell when they don’t even believe it exists? Non believers don’t care what I do after I die; they care what I’m doing when I’m alive. You can’t manipulate people with the threat of hell if they aren’t threatened by hell.  All those years of studying apologetics, and I find that I have all the answers to the questions no one is asking.

The kind of Christianity I want to get away from is the kind that can’t be distinguished from other parts of the culture. Today, we have “God and Country” when in reality it’s just “God.” Jesus doesn’t want Christians who act like Muslims with their understanding of revenge. Revenge is an entirely non-biblical concept while Islam is undeniably a revenge incorporating religion. We can’t fight the “War on Terror” with guns and bombs. Muslims wreak violence, because first, they’re hungry, and second, it’s like we want them to hate us. We keep working by their system, you kill one of them, their brother vows to kill you, so you kill him too, so his wife and children vow to kill you, and you kill them so their siblings and cousins vow to kill you, so you kill them, so very quickly, you have thousands of family members making death threats and generally trying to destroy you. This is not Jesus’ system of peacemaking. Jesus’ way involves sacrifice. He says you have to feed them, pray for them, and love them like you love yourself.

According to Wikipedia, the definition of religion is: “A religion is a set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe, especially when considered as the creation of a supernatural agency or agencies, usually involving devotional and ritual observances, and often containing a moral code governing the conduct of human affairs.” The definition I was taught in World Religions class was this: “Religion is the belief that there is an unseen order, and our good as a people lies in harmoniously adjusting ourselves thereto.” I like the second definition just a little better because you can interpret it to include atheism as well. For atheists, the unseen order can be naturalism, or entropy, or simply lack of an unseen order, and our good as a people, or as individuals would lie in adjusting ourselves to that understanding. At any rate, a religion does not require actual belief in any god, or even following a specific set of guidelines. And this is where religion meets with philosophy, but that’s a discussion for a different day.

Individually, the concept of faith really works well in the Christian context, even among conservatives, and I believe that individual people are really rather good in the world. When we all have to work as individual agents, having only one to a team, peace tends to reign because one is less likely to make waves with few allies. On the other hand, you rarely see large groups of people storming around fixing things. You see large groups of people roaming around and destroying things. Individually, people are nice, generally friendly and sane. Corporately, humanity is a bunch of bastard coated bastards sprinkled with bastard and with a bastard filling. This is where faith meets religion. This is where the practices of the individual meet the practices of the group.

In this study and the several weeks of research I’ve undertaken to gather ideas, the one aspect of faith and religion that I have grabbed hold of is the discipline. Spiritual disciplines are important to one’s wellbeing. And I’m not just talking about reading the Bible and praying, I’m also talking about practicing silence, purity, and moderation. It’s not just about not doing the don’ts; it’s really about doing the dos. Remember, Jesus had disciples, and a disciple, as you may know is one who comes under the discipline of another. However, the word disciple is used in many contexts I’m not willing to adhere to as well, so I’m going to go with something a little more complex. From now on, under religious affiliation, I’m going to use the term “Under the discipline of Jesus of Nazareth.” I want to fully embrace the faith, but also the movement, the man, the messiah, the message and the commission.


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