"It's not a religion; it's a relationship!"
"If only we'd get rid of all of these doctrines and learn to just love Jesus, we Christians could impact the world for Him!"
"I just need me and my Bible, not any man-made (always said with a superior attitude) traditions!!!!"
...okay, I have a confession to make...
...I don't want to confess this, it's tough; give me a minute...
...I used to be one of those people.
Surprised? It gets worse: when Jefferson Bethke's video, "Why I Hate Religion But Love Jesus" came out, I ate it all up and loved it.
(Yes, I know that's not his video: I linked a better one.)
I was a Baptist/non-denominational (they're basically the same exact thing) back then.
Even one of my favorite theologians, Greg Boyd (although he and I are completely opposed in some very important points of doctrine, this being one of them), got in on the act:
For those of you who can't read his shirt, it says, "It's against my relationship to have a religion."
Sigh...yeah, this is not a good mindset. Pitting religion against Jesus, as if they are inherently opposed to each other, is just stupid.
"But wait! I like Jefferson Bethke's video! It's so hippity-hop happenin'! Why don't you like it? Isn't religion just evil? Shouldn't we all just love Jesus?"
Oh yes, because it's either love Jesus or love His religion. You certainly can't do both. It's gotta be one or the other.
Listen, if you want to redefine the word "religion" as, "stuff that is related to Jesus but is bad", then I'm sorry, but we can't dialogue here. As long as you insist upon using a definition that was pulled out of some hippie-Christian's weed stash, you won't be able to read me saying anything other than, "Hypocrisy and scaring people into being good is a good thing."
So that brings up the question: what is religion? It's a good question, and to be honest, it's kind of tough. There are a bunch of academic definitions of religion, but I want to focus on a few things that even religion-haters would agree with me are part (though not always essential) of what we mean when we say the word "religion":
1) Institution--organized religion, as in, there is at least some of the following: a hierarchy, sacred writings, creeds, confessions, etc.
2) Structure--not just institutional structure, but structure in daily life. Rituals and a moral code. Those, ya know, evil lists of "do's and don't's"
3) Doctrine--what one is supposed to believe in order to be part of said religion.
Of course, there is much more we can add. However, these will suffice for the moment. I'm imagining that your average "I'm not religious, I'm spiritual" advocate will agree that these are part of religion. Not only that, she or he might point to these very things as the very problem with religion.
Well, this barely protestant Christian is going to demonstrate why those things are good, not bad. Keep in mind that this is an article that is speaking to the "I'm not religious, I'm spiritual" people who consider themselves followers of Jesus. Here we go:
Whether you are Roman Catholic, Anglican, Eastern Orthodox, Lutheran, Presbyterian, or even Southern Baptist, you have some form of this. You have a hierarchy in Apostolic Succession, in the Great Creeds, in a Confession, and/or in Scripture. Someone or something, in other words, has the right to say "you're wrong" when you spout something like, "I believe that God is a jelly-filled donut and we should baptize people into icing while singing ABBA songs! That's what Jesus would want!"
Of course, it doesn't have to be that silly.
It could be something like, "I believe Jesus totally affirms gay marriage, so we should celebrate it."
It could be something like, "God is going to have everyone eventually be part of new creation; no one is going to be damned".
It could be something like, "I think God hates everyone except for my little inner circle group!"
You see, the Institution is there for a reason. It is meant to guard us from something called "heresy". Without guard rails, you fall into heresy.
"Yeah, but those are so restricting and non-inclusive!"
...that's the point.
You have guard rails because you don't want to fall off the road.
"Are you saying I'm gonna go to Hell if I don't have all of the right beliefs?"
Why is that always the first concern? The only concern? No, being theologically wrong on something doesn't always constitute a one-way ticket to Hell. I don't know about you, but I've always wanted to have the right beliefs because, I don't know, they're the right beliefs. What ever happened to making sure that what I believe is actually true? Do we want to believe lies?
"I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life."
It seems like if what Jesus says here is true, then seeking truth is also seeking Him.
There is a reason for our Institutions: they protect us from heretical beliefs. Heretical beliefs are wrong beliefs. I'm not saying you're going to Hell for wrong beliefs; I am saying that you should be concerned about Truth.
What I see here is that many of these anti-religion people have a problem with authority; the desire to be the one who gets to make all of the decisions is what seems to be the heart of the issue.
Structure, dreaded structure. Yes, we hate structure sometimes, don't we?
Except for those times where we like it. And you know what? Even when we don't like it, we need it.
I put within structure the ideas of rituals and moral codes, because they both fit into it so well. Rituals such as Prayer, Baptism, and the Eucharist are essential to the Christian--dare I say "spiritual"?--life. Jesus kinda makes a big deal of them: of Prayer, Baptism, and the Eucharist.
And if we are just "following Jesus", then that means we need to hold to what He taught about these things, too.
As for that moral code, this is one of the things that many within the "I'm not religious, I'm spiritual" group get, well, not entirely right, but they are hitting something.
Our two great commandments that sum up the Law are these: Love the Lord your God, and love your neighbor as yourself.
When the "I'm not religious, I'm spiritual" people talk about the importance of love, they are certainly on to something. Those of us who are religious have many times in the past forgotten about the importance of love. It is a fault of ours, a major one.
I know I've forgotten about love, in conversations with friends, in actions I take, in thoughts I think.
And it scares me how little I've loved in comparison to what Jesus has done. It nearly brings me to tears, even as I type this. What a hateful, unloving person I've been in my life. For those who have been hurt by me, I ask for forgiveness. In all sincerity.
But that's the beautiful thing about religion; I know I've been forgiven. Without religion, when I was just "spiritual", I...well, I had no idea.
Was I forgiven?
Could I be forgiven?
I mean, look what I did. What I said. God forgave me? Am I sure? It doesn't feel like it.
God, it doesn't feel like it.
And this is the problem with an anti-religious spiritualism. It's focused on how one feels. And to tell you the truth, I have felt incredibly shitty and unforgiven even after asking God for forgiveness.
I've been on my knees for hours, asking God to forgive me for the horrible things I've done.
I've cried myself to sleep almost every night in my bed for days and even weeks at a time, because I had asked for forgiveness but did not feel like I was forgiven.
You see, in my religion I do not merely rely upon my feelings for truth. I know I have been forgiven because of what my Church teaches. I know I am forgiven every Sunday at the least, by the absolution given by my priest. If I were to base it upon feelings, I would be in trouble.
Praise God I don't base it in feelings. Praise God His Institutes protect me.
Everyone has doctrine. From Bill Nye the Science Guy to Lady Gaga to Barack Obama, we all have doctrinal beliefs.
Yes, even Jefferson Bethke.
First, the quintessential Lutheran Satire video on this.
Oh, and this one just for fun.
(Geez, you'd think that the Misouri-Synod is paying me for all of these or something. Sorry, I just really love these two Youtube channels. This Anglican loves Lutheranism. Well, most of it. Some of it's a little cray.)
Beliefs are what drive us. Take the anti-religious spiritual people: they believe that religion is destroying--or at the very least, in the way of--people's relationship with Christ. That belief is what drives them to hate religion.
Doctrine matters. What we believe matters.
If you believe that a child in the womb deserves full-human rights, you will have a specific view of abortion.
If you believe that the state and not the Church is the one that establishes marriage and grants the allowance to perform them, that will affect your views on the whole gay marriage issue.
Beliefs make a difference in our actions. It is unavoidable.
Now, can some doctrinal differences have no affect on us when it comes to actions?
I don't think so. I think that, at least on some level, every belief that we truly hold affects our actions.
Our actions flow from our thoughts and our hearts. Our hearts and our thoughts are shaped by our theology.
This is why the correct doctrine, the correct theology, is so important. Because we are creatures prone to both rejecting authority and creating God in our own image, we tend to abhor the idea that another person can tell us that we are doctrinally in error.
Every chink of theology that is wrong is a chink of our understanding of God that is wrong.
The God that we love and adore. The God that we worship.
There's a reason most of the New Atheists, those insufferable atheists who worship Richard Dawkins and are complete jerks, like this (the video is made by an atheist who hates New Atheists; it's got some naughty words in it, fyi), mostly come from a theologically shallow background. I've met literally no New Atheist who has a deep knowledge of the Faith, whether former Presbyterian, Anglican, Lutheran, Roman Catholic, Methodist, etc.
The ones who do reject the Faith, who know about it, have in my experience always been the atheists or agnostics who are much more tempered and reasonable. And I know very few of those.
My whole point is this: religion helps us by guarding us against the age-old desire of being God and telling Him what's up.
I'm sorry, but there are too many temptations for us when we internalize the Faith as something only experienced between us and...well, what we call "Jesus".
Because it's cute and all that we (and don't believe for a second I am not including myself in this) claim that our understanding of Jesus is accurate...but is it?
The same One Who fed the five thousand miraculously...also allows the five million to starve today.
The same One Who says we should not repay evil for evil...is coming back as a warrior on a horse, with a sword shooting out of His Mouth.
The same One Who died for us...also has many of us die for Him.
Those things don't make sense.
Do not delude yourself into thinking that you all by your lonesome can figure out the One Who formed the galaxies with His very Words. We need to try to understand Him together, with the wisdom of His people throughout the centuries. It is nothing but arrogance that makes us think we can do this all on our own.
Am I religious? Yes.
Am I spiritual? Not by a long shot. Lord, I have so much growing to do. I am a horrible person when I think about it.
I'm religious, and am trying to be spiritual. My religion has helped me so much in that.
I take it that if you're spiritual, but not religious, you've apparently arrived?
If so, congratulations on being perfect. If not, get in line with me and take the Eucharist. We both need God's Grace.