A young and influential emerging leader decries the evils of religion.
Religion is condemned as a “work of man”. The young pastor continues, “Christianity,” on the other hand, “is not about religion. It is about relationship”.
In the same way, that the Bible is human literature, Christianity is human religion. But does this mean that there no divine reality behind them?
TWO SIDES OF ONE COIN
Think of a coin.
We call one side of the coin “heads” and the other side “tails”. In a limited way, religion and revelation are like the two sides of the coin. Religion is the human side of the coin. It is the young preacher, standing up at the scheduled moment of a regularly scheduled worship service, addressing the audience of Christians, and saying that what “they” are doing is not religion.
“Amen,” they all say in unison.
Like a coin, we cannot see through these human religious practices to the other side of the coin. This young preacher’s very religious existence, however, is a witness to a moment when, in his experience, the coin became permeable and the “other side” came across to the human side.
This is a limited analogy because it suggests a hard divide between the world that the “eyes of faith” see and this world that the rest of us see. But it is not so much an issue of a hard divide between two worlds as much as it is an issue of seeing. “That” world and “this” world are one. Religion is the human product, the tangible residue or social manifestation, to a “this world” faith encounter with the mystery we call God.
Think of Abraham.
God speaks to him. That’s a relational faith encounter between God and man.
Abraham constructs an altar to commemorate his encounter with God.
That’s religion…human religion.
Saying something is only human doesn’t mean it ends (or begins) there.
THE NATURALNESS OF RELIGION
Humans are by nature religious. Even the humans that preach against religion are doing so religiously. They normally do so at prearranged gatherings they call worship services or celebrations, but they can (and do) practice their religion casually and relationally too.
At their services, dozens, hundreds, sometimes thousands of people rise at the same time, travel to the same place, and participate in the same practices each week. Then the young preacher rises and preaches against religion, by which he means empty ritual.
But religion is not evil or good, empty ritual or full devotion, as a first consideration. As a first consideration, it is natural. It is a hallmark of our species. We are the animal that worships. Every human society of which I am aware has religion. And there are no other species with religion. Yet.
Somewhere in the mists of prehistory our species awakened to a heightened consciousness about itself, others, the world around it, and the sacred. The origins of this consciousness is a mystery. Indeed, the origins of consciousness of any sort is a mystery.
Religion is the social manifestation, at least at its point of origin, of the encounters with the sacred of those who have stepped into this mystery. It is the human side of things. Except to those who experience a “touch” or a “call” from that other side, the practice of religion looks like a social construct conceived in the human imagination only.
The Christian religion, like the Bible, is a human creation. (A human creation, a secondary source, a penultimate concern, a human witness to a spiritual encounter). Neither Christianity nor the Bible are the revelation. In the pecking order, Christianity has a lower priority in seeking to understand that pristine revelation than does the Bible, and they are both inseparable from the revelation, but neither are the revelation.
THE ONE SIDE OF THE COIN POINTS TO THE OTHER SIDE
Let’s take that thought another step. To say that Christianity and the Bible are human creations (and human creations only) does NOT mean that they are false. I am convinced that God is encountering our species in the world out here outside of the church, outside of the biblical literature.
Let’s restate this thought. I suspect that both the Bible and Christianity are responses to an external force at work in the world. That’s revelation. Revelation is the moment that the coin becomes translucent and the other side which we cannot see appears on our side of the coin.
When God speaks, that’s revelation. When humans turned and wrote or created or organized in response to this revelation, that’s religion.
Almost three decades ago, I had a series of experiences that made me a passionate follower of Jesus Christ. Everything I’ve done and said since then is my religion. I don’t use the term “passionate” to describe a high emotional output. I’m too rational to ever fully enjoy the subjectivities of the faith. I use it because, as I think over the last three decades since my own awakening, it is obvious that regardless of what I’m doing, conversations about pursuing God have been central. Still, while my encounter with God seemed pristine, my religion does not.
I want no one to follow my religion. That would be the first commandment of my religion: Don’t join it. However, I want everybody to experience a pristine encounter with that blazing white light that doesn’t consume what it touches.
My encounter with God happened in the context of hearing the story about Jesus, observing a community of faith, personal reading of the Bible, participation in discussions about the Bible and faith, being in the proximity of prayer, listening to the proclamation of the gospel, a deliverance from evil, and a vision. In other words, the believing practice of the Christian religion created the context in which I had a faith encounter with God. There is no one foundation for my faith. It emerged out of a web of relationships and experiences that culminated in a moment of insight that required commitment.
My own practices — reading the Bible, discussing the story of Jesus, starting small groups for Bible study and prayer, announcing the victory of Jesus, participating in communities of faith, challenging false thinking, thinking about the future, studying history, society, and culture, praying for deliverance from evil, calling on others to believe — over time led others to their own encounters with God.
If our experience of God, or something like that, is what happened to our pre-historical ancestors, it is no wonder religion arose right along side our species. The ancient cave paintings of southwest France may be vestiges of the first religions which were most likely shaman like experiences of connection with the spirit world. They point to something beyond themselves and participation in those experiences often allowed (and allows) others to feel close to the vibrations of God out here in the real world.
THE RELIGIOUS INSTINCT
Our species was born when we adapted to some encounter in the natural world with the “fire-that-does-not-consume” somewhen in prehistory. Perhaps 21st century Homo Sapiens also move towards those encounters instinctually, like salmon finding their way back to the place of their birth to spawn. We look for answers to our deepest questions as a matter of a deep and internal scripting.
In the same way, that the lizard, through evolution via the process of natural selection, has “learned” to turn colors yet doesn’t know why it turns color, we turn in our hearts on a quest for God. The content of biblical religion is at heart the human witness that God reveals himself to us (and potentially will again) in the turning.
The encounter in which God reveals himself to someone(s) is Revelation.
Telling others about it and reorganizing our lives because of it is Religion.
Christianity is the religion that reorganizes itself along the belief that God is speaking to the whole world through Jesus Christ. Christianity is not pristine. It is, after all, a religion. But an encounter with God is. That is revelation.
Why is Christianity on its best day such a dynamic and revolutionary religion? Because the revelation that birthed the personal faith of the founders, which gave rise to both Christianity and the Bible, was dynamic and revolutionary. Christianity as religion is at its best when it is the flip side of the coin to God’s revelation in Christ.
SEEING THROUGH THE COIN: FAITH
Unlike the coin of our earlier analogy, the divide between seeing and not seeing is not opaque like a coin. It is transparent. The divide between revelation and religion is faith.
Faith is not primarily about acting on what we believe. It does not initiate within us. Faith is a response and as such requires something to respond to. Faith begins on the outside. It begins with a moment of reception, a moment of seeing, sensing, hearing, desiring, intuiting, believing, and then taking that first step. That first step is our religion. It is our religion that everyone else sees.
Religion, even the Christian religion, or its product like the Bible, is not revelation. There is a story in the gospel about Jesus who is trying to heal a blind man. His first attempt results in the man being able to see but not interpret what he sees. He looked at the people and they seemed to him to be walking trees. Religion is the voices of the blind arguing about what to make of the walking trees.
Religion serves the revelation and not vice versa. Religion can go off course and can be adjusted to realign itself to the pristine moment when God reveals himself. Some adjustments are clearer than others, some embodiments of the revelation may be purer than others, but in the end, they serve as signposts to an encounter with God.
This God encounter is one that humanity, from its very beginning and across time and space until this very day, has experienced out here in the natural world. Like the lizards who “learned” over eons in the wild to turn colors without knowing why, we search for God. Do we humans have religion because God is out here showing himself to us? Are we, in fact, discovering God or are we inventing Him? Does our biological scripting, our social religious constructs, as well as our personal experiences suggest a mystery? Your answers are your religion.
What do you think?
Why does the Bible have authority?
How can we trust the Bible?
I will discuss these two questions along with my thoughts on
N.T Wright’s essay on the authority of scripture.