Religion often gets a bad rap. From the infamous saying by Christopher Hitchens “religion poisons everything,” to my own disdain for religion and anything religious. Yes, I am a Baptist pastor, and yes, I sometimes agree with Christopher Hitchens that religion can poison everything. Religion has destroyed many lives.
However, when it comes to the topic of religion, Christianity is compelling for two reasons.
Christianity provides a compelling account for why there is religion in the first place. While walking through Athens, Paul was impressed and disturbed by the amount of religious devotion he saw:
16 While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols. . . .Paul then stood up in the meeting of the Areopagus and said: “People of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. 23 For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: to an unknown god. So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship—and this is what I am going to proclaim to you. Acts 16,17:22-23 NIV
Walking through Athens is much like taking a walk through all the world throughout history; being religious has been the default for humanity. There is a religious impulse, a desire, a reaching to grasp hold of something greater than ourselves. You might think otherwise if you are a Westerner, but even here in secular Canada, spiritualities and religions are still very popular despite an education that is very much slanted toward scientism.
Why is there such a religious impulse among people? Why do we seem to be different from animals in this respect? C.S. Lewis, in his book “Mere Christianity,” points out that we have desires that correspond to things that exist. So for example, we desire food, and food exists. We desire sex, and there is such a thing as sex. So too with our spiritual longings. Our longings for something greater than ourselves point to there being something, or Someone greater than ourselves, namely God. If we evolved from a purely natural process and there is no God, then why do we have any spiritual inclination at all? Christianity provides a compelling reason as to why religion exists; because God exists and He created us for relationship with Him.
Christianity provides a compelling vision for religion. Not all religion is created equal. Again, Christopher Hitchens is sometimes correct in saying that “religion poisons everything.” But only sometimes!
Among various world-views there are different visions for religion, that is, what religion is supposed to do or accomplish. Some religious people are focused on escape. The purpose of religion is to help you escape the troubles of this world and enter Nirvana, or heaven. Other religious people, however, are focused on rules, regulations, and the consequences of obedience or disobedience. Sometimes those rules and regulations make no sense, but if a deity has given them, they must be obeyed, no matter who gets hurt. The purpose of religion is to keep people in line and ensure everyone gets their just deserts whether through bad karma or divine punishment. So where do Christians find themselves in these two differing visions for religion?
Some will point to the apostle Paul’s famous expression, “salvation by grace through faith” (see Ephesians 2:8) and say that escape is the vision for the Christian religion. The Christian will therefore say “I’ve got my golden ticket gotta here, I’m forgiven!”. Others will point to the famous expression of James, “faith without works is dead” (see James 2:17) and say the vision for the Christian religion is rules, obedience, and punishment. The Christian will therefore either say “I have failed yet again,” or, “look at how good I am.” Why do Paul and James have differing visions for religion? Which is correct?
Actually those two visions for religion we outlined miss the mark for what Christianity is about. Paul and James are not giving competing visions for religion, they are looking at two different aspects of our relationship with God. Let me give the example of a marriage relationship. When Paul says of our relationship with God that “salvation is by grace through faith,” it would be like Paul saying to me “you are married, not because you deserve Sandra, nor because you chose to be married, but because she said ‘yes.’ She chose to be married to you!”. When James says of our relationship with God that “faith without works is dead,” it would be like James saying to me “a marriage with no time spent together, no communication, and no serving of one another, is dead.” It is as if Paul is speaking about the marriage covenant signed on the wedding day and how we got to that place, while James is focused on how marriage is lived out every day since.
Now consider the two competing visions for religion we spoke of earlier. Suppose my wife said to me on our wedding day, “I love you and want to be married to you today, but on the day in which you are less than perfect, we are done.” I would not be married for very long! So too, a relationship with God that is focused on our performance would not last long at all. Now suppose I said to my wife on our wedding day, “go on the honeymoon without me,” then on her return said “good, I’m glad you are back, I now need to go on a fifty year mission trip and will not be able to be in touch too often. See you on our 50th!” That would not be a marriage, that would be an arrangement. So too, a relationship with God that is focused only on one’s technical standing before Him, one that is focused only on escape and getting to heaven. Being forgiven so as to get to heaven without an ongoing relationship with God is not a covenant relationship so much as an arrangement. Marriage is life-changing and is to be for life. The vision for religion as expressed by Christianity is a life-changing relationship with God that extends into eternity. This is neither escape, nor performance.
Paul and James are not promoting different visions for Christianity, they are speaking about different aspects of our relationship with God. What is the Christian vision for religion, then? An everlasting relationship with God that changes everything. We experience God’s love in Christ. We learn to love like Christ. We experience God’s life-changing presence through His Spirit. We learn to keep in step with the Spirit.
But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. 24 Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. 25 Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit. Galatians 5:22-25 NIV
So much religion is about our reaching God. Christianity is about God reaching us, in fact reaching right into our hearts and massaging them back to life.
Many translations use the word religion in James 1:27:
Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world. James 1:27 NIV
Here the Christian religion is not poison, but a solid example of the expression of love, the fruit of the Spirit. It is what happens through a relationship with God. This is a very positive thing in our lives, and in our world. The Christian vision for religion is compelling. It is more compelling than religion that is focused merely on escape or obedience. It is more compelling than a vision of no religion which recognizes the need for goodness in our world, but cannot provide an anchor for such. Religion certainly can poison everything. Atheism can poison everything too. A life-changing relationship with God, however, can heal anything.
The yearnings for a higher power point to the reality of God. The love of God enables us to enter into a life-changing, society-changing, world-changing covenant relationship with Him. Christianity provides a compelling account of, and vision for, religion.