Friday, January 31, 2014

Can You Be a Christian and Not Be "Religious"?

This question comes up a lot and usually is answered with something like "I'm spiritual not religious, as though that's somehow better. That's kind of like saying, "I'm a lifeguard, but I don't actually go in for all that throwing ring buoys and rescuing drowning people."  Let's not buy into the anti-religion propaganda just because someone says being religious is bad, shall we?

A religion is a system of beliefs according to Webster and "usually based on a belief in a deity". According to the actual English usage as codified by a reliable dictionary, religion is not the pejorative many would have you believe. A religion is not necessarily a church with all its trappings. It can be argued that atheism, a very strict belief system in its own right, is a religion. James said this: "Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world." (James 1:27)

How a person practices his or her religion, may be delightful to his or her fellow humans or obnoxious. If I am caring for the "widows and orphans" and trying my best to be "unstained by the world" some people may find me pleasant and a delight to live next door to. My neighbor with whom I have had many lovely chats about religion (he's a Christian Scientist) once said we were the nicest Christian people he'd ever known. It's what we were going for by adhering to the Golden Rule as best we could. His reaction to us was a direct result of us being "religious".

If by "religious", you mean self-righteous and obnoxious, the problem dear friend is that you misunderstand the definition of "religious". Religious merely means true to your belief system. If you are an obnoxious Jehovah's Witness, Primitive Baptist, Adventist or Atheist and you are a downright unpleasant fellow, you are nonetheless practicing your religious beliefs, even though, especially in the case of Adventists, you may be totally at variance with the actual teaching of the church. I don't recall "Thou shalt be self-righteous and obnoxious" as being one of the 27 Fundamental Beliefs.

Being a "Christian" (which is a system of beliefs) and being "religious" (which is the practice of a set of beliefs), while not exactly the same thing are inextricably intertwined. You can believe in the Christian belief system without practicing those beliefs but it really plays merry hob with your head. I think the prophecy that this age's church would be lukewarm referred directly to this trend of "believing" without putting a lot of effort into practicing your beliefs.

I am religious. I am unashamed to be so.
If I practice my beliefs as Christ did, not everyone will like me. Jesus told us this would be true. He said, "“Blessed are you when they revile and persecute you, and say all kinds of evil against you falsely for My sake. Rejoice and be exceedingly glad, for great is your reward in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you." (Matt. 5:11-12).

If they hated and persecuted Jesus simply for being who he was, what makes us think that if we quit being "religious" that we will escape criticism or worse by evil people. The question is not whether we can avoid being "religious" and still maintain our Christianity. The question is actually whether we are avoiding being Christian by not being religious. I don't think you can separate the two.

If we accept our enemy's attempts to redefine the idea of being "religious" to mean some kind of bad or irritating behavior, then we accept the idea that Christian behavior should be hidden from the world because it offends them.  When I was a kid, I endured a lot of bullying. Bullies torment others who "irritate" them. Usually the source of this irritation that bullies feel is any act by another that shows them up or makes them look bad because they're too lazy to study or too ignorant to contribute something worthwhile to their community, be that a family, school, town, city or nation. Bullies seek to make things that irritate them into unacceptable behavior by intimidation. That's what all this redefinition of what it means to be religious is about. It's an effort by the prince of darkness to make anyone, who disagrees with how the world's dominant set of "religious beliefs" behaves, to sit down and shut up. And by religious beliefs I mean the screwed up bastardized unconscious cultural "religious" beliefs of the unchurched. These beliefs include a vague idea of some undefined spiritual force that doesn't worry too much about sex, drugs or rock n' roll, reincarnation and past lives, people becoming angels when they die, and a loose bucketful of Greek, Roman and pagan mythology. Apparently, if you're not really sure what you believe these days, you don't have to feel any guilt about your behavior being at odds with what you believe.

Artist Ned Cartledge's piece titled Don't Hide Your Light Under a Bushel © by NEd Cartledge

The Bible, however, says that if we are silent about what we believe, the very rocks will cry out. If we hide our light, our light will go out and we too will be left in darkness. It's perfectly okay, even noble to be "religious". It simply takes some courage and Jesus even promises to supply that along with the grace to do it as he did it. But even "gentle Jesus meek and mild" was hated so much that the "religious" leaders plotted to kill him. There's "religious" and there's "religious". How religion is practiced is based on the person's underlying belief system and there may be beliefs in that system that aren't spelled out in the catechism or the 27 fundamental beliefs. Without a clearly defined belief system, it's little wonder so many people are morally and spiritually adrift these days.

So can you call yourself a Christian and not be religious? Sure. You can call yourself a rutabaga and never go into the soup, but what's the point? There will apparently be a lot of guys like that at the final judgement. The trouble for them is that God does not know any of them. I think I prefer to be recognizable as a Christian when it comes to that point.

What do you think?

© 2014 by Tom King