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Religion, It’s Not What We Think

Photo by Milada Vigerova on Unsplash

A Story…

I was pretty excited about my faith. I had become completely and utterly given to pursuing Christ. Paul’s statement, “I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead. (Philippians 3:10-11)” had become my own personal life goal.

Do you know what happened? I became a pretty horrible person.

No really, I was a total jerk (the real word is inappropriate for a pastor’s blog post).

Paul had walked through a lot. He had faced death for his faith. Paul was someone who knew what it cost to follow Jesus.

I didn’t. My world was relatively easy. Hardship? Not really. Hurts? A few. Persecuted and abused for my faith? What a laughable idea. When Paul wrote this, he had known all these things and then some. I had to create a persecution complex and build some sense of suffering. You read that right, I created my own sense of persecution, suffering, and hardship.

How did I do that?

By being an absolute jerk.

My heroes were men who tore other people’s “worldviews apart.” These were men would leave people in tears in their airplane seats because they “obliterated” their belief systems so they could see their need for Jesus. These were my heroes. Culture warriors contending for Jesus in the public square with a devotion-filled ruthlessness.

I learned well and was soon tearing people apart, metaphorically, on college campuses and beyond.

One of my opening gambits was that I was not contending for religion but for a “personal relationship” with Jesus.

I Was Right!

There are few things more correct than what I said I was doing back then. I was definitely not contending for religion. Everything I was doing in those early days was decidedly the opposite of religion.

Our word, “religion”, comes from Latin. Cicero is credited as coining the term. Originally, his usage was re-legere, which would have meant something like re-lecture or re-read. But, it was not long before the concept was tied to religare, meaning, re-bind (ligare is where we get our word, ligament). 1

I was definitely right. I was not someone who was helping to re-bind. There was no bringing people to together. By and large I understood my responsibility was to separate people from their false views of God. Only then could I even begin to possibly help them re-connect. But, if I’m honest with myself I don’t think that I ever got there. The vast majority of my own life was spent finding the ways that I was wrong to correct and then help others find the ways they were wrong.

Religion was lost on me.

What If…

In Greek the word that translates to religion carries with it a sense of devotion or piety. The most famous passage about “religion” in the New Testament might be from James 1.

Those who consider themselves religious and yet do not keep a tight rein on their tongues deceive themselves, and their religion is worthless. 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 1:26-27, NIV

As I’ve dug into the word a bit, I don’t really like the translation. I think I like the word devotion is better.

If those who claim devotion to God don’t control what they say, they mislead themselves. Their devotion is worthless. True devotion, the kind that is pure and faultless before God the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their difficulties and to keep the world from contaminating us.

James 1:26-27, Common English Bible

In our world, devotion and religion are pretty clearly separated. Religion for many of us is rooted in institutions, rules, and systems. But, that’s not really the heart of it. Religion, best understood is the bringing together of people with one another and with the divine. Devotion is an aspect of that. I was devoted to God. But, my devotion was pretty worthless because it was about doing the opposite of what a pure and faultless devotion would have been.

It’s interesting that pure and faultless devotion according to James was one that was caring for orphans and widows and keeping the world from contaminating us. To care for orphans and widows would have meant bringing them in from the fringes of the community and incorporating them into the whole. It would have been, in a very real sense, practicing religion.

Do you know what isn’t there? Pretty much all of what we consider to be important stuff in contemporary Christian faith. It fascinates me that there’s no mention of budgets, butts, or buildings. There’s no talk of converting people. What was pure and faultless was bringing the outsider into solidarity with the larger community.

Religious is Spiritual

It turns out that the idea of “spiritual but not religious,” isn’t really accurate. Most of the folks that I know who are “spiritual but not religious” care for those on the fringes deeply. They are practicing the art of religion all the time.

To be truly spiritual we must be religious.

Maybe this is why we have so many problems caused by religion today? Perhaps it’s because we have mistook devotion for religion? What if churches, synagogues, mosques, and other communities of worship decided to focus on religion in the sense of re-binding and bringing together? What if those of us who sought to follow Jesus or are wading deep into the divine mystery focused our attention on finding solidarity with all those around us?

// Footnotes //
  1. The etymology of religion can be found here[]

4 thoughts on “Religion, It’s Not What We Think”

  1. I get the caring for orphans and widows. What do you think, “ keeping the world from contaminating us,” means? I have to admit that gives me a bit of a gut level shiver. Visions of Jean skirts and long hair!

    1. Great question! I too initially had the same gut shiver. As I consider the broader context of what James is writing about here, I think he’s pointing to something very different from jean skirts and long hair. I would argue that, that the “contamination of the world,” is directly related to the issue of favoritism in chapter 2. The “world” defaults to favoritism which pushes the widow and orphan and the poor to the side. The way of Jesus is to understand that those on the fringes are just as important as the ones who are front and center in the world.

      Does that make sense?

  2. Dan,
    When I see “contamination of the world” it makes me think of greed. Not only greed for money and material things, but greed for fame (fleeting as it is, as we all become “food for worms”). I think about the “influencers” and “tik tok stars” and wonder how we ever got to the point where those kind of people (I’m judging here) became more famous and followed than those who live good lves and do good works.

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