Why You’re Religious Regardless of What Your Bumper Sticker Says

Definition of RELIGIOUS

: relating to or manifesting faithful devotion to an acknowledged ultimate reality or deity
: of, relating to, or devoted to religious beliefs or observances
a : scrupulously and conscientiously faithful

It interesting to observe folks in the Christian culture who’ve made it a kind of religious practice to minimize “religion.” The common refrain we hear is that the Gospel is not religion or that Christianity is a relationship, not a religion. When I see people make this distinction I want give them a dictionary with the word “religious” bookmarked for their convenience. It’s clear they’re operating with a flawed meaning.

Ken Wilber, in his book The Sociable God, made observation that might be helpful here. He writes,

“It has recently become commonplace to differentiate “religion” and “spirituality,” which is yet another interesting definition. According to this view, “religion” is institutional, rigid, dogmatic, and authoritarian, whereas “spirituality” is alive, vital, experiential and personal. This judgment, common among Baby Boomer writers, may contain a degree of truth, but it often tends to obscure more than illumine, because it soon becomes apparent that “spiritual” here simply means a religious truth or experience that is true for me, but if that spiritual truth gets passed on to another person, and certainly if it gets passed on to another generation, then it must by definition become institutionalized. It soon becomes apparent that individuals who use the distinction between “religion” and “spirituality” are pointing to a spiritual truth for themselves, but they haven’t given much thought what happens if they wanted to pass this spiritual experience or truth on to another human being, because as soon as they do so, their “spirituality” starts to look a lot like “religion.” In other words, in most cases of how these words are used, “spirituality” is simply religion for me; once my spirituality is shared with another, or passed on to another generation, then I am faced with all the same problems of “religion” that I temporarily avoided by introducing the distinction.”

Once we begin to establish a shared journey with others in order to seek out truths about who we are and who God is, we are participants in religious activity. Let’s say you meet every Sunday with some of your friends and family to worship and learn about your God, you are being religious. Let’s say every week or once a quarter you take communion. You nibble on bread and drink grape juice which are symbols of Christ’s body. Sorry to break it to you but that’s a religious practice. If you decide to adorn your back windshield with stickers indicating to your fellow drivers that you’re “saved by grace” and that Christianity is “not a religion but a relationship,” you’re ironically engaging in a religiously motivated activity.

This distinction seems to be motivated by folks who have objections to the worship practices that are different from their own. You might hear from these folks that religion is this while the Gospel is that. As a person who was raised in a Baptist church, I’m well aware of this anxiety. When I visited a Methodist church as a kid, I was totally thrown for a loop. “What’s up with that dude’s robe,” I thought to myself. “This isn’t how WE take communion!” or “What the fuck is Lent?” The worship practices of others can be unsettling for some but that doesn’t mean they should be demonized. The reality is that we are all religious while our methods of worship vary and that’s something we should all be thankful for. The Gospel can’t be reduced to religious activity but we can’t communally reorient ourselves to truth of God’s message without being religious. Thank God we have Baptists and Episcopalians and Catholics and the Eastern Orthodox and everyone in between.


2 thoughts on “Why You’re Religious Regardless of What Your Bumper Sticker Says

  1. “Thank God we have Baptists and Episcopalians and Catholics and the Eastern Orthodox and everyone in between.”

    …and Hindus, and Muslims, and Jews, Buddhists, agnostics, atheists, tribal animists, new agers, and especially thank God for our worst enemies. I suppose religious tribes can be healthy, but far more often they seem to harden into identity sub-cultures, defined more by ideological differences than a common empathy based in love and forgiveness. Perhaps Love Itself is the true tribe, the very fabric of our shared existence.

    “let the beauty of what you love be what you do.” -Rumi

    Zach I have an extra ticket to the Fiesta Bowl. Ping email if u want to go with me and Daniel. (he wants to go to Stanford, so we’ve been going to the games).

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