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.

Evangelizing the Elect

Check out this video (video #2) on evangelism and election on James Macdonald’s blog featuring Mark Driscoll and Greg Laurie –> http://jamesmacdonald.com/blog/?p=6449

I’ve often been perplexed by the notion that the elect need to be evangelized. After all, if God elects them for salvation of some sort, then why do they need to be made aware of that election? Why would God elect a person but not to the extent that the person understands what God has done? It seems that this position is a way to reconcile what some understand the Bible has to say about election and evangelism. But this leads me to believe that we’ve either misunderstood what the Bible means regarding election or the Biblical authors weren’t on the same page, leaving us with this apparent contradiction. God is sovereign and does all the saving but we need to go out and preach the Gospel because, for some reason, God asks us for our help, even though he doesn’t really need our help…….

Contradictions aren’t bad. The Bible leaves us with all kinds of contradictions and paradoxes that we must wrestle with. I don’t think that discredits the power of the scriptures in any way. If anything, it adds to the power of the scripture. But contradictions and paradoxes aren’t necessarily buzzwords with sort of folks that believe they need to evangelize the elect while the non-elected folks are SOL.

So this clip that I linked to above is really fascinating to me. Here is a grown man devoting his life to a calling that isn’t really necessary when considering the logic of his own theology. Like he said, it’s a “take-your-son-to-work” day but for his whole adult life. This might be a nice way to think about it and I’m sure it makes sense to Pastor Mark but theologically speaking, it’s not really consistent with what he believes. God is either sovereign or he’s not. And if God is sovereign then why would he require us to a calling that doesn’t actually make sense in light of his sovereignty? And it seems that human beings typically do a bad job of representing God’s truth to those around us in the same way that a child disrupts the task at hand when taken to work by mom or dad. So maybe at some point those who believe God is sovereign and that he elects a limited amount of people should just sit back and let God do the work. Otherwise your actions don’t seem follow the logical conclusions of your beliefs and ultimately render them untrustworthy.

Freedom and Stuff Part 2

When we come to the realization that the conclusions we come to aren’t just purely objective in nature, it sets up a lot of really great possibilities. I would say that the most positive realization comes with knowing that we are not our conclusions. While I am a Christian and have certain positions regarding Christianity, that doesn’t define who I am as a human being. The essence of who I am isn’t comprised of my theological positions, political theories or the kind of clothes I wear or the car I drive, etc. The essence of who I am is comprised only of the being that God has created.

Acknowledging that our theological conclusions aren’t a product of who we fundamentally are is critical to developing the kind of empathy needed to move forward in a world where our various theologies are endlessly clashing.

It’s so much easier to demonize your theological other when you operate under the false assumption that your theological conclusion was arrived through an objective process. Evidence for this is so readily available, I say farewell to keeping up. When human beings are convinced that what we believe is simply a matter of believing what is true, disregarding the complicated matrix of consequences in which we develop our ideas, it is the first step in drawing the line between those who are right and those who are wrong.

But if we are able to disassociate the ideas we have from who we are at our core, this is the most critical step in developing a bond between those who might be our theological other. By coming to the realization that we develop our ideas while being influenced by our life experiences, we can see that this is the case with others as well. Rational arguments can be made but they are hardly any match for the power of life experiences and how those experiences shape a human being.

Freedom and Stuff, Part 1

As westerners, especially as Americans, we listen to this song as it the DJ plays it at our friends 90s party and nod our heads. We generally believe that we are free to do whatever we want, any old time with the exception that whatever we choose to do doesn’t infringe on the freedoms of anyone else. We’re free to choose our occupation, our hobbies, our sports teams, the music we listen to, the political candidates we support, etc.. I woke up today in Boise, Idaho and decided that I wanted to eat a bagel for breakfast. I left my hotel, walked a few blocks and proceeded to enjoy a very tasty everything bagel. The freedom to choose our preferences is so deeply ingrained into our society that it is simply unfathomable for us to see it any other way. It’s second nature.

This sense of freedom also bleeds into our religious preferences. The predominant religion in America is Christianity and the predominant form of Christianity in America is predicated on “right belief”. Basically, we get to God by arranging our thoughts about God in just the right way. If someone comes along, say a guy named “Rob,” and suggests that right belief might not be all it’s cracked up to be, people get really upset.

The reason I bring all this up is that underpinning this sense of right belief is the deeply held assumption embedded in our freedom-loving phsyces is that all human beings are completely free to choose what they want to believe. If you are a Christian it is because you objectively chose Christianity over all other religious options available to you. Or if you are a Muslim, it is simply because you’ve chosen to be one.

Absent from this assumption are the other factors that help determine our conclusions such as place of birth, cultural influences, familial influences, economic circumstances, and life experience just to name a few. All of these factors play very important, determinative roles in our decision making. To ignore these factors is to grossly oversimplify and misunderstand how we as human beings come to the conclusions we do.

I’m not saying that we don’t have some amount of freedom to make our choices, but these other, often ignored factors provide a framework that essentially limits or inhibits the kinds of choices we make.

Someone once asked me in an email interview why I was a Christian. I sat a thought about it for a while, trying to be as honest as I could with myself why I believe what I believe and the only really honest answer I could give was because my parents raised me to be a Christian. And it’s likely that I was raised to be a Christian because my grandfather was a Baptist minister and he raised my father to be a Christian. And the fact I was born in America where Christianity is the predominant religion didn’t hurt either. If I had been born in Japan or Saudi Arabia or Jakarta, chances are I would not be a Christian. If I had ardent atheist parents who raised me in a community of atheists where I had a bunch of atheist friends, chances are I’d be an atheist.

To take this a little bit further, a very important reason why I’ve reassessed my faith as a Christian in so many ways has been my life experience directly related to playing in a band. Traveling all over the world, making friends with and working with people who are not Christians. Making friends with atheists, feminists, homosexuals and learning about who they are and listening to their stories has greatly shaped my thinking and the conclusion I’ve come to.

Some might point out that this discredits my convictions. That I simply blow where the cultural winds take me. But the reality is that we are all blowing in the wind and it’s much nicer to be aware of that fact than to be blind to it.

Praying from Privilege

I’ve always loved this scene from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. I often repeat the line, “Did you see what God just did to us?” after something relatively minor happens that didn’t quite go my way, even if (*especially if) whatever happened was my own fault. Just the other day I channeled my inner Benicio Del Torro and tweeted that God hated me because my Macbook power supply stopped working. It’s my subtle attempt to mock the way we approach God, assuming she is out there, worrying about the problems resulting from a life a privilege and decadence. For instance, we have lost the keys and we’re late for an important meeting……”God, where are my keys. Help me find them, PLEASE….GOD!!!” Not stopping for a minute to think that having a car at all is massive privilege that the vast majority of human beings on planet earth could only dream about. Or let’s say you’re on your way to Vegas in a convertible and the bag of cocaine on your lap somehow opens as your stash blows away in the wind. Just think of all the cocaine you have left in your stash and be grateful, right?

Richard Beck, one of my favorite bloggers and theologians, points to a great article that deals with this very dilemma. The article, written by Stephen Weathers, can be found at the Examiner.com – “The Predicaments of Praying from Privilege,”

“In the grand scheme of history, I have never confronted the magnitude of difficulty that befell the vast majority our human ancestors. Pestilence, famine, tribal warfare, drought, sytematic persecution, discrimination, religious violence and hunger are alien concepts to me. I confront them only as newspaper headlines. If I even look around the globe today, the global nexus of journalism opens my western mind to distant moral epidemics that I cannot even contemplate. Oppression of women, the poor and racial minorities around the world is simply staggering.
I set up this rather general backdrop because therein lies my spiritual conundrum. How do I pray before God, taking into account the rather miniscule weight of my problems?”

For me, this hits the nail on the head. I often find myself just ending prayers abruptly in mid-sentence as I hear myself saying things and can only imagine God rolling her eyes at my petty petitions. God doesn’t give a shit about my career or my Macbook power supply. If that’s the case I might as well pray to God that she sees to it that Sam Adams brews their Octoberfest beer all year long.

When I’ve confessed this with those close to me, I often get the push back that I’m limiting God and that may very well be true. But if God gave me this brain and this is the brain where things have to make sense, then I can’t really take seriously the thought that God is concerned with the vast majority of whatever personal problems I might experience from day to day.

This is why contemplative prayer appeals to me. It leaves petitions at the door and creates the space to open ourselves to what God petitions for us. Our circumference problems, our ego, our bags of cocaine dissipate into the wind. Only then can we sit silently, allowing the noise of our desires to slowly fade while we wait for God’s voice to fill the void.

When Belief Has Begun to Slip


“There’s a symptom apparent in America right now. It’s evident in political talk shows, in entertainment coverage, in artistic criticism of every kind, in religious discussion…

We are living in a culture of extreme advocacy, of confrontation, of judgment and of verdict. Discussion has given way to debate. Communication has become a contest of wills. Public talking has become obnoxious and insincere. Why? Maybe it’s because, deep down under the chatter, we have come to a place where we know that we don’t know … anything. But nobody’s willing to say that…

What is Doubt? Each of us is like a planet. There’s the crust, which seems eternal. We are confident about who we are. If you ask, we can readily describe our current state. I know my answers to so many questions, as do you. What was your father like? Do you believe in God? Who’s your best friend? What do you want? Your answers are your current topography, seemingly permanent, but deceptively so. Because under that face of easy response, there is another You. And this wordless Being moves just as the instant moves; it presses upward without explanation, fluid and wordless, until the resisting consciousness has no choice but to give way.

It is Doubt, so often experienced initially as weakness, that changes things. When a man feels unsteady, when he falters, when hard-won knowledge evaporates before his eyes, he’s on the verge of growth. The subtle or violent reconciliation of the outer person and the inner core often seems at first like a mistake. Like you’ve gone the wrong way and you’re lost. But this is just emotion longing for the familiar. Life happens when the tectonic power of your speechless soul breaks through the dead habits of the mind. Doubt is nothing less than an opportunity to reenter the Present…

There is an uneasy time when belief has begun to slip, but hypocrisy has yet to take hold, when the consciousness is disturbed but not yet altered. It is the most dangerous, important and ongoing experience of life. The beginning of change is the moment of Doubt. It is that crucial moment when I renew my humanity or become a lie.

Doubt requires more courage than conviction does, and more energy; because conviction is a resting place and doubt is infinite; it is a passionate exercise. You may come out of my play uncertain. You may want to be sure. Look down on that feeling. We’ve got to learn to live with a full measure of uncertainty. There is no last word. That’s the silence under the chatter of our time.”

— John Patrick Shanley in an introduction to his play, Doubt.

(HT: Experimental Theology)

Testify to Invisible Love

“If love were only spiritual,
the practices of fasting and prayer would not
The gifts of lovers to one another are,
in respect to love, nothing but forms;
yet, they testify
to invisible love.”

– Rumi, Mathnawi

As you might infer from a few of my previous posts, I’m on a Rumi kick. You can read about Rumi here. Shambala Library has published a fantastic collection of Rumi’s poems and I’ve been wandering through this book a lot ever since I picked it up on a whim. Like all good poetry, his poems trip you up in the midst of day to day life in a way that ushers in wonder and vitality. I’m sure I’ll post more selections because they seem to be never-ending.