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Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Where Religion Meets Relationship

I'm sure you've heard it (or said it) before. "It's not a religion; it's a relationship!" Now, let's be serious, folks. Say what you will, but religion is defined as "a set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe, especially when considered as the creation of a superhuman agency." In all fairness, Christianity is that. The truth, on the other hand, is that Christianity is set apart from other religions in that it is a relationship. A primary definition of a Christian, in fact, is to be known by God. (See, for instance, Gal. 4:9 and Matt. 7:23.) So where do religion and relationship collide?

Religion is the sterile term that consists of "a set of beliefs" -- doctrine. It is orthodoxy -- right thinking. Relationship, on the other hand, is dynamic. It isn't a simple set of beliefs. It is intimacy, harmony, a state of real time interaction. One is the right set of doctrines and the other is an active dependence.

One of my favorite movies is the original Muppet Movie from 1979. In one scene Kermit and Fozzie Bear look inside a church where a rock band is playing loud, peppy music. Fozzie says to Kermit, "They don't look like Presbyterians to me." We laugh. What is the punchline? What makes it funny? Well, we know that Presbyterians -- the orthodox in general -- are dour people. Some refer to it as "cold orthodoxy". While Pentecostals are rolling in the aisles, the ones with the most correct theology, it seems, are frowning at each other in church. It seems that you can have loose beliefs and be joyful or rigidly correct beliefs and be dismal. And this, dear friends, is a lie.

You see, James says we are to "count it all joy" when trials occur because we count on the sovereignty of God to make it work out. Paul assured us that "God causes all things to work together for good", so we have no need to worry about anything. The first three items on the list titled "fruit of the Spirit" are "love, joy, peace." Paul commanded ... repeatedly that we "rejoice". Further, read folks like Jonathan Edwards (best known for Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God) and you'll find entire passages on Religious Affections, the reasons that we should "rejoice with joy unspeakable" (1 Peter 1:8).

Where does religion meet relationship? It's when you find orthodoxy and recognize that it cannot produce anything less than joy. In fact, I don't believe it is possible to have "cold orthodoxy". Orthodox Christianity maintains that God is sovereign and omnipotent and loving and good. How can that result in anything less than joy for the believer? Orthodoxy holds that death has no sting for us and that in Christ we are more than conquerors. How can that be dour?

If you believe that you are correct in your doctrine, but don't find it particularly compelling, perhaps you're practicing a religion. If you find that your religion doesn't bring you joy, it is entirely possible that it doesn't include a relationship with Christ. That religion may appear correct, but it isn't. If you suffer from sour religion, perhaps you're not paying attention. Perhaps you're missing that vital relationship.

21 comments:

Unknown said...

How does your definition of religion here mesh with that that James gives?

Stan said...

1. It doesn't. The James definition isn't the English definition. We've talked about this before, however. If you are going to insist on using only the biblical uses of terms, you will find it very hard to communicate with human beings.

2. It does correspond in that my primary point was that "religion" is indeed part of Christianity.

I'm writing to English-speaking people. I have to use their language. If I don't use definitions they know or at least supply definitions they can use, I will be unable to communicate with my targeted English-speaking audience. You may prefer a purist approach -- "Only define things as the Bible does" -- but that will severely hamper your ability to communicate.

Unknown said...

The last time I checked, James had been translated into English.

You do indeed agree that 'religion' is a part of Christianity. However I really don't see the point (theologically speaking) in discussing the meaning of a word that is used by 'the world', when God has given us a meaning for that same word, and a meaning that flies in the face of that same world. Should we concentrate on what the world means by 'saved' or 'redeemed' (like buying things on sale or using supermarket coupons) over against what we read in Scripture?

James' use of the word 'religion' is used in contrast to, for example, the Jews 'religion'. He points out what is important in relgion, what is pure and undefiled. My brother, think on these things... and you will indeed speak the truth.

It is written:

19Wherefore, my beloved brethren, let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath:

20For the wrath of man worketh not the righteousness of God.

21Wherefore lay apart all filthiness and superfluity of naughtiness, and receive with meekness the engrafted word, which is able to save your souls.

22But be ye doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving your own selves.

23For if any be a hearer of the word, and not a doer, he is like unto a man beholding his natural face in a glass:

24For he beholdeth himself, and goeth his way, and straightway forgetteth what manner of man he was.

25But whoso looketh into the perfect law of liberty, and continueth therein, he being not a forgetful hearer, but a doer of the work, this man shall be blessed in his deed.

26If any man among you seem to be religious, and bridleth not his tongue, but deceiveth his own heart, this man's religion is vain.

27Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world.

Stan said...

Okay, von, you're right. Why should we use terms that the world understands when we communicate with the world? Let's just use biblical terms.

Christians argue all the time, "It's not a religion, it's a relationship." Now, there are a couple of possibilities when they do that. One is that they're failing to read their Bibles and understand that James explains what religion is and how it works in Christianity (which means that Christianity includes "religion" in James's use of the term). OR, they're using the term that the world intends and explaining that there is a fundamental difference between the world's definition and what Christianity is.

But, here ... you help me out. There is a word that the world uses to express "a set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe, especially when considered as the creation of a superhuman agency." Since that word is reserved in your vocabulary for something else, could you please offer me a word that fits this definition and then I can substitute it so that I can both communicate with the people around me (who understand that word) and remain biblical.

(Do what you want, Von. Trust me ... standing on "the Bible defines it as ___" and then using the term without defining it as if it is the same term that everyone else is using will not result in communication with everyone else. If "I will only use the terms the Bible does and only as the Bible does" is your stand, expect to have a complete failure of communication.)

Unknown said...

Christians argue all the time, "It's not a religion, it's a relationship." Now, there are a couple of possibilities when they do that. One is that they're failing to read their Bibles and understand that James explains what religion is and how it works in Christianity

Yes. That is what they are doing. And a post from you (or me, etc.) telling them that they are all wet about what true religion is, would be a very edifying post.

Is Christianity a religion? No, it is a relationship. Does it lead to a religion? Certainly, read James.

Unknown said...

"a set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe, especially when considered as the creation of a superhuman agency."

Where did you get this definition? The wikipedia lists:

A religion is a set of tenets and practices, often centered upon specific supernatural and moral claims about reality, the cosmos, and human nature, and often codified as prayer, ritual, or religious law

Which is much closer to James. James teaches us that true religion is belief (the engrafted word)leading to action (doer of the work, visiting the fatherless and widows, keeping oneself unspotted); very close to the wikipedia "tenets and practices".

So, if anything, James uses the correct English definition (modifying it to 'true' religion, of course, ie believe in Christ and resulting action) more than you do.

Stan said...

That's it. I'm throwing out my dictionaries. There is no use in referring to them. Since I cannot trust the Random House Unabridged Dictionary or the American Heritage Dictionary, there is no point in using dictionaries. I think, in the future, I'll simply define terms as I see fit and ignore everyone else.

Blurble zeep dot qaf flr diffak!

(And you apparently can't give me a term that means "a set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe, especially when considered as the creation of a superhuman agency.")

Unknown said...

Leaving out the 'especially' part, I would say 'philosophy'. The philosophy of Christians, for example, can be referred to as Christian Theism.

Stan said...

So ... in your estimation, if I told Bob in the cubicle next to me, "There are lots of philosophies in the world," he would instantly understand that I was suggesting that there are lots of "sets of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe, especially when considered as the creation of a superhuman agency." Right? In your estimation, "a set of beliefs about God" and "any set of beliefs at all" are essentially the same thing. Right?

Unknown said...

You perhaps missed that I said 'leaving out the especially part'?

Given his intelligence and education, Bob may or may not understand what 'philosophy' means.

I would probably say that there were lots of religions in the world... and Bob would probably understand that 'religion' does not merely mean beliefs but also the related actions.

Can one have a true belief that is not lived out in actions? James denies it.

Stan said...

Seriously ... are you disagreeing with my post because I didn't mention "practice"?

I don't know. Perhaps I'm not cut out to be a blogger. One reader informed me that I'm totally pessimistic because I believe humans are sinners. Several have told me that they don't understand what I'm saying. You routinely wish to correct what I write because I have either used a word you wouldn't or I haven't written an entire explanation of a whole concept when I'm talking about ... something else. (The point, for instance, of this post was NOT "religion" and its definition, but about the ludicrous concept of "cold orthodoxy".) I don't seem to communicate well (while I'm telling you that you will likely have communication problems -- ironic, eh?). Perhaps I should stop trying.

Unknown said...

If you will recall, my original question was 'How does your definition of religion here mesh with that that James gives?'

It was you, and not I, who said 'It doesn't'. Hadn't really intended to get into a big definition fight. Wanted to focus the discussion on the ways in which we do 'have religion' and that James listed. Wanted, as I always do, to get back to what 'is written'.

Stan said...

Just for info ... "religion" wasn't the point of the post. I hadn't intended a complete examination of the topic of religion, what James meant, and what the Bible has to say about it. What I intended was to get across that knowing the truth about God and doctrine produces a positive response, not a "cold" response. That was what I intended. As I said, I missed it. I am not the communicator I wish I was.

Unknown said...

That being your point, James adds to it:

"Knowing the truth about God and doctrine produces a positive response...." Including correct action, as James points out. True doctrine (orthodoxy) if truly believed will always produce true practice (orthopraxy).

Stan said...

Anything else you'd like to add?

Unknown said...

If you believe that you are correct in your doctrine, but don't find it particularly compelling, perhaps you're practicing a religion. If you find that your religion doesn't bring you joy, it is entirely possible that it doesn't include a relationship with Christ. That religion may appear correct, but it isn't. If you suffer from sour religion, perhaps you're not paying attention. Perhaps you're missing that vital relationship.

How about, ... perhaps you're practicing a *false* religion. You are worshiping, you are not serving Christ. You are serving yourself, you are serving Satan, but you are not serving the Lord of Joy.

And if you claim to have religion, but it makes no difference in what you actually do... then again you are not serving Christ. For He said that those who love Him will obey His commandments.

No?

Stan said...

In my mind, that would miss the point. In fact, it would be the point you made earlier: "Can one have a true belief that is not lived out in actions?" Or, in the terms of the post, a relationship with Christ produces an unavoidable response. If you don't have that response, you may not have that relationship. (Or, more to the point, if your activities that are considered "religion" aren't producing an inner response that a relationship with Christ will produce, you may not be saved.) Frankly, a "false religion" (which, I suspect, even some Christians follow at times) isn't nearly as concerning as damnation.

Unknown said...

Frankly, a "false religion" (which, I suspect, even some Christians follow at times) isn't nearly as concerning as damnation.


Interesting. Are you saying that one may have a false religion while having a true faith? (or true relationship?)

Stan said...

Until one arrives at perfect doctrine (you know, like you and I) that is reflected in perfect living (you know like ... well, I guess only Christ), I'd say "Yes." That is, if "religion" is defined (in shorthand) as the practices of faith, one might practice incorrectly.

DagoodS said...

Stan: One reader informed me that I'm totally pessimistic because I believe humans are sinners.

Hmmm…who was that Masked Blogger? *wink*

I find most American Christians (if not all) want Christianity to be defined as a “religion” when the word “religion” is used in the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.

Stan said...

I would argue that most Christians who argue "It's a relationship, not a religion!" aren't actually thinking it through very far. (Like you said, if it is not a religion, as an example, then it has no constitutional protection.)