Monday, February 11, 2008

Faith and Religion

Longtime friend and fellow blogger Thoughts From the Sugar Bowl webmaster Torch posted the following regarding faith and religion.

Religion sets boundaries. Faith transcends them.

Religion is a set of rules. Faith is a relationship.

Religion is static. Faith is dynamic, always changing.

Religion encourages conservativism. Faith encourages progress.

Religion seeks to tell you what you cannot do. Faith gives you the freedom to do anything.

Religion starts wars. Faith ends them.

Religion says “we’ll love you if you look like us.” Faith says “we love you just the way you are.”

Religion hates the sin. Faith loves the sinner.

I understand where Torch and many others are coming from when they say this. Torch has good reason to dislike organized religion. Lots of folks do. But to say one thing is faith, and another religion, is as false a dichotomy as Philip Pullman saying he doesn't write fantasy just so he doesn't have to belong to the same club as C.S. Lewis. I know wonderfully "spiritual" people who attend very conservative and traditional churches. I also know legalistic "religious" types who don't attend church.

I guess it depends on our definition of religion; however, coming up with a definition for religion is easier said than done. To illustrate just how slippery an undertaking the definition of the word “religion” has proven to be, religious scholars Carl Olson and Willi Braun share nearly identical anecdotal examples recalling undergraduate students enrolled in introductory religion courses producing a multiplicity of definitions for the study or nature of religion. Olson goes on to catalogue a few scholarly opinions on the nature of religion, such as Protestant theologian Paul Tillich, who attempted a definition others found “useful” while Wilfred Cantwell Smith saw the definition of religion as “ultimately unnecessary”. Given the anecdotes alongside the scholar’s polarized opinion on the usefulness of the definition of religion, the reader is to understand that this is not an easily reconcilable issue. As Braun quotes Jonathan Smith as saying, it isn’t that religion lacks a definition, but that “it can be defined, with greater or lesser success, more than fifty ways”.

I like atheist scholar Bruce Lincoln's definition as "that discourse whose defining characteristics are the practice of speaking of things eternal and transcendent with an authority equally transcendent and eternal." In effect, anyone can have religion, and just about anything can be religion. Emile Durkheim stated that "all known religious beliefs, whether simple or complex, present one common characteristic: they presuppose a classification of all the things, real and ideal, of which men think, into two classes or opposed the words profane and sacred." Durkheim went on to suggest that by "sacred things one must not understand simply those personal beings which are called gods or spirits; a rock, a tree, a spring, a pebble, a piece of wood, a house, in a word anything can be sacred".

So the 'spiritual' person, who has 'faith' and not 'religion' has a religion (according to Lincoln and Durkheim) wherein going to a building, being part of an institution, wearing a suit to religious assemblies and having an imposed ethical code is profane. Being able to have a beer at a Bible Study, not have to get up Sunday morning, not having fights with other believers over issues like drums vs. piano are sacred. Torch's manifesto states that religion sets boundaries, but to demarcate between 'faith' and 'religion' is a boundary. It implies we know the right way of doing things and those who don't are religious pharisees. I blame Bono personally, for saying "I don't see Jesus Christ as being in any part of a religion. Religion is the Temple after God has left it". Nice, neat and tidy. Religion= bad. Spirituality or faith = good.

The trouble here is that we've elevated ourselves when we make that sort of distinction, and become guilty of the same sort of elitist supercilious gaze we accuse the "religious" of. And what's really meant by "religion" when we boil this all down? The Sunday School teacher who threw Bibles as a means of discipline? The church board that fired you? The pastor who made you confess a premarital pregnancy or extramarital affair to the whole bloody church assembly? The parent who disowned you when they found out your were gay? The institution who refused you a job because you were a divorcee? Let's be honest. We don't mean religion. We mean churches, mosques and synagogues. Organized religion vs. disorganized I guess.

There is an associated outworking of this "faith vs. religion" "spirituality vs. church" dichotomy, the movement to denounce current modes of Christian church practice based upon the idea that the church was perfect and pristine in the first century, and somewhere between the apostles and the Emergent Church, everything got utterly fucked up. I've been web-branded as a "leader in the Emergent Church movement", which is not exactly true. It's fair to say that I've advocated for what the Emergent Church was becoming ten years ago, but after working an extremely traditional Mennonite church while simultaneously volunteering as a leader in an Emergent church, I've come to a conclusion. Neither had any magic formula to save Christianity in the new Millennium. Both had very similar codependencies which were only different on the surface; the traditional church resisted services where contemporary music was employed while the emergent church resisted services where traditional music was employed. Same problem, different tempo.

This movement to discern the original, pristine, apostolic church is a misguided one from the outset for a number of reasons. Firstly, the apostolic church was not pristine. It was as messed up as the church is today. They fought over different issues to be sure, but we have the record of those fights in the Bible itself; do Good Christians whittle their penis down slightly or not? Do Good Christians wear their hair like temple prostitutes? Beyond the Bible, one finds archaeological evidence in architecture and artwork that shows how the early church struggled with where to meet. Sure, it says in Acts they met in homes, but does that mean it was the only place they met? We know the early church met in synagogues as well, and later appropriated the use of the Roman public assembly halls for conducting church services.

There's no arguing its a crying shame that many Christians attribute "church" to the building they attend their services in. And yes, there are likely many syncretic elements within the traditional church; but I think the implication given by these well-meaning Christians when they make the statement that the church lost it's way nearly 2000 years ago is that God is some sort of anal retentive pygmy deity who a) likes his worship to be "just so" and b) can't do anything about it when things get off the track - he has to wait until geniuses like Frank Viola come along to set us all straight. Poor God.

It's sheer arrogance. I've been reading this sort of shit since I was a teenager; the Catholics were wrong in all our Baptist literature. And I thought, "so who the hell was right for the 1400 years between Christ and Luther?" There will always be syncretism; our faith, our spirituality, our religion inhabits and informs our everyday comings and goings because we embody that faith, spirituality or religion. So if you embody your religion (faith or spirituality or whichever bitchin' buzzword you want to use for having a trendy Bible Study with your emergent friends at a coffee shop) in a traditional, institutional way, then you are practicing a traditional, institutional Christianity. Just because one person reads their Bible along with the Common Book of Prayer while at church on Sunday mornings doesn't make them less spiritual than the person who reads their Bible alongside Rob Bell's latest book at Starbuck's on Thursday. Calling one 'religious' and the other 'spiritual' is bullshit. Calling this 'faith' and that 'dogma' is bullshit too. We all practice religion. Hockey Night in Canada is a ritual many Canadians observe with the religious fervor of a Muslim extremist. Atheists pushing to keep prayer out of schools are as religious as the people trying to get prayer put back in. They all talk with transcendent and eternal authority about things which at the end of the day are eternal and transcendent (the atheist will take umbrage here I'm sure, but they can bite me; many atheists talk about the origin of the universe like they had front row seats and were sitting sipping a spritzer in a lawn chair when the Big Bang went down).

As with all my rants, this is less "together" than I wish it were, but I needed to get this out. I've just seen one too many books or articles on the subject in the last year and I'm fed up. I don't give a damn if you want to practice your religion while downing a pint at the local pub, or meeting in someone's living room. Go for it. I won't be standing in your way. Just quit thinking you're the ultimate experience in Christian faith because you don't meet in a church building. Quit making a distinction between your experience and others' based upon whether or not your club has a name and fees and a central office.

I've said it before here at Gotthammer, but it apparently bears repeating. Sheep and shitheads come in all shapes and sizes, and organized religion does not have the monopoly on either. You can find shitheads everywhere; there are Jewish shitheads, Christian shitheads and Atheist shitheads. For all their "and harm ye none, do as you will", I am certain there are even Wiccan shitheads, and if anyone has a right to call what they do "spirituality" and not "religion" it would be them, given that they still aren't recognized as an official religion in the United States (that's what doing religion skyclad will get you). It isn't religion that is the problem. The shitheads are.


  1. But then: aren't we all shitheads now and then?

    I've been thinking about how "spiritual" people in literature are almost always described as generous, relaxed people, while "religious" people are boring or even evil. As if there was no connection, as if they were completely separate things. This is exactly the division you are talking about here, nice to read these thought from someone else.

    The only way to go is probably to acknowledge that there are bad things in religion, but that there are also good things that we want to keep. If we find the bad things we can keep them under control. I don't think it's just the shitheads, I think it might also be the problem that "religion" is often used as to mean the religious institutions -- and those, like all institutions, are prone to get their own life which might not be along the lines of the original ideas. (Compare with political parties, for example.) So we will just have to deal with it.

  2. I've been thinking about this same issue, although not with the same depth or breadth you have. Mainly because of how it comes up in normal life.

    For instance, at work. Conversation A happens. Co-Worker B then asks "Oh, you're religious?"

    One day I found myself tired of saying "I'm not religious, but I have faith/am a believer/am a christian/follow Jesus/whatever." It was easier to just say, "Yes." Why? It's not wrong.

    To a certain extent I'm taking the word "back" because it did not always have a negative connotation and as much as I may be a "liberal" christian, I'm tired of Rob Bell and all the similar crew.

    I think of Lewis, and he had no real qualms using the word religion. Or in James, saying what pure and unadulterated religion is. Not that I'm going to sit here with a bunch of proof, I don't have any, it's just personal thoughts.

    So screw it, I'm religious. It sounds better than "well I have a personal relationship with God." *shrugs*

    And more or less, people are jackasses. Sigh.

    You know what I want? I want to get the athiests bleating about Prince Caspian in the same room with the christians bleating about Compass in the same room and let the fireworks fly. MUHAHAHAHAHA.

  3. been a long time since your last post... this one hit the nail on the head... very eerie how this post is practically the same shit that's been in my head for a while...

    you can find self-righteousness in all the little cliques: liberals vs conservatives, atheists vs believers, spiritual vs religious... it's all fucking nonsense... each group is "better" than the other because (fill in the blank)...

    rock on dude...

  4. Hallelujah Mike (and I mean the literal Praise God meaning)! I gotta say it gets my back up every time people say "I'm not religious, I'm in a relationship." Okay...A relationship with God? Does this relationship take any form? Is it perhaps informed by a sacred book? Ya, that would be a religion you moron. Perhaps I overstate my case but I think it's fair to say you understand.

    I liked aka's observation that institutionalization is an additional danger. When the rules and customs exist solely (or even mostly) for their own sake there's bound to be a problem. Anyways, I'll close with my Facebook religious views: I am a Christian. No I won't call it something else. Yes Christianity has baggage. Giving up won't help.

    Keep up the good rants Mike.

  5. Interesting post. Are you SURE that Lincoln is an atheist?

  6. Anonymous7:28 PM

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  7. Michael7:28 PM

    From class today:

    "There are two kinds of people in the world: those who classify people as one of two kinds of people in the world, and those who don't."

    Great post, Mike.

  8. An excellent post. I appreciate having read it. I stumbled across your site because I was searching for reviews of the Zeitgeist shockumentary (I watched the whole thing. Part 1 was crap, the rest was thought provoking and that's all I'll say about that).

    Anyway, I'm glad I found your site.

  9. Anonymous9:22 PM

    The problem with the 'emergent church' is that it still has all of the old dogma attached, but it has nice new modern music for the adherents to delude themselves to.
    Jesus is love...just don't read the bible from front to back. Get a tattoo, gos still loves you.

    It's a joke. It's the last grasping at straws before the whole shit house comes down with a wimper.