Midweek reflection by pastor Shawn:
There’s no such thing as religion.
Now there’s a sentence you might not have expected your pastor to write. But there it is, right there.
Most all of us have this commonsense notion of religion. We probably haven’t thought about it much; we just kind of inherited the concept. But there’s one question that can unravel the whole idea:
What is religion?
And in trying to answer it, you’ll invariably include some things you don’t think are religion, or exclude some things you do think are religion.
Maybe religion is about the human relationship with God? Could that answer work? Well, Hindus are committed to many gods, so right there this answer has problems. New Age religions don’t think this way—these say that ‘spirituality’ is about self-advancement and self-improvement, no god(s) necessary. Several strains of Buddhism say that there is no God, because ultimate reality is nothingness. So religion as “the human relationship with God” doesn’t work.
Maybe religion is any belief in the supernatural. But this fails on a number of cases: again, some forms of Buddhism say that any appearance of a god or spiritual beings is an illusion. Further, the distinction between “natural” and “supernatural” is not an assumption the Hindu, the follower of Confucius, the Muslim, some Christians, and many others would grant.
Maybe religion is whatever is about the “ultimate concern.” But under that definition, then many people would have the ‘religion’ of national patriotism, pleasure, or even their favourite football team! Nationalism, Marxism, capitalism, socialism then can all be religions with this definition.
Maybe religion is whatever is worth dying or killing for. But many people would die or kill for their country, power, or for money!
Maybe religion is a person’s private and interior beliefs. This understanding of religion is common: religion is private beliefs, not suitable for or defensible in public. But then what about New Age mysticism—‘religions’ like these have no set beliefs or creeds at all! And alternatively, what about the ‘religions’ that are public and exterior, like Christianity? Remember, Christianity started with a visible resurrection and a public declaration of it in Acts 2.
Maybe religion is whatever we don’t label “secular”. But this is just a silly, arbitrary definition. Further, secular mindsets have many similarities to what is called religion: things like a narrative of human existence, an origin story, moral codes, and a vision of human destiny. What criteria could be given to make “secular” a coherent category?
I could go on, but hopefully by now the problem is evident: there are no criteria one could give to make “religion” a meaningful, coherent category. There is no definition that encompasses everything we want to call religion and excludes everything we would not. There is no such thing as "religion" that applies for all times and all places. The category of religion that many of us assume and use is actually the product of the age of European “discovery”, expansion, and conquest to explain the non-Christian world.
Upon scrutiny our modern idea of religion dissolves into nothing. Either it’s an arbitrary label used to invalidate certain people in the public dialogue, or it is so big that it includes the New Atheism, self-help book fads, and being an avid sports fan.
So instead, let’s recognize that everyone is religious in the sense that everyone worships something, and everyone holds a story that they use to understand the world. Everyone has a view on what humanity is, what right and wrong are and where they come from, what happens after someone dies, and where history is going. Everyone is religious.
And it turns out that every one of these considerations should turn our thoughts to Jesus sooner or later, because he has—or better, he is—a very compelling answer for all of them.