One phrase, in particular, keeps on rearing its (ugly) head: “Christianity is a relationship, not a religion.” “Religion,” we’re told, is a negative concept, and it has to do with outward observance of rituals and behaviors, rather than the relationship that we should have with Jesus. It sounds great because we should all agree that the Christian faith isn’t simply about following the right rules. Being a true Christian means much more than going to church, making the requisite donations, attending Bible study or youth group or whatever church functions may have been organized. It is about living in a right relationship with God.
I was sitting in the sauna at the local aquatic centre the other day when I struck up a conversation with the man sitting opposite me. When you’re a missionary, it’s easy to turn conversations toward matters of faith, and that’s the direction this particular conversation quickly took. It wasn’t long before the man told me something about himself that I’ve heard before, many times. It’s a statement that, to be honest, makes me cringe:
“I consider myself to be more spiritual than religious.”
What does that mean? Well, it turns out that to this man it meant that he believed in a “higher power” of some sort, that he didn’t attend church, and didn’t have any appreciation for “organized religion,” and that he tried to live, in his words, a “moral life.”
And judging from our brief conversation, he certainly did appear to be, on the surface at least, a “good person.” He looked more than a little rough around the edges – he had full tattoo sleeves on both arms, long hair and piercings, but he expressed respect for my position and the work I do, he spoke with affection about his wife and his kids, and he told me how he worked hard to take care of his family and live a good life.
So why did his statement make me cringe? Why do I find myself reacting negatively whenever I hear people speaking ill of “religion,” while speaking positively about “spirituality”?
Spirituality’s Self-Made God
In this case, and others like it, my reaction has much to do with the fact that a person like this is essentially fooling himself. He believes that he can be a good person (and, in the world’s eyes, he is), and he believes that “God” (whoever or whatever he, she, or it is) will accept him on that basis. When it comes right down to it, he believes that he’ll be okay with God because he has, in his mind, created a god that he can feel comfortable with – a god that doesn’t demand too much, a god that doesn’t ask for things that will take him out of his comfort zone, a god who won’t judge him.
Let me put it like this by way of example: on a Sunday morning at 8:00, when you’re enjoying that pleasant drowsiness that marks the end of a good sleep after a hard week of work, when you hear the kids beginning to wind themselves up in preparation for another day of rambunctious activity, it’s a whole lot easier to be “spiritual” than it is to be “religious.”